“The science fiction of the next five minutes” was an idea popularised by the author JG Ballard in the 1960s and 1970s when he came out with such works as Crash, Concrete Island, and High Rise. A forefather of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, Ballard was fascinated by how humans cope with extreme change, specifically the rapid development of technology.
His settings were always non-places; airports, motorways, clinics and high rise buildings, any constructs which on the surface lacked any historical connection to their location, because they could literally be anywhere in the world. Like a computer, such designs he viewed with awe for their ingenuity. They could enable a more convenient living experience, but at the same time, they could foster addiction, which in turn could descend into perverse excess. His thesis was simple: in the face of progress, humans will regress, ending up as either primal brutes or grown adult quivering in the foetal position, their misery being of little consequence.
It was psychological science fiction, less concerned with the specific functions of any technological advances, more keen on analysing how we behave once dependent on what they offer. As such, Ballard’s treatment of technology lent his work a greater sense of longevity than most artists working in sci-fi. During each decade since he first emerged, his work has been championed for appropriately capturing that specific moment in time. Indeed, if you were to open one of his books today, it might feel as if it were written only recently. The Ballardian dystopia is always imminent, because the idea of how people react to change is timeless.
Why this is relevant is because it draws a few parallels with Radiohead, whose third album OK Computer has officially turned twenty years old. Undoubtedly, the news will be a shock to many who heard it during the summer of 1997, my four year old self included. This disbelief however, does not stem from wondering “where did the time go?” It stems from the fact that the album seems to have scarcely aged at all.
Of course, that feat could be attributed to the group’s extraordinary songwriting skills. Still, having a great song does not necessarily indicate that the work is safe from weathering. Even its predecessor, 1995’s The Bends, now an alternative classic, shows its age on the likes of the titular track, ‘My Iron Lung’, and ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’. OK Computer on the other hand, feels fresh and indicative of these times, because it shares more in common with JG Ballard, than it does with the group’s work prior.
For now, the album is timeless because it invokes images of a contemporary metropolis in a very impressionistic manner. In particular on tracks such as ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’, ‘Let Down’ or ‘Airbag’, it is the effect-laden guitars and synths of Jonny Greenwood that create the dizzying image of neon-lit cities, yuppie bars and non-places, all of which are permanent whether you like it or not.
With this base covered, Yorke is given the chance to explore the goings on in his head. Howling consumerist slogans, examining his paranoia and anxiety, and fixating upon human interactions, he creates a vivid dystopia of simultaneous invasiveness and isolation without needing to call out any specific features that might set it in a specific year.
Critics have been suggesting it was prescient of this age, but that is only half true. In actuality, it is explicitly about internal conflicts, and yes, that is extremely vague, but vagueness will always keep something relevant if executed properly.
Reissued here as OKNOTOK OK Computer 1997-2017, a twenty-three track album, which combines the album with the 1998 extended play, Airbag/How am I Driving, the B-Side ‘Lull’ taken from the ‘No Surprises’ single and three previously unreleased tracks, each remastered to commemorate the event, the first question to ask is why they have done this. As stated earlier, OK Computer has not dated, nor does the original album seem as if it requires a polish. Many might claim that the LP is perfect as is, and nothing needs to be added or corrected.
Those ideas however, go some way to explaining the purpose of this compilation. OK Computer, a classic from the moment of its release has now become a myth. Such treatment kills reality, because it places the work on a pedestal. OKNOTOK however, is the group’s way of acknowledging a moment of creative brilliance, while also insisting, this was not just plucked perfect from the ether.
The intention here is to contextualise the work and to confirm that the writing process actually happened, and in that process there were slight misfires and gems that just did not fit the mood. For that reason, OKNOTOK feels like a musical documentary, because it peels away the myth and brings the listener right into the studio. The remastered tapes are not correcting mistakes. They are cleaning up the audio to enhance the sense of intimacy, resulting in a very tangible experience for the listener.
For those interested in tracking the historical progress of the band, this will be a delight, because it is a magnificent way of viewing how the group were evolving. This is not just a reflection on their third album. It is a way of bridging the gap between three classic Radiohead works, The Bends, OK Computer and 2000’s Kid A With the main album acting as the centre point, the unreleased songs and B-sides create a continuity between the past, and the future. These are the most illuminating parts of the compilation, because they tell the story.
As a prelude to OK Computer, the three songs previously unavailable seem to have been omitted as they overlap quite a bit with The Bends. Starting with ‘I Promise’, which is driven by acoustic guitars and Phil Selway gently creating a marching beat on the snare, the American alt-rock tone was clearly out of step with OK Computer. However, as Yorke finishes singing the chorus, the synthesized strings offer up a slight indication as to where the band was headed, before ‘Man of War’ articulates those intentions further.
Perhaps the strongest track salvaged from obscurity, ‘Man of War’ intersects strongly with tracks like ‘The Tourist’ and ‘Let Down’ as it paints an ominous picture of bland domesticity, driven by a frail guitar melody. Its exclusion, one could argue stems from its eventual descent into turgid stadium rock that has quite a bit in common with Paul McCartney and Wings.
‘Lift’, like ‘I Promise’ is also very much the group transitioning out of alternative rock, the woozy grunge tone making it the most dated of all twenty-three tracks on the reissue. Rough around the edges, though catchy all the same, it feels premature by the band’s standard as the charting of new territories does not go far beyond dabbling with an electronic organ.
Once onto the B-sides, ‘Lull’ offers the next sign of advance as it deconstructs the sound that brought Radiohead their early fame. The basic hook is still quintessential 90’s college radio rock, but this has been stripped down and channelled through a sparse, jazzy beat. ‘Lull’ might not be amongst the finest lost gems on their back catalogue, but the apparent willingness to flip obvious ideas on their head certainly acts as a fine example of the group’s overall ethos of constantly redefining themselves.
Listening to the group’s output over this period, there is no sense of regret over their having excluded one track, or another. Maybe ‘Man of War’ could have been included, but in all earnest, its being left on the cutting room floor was not an error of judgement. The album remains a captivating entity without requiring any alternatives, which is not to diminish the quality of the unreleased tracks in any way. The purpose was to create the timeline, and as such, OKNOTOK is a resounding success. Concluding with their extended play, Airbag/How am I Driving, this lengthy coda gives the narrative a very real sense of awe.
As they began experimenting more with electronica, dub and ambient music, the EP sets up the hard left eventually taken on Kid A, which almost led Ed O’Brien to quit the group. Released in 1998, the Airbag… EP signified the first steps towards the attempt to follow-up an instant classic, even if there are a few guitar-heavy tracks on there, like ‘Polyethylene (Parts 1 and 2) or the criminally underrated ‘Palo Alto’.
Undoubtedly daunting a prospect to consider without the benefit of hindsight, today hearing this section of OKNOTOK is as exhilarating as when Rowan Atkinson gave a post-Blackadder interview on Desert Island Discs by saying his career was effectively over. OKNOTOK offers that stunning experience, by playing back Radiohead’s first major highpoint, before then reminding us that while this was a moment of greatness, there was still so much more to come over the next few years.