REVIEW: Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ Demos Are A Window Into The Band’s Brilliance

19 June 2019 | 11:52 am | Joel Burrows

And they're not just for fans.

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On the 11th of June 2019, Radiohead announced that they had been hacked. 18 hours of demos were stolen with a $150,000 ransom on the line. However, instead of giving in to these demands, the band released all of this material onto Bandcamp. 

They stated that the proceeds from this collection, now entitled MINIDISCS [HACKED], will go to the charity Extinction Rebellion. They made the best of an awful situation. And now everyone can go critique these old tracks. The tracks that were “never intended for public consumption”.

That’s right, these demos are worth reviewing and aren’t just for Radiohead fans. 

But how could this be the case? If these demos were never meant for public consumption, then wouldn’t it be wrong to review them? Well, many famous artists have sketches and studies hanging in art galleries. There are a multitude of important letters and diaries that were published only after the authors’ death. Should these works also not be critiqued? If William Hunt’s study of a bloodhound can be analysed, shouldn’t it the same for these demos? Reviewers have a long and historic tradition of studying the unfinished.

With that now established, Radiohead's release of MINIDISCS is brilliant. And it’s not just for Radiohead followers. It’s for anyone that’s interested in musicians finding a sound. This collection of songs features a scattering of OK Computer demos. Radiohead play these periodically. They play the same songs over and over again. But this isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s what makes this project so engaging.

One of the songs that’s repeated over and over is No Surprises. Sometimes they play the song fast. Sometimes they play it slow. Sometimes it’s more acoustic, or with louder synth, or with the xylophone harmonies. No matter how they play the song, it usually comes out a bit different. However, you can almost hear the band trying to find something. You can sense that they can’t quite pinpoint what they’re searching for, but they’re searching nonetheless. You hear frustrated twangs and moments of joy. The repetition of No Surprises transforms the song. It becomes a story about being creative. 

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Another strength of this collection is its mixing and production. While there are some segments that sound professionally produced, a lot of MINIDISCS is grungy and undercooked. The instrumentals are often barebones, Yorke’s voice can bleed into the background, and the band will occasionally restart a song. This bedroom rock aesthetic makes large swathes of the material feel extremely personal. These sessions are like sitting in on your friend’s amazing garage band. If you treat the recordings like this, then you’re in for a real treat. 

This release also stars a diverse amount of genres. It has everything from ambient soundscapes, to acoustic tracks, to video-game-esque synth tunes. MD111’s first half is stripped down rock bops whilst the second part is predominantly from live shows. MD127 ends with a breathtaking piano performance. The amount of different music on offer here is honestly quite staggering. 

However, MINIDISCS has one apparent drawback. And that is its overwhelming and mammoth-like size. 18 hours of sound is a lot of music to wade through. It’s only natural that one would zone-out, skip snippets, and leave to get pizza whilst listening to this. To properly unravel the project’s themes, secrets, and language would take months, maybe longer. If you’re someone who’s interested in this release but is also daunted, that’s completely understandable. Maybe listen to MD111 a few times before abseiling into the deep. 

On the other hand, this problem becomes smaller if you treat the material like a friend’s garage jam. When you’re listening to a band practice, you’re not always paying attention. Sure, your ears may perk up when you hear something cool, but you’re also sometimes on your phone. You’re sometimes talking or going to the fridge. These activities don’t undermine the band’s creative process. They’re practicing; their project isn’t finished yet. You listen to what’s valuable, critique some songs, and disregard the rest. If you approach MINIDISCS from this framework, its length is less of an issue.

Overall, Radiohead’s MINIDISCS [HACKED] is a fascinating beast. It’s both worthy of critique, and a jam session to tune-out to. It’s a story about the creative process, and an interesting collection of sounds. Like many artistic studies, it was “never intended for public consumption”. Well, we are all lucky that this release was brought into the limelight. We are lucky we can survey and study this sketch.