Release date: June 1997
OK Computer is the third studio album by English alternative rock band Radiohead, released on 16 June 1997. Radiohead recorded the album in rural Oxfordshire and Bath, during 1996 and early 1997, with producer Nigel Godrich. Although most of the music is dominated by guitar, OK Computer's expansive sound and wide range of influences set it apart from many of the Britpop and alternative rock bands popular at the time, and it laid the groundwork for Radiohead's later, more experimental work. While Radiohead do not consider OK Computer to be a concept album, its lyrics and visual artwork emphasise common themes such as consumerism, social disconnection, political stagnation, and modern malaise.
OK Computer reached number-one on the UK Albums Chart and marked Radiohead's highest entry into the American market at the time, debuting at number 21 on the Billboard 200. The album expanded the band's worldwide popularity, and has been certified triple platinum in the UK and Canada, double platinum in the US and platinum in Australia. OK Computer received considerable acclaim at the time of its release, and is frequently cited by critics as one of the greatest albums ever recorded.
After the success of Radiohead's second album, The Bends (1995), the band decided to produce their third album themselves, although a number of producers, including Scott Litt, were offered a position to work on the album. They were encouraged by recording sessions with engineer Nigel Godrich, who had assisted John Leckie in producing The Bends and had produced several Radiohead B-sides. Bassist Colin Greenwood said "the only concept that we had for this album was that we wanted to record it away from the city and that we wanted to record it ourselves." The band prepared for the recording sessions by buying their own recording equipment, though they consulted Godrich for advice on what to acquire. Godrich eventually outgrew this role and became co-producer on the album.
After the stressful tour in support of The Bends, the band took a break in January 1996 and expressed a desire to change their musical and lyrical style from that of their previous album. Drummer Phil Selway said that "The Bends was an introspective album... There was an awful lot of soul searching. To do that again on another album would be excruciatingly boring." Singer Thom Yorke said "The big thing for me is that we could really fall back on just doing another miserable, morbid and negative record lyrically, but I don't really want to, at all."
In early 1996, Radiohead started rehearsing and recording OK Computer in the Canned Applause studio, a converted shed near Didcot, Oxfordshire. It was the band's first attempt to work outside a conventional studio environment. Colin Greenwood said, "We had this mobile-studio type of thing going where we could take it all into studios to capture those environments. We recorded about 35% of the album in our rehearsal space. You had to piss around the corner because there were no toilets or no running water. It was in the middle of the countryside. You had to drive to town to find something to eat."
In order to avoid the tension that accompanied the recording sessions for The Bends, EMI did not impose a production deadline on the band. The band still ran into problems which Selway blamed on their choice to produce the album themselves. All five members had differing opinions and equal production roles, with Yorke having "the loudest voice", according to guitarist Ed O'Brien. The band eventually decided that Canned Applause was an unsatisfactory recording location, which Yorke attributed to its proximity to the band members' homes, and which guitarist Jonny Greenwood attributed to its lack of dining and bathroom facilities. In spite of these difficulties, the band had nearly completed recording four songs—"Electioneering", "No Surprises", "Subterranean Homesick Alien", and "The Tourist"—when they left Canned Applause. The band had already recorded "Lucky" for The Help Album, a 1995 charity album. At their label's request, the band took a break from recording to embark on a 13-date American tour, opening for Alanis Morissette, where they performed early versions of several of their new songs. During the summer 1996 tour, one of the new songs, "Paranoid Android", evolved from a fourteen-minute song featuring long organ solos, to one closer to the six-and-a-half minute OK Computer version.
Radiohead resumed their recording sessions in September 1996 at St Catherine's Court, a historic mansion near Bath owned by actress Jane Seymour. They made much use of the different rooms and atmospheres throughout the house; the vocals on "Exit Music (For a Film)" featured an echo effect achieved by recording on a stone staircase, and "Let Down" was recorded at 3 AM in a ballroom. The isolation from the outside world allowed the band to work at a different pace, with more flexible and spontaneous working hours. O'Brien said that "the biggest pressure was actually completing [the recording]. We weren't given any deadlines and we had complete freedom to do what we wanted. We were delaying it because we were a bit frightened of actually finishing stuff." Yorke was ultimately satisfied with the quality of the recordings made at the house, and later stated "In a big country house, you don't have that dreadful '80s 'separation'. ... There wasn't a desire for everything to be completely steady and each instrument recorded separately." O'Brien was similarly pleased with the recordings, estimating that 80% of the album was recorded live and noted "I hate doing overdubs, because it just doesn't feel natural. Something special happens when you're playing live; a lot of it is just looking at one another and knowing there are four other people making it happen."
Radiohead returned to Canned Applause in October for rehearsals, and completed most of the album during further sessions at St. Catherine's Court. By Christmas, they had narrowed down the tracklisting to 14 songs. The album's string parts were recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London in January 1997. The album was mastered at the same location, with mixing taking place over the next two months at various studios around the city.
Yorke explained that the "incredibly dense and terrifying sound" of Bitches Brew by jazz composer Miles Davis was his starting point for the record. He described the sound of Bitches Brew to Q: "It was building something up and watching it fall apart, that's the beauty of it. It was at the core of what we were trying to do with OK Computer." The band also drew influence from the film soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone and modern classical composer Krzysztof Penderecki, whose music Yorke described as "atmospheric, atonal, weird stuff". Yorke described the sound the band hoped to achieve from the album as "an atmosphere that's perhaps a bit shocking when you first hear it, but only as shocking as the atmosphere on The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds". The band made use of diverse instrumentation, including electric piano, Mellotron, cello and other strings, glockenspiel, and electronic effects and rhythms. Many of Yorke's vocals on OK Computer were first takes; the singer explained that if he made further attempts after his initial takes "I'd start to think about it and it would sound really lame".
Yorke described a change in his lyrics since the more personal The Bends: "On this album, the outside world became all there was... I'm just taking Polaroids of things around me moving too fast". He also said that "It was like there's a secret camera in a room and it's watching the character who walks in - a different character for each song. The camera's not quite me. It's neutral, emotionless. But not emotionless at all. In fact, the very opposite," and that "Loads of the music on OK Computer is extremely uplifting. It's only when you read the words that you'd think otherwise." Themes that pervade the album include transport, technology, insanity, death, modern life in the UK, globalisation, and political objection to capitalism. Radiohead have stated that although the songs have common themes, any clear story is unintentional and they do not deem OK Computer to be a concept album. However, the band stated that the album was meant to be heard as a whole. O'Brien said, "We spent two weeks track-listing the album. The context of each song is really important... It's not a concept album but there is a continuity there."
"Airbag", the album's opening track, was inspired by DJ Shadow and features an electronic drum beat programmed from a seconds-long recording of Selway drumming. The band sampled the drum track with an Akai S3000XL, edited it using a Macintosh computer, and admitted to making approximations in emulating Shadow's style due to their own inexperience making electronic music. The bassline in "Airbag" stops and starts unexpectedly, and according to Colin Greenwood "I thought I'd probably think of something to put in the gaps later, but I never got around to it." The song's references to automobile accidents and reincarnation, were inspired by a magazine article titled "An Airbag Saved My Life" and The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Yorke wrote "Airbag" about "the idea that whenever you go out on the road you could be killed."
"Paranoid Android", the band's longest recorded studio track at 6:23, has an unconventional multi-section song structure inspired by The Beatles' multipart "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", as well as the Pixies, who Yorke considers "the greatest band ever". Colin Greenwood said that the song is "just a joke, a laugh, getting wasted together over a couple of evenings and putting some different pieces together." The song was written by Yorke after an unpleasant night at a Los Angeles bar, particularly a woman who reacted violently after someone spilled a drink on her. Its title and lyrics reference Marvin the Paranoid Android from Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The use of electric keyboards in "Subterranean Homesick Alien" is an example of the band's attempts to emulate the atmosphere of Bitches Brew. The song is also a reference to the Bob Dylan song "Subterranean Homesick Blues", however it has a science fiction-theme in which the isolated narrator longs to be abducted by extraterrestrials to see "the world as I'd love to see it".
William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, particularly the 1968 film adaptation, inspired the lyrics for "Exit Music (For a Film)". The song was made for Baz Luhrmann's adaptation, Romeo + Juliet, and played over the end credits. It was also influenced by Morricone, although Yorke has also compared it to the songs on Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison.
"Let Down" prominently features arpeggiated guitars and electric piano and includes a guitar solo by Jonny Greenwood in a different time signature than the one the song is written; O'Brien described the song as "a nod to Phil Spector". The song's lyrics evoke crushed insects and are "about that feeling that you get when you're in transit but you're not in control of it — you just go past thousands of places and thousands of people and you're completely removed from it."
"Karma Police"'s title and lyrics originate from an in-joke that the band members had, in which they would call "the karma police" on each other if someone did something wrong. The song is split into two sections and is primarily built around acoustic guitar and piano, with a chord progression indebted to The Beatles' "Sexy Sadie".
"Fitter Happier", which begins the second half of the album, consists of sampled musical and background sound and lyrics recited by a synthesised voice from the Macintosh SimpleText application. Written after a period of writer's block, "Fitter Happier" was described by Yorke as a checklist of slogans for the 1990s, which he considered "the most upsetting thing I've ever written".
"Electioneering", featuring cowbell and a distorted guitar solo, has been compared to the band's more rock-oriented style on Pablo Honey. It was inspired by Noam Chomsky's writings— Yorke likened its lyrics, which focus on issues of political and artistic compromise, to "a preacher ranting in front of a bank of microphones". The next track, "Climbing Up the Walls", is marked by ambient insect-like noises and "metallic" drums. The song's string section, composed by Jonny Greenwood and written for 16 instruments, was inspired by the Penderecki composition Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima; Greenwood said of the song that "I got very excited at the prospect of doing string parts that didn't sound like 'Eleanor Rigby', which is what all string parts have sounded like for the past 30 years." The song is about "the monster in the closet", with Yorke drawing on a brief job as an orderly in a mental hospital, and an article in The New York Times about serial killers, in writing it.
"No Surprises", one of the album's most stark and least aggressive tracks, was layered with electric guitar inspired by the Beach Boys song "Wouldn't It Be Nice", acoustic guitar, glockenspiel, and vocal harmonies. With "No Surprises", the band strove to replicate the atmosphere of Marvin Gaye's music and the 1968 Louis Armstrong recording of "What a Wonderful World". However, it has been interpreted as portraying a suicide or an unfulfilled life, and dissatisfaction with contemporary social and political order.
"Lucky" was originally a contribution to the 1995 War Child charity album The Help Album, and though the band considered remixing it for OK Computer, it was ultimately left unedited. The track is comparable to the early-1970s music of Pink Floyd, a major influence on Jonny Greenwood. "Lucky" depicts a man who survives an aeroplane crash in a lake and becomes a "superhero"; the song is thematically linked to "Airbag", and Yorke has described the song in interviews as having "positive", upbeat lyrics.
The album's closing song, "The Tourist", was created by Jonny Greenwood, who said "'The Tourist' doesn't sound like Radiohead at all. It's a song where there doesn't have to happen anything every 3 seconds. It has become a song with space." The slowly paced song is written in 3/4 time, but with an additional beat at the end of every other line in the verse. "The Tourist" was chosen as the album's final song, according to Yorke, "because a lot of the album was about background noise and everything moving too fast and not being able to keep up. It was really obvious to have 'Tourist' as the last song. That song was written to me from me, saying, 'Idiot, slow down.' Because at that point, I needed to. So that was the only resolution there could be: to slow down."
Yorke explained the title's meaning: "We did this promo trip recently to Japan, and on the last day, we were in a record shop and this one kid shouted at the top of his voice, 'OK COMPUTER!', really, really loud. Then he had 500 people chant it all at once. ... I got it on tape. It sounds amazing. It reminds me of when Coca-Cola did 'I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing', that amazing advert in '70. ... The idea of every race and every nation drinking this soft drink. ... it's actually a really resigned, terrified phrase." "OK Computer" was also the original title for the B-side "Palo Alto", a track which had been considered for inclusion on OK Computer. Other titles the band considered for the album were Ones and Zeroes, a reference to the binary numeral system, and Your Home May Be at Risk If You Do Not Keep Up Payments.
According to Selway, "When we first delivered the album to Capitol, their first reaction was, more or less, 'commercial suicide'. They weren't really into it. At that point, we got The Fear. How is this going to be received?" O'Brien said that only the band's British label, Parlophone, expected great things from OK Computer, while other labels around the world downsized their initial sales estimates after listening to the record. Capitol Records, Radiohead's American label, lowered its sales estimates from two million to 500,000 copies. O'Brien said the label could not see any potential singles on the album, let alone anything that would be as popular as "Creep".
Parlophone undertook an unorthodox advertising campaign for the album, taking out full-page advertisements in high-profile British newspapers and tube stations. The advertisements featured the lyrics for "Fitter Happier" written in large black letters on a white background. In America, Capitol sent 1,000 cassette players to select members of the press and music industry with a copy of the album permanently bonded inside. Capitol president Gary Gersh, when asked about the campaign after the album's release, said "We won't let up until they are the biggest band in the world". OK Computer was released in Japan on 21 May, then in the UK on 16 June, and finally in the US on 1 July.
Radiohead chose "Paranoid Android" as the lead single from OK Computer. Despite a lack of radio play, the song charted at number three in the United Kingdom, giving Radiohead their highest singles chart position. The album debuted at number one on the British album charts, where it stayed for two weeks. OK Computer stayed in the top 10 for weeks, and became the country's eighth-best selling record of the year. Two additional singles, "Karma Police" and "No Surprises", were released. Both charted in the UK singles top 10, and "Karma Police" charted on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks peaking at number 14. "Let Down", which was considered for release as the lead single, charted in the US on Modern Rock Tracks at number 29. OK Computer has been certified triple platinum in the UK, double platinum in the US, and platinum in Australia. In March 2009, Ed O'Brien mentioned during an interview that some slight damage to the OK Computer master tape was noticed when producer Graeme Stewart was backing up the band's archive of recorded material to hard drives.
OK Computer was recorded in the lead up to the 1997 general election. It was thus seen by critics as encompassing public opinion through its "despairing-yet-hopeful tone" and themes of alienation. Yorke said his lyrics had been affected by reading a book about the two decades of Conservative government which were just coming to an end in 1997, as well as about factory farming and globalisation. However, in interviews Yorke expressed little hope things would change under the corporate-controlled "New Labour" government of Tony Blair. With the approach of the year 2000, many people felt the tone of the album was millennial.
Some critics have credited OK Computer with "killing" 1990s Britpop, as within a few years of its release, the dominant style of UK guitar pop had become slower and more melancholy. Many of the newer acts used similarly complex, atmospheric arrangements. The band Travis worked with Godrich to create the languid pop texture of The Man Who, which became the biggest-selling album of 1999 in the UK. Others have credited Radiohead with beginning a mainstream revival of progressive rock and ambitious concept albums, though the band denied their affiliation with the genre. Radiohead described the prevalence of bands that "sound like us" as one reason to break with the style of OK Computer for their next album, Kid A. When asked by MTV interviewer Gideon Yago what the band thought of "bands like Travis, Coldplay, and Muse ... making a career sounding exactly like [Radiohead] did in 1997", Yorke replied "Good luck with 'Kid A'!".
Several rock bands which later became popular, ranging from Coldplay and Bloc Party to TV on the Radio, have said they were formatively influenced by OK Computer; TV on the Radio's debut album, for instance, was titled OK Calculator. Additionally, the album's popularity paved the way for British alternative rock bands such as Muse, Snow Patrol, and Keane. Classical and jazz musicians such as Christopher O'Riley and Brad Mehldau have performed material from OK Computer, and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen said "When I heard 'OK Computer,' after five minutes I said, 'I actually get this. I understand what these people are trying to do.' And what they were trying was not so drastically different from what I was trying to do."