If the personification of Britpop was all about Reni hats and ‘Mad For It’ swagger, then Radiohead was all about physically contracting a virus via your dial up connection. 1997’s OK Computer was a cold machine with a warm heart. Think a Blade Runner Replicant or Talkie the Toaster from Red Dwarf; Pre-millenial paranoia, synthetic dialogue and artificial heartbeats were the component parts. It wasn’t so much the hangover album to the party album of Britpop, as the album that daren’t go out of the house for fear of what was happening on the news.
Their set at Glastonbury in 1997 belongs in the same conversation as Bob Dylan going electric, Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall and Stone Roses at Spike Island. Add to this perhaps the best example of pathetic fallacy for the torrential downpour that occurred during the ‘rain down’ section of ‘Paranoid Android’. From there, OK Computer has been a permanent fixture in almost every Top 10 album list since, making its twenty year anniversary and subsequent re-release feel like one of the more justified celebrations; a pivotal moment in music rather than the hijacking of a nostalgic bandwagon.
So is the remastered release, OKNOTOK, worth the dollars and cents?
‘Airbag’ now sounds like Thom Yorke’s singing in your ear from the back, rather than from the passenger seat. The fear of modernity and the fragility of human life are back-dropped by a belting riff which ends on a mechanical disco wig-out that still sounds like your stereo’s cutting out.
‘Paranoid Android’ drops your jaw and pierces your ears as it did when it signalled the end of Radiohead’s comparisons to U2 and their move into the incomparable. ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ has always felt like a weak link but gets bonus points for referencing Bob Dylan.
‘Exit Music (for a Film) out-emo’d the end of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet and still stands as one of the finest film closers, with Phil Selway’s drum break providing an irresistible air-drumming moment. ‘Let Down’ is capable of emotionally ruining grown adults, myself included, ‘Karma Police’ still makes you want to chase middle-aged men down country lanes in a bid to forget about an impending autocracy but ‘Fitter Happier’ still gets a skip from me. It’s too close to the General Election to joke about ‘Electioneering’ but it’s perhaps the closest Radiohead get to balls-out ‘Rawk’.
‘Climbing up the Walls’ remains genuinely terrifying but thankfully the euthanistic lullaby ‘No Surprises’ soon comforts you into a coma. ‘Lucky’ is an emotionally wrought anthem whilst ‘The Tourist’ is a sombre closer which goes full circle back to ‘Airbag’ with lyrical calls to “slow down”.
But the question is, does it sound any different? Err…
So, I was listening to a digital copy as the vinyl still hadn’t arrived (that’s a whole other article), but the differences do seem minimal. The trouble is that OK Computer sounded ahead of its time and arguably still does. Or should that be timeless?
The real strengths of the re-release lie in the bonus tracks. Featuring the album’s B-Sides, there are some real gems to be heard. What’s striking is how cinematic many of these tracks are; it’s a wonder Radiohead haven’t done more soundtrack work, although with Johnny Greenwood leading the charge that may be subject to change. ‘Pearly’ and ‘Polyethelene (Parts 1 and 2)’ are every bit as good as anything on the album proper, but it’s the unreleased songs that are the most alluring:
‘I Promise’ is a downplayed melodic acoustic affair which points to the direction the band would later pursue on A Moon Shaped Pool, while ‘Man of War’ (previously only glimpsed in the Meeting People Is Easy documentary) is a near-mythical beast that seems to lie somewhere between The Bends and OK Computer and is reminiscent of ‘My Iron Lung’. ‘Lift’ is straight up The Bends era ‘head; all ‘Black Star’ melodies and ‘Sulk’ choruses.
Is it the remastering that the album deserves? I’ll tell you when the vinyl arrives. But content-wise, this is the completist’s (nice) dream. Everything in it’s right place, complete with lost songs that have finally found their way home. It’s more than OK.
OK Computer OKNOTOK is out now on box-set, vinyl, CD and digital formats.