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Radiohead, Minidiscs [Hacked], review: an 18-hour Black Mirror episode set in Thom Yorke’s head

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Radiohead in 1993, before their full turn to complex electronica
Radiohead in 1993, before their full turn to complex electronica Credit: Bob Berg/HULTON ARCHIVE

Every day is a happy day for Radiohead fans – but this week has been especially joyful. The Fake Plastic Trees faithful are celebrating a surprise new release by Thom Yorke and his gadabout troupe. 

Radiohead emerged from their cloister to announce that they were making available for download some 18 hours of archive material from the mid-Nineties. The music, recorded on the now defunct Minidisc format, and monastically sequestered in the group’s digital archive, dates from when they were working towards their 1997 dystopian masterpiece OK Computer. It’s a rare peek behind the curtain, an opportunity to witness the paranoid androids tinkering minute-by-minute with arguably their defining album. 

Eighteen hours of anything is obviously a slog. And Radiohead, with their knack for magnificent misery, are best enjoyed in sensible doses. The other complicating factor is that the Oxfordshire arena gods – as they insist on being called – issued the “Minidiscs [Hacked]” collection only after the files were plundered and held for a £150,000 ransom. 

This is, in other words, Radiohead’s in-the-moment response to an invasion of privacy rather a deeply considered gesture towards the hardcore wing of their fanbase. It also costs £18, roughly the same as a vinyl reissue of The Bends. (All funds go to Extinction Rebellion.) Less than completely obsessive Radiohead fans may wish to pause before rushing in.

So what’s it like? Well there’s certainly a lot of it – 18 digital files ranging in length from 25 minutes to well over an hour. There’s no track listing – though uber-devotees are of course circulating their own online – and you can’t easily zip forward to your favourite ditty. In other words, and just as the fame-averse Thom Yorke might wish, here awaits a torrid trudge through Radiohead’s nether regions. 

Thom Yorke of Radiohead performing at Manchester Arena in 2012 Credit: Danny Payne/REX/Shutterstock

It’s also – and I say this as someone partial to Radiohead, not someone fixated with the band’s every blurt and bleep – absolutely compelling. The recordings capture Yorke and the gang in their songwriting prime and at an existential crossroads. You can hear the ghostly outline of OK Computer looming amid the gloom and distortion. Also palpable is a growing ambivalence. Radiohead are finding themselves heralded as part of the Britpop generation following the success of 1995’s The Bends – a smash hit that Thom Yorke has, by all accounts, never forgiven for helping to create Coldplay.

Songs are chopped and often interwoven with muttered asides. “Is this recording?” emerges as Yorke’s favourite catchphrase. What’s surprising is the hypnotic pull exerted by the fragments. As early versions of Airbag and Karma Police – already more or less fully formed – segue into the riff from Paranoid Android, it’s hard not to be sucked into this alternative universe of All Radiohead, All The Time. 

Strewn amongst the tunes are snippets of what sounds like Thom Yorke pocket-dialling a friend. We hear tannoy announcements in Italian, train doors shuttering, yammering in the background. And then another burst of static, and suddenly Yorke is on stage in Toronto explaining that the band are about to perform a new number. 

More often than not, that germinal gem is either I Promise or Lift. When Radiohead were sharing excerpts of what would become OK Computer with their label, these were the two tracks on which executives pinned their hopes. Even in an embryonic state, they were clearly stone-cold classics in waiting – a anthemic double-whammy in the tradition of Creep or Fake Plastic Trees. 

Radiohead in 1997 Credit: Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Radiohead, of course, left both off the album; Lift was officially shared with the world only two years ago, in a “B-sides and more” OK Computer reissue. The last thing they wanted in 1997 was another Top of the Pops moment. And with copycats such as Travis starting to wriggle from the woodwork, perhaps they had a sense of the sensitive-dude monster that they’d spawned. 

Lift and I Promise feature in multiple versions here, with a grimy band version of the former (“disc” 15, at 9:46) whisking the listener off to an alternative universe where Radiohead snatched the baton from U2 and become the sensitive chest-thumpers of the hour. 

Elsewhere, there are glimmerings of Yorke’s debt to Jeff Buckley – the original of the Gen X troubadour species – on the previously unreleased Hurts To Walk (disc two, 52:53), where his scratchy voice vies with a chiming acoustic guitar. Meanwhile, a 15-minute psychedelic re-shaping of Paranoid Android – already epic in its official version – captures Radiohead at their incandescent best (disc five, 5:37). 

There’s often a lot of Radiohead here. At times, you feel as though you’ve tumbled into a Black Mirror episode in which you’re trapped in the back of Thom Yorke’s head. But for every scratchy, hissing road to nowhere, there’s a sublime bit when Jonny Greenwood’s guitar cuts through and York starts to howl like a sad but vaguely vengeful pop demon. And suddenly all your misgivings tumble away, and it’s a privilege to be lost in the labyrinth of Radiohead’s collective subconscious.