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The Meaning of 'OK Computer'

Updated on October 8, 2014

Radiohead's Masterpiece: OK Computer

OK Computer, Radiohead's brilliant magnum opus has been prominent in more than a few top 100 lists for best albums. The reason? It's a beautiful, haunting ensemble that alternates between ecstasy-inducing highs and mournfull lows. Amazing instrumental work and Thom Yorkes trademark vocals alone make this album a winner.

But there is something more to it. It resounds with people unlike few albums do. Themes of hope, fear, anger, yearning and love - which we can all relate to - are so well articulated vocally and complimented musically. What is 'OK Computer' really about? Why do we love it so much?

This lens hopes to shed some light on the meaning behind the songs and why I think it is such a masterful piece.

First... - Get the collectors edition

OK Computer [SPECIAL COLLECTOR'S EDITION- 2 CDs + DVD]
OK Computer [SPECIAL COLLECTOR'S EDITION- 2 CDs + DVD]

All tracks from the original CD, check. All tracks from the 'Airbag EP' , check. Remixes and live versions of some of these same songs, check. A DVD featuring the videos from the album plus some more live versions, check.

This is a well-rounded and complete collection that is ideal for both the 'OK Computer' fandom veteran and the newbie. An essential for any Radiohead fan.

 

Airbag

Awakening

The album begins with catchy, grinding guitar riff that hooks you right away. There's a sense of anxiousness, like something big is about to happen. After this initial entrance the song plateaus musically and the first verse begins.

  • 'In the next world war
  • in a jack knifed juggernaut
  • I am born again
  • In the neon sign scrolling up and down
  • I am born again'

This is the genesis of the album; the main protagonists awakening and the proclamation of his new found strength. He describes himself in heroic terms, a theme revisited later in the album.

  • 'In an interstellar burst I am back to save the universe'

The next verse provides a reason for this new awakening: a car crash. Perhaps literally or metaphorically, it's for us the listener to decide.

  • 'In a deep deep sleep of the innocent I am born again
  • In a fast german car I'm amazed that I survived
  • An airbag saved my life'

Emancipated, the protagonist counts himself lucky, also a re-occurring theme in the album.

Paranoid Android

Resentment

The genie is out of the bottle. His new found awareness creates a blossoming of emotions and independent thought.

  • 'Please could you stop the noise I'm trying to get some rest?
  • From all the unborn chicken voices in my head
  • What's that, what's that'

He now sees himself as separate and somewhat superior from the mindless masses around him and expresses anger, resentment and disgust at the flock of which he was formerly a part of.

  • 'When I am king you will be first against the wall
  • With your opinion which is of no consequence at all
  • What's that, what's that
  • Ambition makes you look pretty ugly
  • Kicking squealing gucci little piggy
  • You don't remember, you don't remember, why don't you remember my name
  • Off with his head man, off with his head man
  • Why don't you remember my name?-- I guess he does'

Heartache, ecstasy, bitterness, resentment--the torrent of new emotions 'rains down' on the central character as he becomes fully awake.

  • 'Rain down, rain down, come on rain down on me
  • From a great height, from a great height, height
  • Rain down, rain down, come on rain down on me
  • From a great height, from a great height, height
  • That's it sir, you're leaving,
  • the crackle of pig skin,
  • the dust and the screaming
  • The yuppies networking
  • the panic, the vomit,
  • the panic, the vomit
  • God loves his children,
  • God loves his children, yeah'

A beautiful, emotive song. One of my favourites of all time.

Paranoid Android Video

The Philosophy of Radiohead - A fascinating read

Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter, Happier, More Deductive (Popular Culture and Philosophy) (Popular Culture & Philosophy)
Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter, Happier, More Deductive (Popular Culture and Philosophy) (Popular Culture & Philosophy)

Wow. This is a great read. A collection of bite-sized deep, philosophical interpretations of what Radiohead means to popular culture in their music and their message.

I couldn't put it down. Have a peak at the contents through the Amazon link to get a sense of this really unique book.

 

Subterranean Homesick Alien

Disattachment

After the dust has settled from the previous song, the protagonist is feeling a little more comfortable with his new state of being and expresses a a kind of omnipotent view of the world. The album takes a more internalizing tone from now on.

'Subterranean' is presented to us from the point of view of an alien, and how our world would look to them. The aliens are a metaphor for how he views himself; distant, separate from society and alone. The somber tone of the song reinforces his isolation. He takes pity on the people down below and explains it in verse.

  • 'The breath of the morning I keep forgetting the smell of the warm summer air
  • I live in a town where you can't smell a thing
  • You watch your feet for cracks in the pavement
  • Up above aliens hover making home movies for the folks back home
  • Of all these weird creatures who lock up their spirits
  • Drill holes in themselves and live for their secrets
  • They're all uptight, uptight, uptight, uptight'

He believes he has gained an insight into the world that is so different from the masses that they couldn't believe him if he tried to explain it. He is okay with this though and takes comfort in this knowledge. He can't share it though, he is uptight.

  • 'I wish that they'd swoop down in the country lane late at night when I'm driving
  • Take me onboard their beautiful ship show me the weird world as I'd love to see it
  • I'd tell all my friends but they'd never believe me
  • They'd think that I'd finally lost it completely
  • I'd show them the stars and the meaning of life they'd shut me away
  • But I'll be all right, all right
  • I'm all right, all right
  • I'm just uptight, uptight, uptight, uptight'

Exit Music (For a Film)

Escape

A very downbeat, sad and anxious song about finding another like himself whom he can escape the clutches of society with. The superhero role is reprised here.

  • 'Wake from your sleep
  • The drying of your tears, today we escape, we escape
  • Pack and get dressed, before your father hears us, before, all hell breaks loose
  • Breathe, keep breathing, don't lose your nerve, breathe, keep breathing
  • I can't do this alone
  • Sing us a song, a song to keep us warm, there's such a chill, such a chill'

While him and his new accomplice steal away in the night, his anger and resentment towards the faceless malevolence that seek to oppress him boils up.

  • 'You can laugh a spineless laugh
  • We hope your rules and wisdom choke you now we are one in everlasting peace
  • We hope that you choke, that you choke'

He finds new strength in his new found partner and becomes more vocal and confident in his ideals.

Let Down

Acceptance

A bittersweet song about his feelings of disappointment towards society and the woes of living in the characterless world in which he used to belong to.

  • 'Transport, motorways and tram lines
  • Starting and then stopping, taking off and landing
  • The emptiest of feelings disappointed people clinging onto bottles and
  • When it comes its so so disappointing
  • Let down and hanging around
  • Crushed like a bug in the ground
  • Let down and hanging around'

The songs reaches a euphoric crescendo where he alludes to a "chemical reaction" , the point at which he first awoke. At the same time describes "one day..." like he hasn't completely metamorphosed yet.

  • 'Shell smashed, juices flowing wings twitch, legs are going
  • Don't get sentimental, it always ends up drivel
  • One day I'm going to grow wings
  • A chemical reaction, hysterical and useless hysterical and
  • Let down and hanging around
  • Crushed like a bug in the ground
  • Let down and hanging around let down again
  • You know, you know where you are with you, know where you are
  • With floor collapses floating, bouncing back and one day
  • I am gonna grow wings
  • A chemical reaction, hysterical and useless hysterical and
  • Let down and hanging around
  • Crushed like a bug in the ground
  • Let down and hanging around'

Karma Police

Rebellion

We are presented societies view for the first time. Where people are denied free thought and being different is cause for alarm, the Karma Police are the enforcers.

This song expands the narrative and propels the story forward through themes of struggle and strife. An element of foreboding is added in the bridge lyrics, "This is what you get...".

  • 'Karma Police, arrest this man, he talks in maths
  • He buzzes like a fridge, he's like a detuned radio
  • Karma Police, arrest this girl, her hitler hairdo, is making me feel ill
  • And we have crashed her party
  • This is what you get, this is what you get
  • This is what you get, when you mess with us'
  • Karma Police, I've given all I can, it's not enough
  • I've given all I can, but we're still on the payroll
  • This is what you get, this is what you get
  • This is what you get, when you mess with us
  • And for a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself
  • For a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself'

The strength of the need to conform is evident by the character explaining how he almost lost himself. But the genie is out of the bottle and it isn't going back in without a fight.

Karma Police video

Fitter Happier

Oppression

Here we are presented the point of view of the oppressive machine that seeks to engulf the protagonist via a set of rules read in a robotic voice devoid of personality. The propaganda machine is hammering out the rules. A clinical recitation of protocol. Conformity driving the listener to succumb. The rules becoming less and less human and we are given an intimate listen into the drudgery that the protagonist has raged against. This peiece sums up the rules of the society as the protagonist sees them.

  • 'Fitter, happier, more productive, comfortable, not drinking too much
  • Regular exercise at the gym, 3 days a week
  • Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries at ease
  • Eating well, no more microwave dinners and saturated fats
  • A patient better driver, a safer car, baby smiling in back seat
  • Sleeping well, no bad dreams, no paranoia
  • Careful to all animals, never washing spiders down the plughole
  • Keep in contact with old friends, enjoy a drink now and then
  • Will frequently check credit at moral bank, hole in wall
  • Favors for favors, fond but not in love
  • Charity standing orders on sundays ring road supermarket
  • No killing moths or putting boiling water on the ants
  • Car wash, also on sundays, no longer afraid of the dark or midday shadows
  • Nothing so ridiculously teenage and desperate nothing so childish
  • At a better pace, slower and more calculated, no chance of escape
  • Now self-employed, concerned, but powerless
  • An empowered and informed member of society, pragmatism not idealism
  • Will not cry in public, less chance of illness, tires that grip in the wet
  • Shot of baby strapped in back seat, a good memory still cries at a good film
  • Still kisses with saliva, no longer empty and frantic like a cat tied to a stick
  • That's driven into frozen winter shit, the ability to laugh at weakness
  • Calm fitter, healthier and more productive a pig in a cage on antibiotics'

Electioneering

Welcome to the machine

This song deals with political narcissism and the role of government, themes we can all relate to. We are presented a human side to the antagonist, fleshing out the sinisterness of the opposition. After all, people will not blindly follow a machine.

Candidates are introduced who are campaigning on behalf of the system.

Perhaps this predicament was caused by our own inherent search for power?

Again, our sense of humanity is appealed to. by using politicians as the messenger since many of us don't trust politicans and consider them to have moral loopholes that allow them rise to power.

  • 'I will stop, I will stop at nothing
  • Say the right things, when electioneering I trust I can rely on your vote
  • When I go forwards, you go backwards, somewhere we will meet
  • When I go forwards, you go backwards, and somewhere we will meet
  • Riot shields, voodoo economics, it's, it's just business
  • Cattle prods and the IMF, I trust I can rely on your vote.
  • When I go forwards, you go backwards, somewhere we will meet
  • When I go forwards, you go backwards, somewhere we will meet'

Climbing Up the Walls

Internal Conflict

The battle with the voice in his head. An internal struggle with two opposing forces ending in a cacaphony of madness that leaves the listener blissfully drained if only for the magnificent way in which it it presented. The voice represents his fears and inner yearnings to play it safe and not challenge the staus quoi.

  • 'I am the key to the lock in your house, that keeps your toys in the basement
  • And if you get too far inside, you'll only see my reflection
  • It's always best when the light is off, I am the pick in the ice
  • Do not cry out or hit the alarm, we're friends till we die
  • And either way you turn, I'll be there, open up your skull
  • I'll be there, climbing up the walls
  • It's always best when the light is off, it's always better on the outside
  • Fifteen blows to the back of my head, fifteen blows to your mind
  • So tuck the kids in safe tonight, shut the eyes in the cupboard
  • So not cry out or hit the alarm, you'll get the loneliest feeling
  • That either way you turn, I'll be there, open up your skull
  • I'll be there, climbing up the walls'

He wants to be happy and ignorance is bliss. His enlightened new consciousness won't allow it though, in a way, becoming an oppressor to a part of himself. Still, another part of him wants to embrace the conformity, to just relax and let it take him and alleviate his troubles.

No Surprises

Yearning

A peacefull song. Having gone through a nightmare inside his head in the previous song, the protagonist now seems to have vanquished the evil and reached a state of clarity thought and renewed vigor towards his true goal of freedom. Though he is melancholy about the realization that he can't go back to the simple life that he yearns for.

  • A heart that's full up like a landfill,
  • a job that slowly kills you,
  • bruises that won't heal
  • You were so tired, happy,
  • bring down the government,
  • they don't, they don't speak for her
  • I'll take the quiet life, a handshake of carbon monoxide

The antagonist is named---the government.

  • No alarms and no surprises, no alarms and no surprises
  • No alarms and no surprises
  • Silent, silent
  • This is my final fit, my final bellyache with
  • No alarms and no surprises, no alarms and no surprises
  • No alarms and no surprises, please

The song ends on a slightly uplifting note and we are lead to believe that the protagonist has found solstice in his place in life.

  • Such a pretty house, such a pretty garden
  • No alarms and no surprises, no alarms and no surprises
  • No alarms and no surprises, please

Lucky

Resolution

We find ourselves back at the beginnning with the protagonist reprising the superhero role once more. But he is less convinced of his superpowers now having accepted that he is just a man. In fact, it is he that needs saving this time by his beloved "Sarah". Love is the hero.

  • I'm on a roll, I'm on a roll, this time, I feel my luck could change
  • Kill me Sarah, kill me again with love, it's gonna be a glorious day
  • Pull me out of the aircrash, pull me out of the wreck, cause I'm your superhero
  • We are standing on the edge

Another reflection of his own humanity, luck, chance, and the acceptance that we are not in control of our own fate.

He has named and proclaimed his love for the source of his strength, 'Sarah', whom he stole away in the night with in 'Exit Music',

Was the initial awakening of the character an actual crash or was it a metaphor for his falling in love? The strongest of all human emotions is what broke his chains of conformity, cleared the clouds of obfuscation and empowered him to fight in the face of oppression.

Love is the key that unlocked the door and bared the soul of the protagonist. The yearning, the misery, the anger, the hate, the imperfections and of course the love flow out and allow them to guide him.

And now they are on the run...

  • The head of state is calling my name but I, I don't have time for you
  • It's gonna be a glorius day, I feel my luck could change
  • Pull me out of the aircrash, pull me out of the wreck, cause I'm your superhero
  • We are standing on the edge

'Lucky' provides a resolution and validation of all themes and emotions that have lead up to this point. The ingredienats of each song have been added and the soup has simmered to a elatory and incredibly satisfying crescendo of emotion.

While most of the story is revealed by 'Lucky' there are still loose ends to wrap up. We yearn for closure of the story line. Does he escape and find happiness? Will they escape? They may need to be lucky.

The Tourist

Grand Finale

The paranoia is creeping back in and they sense they will be discovered. The decide to run since they can't hide themselves any more and there is no turning back. The expose themselves while running and bring the attention of the oppressors and citizens that seek to stop them.

  • It barks at no-one else but me like it's seen a ghost
  • I guess it seen the sparks, a flowing no one else would know
  • Hey man slow down, slow down, idiot slow down, slow down

They can't be stopped now. They are travelling at "a thousand feet a second" to escape. He is no longer a part of society, he is heading home, he is no longer a tourist.

  • Sometimes I get overcharged that's when you see sparks
  • You ask me where the hell I'm going at thousand feet per second?
  • Hey man, slow down, slow down, idiot slow down, slow down

'OK Computer' is a musical journey through a range of emotions. From the initial awakening to the final conclusion, the album takes us though emotions of fear, anger, anxiety, sadness and, ultimately, love. Themes of oppression, loneliness, conformity and individuality are explored through the tracks. But the album rises above most others because the sum is greater than its parts. The album speaks to us on an emotional level that we can all relate to. Who of us hasn't struggled for their own sense of self and individuality? Who hasn't rebelled against the status quo in some way?

In the end, while it's not entirely made clear, it seem that the protagonists appear to escape. This provides a certain validation and closure. We are left to believe that they will be OK, computer.

Do you think OK Computer is about love?

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