Sacred Cows is an occasional series in which NME writers question the critical consensus around revered albums. Here, Henry Yates wonders if Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ deserves its hallowed status
Yeah, I know the official line: ‘OK Computer’ is the greatest album ever made. I’m also aware that refusal to worship at the altar of Radiohead’s magnum opus is an act of heresy, and that if this blog is discovered by the indie thought police, I will be bricked into the walls of The Hawley Arms as a warning to other would-be dissenters.
But I can’t lie: ‘OK Computer’ leaves me cold. God knows I’ve tried. I’ve played it a thousand times. Squinted for signs of greatness. Tried to convince myself that ‘Fitter Happier’ is a daring social polemic, not just a dick-about doodle that sounds like a Speak & Spell on a ghost-train. I’ve willed myself to fall for this album… but for me, its ‘genius’ just doesn’t compute.
‘OK Computer’ broke my heart. Two years after the starburst of brilliance that was ‘The Bends’, it’s the moment when Radiohead stopped being ‘good’ and started being ‘important’, and the springboard that shot them so far up their own arses that at times they seem more like a rectal thermometer than a rock band.
You can almost picture Thom Yorke’s face as the sales figures rolled in: “We got away with it, boys! They like ‘weird’! Jonny, get the machine that goes ‘bleep!’…”
With 14 years of hindsight, it seems strange that the band were carried shoulder-high back to the clubhouse after dropping the ball so badly. I mean, seriously: where are the stone-cold classics that seal this oeuvre’s immortality?
You’ll come back with ‘Paranoid Android’, ‘Lucky’, ‘Karma Police’ and ‘No Surprises’, and I’ll give you those, at a push, even if Jonny Greenwood’s outro solo in ‘Paranoid Android’ sounds like an ewok being drowned in a paddling pool.
But they’re just blips in a musical tailspin. Take ‘Electioneering’: an ugly, graceless clatter that sounds like The Pigeon Detectives being rolled down a hill in a dustbin. Or ‘The Tourist’: a club-footed, signature-shifting shrug that sounds like the titular tourist is visiting Slough.
Where ‘(Nice Dream)’ and ‘Fake Plastic’ Trees were epic downpours of sadness, ‘Let Down’ and ‘Exit Music’ are thin drizzles, sucking the joy from house parties like a Dementor. ‘Climbing Up The Walls’ isn’t ‘atmospheric’, it’s like listening to paint dry.
There’s no defiance, gallows humour or chink of light beneath the curtain, just a sense of meek, resigned despondency.
I’m not a knuckle-dragging electrophobe and I don’t expect Radiohead to be the Stereophonics. I’ve loved countless moments since they ‘went weird’, and still believe they’re the only ’90s-era musicians with creative gas left in the tank.
The Sacred Cow column isn’t about shit albums – if it were, I’d be writing about JLS’s ‘Outta This World’ – but ones that perhaps don’t deserve to be given critical fellatio on Channel 4’s ‘Top 100 Albums Countdown’ every fucking year.
Given that it was written by geniuses, ‘OK Computer’ inevitably has flashes of genuine, sky-scraping brilliance. But is it seriously the greatest album of the ’90s/their career/humanity’s time on earth? Computer says ‘no’…