Radiohead’s OK Computer sessions are a place of liberation

By repurposing the ephemera of their past, the band are saying something about the desperate perishability of the present.

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Among the dwindling fraternity of paid music writers, it’s considered poor form not to listen to a whole record at least once before giving your opinion on it. What sort of hack would sit down, press play and just start typing? (Actually, in the age of surprise releases, instant reaction and the howling demand for “THE FIRST REVIEW” that’s often precisely what our best music journalists are pressured to do.) But in the case of Radiohead’s latest, unexpected delivery of music, I’m going to have to break with convention for a simple reason. There’s 17 hours of it.

This vast corpus of music — a 1.8GB Bandcamp download or stream — comprises demos, alternative versions and works in progress from the sessions for OK Computer (1997) — the landmark record which the late music writer David Cavanagh would call “the first 21st century rock album.” The recordings, the band say, were released after an alleged $150,000 ransom demand from a bootlegger who obtained Thom Yorke’s archive in the charmingly retro Sony MiniDisc format. Radiohead’s famously forensic fanbase, however, disputes this (see this Google Doc for an investigation of Le Carréan detail into how the music came to light).

Either way, Minidiscs [Hacked] is now available as a free stream or an £18 download, for 18 days only, with all proceeds going to environmental movement Extinction Rebellion. In common with other surprise Radiohead releases, such as 2007’s In Rainbows — for which listeners could pay whatever they wanted — or 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool, which “dropped” at a week’s notice, its unplanned appearance shows the playful, self-deprecating side of a band whose sense of humour is best described as dry. “It’s not v interesting. There’s a lot of it,” Yorke wrote, dolefully. “As it’s out there it may as well be out there until we all get bored and move on.”

What is it like and will the casual listener without a Radiohead grinning bear tattoo get much from it? OK Computer was Radiohead’s cusp record, a bridge between the neurotic but comparatively conventional rock of their 1995 breakthrough The Bends and the fan-baffling, radiophonic flatland of Kid A. From 2000 onwards, Radiohead would largely abandon conventional songwriting in favour of impressionistic post-Warp electronica and swatches of ambient textures, with songs only occasionally bubbling to the surface.

In that context, the once-radical OK Computer now sounds almost comforting, not least because its marriage of dub spaciousness, reconfigured rock riffs and socio-political dislocation later became serious rock’s lingua franca – at least when everyone from Travis to Paul McCartney got Radiohead’s producer Nigel Godrich in.

Its gestatory material is a different kettle of weird fishes, not least because unlike the meticulously-sequenced final album there is no clear entry point, nor any structured path. Entire MiniDiscs appear as hour-long single tracks without track idents. While listening to the whole lot in one session is obviously something you’d only do for a bet, the act of starting, skipping and scrolling forward makes for a surprisingly liberating experience, akin to wandering Radiohead’s subconscious memory palace and occasionally encountering the familiar in a different form.

But you’ve got to start somewhere. The first “track”, the 71-minute “MD111”, at least makes a concession to music business orthodoxy by opening with the hit, a genuinely thrilling solo acoustic snippet of “Exit Music (For A Film)” with different lyrics, which elides into “Life In A Glasshouse” as if they were always intended to be one song. From then on, tiny sketches, live takes, abrupt endings, squibs, bedroom demos, studio chatter, the noises of plugs being inserted and removed, bits of movies and ambient noise combine into a stream of shared consciousness.

The Radiohead of MiniDisc [Hacked] are still very much a band: grooving, bouncing off each another, trying to work out what they want to be, rather than the antiseptic arts lab they would become on their next record (some ramshackle false-start versions of “Electioneering” are especially fun).

An early attempt at the exquisite “True Love Waits”, on the other hand, may feel especially poignant to those who can’t quite get over the fact that they’ll never write another ‘Creep’; doubly so considering that many of these songs were partially inspired by Yorke’s then-partner Rachel Owen, from whom he split in 2015 and who died of cancer the following year. Diaries may be written in moments of happiness, sadness, confusion or excitement but they are always poignant when we read them years later.

Would something like this work for a less obsessive band than Radiohead, with less compulsively-driven fans? Looking at the effort required to locate a passable dozen demos for most bands’ Deluxe Edition reissues, you have to doubt it. Radiohead famously make heavy weather of recording and usually admit to nearly splitting up in the middle of each album. Here at least you can see their working, and there is a lot of it

Perhaps the real point is not what is on MiniDisc [Hacked] but how it came out. Imagine it as a 17-disc £200 remastered box set made of polycarbonates, aluminium, lacquer and wood pulp, with the attendant carbon debt of shipping the whole thing to your front door just to be played … how many times? Extinction Rebellion wouldn’t like that at all. By repurposing the ephemera of their past, Radiohead are saying something about the desperate perishability of the present.

Andrew Harrison is a former editor of Mixmag, Q and Select