Music Features

OK Computer - Ten Years On

Grunge never impressed me as a musical movement. It always seemed to be about something else rather than itself. No one could deny the raw power of Smells Like Teen Spirit or the pop appeal of Jeremy, but as a "next wave" it was more of a commercial exercise in niche marketing than a path to liberation, which Elvis, the British Invasion and Punk had clearly been. I had a subconscious sense of this at the time, so very little of it made a deep impression on me. There was one exception. It came midway through a fairly dreary song written by yet another group of slacker misfits who you could barely see in their video until...


I'm a creep

Here were guys who knew the transformative power of pure sound. I was transfixed, staring at the screen, waiting for it to happen again. I came away severely impressed, and promptly forgot about Radiohead for another 6 years.

Around about 1999, my friend at work handed me a copy of OK Computer. We frequently passed CDs back and forth to turn each other on to stuff we hadn't heard. "Do you know this album?" he asked. "Radiohead. Hmm, those were the guys who did that thing with the guitar on Creep, right?" I replied. So I listened and wondered what rock I'd been living under when this came out in 1997. I realized I'd been in exile from the few pleasures our dying popular culture offered and I was grateful to have been shown this one: a masterpiece for a dead culture that no longer seeks liberation and wouldn't know it anyway unless it paid for it.

No, this music was not going to set anybody free - that time had passed. This was not a group of soldiers fighting a battle unaware that the war was already lost, it was a howl of protest against the forces that defeated it. All of the criticisms levied against it are true; it's turgid, angst-ridden, pretentious, depressive and unrelentingly bleak. But guess what, it's no fun watching the music you loved, the music that had delivered you, the music that promised everlasting freedom, turned into another product on the supermarket shelf, as tasty and as long-lived as a box of cookies. Thom and the boys knew that rock and roll, or whatever you want to call it, could still be redemptive, but they also knew that when most of us have our reactions programmed like computers, there are very few left to redeem.

Still, they were trying. Airbag arrives like a kick in the ass, the opening guitar riff like a military march, there to rally whatever weary troops may be left to fight. Right away, it's clear that their weapon of choice is sound. That's how they are going to take you out of your current reality, to deliver you temporarily from the digital wasteland surrounding you. On top of that the rhythmic thrust will be propulsive and the harmonic progressions will emphasize tension and drama. The chromatic dissonances are all resolved in the most conventional, "pop" way possible, only to return or transmute constantly, as they seem to in a song like Paranoid Android. Finally, a firm control of dynamics delivers the album to a whole other level. The layering of intensity on Let Down, or the pounding drum fills on the exploding Exit Music (For a Film), or the final desperate section of Karma Police, all display the power of music to transform our inner lives, perhaps manifesting some outward changes too.

Despite all this, the vision is not a hopeful one. The lyrics, more impressions than narratives, all paint a dark picture of a world cut off from hope, and people cut off from each other. But this is where we are folks, in cultural terms anyway, and so you will forgive them their bleak vision. When someone shows you things as they really are, and you are willing to look, you can't help but acknowledge the truth, no matter how dire. Obviously, life isn't quite as miserable as OK Computer would have us believe, but there are aspects of this corporate-led, consumer society that are as dead as the voice that tells us we can be "fitter, happier..." . An older band might have waxed elegiac over the situation, but Radiohead still had the punk instinct to fight. OK Computer is the sound of a soldier stabbing the general he's supposed to be surrendering to, right over the armistice table.