OK Computer is the third studio album by the English alternative rock band Radiohead, released in 1997 on Parlophone and Capitol Records. OK Computer was the first self-produced Radiohead album, with assistance from Nigel Godrich. Radiohead recorded the album in Oxfordshire and Bath between 1996 and early 1997, with most of the recording completed in the historic mansion St. Catherine’s Court. The band made a deliberate attempt to distance themselves from the guitar-oriented, lyrically introspective style of their previous album, The Bends. OK Computer’s abstract lyrics, densely layered sound and wide range of influences laid the groundwork for Radiohead’s later, more experimental work.
Upon the album’s delivery to Capitol, label representatives lowered their sales estimates, deeming the record uncommercial. Nevertheless, OK Computer reached number one on the UK Albums Chart and became the band’s highest album entry on the American charts at the time, debuting at number 21 on the Billboard 200. Three songs from the album—”Paranoid Android”, “Karma Police” and “No Surprises”—were released as promotional singles. The album expanded Radiohead’s worldwide popularity and has sold over three million copies to date.
OK Computer received considerable acclaim upon release. Prominent British and American rock critics predicted the album would have far-reaching cultural impact. In subsequent years, the album has been frequently cited by listeners, critics and musicians as one of the greatest of its time. OK Computer initiated a shift away from the popular Britpop genre of the time to the more melancholic and atmospheric style of alternative rock that would be prevalent in the next decade. Critics and fans often comment on the underlying themes found in the lyrics and artwork, emphasising Radiohead’s views on rampant consumerism, social alienation, emotional isolation, and political malaise; in this capacity, OK Computer is often interpreted as having prescient insight into the mood of 21st century life.
In July 1996, Radiohead started rehearsing and recording OK Computer in the Canned Applause studio, a converted shed near Didcot, Oxfordshire. Even without the deadline that contributed to the stress of The Bends, the band still ran into difficulties, which Selway blamed on their choice to self-produce the album. The members worked with nearly equal roles in the production and formation of the music, though Yorke was still firmly “the loudest voice” according to O’Brien. Meanwhile, Godrich’s role in production was somewhere between an equal collaborator and a managerial outsider. From the OK Computer sessions onward, Godrich has been characterised as the band’s unofficial “sixth member”.
Radiohead eventually decided that Canned Applause was an unsatisfactory recording location, which Yorke attributed to its proximity to the band members’ homes, and which Jonny Greenwood attributed to its lack of dining and bathroom facilities.By this time, the group had nearly completed recording four songs—”Electioneering”, “No Surprises”, “Subterranean Homesick Alien” and “The Tourist”. 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 mid-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-minute album version.During the short tour, filmmaker Baz Luhrmann commissioned Radiohead to write a song for his upcoming film Romeo + Juliet. Luhrmann gave the band footage of the final 30 minutes of the film, and Yorke said “When we saw the scene in which Claire Danes holds the Colt 45 against her head, we started working on the song immediately.” Soon afterwards, the band wrote and recorded “Exit Music (For a Film)”; the track plays over the film’s end credits but was not included on the soundtrack at the band’s request. Yorke later said that the song helped shape the direction of the rest of the album, and that it “was the first performance we’d ever recorded where every note of it made my head spin—something I was proud of, something I could turn up really, really loud and not wince at any moment.”
Radiohead resumed their recording sessions in September 1996 at St Catherine’s Court, a historic mansion near Bath owned by actress Jane Seymour. Jonny Greenwood said the new location was unlived-in but sometimes used as “a kind of corporate convention hangout.” The change of setting marked an important transition in the recording process. Greenwood, comparing the mansion to previous studio settings, said recording at St. Catherine’s Court “was less like a laboratory experiment, which is what being in a studio is usually like, and more about a group of people making their first record together.”
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 the track listing down 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, and mixed over the next two months at various studios around the city. Godrich preferred a quick and hands-off approach to his mixing work, and said “I feel like I get too into it. I start fiddling with things and I fuck it up. … I generally take about half a day to do a mix. If it’s any longer than that, you lose it. The hardest thing is trying to stay fresh, to stay objective.
A page of the OK Computer booklet with logos, white scribbles and text in Esperanto and English. The motif of two stick figures shaking hands, repeated on the compact disc, was described by Yorke as symbolizing exploitation.
The album’s artwork is a collage of images and text created by Stanley Donwood and Yorke, credited under the pseudonym “The White Chocolate Farm”. Donwood was commissioned by Yorke to work on a visual diary alongside the recording sessions. Yorke explained, “If I’m shown some kind of visual representation of the music, only then do I feel confident. Up until that point, I’m a bit of a whirlwind.” The colour palette is predominantly white and blue, according to Donwood, the result of “trying to make something the color of bleached bone.” Used twice on the artwork, once in the booklet and once on the compact disc itself, is the image of two stick figures shaking hands. Yorke explained the image as emblematic of exploitation, saying, “Someone’s being sold something they don’t really want, and someone’s being friendly because they’re trying to sell something. That’s what it means to me.” Explaining the artwork’s themes, Yorke said, “It’s quite sad, and quite funny as well. All the artwork and so on … It was all the things that I hadn’t said in the songs.”
Visual motifs in the artwork include motorways, aeroplanes, families with children, corporate logos and cityscapes. The words “Lost Child” feature prominently on the cover, and the booklet artwork contains phrases in the constructed language Esperanto and health-related instructions in both English and Greek. The use of disconnected phrases led a critic for Uncut to say, “The non-sequiturs created an effect akin to being lifestyle-coached by a lunatic.” White scribbles, Donwood’s method of correcting mistakes rather than using the computer function undo, are present everywhere in the collages. The liner notes contain the full lyrics, rendered with atypical syntax, alternate spelling and small annotations. The lyrics are also arranged and spaced in shapes that resemble hidden images. In keeping with the band’s then emergent anti-corporate stance, the production credits contain the ironic copyright notice “Lyrics reproduced by kind permission even though we wrote them.”
Radiohead embarked on a world tour in promotion of OK Computer called the “Against Demons” tour, commencing at the album launch in Barcelona on 22 May 1997. OK Computer was released in Japan on 21 May, in the UK on 16 June and in the US on 1 July. In addition to the dominant CD format, the album was released as a double-LP vinyl record, cassette and MiniDisc. The album debuted at number one on the UK, where it held for two weeks. It stayed in the top 10 for weeks and became the country’s eighth-best selling record of the year. Meanwhile, the tour took the band across the UK and Ireland, continental Europe, North America, Japan and Australasia, concluding on 29 August 1998 in New York. The tour was mentally taxing for the band, particularly Yorke, who later said “That tour was a year too long. I was the first person to tire of it, then six months later everyone in the band was saying it. Then six months after that, nobody was talking any more.”
“Karma Police” was released in August 1997 and “No Surprises” in January 1998. Both singles charted in the UK top 10, and “Karma Police” peaked at number 14 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart.”Lucky” was released as a promotional single in France but did not chart. “Let Down”, considered for release as the lead single, charted on the Modern Rock Tracks chart at number 29. The band planned to produce a video for every song on the album to be released as a whole, but the project was abandoned due to financial and time constraints. Also considered, but ultimately scrapped, were plans for trip hop group Massive Attack to remix the entire album. Meeting People Is Easy, Grant Gee’s rockumentary following the band on its OK Computer world tour, premiered in November 1998.
By February 1998, the album had sold at least half a million copies in the UK and 2 million worldwide. To date, at least 1.4 million copies have been sold in the US, 3 million across Europe and over 3 million worldwide. OK Computer has been certified triple platinum in the UK and double platinum in the US, in addition to certifications in other markets.
OK Computer has appeared frequently in professional lists of greatest albums. A number of publications, including NME, Melody Maker, Alternative Press, Spin, Pitchfork Media, Time and Slant placed OK Computer prominently in lists of best albums of the 1990s or of all time. In 2003, the album was ranked number 162 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Retrospective reviews from BBC Music, The A.V. Club Slant and Paste have received the album favourably; likewise, Rolling Stone gave the album five stars in the 2004 Rolling Stone Album Guide, with critic Rob Sheffield saying “Radiohead was claiming the high ground abandoned by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, U2, R.E.M., everybody; and fans around the world loved them for trying too hard at a time when nobody else was even bothering.”
The album has been cited by some as undeserving of its acclaim, while others assert that Radiohead’s career was negatively impacted by the album’s critical success. In a poll surveying thousands conducted by BBC Radio 6 Music, OK Computer was named the sixth most overrated album “in the world”. David H. Green of The Daily Telegraph called the album “self-indulgent whingeing” and maintains that the positive critical consensus toward OK Computer is an indication of “a 20th-century delusion that rock is the bastion of serious commentary on popular music” to the detriment of electronic and dance music. The album was selected as an entry in “Sacred Cows”, an NME column questioning the critical status of “revered albums”, in which Henry Yates said of the album “There’s no defiance, gallows humour or chink of light beneath the curtain, just a sense of meek, resigned despondency,” and further criticised the record as “the moment when Radiohead stopped being ‘good’ and started being ‘important’.” In a Spin article on the “myth” that “Radiohead Can Do No Wrong”, Chris Norris argues that the acclaim for OK Computer created an inflated set of expectations for each successive Radiohead release.
All songs written and composed by Radiohead.
|3.||“Subterranean Homesick Alien”||4:27|
|4.||“Exit Music (For a Film)”||4:24|
|9.||“Climbing Up the Walls”||4:45|