Radiohead’s “OK Computer” is 20 years old.
While this mark of time is bound to make Gen X'ers that bought the landmark album feel ancient, it’s also a perfect anniversary for a re-issue. Of course, since Radiohead is Radiohead, the band can’t be content with merely re-issuing an expanded album packaged with just demos and outtakes.
Instead, Thom Yorke and company managed to sneak in an esoteric easter egg into the box set; an old-school computer program that only true PC geeks would have the ability to access and decipher.
Fortunately for us, there are plenty of true PC geeks that populate the infamous pages of Reddit.
The computer code is found within Radiohead’s deluxe box set edition of OK Computer called “OKNOTOK.” One of its contents is a mix tape made by the band, containing demos and session archives from way back. The clue that opened and cracked the case of the secret software was an old nerd jingle. The mix tape opens up with a unique bit of music that a handful of Redditors recognized as the startup music from an ‘80s UK computer called the ZX Spectrum – a computer the band used to create sound effects for the song “Let Down.”
The Reddit brigade went down the rabbit hole from there, leading to the discovery of an audio message at the tape’s end that was designed to be fed into the old-school computer. Eventually, a Redditor got the message to work via a Spectrum emulator.
The detective work paid off, as the emulator produced a black screen with the message:
“inside your home computer are…Thomas Yorke, Colin Greenwood, Jonathan Greenwood, Edward O’Brien, Philip Selway, Nigel Godrich, & Stanley Donwood. 19th December 1996. with all our love.”
The first five names represent Radiohead’s members, while the last two are the album’s producer and illustrator. The date referenced seems to also suggest this prank was created during the OK Computer sessions.
The madness doesn’t stop with this screen, as there is an easter egg embedded within this easter egg.
Buried within the colorful bleeps and bloops of code the program spits out during its execution is a message that reads:
“Congratulations…you’ve found the secret message syd lives hmmmmm. We should get out more.”
This line may look like a throwaway joke, but it can be interpreted as an intriguing touchstone that goes beyond the realm of a gag. As some have surmised, the line is a reference to a band whose influence Radiohead – and Thom Yorke specifically – have fervently denied.
Speculation has it that the “Syd” in the line refers to troubled Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett, who famously left the band in part due to mental issues, particularly HPPD. Furthermore, the message’s congratulatory text appears to be a callback to a secret backward masking Pink Floyd deliberately included on their masterwork “The Wall.” When played forward, the vocals start out by saying, “Hello looker…you have just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to Old Pink, care of the Funny Farm.”
The "Old Pink" on Floyd's hidden message is said by some to also be a reference to Barrett. Given this context, one could interpret the first half of Radiohead's message as a hidden homage to the popular prog rock band.
If this indeed were the intention, it would be a bit of a shocking reveal. When the prog-sounding “OK Computer” came out, Yorke and company consistently denied being influenced by acts like Pink Floyd or early Genesis; to the point where Yorke flat-out stated that he hated the genre altogether.
Is this esoteric bit of old-school computer code Radiohead’s way of reluctantly acknowledging an influence by a band within a genre they publicly dissed?
That’s up for debate. What’s not debatable, is that only a band like Radiohead can get away with a recording trick so wonderfully weird and geeky.
For those still sticking around, here's a video of the software being ran on the ZX Spectrum emulator:
Pretty cool. This is a great marketing stunt, unlike some others we've seen recently.