On ‘OK Computer,’ Radiohead Saw the Future: Ours – New York Times

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Thom Yorke of Radiohead at Madison Square Garden in 2016.

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Ebru Yildiz for The New York Times

It all came true. Twenty years after Radiohead released “OK Computer,” capitalism’s 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 “OK Computer,” Radiohead saw it coming, amid all the other alienation and malaise that its songs would enfold in melody and noise.

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Mr. Yorke performing with the band in 2000.

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Rahav Segev for The New York Times

Songs from “OK Computer” became staples of the band’s concerts, due in no small part to the sweeping dynamics of tunes like “Airbag” and “Karma Police,” along with some of the best riffs in Radiohead’s huge catalog, like the crushing one that appears out of nowhere to end “Paranoid Android.”

The album’s latest reissue, “OK Computer: OKNOTOK 1997 2017,” 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 “Collector’s Edition” of “OK Computer.” (The remasters find some new glimmers of clarity and sparkle, particularly on guitar sounds, but aren’t startlingly different from past versions.) Meanwhile, “OKNOTOK” adds what the band has described as the “original studio recordings” of “‘OK Computer’-era tracks” of three songs that Radiohead first performed in the 1990s: “I Promise,” “Lift” and “Man of War.” They fully share the mood. “I Promise” is a list of glum commitments not to run away, “even when the ship is wrecked,” set to a steadfast march; its video clip shows a forlorn guy, eventually revealed as an android head, on a bus. “Lift” brings an expansive melody to a foreboding consolation — “This is the place it won’t ever hurt again” — with environmental omens: “the smell of air conditioning/the fish are belly up.” And “Man of War” 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.

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The cover of “OK Computer.”

Radiohead was depressive upon arrival, with its 1993 debut record, but in 1997 “OK Computer” carried the band’s 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 “OK Computer” predicted government coercion (as in “Karma Police” and “Electioneering”) 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 “Fitter, Happier” would now be uploading his daily exercise data to the cloud.

One of the B-sides, “Palo Alto,” nicely sums up the current tech-town situation:

In a city of the future
It is difficult to find a space
I’m too busy to see you
you’re 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, it’s clear that “OK Computer” 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 “Sexy Sadie” in “Karma Police”), 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. “Man of War” very clearly harks back to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and the closing medley of “Abbey Road,” while “Lull,” one of the B-sides, has syncopated guitar picking that hints at “Here Comes the Sun.”

When “OK Computer” appeared, it had been 30 years since “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” — time enough for dreams of psychedelic utopia to give way to Radiohead’s postindustrial, post-punk anxiety. But the longing for a sense of humanity, and for the solace of melody, never disappeared.


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