Whether you ride for The Bends or think Radiohead peaked with Kid A, nearly everyone can agree that 1997’s OK Computer was the album that gave the U.K. band direction and purpose. Not only was it a critical and commercial success, but it also disrupted a music scene that was rife with whiny alt-rockers and one-hit wonders. It also, in many ways, served as one of the first pieces of art to foresee the sense of loneliness and disconnection that would well up in the smartphone age.
That wasn’t intentional, though. In a rare, fascinating interview with Rolling Stone, Radiohead goes deep into the origins, recording process, and legacy of OK Computer on its 20th anniversary. And though the title itself was plucked from Douglas Adams’ A Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (“OK, computer,” a character says, “I want full manual control now”), its themes of dislocation were more inspired by the years upon years of touring the band did in support of its previous album, The Bends.
“Yorke insists it was the nonstop travel that was really on his mind,” the article reads. “If anything, the dislocation he was feeling from “living in orbit” helped him tap into the smartphone-addled ethos of a future age.”
Supporting this are the scribbled drawings of “airplanes, helicopters, cars escalators, and other modes of transport” in Yorke’s old journals. “I was basically catatonic,” Yorke tells Rolling Stone about his days living on a tour bus. “The claustrophobia – just having no sense of reality at all.”
“The paranoia I felt at the time was much more related to how people related to each other,” he says. “But I was using the terminology of technology to express it. Everything I was writing was actually a way of trying to reconnect with other human beings when you’re always in transit. That’s what I had to write about because that’s what was going on, which in itself instilled a kind of loneliness and disconnection.”
The interview is overflowing with insight and humor, but a particularly Radioheadian detail comes in the band’s discussion of St. Catherine’s Court, the Elizabethan manor in Bath, England, where they recorded OK Computer. Because the band’s members seem to exist on another plane than the rest of us pleebs, they had no shortage of otherworldly encounters when night descended on the mansion.
Guitarist Jonny Greenwood, for example, slept in the nursery (because of course he did), where he was “surrounded by creepy broken dolls and rocking horses.” Greenwood adds, “People were always hearing sounds.”
Yorke’s experience went even further.
“Ghosts would talk to me while I was asleep,” he says, with a curious hint of amusement. “There was one point where I got up in the morning after a night of hearing voices and decided I had to cut my hair.” He attempted to give himself a spontaneous crew cut with “the little scissors on a penknife.” It didn’t go well. “I cut myself a few times. It got messy. I came downstairs and everyone was like, ‘Uh, are you all right?’ I was like, ‘What’s wrong?’ Phil very gently took me downstairs and shaved it all off.”
Read the whole thing here, where you can hear about the band’s virulent disdain for Britpop, the importance of “Karma Police,” and how their current tour is helping Yorke cope with the recent death of his former partner of 23 years.