Is Radiohead's 3rd album the last groundbreaking rock record?
Twenty years later, the success and impact of “Ok Computer,” the third album by British band Radiohead, seems to be an anomaly. Despite limited expectations from the label that distributed it, the record instantly became a pop-culture phenomenon back in 1997, as well as a work of art that critics couldn’t seem to get enough of. In some respects, it marked the end of a particular type of rock record: one that could be just as groundbreaking and innovative as it was commercially popular.
To get an album like that today is extremely rare, and when it does happen it’s usually within the world of hip-hop through artists like Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean or Beyoncé. That’s not to say there have not been great rock records over the last two decades. Bands such as The White Stripes, Arcade Fire or The Strokes have received much acclaim; however, none of their albums were as forward thinking or pop-culture juggernauts in the way “Ok Computer” was upon release.
What’s more amazing is that all this came from a band that, just two years earlier, were being written off as a one hit wonder. In 1995, Radiohead released their debut record, “Pablo Honey,” which flew off the shelves due to the wildly famous single, “Creep.” However, the grunge-rock ballad was never a favorite among the band members themselves, and many critics sneered at the idea of another band trying to ride the grunge-wave, especially as it was dying out.
A year later, the group released their sophomore album, “The Bends.” Despite lacking another radio dominating single, the album became a big favorite among critics in 1996. In the U.K., the album gained more popularity, fitting in with the Brit-Pop movement that had taken the nation by storm, but here in the states its popularity was within a small cult following. From there, the pressure was on to deliver something magnificent; a record that would be successful not just critically but financially as well.
In the tradition of groups such as The Beatles and Pink Floyd, Radiohead set out to make a concept album that highlighted the uncertain future that laid ahead. It’s a rock record tried and true, with thunderous guitar riffs and beating drums, but there is also a heavy amount of experimentation going on as well. It’s clear the band was keeping their ears open to an array of difference influences. They began to dabble in a more electronic sound, something they would wholly embrace later on. Perhaps with the tech boom of the late ’90s, it seemed appropriate that rock music should have a computerized bite to it as well.
But there are also tracks that seem to harken back to classics of other bands. “Paranoid Android,” the first single off the album, is essentially the groups “Bohemian Rhapsody”; a sprawling six-minute piece that feels like three or four different songs woven together effortlessly. The track alone might be one of the most maddening and purely insane pieces of music written during that decade. To hear it for the first time is to be frozen dead in your tracks, baffled by what kind of mad genius could conceive of such a thing. In similar fashion, the song “No Surprises” feels like a reengineered version of the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” changing focus from youthful love to a tale of societal hopelessness.
Other songs (“Airbag”) would incorporate elements of DJ scratching, courtesy of DJ Shadow, or elaborate percussion (“Climbing Up the Walls”). The latter would even offer the first glimpse of guitarist’s Jonny Greenwood’s work on movies such as “There Will Be Blood” or “The Master.”
However, it was not just the music of “Ok Computer” that would stand out in uniqueness. In truth, it was the whole packaging. The advertising campaign for the record consisted of posters featuring individual lyrics from the track “Fitter Happier.” On the record, “Fitter Happier” is presented in a robot voiceover, created by typing the lyrics into a Mac voice command program. Its lyrics detail a mundane series of commands involving exercise, dieting and being a more productive member of society. The track is one of the record’s more experimental pieces, a song totally overtaken by technology.
There would also be three rather unique and artful music videos to accompany the record. “Paranoid Android’s” animated video gave provocative visuals to the single’s jarring music and lyrics. “No Surprises” presented a captivating single shot video of frontman Thom Yorke getting his head completely submerged under water while singing the song, creating an oddly intimate experience between artist the audience experiencing the short. However, the most genius of these might be Jonathan Glazer’s video for “Karma Police.”
The darkly comic tune is transformed into a haunting and mesmerizing short in which the audience is in the driver seat of a vehicle traveling down a dark road in pursuit of a man frantically running up ahead. Occasionally, the camera turns to Yorke in the back seat mouthing the words to the song. By the end, the tides have turned with the frantically running man lighting fire to the vehicle as the audience remains trapped inside. In many ways it’s the perfect visual accompaniment to the record. “Karma Police” might be the album’s most defining piece. Both the song and the video convey a darkness but also a devilish sense of humor. It’s meaning is as malleable as the listener wishes, a trait that has fallen upon much of the band’s best work.
In the years following, Radiohead would take their music and sound beyond the reigns of rock altogether. It seems, in hindsight, that “Ok Computer” demonstrated them taking the genre as far as it would go. Their follow-up, “Kid A,” completely embraced the electronic soundscape that had been dabbled in on “Computer,” trading out thrashing guitars for layered synth beats. While the group has delivered rock tracks since, most notably on “In Rainbows,” (itself celebrating it’s 10th anniversary), “Ok Computer” marks their last pure rock record.
The conversation of “Ok Computer’s” significance as an all-time great album inevitably calls to question the significance of rock music today. Yes, there are certainly great albums being made in the genre every year, but there remains a division between rock music that feels noteworthy versus being at the forefront of popular culture. “Ok Computer” represents a time when both those things could be the same thing. A rock record could be a provocative artistic statement and dominate the popular culture.