Online Music Editor Stephen Ong reviews 18 hours of Radiohead demos.
For a band that spent so much time carefully structuring their public image, the leak of almost 18 hours of archived content from the OK Computer era was nothing short of a revelation. To immerse one’s self in the various recordings of one of the 21st century’s greatest bands is to go down the rabbit hole. Released officially on Bandcamp on June 11, Radiohead dropped the entire collection of minidiscs (minus copyrighted samples), with profits going to Extinction Rebellion. As most casual fans of Radiohead don’t have 18 hours to spare, I listened to all the minidiscs, and can save approximately 16 hours of your life through this review, as I point out the highlights of what is, to be honest, an incredibly tedious mess.
Let me preface this review by stating if you haven’t listened to the OKNOTOK cassette tape – do so. It includes acoustic recordings of previously unreleased songs (‘Attention’ and ‘Are You Someone’) demos of various OK Computer tracks along with an instrumental of ‘True Love Waits’, refashioned into ‘Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors’, but most importantly, fantastic studio recordings of alternate versions of ‘Nude’ and ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’, years before they were released. Though moments from the cassette appear on the minidiscs, nothing on the minidiscs matches the highlights of the cassette, save a studio recording of ‘Lift’ (disc 15, 9:46), which I will elaborate on later. However, the minidiscs appear to only be a fraction of the entire recordings during the OK Computer era; the majority of recordings on the cassette are not found on the minidiscs, and demos of songs including ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’, ‘Lucky’ and ‘Man of War’ are nowhere to be found.
What the minidiscs show is the painstaking effort that Radiohead put into their work
The first disc is a captivating listen, foreshadowing what is to come. It opens with an acoustic recording of ‘Poison’, which appears to have been reworked into ‘Exit Music (for a Film)’, and contains elements of what was to become ‘Life in a Glasshouse’. Other versions of ‘Exit Music’ (without ‘Life in a Glasshouse’, which can be found sans jazz instrumentation on disc 9 (35:23), and acoustically on disc 6 (14:17) and disc 9 (38:00)) can be found on disc 2 (15:47), disc 3 (42:36), disc 11 (2:27) and disc 13 (3:54), all with different lyrics. Full band recordings of ‘Attention’ are also scattered throughout the minidiscs, first appearing in disc 1 (5:33), with disc 14’s (38:02) rendition being particularly impressive. ‘Attention’ first appeared on the OKNOTOK cassette as an acoustic demo, but its twee hook disappears in the recordings found on the minidiscs, instead sounding closer to The Bends era Radiohead. Disc 1 also boasts a rare full band recording of ‘True Love Waits’ (15:38), complete with a synth and bassline that sounds absurdly different from other versions of the song. It’s awful and doesn’t capture the feel of the song at all, but is a gem for any fan of the band aware of the song’s history.
What the minidiscs show is the painstaking effort that Radiohead put into their work, as songs develop from unrecognisable acoustic demos into full band rehearsals, neither of which are lyrically or instrumentally close to the final studio mixes. For example, the iconic opening riff to ‘Airbag’ is nowhere to be found on 15 of the rehearsal and live recordings, only appearing on the final studio recording, though the rehearsal on disc 7 (30:17) is as good as the song gets without its riff. The sheer amount of Thom Yorke acoustic demos that do not make the cut is astounding, and even the songs that make it to the live stage aren’t guaranteed a release (‘I Promise’ appears 14 times throughout the minidisc, yet took the band 21 years to release). It’s this perfectionist attitude that makes Radiohead such a brilliant band, and makes the contents of the minidiscs all the more intriguing.
it’s the initial discs that are the most interesting, providing insight into the band’s creative process
The first seven discs, along with discs 9, 10 and 13, mainly consist of acoustic demos and full band rehearsals of songs. Discs 8, 11, 12 and 14 are almost entirely live recordings, and discs 15, 16 and 17 contain raw studio recordings of the OK Computer songs, and provide a reworked experience of the album (disc 16 uses an alternate tracklist). However, it’s the initial discs that are the most interesting, providing insight into the band’s creative process.
Thom Yorke’s acoustic demos are plentiful, and quite often a chore to listen to; they tend to cut in and out, and the quality of many of the recordings is so low that it is impossible to make out any of Yorke’s vocals. Many of the songs are written in the same mould as earlier Britpop ballads like ‘Thinking About You’ and ‘Fake Plastic Trees’, but it is easy to see why they weren’t even considered for OK Computer. Personal favourites include ‘Risk of Suffocation’ (disc 2, 2:51), ‘Ride a Pony’ (disc 2, 8:32), ‘Get Together’ (disc 2, 20:55), ‘Oranges’ (disc 3, 35:22), ‘Dollar Island’ (disc 3, 38:17), ‘Walls’ (disc 6, 1:17), ‘Hollow Tugboat’ (disc 6, 8:00), ‘Mute Button’ (disc 11, 10:33), and ‘What Did You Mean’ (disc 18, 14:37), all of which would appeal to fans of the band’s earlier sound. Yorke shows a penchant for humour, with ‘Our Guarantee To You’ (disc 7, 0:00) a satire of capitalism, and the fantastic ‘My New Clothes’ (disc 2 (52:21) and disc 14 (5:50)) is a full band recording that appears numerous times, where Yorke sings about his ‘funky clothes’.
Many of the songs are written in the same mould as earlier Britpop ballads
Though the full band recordings are often instrumentals or fun jams that do not reappear in the band’s discography, they make for pleasant listening. Disc 3’s ‘Messy Jam’ (51:55) and disc 5’s ‘Leave Me Alone’ (25:53) are both around 5 minutes long and are some of Radiohead’s heavier recordings. ‘Theme Tune/My Everyday Life’ (disc 9, 2:39) shows Radiohead’s fascination with the Hammond organ (prominently featured in early versions of ‘Nude’), and ‘Mistake’ (disc 10, 18:02) is a wonderful piece centred around a drum machine that foreshadows the dreamy bliss of ‘Worrywort’. Then there’s ‘Tomorrow Night in Paris’ (disc 17, 20:57), a chilling solo piano recording that is criminal to not have been revisited – undoubtedly one of the best demos of unknown material found on the minidiscs.
Other highlights of the minidiscs are full band renditions of ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’ with The Bends era guitars, the best of which are found on disc 2 (39:26, 42:24), a version of ‘Nude’ (disc 3, 9:02) not unlike the one found on the cassette, and a variety of versions of ‘Last Flowers’, formerly titled ‘Not All Angels Have Wings’ (disc 6 (10:35) for an acoustic recording, disc 7 (2:41) for a full band recording radically different from the acoustic nature of the song). ‘Lull’, at the start of disc 14, is almost unrecognisable, ‘Palo Alto’ (disc 4, 53:15) can be found under the title ‘Silicon Valley’, and acoustic recordings of ‘Polyethylene’ (disc 13, 15:13) and ‘A Reminder’ (under the name ‘Play Me This Song’, on disc 9 (50:48)) appear with changed lyrics.
The minidiscs are evidence that Radiohead were at their most prolific in the late 90s
One can also track the evolution of many OK Computer hits. ‘Karma Police’ has different lyrics (disc 7, 17:56), and the band seem unable to get ‘Let Down’ right until disc 12 (68:25), which features a stunning live recording that is nearly identical to the final studio mix. Sections of ‘Paranoid Android’ are rehearsed throughout the minidiscs, with a soundcheck of the song on disc 1 (60:58) showing how the song originally fit together and the 8 minute version on disc 5 (5:36) is a must-listen.
Finally, there’s the aforementioned ‘Lift’ (disc 15, 9:46), which is undoubtedly the crown jewel of the chaos. Its mix, from its catchy Casio intro to its empathic guitars, strings and vocals, is superior to the studio recording on OKNOTOK in every way, and one can only wonder why Radiohead chose not to release the best song they had written at that point, instead opting to record a castrated version of the song 20 years later. To rub salt in the wound, there are two other recordings of ‘Lift’ on disc 16 (56:25 and 60:15) that are vastly superior to the released mix.
you cannot help but admire their insistence on innovation
The minidiscs are evidence that Radiohead were at their most prolific in the late 90s, and the fact that many fantastic moments didn’t even make the cassette shows the amount of incredible material the band were sitting on that would be other band’s career highlights. Radiohead’s decision to shelve these songs (or relegate others to b-sides) and write Kid A becomes even more shocking with this knowledge, and you cannot help but admire their insistence on innovation. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the minidiscs is the confirmation that the band are undoubtedly some of the few true geniuses of our lifetimes.
- ‘True Love Waits’ – disc 1, 15:38
- ‘Ride a Pony’ – disc 2, 8:32
- ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’ – disc 2, 42:24
- ‘My New Clothes’ – disc 2, 52:21
- ‘Oranges’ – disc 3, 35:22
- ‘Dollar Island’ – disc 3, 38:17
- ‘Paranoid Android’ – disc 5, 5:36
- ‘Walls’ – disc 6, 1:17
- ‘Last Flowers’ (acoustic) – disc 6, 10:35
- ‘Our Guarantee to You’ – disc 7, 0:00
- ‘Last Flowers’ – disc 7, 2:41
- ‘Mistake’ – disc 10, 18:02
- ‘Attention’ – disc 14, 33:09
- ‘Lift’ – disc 15, 9:46
- ‘Tomorrow Night in Paris’ – disc 17, 20:57