Radiohead's predictions on OK Computer have come to pass. That's not good

Thom Yorke of Radiohead performs at Madison Square Garden in New York, on July 26, 2016.
Thom Yorke of Radiohead performs at Madison Square Garden in New York, on July 26, 2016.PHOTO: NYTIMES

(NYTimes) - It all came true. Twenty years after Radiohead released OK Computer, capitalism's tech overlords have inexorably cultivated a workforce and customer base of wish-they-were-androids. Using algorithms that ruthlessly tabulate every available metric, they are determined to maximise efficiency, and they see no profit in human downtime, imperfection or ideals. On OK Computer, Radiohead saw it coming, amid all the other alienation and malaise that its songs would enfold in melody and noise.

Songs from OK Computer became staples of the band's concerts, due in no small part to the sweeping dynamics of tunes like Airbag and Karma Police, along with some of the best riffs in Radiohead's huge catalogue, like the crushing one that appears out of nowhere to end Paranoid Android.

The album's latest reissue, OK Computer: OKNOTOK 1997 2017, remasters the original CD along with eight additional songs that were B-sides on EPs in the 1990s, which were re-released in 2015 on a "collector's edition" of OK Computer. (The remasters find some new glimmers of clarity and sparkle, particularly on guitar sounds, but aren't startlingly different from past versions.)

Meanwhile, OKNOTOK adds what the band has described as the "original studio recordings" of "OK Computer-era tracks" of three songs that Radiohead first performed in the 1990s: I Promise, Lift and Man Of War. They fully share the mood.

I Promise is a list of glum commitments not to run away, "even when the ship is wrecked," set to a steadfast march; its video clip shows a forlorn guy, eventually revealed as an android head, on a bus. Lift brings an expansive melody to a foreboding consolation - "This is the place it won't ever hurt again" - with environmental omens: "the smell of air conditioning/the fish are belly up". And Man Of War envisions isolation and decay, framed by descending chords and a sombre yet exhilarating crescendo.

Why did these finished recordings wait 20 years for release? Only Radiohead knows.

Radiohead was depressive upon arrival, with its 1993 debut record, but in 1997, OK Computer carried the band's worldview toward something like a concept album, pondering the ways that individuality can be smothered or surrendered, and considering the frailty of the body versus the power of machines. Although OK Computer predicted government coercion (as in Karma Police and Electioneering) rather than the addictive enticements of search engines and social media, Radiohead thoroughly understood how pervasive both technology and the tech mindset would become. Surely the robot-voiced, tuneless protagonist of Fitter, Happier would now be uploading his daily exercise data to the cloud.

One of the B-sides, Palo Alto, nicely sums up the current tech-town situation: "In a city of the future/ It is difficult to find a space/ I'm too busy to see you/ You're too busy to wait". Its music, meanwhile, is almost merry: a melee of garage-rock guitar blasts and synthesizer swoops, treating overwork as a frantic buzz.

Yet Radiohead built its queasy vision of the future on a foundation from the past. After 20 years, it's clear that OK Computer was the album on which Radiohead most strongly embraced and, simultaneously, confronted the legacy of the Beatles. Radiohead picked up chord progressions (like the pivotal bit of Sexy Sadie in Karma Police), instrument sounds and ideas on structure from the band, even as it completely inverted its 1960s optimism.

Perhaps one reason that certain songs were relegated to B-sides, or left in the vault until now, was that they made the Beatles echoes even clearer.

Man Of War very clearly harks back to While My Guitar Gently Weeps and the closing medley of Abbey Road, while Lull, one of the B-sides, has syncopated guitar picking that hints at Here Comes The Sun. When OK Computer appeared, it had been 30 years since Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - time enough for dreams of psychedelic utopia to give way to Radiohead's postindustrial, post-punk anxiety. But the longing for a sense of humanity, and for the solace of melody, never disappeared.