The Band: Thom Yorke (Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards)
Jonny Greenwood (Guitar, Keyboard, Mellotron, Other Instruments)
Ed O'Brien (Guitar, Backing Vocals)
Colin Greenwood (Bass Guitar)
Phil Selway (Drums)
Released: 1997 (Parlophone)
1997 was, broadly speaking, a good time to be British. Britrock was at the height of its popularity, we were looking like a successful sporting nation for the first time in a long while, and we were looking forward to a fresh new government, sweeping 18 years of conservatism out of the door. 2 months after this government was swept into power, Radiohead released their third studio album, and suddenly the critics, and the music world as a whole, realised that the whole ballgame had changed.
Radiohead had been a band who had never really hinted at making an album like this. Their debut, Pablo Honey
, is generally accepted as a mediocre rock album, with the exception of one brilliant single, Creep
, that blasted them to fame, much to the ire of some of the band. Second album The Bends
, while very accomplished, and excellent in parts, is nevertheless a rock album more than anything else, and nowhere near the sound of this. OK Computer
, however, is a suite of music that redefined the band's sound, a trick they would repeat 3 years later, and works as both a brilliant album, but also as a truly remarkable set of individual songs.
. This is one of the heavier songs on here musically, with the track being heavily based over Phil Selway's cut up drum loops, displaying some of Radiohead's trip-hop influences, as also evident on Climbing Up The Walls
. The song itself is about the feeling of getting out of a car safely after an accident, a theme very dear to Thom Yorke who once admitted he is very conscious of the dangers of getting in a car, and is amazed that more people do not feel the same way. This song really shows the difference between this and their previous albums, due to it's increased complexity, and has one of the best lyrics on here in, "In an interstellar burst, I'm back to save the universe." The song also breaks down near the end, leaving Yorke wailing over the backing band, while effects go off in the background. A good beginning, this gets 4.5/5
2. Paranoid Android
. Although many songs have been described as a "modern day Bohemian Rhapsody", this song comes closer than most. The song comes in four real sections; an opening acoustic part which sets the scene for the song as it were, to a darker, more sinister section where Thom sings of a "kicking, squealing Gucci little piggy", a reference to the effects of drugs on people, followed by an incredible effects-laden Jonny Greenwood solo, and then my favourite sequence of music on the album, where Thom Yorke intones, "Rain down, rain down on me...", before ironically calling for God to help, over just his acoustic guitar and Phil Selway's drums, while Ed O'Brien provides some brilliant backing vocals before the return of Jonny Greenwood's guitar solo. Incidentally, the drumming in this song is brilliant as well, and this is the one song from their first 3 albums that the band always play live. The song itself is about many things, with Yorke at times claiming it's about the downfall of the Roman Empire, and at others about many other things as well. It's a truly extraordinary song, and one of the best of the album. 5/5
3. Subterranean Homesick Alien
. Far mellower than the previous 2 songs, this is all about alien abduction, set over a beautifully chiming guitar part, that fades in and out of the song. True to form, there's a lyrical theme of fear and disbelief, with lines such as "I tell all my friends, but they don't believe me, they think that I've finally lost it completely". Something this song shows very well, and is a strength of the whole album is the little things that the band do so well, with every note in the background being put perfectly in place, but barely noticeable to the casual listener. This is marvellously relaxing, and gets 4.5/5
4. Exit Music (For A Film)
. It is very rare that a song can get an audience to shut up and just watch and listen at a live show. This is one of those songs. The opening of the song is solely acoustic, while Thom Yorke sings over the top of the need to elope before two young lovers are discovered. This is featured on the Romeo and Juliet
soundtrack, and is perfect for this role. During the chorus, a Gothic choir provides some splendidly deep backing vocals that add a greater feel to the song, as does background noise put over the top in the second verse. However, it's at about 2:45 that the song takes off, when Phil Selway enters followed by electronic distortion over the vocals. The final climax to the song features Yorke repeatedly singing, "We hope that you choke" over the music, before even that finally fades out. A gloriously bitter and beautiful song, and therefore 5/5
5. Let Down
. Although many Radiohead fans pick this as a highlight of the album, I've never understood why, as I think it's one of the weakest songs on here. The vocals are some of the least understandable on the album, although they are far darker, with lines such as "Don't talk sentimental, it always ends up drivel" coming over the top of another more cheerful musical backing. There's nothing bad about this song, but similarly I don't see anything especially good about it either, although it displays the band's talent at structuring a song once again. 4/5
6. Karma Police
. If I were to pick a song that got me into Radiohead, this would be it. Not because it's their best song, but because it's so catchy, being heavily based around Jonny Greenwood's piano part, and Phil Selway's simple rock beat in the background. It's been described as Thom Yorke's partly satirical revenge fantasy, with lines such as "This is what you get, when you mess with us", although this is possibly disclaimed later in the song when he sings "For a minute there I lost myself", which he's taken to carrying on doing a cappella
with live audiences at the end of the song. It's a true live anthem, and a fan favourite, although it isn't quite one of the best off the album. The song also has a great video, which you need to watch if you haven't already seen it. Ending in a hail of feedback, this gets, 4.5/5
7. Fitter Happier
. If this album has a point, this song is it. It's not a song, so much as a list poem read through a computer programme to remove all emotion from it. The only backing music is a keyboard playing seemingly random notes, and a voice in the background with some effects. This is very sinister, mocking the futility of everyday life, opening with the line "Fitter, happier, more productive." An original tracklisting for the album placed this first, but it was rejected in favour of placing it right at the centre. It drained the life out of me the first time I heard it, and gets 5/5
for fulfilling it's purpose, but only 2/5
for existing as a song.
. The most straightforward rock song on here, it may also be the worst. With some guitar riffing going on in the background, the lyrics attack politicians, and their inability to stick to any principles, with lines such as "I trust I can rely on your vote". The band was becoming more and more political at this point, and this is the most obvious manifestation of this, with the song coming to a truly frenzied close. 4/5
9. Climbing Up The Walls
. There are very few songs that can scare me through their feel, lyrics and overall mood, but I would put this one right at the top of my list. The lyrics are truly horrible, and deal with mental illness, and the upturn in serial killings, and the music, again showing trip-hop influences does not help with this. Yorke's vocals sound distorted and truly lonely throughout, which can be credited to Nigel Godrich, the producer, who is often described as the 6th member of Radiohead. The song actually gets darker as it moves on, with a steady tom-tom led drum beat adding to the mood. The way that the song ends, with repeated screams from Yorke, after a very strident guitar led interlude. I don't want to give it 5/5
because of the way it makes me feel, but it's such a good song, that I have to.
10. No Surprises
. Often referred to as the calm after the storm, this is a Radiohead-style lullaby in terms of the music, although, being Radiohead, the lyrics are very different. I've always interpreted this song as being bitterly cynical, with lines such as "I'll take a quiet life, and a handshake of carbon monoxide, with no alarms and no surprises", and "Bring down the government". Not only are these far less subtle than Radiohead's normal lyrics, but such is the feel of the song, with a xylophone mirroring Ed O'Brien's guitar, that the song gives the feel of an old, weary man who just wants to get away from it all, and cannot even be bothered to work himself up about issues any more. This is an idea very much in keeping with Thom Yorke's interest in why people are so apathetic, but, back on the song, this is excellent stuff. Beautifully written, and really displaying the scope of Yorke's voice, which I believe to be one of the best and most moving of his generation. 5/5
. Initially recorded for the 1995 Help! EP, this is widely considered to be one of Radiohead's best songs, something with which I would definitely concur. It opens with Ed O'Brien playing his guitar high up the fretboard before a very deep Yorke vocal comes in. The song itself is incredible, with the mood of it seeming to mirror the ascent of a soul to heaven after death, something which one of the band once initially stated. This builds and builds until the chorus, "Pull me out of the air crash, pull me out of the lake, 'cause I'm your superhero, we are standing on the edge...", set over a very moving guitar line. Even out of the great songs on this album, this one stands out for me, but can also only get 5/5
12. The Tourist
. A Jonny Greenwood composition, this is a trademark brilliant way of ending the album, with Radiohead, for the first time on the album, not attempting to make anything happen, something that is mirrored in the lyrical content, with lines such as "Hey man, slow down". This is a really beautiful song, and one that you can't help listening to and feeling instantly calmer as a result of its mood. The final bit of the song is particularly excellent, with Phil Selway left playing the drums, while Colin Greenwood plays the occasional note on his bass, before one final note is played on the triangle. It invariably takes several seconds to realise that the album is over. 5/5
Re-reading this review, it may strike those of you who don't own this like I've gone overboard with the ratings here, as I've given half the album full marks. All I can say is that if you haven't heard this before, you need to. It doesn't matter what your favourite genre of music is, this is one of those albums that everyone needs to hear. It was the last time that Radiohead were a guitar oriented band, and remains, in the eyes of many, and probably still of me, their finest moment, and one that demonstrated their brilliance both musically, lyrically, and at creating feelings. The cover art lays the tone for the album, as it isn't an easy listen, and one you can't have in the background, but instead a masterpiece that is Spartan in some ways, but a genuine treat to listen to. Buy it. Now.
Final Rating: 5/5