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Music Review: Radiohead – OK Computer (Collector’s Edition – 2 CDs)

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EMI has released Radiohead’s first three albums Pablo Honey, The Bends, and OK Computer in expanded editions. 1997’s OK Computer found the band breaking through to the masses, although that’s not to imply it’s a mainstream album. It’s a focused work, a multi-layered sonic journey that progresses through “an atmosphere that's perhaps a bit shocking when you first hear it, but only as shocking as the atmosphere on The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds” as lead singer Thom Yorke told Spin.

While the songs range from good to great on their own, OK Computer works best as a whole to fully appreciate its ideas and themes. Guitarist Ed O’Brien told The Guardian, “We spent two weeks track-listing the album. The context of each song is really important… It's not a concept album but there is a continuity there.” The deeper the immersion, the more satisfying the experience as it engulfs the mind. Earphones are recommended for those who want to make the full commitment and immerse themselves within it.

“Airbag” opens with what sounds like a cellos and sleigh bells ringing. Instruments and layers of sonic textures are added to the mix. Within the maelstrom, Yorke as the narrator offers different snapshots in which he finds himself born again, something that happens with every moment in a person’s life although most are unaware that who they were a moment ago is not who they are in the now. Even more disconcerting is it could all end at any second, yet by some miracle it usually doesn’t. In this instance “an airbag saved [his] life.”

“Paranoid Android,” a nod to Douglas Adams’ creation Marvin, is a multi-section piece that while not necessary epic in length certainly feels that way in scope. The narrator reveals himself a delusional fellow who has “unborn chicken voices in his head” and makes threats about who “will be first against the wall” when he is king. The music has the lilting feel of wandering through the day, similar to every other day. A computerized voice, foreshadowing a later track, repeats something just out of comprehension the narrator tries to understand. The music parallels his an intense reaction to a woman who doesn’t remember who he is. The guitar rings out wildly as the section climaxes, then transitions into a bridge equating a slow descent, almost in free fall, and you can almost feel the “rain down on me from a great height” if you allow it, but don’t let the paranoia make you think it’s only falling you. He repeats a verse and double tracks another vocal, adding to the madness, punctuated by the crunchy, chaotic intensity from the middle section.

“Subterranean Homesick Alien” has an ethereal quality and Colin Greenwood told Channel V the use of electric keyboards in is an example of the band's attempts to emulate the atmosphere of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. The narrator is a man unhappy with his station and the way of the world because it doesn’t see the meaning of life the way he does. He hopes for aliens will take him on board and give him the proof though he knows no one will buy it.

“Exit Music (For A Film)” was written specifically for the ending credits of the Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. Yorke with an echo effect is accompanied by a acoustic guitar in the opening before the organ kicks in creating a choir effect. At the midway point a dramatic drum riff brings in a fuzzed-out guitar and the whole song ascends before drifting away like life of the main characters.

After four very strong songs “Let Down” is appropriately titled because the music is rather simple and straightforward in contrast until the song’s conclusion. It opens with lyrics about “the emptiest of feeling” created by the disconnect coming from constant traveling and the music creates a melancholic mood.

Borrowing chord progression from The Beatles’ “Sexy Sadie,” “Karma Police” finds another narrator unhappy with his surroundings and trying to control them. This time by calling for the arrest of certain people who bother him. At the end, he realizes “for a minute there I lost myself” in the grand scheme.

At about the halfway point, “Fitter Happier” has a computerized voice from a Macintosh SimpleText application offer a litany of states of being. Other undecipherable voices are talking in the background and a piano and other effects are added.

“Electioneering” opens with jangly guitars that bring to mind Johnny Marr and the band drops the studio effects to offer some straightforward rock while a politician “say[s] the right things” while revealing the reality that he is “rely[ing] on your vote” to “go forwards” and help himself.

“Climbing Up Your Walls” has an eerie atmosphere well suited for a song by The Cure. The electronic drums and spooky sounds compliment the stalker/serial killer narrator portrayed by Yorke whose vocals are slightly distorted. He sounds like he just kidnapped a victim when he tells her to “not cry out or hit the alarm”. Lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood composed the bridge for 16 instruments and the cacophony is a great match for the narrator’s madness who hopefully is the one screaming in the end and not the person he threatened with “15 blows to the skull.”

“No Surprises” opens with warm notes plucked on a guitar. The narrator is another who seems unhappy with his position in life with “a job that slowly kills you” and a government that “don’t speak for us.” He says, “I’ll take the quiet life,” but also “some carbon monoxide,” which begs the question if his “final fit, my final bellyache” is because he’s taking his life and he hoping for “no surprises please” in death.

Another song that didn’t debut on OK Computer, “Lucky” first appeared on the War Child charity's The Help Album, and shares a number of themes with the album. It finds another character surviving a crash like in “Airbag,” but this time it’s from a plane into a lake; it references distaste for government officials as the narrator blows off the head of state who wants to meet him, and unlike the previous narrator, there’s no doubt this one wants to live. The music on this one, particularly the soaring guitar by Jonny, brings to mind ‘70s Pink Floyd.

“The Tourist” closes out the album with a slow-measured pace. It’s a contrast to the pace and intensity of the rest of the album, a reflection on the hustle and bustle of life. The final lyrics “hey man slowdown/ idiot slow down” are well heeded by everyone.

CD Two features the B-sides from the different single releases: “Paranoid Android,” “Karma Police,” and “No Surprises.” For Radiohead collector’s, everything from the “Airbag/How Am I Driving” EP is here, but for some reason “Bishop's Robes” from the Japanese EP “No Surprises/Running From Demons” is not.

Would have been interesting to get some thoughts about these tracks and why they weren’t included. “Polyethylene Pts 1-2” opens with just Yorke and an acoustic guitar for 40 seconds, then abruptly stops, After a count-off, the whole band kicks in. Along with the lust of “Pearly*” and the message to the narrator’s future self in “A Reminder,” the lyrics of these songs deal with relationships in contrast to the individual, which may explain why they didn’t make the cut. “Melatonin” is a brief lullaby to a young boy.

“Meeting in the Aisle” is the band’s first instrumental and finds them joined by members of the group Zero 7 who provide programming. It’s a great piece of head music. “Lull” finds the narrator in one. The lyrics are more direct and obvious than the album cuts.

There are two remixes of “Climbing Up The Walls”: (Zero 7 Mix) and (Fila Brazillia Mix). The former is the better of the two as the latter meanders too much at a minute longer, but both oddly remove all the menace from the song, which makes no sense.

On “Palo Alto,” Yorke sings about “a city of the future” but what transpires is no different than today. It alternates between sounds of studio wizardry and blasts of guitar-driven rock. “How I Made My Millions” is a plaintive vocal and lone piano. Sounds like someone other than Yorke singing.

The disc concludes with live material. “Airbag” was played live in Berlin on November 3, 1997 and its companion “Lucky” was played live in Florence a few days earlier on October 30, 1997. They are very faithful to the studio versions. Three live performances were taken from the BBC Radio 1’s Evening Session which aired on May 28, 1997 about three weeks before the album’s release. “Climbing Up The Walls,” “Exit Music (For A Film),” and “No Surprises” are noticeably different though from the album cuts though not drastically so. No doubt because the band was learning how to recreate them in a live setting.

Radiohead’s OK Computer is a classic album from the ‘90s. It and all the extras that now come with it are so well layered in sounds that it’s hard to imagine not finding something new with each listen.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at