This Week In History: Radiohead OK Computer

Twenty years ago, Radiohead changed alternative music forever with their landmark album OK Computer.

In 1995, while the band was touring their second album The Bends, Radiohead was approached by legendary musician/producer Brian Eno, who was looking for artists to contribute to a charity album he was working on. The remarkable results of the project would prove to be a major step forward for Radiohead’s artistic and commercial success.

Up to that point, the success of Radiohead’s breakout single “Creep” in 1993 had created surmounting pressure on the band to maintain their incredible momentum with their follow-up record, The Bends . The studio sessions were troublesome, and Thom Yorke began feeling disillusioned with the “sexy, sassy, MTV eye-candy lifestyle” in which he found himself entangled. A desire for a change of scenery lead them to a tour in Asia/Australia/Mexico and the release of My Iron Lung, the first sign of the artistic depths the band was beginning to explore. It was also the first time the band employed the expertise of Nigel Godrich, a move that would lead to an influential career-long relationship. He would stay on to engineer The Bends, a record that failed to match the commercial success of “Creep” but earned praise from critics.

When Radiohead accepted Eno’s request to commission a song, they hired Nigel Godrich once again to engineer the recording. In a whirlwind five-hour session, they recorded the track “Lucky,” which would feature as the lead track on The Help Album. Despite the BBC choosing not to play it, the band knew then that the track had nailed the sound and mood that they wanted for their next record. In early 1996, Radiohead and Godrich headed to the Oxfordshire countryside to an old apple shed that had been converted to a recording studio, and OK Computer was begun. They recorded four songs there with Godrich, who had been promoted to co-producer, before relocating to St. Catherine’s Court, a 15th century mansion near Bath.

The band was starting to make a conscious effort to push their music in new directions, moving away from the guitar-oriented, lyrically introspective style they had used on their first two albums. They began experimenting with unconventional song structures on songs like “Paranoid Android,” which drew inspiration from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the Beatles’ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” Thom Yorke began experimenting with his voice, in an effort to sound completely emotionless, he recorded the vocal track for “Let Down” at 3 a.m. in the mansion’s ballroom. The band also started incorporating more avant garde and electronic elements, something that would feature even more prominently in the band’s post-OK Computer releases.

Soon after its release, OK Computer reached number one and greatly expanded Radiohead’s worldwide popularity. It received almost universal critical acclaim instantly, with comparisons being made to legendary albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Dark Side of the Moon. John Harris in Select magazine wrote that “every word sounds achingly sincere, every note spewed from the heart, and yet it roots itself firmly in a world of steel, glass, random-access memory and prickly-skinned paranoia.” The New Yorker praised the band for pulling off “one of the great art-pop balancing acts in the history of rock.” Many agreed that the album perfectly captured the emotional confusion amid the rise of technology and the internet in the mid-1990s.

The album’s artistic and commercial success laid the groundwork for the rest of Radiohead’s career. It was massively influential, and lead to a ton of bands emulating their sound. So much so, that Radiohead would even more drastically change their sound on their next album, Kid A.