We’ve had the most important supplementary text to OK Computer for almost as long as we’ve had the record itself.
It’s nowhere to be found on this twentieth anniversary reissue of Radiohead’s third album. OKNOTOK lends us an interesting, but ultimately incidental, new perspective through its inclusion of three previously unreleased tracks, but as far back as 1998, there was Meeting People Is Easy, the documentary that followed the band over the course of their tour for the LP. Unsurprisingly, given the band’s appetite for the willfully abstruse, it’s a long way from being an access-all-areas affair; in fact, given how excruciatingly uncomfortable they found the intensity of the spotlight at the time, it’s astonishing they signed off on such a film at all.
We see them in many of the same situations that, during the famously turbulent promotion of The Bends, helped shape the subject matter of OK Computer. There’s the interminable ennui of lazily-conducted interviews - one journalist’s question, “what is music to you?”, sets the tone on that front - and the relentless grind of airport after airport and bus ride after bus ride. Frequently, we cut disorientingly to footage of the band being photographed by fans and media alike. The whole film, from start to finish, carries a kind of low-level hum of constant unease - referred to at one point as ‘fridge buzz’ by Thom Yorke - that suggests listlessness and passivity but that eventually, like Chinese water torture, will provoke more dramatic reactions.
Many of them are manifest on OK Computer and the remarkable trick that Radiohead carried off with the record is taking their adverse reaction to the lifestyle that being in a touring rock and roll band necessitates, one that few of the 4.5 million who bought the album originally will be personally familiar with, and turning it into something that felt like an especially bleak treatise on the state of Western society in 1997 and has only grown more prescient as the years have rolled by.
So much of that is down to Yorke’s way with words; on this record more than any other he’s worked on, he seemed able to craft succinct phrases that sounded at once both peculiar and incisive. Aficionados will know the story behind the line “kicking squealing Gucci little piggy” from “Paranoid Android”: like so many others on the album, it sprang from an unpleasant experience on tour in Los Angeles. Even without the context, though, the image of somebody violently flailing while dressed expensively feels like a cutting commentary on the ugliness of materialism.
“Cattle prods and the I.M.F.” is another striking example, plucked from “Electioneering”, a track that’s ostensibly a lash out against the moral vacuum of politics but is filtered through the lens of our impotence in the face of it, which sounds awfully pertinent two decades on. “A handshake of carbon monoxide”, from “No Surprises”, springs to mind too; the quiet ache of Yorke feeling so defeated in the face of the ‘fridge buzz’ translates so universally into the submission of the general populace to the world’s unrelenting cruelty; it’s remarkable that OK Computer predates twenty-four hour rolling news, in that respect.
The isolation and frustration that the band felt as a direct result of too long spent on the promotional hamster wheel fed into the incendiary chaos of “Climbing Up the Walls”, a track that sounds increasingly like the soundtrack to the slow loss of one’s mind as it approaches its cacophony of a climax, over which Yorke screams maniacally. “Paranoid Android” plays like a three-part symphony in anxiety, simmering anger exploding and then subsiding, and the sinister atmosphere of “Karma Police” lies just as much in Yorke’s wavering delivery and the eerie piano as it does in the explicit threat of the lyrics. The heady blend of apathy and resignation that hangs thick over “Let Down” spoke to the on-the-road bubble that Radiohead found themselves in, but rings ever more true of a world in which so much is celebrated and so little valued.
The real draw of this reissue is the three new songs it offers up, with the tone for the intrigue having been set by comments from Ed O’Brien that one of them, ‘Lift’, was left off of OK Computer in part because its anthemic qualities might have propelled them into another stratosphere of popularity, a prospect unacceptable to a group still coming to terms with the runaway success of “Creep”. Radiohead are notorious for stockpiling songs that become the stuff of legend within the more ardent section of their fanbase, playing them live time and again without ever letting the studio versions out into the world, or in some cases doing so many years after they were first aired on stage - the bookends on last year’s A Moon Shaped Pool, “Burn the Witch” and “True Love Waits”, were two such tracks.
Accordingly, any new Radiohead release containing unheard material commands a greater level of intrigue than other artists might, if only because it's always interesting that they’ve finally seen fit to draw a line in the sand and say, “this is the definitive version”. “Lift” does beg the question as to whether O’Brien was guilty of hyperbole; it feels closer in tone and sound to The Bends than its follow-up, sharing soaring sensibilities with something like “Fake Plastic Trees” but without the same obvious emotional heft. There’s also “Man of War”, the live history of which dates back to around the same time as “Lift” and is closer in thematic terms to OK Computer, but is also weirdly sparse - it would’ve made for a jarring inclusion on the original LP.
That’s something that taps into the reason why, despite no shortage of imitators, some of them now enormously popular in their own right, OK Computer remains a completely singular piece of work. Yorke’s frame of mind reflected wider societal concerns and, in turn, the music reflected those worries, and not because it was bare or because there was too much in the way of disquieting dead space - quite the contrary.
OK Computer feels heavy; there’s constantly so much happening, from the changes in pace of the guitars on “Airbag” and “Lucky” to the unsettling bed of the Mellotron that rolls underneath “Exit Music (For a Film)”, all the way through even to the subtle din in the background of “Fitter Happier”. The actual content of OKNOTOK, in terms of what’s new, is hardly justification for any casual listener to pick it up, but the excuse to revisit the record itself would absolutely vindicate the purchase. OK Computer remains without an obvious frame of musical reference but, more crucially, the agitation and malaise that permeate every note of it are - at twenty years’ distance - frightening in their augury.