June 16, 2017 marks 20 years of Radiohead's 'OK Computer'.
In 1997 Radiohead were at a crossroads in their career. Their 1993 debut ‘Pablo Honey’ had yielded a surprise hit single. ‘Creep’, and with their second album, 1995’s ‘The Bends’, they’d found a slow-burning fame that kept them touring for years. The intensity of their schedules had left an impact on the band: “I was basically catatonic,” Yorke recently told Rolling Stone. “The claustrophobia – just having no sense of reality at all.” And yet the product of that difficult period became their biggest commercial success to date: ‘OK Computer’ went five-times platinum in the UK, went on to sell more than 4.5m copies, and contains their two highest-charting singles yet in ‘Paranoid Android’ and ‘No Surprises’. The recording process for the album is just as fascinating as the turbulent tour that accompanied it – as these fifty lesser-known facts prove.
1. ‘Lucky’ was recorded two years ahead of the rest of ‘OK Computer’ – for ‘Help’, the 1995 charity album for Warchild. They completed the recording in just five hours.
2. Brian Eno, who commissioned ‘Lucky’ for Warchild, said it was “the most beautiful song I’ve heard for a long, long time”.
3. When Radio 1 didn’t playlist ‘Lucky’ in 1995, Yorke said that he was “waiting for the karma police to come and sort it out”.
4. After ‘Lucky’, the first ‘OK Computer’ recording was ‘No Surprises’. Six different versions were recorded, but the band ended up using the first one.
5. Thom Yorke wanted it to sound like Marvin Gaye’s ‘What A Wonderful World’, though as he noted, “it was about being poisoned, full with debris and waste.”
6. Miles Davis’s ‘Bitches Brew’ was a huge inspiration for the band’s drumming and piano parts on the album. Yorke called it “a record for the end of the world.”
7. The title ‘OK Computer’ is a line from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
8. Also drawn from Hitchhikers… is the name ‘Paranoid Android’ – aka Marvin, the depressed robot. Yorke said of the joke title: “That’s how people would like me to be.”
9. The album was recorded in a 15th century mansion near Bath called St Catherine’s Court. It’s owned by actress Jane Seymour, of Live and Let Die.
10. Yorke said of the isolated house: “I spent my whole time there terrified, because everything constantly reminded you of your own mortality.”
11. He later revealed that ghosts would talk to him in his sleep there. “There was one point where I got up in the morning after a night of hearing voices and decided I had to cut my hair.” With nothing to hand he used penknife scissors and, he said, “I cut myself a few times. It got messy. I came downstairs and everyone was like, ‘Uh, are you all right?’ I was like, ‘What’s wrong?’ Phil very gently took me downstairs and shaved it all off.”
12. The old house is actually the same place where The Cure recorded ‘Wild Mood Swings’, and New Order did some of ‘Waiting For The Sirens’ Call’ there too.
13. When making ‘Paranoid Android’, Ed O’Brien said: “We wanted to make a crossing of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and The Pixies.”
14. Before they recorded the six-minute opus in the place’s wooden ballroom, the band lit candles and drank vodka oranges.
15. In 2017 Thom Yorke said he’d actually written “30 or 40 different versions” of ‘Paranoid Android’.
16. Yorke described his lyrical inspirations for ‘OK Computer’ as “Polaroids in my head. The immediate external world became very bright and powerful, like it was on fire, and that was when I wrote stuff.”
17. A version of the band’s treasured 2007 song ‘Nude’ was actually recorded in the ‘OK Computer’ sessions, but it wasn’t available on record until 10 years later, with ‘In Rainbows’. Its working titles were ‘Your Home May Be At Risk If You Do Not Keep Up Payments’ and ‘Big Ideas’.
18. ‘OK Computer”s working title was ‘Zeroes and Ones’.
19. Fans have a ’01 10’ theory that the album pairs perfectly with ‘In Rainbows’ if you alternate between them, track by track – but the band have never commented on it.
20. ‘Palo Alto’ – a B-side for ‘No Surprises’ recorded with the rest of the album – was originally called ‘OK Computer’. It might not have made its way onto the album, but its old name did.
21. To combat piracy, Capitol glued promo copies of lead single ‘Paranoid Android’ inside 1,000 cassette players before sending them to press, radio stations and retailers.
22. The “kicking and screaming Gucci little piggy” in ‘Paranoid Android’ was a woman Yorke encountered in a bar, off her box on the old Columbian. Someone spilt a drink on her and – according to the terrified Yorke – she turned into a demon.
23. Yorke has actually said that song is about “the dullest fucking people on Earth.” He’s never named the Los Angeles bar he found them in.
24. ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’ – written as credits music for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet – bears deliberate echoes of songs from Johnny Cash’s prison albums ‘At Folsom Prison’ and ‘At San Quentin’ in the rhythm of its dark opening strum. “You can hear the audience willing him on,” Yorke told Q in 1997. “And you can hear he’s ill, he can’t hit the notes, and yet the songs are so powerful in that environment with the prisoners there, whooping and laughing.”
25. The band played the song at a Dazed and Confused party before the album’s release. “It was quite good, actually,” Thom recalled, “because I got to sing ‘We hope that you choke’ at all those people.”
26. It happens to be Yorke’s favourite song from the album. In 1997 he told Mojo: “Exit Music was the first performance we’d ever recorded where every note of it mode my head spin – something I was proud of, something I could turn up really, really loud and not wince at any moment.”
27. On the album’s release, Massive Attack were in talks with Radiohead about remixing the entirety of ‘OK Computer’, but time constraints meant it never happened. The trip hop band’s Daddy G said: “If you [remix a whole album] you have to spend a lot of time doing it, treat it with a lot of respect. It would have taken us months to really work on it.”
28. Album opener ‘Airbag’ was originally titled ‘Last Night An Airbag Saved My Life’, a line that stayed in the lyrics.
29. Drummer Phil Selway credited experimental hip-hop producer DJ Shadow as an influence on ‘Airbag’’s drum part: “DJ Shadow has inspired me,” he said. “How that man pastes rhythms to each other.”
30. The feeling’s mutual: DJ Shadow later told Pitchfork that ‘OK Computer” is “permanently engrained in my DNA.”
31. In the studio, everything went through a plate reverb they bought off Jona Lewie. You know – of ‘Stop The Cavalry’ fame. And ‘You’ll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties’ fame.
32. The “rain down” section of ‘Paranoid Android’ was originally going to be a 10-minute organ outro. They played that version a lot on their 1996 tour with Alanis Morrissette, and NME repeatedly described it as “wiggy”.
33. The album entered the Billboard 200 at #21, the same week the Prodigy crashed in at No.1 with ‘Fat Of The Land’. Over here it was held off by those pesky Hanson kids for a week before it topped the charts.
34. In NME‘s original album review, we gave it 10/10 and called it “a landmark record of the 1990s”.
35. ‘Fitter Happier’ is not recited by Stephen Hawking – but it might as well be. It’s Fred Cooper, the synthesized voice from Apple Macintosh’s SimpleText application, whose roboticised tones also give Professor Hawking the power of speech.
36. The title of ‘Karma Police’ comes from an in-joke. “It was a band catchphrase for a while on tour,” Jonny told Melody Maker in 1997. “Whenever someone was behaving in a particular shitty way, we’d say, ‘The karma police will catch up with him sooner or later.’”
37. The video for that song was originally pitched by director Jonathan Glazer to Marilyn Manson for his song ‘Long Hard Road out of Hell,’ but Manson said no. Didn’t matter though: Glazer won MTV’s Director of the Year award for it.
38. “At the end [of Karma Police],” co-producer Nigel Godrich says, “Ed’d playing his guitar and I’m feeding it back into a delay and then I pitch it down so it goes eeeoooowwww. The very last noise of ‘Karma Police’ is me turning this thing off.”
39. The album’s cover was designed by artist Stanley Donwood and Thom Yorke on a computer, with a tablet and a light pen. The rule was that they weren’t allowed to erase anything.
40. Recognise the junction on the album cover? It was ‘found’ by Reddit users earlier this year – it’s the eastbound junction of I-84 (the ‘Yankee Expressway’) with I-91 in Hartford, Connecticut, just before it crosses the Connecticut River.
41. The album was released in Japan on May 21, 1997. It’d be almost a month before it arrived in the UK on June 16, 1997.
42. Three ‘OK Computer’-era tracks beloved by fans were never released – ‘I Promise’, ‘Man of War’ and ‘Lift’ – but they’re all coming on new compilation ‘OKNOTOK’.
43. ‘Lift’ was too massive a tune to release, Ed O’Brien said in 2017: “We subconsciously killed it. It was a big, anthemic song. If that song had been on that album, it would have taken us to a different place, and we’d have probably sold a lot more records… it would have killed us.”
44. Thom tried something unusual with the vocals for ‘OK Computer’. Ed O’Brien said: “Thom said he wanted the 12 songs to be sung with 12 different types of voice. I think Thom at times has had a hang-up about his voice. And the fucker can sing anything – he can reduce you to tears.”
45. Unlike ‘The Bends’, which was produced by John Leckie, ‘OK Computer’ had no producer but the band themselves and ‘sixth member’ Nigel Godrich. Ed O’Brien said: “We thought that this self-producing lark was a piece of piss. When we’ve recorded an album before, the producer is there to pull you up and suggest when things are going wrong. So we had to learn that, the non-musical side of it, the discipline.”
46. After just five listens, Ed O’Brien’s dad concluded that the album was “majestic”.
47. MTV censored the ‘Paranoid Android’ video because it had nipples in it. “They’ve taken out all the nipples,” said Jonny, “and yet they leave in the stuff where a man’s sawing through his own limbs, which is peculiar. Whereas if we’d had a beach full of babes in bikinis, grinding away, that would have been fine.”
48. The jarring final chord of ‘Climbing Up The Walls’ is made of discordant violins. “There’s this block of white noise you can make when 16 violins are playing quarter tones apart from each other,” Jonny said. “It’s the most frightening sound – like insects or something – but it’s beautiful.”
49. On Meeting People Is Easy, the tour documentary for ‘OK Computer’, Thom Yorke was so taken aback by the enormous success of ‘OK Computer’ he was thinking about packing it all in. “We’ve been running too long on bravado,” he told Jonny Greenwood, “believing how wonderful everyone tells us we are. Last year we were number one on all the polls… It’s just a headfuck, a complete headfuck. I think we should get out while the going’s good.” Lucky they didn’t.
50. In 2015 the US’ Library of Congress gave ‘OK Computer’ the rare honour of being preserved it in its National Recording Registry.