OK Com­puter: OKNOTOK 1997 2017

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A 20th-an­niver­sary reis­sue, with B-sides and un­re­leased tracks. By Lucy Jones

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” can mean flot­sam and jet­sam 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 for 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 some­thing 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 says.

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. “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, it’s the three un­re­leased tracks that re­veal some­thing new, sug­gest­ing that the LP 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 LP that would likely have sold even more copies. But per­haps a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion reined in the pres­sure and al­lowed the band to cre­ate on their own terms. The long-over­due re­lease of th­ese record­ings – sure­fire 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.

Ex­tras: 7/10. Boxed edi­tion in­cludes three 180g black 12” vinyl records and a hardcover book con­tain­ing more than 30 art­works.

“The ver­sion of ‘Lift’ on this record is the most hon­est of the three, re­ally…” NIGEL GODRICH

Ra­dio­head, New York, De­cem­ber 1996: “Big Boots” not pic­tured

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