Discover more from Arc Digital
The Future Will Go Wrong
Radiohead’s Computer, still OK at 25
I didn’t get it at first. Or second. Or third. Or fourth.
I’d been listening the whole time; but it was only the fifth or sixth time that I heard. Now there was a meaning to the screeching guitars, the plaintive singing, the disconsolate lyrics, the omnipresent sense of unease. Because I didn’t hear them anymore. I heard music. Only music. Weird, unsettling, disturbing music; but also evocative, captivating, and even—yes—sublime music. It was like suddenly understanding a foreign language. It’s the most banal of clichés to say something clicked, but that’s just what happened. It clicked. And finally, I got OK Computer.
The usual word to describe such an experience is epiphany. Another might be revelation. All of a sudden, I could see what it was seeing. And what it saw was the future. OK Computer was—and is—a prophecy of the future. A future which it understood better than any piece of popular culture released in the quarter-century since.
“For a Minute There, I Lost Myself”
OK Computer, on first impression, doesn’t sound that different from Radiohead’s first two albums. Like its predecessors, it starts with a guitar riff. But take a closer listen and something has changed. Jonny Greenwood’s guitars are angry, even furious. There’s something manic about them that’s a far cry from the collegiate angst of 1993’s Pablo Honey (“I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo”) or the post-graduate malaise of 1995’s The Bends (which opens with Thom Yorke singing, “You can force it / But it will not come,” as though he’s explaining to his parents why he still hasn’t found a job).
Yet even if the guitars are mad, the album isn’t. It’s not angry, outraged, or frustrated. A better term is resigned, but that still doesn’t get all the way there. Resigned connotes surrender, and there’s no surrender here. This is the resignation of one who has received a sign from God and knows His will shall be done. It’s as though in imagining Sisyphus happy we do so by visualizing him marching up the hill with Death at the end of The Seventh Seal.
Its tone is what sets OK Computer apart from Radiohead’s earlier records. Thematically, The Bends resembles its follow-up. On the title track, Yorke states he doesn’t “have any real friends” and is “just lying in a bar with my drip feed on.” “I bet you think that's pretty clever / Don't you boy?” he mocks his interlocutor on “High and Dry.” No matter what he does, the narrator of “Just (You Do It To Yourself)” simply “can’t get the stink off.” Yet despite feeling imprisoned in “My Iron Lung,” Yorke can still wish he was “Bullet Proof” and envision a “Nice Dream” where “you’re strong enough” and “belong enough.” An unlikely prospect, perhaps, but a real one. That’s the difference. The Bends is fundamentally upbeat; it’s still hopeful. OK Computer’s is a universe devoid of hope.
“Bring Down the Government”
If OK Computer didn’t sound much like Radiohead, it sounded even less like 1997. What 1997 sounded like was Sean Combs, who in his Puff Daddy guise spent months atop the Billboard charts. It was the year of Hanson, whose “MMMbop” also hit No. 1. The biggest song of the year was the reworked version of “Candle in the Wind” Elton John made as a tribute to Princess Diana. That closed out the year. It began with a song that arguably defined 1997 more than any other:
“Wannabe” is bright and cheery, an unconquerable concoction of girl power and camaraderie. You want to sing along. It feels good.
OK Computer couldn’t be further away in spirit if it was in a different galaxy. It sounds like a dystopian, technological nightmare. But in 1997 hardly anyone was afraid of technology. The late ’90s was an optimistic time, the beginning of the internet age and a zillion AOL discs in our mailboxes. Technology was our friend. Few feared the possibilities of the internet then; most embraced them, waiting for more to turn up.
If 1997 was the year of the future, in no country was that sense of anticipation felt more keenly than in Britain. To ensure that promise was kept, Britons chose a new leader: Tony Blair. He was everything John Major, whom he defeated in the general election, wasn’t: fresh-faced, dynamic, and, above all, modern—which by 1997 the Tories had not been for a long time.
Blair’s triumph marked the dawn of a new age. Relegated to the dustbin of history was the desiccated husk of Margaret Thatcher’s England. In its stead stood “Cool Britannia,” young, vibrant, confident, cosmopolitan (read: pro-European), and multicultural. Everything, in other words, the old dispensation was not, brought to you by a Labour Party that in victory had consigned its previous incarnation to the same ash heap onto which it had deposited its vanquished foe. Tony Blair, New Labour, Cool Britannia: a new leader, a new party, and a new country for a new century—nay, for a new millennium.
Such was the backdrop against which OK Computer arrived in the world. Viewed from this perspective, there is something almost defiantly countercultural about it. English bands had chronicled changings of the guard before. The Jam’s 1980 song “That’s Entertainment” casts one last backward glace at the England Margaret Thatcher was elected to destroy. Blur’s 1995 album The Great Escape is an expression of the existential ennui of the UK’s yuppie and professional classes. Midway through the nineties, it pronounced the terminal exhaustion of Thatcherite Britain.
Blur had to wait 18 years to do that. Radiohead took less than a month. Tony Blair was elected on May 1. OK Computer was released on May 21. The future had come to Britain; and here was Radiohead declaring the whole of it obsolete less than three weeks after it began. “Cool Britannia”? OK Computer denies the very possibility.
Radiohead didn’t ignore the zeitgeist. They did to the zeitgeist what the Ghostbusters did to the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. This is the millennium, alright. The millennium the old-fashioned way.
“We Hope That You Choke”
Grinding electric guitar power chords. That’s the first thing you hear when you press play. “Airbag,” the initial song on OK Computer, assaults you with them. Not every track is like that. Several begin softly, almost reticently. Yet even those eventually work themselves into a frenzy, as though Thom Yorke is experiencing a breakdown on each one. The aural landscape is overwhelming. Like the reality it portrays, it offers no respite, no refuge, nowhere to hide.
To hide might be your first instinct upon encountering the world of OK Computer, one of detuned radios, buzzing fridges, and Hitler hairdos; of would-be dictators pronouncing who will be “first against the wall”; of “frozen winter shit.” The very first words are, “In the next world war.” However that conflict begins, most people expect it will end in annihilation.
“Paranoid Android,” the album’s second song and its most structurally complex, is a microcosm of the album lyrically and musically. Over keyboards and acoustic guitar, Yorke pleads for someone to “stop the noise” because he’s “trying to get some rest / From all the unborn chicken voices / In my head.” In the next verse he makes his pledge that “When I am king” the listener will be top of the firing squad’s list. “Ambition makes you pretty ugly” he scoffs, mocking a “Kicking, squealing, Gucci little piggy” and again demanding the transgressor face the ultimate sanction: “Off with his head, man.”
After an interlude of screaming guitars, things calm down as a mournful Yorke commands, “Come on, rain down on me / From a great height.” But what falls isn’t rain but “The panic, the vomit.” As the thrum under Yorke’s voice builds to its impending crescendo, he sneers, “God loves his children, yeah.” The way he says it, you pray never to learn first hand that being loved by the gods can be one of the most terrible fates to befall mortal men.
By the time it culminates in a cascade of distorted guitars and sound effects, “Paranoid Android” is no longer of this Earth. That feeling of being transported to another world continues on “Subterranean Homesick Alien.” As well it should, given that the song is about the narrator’s desire to be kidnapped by aliens. “I wish that they’d swoop down in a country lane / Late at night when I’m driving / Take me on board their beautiful ship / Show me the world as I’d love to see it.” He knows they’re there because “up above” they “hover / Making home movies for the folks back home.” But even if it happened he couldn’t attain fulfillment from the experience, since his friends would “never believe me,” but “think that I’d finally lost it completely” when he tried to “show them the stars and the meaning of life.” Instead, “They’d shut me away,” just as they “lock up their spirits.”
Anyone who’s seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind can hear the parallels to it. Yet the scenario in the song is an inversion of the movie. Richard Dreyfuss wanted to meet aliens because of his belief in the innate goodness of the universe. Thom Yorke longs to be abducted by aliens because he’s reached the end of his tether. He lives “in a town where you can’t smell a thing” and has nowhere to go. The aliens are his only means of escape. Roy Neary (the character Dreyfuss plays) knew the universe is a wondrous place. Going with the aliens would merely have confirmed it. For the protagonist of “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” going with them is his last chance to find proof of it for the first time in his life.
The music for “Subterranean Homesick Alien” is eerie and ethereal. With its bloops, beeps, and chirps, it sounds like something from a 1950s sci-fi movie. Are there xylophones and theremins? You wouldn’t be surprised if there were. Nor is it the only foray into such territory. “Let Down,” the fifth song on the album, concludes with an effect that sounds like a computer on Star Trek searching its data banks to find the information Captain Kirk wants.
“Let Down” continues the atmosphere of dread and detachment from “Subterranean Homesick Alien.” It, too, begins with arpeggiated guitars accompanying Thom Yorke. But here he sings in a flat, affectless drone, which matches perfectly the lyrics’ manifesto of alienation:
Transport, motorways and tramlines
Starting and then stopping
Taking off and landing
The emptiest of feelings
Clinging on to bottles
And when it comes it’s so, so disappointing
So disappointing, you feel “Crushed like a bug in the ground.” There’s no sugarcoating this condition: “Don’t get sentimental / It always ends up drivel.”
“Sentimental” is the last word anyone would use to characterize OK Computer. Certainly not “Exit Music for a Film,” the album’s fourth track. A quietly haunted song, it also commences with an acoustic guitar, with other instruments fading in as the tension gradually increases. It has long been interpreted as being about suicide, but with its exhortations to “Wake from your sleep,” “Pack and get dressed,” “Breathe, keep breathing / Don’t lose your nerve,” because “Today we escape, we escape,” it could just as easily depict someone trying to flee a totalitarian regime before being discovered, that is, “Before your father hears us” and “all hell breaks loose.”
Fail to escape in time and you might fall afoul of the “Karma Police.” Among the crimes for which it can arrest you are talking in maths, buzzing like a fridge, or being “like a detuned radio.” Have a “Hitler hairdo”? You better believe that’s a karma policing. “This is what you’ll get / when you mess with us.”
“Karma Police,” its sixth song, was the most successful single from OK Computer; it’s the one from it most likely to be heard nowadays. But the centerpiece of the album, the track which more than any other is what the album is about, is the one that follows it: “Fitter Happier.” Or as I call it, the “Stephen Hawking song.”
I call it that because it’s not sung. Instead, it’s recited by a computer-generated voice like the one the famous theoretical physicist used, though it’s not actually his. Full disclosure: I’ve always hated the song. (If it can be called a song. There’s barely any instrumentation, save a few dissonant and discordant notes). More often than not I skip it. But loathe it as I do, there’s no denying its centrality to the concept that Radiohead tried to convey on the album.
The voice on “Fitter Happier” has been programmed. It’s a literal automaton. Just like someone might be who, falling into the clutches of the Karma Police, was sent to a reeducation center. Stripped of any sense of individuality or emotion, anyone might mumble platitudes about being “Fitter, happier, more productive,” about getting “Regular exercise at the gym” and being on better terms “with your associate employee contemporaries.” Who talks like that? A faceless cog in the corporate machine, one who’s “Eating well” because they’ve dispensed with “microwave dinners and saturated fats” and now looks after all animals, refraining even from “washing spiders down the plughole” or “killing moths or putting boiling water on the ants.”
Cruelty to animals is one of the vilest forms of deviancy; repressing it is good. But the implication is that repressing it represses individuality in all its forms. Our productive citizen may have given up the “ridiculously teenage and desperate,” but without those “childish” notions there is “No hope of escape.” Instead, he is “Slower and more calculated,” an “empowered and informed member of society” who embraces “Pragmatism not idealism.” He is, in a word, “A pig / In a cage / On antibiotics.”
Or perhaps tranquilizers. By the latter stages of the album, a pervasive sense of numbness has crept in. No song better encapsulates this feeling of impassive insensitivity than “No Surprises,” the 10th on the record and my favorite. It is the anthem of salaried managers clocking into their jobs day in and day out until the Reaper clocks them out.
“A heart that's full up like a landfill / A job that slowly kills you / Bruises that won’t heal.” Compared to that, “A handshake of carbon monoxide” is infinitely preferable. All Thom Yorke wants is “a quiet life,” the one he’s been promised. “No alarms and no surprises, please.” Is that too much to ask?
Like many of the compositions on OK Computer, on “No Surprises” both Yorke’s voice and the instrumentation are soft, gentle; just chiming keyboards and acoustic guitar. It has the quality of a lullaby. But instead of enjoying your “pretty house” and “pretty garden,” you’re actually drowning. As Yorke himself does in the song’s video, which features a close-up shot of his head in a helmet that slowly fills with water. Eventually the water drains away. But Yorke, like the listener, is still trapped.
To always fear drowning and embrace the dull monotony of being a faceless brick in the social edifice as the only way out. Such is the destiny of citizens of the modern world. “They're all uptight,” Yorke shouts on “Subterranean Homesick Alien.” Too much so to perceive the world’s joy and beauty. “Hey man, slow down, slow down / Idiot, slow down, slow down,” he begs on “The Tourist,” the 12th and closing number. Alas, by the time the exhortation arrives, there can be no doubt it will fall on deaf ears. On the penultimate track, “Lucky,” Yorke sings, “I feel my luck could change.” If so, by the time the album ends he’s the only one who does.
“We Are Standing on the Edge”
Although prophetic, OK Computer is not in any real sense a warning about the dark side of the nascent online era. Its perspective is both prior to and beyond that immediate moment. That’s what makes the album so much more interesting than if it were a transient warning about imminent danger. The future is always coming. As long as it is, the warning can never expire. It will always be valid.
From its first note to its last, OK Computer repeats with a defiant, almost implacable insistence a single message: the future will go wrong. Not this future or that future, but any future. A message delivered to the world with such distressed immediacy by Thom Yorke’s keening wail that you almost believe he’s as upset about it as you are.
“I am back to save the universe,” he croons at the end of “Airbag.” And then he and his bandmates spend the next 50 minutes telling us salvation is never coming because the universe is beyond redemption. Orwell’s vision of the future was a boot stamping on a human face forever. Radiohead’s is a pig. In a cage. On antibiotics. Which is the more terrifying I leave to you to decide.
You’d think, after everything I’ve described, that hearing OK Computer would put the listener into a depression that all the Xanax in the world couldn’t cure. Except it doesn’t. OK Computer is bleak, sinister, and ominous. With its imagery of car and plane crashes, alien abductions, Hitler hairdos, panic and vomit, and Old Testament deities, it’s a disturbing record. You want to recoil, but you can’t. You want to tear yourself away, but you don’t. You don’t want to.
Because it sounds amazing. The words are telling you to smother yourself with the nearest pillow, but the music is telling you to shred air guitar like you’ve never shredded air guitar before. Terrible as it is, it is also beautiful. And something being beautiful not despite but because it is terrible—that is the sublime. There is something of the sublime about OK Computer, that feeling of wonderful terror that gets into your soul and chills you to the bone while making you feel utterly alive in a way you never have before.
A very long time ago I settled on my own personal description for OK Computer: “soundtrack for a wasteland.” The word conjures images of despair and desolation. Yet a wasteland can delight and inspire awe as much as a mountain or a meadow, a river or a rainbow. The world of OK Computer is a wasteland. When we think of it as such, we must think of it in those terms, and not as a ruined, sterile landscape from which life has fled, never to be touched by it again.
What is the wasteland? Does it even matter? Not really. All that does is that, whatever it is, it is coming. It is inevitable. Because that’s what the future will be, however we get there. But we’ll still have OK Computer. As long as we do, the future may be a wasteland, but it will sound magnificent. Just close your eyes—and listen.