Photo by Danny Clinch
Twenty years ago today, Radiohead released their landmark album, OK Computer, in the US. The band is commemorating the milestone with a deluxe reissue, which they’ve dubbed, OKNOTOK. They also sat down with Rolling Stone for an extensive story documenting the making of the album. Things got so in-depth, however, that it couldn’t fit into just one article. Now, the magazine has shared a thorough oral history of OK Computer culled from over seven hours of on-the-record interviews with the band members and intimates like R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, Alanis Morissette, and actress Jane Seymour, whose English mansion was used to record the album.
Here are some a few of the noteworthy revelations and andecdotes:
Nigel Godrich on recording in Seymour’s Bath, England mansion: “The people who had sold us gear had set up The Cure to make [Wild Mood Swings] there. It had been proofed as a space. And we just went down there and it was really very nice. I mean, why would you go into a space where people had done the same thing a thousand times? It’s like using a public toilet. Why wouldn’t you just go and find your own? Throughout my career one of the things I’ve loved doing the most is just setting up in weird spaces.”
Artist Stanley Donwood on the mysterious OK Computer album artwork: “I wanted to just create a kind of fog world. There were lots of fragments of images and found stuff, things I just found on the street that I scanned into a computer along with bits of text. One was an airplane-safety guide Thom stole from a commercial flight. [The main image on the cover] is a road taken from a skyscraper or airplane or something. I don’t remember. [The image appears to have recently been pinpointed to a highway junction in Hartford, Connecticut. The group played there with Alanis Morissette on August 20th, 1996.]
We layered it all together and then tried to obliterate it, almost like a terrible criminal trying to conceal the evidence of what he did. I got the completely mistaken idea that white was somehow the color of death, so I wanted it white. I know it’s usually black, but I was thinking it was some other culture where white is the color of death. I was quite a morbid character.”
Thom Yorke on “Airbag”: “I was really frightened of cars back then, but ‘Airbag’ was almost the opposite of that. If you get into a crash or a potentially disastrous situation and walk away, you feel a thousand times more alive regardless of what that is. It’s more about that. I was also sort of experimenting with the way that Michael [Stipe] wrote lyrics where you’ve got this thing of semi-nonsense, but when you add them together, it has a cumulative expression of something.”
Godrich on “Paranoid Android”: “When we started at Canned Applause they would play the song linearly. Nothing really happened with the outro. It just spun and spun and it got very Deep Purple and went off. Then it was like, ‘We’re going to change sonically what happens in the middle, so it’s a jump.’ At the end, Thom came up with the whole thing about the delaying the band coming in. So the moment we think it should go up, he just goes around on the acoustic. I thought that was very clever.
We had to put different sections of the song together from completely different parts. We had to fake and tape-edit to make the different sections of it go into each other. It’s a very hard thing to explain, but it’s all on 24-track and it runs through. But I had to do a sort of pretty snazzy … I was very pleased with myself. I sort of stood there and said, ‘You guys have no idea what I’ve just done.’ It was pretty clever.”
Jonny Greenwood on “Subterranean Homesick Alien”: “I remember Thom playing a really fantastic few seconds of ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’, just a few bars. And either through a mistake or something, those two seconds were wiped. And a part of me will always regret that I can’t hear that again, because the way the reverb played, it sounded great. We got something nearly as good. But I find it really interesting that it can’t be rescued from a hard drive. You know, control-Z, return to life.”
Ed O’Brien on “Let Down”: “Thom used to demo a lot of stuff on tour, and we recorded at soundcheck, too. With ‘Let Down’, I remember us playing on Easter Monday on the Bends tour. Thom had done a demo of the song and we were in this place with lots of reverb. And it was like, ‘Oh, this makes sense.’ It was recorded live without people recording overdubs. A lot of that record was recorded live.”
Godrich on “Karma Police”: “‘Karma Police’ was recorded as a song in completion, and then when we went to a proper studio to go and record some piano. Thom and I went out for a pint and he sort of complained about how he didn’t like the second half. ‘Can we construct something from scratch?’ It’s the first time we’d done that. From the middle section to the outro, it’s a completely different technique of building up a song. It’s not like the band playing. It’s just samples and loops and his sort of thing over the top, which sort of was the forerunner of a lot of things to come, good or bad.”
Godrich on recording “Fitter Happier” with Fred, the band’s Apple Macintosh computer: “Fred’s voice is so unemotional. I’ve always been interested in voice synthesis, because it’s such a sort of bizarre juxtaposition of technology, trying to communicate verbally, which is what we do naturally. It’s a very, very, very flat kind of delivery. And so that was clearly something that moved all of us. And then he had his Dictaphone stuff, which had the piano on it, which is just him at home. And I had all of those electronic sounds of stuff that I was just making out of experimental stuff in the studio. And then Jonny scored the strings to his piano thing and Thom added some dialogue from Three Days of the Condor he’d taped off the TV.”
Yorke on “Electioneering”: “I was reading [Noam] Chomsky for the first time and [makes a fart noise with his mouth]. We were endlessly glad-handing like politicians. ‘Hi, how are you?’ ‘Hi, it’s good to meet you.’ ‘You guys are great.’ ‘Well, thank you for your support.’ We had to meet a lot of people and I wasn’t the best at it, but luckily other people in the band were. Colin, especially. He could talk you into the ground if necessary.
We had [Tony] Blair coming into power and there was a lot of optimism in the air, but I think a lot of it was really self-serving. Some good films got made, good music got made, bah, bah, bah. And there was for a brief moment in Britain the belief that the politics could be removed from self-interest and removed from vesting interest. But then it was obvious within months that wasn’t gonna happen.”
Yorke on “No Surprises”: “[The line “Bring down the government/They don’t, they don’t speak for us”] has become this weird thing, it gets this weird reaction [when we play it now]. But again that was written on a shitty bus journey. A two-hour bus journey with a bunch of old-age pensioners in Britain. I don’t know why my car wasn’t working. It actually wasn’t a political thing at all. It was like, ‘Why have people like this been dropped? Why are we just left to rot? If this is a democracy then they should be helping us. Why aren’t they helping us?’ It was just that.”
Godrich on “Lucky”, which was recorded at 1995 for the War Child benefit The Help Album: “We did it in five hours. They were actually on the road. I had only heard the song on a cassette. They showed up and we set up – they played it the night before onstage. So they’d worked it out and we just did it and I mixed it. And I tried later on to sort of remix it [during the OK Computer sessions] and it was like, ‘No, it’s fine.’ That really is the beginning of OK Computer, that day.”
Yorke on “The Tourist”: “That’s a classic situation where Jonny had written this incredibly slow, moving riff so I started singing about slowing down and we were traveling, endlessly traveling, endlessly. Everything was about speed. Everything was moving so fast. I had that sense of sitting in looking out a window and things moving past me so fast you could barely see them.”
The rest of RS story touches on the OK Computer tour, the aftermath, and how Radiohead went right into writing Kid A. It’s a fascinating read for fans; head here for the whole thing.