I slipped the cassette into my Walkman, a phrase I haven’t used as often as I have these days for about 20 years. This is a tape I’ve listened to hundreds of times since it was gifted to me by a girlfriend in 1999.
I was almost 16 and OK Computer was already 2 years old. I had enjoyed singles from Pablo Honey and The Bends, but never taken the decision to purchase either of them. Katherine (the aforementioned girlfriend) could not believe that I did not own a copy of this album. She was 2 years older and utterly cooler than me in every single regard. She was the first girlfriend I’d had that would talk of the ‘agonising beauty’ in each word that Jeff Buckley sang, or the impact of Alex James’ bass guitar in the most recent Blur album. Her favourite anecdote was that her Dad once took a piss alongside Jimi Hendrix in the Hammersmith Apollo. She knew music well and it took her 3 precious months to realise that I didn’t. At the time.
As I was saying, I slipped the cassette into my Walkman and pressed play. I had hoped to listen to the entire album once more before writing this review. But, un like Nirvana’s Bleach which I had never enjoyed before writing about, this is an album that I truly love. Radiohead’s ability to reinvent themselves album after album still staggers me, and this is their seminal album in my opinion. I managed three tracks before I could take it no longer and began scribbling furiously in my notebook. Here are those initial notes:
Airbag: Thunderous Guitar, delicate tambourine, I love this fucking album.
Paranoid Android: Anthemic, laser beam guitars, ghostly falsetto, a terrifying undertone.
Subterranean Homesick Alien: a fragile, tender psychedelic ballad which confuses me more with each listen.
My plan was to incorporate a selection of adverbs into a cleverly crafted paragraph or two but am unsure if I have the words to do this yet. I’m already learning that writing about music requires a certain amount of bravado to do excellent tracks the justice they deserve. I’m practically dribbling by the third track. This is before I had even got to Exit Music (For a Film), at which point I was having a full on Radiohead freak out and remembering how it felt to be stood with Katherine in 1999. An experience, I imagine, similar to how Romeo felt, as he gazed at Juliet through that fish tank at the Capulet house party all those years ago.
“This is what you’ll get, when you mess with us!”
A line from ‘Karma Police’ which sits mid album and features heavily in John Niven’s debut novel ‘Kill Your Friends’. The book is a dark and relentless exaggeration of the music industry’s drug and ego fuelled, dog eat dog, manufactured nonsense. Niven saw it coming when he worked in A&R before jumping ship in the early 00’s and it is clear to see that Thom Yorke was also demonstrating incredible foresight when working on OK Computer. This is an album that shrieks with angst at the impending juggernaut that would be human interaction with technology and how it would lead to alienation and a dislocated society as a result. That sounds dramatic doesn’t it? However, as I sat in a café with a junior colleague a day after listening to this tape again, I asked her to call ahead and confirm that we were running a little late for our next meeting. I looked around and every single customer was totally absorbed in a web-based device. My colleague opened a new email. She didn’t call as I had suggested.
Radiohead and co-producer Nigel Godrich took great inspiration for OK Computer from Miles Davies’ album; Bitches Brew. I wouldn’t say that it is quite as manic. After all, Davies’ jazz fusion from that era wouldn’t be out of place in Kafka’s Metamorphosis or an Eastern European Cartoon from the 50’s. However the sense of confusion and disorientation is still evident in ‘Fitter Happier’ and ‘Climbing Up The Walls’.
Now don’t get me wrong… I do enjoy a conceptual album that makes you think about society and all those wrongs that need righting. However, the real beauty of this album is that peppered throughout this dark and splintering experience is a collection timeless tracks that showcase just how shit hot Radiohead are with guitars and lyrics. ‘Electioneering’ and ‘No Surprises’ rank highly for me among the incredible tracks in one of the best repertoires in the business.
Flitting through the J Card was as much a treat now as it was before too. OK Computer was the second Radiohead album with artwork created by Stanley Donwood, who, with Thom Yorke, has produced all of Radiohead’s artwork since.
I will continue to listen to this cassette another hundred times I imagine. Memories of the cool girl who thought (temporarily) I was deserving of her copy.