Reviewing OKNOTOK Before It’s Even Released…

I challenge anybody on this planet to try to outdo my Radiohead fandom. Presently, it’s a task that would be posing to just about anyone. Even Thom Yorke likely knows less about his own band than I do. I’ve obsessed over unreleased and rare material for the majority of my life, down to the shortest snippets of half-baked soundcheck jams. Therefore, I have some extra insight into what to expect from OKNOTOK, Radiohead’s reissue of their legendary record, OK Computer.

Admittedly, much of the extra material set to appear on the reissue is well-known already. Even a casual fan could have heard the b-sides on EMI‘s own Collectors Edition. For example, Meeting in the Aisle and Polyethylene have been fan-favourites since their initial release. What’s truly of note is the inclusion of three new songs. That said, they’re not entirely new. Both Lift and Man of War (previously known as Big Boots) are highly revered in the Radiohead community. Known from sporadic live performances, and some snippets of the latter in Meeting People is Easy, fans like myself have been rabid for an official release of each.

The third unreleased offering is I Promise, another well-known song but not quite as highly regarded. While casual fans Spotify the fuck out of the b-sides, coming to an understanding of what they meant in Radiohead’s wider context would be impossible for those not alive in the late-90’s. So, i’ll go through each extra track in turn and discuss what I can of its history and creation. Since I love almost all of the added material, I hope it will help get people ready for the release of OKNOTOK in June/July. Once I’ve done talking about each track, I have a few things to say about the package as a whole…

I Promise

This is one of those songs that Radiohead played a handful of times, before letting it fade mercilessly back into obscurity. Early 1996, in Los Angeles, would see its first performance. It only received a handful of airings before a soundcheck in 1997 produced its last. Recorded for OK Computer, the claim from Yorke is that it was jettisoned for sounding too much like Joy Division. Fair enough. Since, it’s died on its arse a little when it comes to unreleased Radiohead. It’s good, as almost everything Radiohead ever do is, but it’s just far from special or engaging. Is it just me or does it sound more like a b-side from The Bends than OK Computer?

Still, it’s a nice little ditty if nothing more. I always lumped this in with another obscure track, Up On the Ladder. Worked on at the tit-end of OK Computer, but more specifically for Kid A, Up On the Ladder seems of a kind with I Promise. Neither really go anywhere and they feel, somehow, beneath the band that produced them. Like I Promise, Up On the Ladder didn’t see an official release; until In Rainbows, where it was included on a disc of extra material. Suffice to say, the final studio offering did very little for me. I expect I Promise to be a similar story, but it’s a good song that will be well worth hearing with studio clarity.

Man of War

Besides Big Ideas (Don’t Get Any) (which would later appear as Nude on In Rainbows), this is easily the most anticipated unreleased track by fans. It has some stiff competition from Lift but, in my experience trawling Radiohead forums and fan-sites, it’s Man of War that people would sacrifice their children for. While this song was known almost exclusively by fans as Big Boots, it has, in fact, been called Man of War all along. It was first mentioned by Yorke in conversation with the NME, where it was described as follows:

Man of War is very melodramatic. Too melodramatic. When we started out, it was just a homage to Bond themes really. I like it. It’s pretty much the opposite to everything we’re writing.

That little quote was made in 1995, so the age of this song is noteworthy in its own right. It was actually premiered live a month before that statement came out, at New York City’s Mercury Lounge. After a few more performances in 1995, Radiohead would decide to leave it off-stage for quite some time. In the interim, the band would try to wrap their creative fingers around it on two separate occasions; once for OK Computer and again, only a year later, for the soundtrack to The Avengers. Neither sessions would yield results they were happy with releasing, but it poked its cheeky little head out on Grant Gee‘s experimental documentary, Meeting People is Easy.

The film’s a pretty hypnotic and, at times, frightening affair. Following Radiohead across their gruelling OK Computer tour schedule and, in particular, the slow breakdown of Yorke himself, it’s a far cry from standard rockumentaries. Whether it’s your cup of tea or not, any Radiohead fan would be interested in its extended sequence on the failed Avengers sessions. It shows just how frustrated Radiohead were by an attempt to get it right. It’s full of all sorts of different approaches, all of which they would apparently come to throw away. The next we’d hear of Man of War would come in 2002, at a fated gig in Salamanca where they allowed the crowd to shout out requests.

After that one-off, which would also see an impromptu performance of Lift, it went back into the dead pile; an apparently unfortunate casualty of Radiohead’s ever-driving philosophy. It’s very exciting to hear of its inclusion on OKNOTOK, since it’s easily one of their finest obscure tracks. What made it worse is how sloppy a lot of its bootleg versions were. Geeks like me frothed at the mouth for a version with clarity and structure. No-one expected it to ever show its face, so what can we expect from this upcoming version?

“Unreleased” is all Radiohead’s own listing for these three tracks states. Well, that could mean anything. At first, I had assumed that what we’d get would be the original studio outtakes; given a spit-shine for posterity. With that terminology, what’s to say they’re not entirely new takes on the songs? That approach is something Radiohead have made a name for themselves for, most recently on their lush and heartfelt studio version of True Love Waits. I choose not to definitively answer the mystery in my head, but it seems that we could end up with either original masters or a more recent recording. I wouldn’t even put it past Radiohead to release a composite of both…

Lift

Radiohead nutters like me absolutely adore Lift. Most fans consider the version I’ve posted above as the definitive performance. Perhaps OKNOTOK‘s version will change that. Having said that, this rendition from Pinkpop in 1996 is all too magical to ignore. Not only did it basically write the blueprint for Coldplay‘s fledgling career, but it features some of the best examples of Ed O’Brien singing his own name. All joking aside, it’s powerful in the extreme.

This one has a very similar history to Man of War. They both appeared at around the same time, saw only a few live performances and then disappeared (despite being some of Radiohead’s best material). As I mentioned earlier, they even both showed back up again in Salamanca, 2002. In the case of Lift, it would receive a drastic overhaul into a much more contemplative piece. This recording is, usually, discarded by fans for being weaker than the original. While it clearly is, it’s unfair to ignore the half-baked majesty of it:

This was pretty much the last time we heard from Lift, just like Man of War. It was once mentioned that the Salamanca arrangement was kicked around for Hail to the Thief, but that’s probably a version we’ll definitively never hear. They had a good go at recording it around the time of OK Computer and O’Brien has recently given some excellent insights as to why it was discarded:

We played that live with Alanis Morissette. It was a really interesting song. The audience, suddenly you’d see them get up and start grooving. It had this infectiousness. It was a big anthemic song. If that song had been on that album, it would’ve taken us to a different place, and probably we’d have sold a lot more records—if we’d done it right. And everyone was saying this. And I think we subconsciously killed it. If OK Computer had been like a Jagged Little Pill, it would’ve killed us. But Lift had this magic about it. But when we got to the studio and did it, it felt like having a gun to your head. There was so much pressure. But saying that, I’ve got a monitor mix, and it is pretty good.

Indeed, Lift has an entirely different sound to its cousins on OK Computer. It would have made no sense on that record either, as emotionally excellent as it truly is. It’s fascinating to hear how much effect this song could have had on their evolving career. If they’d have taken the path that Lift led down, we probably wouldn’t have ended up with Kid A, let alone A Moon Shaped Pool. While i’m grateful that they made the decision they did, it does leave Lift as a sad, little obscurity when it’s absolutely amongst the best Radiohead compositions.

With the release of OKNOTOK, we’ll finally be able to hear Man of War and Lift without the roars of crowds and poor audio. That, alone, is worth the price of admission. Take it from one of the biggest Radiohead fans to have ever been born: these songs are important, incredibly good and, regardless of what approach they’ve taken in recording them, will surely satisfy. Even the 20th anniversary of OK Computer wouldn’t be enough for them to release sub-par versions. Radiohead always sit on songs for a long time, teasing their faithful fan-base. Just remember that, almost every time they have, they’ve delivered in ways we couldn’t have imagined.

Lull

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Since the remaining tracks on OKNOTOK are already commercially available, I won’t put up a middle-finger to my favourite band by posting up links to the songs (unless they’re live). I’ll just give whatever background and opinion I can. Many Radiohead b-sides can be very quiet in their impact. They often don’t even get live airings at all, except in the case of more well-known b-sides (like Talk Show Host). A prime example of that is Lull, which, to my knowledge, has never been played on-stage outside of the occasional soundcheck. Don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s bad though.

Lull was always one of their above-average b-sides. I think the general discomfort that comes along with Lull has something to do with how un-Radiohead it sounds. It’s quite a chirpy and poppy little number really, with obvious tinges of Yorke’s perpetual teeth as it develops. It’s simplistic, which is actually a rarity for Radiohead, but distinctly a work of the intelligent band we’ve come to know. I’ve got a feeling that O’Brien had a fair bit of influence on this one, but that’s pure speculation so don’t quote me on it.

Meeting in the Aisle

If i’m not wrong, and I don’t think I am, this was Radiohead’s first instrumental. It’s not something that they do often, but it always makes for a compelling listen when they do. Meeting in the Aisle is a beautiful little bastard of a b-side. It’s always been one of my key Radiohead obscurities, and it sounds incredibly cool and unique to this day. There’s not really any good trivia about this one, it just deserves hearing. In many ways it’s quite indicative of what was to come on Kid A to an extent, while wildly different in overall tone. Indeed, Radiohead’s b-sides are often a little peek into future directions…

This track remained a quiet gem for a long-time, after being their entrance music on some OK Computer dates. As shown above, 2012 would see it brought to the stage as somewhat of a jam. I considered this to be a tip of the hat by Radiohead to one of their most neglected, while beloved, releases. Meeting in the Aisle always seemed to fit the OK Computer theme perfectly, evoking long waits in built-up train stations and airports. It calls to mind that big-city chrome purgatory; a whirlwind of confused evolution up through high-rise monstrosity.

Melatonin

At only two minutes and nine seconds, this gets in and gets out like a punk song. Its sentiment, however, couldn’t be any more opposite. This is one of the most unassuming Radiohead songs ever written, and i’m willing to bet that it was wholly off-the-cuff. It almost entirely centres on a bright, yet melancholy, synth, a particularly wistful Yorke and a simple drum-beat. There’s a nice bit of Colin Greenwood bopping around in there too. This one isn’t going to blow anyone away, but it’s lovely enough in its aimless brevity. Essentially it’s a love song, only not its romantic expression. It speaks of parenthood and, in it’s own way, is quite beautiful.

Melatonin never made its way to the stage, which I think only backs up my assumption that this was thrown together one day. That speaks to Radiohead’s enduring and encapsulating quality. Even when doing something for the sake of it, which let me make doubly clear is merely a personal assumption, it has a coherence and depth that contemporaries could never achieve. While that sounds like, and indeed is, enormously high praise, Melatonin was always pretty forgettable. It’s nice when it’s on, but don’t expect it to leave too much of an impression.

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A Reminder

As far as I know, or at least in my own personal consideration, this is one of Radiohead’s most underrated b-sides. It’s stunningly gorgeous. There’s not much too it, since it meanders around a few guitar chords, Fender Rhodes tinkling and a mesmerising rhythm. While that doesn’t sound too exciting, I absolutely assure you that this is up there with Talk Show Host in my mind. Its lyrics explore the idea of writing a song for someone you care about, so they have a comfort to return to in your absence. That’s heart-melting on its own. When put with the oceanic wave-laps of its music, we hear a simple slice of Radiohead at their best.

Like Meeting in the Aisle, this one always felt like a perfect branch on OK Computer‘s tree. A Reminder evokes that fatigue with public transport even stronger, though. That was probably deliberate, since a train station announcement (recorded in Prague) plays softly throughout. Another thing that might add to that tone is the fact that Yorke wrote it while bored in a hotel room one day:

That song was written in… it was weird actually, it was written one of those days off you have on a tour where you literally, all you can do is sit in your hotel room ’cause there is nothing. It was a Sunday, and it was some place near Hershey – I got no idea where – and there was just nothing to do at all. And I just had this idea of someone writing a song, sending it to someone and saying, ‘If I ever lose it, you just pick up the phone and play me this song back to remind me.’ So that’s it.

I can’t deny that A Reminder may take a little time to burn into your subconscious. Admittedly, it took a while for it to stick out of their catalogue for me. Now it has, I find myself coming back to it far more often than certain album tracks. Unlike many of its other b-side brethren, A Reminder did see live performances. To my mind there were only two, in 1998. Regardless, here’s some interestingly shaky footage from one of them:

Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2)

If you’ve got a problem with this particular b-side, you’ve got a problem with me. I would probably have to say that this is the best of the bunch. In terms of its make-up, it’s nothing out of the box. Its rather straight rock in its instrumentation. In fact, it features some of the coolest rock-Radiohead available. While OK Computer was a definite turn into artier territory, Polyethylene (at least it’s second “part”) still had the balls to put one foot on the amplifier and give it some. Its first “part” is quieter, featuring a minute-or-so of Yorke crooning over an acoustic guitar. It’s pretty good crooning too…

In actuality, the music of Polyethylene is deceptively clever. I can’t even be bothered to work out fully what it’s doing, despite being a rhythm-section musician myself. That’s not even to say that it’s well outside of the grasp of a competent musician; far from it. It’s just that i’m always having far too good of a time listening to the song itself that getting into the details of its rhythmic structure goes out of the window. For me, that’s truly saying something. Anyway, and this is a word that I really don’t like to use as a journalist, Polyethylene is just badass. It’s too fantastic to dissect any further. Just go and listen to it for god’s sake. Here’s a fun live performance of it from sometime in 1998 in case you don’t have copies of the track, Spotify or whatever:

This came incredibly close to being on OK Computer’s final track-list. With its rather bombastic sound, it’s clear to see why it didn’t end up there. Frankly, although it’s an utter classic, it just wouldn’t have been comfortable in that landscape. Placed on The Bends, it would have been one of the standouts of the album without a doubt. I say that purely to get across how great Polyethylene is, rather than to denigrate The Bends in all its torrential glory.

Pearly*

If they added a few more spacey sounds and synths, this one would have been very nice on OK Computer. Fuck that though, because it’s fine as it is. This is a pretty standard Radiohead b-side, as in it’s better than most band’s a-sides. It’s hard not to like this because, and I know that this is hard-hitting journalism at its best, it’s just a good song. As a result, there’s not all that much to say about its composition, except that it does just about everything right with a laid-back verve that always suited Radiohead. That’s probably why it saw quite a few live performances at the time of its release. Here’s a recording where Yorke bollocks the sound-man:

It’s interesting to note that there are two, only slightly, different versions of Pearly. When they add an asterisk to the title, you know you’re going to get a bit of a clearer mix and some different guitar from Jonny Greenwood in its conclusion. Since the asterisk is clearly intact on all of Radiohead’s advertising for OKNOTOK, it’s only natural to assume that means we’ll be getting that version. In essence, they’re really the same song. The most notable piece of trivia about Pearly, asterisk or not, is that it features O’Brien playing drums in its opening; in tandem with their regular, virtuoso percussionist, Phil Selway. Keep your ears open for Greenwood’s bass as it fades out. What a beautifully understated player that man is.

Palo Alto

This is an intriguing song that’s so strong that I always considered it the single that never was. It certainly sounds like a single, and even received a music video of sorts in the aforementioned Meeting People is Easy. That version is formative, featuring obviously programmed drums. Funnily enough, Palo Alto was originally titled OK Computer itself, and was hanging around in 1995. There’s a relic of early performances from somewhere, unfortunately cut off before the song’s about to properly kick in:

While this is comfortably in key with OK Computer‘s philosophy and observations lyrically, it’s probably a bit too bubbly to have ended up on the eventual album. That said, the extra playfulness it brings to the table is exactly why I consider it an unofficial single. It sounds somewhere between The Bends and OK Computer. On consideration, it may just be another little glimpse, like Lift, of what Radiohead could have been had they taken a different road. It’s clear that they still would have been an influential outfit, but far less so. They probably would have burned out too…

As such, Palo Alto has a far better chorus than many of Radiohead’s official singles. It would probably sound great remastered and pressed on vinyl too. Thankfully, OKNOTOK provides that exact service. With only one extra track left to look at, it’s already shaping up to be an essential own for Radiohead fans; whether you’re as madly dedicated as me or not. Before I move on to the last offering though, the trivia to offer here is minimal but peripherally interesting. It’s actually Yorke playing bass on this, since Greenwood wasn’t around for the recording session. What makes that at all worth mentioning is, it would turn out to be the same sessions that produced The National Anthem. Ironic that one of Radiohead’s most distinctive bass-lines was never put to tape by their actual bass-player…

How I Made My Millions

You could easily skate over How I Made My Millions if you weren’t paying enough attention. It doesn’t help that it’s, usually, placed at the end of whatever release it shows up on. Obviously, OKNOTOK intends to stick with that formula. Its placement at the end is logical though, considering its raw and subtle content. All it features is Yorke plonking around on his piano and singing along. I write it like that to deliberately understate it. The discovery of how powerful it truly is is best left to the individual. If you give it the space, this is a song that will blow you away.

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I use that loose terminology as it’s exactly how O’Brien and Selway described their reaction when Yorke brought it into the studio. That’s why the band didn’t bother trying to flesh it out, believing it to be perfect in its original state. That original state itself has a sad undertone in retrospect. Recorded humbly on a MiniDisc player, it features crackles of natural distortion. Clearer than that, however, are the sounds of his then-girlfriend, Rachel Owen, pottering somewhere in the background. The most widely accepted assumption is that she’s doing the dishes.

It’s a sweet moment, captured organically; Yorke, forming genius at his piano while his lover hovers and listens. It’s not a subject I wish to put too much light on, out of respect for Yorke, but I have to say how Owen’s tragic death at the end of last year makes it even more poignant to hear. Obviously, How I Made My Millions will act as a stunning topper to OKNOTOK. If it effects listeners as it has me, and others I know in the fandom community, it will leave you on an emotional spiral; exactly as the music of Radiohead should. It was never played live. It didn’t need to be.

The Package

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There’s a reason I haven’t spoken about the actual material of OK Computer itself. Expect, in time, for me to release something more focused closer to its 20th Anniversary in the UK. To close, i’ll say a few words about the rest of the product that comes with OKNOTOK. Cleverly, as we know that Radiohead are marketing savvy, they provide a variety of different options. At the lowest end of the scale, you can expect a double-CD release that will set you back by ÂŁ10 ($13). That’s not considering a digital download, which they haven’t listed a price for yet. That may yet mean that the tracks will be available for free, but that would be a surprise even in the wake of their In Rainbows approach.

The vinyl edition will cost ÂŁ23 ($30), which will get you a fairly normal, high-quality, release. Of course, you can expect the obligatory download code. So far, there’s little to gripe with or even review. But would you pay £100 ($130) for their “boxed edition”? Even I reacted with shock, bordering on anger, upon reading that price. Then, I actually read the description. In truth, there’s a lot of impressive stuff to this package. For that expenditure, you get three heavyweight 180-gram vinyl records, a hardcover book with exclusive artwork and lyrics, 104 pages of Yorke’s notebook scribbles, 48 pages of embryonic art from the time and “a C90 cassette mix tape … taken from OK Computer session archives and demo tapes”. What the hell exactly that last trinket means, i’m trying not to think about. If it’s what I think it means, it’s too tantalising for words.

boxededition

My instincts, as a lifelong and crazed Radiohead fan, are that this is worth it. You would have to be at least a dedicated fan, if not crazed, to merit their “boxed edition” though. Otherwise, if you’re on the vinyl bandwagon, the standard release will more than suffice. For the casual fan and curious passer-by, stick to the download (or hazard a CD if you like). With one last little glance at the most expensive edition, I really do believe that it would become a treasured item for those who care. I guess it comes to this: If, after reading its description, you still think they’re taking the piss, it’s not the choice for you. Personally, I don’t.

To round off this hype for OKNOTOK, here’s another song that saw release around the time of OK Computer. Appearing on No Surprises/Running From Demons (an oft-forgotten EP), Bishop’s Robes is about as good as a b-side can get. After all my years listening to Radiohead obscurities, I think I’ve come to settle on Bishop’s Robes easily being in the top three. It’s a slow and dark piece about Yorke’s time at Abingdon School. It sums up what I said earlier about Radiohead b-sides predicting their future directions. It sounds very OK Computer, but was actually first brought out as the b-side to Street Spirit (Fade Out) in The Bends era. That’s, surely, why it hasn’t made its way onto OKNOTOK

British fellow consumes media and regurgitates back what you should think about it.