Retrospective: Radiohead's OK Computer in 1997

This week 20 years ago, Radiohead released their eagerly awaited third album, OK Computer. It was June 1997, the UK was still in the throes of Britpop with Oasis and Blur leading the charge. Yes, people were expecting a lot from Radiohead. Their second album, The Bends, was quietly released to an almost zero fan base in 1995. Yet with each single release, its impact slowly grew to show the world that they still deserved to be here.

Some of us – yes, me – were one of that almost zero fan base. I had been waiting for The Bends since the My Iron Lung EP release in 1994. Heavily into Grunge at the time, I absolutely loved My Iron Lung. It’s steady, throbbing bassline, punctuated with a minimalistic riff and accompanied by Yorke’s lackadaisical, lullabye style vocals, belies its descent into a screeching, chaotic crescendo of shredded guitars. It was, and still is, addictive.

My Iron Lung EP was released just after Radiohead had nearly split up, following the huge, sudden impact of hit single Creep. In fact, I have an NME interview from October 1994 that tells this amazing story:

He (Thom) didn’t actually leave the band, though.
“I thought I could go it alone,— says Thom.— “The absolute opposite is true, I think now…”
Just after the American tour, Radiohead were booked onto a European circuit with James. It was a horrible prospect, so when they arrived for the first show in Hamburg, the band tabled an emergency meeting, to work out whether they should bother at all.
– NME, “The Lung and Whining Road”: Stuart Baillie, October 1, 1994.

None of that prepared anyone for what came next: Radiohead’s OK Computer in 1997. OK Computer had an almost earth-shattering impact on the masses. Radiohead had done the (almost) unthinkable and gone Prog. It was a complete about-turn from the indie/alternative rock sound of The Bends, with it’s collection of brilliant but disparate songs.

OK Computer’s lead single Paranoid Android was over 6 minutes long. Six and a half minutes, to be precise. At the height of Britpop with it’s radio-friendly 2-3 minute Indie pop songs, this was akin to commercial suicide. Yet Radiohead stuck with their decision to release it. An unsettling track with sudden changes in tempo and the closing lyrics: “The dust and the screaming/The vomit/The vomit”, it recalled T.S. Eliot’s visionary poem The Wasteland. It was a sensation. As I’ve said recently, without similar experimentation shown by The Beatles, you would not have seen this from Radiohead. They’ve also admitted that Paranoid Android in particular was:

Basically an excuse to weld loads of half-finished songs together, Abbey Road-style. It’s Radiohead, p***ed and having a party. I wasn’t there when it was all stuck together – I’d been sent to sleep it off. What’s it all about? The fall of the Roman Empire.
– Thom Yorke, Select: “I was feeling incredible hysteria and panic”: Caitlin Moran, July 1997

OK Computer’s impact on British music in 1997 was immediate and unforgettable. It’s densely packed with a variety of instruments, and long, highly experimental instrumentals. There are electronic dance music influences, daft samples, outlandish recording techniques aplenty. The tone of the album is exploratory and nihilistic, lamenting the human condition as we hurtle towards an increasingly robotic, computerised future.

OK Computer’s lyrics cover subjects including politics, technology and consumerism. It is Prog Rock, and it owes some allegiance to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album released 30 years previously and which had a monumental impact on all British music that followed it.

No modern British rock band would ever have thought of reviving the Prog Rock genre in the late 1990’s. Except for Radiohead, that is. As someone who was there in June 1997 and lived through it, all I can say is that OK Computer shocked fans and critics alike, but very swiftly, Radiohead became lauded for their innovative efforts. They showcased the album in their headline slot at a very sodden Glastonbury Festival in June 1997. The rest, as they say, is music history.

And to think, Radiohead very nearly split up in 1994….