Radiohead’s OK Computer Made Them Our 1997 “Band of the Year”

Radiohead, Phil Selway, Jonny Greenwood, Thom Yorke, Colin Greenwood, Ed O'Brien, Luna theater, Brussels, Belgium, 05/12/1995. (Photo by Gie Knaeps/Getty Images)

The pupils of Thom Yorke’s eyes zip from side to side like nervous insects. We’re on the Eurostar train from Paris to London, and Radiohead’s singer is compulsively looking out the window at a pastoral French landscape. He doesn’t see the sheep and the farms—he is keenly aware that those things out there will disappear very soon, and then we will enter a tunnel and be deep, deep underneath the sea. This is significant for a man who once wrote an album called The Bends.

When we go under, I ask Yorke if he’s claustrophobic.

“Yes,” he says matter-of-factly. “Er, increasingly so, actually.”

A couple of days on the road have taught me that even when Thom Yorke isn’t suffering from one of his various phobias, he’s still more than a touch intense. He moves like a shattered little prince. He laughs a sudden, explosive, truncated laugh. His hair is short, black, and spiky. His lazy eye flutters and droops, a handicap as well as the punctuation point of his fractured charm. When he was a kid, they used to tease him about it. That may be why he’s so worried that people occasionally mistake him for an arrogant prick.

Life has been like this for Yorke: His problems have become his strengths, his obsessions have fed his repulsions, and his fears have inspired his music. We’re on the train because Yorke hates to fly, and he’s positively terrified of cars. Just yesterday, someone asked him why he has written so many songs about car crashes. This was Yorke’s answer:

“I just think that people get up too early to leave houses where they don’t want to live, to drive to jobs where they don’t want to be, in one of the most dangerous forms of transport on earth. I’ve just never gotten used to that.”

Of course, because of his job, Yorke has to ride around in cars all the time. He even got inside one with a remote control driver to shoot the video for Radiohead’s latest single, “Karma Police.” And as he sat in the backseat, lip synching, something went wrong, and carbon monoxide fumes began pouring into the car. Yorke was terrified. And as he started to feel faint, he thought, “This is my life…”

Radiohead may be the most uptight paranoid art-rock band presently operating on the planet. But even as such, they’ve been pretty lucky bastards. The group—Yorke, bassist Colin Greenwood, guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien, and drummer Phil Selway—began their career with a smash-hit song about being worthless. They weren’t even sure they liked “Creep,” or the 1992 album it came from, Pablo Honey—especially after the song became a slack-rock anthem, the kind of timely hit that a band can come to regret, like a tattoo of your last girlfriend’s name. So in 1995, they made a much better, much weirder second album (The Bends) and a bunch of very cool videos that evoked nothing so much as the finest Pink Floyd album covers. It wasn’t a miracle that rock critics started loving Radiohead—it was a miracle that 14-year-old-girls didn’t stop.

“I was surprised to see what the music meant to people,” Yorke says. “We went from being a novelty band to being the band that everyone quoted in the NME and Melody Maker ‘Musicians wanted’ columns. After a hit like ‘Creep,’ bands don’t normally survive. It can kill you. But it didn’t.”

Radiohead toured behind The Bends for a year and a half. When Yorke returned to the band’s semi-sleepy hometown of Oxford, he was full of new causes for alarm. He’d always been pretty familiar with the scary things inside his own head, but international touring had bestowed upon him a whole new world of inspirational hobgoblins.. Now he knew he had to write songs about all sorts of horrible things. Domestic violence. Politicians. Cars. Bacon.

So Yorke and Radiohead went to work on an album about global hideousness. He fussed and fretted and became annoying to everyone he knew, but in the end it was all worth it. Because OK Computer is a gorgeous and haunting record. It’s full of spindly guitars and freaked-out noise, poppy songs with Beatles in-jokes, and other numbers that ramble on for minutes before they actually become songs, and it’s especially full of mystery. Nothing is explained, everything is suggested. OK Computer is rife with terror and cynicism, but it’s not particularly ironic or self-conscious. Apparently, the only thing that doesn’t make Thom Yorke uncomfortable is the idea of making something quite beautiful, and sincerely creepy.

“I think people feel sick when they hear OK Computer,” Yorke tells me. “Nausea was part of what we were trying to create. The Bends was a record of consolation. But this one was sad. And I didn’t know why.”

The album debuted on the Billboard charts at No. 21, and fortunately for Yorke, lots of people have been eager to explain the meaning of OK Computer. An online correspondent for Addicted to Noise divined that OK Computer was based on Phillip K. Dick’s V.A.L.I.S., a book that Yorke had not read. Other less excitable critics pounced on the record’s title and songs like “Parnoid Android,” the bizarre first single, and decided the album was about Radiohead’s fear of technology—they were unaware that Yorke and Jonny are actually quite avid Mac fans. Yorke himself didn’t explain much, except to insist that “Paranoid Android” is about theFall of the Roman Empire.

The band showcased most of the songs on the album in tow sold-out, high-profile concerts in Los Angeles and New York. In attendance were Liv Tyler, Madonna, Marilyn Manson, Courtney Love, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and Mike Mills, Mike D. of the Beastie Boys, three mysteriously unnamed supermodels, and, apparently, Liam Gallagher. Gallagher alone remained unimpressed, and felt the need to point out, in these pages no less, that Radiohead are “fuck-ing stoodents,” or in plainer English, college graduates. At least that was mostly true.

Meanwhile, MTV, a longtime supporter of the band, anointed the unsettling animated video for “Paranoid Android” a Buzz Clip. In June, Yorke met Jonathan Glazer, the director responsible for “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” on a deserted lane three hours from London, to shoot the chilling, Orwellian video for OK Computer’s second single “Karma Police.” In late September, “Karma Police” debuted on the music channel in heavy rotation, despite the fact that the video features lots of fire, the same element that got Beavis and Butt-head into so much trouble a few years ago. It would seem that for MTV, Radiohead are above the law. The truth is weirder: The folks at the network like Radiohead videos because they don’t exactly make sense.

“All their videos are intriguing,” explains Lewis Largent, MTV vice president of music. “Everybody has a different interpretation of them. The videos aren’t cut and dry—like their video for ‘Just’ [from The Bends], when the guy dies—that sort of mystery makes them watchable time and time again. You can watch ‘Paranoid Android’ a hundred times and not figure it all out.”

Fro his part, Glazer thinks “Karma Police is about retribution, but he’s not sure if that even matters. “Radiohead are all about subtexts, about underbellies,” he says. “Thom thinks about music in the same way that I think about the film—he thinks it’s a dialogue. That’s why in the video he just sings the choruses—because the verses mean whatever we want them to mean.”

In fact, when Radiohead recorded OK Computer, Yorke was trying to make each song sound like reportage from inside 12 different brains. The record is a collection of fictions that might be true. It isn’t about soul-baring or venting, and it’s not really about Thom Yorke either, which is just one of the things that sets Radiohead apart, not just from the last few years of alternative rock, but from our entire culture of confession.

“I just can’t stand endless self-revelation,” Yorke says. “Honesty is kind of a bullshit quality, really. Yeaaaaaaahh. That’s honesty, and there’s honesty. Honesty about being dishonest is more healthy than professing to be honest.

For better or for worse, Radiohead arrive at a time when most guitar bands are still laboring under the legacy of hardcore punk and Amer-indie rock, and are therefore as concerned with “realness” as most rap stars. But Radiohead aren’t afraid to be a little pretentious: They make grand, sweeping rock music because they believe that their songs sometimes seem as shambling as, say, Pavement’s, or as odd as Tortoise’s, they more certainly conjure up the epic paranoias of Pink Floyd or the baroque grandeur of Queen. Like those bands, Radiohead really believe that they can fly. They might not have gotten around to acting like rock stars yet, but OK Computer is definitely a rock star album.

In Paris, I meet Radiohead for dinner at a Swiss restaurant. Afterward, we spill out onto the cobble-stone streets and head for the band’s van.

“Paris is unbelievable, isn’t it?” Jonny Greenwood asks, as we glance around at the darkening 17th century block.

Yes it is, I say. And now you get to do an interview at something called Fun Radio.

“Which means it will be everything but,” Jonny says with a smirk.

Jonny is the youngest and prettiest member of Radiohead. He’s the one with the cheekbones. He can tell you all about the experimental music of John Cage, composed for shortwave radios. When he was a kid, his older sister forced him to listen to English art-punk bands like Magazine, and the first instrument he played was violin. On OK Computer, Jonny plays viola, keyboards, and guitar. Onstage, he wears a wrist brace (a souvenir from years of smacking around his guitar), and sometimes he plays a transistor radio.

Is there a conceptual artist inside you struggling to get out? I ask Jonny.

“I would never admit to that,” he says with a frozen smile.

The next morning, as the Eurostar finally rockets out of the darkness and back into the English sunlight, Yorke stops squirming in his seat. But only a bit. We are, after all, still talking about OK Computer.

The band began recording the first bits of the album during the summer of ‘96 in their rehearsal studios, a converted apple shed. In September, Radiohead rented actress Jane Seymour’s mansion, St. Catherine’s Court, moved in all their equipment, and began recording there. Things went well. At first.

“It was heaven and hell,” Yorke says. “Our first two weeks there we basically recorded the whole album. The hell came after that. The house was…”—Yorke pauses for a quarter of a minute—”oppressive. To begin with, it was curious about us. Then it got bored with us. And it started making things difficult. It started doing things like turning the studio tape machines on and off, rewinding them.”

The house was haunted?

“Yeah. It was great. Plus, it was in a valley on the outskirts of Bath, in the middle of nowhere. So when we actually stopped playing music there was just this pure silence. Open the window, nothing. A completely unnatural silence—not even birds singing. It was fucking horrible. I could never sleep.”

Radiohead finally finished recording and mastering in February of 1997. After they got some distance from the record, they were a little startled by it. “At the 11th hour, when we realized what we had done,” Yorke admits, “we had qualms about the fact that we had created this thing that was quite revolting.”

“The people at Capitol Records felt the same way at first, especially since they didn’t hear anything on OK Computer that sounded remotely like a single, let alone like “Creep.” But now, everyone’s settled down a bit. Capitol’s president Gary Gersh, when asked about Radiohead, has even said this: “We won’t let up until they are the biggest band in the world.”

Actually, the only folks who are still worried about Radiohead are their fans. These days Yorke gets a lot of concerned letters. Some suggest that maybe he should take a long vacation.

“I need to get a life of some description, at some point,” he says quietly. “ I mean, when your fans are writing to tell you to get a life, you know you need to listen.”

Do you think there’s a reason for people to be concerned about you when they hear OK Computer?

“I reckon.”

Yorke pauses for a second, and then laughs a slightly warmer laugh, one that suggests he’s actually going to be just fine.

On the final night of the Radiohead tour, the band played a seaside arena in Brighton. They veered between moments of delicate, spacey, psychedelia and shrieking, cut-up guitar flurries, from the anthemic chords of “The Bends” to the elegant schizophrenia of “Karma Police.” Thom Yorke held his arms out like some sort of Cubist Christ figure, and occasionally made small requests of the audience. The second thing he said into the mike was “Don’t do that thing where you move side to side, because people go under, and this is not a football match.” The third thing he said was, “Please don’t do that crowd-surfing shit either.”

And the audience quite cheerfully obliged him. They were, by and large, boys with glasses and girls making passes. “Stoodents.” The cute library couple next to me went into a clinch every time Radiohead played something slow, but when I tried to talk to them, they just giggled nervously and discovered they could not speak.

After the show, I found myself standing on the beach under a full moon, laughing idiodically and throwing stones into the Atlantic Ocean with a couple of Radiohead fans I met backstage. One of them was Michael Stipe, and the Brighton Show was the third Radiohead gig he’d seen in the last week.

“They played Reading on Friday night, and a band can’t really lose on a Friday, because for everyone there, it’s fuck-or-fight,” he told me. “But they were really great on top of that. When we toured with them two years ago, they played ‘Creep’ every night. But now, they’ve taken that song back from the fans, and they’ve made it something really beautiful.”

Stipe was referring to that song, the one with the guitar that sounds like the Concorde. The big hit that made everyone think that Radiohead were a flash in the pan five years ago. And he’s right: “Creep” was great that night. It was delicious and slow and sore all over. Yorke even improvised a little. To be precise, he changed the words of the chorus from “I’m a weirdo” to “I’m a winner.”

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