A few weeks ago I marked the half-century of ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ in a post intended as a little nostalgic interlude from the contemporary doom ‘n’ gloom that has invariably continued to dominate posts ever since. Although I’m not adhering to precise dates, another landmark album – albeit one that characterised the ‘post-Rock’ age we still reside in – also appeared in the month of June, thirty years after The Beatles’ magnum opus and twenty years away from today, Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’. The media may have neglected to mark the occasion, but in many respects, ‘OK Computer’ is the landmark album the media doesn’t like to talk about. I’d almost forgotten two decades had elapsed since its release, for it still sounds like the soundtrack to the here and now.

Where ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ marked the optimistic maturity of a new musical form that had come on in adventurous leaps and bounds over a brief period of four years, ‘OK Computer’ carried the history of the generation raised in the shadow of the 60s on its weary shoulders and tried to look forward in the process; what it saw ahead of it wasn’t exactly cause for celebration. Yet, appearing as it did at the fag-end of ‘Cool Britannia’ and barely a month after New Labour were elected into office, the album marked the decisive end of a period of false hope by anticipating not only the corrupt charade of Blair and the mass hysteria of Diana’s death, but essentially the mood of the century we’re lumbered with.

The two years leading up to the release of ‘OK Computer’ had been a curious albeit conscious diversion from the grim alternative of Grunge, which had culminated in the suicide of its most articulate and charismatic spokesman. Oasis wanted to ‘Live Forever’ and Blur wanted to escape into an imaginary musical universe where Madness starred in ‘Help!’ instead of the Fab Four. It was fun, frivolous and a breath of fresh air whereby bands once destined for the Indie ghetto temporarily usurped the tedious test-tube boy-bands at the top of the charts. Yet even when Britpop was dominant, Radiohead were striking a more dissonant chord with 1995’s ‘The Bends’, a stunningly brilliant album that had combined critical acclaim with commercial success without conceding to the prevailing trends. Two years later, when Liam, Noel, Damon and Jarvis were unlikely tabloid darlings, Radiohead re-emerged with a record that both caught the mood of the moment and predicted what was to come.

I purchased ‘OK Computer’ on the day of its release, given an inkling of what to expect by the trailer of ‘Paranoid Android’, a bizarre beast of a single that bore more relation to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ than ‘Wonderwall’, though the LP still surprised me when the needle touched down on the vinyl. At the time, I was living in a crack-den-cum-brothel that wasn’t exactly the ‘Country House’ Blur had sarcastically sung the praises of in a promo video reminiscent of a Benny Hill sketch; if ever an album said (to turn Morrissey’s lyrical quote on its head) something to me about my life, ‘OK Computer’ seemed to more than any other in 1997. Things couldn’t only get better – not for the moment, anyhow.

Whilst the mass media’s eyes were focused on the narcissistic vacuum of Oasis’ ‘Be Here Now’, Radiohead sneaked under the mainstream radar with a record that was less about wallowing in a self-indulgent, coke-fuelled cul-de-sac as it was about the morning after the Britpop party. It pre-dated the NME’s calling out of Blair with its ‘Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’ cover and mirrored the sudden change in mood heralded by Blur’s inspired retreat into lo-fi darkness with their eponymous fifth album and then reiterated by the bleak grandiosity of The Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’. Greeted with more or less unanimous critical praise upon release, ‘OK Computer’ shot straight to the top of the UK LP charts and soundtracked what proved to be a strange summer.

Lazy summaries of Radiohead as a band (ones that continue to dog them) appear to have their foundations in ‘OK Computer’, which is perceived as a depressing album in a late Pink Floyd vein, usually by those who haven’t actually heard it. Most of the music on it is staggeringly beautiful, but in a challenging manner that demands the listener re-evaluates their concept of beauty. ‘No Surprises’ echoes the sweetness and light of The Beach Boys’ ‘Wouldn’t it Be Nice’ but retains the melancholic undercurrent that runs through the album, whereas ‘Karma Police’ borrows a chord sequence from The Beatles’ ‘Sexy Sadie’, reinforcing the fact that the British music scene of the mid-90s had bypassed a revival of Psychedelia and had gone straight to the less joyous landscape of ‘the White Album’.

The overriding theme of ‘OK Computer’ is one of disillusionment, something that registered as much with me while I staggered through the dying months of my 20s as it did the generation behind me, who were about to be dropped like a stone by the new government they’d been wooed by that spring. It taps into the paranoia and fear of the future that surfaced as the Millennium edged closer on the horizon and does so with a musical tapestry that is rooted in the familiar whilst simultaneously stretching to develop a new narrative for a form weighed down by its illustrious past. The cold detachment of the Stephen Hawkin-like electronic vocal on ‘Fitter Happier’ chimes with the lyrical content of the record, which seems to second-guess the isolating impact of the internet as well as the impending collapse of corporate globalisation. ‘OK Computer’ may have been of its time, but it was also ahead of its time; it’s arguable no act since its release has commented on the present as effectively as Radiohead managed before that present had even arrived.

Radiohead’s performance at Glastonbury the summer of the album’s release was probably one of the last occasions in which the festival was headlined by a band at the peak of their creative powers, marking the end of an era in more ways than one. One could even go as far as to say ‘OK Computer’ was the last time a contemporary band turned a cracked mirror on its era and reflected that era back at its audience. Like The Beatles and Bowie before them, Radiohead looked beyond the limitations of their peers operating in the same genre and tried to incorporate elements of other genres, in Radiohead’s case the electronica of DJ Shadow and the trip-hop of Portishead. The end result may have sounded like neither influence, but ended up as a unique hybrid of both blended with more formulaic Rock insignias. Who has even attempted that since?

It wasn’t twenty years ago today that Sgt Yorke told his band to play, but it’s near enough; at the same time, it’s a long time ago. And I find that fact increasingly hard to believe; but then, I’m old enough to have been there. And it amazes me more that I’m still here to state that fact, for I certainly didn’t think I would be in 1997. But I doubt Sgt Yorke thought his band would be either. It turns out there were surprises, after all.

© The Editor


In a way, I felt I shouldn’t laugh; but everyone on the TV was and I couldn’t help it. Just finding out that Michael Portillo’s other two names were Denzil and Xavier seemed ridiculously hilarious in the context of what was happening. He even smiled himself as the revelation was greeted with rapturous laughter, which was perhaps the first public indication the man had a sense of humour, something that would manifest itself a decade later when he took up residency on Andrew Neil’s late-night sofa and became more known for his garish fashion sense whilst building a new career as a TV train-spotter. Exactly twenty years ago today, however, he was the incumbent Defence Secretary, defending the safe Tory seat of Enfield Southgate.

As soon as the declaration at Enfield Southgate was announced and the baby-faced Labour candidate Stephen Twigg realised he had usurped a household name from his seat, it was the latest in a remarkable sequence of events that night. Anyone who stayed up to watch the results come in on the General Election of 1 May 1997 will recall the domino effect on John Major’s Government as one-by-one prominent Tories and numerous Members of the Cabinet were toppled from their lofty positions. The hardly universally-beloved likes of Edwina Currie, Neil Hamilton and Norman Lamont saw their careers in the Commons go up in smoke; and David Mellor memorably gave his losing speech whilst being heckled by Sir James Goldsmith.

The roll-call of Ministerial casualties included not only Portillo, but Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, whose loss of his Edinburgh Pentlands seat characterised the electoral annihilation the Tories suffered north of the border; they were also obliterated in Wales. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, it was a remarkable election evening to witness, unlike any other I’d seen up until that point; and what happened next doesn’t necessarily diminish the memory of that amazing viewing experience.

When Margaret Thatcher won in 1979, I was eleven; when Tony Blair won in 1997, I was twenty-nine. If one looks back eighteen years from today’s perspective, we arrive in 1999, which in some respects doesn’t feel that long ago; but eighteen years from 11 to 29 is a vast expanse of living and learning as the transition from child to adult is undergone. The majority of my life up until 1997 had been lived with the Conservative Party running the country, and it almost felt that anyone other than them governing the rest of us was some distant childhood memory on a par with my first day at school or Jon Pertwee regenerating into Tom Baker, something that could never be recaptured.

I’d watched every General Election night on the telly with growing interest in events from 1983 onwards, and every time the result was the same; the Tories seemed to be the political equivalent of the German national football team; they never lost a penalty shoot-out. Despite poll predictions of a Hung Parliament in 1992, the Tories were returned to power with the greatest share of the vote in British history; after that, it really felt as if Britain was destined to be a one-party state for eternity, which is why 1997 was such a shock to the system.

John Major’s administration was fortunate that the swift plummet of its fortunes occurred within months of the Conservative’s historic victory in 1992 and they were able to cling onto power for a full five-year Parliament, hoping that would give them enough time to recover. But events, and Major’s Ministers, ensured that wouldn’t happen. The ERM debacle on Black Wednesday took place in September 1992, and from that point on his government were dead men walking; from Michael Howard squirming under the Paxman spotlight to Archer, Aitken, Hamilton and Mellor, the mid-90s seemed incapable of going seven days without another Tory being caught with his trousers down or his hand in the till. By 1997, sweeping change was as much-needed and inevitable as it had been in 1906, 1945, 1964 and 1979 – and would be in 2010. And, for good or ill, change came.

Re-watching news reports from May 1997 prior to writing this piece, it was interesting to contrast John Major’s departure from Downing Street with Blair’s arrival. Major’s farewell speech was made with him standing before a couple of microphones and no additional embellishments for dramatic effect; his successor, on the other hand, announced the beginning of his reign before the media with his hands resting on a lectern, an item of political furniture that no announcement from the same location can now be made without. Seeing the clip anew, it seemed evident to me that this was Blair the preacher-man with his makeshift pulpit, spreading the Gospel to the masses who were prepared to buy into it; and it appeared the majority were prepared.

This isn’t an attempt to summarise ‘the Blair effect’ over the decade following 1 May 1997; for one thing, there isn’t enough space to do so, and categorising the changes that came about courtesy of the electorate’s choice twenty years ago (not to mention 2001 and 05) would require more than one post, for sure. What’s indisputable is that, in its own way, the result of the 1997 General Election was as significant from a Labour perspective as 1964 had been.

Comparisons with 1945 don’t quite hold up in that Attlee’s administration came to power in unique circumstances and the transformation of the country they brought about was largely benign because nothing could be worse than six years of a world war. As for Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, the hand of history on his shoulder is just as likely to pat him on the back as it is to stab him in the same spot.

© The Editor