The arrival of Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ was a big deal for alternative in 1997

Jeff Terich
Radiohead Paranoid android video

“Paranoid Android” was a big deal. It was a much bigger deal for Radiohead than The Bends was, which is a fact I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around 22 years later. After “Creep,” the Oxford alternative rock group had seemingly been resigned to the cut-out bin for one-hit-wonder status. Then two years later they release an album of powerful anthems that transcended their hit in both musicality and atmosphere, yielding material both radio friendly and sprawlingly ambitious. But at the time it didn’t come across as the “important” statement that in hindsight it clearly was; Radiohead smashed the shit out of the sophomore slump with an early career peak. But it wasn’t until the release of their 1997 single “Paranoid Android” that new music from the band proved event-worthy. I have a distinct memory of staying up late to watch the premiere of the “Paranoid Android” video on 120 Minutes, awed by the images of animated absurdities (torso faces, chopped-up limbs, mermaid boobs). Even more than that, however, I was awed by the song itself—a lengthy, progressive rock epic in alternative rock clothing, a multi-part odyssey that challenged everything one should expect from a mainstream band in 1997. It was an eye-opening moment—a turning point for me, personally, but undoubtedly for hundreds of thousands of others as well.

In looking up the chart history for 1997, I was initially shocked that “Paranoid Android” never made it onto the Billboard Modern Rock charts. But looking back, it’s not so crazy. The song is more than six minutes long, well past the acceptable length for a radio single. And while I absolutely did hear it on Southern California radio, I definitely didn’t hear it as often as “Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind, which spent the better part of the summer at number one. “Let Down” did chart, however, and though it’s easily a more radio friendly choice, it’s also emblematic of how much Radiohead changed in four years. Where “Paranoid Android” had big guitars and ripping solos, a good number of climaxes and a general rock ‘n’ roll attitude, “Let Down” is more atmospheric and melancholy. It’s despair in a radio-friendly package, a song that finds Yorke feeling “crushed like a bug on the ground” and “hysterical and useless.” It’s one of OK Computer‘s prettiest songs, and most devastating for that matter. But it was—kinda, sorta—a hit. It peaked at number 29 on the week of September 13, 1997.

Viewed against the lineup of other songs charting that fall, “Let Down” feels a little bit like an anomaly, only adding fuel to the idea that OK Computer and the arrival of its various singles was a big deal. After all, Third Eye Blind was still holding fast to their chart positions, and they were maybe the best of the adult-contemporary takeover happening in alternative music at the time (and this might only be a reflection of my respect for the band after they trolled the RNC). Then-new single “Graduate” hit number 19, and if my high school experience is any example, it was largely on the strength of senior pep rallies. “Semi-Charmed Life” was still in the top 20 by September of 1997, clinging to number 14 on the strength of what Dave Grohl said was a lyric he wished he had written in Spin‘s year-end issue: “Do-do-do, do-do-do-do.” (Incidentally, Grohl’s favorite song of the year was Radiohead’s “Let Down.” Synergy.) Grohl himself had a pretty good 1997 for that matter, with the emotionally-charged hit “Everlong” earning a strong number 8 spot. And no matter how ubiquitous that song was, or how M.O.R. Foo Fighters eventually became, “Everlong” still rules.

If Third Eye Blind was the best of the worst, the worst of the worst seemingly had no floor. Like, for instance, Sugar Ray. “Fly” was the number one song the week of September 13, a cautionary moment in time that we should all memorialize with the words “Never Forget.” In 1995, Sugar Ray was a sorta-grunge sorta-metal band that made tongue-in-cheek mosh-pit anthems like “Mean Machine” and put a nude Nicole Eggert on the cover of their album Lemonade and Brownies. When that didn’t really work for them, they decided to go frat-dude reggae, and boy did that work. “Fly” was everywhere. “Fly” was Big Brother. “Fly” was the Eye in the Sky. “Fly” consumed us all. But at least it was fun in its lameness. “Push” by Matchbox Twenty, at number 6, was not. A sappy breakup ballad with bowel-obstruction vocal stylings from Rob Thomas, “Push” somehow was recognized as “alternative” even though it was essentially mainstream pop-rock with no edge whatsoever. People ate that shit up, though, and just wait until Thomas starts collaborating with Santana. That’s a hot one.

And then, friends, there was ska. With the floodgates opened by the likes of No Doubt, every Orange County (and Boston) group of skankers and horn-honkers checkered up the charts with their third wave shades of two-tone. “The Rascal King” by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones was technically the highest charting of this bunch, at number 11, and arguably the best ska single of fall 1997 (a very specific category, I’ll admit). Just next to that at number 12 was “Sell Out,” the first hit by Reel Big Fish, and a lighthearted lampooning of commercialism (which they had no problem embracing, it turns out). The Mighty Mighty Bosstones appear again at 17 with “The Impression That I Get,” a song that earlier that year had every-hour-on-the-hour status on alt-radio. And then at 35—well look at that!—San Diego’s own Buck-O-Nine with “My Town.” Arguably Sublime’s “The Wrong Way” was ska-adjacent, but as much as it’s fun to look back on this weirdly silly ska-centric time in alternative history, Sublime is the fucking worst. “The Wrong Way” is maybe their most misogynistic song, though that list could go on for many inches and columns, made all the worse by Bradley Nowell giving his sage wisdom to an underage prostitute while he’s actually having sex with her! America, why did you make this a hit? What the fuck is wrong with you?

Then again, there are those hits that America likely now forgets. Remember Artificial Joy Club? Me either! The Canadian group’s single “Sick and Beautiful” (number 21), their only hit as far as I can tell, is emblematic of where alternative had been in the preceding years, with a post-Garbage groove, a video that had every late-’90s cliche in the book (rapid out-of-focus transitions, twitchy singer, bald dude with soul patch) and a you’re-bad-news-but-that’s-sexy lyric that contained the words Marlboro, Penthouse, Instamatic, novocaine, napalm, Kevorkian and basketball. Alternative! How about Forest For The Trees? Even if you did remember them, you probably wish you didn’t. “Dream” (number 23) is even more cringe-worthy than I remember, a sub-Beck, even sub-Primitive Radio Gods slice of yoga-class hippie garbage that combines vocoders, bagpipes and trite New Age-isms like “When I get up I don’t know if I’m truly awake.” Ugh. Blow it out your third eye already. OK, but surely you remember Talk Show? No? Let me refresh your memory. In the late ’90s after Stone Temple Pilots went on a brief hiatus as a result of singer Scott Weiland’s drug addiction problems (which even led to the band having to back out of a tour with Kiss). So the other three members started a side project during his rehabilitation called Talk Show, featuring vocalist Dave Coutts, who pretty much sounded exactly like Scott Weiland. And thus “Hello Hello,” charting at number 20, was essentially an extension of Stone Temple Pilots’ established sound. Not amazing, not bad, just perfectly solid rock.

Having made it this far, it does look a lot like Radiohead is the only bright spot in a particularly bleak time for alternative music, if you can even call it that. After all, the term lost all meaning by 1996, so why should it have meant a damn thing in 1997? Now, I know I’ve already spoiled this by discussing “Everlong,” but this week in chart history also gave us Beck’s folky “Jack-Ass” at number 15, extending a string of singles from Odelay well beyond the one-year mark. Blur’s “Song 2” (WOO-HOO!) was toward the end of its 26-week run (!) at number 24, and rivals Oasis held their own with “D’you Know What I Mean” at number 5. However ill-received Be Here Now was, that song rocks pretty hard. Unstoppable pop-punk hitmakers Green Day debuted at 26 with “Hitchin’ a Ride,” their most underrated ’90s single, taking the chord progression from “Brain Stew” and improving it by adding a cabaret-punk gallop and just the slightest touch of violin. And Fiona Apple, much like Beck, carried a hit album into its second year with number-9 charting “Criminal,” whose slinky groove and racy video made it one of the most provocative alternative singles since “Closer.” Not that I’m saying Rob Thomas doesn’t have sex appeal. (Yes I am saying Rob Thomas has no sex appeal.)

So no, Radiohead wasn’t the only saving grace. Not that they wouldn’t find themselves in that position later on. It’s all too tempting to wrap this up by making some joke about how much of a “Let Down” this week in chart history was. But I won’t do that. Nope.

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