Radiohead’s Ok Computer is one of music history’s most critically acclaimed pieces of alternative rock and roll. In the two decades since its release, the record has been analyzed and reanalyzed. Seemingly all that can be said about the project has been. The album was groundbreaking at the time of its release in 1997 and continues to inspire artists across genre and location.
These are the obvious points. Ok Computer is a masterpiece. You don’t need me to tell you that. If you haven’t heard it do this now: put it on, relax, and experience a hallmark moment of alternative music.
This article isn’t about the content of Ok Computer, but what Radiohead did before the release to build anticipation and protect their masterpiece. And how it brought about one of the coolest promotional items ever.
The 1990s were a different era for music leaking. Snippets of a new album could not be disseminated through Instagram live or cryptic Soundcloud accounts, but fans were still clamoring to hear new music from their favorite bands. In this era, leaks would often occur only weeks before release when promotional copies were sent out to writers for reviews. Albums would be sent out as cassettes or CDs which could easily be copied, and then shared. It was by trying to avoid this that Radiohead inadvertently birthed this promotional genius.
Radiohead is known for odd promotional strategies for upcoming projects. In 2011, for instance, newspapers were used to promote the physical release of King of Limbs. In 2003, Radiohead released a stencil and a jigsaw puzzle as promotional items for Hail to the Thief. For the Grammy campaign of their 2001 album, Amnesiac, the band created a thirty-two page library book that contained artwork and lyrics for the project. (It worked; they won.)
The unconventional promo trend began with Ok Computer. The band released a floppy disk, which when inserted into a computer could run visuals complementary to the music on the album. They also released an FM radio shaped as a computer. These items were not only advertising material, but art emblematic of the album’s era.
But the rarest piece of Radiohead promotional material wasn’t even intentional. Capitol Records and Radiohead were looking to find a way to avoid the possibility of a leak. They still wanted the album reviewed prior to release, though, creating a dilemma: how do you get the music to critics without running the risk of one of them copying and sharing?
Radiohead and Capitol found a work around. The band produced approximately a thousand single sided cassettes that contained theentirety of Ok Computer. Then, prior to these tapes being distributed to reviewers, they were placed into portable walkman players and sealed with industrial grade epoxy.
This meant that the tape couldn’t be removed, as any attempt would likely result in the tapes being destroyed. The reviewers could hear the record, but there was also no means of duplicating and distributing the tapes.
In this act of paranoia, Radiohead inadvertently created one of the most sought after pieces of promotional merchandise. These Walkman Personal Stereos rarely come on the market. Recent sale prices are difficult to find, but speculatively a mint condition player could likely go for over seven hundred dollars. If you have one of these, you are sitting on a piece of music history that belongs in a museum collection. Cherish it.