The iconic cover art of Radiohead’s album OK Computer shows a heavily distorted picture of an anonymous highway interchange. The band has never said where the picture came from. Now some internet sleuths think they’ve found it – in Hartford, Connecticut.
OK Computer is one of the most celebrated albums of all time by rock critics and music fans alike. It made Radiohead one of the world’s biggest bands and popularized a hard-edged but melancholy sound that still shapes popular music, two decades later.
To celebrate the album’s 20th anniversary, the band released some behind-the-scenes material from the making of the album. It included a photo of that interchange that was just a little bit clearer than the bleached-out, fuzzy image on the cover. That got Radiohead fan Jordan Magadan, of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, thinking. He’d looked at that album cover a lot.
“I'd just always wondered, is it Los Angeles, is it Tokyo? Could it be somewhere in the U.K.? I figured there might be some kind of interesting story about that that gives you an insight into the thinking that went into designing it.”
Magadan took the picture, and the puzzle, to AARoads, an online forum for “roadgeeks,” a nickname for people who love talking about things like interstates, freeways and on-ramps.
A commenter who calls himself MapMikey recognized the exchange from his own travels and the research he’s done on East Coast highways (He’s one of the principles behind the Virginia Highways Project.) He said it only took about 10 minutes to crack the puzzle – even though he’d never seen the album cover before.
It's the junction of Interstates 84 and 91 in Hartford, Connecticut.
MapMikey verified his discovery by closely examining some road signs and nearby buildings.
“The middle BGS (highway slang for “Big Green Sign”) has a two-word control city with just a single letter as the first word,” he wrote in a post on AARoads.
“The BGS on the right has a two-word city but two actual words. I figured that it was east of the Mississippi because of the tight footprint of the interchange. So what interstate junctions in the East might fit that BGS criteria? East Hartford and New Haven. I'm pretty decent at puzzles and also have a fair amount of experience taking older road photos and figuring out where they were.”
(Note to readers: You can see the two BGSs in the left lane of the right-hand highway, underneath the blurry blue image on the right. They’re just barely visible on the album cover.)
Magadan says the quick response surprised him, but he said it goes to show the value of what he calls "Web 1.0" sites like AARoads, aimed at enthusiasts.
Magadan says, “You go and you have this whole community of people around this one topic they’re all interested in, they’re all experts on, and they have their whole history and slang and lingo. There’s still this internet out there that’s a little older and a little smaller, but a great place to find answers for stuff like this you might not find anywhere else.”
Magadan was amazed his question was even answerable.
“I thought for sure, like, the highway system’s so complicated and there’s so many interchanges and they all look so similar. But I checked it out on Google Maps and it fit like a glove. It was perfect.”
With a little more sleuthing, Magadan figured out the picture was probably taken from the window of a nearby Hilton. And cross-checking that with a tour schedule for the band, he found out Hartford was one of their last tour dates before they went back to the studio to record OK Computer.
“So I have a really good feeling that Thom Yorke and the rest of the band were staying at the Hilton just up the road from that interchange and snapped that picture out the window. And that kind of went into their thinking about the music and the lyrics and the art.”
OK Computer’s themes revolve around technology, transportation, advertising and the way they play into our anxieties and fears in the modern world. So Magadan thinks it’s appropriate the album cover shows a nondescript freeway, that it was apparently taken in a hotel room, and that it captures what may be a moment of weariness at the end of a long tour.
“I’m sure they had a lot of experience with that, having to tour all around the world and staying in hotels where they didn’t know anybody,” he says.
For Magadan, the story was complete, and although it hasn’t been confirmed by Radiohead, fans who look at the pictures side by side say it’s pretty clear.
“It just exploded. People were like, ‘I’ve been wondering about this for 20 years, had no idea it was a real place.’”
And another commenter in the forum realized that’s not the interchange’s only role in rock history. It also appears in the music video for the 1972 song “Roadrunner” by the Modern Lovers – a punk rock classic that, ironically, has been under consideration to be the state rock song for Massachusetts.
The now-historic interchange might not stand for long though. The state has proposed a plan to tear down long stretches of that highway and rebuild it underground. Magadan says it’d be sad to lose a piece of music history, but he’s not going lie down in front of a bulldozer or anything.
“You know, I’m not going to say that my music opinions should influence the infrastructure of a major U.S. city. If it’s gotta go, it’s gotta go.”
That might not ever happen. The proposal would be a decades-long project. But hardcore Radiohead fans who want to get the real-life OK Computer experience might want to visit the interchange now – just in case.