Karma Police: the story behind the Radiohead classic that started life as a tour bus catchphrase

Radiohead OK Computer art
(Image credit: Radiohead)

There aren’t many Radiohead songs you can busk. High And Dry is one, Fake Plastic Trees another. But after The Bends, Karma Police is one of few other contenders. As the second single to be released from 1997’s epochal OK Computer, Karma Police was part of a rare run of four Radiohead singles to reach the UK Top 10 (No 8). It even reached the giddy heights of No 50 in Holland.

Still, Radiohead were never exactly chart-toppers in the traditional sense. OK Computer might be on every smart guitarist’s ‘must-hear’ list, but it remains a baffling, if brilliant, album. After the critical and commercial success of The Bends, Radiohead in ’96 had the weight of expectation on their shoulders. They first decamped to rural Oxfordshire, then to Somerset to record OK Computer. “The only concept that we had for this album was that we wanted to record it away from the city and that we wanted to record it ourselves,” bassist Colin Greenwood commented.

“Parlophone gave them all this money to go out and buy gear,” producer Nigel Godrich recalled. “They asked me what they should buy and three months down the line I found myself sitting in front of all this gear. So Radiohead have a mobile studio now: there’s a big mixing desk, two massive racks which you just plonk down, plug ’em in, pull the front off and all the gear is there, and a two-inch tape machine, and it’s great. You’ve just got the freedom to go anywhere. That was the idea in the first place.”

Most of OK Computer was recorded at St Catherine’s Court, a 15th century Tudor mansion near Bath owned by Jane Seymour (yes, the ex Bond girl and she of Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman). Radiohead’s ‘control room’ was installed in the library, the ballroom was the main live studio, and corridors and hallways became impromptu vocal booths. “We rolled tons of tapes,” said Godrich. “It was exhausting. I could finish a recording session with one of the band at 4am, and at 8am another one would wake full of ideas and come knocking on my door with a cup of tea in their hand, ‘Er, come quick, I’ve got an idea for the bass’. Technologically, it’s not an impressive record, but it’s intended this way. We didn’t want to get swallowed by the machines.”

Radiohead admit that their ideas for OK Computer were sprawling and hard to edit. “The biggest pressure was actually completing it,” said guitarist Ed O’Brien. “We weren’t given any deadlines and we had complete freedom to do what we wanted. We were delaying it because we were a bit frightened of actually finishing stuff.”

Karma Police itself was one of the simplest songs on the album, growing out of an in-band joke, as guitarist Jonny Greenwood explained: “Karma police was a band catchphrase for a while on tour – whenever someone was behaving in a particularly shitty way, we’d say, ‘The karma police will catch him sooner or later’. But it’s not a revenge thing, just about being happy with your own behaviour.”

“Karma is an important idea,” Thom Yorke said. “I like it. It makes me nicer to people. It fills me with joy. This song makes me laugh. It was Ed’s idea.”

If Karma Police really does make Yorke laugh, it only reinforces the notion of him as a somewhat obtuse lyricist. Next to the highly edited guitar spasms of Paranoid Android or the funereal drone of Exit Music (For A Film), Karma Police is the Radiohead equivalent of a folk song. The Beatles’ Sexy Sadie, written by John Lennon for 1968’s so-called ‘Whiten Album’ sounds like a clear (yet unconfirmed) inspiration.

A simple yet pretty melody starting around the key of A minor/A Dorian (later shifting to B minor), it sees Greenwood on keys, Yorke playing his Gibson Hummingbird acoustic (fitted with a Fishman soundhole pickup) and O’Brien on a Rickenbacker 360 Fireglo, in charge of guitaristic scribble and embellishments. The ending sees O’Brien’s AMS digital delay unit feeding back on itself. According to Yorke: “We said, ‘Put down the headphones and just go’, and so Ed made weird noises, and we taped that a few times. Sometimes the best stuff happens when you’re not even listening at all.” Poor Ed O’Brien. Even many hardcore Radiohead fans assume it’s always Jonny Greenwood making all the baffling guitar noises. It’s not.

Karma Police quickly became a concert sing-along anthem. “Loads of the music on OK Computer is extremely uplifting,” Yorke reflected to Pitchfork. “It’s only when you read the words that you’d think otherwise.”

Indeed, the lyrics underneath are acerbic. “Karma police, arrest this girl / Her Hitler hairdo is making me feel ill / And we have crashed her party…” Whatever a girl’s ‘Hitler hairdo’ might be, it’s hardly complimentary. The references of a man who “talks in maths” and “we’re still on the payroll” have led many ’Head heads to surmise Karma Police is about EMI record company executives and music agents that Radiohead were trying to escape.

Yorke’s pay-off of, “for a minute there, I lost myself” shows the singer truly understands the paymaster/artist relationship all too well – don’t bite the hand that feeds. After all, EMI/Parlophone had betted on the band’s huge success and given an open cheque book for Radiohead to do whatever they liked.

Yorke’s only elaboration on the meaning keeps you guessing: “It’s for someone who has to work for a large company. This is a song against bosses. F*** the middle management.” Remember that, just in case you start playing Karma Police with too much jollity.