It's difficult to believe that Radiohead's 'OK Computer' is 20 years old in 2017. Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood et al released their third LP in 1997 against a backdrop of pre-millennial angst vying with Cool Britania for the nation's mood. '97 was the year that Tony Blair became Prime Minister of the UK, The Spice Girls conquered the world with their debut album and movie, while Oasis broke records with their third album 'Be Here Now' which sold nearly half a million copies on the day of its release.
Radiohead's previous album 'The Bends' had been released in 1995, competing with Britpop's bands for sales, but managing to carve out a niche with its distinctly alternative non-Britpop style and content. Songs such as 'Street Spirit (Fade Out)' scored big hits for Radiohead, who up until that point had attracted a cult following, with 'Creep' being their big song.
'OK Computer' built on the momentum that 'The Bends' had generated, exploring themes of human detachment, alienation and paranoia. The first single to emerge from the album was 'Paranoid Android'. The song took its title from Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy (which also provided Thom Yorke with the phrase OK Computer) and garnered a huge amount of excitement on its release with its unconventional song structure (compared to the Beatles' 'A Day In The Life') and controversial animated video.
'Karma Police', the second song to be released from the LP, was a more conventionally structured song but continued to explore the dark subject matter that set 'OK Computer' apart from its market contemporaries. The single charted higher than 'Paranoid Android' making it into the UK top ten.
'No Surprises' charted higher still, again grabbing attention with a memorable video that tapped in perfectly to the suffocating atmosphere of the album. Radiohead had managed to take the pop-video, arguably a very capitalist concept, and quietly subvert it into something more in keeping with the OK Computer ethos, while still advertising their music in a pre-YouTube era.
As well as making video work for them, the band also used the web as an additional creative outlet, in what were relatively early days for band websites. Instead of predictable lists of tour dates and band news, the Radiohead site expanded on the disillusioned themes of the record in a similar way to the album's physical artwork. Dystopian phrases linked readers to scrappy cuttings and sketches, looping back to the starting point in a confusing user experience. The eerily prescient 1997 site has been made temporarily available again in 2017, to mark the album's 20th anniversary (see link at end of post).
Musically the band had certainly found their stride. The 'Creep' sound was now more refined and controlled but retained the angry energy that set Radiohead apart from a lot of their indie peers, while songs such as 'No Surprises' provided contrasting quieter reflection. The album became a big part of the Western world's late '90s soundtrack, as the Britpop movement subsided and people's focus moved to the approaching new century.
Radiohead followed up 'OK Computer' three years later with 'Kid A' in 2000. Much more electronic orientated, 'Kid A' marked the direction in which Radiohead would proceed with subsequent releases, though the ideas around human identity and Machiavellian manipulation present on 'OK Computer' reoccur in much of the band's later work.
Radiohead have chosen the 20th anniversary to release 'OKNOTOK 1997 2017', an expanded edition of 'OK Computer' comprising remasters of the original tracks along with eight b-sides and three unreleased tracks (including 'I Promise' - see below). The release will be available on vinyl, CD and digital. A boxed edition of the vinyl includes a book and C90 cassette mix tape compiled by the band from the sessions and demo tapes.
Explaining the motivation behind the release the band have stated:
"But why? The original analogue tapes are the highest definition version of the record, and nothing will ever beat them. However in the 20 years since the original release mastering technology has improved a lot, and with new equipment and techniques we can make a digital version that's an improvement of the original transfer."
'OKNOTOK 1997 2017' is due for release on 23rd June 2017.
Visit the main Radiohead site at www.wasteheadquarters.com