OK Eugene

Celebrating 25 years of Radiohead's third LP, the sadboi album of a generation

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Dear Reader,

Please mark the date of this entry, I want you to know that I’m acutely aware that it is 25 years since one of the all time great sadboi albums was released, Radiohead’s OK Computer, and some of their biggest fans are going to write about it in glowing terms. You may well have already read a Guardian article or retrospective ‘Perfect 10’ Pitchfork review about it.

Well, I’m getting in on this too. Alas, I won’t provide quite the same glowing reference delivered as objective truth: unlike others, I will declare my bias upfront. Truth is, anyone between the ages of 13 and 30 years in late 1990s middle class Great Britain knew of at least one person in their friendship group who was obsessed with Radiohead. Reader, I was that person.

Nevertheless, I believe that to keep an open mind, you must be willing to revise your opinions of your heroes downwards whenever the evidence (or your true feelings) demands, which is what makes me, a lapsed Radiohead fan, the perfect person to deliver a sober assessment of the group’s third album, a quarter of a century on.

And I must confess, I had no justification for my obsession. Nobody at the Guardian will tell you this because they are also that person (I hear it’s basically an essential criterion for getting a job there). For all his bullshit, when Noel Gallagher responded to the question whether or not there’s a hierarchy of great British rock bands in an Esquire interview by saying:

I'm aware that Radiohead have never had a fucking bad review. I reckon if Thom Yorke fucking shit into a light bulb and started blowing it like an empty beer bottle it'd probably get 9 out of 10 in fucking Mojo.

... he was essentially right, because that is what Yorke’s debut solo album sounded like, if we’re honest about it.

But to stick to the point Reader, you deserve an honest assessment of why OK Computer attracts the sorts of people who end up writing for Mojo and the Guardian. For it truly is an influential work. Itself released almost 25 years on from the album critics consider it to stand in the shadow of – Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon – it marked a watershed moment in the sadboi canon, the likes of which had few obvious comparisons before the 1990s (Joy Division and The Smiths can stake a genealogical claim, perhaps).

Less self-loathing than US acts like Nine Inch Nails, less overtly angsty than the likes of Nirvana, somehow more grown up in its introspection than the Smashing Pumpkins, yet a little less abstruse than, say, Tool, Radiohead’s nerdy, neurotic, semi-preppy vibe (the English grammar school system is uniquely positioned to produce this sort of alumni) forged New Directions in sadboi music.

Sure, with Creep they’d captured the essence of complaint rock (as Alicia Silverstone’s character in Clueless dubbed it) and they mastered it on sophomore effort The Bends. But for OK Computer, Radiohead managed to lay a template of sonic sorrow that for better or worse marked them apart from their Britpop contemporaries, spawned endless hordes of sadlad acts aping their style* (the drastic change in indie hacks Travis’s songs between their first and second albums is perhaps the clearest example of how fashionable their sound had become) and you can trace a clear line through to today’s sadboi princes, such as Bon Iver, Frank Ocean, and James Blake (sorry James, I’m referring to the atmosphere of your songs, not your feelings… please don’t hate me, you keep doing you, I love your work and I’m very happy for you and Jameela Jamil).

They also managed to possess the hearts and minds of male musos who thought or think of themselves (even if no one else does) as Sad, Sensitive (often to criticism rather than to others’ feelings) and Serious (about Things, the Right Things, of course, and not enough people know that, which is why they are Sad).

But enough about what Radiohead represent and how their reputation is determined by the profile of their typical fanbase… on the music itself, enough ink has been spilt over the conditions which yielded the work, but beyond the immaculate digital production that coined the album’s sound, OK Computer’s 12 tracks proved that the group could craft sophisticated and melodic – albeit exhaustingly melancholic woe-is-me-and-the-world – alt rock songs.

That might sound unremarkable, but it’s still an achievement considering they were at a tricky crossroads in their careers, with distribution labels slashing forecast sales ahead of the album’s release. They were put at ease when OK Computer topped the charts in the UK, and made Radiohead a major enough act to tour the sorts of arena size venues that nearly broke them down in the process. Such is the price of commercial success.

What the album isn’t though, is some kind of daring avant garde masterpiece. Not even close. It’s not ‘out there’, no guitar-based music was ‘saved’ or ‘pushed forward several years’, it’s not the most important album since sliced bread, it’s at the vanguard of nothing. I blame those male musos for banging on about it; some people *my younger self* should have known better. It’s not that deep!

It is a fine alt rock album, nothing more, and there’s nowt wrong with that. And while I forget when I last listened to it (there’s little point when you can recite the entire album off by heart still) I do retain a soft spot for the minor key synths, chiming guitars and Yorke’s unmatched sadboi wail...

So I have revisited the album to compare my feelings for it as a teenager with that of my today self, track by track. Here goes:

1. Airbag

Teenage me: Sounds very cool, but in a different way from ‘Planet Telex’ opening The Bends, which also sounded very cool... they are so cool at sounding cool in so many cool ways... cool! 😍

Love the reggae-like ‘dip in, dip out’ bassline… It’s fresh, it’s new, it’s hip, it really is like I am born again. And Thom Yorke’s voice soars so beautifully, he really is back to save the universe (of rock music). I’m glad he’s back, thanks to that German airbag (was he in a car accident?)

Today me: Still love the bassline, it’s an incredibly efficient groove. A strong opener, you definitely know they’ve got themselves a new sound, so fair play for achieving that. Yorke’s singing sounds pretty assured too, the band sound like they’ve got over whatever hurdles that confronted them

2. Paranoid Android

Teenage me: OMG OMG OMG OMG – WHAT a sound! This is my song! This says so much about my life! I’m sad and introspective and angry and moody and cynical but also cultured and terribly misunderstood *stares at bedroom walls pensively*

Mid-​section’s in 7/4, of course, because Radiohead are better than other bands... Oasis could never!

What’s this third section? OMG OMG OMG just when I thought the song couldn’t get any better! So much sadness – ‘raaaaaaain down, raaaain down, come on raaaaaaain down on me…’ – Thom Yorke knows how I feel! What an anthem! Get your lighters out! (Ladies and gentleman, I do not smoke)

Today me: They wanna pretend they hate progressive rock, but this is kinda proggy... like how Queen's Night at the Opera had prog cuts on it. British rock acts can’t get away with having songs with this many changes without getting the label, sorry!

On another note, I can afford a lighter now. But I’m still not getting one

3. Subterranean Homesick Alien

Teenage me: Isn’t there a song that has a title like this? Never mind
I wish I wrote this song… Thom’s really telling me what people are about... yes we’re all ‘uptight’

I want to play this chorus’s guitars too, with this many notes in it, you can tell this song was meticulously put together

Today me: A very neat song, very precisely played. I still want to play those guitar parts. Love anytime Jonny Greenwood makes a guitar sound like something else. Dreamy. I still wish I’d written this song

4. Exit Music (For a Film)

Teenage me: Sounds like something from a dark and disturbing musical... ooh, electric guitars have kicked in (at 2’50”)… sounds a bit like Portishead in places... I like how that big chorus seeps away so quickly… Thom’s feeling a bit bitter here (we hope that you choke)... who wronged him? I feel wronged too. You go get ’em, Thom!

Today me: Well made song, compositionally. Takes you on a journey. Quite melodramatic – I say that in the most neutral way possible – you’ve got to be in a mood to listen to this. That I was able to unironically explains a lot about my teenage years. Lord forgive me

5. Let Down

Teenage me: ‘… you know where you are when floor collapsing, falling, bouncing back... one day I'm going to grow wings, a chemical reaction, hysterical and useless!’

I feel you, sir. I know exactly what you mean (Reader, I don't)

Today me: This might be the song I like the least, but it has a good rep – I never heard a bad word about this song that didn’t come from my own mouth… I just don’t know what to make of the foray into psychedelia, I haven’t got any strong feelings about it

6. Karma Police

Teenage me: Where’s my lighter again, I feel another sadboi sing song coming along... yes, this is what you get when you mess with ‘the authorities’, yes we are powerless, yes I do sometimes lose myself, but it’s only because I’m angry and tired at the world, just like you Thom!

Today me: I was far too old when I realised that elements of this song ‘reference’ The Beatles’s ‘Sexy Sadie’. Not that it bothers me now, the piano riffs are neatly repurposed. If you’d told my teenage self though, I likely would have assaulted you while loudly proclaiming ‘how dare you insult Radiohead! They make the most original music ever! They invent new chords! How dare you sully their name!’

The video suits this song perfectly. Miserable, and ultimately cryptically oppressive. This is what you get, indeed...

Interesting song form… the switch sounds a bit forced, like the work of someone who didn’t know where to take the song after the second chorus, but it appears to have had no negative effect on the song’s reputation

7. Fitter Happier

Teenage me: OMG OMG OMG what wisdom is this!? *Runs to learn piano chords immediately*​

‘Pragmatism not idealism... will not cry in public...’ I pledge to live this life as closely to the letter as I can (this band has a Jordan Peterson like hold on me)

Today me: I’m still a sucker for sadboi spoken word. I reckon I could still play this on piano, at a push...

8. Electioneering

Teenage me: ‘Riot shields, voodoo economics...’ damn right! They all lie to you, these politicians! They won't get my vote! (Reader, they did 😭 f*ck the IMF though)

Today me: Kinda due a rave-up at this point in the album, though to be fair, this album is so tonally consistent that this still fits in the overall soundscape. Nice to have an aggressive sounding guitar solo to finish off too.

9. Climbing Up the Walls

Teenage me: This is so deep, so meaningful, life really is this bad. This is truth!

Today me: I really bought that one-way ticket to slow creepy semi-suicidal sadness, didn’t I? *Does some reading* oh, it's inspired in part by the mental health of serial killers? Cool, cool... WHY DID NO ONE TELL ME ABOUT THIS AT THE TIME? I did NOT listen to this song in a detached and dispassionate frame of mind… I'll need to detox with some Stevie Wonder or something

10. No Surprises

Teenage me: This is a tuuune... with the requisite negativity, of course – ‘Bring down the government / they don't, they don't speak for us’

I will make my friends play this song with me... we’ve got a couple glockenspiels at school, we can make this work

Today me: I'd take that ‘quiet life’ today, with ‘no alarms and no surprises’… it’s a very neat sadboi bop. They definitely know how to make 'em

11. Lucky

Teenage me: This is IT. This is my jam!

Today me: The formal perfection of this song is definitely the envy of guitar singer-songwriters... the seamless shift from a relatively quiet Em key in the verse to majestically loud Bm key chorus, rounded off with a neat coda ending on the B7 chord… they’re just showing off now

12. The Tourist

Teenage me: Did you know the bulk of this song is in 9/8? I am a very intellectual person, just like them. I could fit into this band, I’m sure of it. I’m sure they’d appreciate that I observe details like that, and I’m not even old enough to take the Music GCSE yet… (I need to ‘slow down’)

Today me: They’ve gone for a classic form (power ballad) in a relatively odd time signature – typical Radiohead to indulge in mildly perverse pursuits. It still sounds classy though, right down to the *spoiler alert* triangle ping at the very end. It’s a strong ending to their most coherent album, for sure. Many rock bands would be proud of making something like this.

* my personal fave of this second rate bunch is The Motorhomes’s debut Songs for Me (And My Baby)

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