Why OK Computer still matters

A beginner's guide and analysis of the lyrical themes of Radiohead’s OK Computer

Alexandre Aimbiré
11 min readNov 7, 2023
This is me with my one of my most prized possessions.

Hailing from Oxfordshire, the English band Radiohead has consolidated itself as one of music’s most innovative and influential bands. The band was formed while its members were attending school under the name On a Friday and started out as a rock band. Even though they had multiple divergent influences — such as Jazz and film scores — they were initially posed alongside other acts in what is commonly referred to as Britpop. After achieving modest success with their grungy debut album, 1993’s Pablo Honey, they evolved their sound and themes in their sophomore effort, 1995’s The Bends. This album would bring about new and better things to come, with a heavier use of keyboards and an almost ethereal atmosphere. However, while seen as outsiders, they were still lumped up with bands like Oasis, Blur and Pulp. British music in the mid nineties was dominated by these bands and a “Cool Britannia” ethos that Radiohead desired to shy away from. After two grueling tours supporting REM and Alanis Morissette, in 1995 and 1996 respectively, and amidst heavy pressure, both from their label and within the band itself, they started to reach their full potential with their third album, OK Computer.

Released in May 1997, OK Computer has a much larger depth in lyrical themes and sound than their previous efforts. Produced by longtime collaborator Nigel Godrich, the band incorporated new and fascinating elements to their sound, such as synthesizers, drum loops, orchestral arrangements and gathered influences from avant-garde, ambient and electronic music. Among the most noteworthy of these influences might be German Krautrock favorites CAN, Jazz great Miles Davis, American Drum n’ Bass pioneer DJ Shadow. While the music produced for this album, championed by guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s piercing riffs, was groundbreaking, the power of its lyrics cannot be understated. Penned by lead singer and guitarist, Thom Yorke, they reached new depths into themes such as social isolation, capitalism, consumerism, politics, and life in the late 20th Century. As it reached the number one spot in sales charts, a first for the band, several music outlets praised it as one of the best albums of that year and would later regard it as one of the best albums of all time. The album would go on to win a Grammy for Best Alternative Album in their 1998 awards and was also nominated for Album of the Year.

While Pablo Honey’s lyrics had an almost teenage angst in their nature, lambasting angrily against the status quo, and The Bends delved into more personal themes and issues lived by Yorke himself, OK Computer’s lyrics are more abstract that its predecessors. Because of this more abstract nature of the album’s lyrics, many critics have written about OK Computer’s lyrics as being part of a concept album, with a central storyline and theme, a statement which the band has refuted several times. There are many recurring themes but no central narrative to unify the songs. Each song functions as a narrative contained in itself. However, the band did intentionally select the order of the songs so the album is listened to as a whole. Guitarist Ed O’Brien said in an interview to the newspaper The Guardian that “the context of each song is really important” and that “there is a continuity there”.

More recently, the album has been implied in predicting the future and in describing accurately the state of affairs in the World in the early 21th Century we now live in. Many articles were written about the album in commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the album in 2017, which coincided with the release of OKNOTOK 1997–2017, a remastered version of the album which contained several unreleased tracks from that period, each with their own analysis of how prophetic were Thom Yorke’s words. One article by Pitchfork Media suggested that they may even have predicted Donald Trump’s ascension as the President of the United States. In actuality, Thom Yorke was inspired by the political writings of Noam Chomsky, Eric Hobsbawm and science fiction author Phillip K. Dick when writing the lyrics, as well as the perceived speed of modern life. Yorke described the lyrics as himself walking about taking Polaroid pictures of things moving around him at high speeds. Even though they were written in the late nineteen nineties, the themes portrayed in the lyrics are not so different from the situations and life in general lived nowadays, so they can be seen as prophetic by some.

The album kicks off with “Airbag” and its powerful riff and drone-like canned looped drum beat. As Thom Yorke starts singing almost angelically about being saved by technology from technology itself, we are captured by the voice of someone who truly believes that he was born again while, at the same time, suffering the confusion of almost dying in a car crash. The central theme of the song is the ironic relation between the apparent safety of driving in modern roads and the realization that one can die at any moment. The titular airbag screams that “in an interstellar burst” it is “back to save the universe” in the chorus. The realization that without the inflating apparatus one most certainly would have died propelled the poetic persona into feeling as if they have been born again in an almost Christian meaning. The song references a magazine article read by Yorke titled “An Airbag Saved My Life”, the 1982 hit “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” by the American disco group Indeep, and The Tibetan Book of the Dead, echoing John Lennon in Revolver’s psychedelic “Tomorrow Never Knows”.

As “Airbag” dies down in a sound that reminisces of a dial tone, the acoustic guitar and drums of the album’s tour de force, “Paranoid Android”. Ranging over six minutes, this suite is one of Radiohead’s longest tracks. Separated into five very distinct sections, the song has been compared to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and The Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun” as having a similar song structure. There is much speculation about the song’s theme. The song title references Marvin, the Paranoid Android, a character from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the imagery it evokes is unsettling, referencing yuppies, crackling pork skin, firing squads and the luxury brand Gucci, with some reading into the lyrics as a revolutionary song of sorts. The reality is much simpler. Yorke wrote the song as a first person narrative of a quite unpleasant night at a bar in Los Angeles. During the night in question, someone accidentally spilled red wine on a woman’s white Gucci dress and she overreacted, kicking and screaming. Yorke left the scene, but the situation left a lasting impression on him. The lyrics muse on from the poetic persona hearing the ruckus and feeling disturbed by it in his time of leisure to a description of the “kicking screaming Gucci little piggy” and a dialogue between themselves and said “little piggy”, ending with him leaving the bar distraught in the rain. While this song is not an anti-Fascist anthem, it screams against the daily dread of encountering small acts of tyranny along our paths.

The abrupt ending of “Paranoid Android” brings along the ethereal and whimsical “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, its title and clear parody on Bob Dylan’s classic “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. The lyrics are, once again, a first person narrative in which the poetic persona fantasizes about being abducted by aliens and seeing the world from above inside the alien spacecraft while the aliens themselves record human behavior. When released by the aliens, the person imagines telling this to his friends who will not believe him and dismiss him the same way that they did before the abduction. The imagery portrayed by the song is powerful and, at the same time, extremely relatable. The author tells us about living in a town “where you can’t smell a thing” and forgetting “the smell of the warm summer air”, not unlike many of us who live in major cities, and describes humans as “weird creatures; who lock up their spirits”, saying that they’re all uptight. Upon listening to the lyrics, it is easy to picture people (and ourselves) walking about in big cities stuck into their phones in the dystopian late capitalist scenario where we live.

“Exit Music (For a Film)” starts with just Thom Yorke’s voice and acoustic guitar and was one of the first songs written by the band for the album. Commissioned by director Baz Luhrmann for his 1996 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the song was used in the end credits of the film, but was not featured in the official soundtrack. Thom Yorke was inspired by Franco Zefirelli’s adaptation of the play, which he said to have watched at the age of 13. He cried after watching it for the first time because he didn’t understand why the titular characters didn’t run away before all the bad things happened. This powerful song, with heavy use of a Mellotron, is yet another narrative of a character realizing that the moment to run away has come.

As Yorke’s voice dies down, the arpeggios of “Let Down” appear. The themes presented here are almost universal. The image of life passing by while one is trapped inside mass transit making one feel like a bug crushed in the ground. The “wall of sound” achieved by the multiple layered instruments and dissonant guitars makes the song sound even more claustrophobic and as the listener has no way to escape. We, the listeners, are the disappointed people wishing for our wings to grow, only to realize, disappointingly, that they are useless and we cannot fly away. There is a moment of solace and space to breathe at the beginning of each chorus. As Yorke belts out the words “let down”, there is space. But that space just hurls us back down into our reality as disappointed crushed people, eternally waiting in our means of transportation that were meant to take us places. We feel everything around us, but we are not in control of these feelings, as we are not the ones driving the vehicles, and perhaps our own lives.

“Karma Police” was inspired by an in-joke from the band. Jonny Greenwood said that every time someone misbehaved during touring that they would joke and say that the Karma Police would catch up to them. It is impossible to disassociate the lyrics from the music video. Recorded in the perspective of a driver behind the wheel of a 1976 Chrysler New Yorker while slowly pursuing a man on a dark road in the countryside. The man falls to his knees as the car reverses, revealing that it is leaking fuel. In a last act of defiance, the man lights a match and throws it on the fuel. The car continues to back away, but the fire catches up to it as it is engulfed in flames. The concept of karma in the song is presented as the consequence of one’s actions. The Karma Police will bring retribution to one’s bad actions. Thom Yorke equated the lyrics as “fuck you” to the managers coming from a worker of a large corporation. There is a certain ominous feeling brought on by the chorus, when all the instruments go silent and all that is heard is the piano and Yorke singing “this is what you get when you mess with us”.

Right at the middle of the album, we are presented with “Fitter Happier”, a song with what Thom Yorke considers the most upsetting lyrics he has ever written. A piece of concrete music with the words recited by the synthesized voice of a Macintosh computer. The automated voice paired with the collection of seemingly random sentences that form each verse of the lyrics is haunting. Each verse sounds like a cheap corporate slogan and as a whole they read like the recipe of the staleness of modern life. A life full of things but not full of value. There is no room for spontaneity or will as one is nothing but a happy healthy productive pig patiently waiting for the slaughter. The song ends with the loop seemingly lost into oblivion, as shallow and frail as the life portrayed in the lyrics.

The robotic nature of “Fitter Happier” is directly contrasted with the straightforward rock song that is the next track, “Electioneering”. Reminiscent of the bands earlier efforts, specially Pablo Honey, this is the most politically charged song. While Ed O’Brien compared the lyrics to touring life, when you go around places, always smiling and kissing babies, the words themselves point to a different direction. The lyrics reference economics, cattle prods, riot shields and the International Monetary Fund and start with the words “I will stop at nothing”. Paired with the title, it paints an unflattering picture of modern politics and how politicians are marketed to their electors. They always win and we always lose.

Driven by Colin Greenwood’s bass line, “Climbing Up the Walls” is a tormented song in which Thom Yorke draws from his experience as an orderly in a mental institution. The lyrics are reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage”, but contrary to the playful lunatic on the grass, the poetic persona in this song is the scary voice that tells a schizophrenic to do horrible things. While Pink Floyd’s lunatic slowly loses his sanity when confronted with reality and is institutionalized, Radiohead’s is presented to us as fully insane and set loose in the world with a voracious appetite. As both songs slowly escalate into an apotheotic climax, “Climbing Up the Walls” renders dissonant violins, a heavily distorted guitar solo and Thom Yorke screaming like a madman.

The violent end of “Climbing Up the Walls” is immediately followed by the sweetness of “No Surprises”. The melody is carried by a glockenspiel following the main guitar riff and one of Thom Yorke’s most restrained performances as a singer. The apparent sweetness of the song is immediately broken by the first verse: “A heart that’s full up like a landfill”. The lyrics can be interpreted as the introduction of one’s suicide, one’s final fit, or as the general dissatisfaction of a worker stuck in a menial job. The theme of dissatisfaction with the government reappears and with it the helplessness of one without the power to bring it down. One ultimately chooses a quiet life, a pretty house with a pretty garden and no surprises. Everyone that has had an unsatisfying job of life can identify with the lyrics, especially in a time when the so-called gig economy is prevalent and people live paycheck to paycheck.

Originally written for the The Help Album, a charity effort for victims of the Bosnian War, “Lucky” depicts the experience of one’s survival of an airplane crash. Thom Yorke is noted for being afraid of flying and has a general anxiety of transportation. The song’s overall mood, carried again by Colin Greenwood’s somber bass, was built to reflect the nature of that war and contrasts with the superhuman feelings of the poetic persona. Again, the political themes emerge as one affirms to not have time for the head of state. In a glorious day after surviving certain death one has no desire for trivialities.

The album finally draws to an end with “The Tourist”. Perhaps of all the songs in the album, this is the one that reflects the ethos of the early 21st Century. “Slow down, idiot”, the poetic persona urges. Things don’t have to happen every couple of seconds. The obviously slow tempo of the song contrasts with its theme. Thom Yorke wrote the lyrics after observing camera-wielding tourists in Paris rushing “a thousand feet per second” to see every possible tourist attraction in the city. A more modern interpretation would place all of us glued to our phones experiencing everything around us at high speeds. Overcharged and not sure where we’re going. The song, and the album, finally ends with a single chime from a bell.

Drawing influences from several different places, the lyrics and themes presented in OK Computer reflect personal experiences drawn from Thom Yorke’s life, but are so abstract that the listener can place its intended meaning aside and draw comparisons to present day situations. It is possible to affirm that the life we live in now, in the twenties, is not so different from the life portrayed by Radiohead in the late nineties. Perhaps our life is a culmination of a process that began and was perceived by Yorke in his personal experience. While there was no intent in making prophecies on how life would be in the 21st Century, Radiohead painted a picture of modern life and late stage capitalism that is difficult to shrug off.

This article was originally written as an essay under the title "Uptight" as final assignment for the Critical Approached and the Teaching of Literature course at the English Language and Literature Undergraduate Program at Universidade de São Paulo in July of 2023.



Alexandre Aimbiré

Sociólogo de boteco, estudante de Letras, guitarrista ocasional, pai, marido e leitor ávido de caixas de sucrilhos. Leio e escrevo sobre o que me dá na telha.