Tag Archives: 1997

OK Computer is 20, part 1

On the whole, I try not to put myself into this blog too much. If you’re reading it, I decided at the outset, you’re reading it because a particular song interests you and you want to find out more about it, not the guy writing about it.

But all responses to art are necessarily subjective. I can try to tell you why a piece of music makes me feel the way it does when I hear it, but I can’t guarantee you’ll feel the same way about it as I do when you hear it. The weaker pieces on this blog are hamstrung by my attempt to present an objective front on music I’m heavily invested in personally, and saying nothing about how and why the music really matters to me as a result.

I just can’t do that with the record we’re going to talk about today. It played too big a role in my life as a music listener, fan and musician.

Which is a long way of saying that we’re going to talk about Radiohead’s OK Computer, which turns 20 in May.

I also can’t take my jumbled-up thoughts and turn them into one coherent post. It would verge on book-length, and take several months to finish. Instead, I’ll do a few posts on little aspects of it that interest me, for as long as I can find things to say.

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When OK Computer came out, I was fifteen, already a fan of the band, and I was waiting for it. Paranoid Android had been released and was a pretty sizable hit single, and like many, I’d gone from being slightly bemused by it to loving it and wanting more. When it did arrive, OK Computer demonstrated a fair few changes from the group’s Bends-era sound, and while I hesitate to use the word progression – much was lost as well as gained – the record is more arrangementally complicated than The Bends.

Most obviously, the band dialled back the heavy guitars even more than they had on The Bends. There are notable distorted parts on Airbag, Paranoid Android, Electioneering, Climbing Up the Walls, Lucky and The Tourist, but most of that is lead guitar; there’s almost nothing in the way of the multitracked distorted rhythm parts that were the foundation of the band’s early sound and of ’90s rock more generally. This more than anything else made OK Computer sound forward-thinking in 1997 – in place of wind-tunnel guitars, there were several complementary, counterpoint parts. It was now possible to pick out which of the guitarists was playing what at any one moment.

The band’s new arrangement techniques are established on the album’s first song, Airbag. Jonny Greenwood plays the distorted bass string riff, Ed O’Brien plays the high-register melody, and Thom Yorke strums the chords. Colin Greenwood doesn’t start playing until well into the first verse, and Phil Selway’s drums are distorted and possibly cut up.* Even more than they had on The Bends, the band members were listening intently to each other, creating space for each other, taking pains to respond to each other without obscuring or overlapping.

This didn’t end up being the group’s permanent MO, as tracks where all three guitarists all played guitar at the same time became rarer in the Radiohead canon starting from Kid A. But it was clearly an important step in the band’s development, one that I remember reading Ed O’Brien talk about excitedly and at length in a Total Guitar interview at the time. It had been a lesson hard learned over the course of the preceding four years and a lot of recordings, some of which sound pretty unimpressive today.

We’ll come back to this more in our discussion of particular songs. But for now I’ll leave you with a picture of Jonny Greenwood playing his Starcaster with a violin bow. Had we all violin bows and Starcasters, perhaps we’d do the same.

Jonny.jpg

*Some of the effects on the album, such as the distorted drums, sound the far side of banal now, in a world where even the most basic DAW has a plug-in that, when applied, can do a passable version of the Airbag drum sound. It’s only fair to keep in mind that OK Computer is an endlessly emulated and referred-to ur-text for a lot of this stuff.