Of course, when Radiohead was producing OK Computer – his classic album, released 25 years ago on May 21, 1997 – there was lead singer Thom Yorke fronting the band and longtime producer Nigel Godrich behind the boards.
But in creating their undisputed masterpiece, the English alt-rockers had a surprising secret weapon: British actress Jane Seymour. Yes, “Dr. Quinn, medicine woman.”
The magic of making OK Computer happened in Seymour’s lavish villa in Bath, England, which Radiohead rented from the former Bond girl. “Think of Jane Seymour, a very stiff and decent actress who, for some reason, let a rock band into her house to let off steam,” said Apple Music Radio host Matt Wilkinson, who featured in a special episode celebrating the silver anniversary of ” OK Computer celebrates from Essentials Radio available this weekend. “She was away in the US, the house is empty, and they moved in. Maybe the true hero of ‘OK Computer’ is actually Jane Seymour, because she let them do that.”
25 years later, “OK Computer” – with a futuristic vision that was actually way ahead of its time – stands as the crowning glory of Radiohead’s impressive catalogue. Not only does it square with Nirvana’s “Nevermind” as one of the very best LPs of the ’90s, it’s hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time, inspiring a generation of Radiohead wannabes like Coldplay.
“I think they’re a bit like the Beatles in that way,” said James Doheny, author of Radiohead: The Stories Behind Every Song. “Ultimately, history decides, and the fact that we’re still talking about ‘OK Computer’ 25 years later is because it’s a great piece of music.”
After finding success with their debut single “Creep” in 1992 and their second album, “The Bends” in 1995, Radiohead wanted to break out of the Britpop brigade that dominated British music at the time.
“They didn’t like their position in the music industry,” Wilkinson said. “They were really uncomfortable with what the press was saying about them… that maybe they were being pigeonholed.”
But Yorke got much-needed mentorship from Michael Stipe while Radiohead toured for REM after The Bends. “I think all of those things were buzzing around in Thom’s head — that kind of anger at being misrepresented,” Wilkinson said. “I think [Stipe] probably taught Thom how to cope with getting huge.
And that would result in Radiohead – who were working with REM on “OK Computer” songs that tour – taking more creative control over the album. “They had the confidence to say, ‘We want to record differently,’ and they’re a young band at this point,” Wilkinson said. “The middle of the English countryside is not a place where bands normally record albums. So to go to your record label and say, ‘We don’t want to go into a normal recording studio and record a normal album’… and then pull it off is a really amazing achievement.”
Although the album would prove prescient with the advent of the internet age, the title was not inspired by it. “Thom Yorke says it wasn’t specifically about computers. It’s more about the sensory overload he had on The Bends tour,” Doheny said. “But obviously the computer has only increased its impact on the world and our lives since then.”
Undoubtedly, Doheny said, “You could sense something happening…the calm before the storm.” Adding that “a sense of impending doom or fear” can be heard on tracks like “Paranoid Android.”
In fact, album opener “Airbag” was inspired by Yorke’s own personal fears. “It’s about his existential fear of dying in a car accident,” Doheny said.
The legacy of “OK Computer” has only grown over the years, making Radiohead the immortal alt-rock gods. “Since OK Computer, I mean, the number of Ph.D. Dissertations that people are writing about Radiohead now is amazing,” said Doheny.
And 25 years later, Wilkinson said, “It still sounds like the future.”