In 2001, four years after OK Computer came out, Thom Yorke said he couldn’t bear to listen to the band’s third album, claiming it made him feel ill. Thankfully, time is a healer, and Yorke and the band have now delved into dark cupboards and cold storage for this 20th-anniversary reissue, complete with a second disc containing B-sides and previously unheard songs. ‘Unreleased tracks’ often mean flotsam and jetsam repackaged for a quick buck and an impending anniversary but, in this case, “I Promise”, “Man Of War” and “Lift” are the most exciting, crucial elements of this deluxe edition.
“I Promise” is a beautiful, simple hymn. Until now, fans have had to make do with scratchy bootlegs of this song from 1996, the last time it was played live. The version on OKNOTOK is similar in arrangement to what you might have heard: an acoustic guitar ballad with a marching-band drumbeat. The repetition of “I promise” gives it an almost psalmic quality with Yorke’s emotionally expressive voice climbing to its euphonious higher planes. Two minutes in, luscious strings enter the fray, swirling around Colin Greenwood’s bassline. Interestingly, it’s the chosen single released by the band, perhaps because it has the least emotional baggage out of the three.
The story of “Man Of War” is a little more thorny. You can glimpse how intense life was for Radiohead in the late ’90s in Grant Gee’s documentary Meeting People Is Easy, filmed during the promotional tour of OK Computer. In one scene the band is trying to record “Man Of War”, which had been knocking around since The Bends, and had been played live loads of times in 1995. They try out various sounds, instruments; things work, others don’t. “There’s summink here,” says producer Nigel Godrich. “Fuck this,” Yorke seems to say. Later, exasperated and glum, he says, “We’ve actually been working all day and the only thing we’ve got that’s any good is the bass and guitar.”
Apart from one play in 2002, the song was retired and looked extinct, despite shouts for “Big Boots”, its alternative title, at live shows. So what a delirious pleasure to have it on record. It’s a maximalist riot of voluptuous bass, luxurious strings and anguished vocals, suggestive of the James Bond themes it started life in homage to (it was originally slated for an Avengers film soundtrack). The lyrics shiver with menace: “I’ll bake you a cake, made of all their eyes” and “the worms will come for you”. And the bridge is startlingly good. Suddenly, Yorke’s voice hushes before the bottom falls out of the song with Jonny’s almighty electric trill.
“’Man of War’ is very melodramatic. Too melodramatic,” Yorke told NME. “I like it. It’s pretty much the opposite to everything we’re writing.” So why leave it out? It could have worked on either The Bends or OK Computer, and it sounds strong 20 years later. Perhaps it tells us something about the band’s perfectionism, and the standards they set themselves for recording, in particular, which Nigel Godrich gives Uncut some insight into. “The reason they didn’t get released at the time was more because they were such important songs we felt we hadn’t managed to get them down right – to do them justice,” he said.
Lastly, we have “Lift”, a notorious song in Radiohead lore, the colossus that never was. It was played 30 times in 1996 while on tour with Alanis Morissette – and a few times in 2002 – before being filed away, seemingly prematurely, considering it connected so well with crowds. But its long dormancy tells us what the band didn’t want at the time: another “Creep”.
Already struggling to cope with fame and its demands, “Lift” could have taken the band to a different place if it had been released as a single. “I think we kind of subconsciously killed it, because if OK Computer had been like a Jagged Little Pill, like Alanis Morissette, it would have killed us,” Ed O’Brien recently told 6 Music. They didn’t do a good version, because when they got to the studio to record, pressure was “like having a gun to your head,” he added.
But it turns out one version was ruled good enough, decades later. The version on the OKNOTOK reissue, Godrich tells Uncut, was a “very early” one: “It is the most honest of the three, really.” Yorke’s vocal is somewhat subdued; reluctant, even – there is no “Creep”-style belting here. It sounds as if he’s singing it to himself, which, it turns out, he is. “Lift” is the only Radiohead song in which Yorke refers to himself by name: “We’ve been trying to reach you, Thom,” he sings, before, “Lighten up, squirt.” It’s a rare, sweet moment of comparatively un-cryptic internal dialogue. Admittedly, the song does sound of-its-time, especially Jonny Greenwood’s Rockford Files-esque Korg synth riff, which may be why the famous neophiles ignored it for so long.
The B-sides come next on CD2, newly remastered. They’re a perfect counterpart to the three new tracks, and point towards Radiohead’s convention-defying next chapter of Kid A and Amnesiac, particularly the dubby trip-hop of “Meeting In The Aisle” and the hazy waltz of “A Reminder”. In terms of the original album, OK Computer was so richly-produced in the first place that remastering seems unnecessary; but listen on really good headphones or speakers, and it sounds magnificent, even if there are no revelations. And one mystery is cleared up: after being split up on streaming services, the peripatetic “Paranoid Android” beeps are now back at the end of “Airbag”, suggesting it’s the band’s definitive view. Well, for now.
Ultimately, though, it’s the three previously unreleased tracks that reveal something new, suggesting that the album and the band could have become something quite different. Swap them for, say, the less accessible “Electioneering”, “Climbing Up The Walls” and “Fitter Happier” and you’ve got a much more radio-friendly album that would likely have sold even more copies. But perhaps a different direction reined in the pressure and allowed the band to then create on their own terms. The long-overdue release of these recordings – sure-fire hits in some parallel universe – sees the band fully relax in their middle age, and finally make peace with a past that once made them feel sick.
The September 2017 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring Neil Young on the cover. Elsewhere in the issue, there are new interviews with Mark E Smith, Nick Lowe, Iron & Wine and Sigur Rós, we remember Dennis Wilson and explore the legacy of Elvis Presley. We review Grizzly Bear, Queens Of The Stone Age, Arcade Fire, Brian Eno and The War On Drugs. Our free CD features 15 tracks of the month’s best music, including Randy Newman, Richard Thompson, Oh Sees, Lal & Mike Waterson, Psychic Temple, FJ McMahon and Chris Forsyth & The Solar Motel Band and more.