It all came true. Twenty years after Radiohead released âOK Computer,â capitalismâs tech overlords have inexorably cultivated a work force and customer base of wish-they-were-androids. Using algorithms that ruthlessly tabulate every available metric, they are determined to maximize efficiency, and they see no profit in human downtime, imperfection or ideals. On âOK Computer,â Radiohead saw it coming, amid all the other alienation and malaise that its songs would enfold in melody and noise.
Songs from âOK Computerâ became staples of the bandâs concerts, due in no small part to the sweeping dynamics of tunes like âAirbagâ and âKarma Police,â along with some of the best riffs in Radioheadâs huge catalog, like the crushing one that appears out of nowhere to end âParanoid Android.â
The albumâs latest reissue, âOK Computer: OKNOTOK 1997 2017,â remasters the original CD along with eight additional songs that were B-sides on EPs in the 1990s, which were rereleased in 2015 on a âCollectorâs Editionâ of âOK Computer.â (The remasters find some new glimmers of clarity and sparkle, particularly on guitar sounds, but arenât startlingly different from past versions.) Meanwhile, âOKNOTOKâ adds what the band has described as the âoriginal studio recordingsâ of ââOK Computerâ-era tracksâ of three songs that Radiohead first performed in the 1990s: âI Promise,â âLiftâ and âMan of War.â They fully share the mood. âI Promiseâ is a list of glum commitments not to run away, âeven when the ship is wrecked,â set to a steadfast march; its video clip shows a forlorn guy, eventually revealed as an android head, on a bus. âLiftâ brings an expansive melody to a foreboding consolation â âThis is the place it wonât ever hurt againâ â with environmental omens: âthe smell of air conditioning/the fish are belly up.â And âMan of Warâ envisions isolation and decay, framed by descending chords and a somber yet exhilarating crescendo. Why did these finished recordings wait 20 years for release? Only Radiohead knows.
Radiohead was depressive upon arrival, with its 1993 debut record, but in 1997 âOK Computerâ carried the bandâs worldview toward something like a concept album, pondering the ways that individuality can be smothered or surrendered, and considering the frailty of the body versus the power of machines. Although âOK Computerâ predicted government coercion (as in âKarma Policeâ and âElectioneeringâ) rather than the addictive enticements of search engines and social media, Radiohead thoroughly understood how pervasive both technology and the tech mind-set would become. Surely the robot-voiced, tuneless protagonist of âFitter, Happierâ would now be uploading his daily exercise data to the cloud.
One of the B-sides, âPalo Alto,â nicely sums up the current tech-town situation:
In a city of the future
It is difficult to find a space
Iâm too busy to see you
youâre too busy to wait.
Its music, meanwhile, is almost merry: a melee of garage-rock guitar blasts and synthesizer swoops, treating overwork as a frantic buzz.
Yet Radiohead built its queasy vision of the future on a foundation from the past. After 20 years, itâs clear that âOK Computerâ was the album on which Radiohead most strongly embraced and, simultaneously, confronted the legacy of the Beatles. Radiohead picked up chord progressions (like the pivotal bit of âSexy Sadieâ in âKarma Policeâ), instrument sounds and ideas on structure from the band, even as it completely inverted its 1960s optimism.
Perhaps one reason that certain songs were relegated to B-sides, or left in the vault until now, was that they made the Beatles echoes even clearer. âMan of Warâ very clearly harks back to âWhile My Guitar Gently Weepsâ and the closing medley of âAbbey Road,â while âLull,â one of the B-sides, has syncopated guitar picking that hints at âHere Comes the Sun.â
When âOK Computerâ appeared, it had been 30 years since âSgt. Pepperâs Lonely Hearts Club Bandâ â time enough for dreams of psychedelic utopia to give way to Radioheadâs postindustrial, post-punk anxiety. But the longing for a sense of humanity, and for the solace of melody, never disappeared.