Radiohead's Moody, Paranoid Masterpiece 'OK Computer' Turns 20
publish date: 2017-06-16
Every generation since at least the Industrial Revolution has figured it was witnessing the beginning of the end of the world. It’s why we never lose our appetite for stories about totalitarian regimes, global warfare, sentient machines, and the ways in which governments might use technology to rob us of our humanity.
By reputation, Radiohead’s OK Computer is rock’s grand entry in the tradition of dystopian fiction. As the album celebrates its 20th anniversary today (it was released June 16, 1997, in the U.K.), there are no shortage of articles about how Britain’s brainiest band anticipated the rise of Trump, our addiction to smartphones, and other horrors still to come.
Radiohead’s 1997 masterpiece is certainly an album about feeling isolated and dehumanized. Singer and bandleader Thom Yorke paints a picture of a pretty gruesome world, and yet it’s one that listeners in the days of dial-up Internet might’ve recognized as their own. Take away the sci-fi title, and OK Computer plays like a collection of songs about everyday people muddling through the ‘90s. If someone were to adapt the album for the big screen, it would be a talky psychological drama, not a summer blockbuster.
Yorke said as much in a recent interview with Rolling Stone. "The paranoia I felt at the time was much more related to how people related to each other," he said. "But I was using the terminology of technology to express it.”
On OK Computer, when Yorke sings about machines, he’s generally talking about planes, trains, and automobiles -- nothing remotely futuristic. Radiohead recorded the album after four years of touring had left Yorke feeling detached from reality. That might explain “Let Down,” an incongruously twinkling OK Computer highlight wherein Yorke describes “motorways and tramlines” as tools for shutting travelers from one bad experience to the next. He details one such experience on closer “The Tourist,” about an anxious vacationer who’s so keyed up that even dogs bark at him.