OK Computer at 25: How Radiohead Foresaw the Future of Rock Music and Humanity

A quarter-century later, the art-rock quintet’s third studio LP remains troublingly prophetic

Radiohead OK Computer
Illustration by Steven Fiche

    Radiohead could’ve proudly followed 1995’s The Bends with something markedly similar. After all, that sophomore collection surpassed predecessor Pablo Honey in nearly every way, with enough creative dynamism, commercial success, and critical praise to become one of the most significant alternative/indie rock records of all time.

    So, why not just repeat the formula? Because Radiohead were never ones to rest on their laurels or sacrifice veracity, meaningfulness, or innovation for easily acquired fame and fortune. Instead, they crafted their prophetic art-rock opus: OK Computer. Released on May 21st, 1997, it was a riskier yet even more remarkable artistic leap that — while still feeling at home next to its predecessor — proved to be a game-changer in several respects.

    By leaning on a broader array of compositional techniques, highlighting external concerns over internal confessions, and experimenting with song structures, the LP simultaneously altered the boundaries of rock music and anticipated forthcoming political, technological, and social malaise. Today, it endures as a sonic and thematic marvel.


    Naturally, OK Computer was written in response to numerous things, including its precursor’s focus on inner gloominess. As reprinted in Radiohead: The Complete Guide, drummer Phil Selway felt that “The Bends was an introspective album… there was an awful lot of soul searching. To do that again on another album would be excruciatingly boring.”

    Likewise, vocalist/wordsmith Thom Yorke told NME in December 1995: “You know, the big thing for me is that we could really fall back on just doing another moribund, miserable, morbid and negative record, like lyrically, but I really don’t want to, at all.”

    Intending to look outwardly for their next project, the band sought inspiration from what they’d been experiencing and what they saw happening around them. For instance, the exhaustive concert runs and consumeristic promotional cycles for The Bends made them feel somewhat disengaged and inauthentic. “I was basically catatonic [while on tour]. The claustrophobia — just having no sense of reality at all,” Yorke admitted to Rolling Stone in 2017.


    That detachment also led him to reflect on his childhood paranoia regarding car accidents (how “anything could happen at any moment and you’re not in control of it”). Plus, he was pondering the “pervading sense of loneliness [he’d] had since the day [he] was born,” as well as the notion 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.”

    (Interestingly, Chuck Palahniuk portrayed analogous concerns of day-to-day isolation and futility in Fight Club, so there was a common air of generational unease in the mid-’90s.)

    There was also Yorke’s fear of “information overload” and public disconnection arising from technological advancements such as cell phones and the internet. Finally, and as Yorke explained to NME in 2017, Radiohead were prompted to rally against the false optimism and prosperity spurred by Tony Blair and the Labour Party.


    Thus, the group had a lot on their minds and encapsulating it all required them to be just as forward-thinking musically. That meant distancing themselves from the already dwindling reign of Britpop. “To us, Brit pop was just a 1960s revival. It just leads to pastiche. It’s you wishing it was another era,” multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood aptly estimated in the Rolling Stone piece.

    To be fair, neither Pablo Honey nor The Bends truly fit within the category, so it’s also not surprising that Yorke was “fucking angry” about being associated with it.

    In addition to groups like R.E.M., U2, the Pixies, and Talking Heads, Radiohead incorporated elements of the Beach Boys, Phil Spector, DJ Shadow, Marvin Gaye, Queen, Miles Davis, and Ennio Morricone. “We do try to be diverse,” guitarist Ed O’Brien surmised in a chat with Guitar World, “but because we haven’t paid the dues… to play those types of music, we fail to get what we hope to achieve. But by going down that route, we find our own thing.”


    Lastly, Radiohead self-produced the LP alongside Nigel Godrich — who worked on The Bends and would go on to co-produce the band’s subsequent LPs — to achieve maximum independence and unity.

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