20 Years Ago: Radiohead Change Rock Music Forever with ‘OK Computer’
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OK Computer is where everything changed for Radiohead. Their 1993 debut album, Pablo Honey, was spotty, bland and tentative; its 1995 follow-up, The Bends, was a major leap forward. But who was sure which Radiohead was the real one: the generic grunge busters of Pablo Honey or the adventurous art troupe of The Bends? Turns out the band that made The Bends was just getting started.
The shift from just another British alt-rock band to cultural touchstone that Radiohead achieved on OK Computer cannot be overstated. The record, more than any other that came out between Nirvana’s 1991 game-changing Nevermind and OK Computer’s 2000 follow-up, Kid A, lays down a dynamic and electric pulse that has rippled through music for years to come. We’re still hearing new bands every month that sound like they used Radiohead’s third album as its complete and only working template. Its influence is that huge.
And it pretty much sounded that way from the start. The opening “Airbag” is more than four and a half minutes of electronic haze, distorted guitars and a weary outlook on the future of mankind. And for the next 50-plus minutes, Radiohead peer into the machines of modern times, stepping back out of fear, confusion and paranoia of things to come. It’s a retrospective view of the 21st century made three years before it even started. Songs like “Paranoid Android,” “Exit Music (For a Film),” “Karma Police,” “No Surprises” and “Lucky” turn technological advances upside down, revealing their scarred and scratched undersides.
Even though the band’s record company had zero commercial prospects for OK Computer, the album made it higher than its two predecessors, reaching No. 21 in the U.S. None of its singles fared well in the mainstream, though “Karma Police” made it to No. 14 on the Modern ock chart. The LP has gone on to sell more than two million copies — the group’s biggest seller. And it set up Radiohead for even more marvelous machine music on Kid A, both an extension and rewiring of OK Computer’s tangled schematic.
Read the Stories Behind Every ‘OK Computer’ Song
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