“Old” is a very relative term when talking about computer history. By the looks of it, however, Radiohead hid a computer program on the tape that comes with the 20th anniversary edition of OK Computer, and making it work feels like time travel. That’s because you’ll need an ’80s-era, 8-bit British computer, the ZX Spectrum, to run it.
Image: YouTube / Radiohead
Well, that’s being a little bit dramatic. Some Redditors realised that the first track on the cassette was the bleepy startup sound for the ZX Spectrum and wondered if the blippy noise at the end of the tape might also be Spectrum-related. Since the Palaeolithic home computer used audio cassettes to run software, the idea that the bleeps and blips were actually code was a smart one. The fact that Jonny Greenwood, Radiohead’s lead guitarist and keyboard player, owned a Spectrum ZX and learned to code Sinclair BASIC, the computer’s operating system, sheds even more light on the fun Easter egg. Radiohead even used a Spectrum ZX to create some of the sounds in “Let Down” on the original OK Computer release.
But back to the silly computer program. After failing to pump the raw audio through a Spectrum ZX emulator, Redditor Maciej Korsan applied a 3.5Hz low pass filter to the noise and tried again. Magically, the Spectrum ZX fired up an adorable little program called “Radiohead”. First came the band members’ names and a date, 19 December 1996, which was almost exactly six months before OK Computer‘s original release date:
Followed by one last very endearing line:
Then it’s just noise — bright colours, random letters and symbols, and more bright colours. According to YouTuber OooSLAJEREKooO, there’s at least one more Easter egg hidden inside the main Easter egg: “Also, inside the code there’s a hidden, black text on a black background: “congratulations…. you’ve found the secret message syd lives hmmmm. We should get out more.”
Here’s a video of the full program, courtesy of OooSLAJEREKooO:
It’s unclear when Radiohead made this cute little computer program. If it was indeed in December 1996, the band was way ahead of their experimental music peers in using sound to create working code. Aphex Twin (AKA Richard James) secretly hid a demonic-looking face in one of the tracks on his 1999 album Windowlicker. The demon face is most likely Richard James himself, doing his sinister smile, and it took two years after the release for anybody to find the image.
As with Radiohead’s new Easter egg, neither Aphex Twin nor its record label advertised the hidden message. According to a 2002 report in Wired, an electronic musician calling himself Chaos was “playing around with WinAmp one evening when he spotted the diabolical face”. Without going into too much detail, James apparently hid the images in this song and others using the Mac-based synthesiser MetaSynth. If you really want to geek out about it, here’s a great blog post about “the Aphex face” that includes phrases such as “logarithmic frequency scale”.
If all this leaves you wondering about the future of vinyl and cassette tapes and CDs, that’s a good thing. Radiohead has always gone to brilliantly creative lengths when it comes to making and distributing their albums. The band let customers pay whatever they wanted, including one cent, to download its 2007 release In Rainbows. Then they turned around and sold the same fans a tricked out vinyl/CD box set for $US82 ($106), all without enlisting a record label.
The boxed edition of OKNOTOK, the OK Computer 20th anniversary package, costs a stunning $US130 ($168). It includes the remastered album on three vinyl records, along with some drawings, a book of lyrics, some of Thom Yorke’s “scrawled notes”, a sketchbook of “preparatory work”, and, of course, that C90 cassette tape with that lovely little Spectrum ZX computer program on it. Is it all worth it? That depends on how big a Radiohead fan you are.