This is the place: Delving into Radiohead’s hacked minidiscs
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Of course, this wouldn’t be easy.
The idea of obtaining a partial roadmap detailing how Radiohead could travel from points 0 to 1 is a fantasy in and of itself. There are things this band does that defy explanation. Tracing the path of a song or an album from idea to creation would certainly be reason to celebrate.
And to that end, we have Minidiscs [Hacked], a dense and action-packed artifact of one of the more fruitful periods this band has yet experienced.
Maybe this isn’t a universal feeling, but the questions of “how did this come to be?” fill my head whenever I’ve listened to just about anything Radiohead has recorded. The first listens through “Paranoid Android” were as thrilling as they were confounding. How did the band settle on the lullaby tempo of “No Surprises?” Where did the mournful orchestration of “Exit Music (For a Film)” come from? How did Radiohead jump from the already mighty heights of The Bends into the ever-engrossing world of OK Computer?
These are a pinch of the queries that have hovered around the album, and all of Radiohead’s work, for years. So with little warning, fans were greeted by the arrival of 18 discs worth of outtakes, demos and live recordings circa the OK Computer era of 1995-98. They came by less-than-legitimate means via Thom Yorke’s personal minidisc archive, and it’s a sprawling collection of song snippets and audio samples, slammed together as continuous tracks.
It’s at once difficult and transparent, a flood of information and musical treasures, buried under the user-unfriendliness of the format. It’s made more navigable thanks to the work of some dedicated fans, but still. It’s an endeavor, to say the least.
How to process all of this? The first step is to listen to it all, and the work begins there.
This is not a set for the fair-weather fan. For that, the second disc of the 2017 OKNOTOK set will do nicely, with “Lull,” “Lift” and “Man of War” all present, along with all of OK Computer’s official B-sides. But even at its absurd length, this should still be of interest to those fans who grade above “casual” and below “fanatical.” Simply, there’s so much good music that it’s worth the effort needed to comb through the files.
As the music and ambient audio weaves in and out, with songs cutting off early and resuming mid-verse, amid directions from the band and simple cues of the “it’s on tape, yeah?” variety, an aural pastiche begins to emerge — a sort of elongated, aural accompaniment to the 1998 Meeting People Is Easy documentary. That film, even if it doesn’t tell a linear story of Radiohead’s origins and aspirations, provides the most telling artifact of what the band values and what it doesn’t. The band attempted their own condensed audio version of this on the cassette that came bundled in the deluxe versions of OKNOTOK, with two sides of musical snippets and dialog, stripped of context but fascinating in execution. Through an extended avenue, listening along with these discs — personal reference documents for Yorke at the time — provides yet another window into the working process of the group.
There’s plenty of coverage on how these were released, from various media sources to the amazingly comprehensive Google Doc by those who organized the first release of the leak (though, as they say, not the actual acquisition of the minidiscs).
I received the bootleg version the day before its official Bandcamp release, and feeling some guilt as well as a desire to help Radiohead deliver some good out of this mess by way of the donation, purchased and re-downloaded the minidisc archive. I have both saved for posterity, but for these purposes, know that I’m referencing the official Bandcamp release. The biggest difference, as the Google Doc notes, is the removal of some audio references to other music and movies (notably, disc 13 is just about pared in half). Most the actual Radiohead music was preserved, however.
Certain bits jump out. Sometimes it’s a specific song, as will be discussed in a moment, but sometimes it’s the brilliant chaos that seems to envelop this band. Bizarre moments like the ambient noise of chatter and train announcements on Prague public transport pop out (later to appear on the final “A Reminder”), or recordings from TV jarred free from context. At one point, a child begins reciting the lyrics to “Climbing Up the Walls,” followed by the same clip slowed down to near-terrifying levels. As these intermingle with the actual music, they provide their own framework to the band’s creative process. It’s not always clear what the intentions were, but it is clear that the band had a vision and at least a working awareness of what inspired and where to go next.
There are also a number of song sketches from Yorke, with just his guitar and microphones of varying quality. Sometimes, these will turn into full songs, like early expeditions on “Exit Music (For a Film),” a song that went through a tremendous number of iterations before landing on its now-classic arrangement. On the first full track of this collection, it segues into a section that was later reserved for Amnesiac’s “Life in a Glass House.” It undergoes tempo and lyric changes before finally evolving into the final rendition, retaining only the general melody line from those early takes.
The band has more than its share of moments together, though. The 11-minute romp through “Paranoid Android” on disc 5, moments after an abbreviated run-through beginning at the “You don’t remember” section, is a joy ride the likes of which this band doesn’t normally dabble within. It’s rough and it doesn’t have the computerized zaps that punctuate the final rendition, but it’s clear that the band is having fun shredding its way through the song, elongating passages and ripping like a band that is working through issues with a laugh and some much-needed guitar therapy.
There are a number of versions of “Electioneering,” where the guitars are even more out of control than they’d be on the album. And all the while, the band is dropping new songs on unsuspecting live audiences — “Electioneering,” “Karma Police,” “Paranoid Android,” “Let Down,” “Climbing Up the Walls,” “No Surprises” and “Airbag” were all tested on audiences ahead of OK Computer, as well as “Lift” and “I Promise.” The band has a habit of testing out their new material on stage, and it illustrates just how confident they were, both in their new material and in their ability to gauge their work afterwards.
As alluded earlier, there are plenty of songs that wouldn’t see the light of day for years. An early version of “Last Flowers” appears a decade before it’s placement on the In Rainbows bonus disc. It’s here as various solo attempts by Yorke, followed by an almost 1970s soul rendition, complete with disco ball rolling in my head as I listened. Hearing songs at this stage is a thrill, and “thrilling” is an excellent word to describe the full-band reading of “True Love Waits” on the first disc, anchored by synths and keys but still retaining a hint of the well-loved song’s mood. These same feelings apply to “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” which appears more than once, including a radio performance where Yorke explains that titling it as he did was “about the only good way to get on MTV,” and “The National Anthem,” which pops up in rough form on disc 10.
As the discs roll on, pieces fall away and OK Computer as we know it begins to take shape. There are multiple versions of outtakes “I Promise,” “Lift,” “A Reminder” and “Attention,” which illustrates how important those songs must have been at the time. All but “Attention” made it to the rough draft of the final OK Computer on discs 16 and 17, and the alternate versions of “Lift,” especially an extra reading on disc 15, are especially revealing. That specific take features a particularly powerful drum track and a haunting numbers-stations-style synth intro that clashes directly and purposefully with what is essentially a perfect take. The final album could have taken so many shapes and followed so many directions, and it likely still would have been hailed as the masterpiece it is.
Even taking different versions of the final tracklist could have had marvelous results. The near-complete “Let Down” just before that version of “Lift” starts with a sweet acoustic guitar intro that again stands at a focused contrast to the rest of the song. “Karma Police” rings a bit longer and with a little heavier reverb, hitting the listener right in the chest a little deeper than usual. Certainly, in addition to the killer live album that could have been culled from this, an album that just stands as a track-for-track alternate OK Computer would have been revelatory in itself.
I can appreciate the desire to not want works-in-progress released for general consumption. Often, these are pieces that are close to the artists, with plenty of work required to push them to a point where the band can feel comfortable about putting its name to the music. Hearing old drafts and discarded ideas can be painful. At the very least, as Yorke notes, “it’s not v interesting.”
And to the band, it wouldn’t be. These were stepping stones along the path to OK Computer and every album that followed, growing pains documented not for prosperity but to measure progress. But most of us do not have the mind-melting experience of being in Radiohead, so hearing how these sounds came to be, how they were worked and worked over and rewritten and rerecorded, provides just a little glimpse into how this band operates and where this music comes from. But for every answered question that had arisen in the years since OK Computer’s release, we have five times as many new questions and new puzzles to decode. This essay is essentially an early exercise after a couple of passes through the music. There is going to be so much more that jumps out, so many songs and bits and performances to parse through and discover on the third, fifth and 10th trips.
However it came to be released — a legitimate ransom, a misunderstanding, an opportunistic thief — has turned out to be a boon. Money has presumably been raised for a worthy cause, and fans have so much more of this music to devour now. We also have a slightly better understanding of how an incredible album came to be, and a wealth of new mysteries to explore. A 22-year-long journey has become that much richer an experience. It is, indeed, very interesting.
But it’s not just how this contributed to the final format of a particular album. It’s a window into the process of making music, of writing and rewriting and editing, and of following every lead and every idea in the hope that it bears fruit. Towards the end of this collection, we hear Yorke, standing outside and singing the lyrics to “A Reminder” back to himself, unaccompanied, looking for just the right melody or phrasing. And he sings it again, and again, and again, and again, filing five takes on this minidisc archive to revisit later. The work would continue.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org