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An eerie, prescient album. (The Bus 3.19)
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Released on 21 May 1997, OK Computer is the third studio album by the English rock band Radiohead. Produced by Nigel Godrich,the album was recorded in both the band’s Oxfordshire rehearsal space and in the actress Jane Seymour’s mansion - St Catherine’s Court - in Bath. Following the success of their ‘guitar-centred, lyrically introspective’ previous album, The Bends, OK Computer is the product of a band who had decided to take the ‘ideas they had begun toying with [on the previous album] into the stratosphere.’ Rather than playing it safe - and guaranteeing commercial success - the band instead produced a concept album based on the 'fear of the imminence of a world run by computers,’ that was decidedly ‘not an easy listen.’
Critiqued on its release by Spin for having ‘no obvious single,’ lyrics that ‘don’t make immediate sense,’ tracks that are ‘too slow, distorted or weird for radio,’ and essentially sounding ‘like nothing that sells,’ it was also - in the same review - praised for being the ‘most appealingly odd effort by a name rock band in ages.’ Thematically informed by consumerism, social alienation, emotional isolation and a sense of political malaise, the twelve tracks of what is in many ways an ‘electronica album made with guitars,’ represent a ‘dark spiritual crossroad’ in the band’s evolution. Radiohead eschewed ‘trendy producers’ and didn’t exchange their instruments for computers, instead choosing to explore ‘electronica rhythms, eerie keyboards, odd time signatures, and complex syncopations’ alongside digitally filtered guitars, bass and drums. The result was an album of ‘astonishing … musical virtuosity,’ that rewards and ‘becomes even more impressive with repeated listens.’
‘Ambitious and far-reaching, packed with meandering, shape-shifting, busy, spaced-out epics that are as unpredictable as they often are beautiful,’ OK Computer established Radiohead as one of the ‘most inventive and rewarding’ bands of the 1990s. Rolling Stone noted in its review that where the band was heading was ‘anyone’s guess,’ but offered the album as ‘evidence that they are one rock band still willing to look the devil square in the eyes.’OK Computer’s influence was greater than its own - considerable - success, as its ‘unconventional writing and song structures’ convinced many bands that ‘wilful experimentation was a logical career path.’
Of course, the best way to understand the album is to experience it - and, like all albums which become a Bus Stop, this is best done by listening to it in its entirety. No shuffling, please.
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Today’s Detour is to a short film (13:33), Dirty Machines - The End of History, by Future Garbage. Filmed in the Stockholm subway, it’s a mind-bending, disquieting exploration into time travel that’s thematically very Radiohead. And completely worth the time.
Today’s Recommendation is Baz Lurhmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1997). Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo, Pete Postlethwaite and Miriam Margolyes, this modernised version of Shakespeare’s play sets the action in Verona Beach. Hawaiian shirts, muscle cars, pistols and a great soundtrack make this film a great alternative to earlier adaptations, and while there are several differences between play and film, it has nevertheless exposed an entire generation or two to this classic of literature - and that alone is priceless.
Today’s playlist is composed of five of my favourite Radiohead tracks, which together should take you deeper into their rabbit hole:‘Everything In Its Right Place’ (Kid A, 2000), ‘Pyramid Song’ (Amnesiac, 2001), ‘Sit Down, Stand Up’ (Hail To The Thief, 2003), ‘House of Cards’ (In Rainbows, 2007), and ‘Little By Little’ (The King of Limbs, 2011). Enjoy!,
Today’s Thought is from Radiohead’s ‘There There (The Boney King of Nowhere)’:
‘We are accidents waiting to happen.’
If you have a thought on this Thought - or any part of today’s issue - please leave a comment below:
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And that’s the end of this Stop - I hope you enjoyed the diversion!
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Until the next Stop …
Godrich has produced most of Radiohead’s singer Thom Yorke’s solo albums, along with albums and tracks by Natalie Imbruglia, Beck, R.E.M., Pavement, U2, Arcade Fire and Roger Waters, among many others. Sources for today’s Stop include Prog's Progeny (The Guardian), OK Computer (All Music), OK Computer Review (Spin), OK Computer (AV Club) and OK Computer (Rolling Stone).
I am a big fan of Radiohead - and have been since I first really heard The Bends while visiting my brother in England during the summer of 1997. Upon returning home, I picked up a copy of OK Computer and played that CD endlessly. It’s difficult to appreciate now just how challenging this album was at the time - there was truly nothing like it. It’s brilliant, through and through. And with the current panicked interest over AI and its potential impact on humanity … the album seems remarkably well-placed.
As any Radiohead fan knows, their post-OK Computer trajectory is nothing short of remarkable.
The album cover is by Stanley Donwood, who features in The Bus (1.40) (paywalled).
To say these are favourites is not to ignore the many, many other tracks that could just as easily have found themselves on this list.