It’s one of the most extraordinary stories of Radiohead’s career. In early June, fans started talking about the theft of scores of the band’s private 1995-1998 recordings, many of which ended up on 1997’s classic ‘OK Computer’. Not only that, the thieves were demanding $150,000 for the recordings to be returned.
Then, on June 5, 18 hours of unheard Radiohead material appeared online. According to the New York Times, the recordings were meticulously catalogued by a group of fans who insisted “we are not the leakers”. Over on Reddit, meanwhile, it emerged that fans had come into contact with a bootlegger who was claiming to have acquired 18 Minidiscs billed as ‘The Entire OK Computer Sessions’.
On Tuesday June 11, Radiohead responded. “We got hacked last week,” Jonny Greenwood wrote on Twitter. “Someone stole Thom’s minidisk archive from around the time of OK Computer, and reportedly demanded $150,000 on threat of releasing it.”
The “reportedly” from Greenwood here is interesting, implying the band hadn’t been contacted by the hackers, even though the demands were circulating online.
He continued: “So instead of complaining – much – or ignoring it, we’re releasing all 18 hours on Bandcamp in aid of Extinction Rebellion. Just for the next 18 days. So for £18 you can find out if we should have paid that ransom.
“Never intended for public consumption (though some clips did reach the cassette in the ‘OK Computer’ reissue) it’s only tangentially interesting. And very, very long. Not a phone download. Rainy out, isn’t it though?”
On the download page on Bandcamp, a message from Thom Yorke also appeared: “We’ve been hacked. My archived mini discs form 1995-1998(?) it’s not v interesting there’s a lot of it.”
He added: “As it’s out there it may as well be out there until we all get bored and move on.”
So what’s Radiohead: Minidiscs (Hacked) like? Well, a treasure trove that echoes The Beach Boys’ ‘Smile’ sessions, and is one of the most comprehensive behind-the-scenes releases of Radiohead’s career.
It is the blueprint of one of the greatest albums ever, and these are our favourite moments:
The evolution of ‘Poison’ into ‘Exit Music’
‘Poison’ on MD111, ‘Exit Music’ on MD112, MD125
‘Poison’ is the origin of ‘Exit Music (For a Film)’. The melody is more or less intact, but with none of the eerie orchestrals and unsettling background noises that appear in the finished song. Perhaps most striking are the self-loathing lyrics. “I’m no good, I am poison,” sings Yorke, urging someone to “leave me be.” It’s dystopian, too. “There’s no tomorrow”, he repeats, perhaps hinting at how overwhelmed he was by the pressures of incessant touring, and the gravity of knowing the band might forever be defined by the outcome of this album. Radiohead were morphing from the indie grunge of The Bends into something more artistic and experimental, and the nerves that come with the change in direction show. “There’ll come a time,” he dejectedly sings. “You’ll appreciate my rhyme.”
On MD112 is a sample of, as York has scrawled across the disk, the “amazing drums for Exit Music”. By MD125 the ‘Poison’ lyrics are discarded and ‘Exit Music’ is born, confident and assured, unlike the tentative ‘Poison’ which ends abruptly and feels abandoned. Yorke’s line “keep breathing, don’t lose your nerve” on MD125 sounds like a sigh of relief, as does “rules and wisdom, choke you.” This is the sound of a new Radiohead taking shape.
The development of ‘Paranoid Android’
MD115, MD118, MD125, MD126
‘Paranoid Android’ on MD115 begins with Yorke laughing in the studio, before some mad Philip Selway drumming arrives. Yorke experiments with the song’s famous “rain down” refrain, testing out his range with mixed results. A lengthy, grungy, garage-like jam follows where the band experiment in a way that wouldn’t have felt amiss on ‘The Bends’ – it’s brilliant, especially with another furious Selway drum solo at the end.
A second version follows immediately after, giving us 15 minutes of pure ‘Paranoid Android’. It is almost the finished product, but there’s heavier, scratchier reverb and a punky Yorke snarl that morphs into a scream. An organ soundtracks the “rain down” refrain and some pained “hallelujah” chants, which later turn into those agonising, lyric-free cries on record. At the end comes a glorious extended outro, the band jamming to a dystopian crescendo. By MD125 and MD126, and via a particularly great live version from Toronto in 1996, ‘Paranoid Android’ is fully formed, featuring a confident delivery from Yorke.
‘No Surprises Please’ to ‘No Surprises’: from a ‘The Bends’-like ballad to a lush lullaby
The development of ‘No Surprises Please’ to ‘No Surprises’ is starker than that of ‘Paranoid Android’, going from a relatively upbeat ‘The Bends’-like ballad to a grandiloquent lullaby over the space of four recordings. The first version, MD114, sees Yorke chant “heroes” instead of “silence”, and there’s an extended, strummier guitar outro giving it a fitter, happier tone.
MD115 is very much a hybrid of demo and finished song, as Yorke’s voice takes on a much gentler tone. On the same disk, ‘No Surprises’ emerges almost complete. There’s a moment after the refrain where Yorke sings as the music fades, and it’s one of the most striking moments on the entire release. We don’t see the full evolution until MD125 and MD126, but these early versions are the genesis of what the song became.
Experimental early versions of ‘True Love Waits’
The sparse and haunting piano version of ‘True Love Waits’ that’s on 2016’s ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ album is far removed from both this busy version, and the version on the 2001 live album, ‘I Might Be Wrong’. It’s very ‘90s, and wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a This Life soundtrack thanks to its strong bassline and proggy organ. The emotional wretchedness in Yorke’s pleas to “don’t leave” don’t go with the unwelcome distraction of the uplifting music.
There’s a more interesting development on MD114 with ‘True Love Waits (Prog)’, which sounds like it’s being played on a synth, underwater, while a scuba diver breathes over the keys. Midway through, there’s a burst of futuristic synths – a definite hint of what was to come on ‘Kid A’.
A dark, thrilling version of ‘Karma Police’ is a force of nature
MD119, MD121, MD122
The MD119 ‘Karma Police’ is thrilling – for its wildly different lyrics, and for the inclusion of a mad, proggy organ. Thom Yorke sounds like he’s improvising on it, experimenting with sound and words that sort of fit but don’t quite work yet, before he breaks off with an “excuse me Colin” and the song ends abruptly. The MD121 take is once again unrecognisable lyrically, but has a much spikier delivery. By the time we arrive at MD125 it’s a song transformed – fully formed lyrics, an angrier delivery, and dark, thrilling guitar. Intriguingly, in the MD122 version, the character in the song is female, not male.
Thrilling live versions of ‘Lift’
MD 125, MD126
MD126 features the most polished of the nine versions of ‘Lift’ on the disks, and MD 125 the most energetic. Earlier versions illustrate how much Radiohead struggled with this song, which is maybe why it never made it onto ‘OK Computer’ despite being played live a lot and having the band’s best hook since ’93’s ‘Creep’. You can hear pain in Yorke’s voice as the band grapple with how to marry what is often considered their last great Britpop song, with the arthouse future they want to grasp. A version appears on 2017’s ‘OK Computer’ reissue ‘OKNOTOK’ as a bonus track, but it’s way gentler than anything here. The MD126 recording is a compelling companion to the reissue edition, even if Ed O’Brien once called it “a bogshite B-side”.
The birth of ‘I Promise’
‘I Promise’ wasn’t released until ‘OKNOTOK’, but was nevertheless well-known to fans thanks to frequent appearances on early tours. The versions are startlingly similar to the anniversary release, but the live cuts (especially those in LA and Toronto in 1996) show Yorke’s nervousness at debuting the song.
In 2017 Radiohead performed the song live for the first time in 21 years, in Norway, and Yorke introduced it by saying: “Normally, I don’t think we’re the sort of people to look back…but it was interesting, when we did, what a bunch of crazy nutters we were, and probably still are. One of the things – one of the crazy things we did was not release not this song, because we didn’t think it was good enough.” Yorke’s comments here take on new significance when listening to the early versions, and you can hear the self-doubt in his voice, despite it being one of Radiohead’s most stunning songs.
On MD122 it gets a heavy live makeover, which is enormous fun but doesn’t trump the more delicate versions.
From ‘OK Computer’ to ‘In Rainbows’: the development of ‘Nude’
On MD113 we are gifted an early version of ‘Nude’ (a song that ended up on ‘In Rainbows’ in 2007) and, on MD115, the song in skeleton form, which shows us Thom Yorke’s songwriting craft in progress as he experiments with style and lyrics. It’s only a snippet sung into a scratchy microphone, but the startling melody is easily recognisable even if the song’s production is very basic. The MD113 version is fuller, with a more developed guitar melody. But it’s MD115 that feels most like the spiritual counterpart of what ‘Nude’ would eventually become.
More ‘In Rainbows’ via ‘OK Computer’: one of the first ever versions of ‘Last Flowers’
It’s telling that there’s another version of an ‘In Rainbows’ song in these sessions. The version here is big-stringed, funky-bassed, fuzzed-up and Britpop-inspired – a world away from the song it would become.
A fully composed Thom Yorke solo track
As well as providing insights into Radiohead’s development, this leak shines a light on Thom Yorke the solo artist, plus his work with Atoms for Peace. Many of the Yorke solo demos are raw, private, vulnerable and unguarded, and never intended for public consumption They are uncomfortable.
The untitled track on MD127 is a fairly well-formed and polished REM-like piano ballad which hints at ‘The Daily Mail’ and even ‘Last Flowers’ which also makes an appearance here. Yorke’s vocals are stunningly emotive, and when the song ends another appears with Yorke alone on the piano. Beautiful.