Radiohead's "OK Computer" turns 20


Radiohead performed at Coachella back in April and played a set that leaned heavily on material from "OK Computer." (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/TNS) Luis Sinco and Luis Sinco

Since Radiohead became the “greatest band alive” following the 2000 release of “Kid A” and its subsequent review, critical discussion and fan theories have asked the same question: What does the band’s music actually mean?

Most argue some form of the following: “Kid A” and every album Radiohead made after it is to some extent about post-millennial dread, and all the albums Radiohead made before “Kid A” — especially 1997’s “OK Computer” — are about pre-millennial dread, with the possible exception of the band’s debut, 1993’s “Pablo Honey,” which is mostly about ripping off the Pixies.

But none of these conclusions actually address much in terms of frontman Thom Yorke’s lyrics — they’re just reasonable guesses based off of Yorke’s perennial fascination with Noam Chomsky and sometimes-guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s savant-like ability to play cabinet-sized electronic instruments from the 1950s. Like R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe, Yorke builds his lyrics around abstract images and vague feelings of unease.

“I like the non-meaning,” Yorke told The Guardian in 2000, and that’s probably the Rosetta Stone to understanding most of Radiohead’s discography. But it doesn’t explain “OK Computer,” the album that was heralded by blogs and legacy publications alike as a classic almost immediately upon release and which will receive a deluxe reissue this Friday.

“OK Computer,” — Radiohead’s last record to prominently feature pop song structures, guitar solos and lyrical storytelling — isn’t really about computers, technology or the future. It’s an album about looking at the present and being exhausted by the speed at which it’s changing.

There’s real, tangible pathos in Yorke’s fragile falsetto on “Let Down” and “The Tourist” as he describes lives that move by too fast to comprehend. Characters in “Airbag” and “Lucky” find themselves emerging from car and plane crashes only to be paralyzed by the notion that the world into which they’re reborn isn’t the same as the one they left.

It’s the actual sound of the record that’s the futuristic part. Producer Nigel Godrich used the heaps of technology available at St. Catherine’s Court to record and mix the album.

Drawing inspiration from Miles Davis’s 1970 jazz-fusion record “Bitches Brew,” he used delay, reverb and most notably tape-splicing to craft some of the record’s most sonically-adventurous moments, like the DJ Shadow-aping drum fills on opening track “Airbag” or spectral backing vocals on single “Karma Police.”

So what happens when the tech used to make the record becomes outdated? A remaster and a reissue. The forthcoming “OKNOTOK” reissue, which bundles a remastered version of “OK Computer” with a companion album assembled from B-sides and unreleased tracks — among them “Lift,” “Man-O-War,” and “I Promise” — is out Friday on all digital formats as well as vinyl.

Right now, an old “OK Computer” promotional site is live, presumably given a second wind by virtue of the fact that people on the Internet still care about Radiohead. It lets readers click through ephemera created and gathered by Yorke and frequent collaborative artist Stanley Donwood.

Clicking through its various miserable, despondent slogans, it’s disconcerting how many of them still feel vital. One reads, “LESS CONTACT BETWEEN RICH AND POOR, MORE HOSTILITY TOWARDS THE POOR.”

In 1997, “OK Computer” represented the zeitgeist of the time. 20 years later, “OK Computer” still sounds like a vital part of the present. “Hey man, slow down,” Yorke sings at the very end of the record. The sentiment is more ominous than it is reassuring, and that’s the paradox at the heart of the record; for all the progress we’ve supposedly made, it feels like we’re going nowhere fast.

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