This is a "cliff notes" version of OK Computer.
It was created to help those having problems understanding this complex album.
I hope this guide helps your comprehension and lets you enjoy this modern masterpiece.
The album itself opens with the slashed riff and sucking electronics of 'Airbag', a song that at once sets the scene for all that's to follow. Yorke's ambivalence towards modern technology (that's also present in thealbum title) and supernatural insistence that he's "back to save the universe" are both made immediately apparent. Any hope such a feat might actually be possible, however, is quickly extinguished by the realities of the rest of Side One.
Originally titled "An Airbag Saved My Life", a headline that Thom read in an Automobile Association manual that came in the mail, the song is "about the wonderful, positive emotion you feel when you've just failed to have an accident; when you just miss someone and realize how close it was and stop the car and just feel this incredible emotion" (Sutherland, "Return"). The title is also a play on the 1983 Indeep song "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life".
The song reflects the band's DJ Shadow influence, as the band made the track with a drum loop based on a three-second sample of Phil's druming.
Colin: We wanted an opener like 'Planet Telex' on 'The Bends' : A song that is completely different than all other songs on the album. 'Airbag' swings because Phil dances to drum & bass each weekend.
Phil: DJ Shadow has inspired me.. how that man pastes rhythms to each other. The end result sounds a lot different than we intended by the way.
Thom:"Every time you have an accident instead of just sighing and carrying on, you should pull over, get out of the car and run down the street screaming, I'm back! I'm alive!"
Please could you stop the noise, I'm trying to get some rest From all the unborn chicken voices in my head What's that...? (I may be paranoid, but not an android) What's that...? (I may be paranoid, but not an android) When I am king, you will be first against the wall With your opinion which is of no consequence at all What's that...? (I may be paranoid, but no android) What's that...? (I may be paranoid, but no android) Ambition makes you look pretty ugly Kicking and squealing gucci little piggy You don't remember You don't remember Why don't you remember my name? Off with his head, man Off with his head, man Why don't you remember my name? I guess he does.... Rain down, rain down Come on rain down on me From a great height From a great height... height... Rain down, rain down Come on rain down on me From a great height From a great height... height... Rain down, rain down Come on rain down on me TThat's it, sir You're leaving The crackle of pigskin The dust and the screaming The yuppies networking The panic, the vomit The panic, the vomit God loves his children, God loves his children, yeah!
The first single, it's six-and-a-half minutes long and it comes in three sections. One of these even has its own sub-section. There's a terrific, jazzy 7/8 part with electric piano and deep-grooving bass; there's a hefty dose of blistering rock (with two guitar solos); and there's a truly awesome vocal harmony sequence reminiscent of a load of monks chanting a particularly intense extract from David Bowie's The Man Who Sold The World. A possible hymn to the vagaries of music journalism: "When I am king you will be first against the wall / With your opinions which are of no consequence at all".
In Douglas Adams' "Hitch Hikers' Guide To The Galaxy" books, there is a character known as Marvin, the Paranoid Android. He was the first android ever created with feelings and a personality; except he was defective and because of that he was constantly depressed.
"It really started out as three separate songs and we didn't know what to do with them," explains Thom. After being asked if the song was about the fall of the Roman Empire, Thom adopted this explanation, but other band members have likened the lyrics of the track to those of "The Bends". On one level, the lyrics are absurd; on another, they're quite serious. The 'kicking squealing Gucci little piggy' was based on an incident that Thom witnessed in a very posh LA bar where a woman with a white Gucci dress had red wine accidentally spilled down it. "Her look was pure evil".
Ed:"One of the reference points was Bohemian Rhapsody but the other was the Pixies."
Jonny:"We'd been listening to Ennio Morricone and Can and lots of stuff where they are debasing the recording process. We wanted to try that."
Subterranean Homesick Alien
The breath of the morning I keep forgetting The smell of the warm summer air I live in a town Where you can't smell a thing You watch your feet For cracks in the pavement Up above Aliens hover Making home movies For the folks back home Of all these weird creatures Who lock up their spirits Drill holes in themselves And live for their secrets They're all uptight Uptight.. (x7) I wish that they'd swoop down in a country lane Late at night when I'm driving Take me on board their beautiful ship Show me the world as I'd love to see it I'd tell all my friends But they'd never believe They'd think that I'd finally lost it completely I'd show them the stars And the meaning of life They'd shut me away But I'd be all right All right.. I'm just uptight Uptight.. (x7)
Earth, lyric after anguished lyric declares it an unfit place to live on, and condemns Yorke himself as not fit to walk it - so where does that leave him? The answer ultimately arrives on Subterranean Homesick Alien. Yorke, driving along a country lane at night, longs to be carried off by a spaceship. Nice planet. You can have it. It is one of several tunes whose prettiness-chiming guitar, seagull cries - belies the desolation below. This is Yorke's paean to the space aliens he believes live among us.
Originally called "Uptight", which was how Jonny referred to it in its early stages, the song pays homage to Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues". It deals with alien abduction and stems from an incident in Thom's life. It occurred in Abingdon School, when he was assigned an essay question that went something like this: "If you were an alien from another planet arriving on Earth, how would you describe what you saw?".
Exit Music (for a film)
Wake.. from your sleep The drying of your tears Today we escape, we escape Pack.. and get dressed Before your father hears us Before all hell breaks loose Breathe, keep breathing Don't lose your nerve Breathe, keep breathing I can't do this alone Sing.. us a song A song to keep us warm There's such a chill, such a chill You can laugh A spineless laugh We hope your rules and wisdom choke you Now we are one in everlasting peace We hope that you choke, that you choke We hope that you choke, that you choke We hope that you choke, that you choke
It concerns two young lovers leaving home and going on the run. Being a Yorke composition, it's not exactly Moonlighting by Leo Sayer. Jonny Greenwood's Mellotron produces an unearthly choir of basses and sopranos as one of the runaways implores the other, "Breathe, keep breathing, I can't do this alone." Then, during a murderous surge of drums and fuzz bass, the picture goes fuzzy. The fog clears just in time to hear Yorke moan the last, startling line: "We hope that you choke." It starts small and builds to a crescendo, advising a young couple to get out "before all hell breaks loose". Ostensibly an update of The Beatles' 'She's Leaving Home', Yorke's voice is so infused with emotion that it's almost cracking over Phil Selway's broken drum beats. What starts out semi-acoustic swells into mounted ranks of choirs, rain-like samples, impassioned vocals and glorious harmonies. It could possibly document a double suicide, building to a climax as dense and choking as carbon monoxide.
While on tour with Morissette in September 1996, Radiohead was sent the last last half-hour of Baz Luhrmann's film William Shakespear's Romeo and Juliet and asked to write a song for the closing credits. Band members were impressed by the clip, and Thom wrote theis song for the movie. At first he attempted to use lines from Shakespeare's play as lyrics, but finally ditched the idea. The moment in the film when Claire Danes (Juliet) holds a Colt 45 to her head was the actual inspiration for "Exit Music". Thom also had the 1968 version of the film in his head: "I saw the Zeffirelli version when I was 13 and I cried my eyes out, because I couldn't understand why, the morning after they shagged, they didn't just run away. The song is written for two people who should run away before all the bad stuff starts. A personal song."
Jonny: "Presented with a song like Exit Music, which Thom just sits down and plays to you, it's impossible to know what to add to it without making it worse."
Transport, motorways and tramlines Starting and then stopping Taking off and landing The emptiest of feelings Disappointed people clinging on to bottles And when it comes it's so so disappointing Let down and hanging around Crushed like a bug in the ground Let down and hanging around Shell smashed, juices flowing Wings twitch, legs are going Don't get sentimental It always ends up drivel One day I'm going to grow wings A chemical reaction Hysterical and useless Hysterical and ... Let down and hanging around Crushed like a bug in the ground Let down and hanging around Let down again Let down again Let down again You know, you know where you are with You know where you are with Floor collapsing Floating, bouncing back And one day.... I am going to grow wings A chemical reaction Hysterical and useless Hysterical and... Let down and hanging around Crushed like a bug in the ground Let down and hanging around
Let Down begins like a delicately chiming appendix to The Joshua Tree, but then crazy synthesizers start to fly in from all directions, like a laser show. And as Let Down's guitar arpeggios drip-drip-drip into the brain, Yorke - one of very few singers whose voice can appear to convey genuine grief (as opposed to pain) and despair (as opposed to frustration) - delivers a remarkable vocal: falsetto, glorious harmonies, total and utter desolation. His voice has the terrible shiver of a toddler who can't for the life of him stop crying. 'Let Down' might recount the feeling of being "crushed like a beetle" under "motorways and tramlines" but at no point does he feel dispiriting or self-pitying. It's just a snapshot of the external world, a view from the window. It's the moment when cynical sentiment meets beautiful sound. If anything it's a feeling of detachment, as if Thom Yorke really is an observer from another galaxy rather than a neurotic resident of Oxford.
Q-Stunned by how earlier intimate lyrics had resulted in his being labeled "next in line" after Kurt Cobain and Richey Edward, Thom Yorke sought to change his lyrics from looking in side to looking out, adopting the position of the sad, empty witness to a world of pitiless progress.
Jonny:"It's like when Andy Warhol said he enjoyed being bored. It's about that feeling you get when you're not in control of it - you just go past thousands of places and thousands of people and you're completely removed from it."
Ed:"Troubled Phil Spector, to be played in shopping malls"
Karma police, arrest this man He talks in maths He buzzes like a fridge He's like a detuned radio Karma police, arrest this girl Her Hitler hairdo is Making me feel ill And we have crashed her party This is what you get This is what you get This is what you get when you mess with us Karma Police I've given all I can It's not enough I've given all I can But we're still on the payroll This is what you get This is what you get This is what you get when you mess with us And for a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself And for a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself For for a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself For for a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself Phew, for a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself
In the early version, the first verse went: Karma police arrest this girl She stares at me As if she owns the world and We have crashed her party
The superb Karma Police, written about a party full of scary people, is what might have resulted musically had The Bogus Man-period Roxy Music ever tried to play Sexy Sadie by The Beatles. Karma Police provides a welcome breeze of brevity with it's faux austere, piano-led vitality and wicked descriptions of drug-buzzing pop-culture caualities "Karma police arrest this girl / her Hitler hairdo is making me feel ill". Surely he's not referring to anyone we know?
"It was a band catchphrase for a while on tour - whenever someone was behaving in a particularly shitty way, we'd say "The karma police will catch up with him sooner or later." You have to rely on something like that, even though we're probably just kidding ourselves. But it's not a revenge thing, just about being happy with your own behaviour."
Thom:"someone who has worked for a large company, a song against bosses. Fuck middle management!"
more productive comfortable not drinking too much regular exercise at the gym (3 days a week) getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries at ease eating well (no more microwave dinners and saturated fats) a patient better driver a safer car (baby smiling in back seat) sleeping well (no bad dreams) no paranoia careful to all animals (never washing spiders down the plughole) keep in contact with old friends (enjoy a drink now and then) will frequently check credit at (moral) bank (hole in wall) favours for favours fond but not in love charity standing orders on sundays ring road supermarket (no killing moths or putting boiling water on the ants) car wash (also on sundays) no longer afraid of the dark or midday shadows nothing so ridiculously teenage and desperate nothing so childish at a better pace slower and more calculated no chance of escape now self-employed concerned (but powerless) an empowered and informed member of society (pragmatism not idealism) will not cry in public less chance of illness tires that grip in the wet (shot of baby strapped in back seat) a good memory still cries at a good film still kisses with saliva no longer empty and frantic like a cat tied to a stick that's driven into frozen winter shit (the ability to laugh at weakness) calm fitter, healthier and more productive a pig in a cage on antibiotics
Even Weirder is Fitter, Happier. An aural nightmare with no precedent in Radiohead's work, it's a poem of doom, centred in the workplace and recited by a pre-programmed Apple Mac that sounds like Stephen Hawking's electronic voice.Fitter, Happier, a poem, is placed strategically at the middle of the record. The curiously spookily voiced synthesiser intones a stream of received imagery: scraps of media information, interspersed with lifestyle ad slogans and private prayers for a healthier existence. It is the hum of a world buzzing with words, one of the messages seeming to be that we live in such a synthetic universe we have grown unable to detect reality from artifice: even our own emotions have become obscured by technology. But, while trapped in these complex emotional cages, we can still discover universes within ourselves.
Thom:"I had about 3 monthswhere I couldn't write anything, but I constantly had lists. Then I realised it was the only way I was going to say what I wanted to say."
Ed:"I'd like to see the lyrics posted as a full-page advert in one of those dreadful magazine like GQ or FHM 'cos some people might actually believe all that stuff"
I will stop I will stop at nothing Say the right things When electioneering I trust I can rely on your vote When I go forwards you go backwards and somewhere we will meet Riot shields Voodoo economics It's just business Cattle prods and the IMF I trust I can rely on your vote When I go forwards you go backwards and somewhere we will meet
The breakneck Electioneering kicks up a royal fuss, before collapsing into the uneasy trip-hop of Climbing Up The Walls. Contemplation is swiftly kicked into orbit. A riff the size of Oasis times ten swaggers into view and Electioneering explodes into a fire-breathing one-foot-on-the-ampsdragon of a sneer at contemporary politics. It buries his rage at the power of multinationals under an avalanche of uncomfortable guitar noise. It's the last (and perhaps only) moment of fight.
Q:Reading left-wing historian Eric Hobsbawm's book Age of Extremes and Will Hulton's anti-tory tract The State We're In inspired Thom Yorke to write this commentary on politics in an age where voters are treated as little more than customers in an extension of the service industry.
"We're not a political band, but we are all political people. One of the first things I can remember is Margaret Thatcher coming to power, so just the fact that it's changed is revelation enough. We had a hell of a party that night." "This is about being liberated, this is about getting beyond the dirge, they are all bullshitting, but I'm already laughing. On the other side, I trust I can rely on your vote." Thom describes this song as being about preaching to others through a microphone. He uses the metaphor of a politician selling his party platform to critique the live promotional shows Radiohead was doing to sell its music. "
Climbing Up the Walls
I am the key to the lock in your house That keeps your toys in the basement And if you get too far inside You'll only see my reflection It's always best when the light is off I am the pick in the ice Do not cry out or hit the alarm You know we're friends till we die And either way you turn I'll be there Open up your skull I'll be there Climbing up the walls It's always best when the light is off It's always better on the outside Fifteen blows to the back of your head Fifteen blows to your mind So lock the kids up safe tonight Put the eyes in the cupboard I've got the smell of a local man Who's got the loneliest feeling That either way he turns I'll be there Open up your skull I'll be there Climbing up the walls Climbing up the walls Climbing up the walls
But it's not long before Thom is Climbing Up The Walls of his own insecurity again, grappling with his inner demons.
This is the first track in the band's repertoire to be described as "scary". It relies heavily on strings, but not in the conventional way. The string section, covered by Jonny alone, features 16 different violins playing quarter tones apart from each other.
Thom: This is about the unspeakable. Literally skull-crushing. I used to work in a mental hospital around the time that Care In The Community started, and we all just knew what was going to happen. And it's one of the scariest things to happen in this country, because a lot of them weren't just harmless... It was hailing violently when we recorded this. It seemed to add to the mood. Some people can't sleep with the curtains open in case they see the eyes they imagine in their heads every night burning through the glass. Lots of people have panic buttons fitted in their bedrooms so they can reach over and set the alarm off without disturbing the intruder. This song is about the cupboard monster."
Thom:"Was it an accident that all of the 10 largest mass murders in american history, eight have occured since 1980, typically acts of middle-aged white men in their 30's or 40's after a prolonged period of being lonely, frustrated and full of rage and often precipitated by a catastrophe in their lives such as losing their jobs or divorce?"
A heart that's full up like a landfill A job that slowly kills you Bruises that won't heal You look so tired and unhappy Bring down the government They don't, they don't speak for us I'll take a quiet life A handshake of carbon monoxide No alarms and no surprises No alarms and no surprises No alarms and no surprises Silent, silent This is my final fit, my final bellyache with No alarms and no surprises No alarms and no surprises No alarms and no surprises please Such a pretty house, such a pretty garden No alarms and no surprises (let me out of here) No alarms and no surprises (let me out of here) No alarms and no surprises please (let me out of here)
there's a respite from this two-song burst of chaos. In fact, the final three-song sequence has more control, more room to breathe (and arguably more beauty) than any other part of the record. Each of these three songs is the match of Street Spirit (Fade Out) on The Bends. No Surprises is Radiohead's prettiest moment to date, using dulcimer and Christmassy synth textures to decorate Ed O'Brien's exquisite guitar refrain. A lesser band would have grafted Yorke's withering lyric onto a ready-made anthem of barely adequate string-bending pique. Radiohead themselves would probably have done it on Pablo Honey. Not for the first time, and not for the last, on OK Computer they make even Yorke's most feverish couplets lift sweetly off the page. Even when the subject is suicide (No Surprises) Ed O'Brien's guitar is as soothing balm on red-raw psyche, the song rendered like a bittersweet child's prayer. It is billed as the band's attempt to rewrite 'What A Wonderful World'.
Thom: We wanted it to have the atmosphere of Marvin Gaye. Or Louis Armstrong's 'Wonderful world'.
Colin: It's our 'stadium-friendly' song. The idea was first frighten everyone with 'Climbing Up The Walls' and then comfort them again with a popsong with a chorus that sounds like a lullaby.
I'm on a roll, I'm on a roll This time, I feel my luck could change Kill me Sarah, kill me again with love It's gonna be a glorious day Pull me out of the aircrash Pull me out of the lake I'm your superhero We are standing on the edge The Head of State has called for me by name But I don't have time for him It's gonna be a glorious day I feel my luck could change Pull me out of the aircrash Pull me out of the lake I'm your superhero We are standing on the edge
Penultimate track Lucky first heard two years ago on the 'Help' album is not simply a filler, but more of a thematic companion piece to Airbag.
Ed on why the single did so bad: "Yeah, number 53 with a bullet or something. That was pretty bad considering it was for charity and it was the best song we'd ever done. It did seem to make a difference to how people perceived us though - the broadsheets started to get interested in us and stuff. And it was a brilliant thing to be involved in. We're very proud of it, especially as we took the hard option and recorded a new song. Although, admittedly, that's only because we're so bad at covers. Always have been - even when we were a school band we couldn't do them."
It barks at no one else but me Like it's seen a ghost I guess it seen the sparks a-flowing No one else would know Hey man slow down, slow down Idiot, slow down, slow down Sometimes I get overcharged That's when you see sparks You ask me where the hell I'm going At a thousand feet per second Hey man slow down, slow down Idiot slow down, slow down Hey man slow down, slow down Idiot slow down, slow down
The Tourist, which follows the still-spooky-and-marvellous Lucky to conclude the album, is an unexpectedly bluesy waltz. It's not easy to play a waltz with anxiety, let alone the panic felt by Yorke's hyperventilating traveller, but they do. As it reaches its final bars, the three guitars fall out, leaving just Phil Selway's brushed cymbals, a couple of plucks of Colin Greenwood's bass and - finally - the "ding" of a tiny bell. And that is that. Thom's psychosis has come full circle, to a backdrop of 700 brilliantly different ideas combining into one cohesive whole. The album ends with the sound of Thom Yorke's brain decelerating. Buried within 'The Tourist's monastic chanting and stately guitars, you can just about make out his voice (as grief-ridden and emotive as ever) trying to make sense of what's happening to him: "Where the hell am I going? / At 1000ft per second / Hey man slow down / Idiot slow down". It's the final, futile attempt to alter the progress of his - or indeed anyone else's - life and it's perfect finale. In the space of under an hour, Thom Yorke has reached the same conclusion a dozen times about the need (and ultimate impossibility) of an escape from this life and this planet. The end result, though, is not one of despair but of acceptance. Love, work, sleep and politics have all failed - and all you can do is accept it.
Jonny: "I'm still amazed that everyone else in the band let it on the LP. It was a bit of a late runner. We were packing up and leaving when we decided to do it."
Jonny: "We just wanted a song where we weren't paranoid about making something happen every three seconds and where we could record it with space."
Thom: "I don't remember doing it. It was left on the shelf for months. When I listened to it againit had obviously been, Go out and sing a rough vocal. There's no emotional involvement, I'm just, "Yeah, yeah, sing a song and walk off."