[sic] Magazine

Radiohead – Re-issues

They started off as pale Pixies clones on the coattails of the now-reviled wave of British Indie. Radiohead could so easily have ended up like Kingmaker, one hit wonders rubbing shoulders with Sultans of Ping, and endlessly playing ‘Creep’ to half-full 1500-seaters in-between day jobs.

On the strength of the debut, the underwhelming ‘Pablo Honey’, Radiohead were one who, it seemed, had only a handful of good songs, an EP squeezed to LP length.’ Pablo Honey’ is, for its time, an OK LP. But Kingmakers ‘Sleepwalking’ was better.

And you know it.

‘Pablo Honey’ wears its influences brazenly on its sleeves. It wants to be The Pixies, crossbred with Dinosaur Jr and a touch of Steve Albini. But it isn’t. Some of the songs simply put, are nothing but juvenilia. ‘Ripcord’, ‘Vegetable’, and others are forgettable, scant, empty, shallow impersonations. They are, in a word, rubbish.

Inside Radiohead, lay a pretty good debut. Sadly, great songs such as ‘Banana Co’ and ‘Yes, I Am’ were relegated to B-sides, and the versions and recordings chosen for the album were bland and monotone. Not only that, but the sequencing is all over the place. There are some good songs here, but not enough to justify an album.

Thankfully, EMI have chosen to exercise their contractual rights and exploit the work. This reissue is certainly far more useful than the recent ‘Best of’. The second disc captures every B-side and some radio sessions in order of release. And whilst this completely lacks any narrative (it’s just a bunch of good songs in a random order) the songs themselves here, some of them are fabulous. The aforementioned ‘Banana Co’ is simply a fabulous song, head and shoulders with any of their other work.

And some are rubbish: the middle section consists of a slew of live tracks, largely chosen to pad out multi-formatted releases of 12’ singles. They weren’t much good then and they aren’t now.

Thankfully, the DVD offers much better value, with all the promo videos from the era, and most of the ‘Live At The Astoria’ DVD. In total, though, it is a fabulous package for a Radiohead nutter: every song from their earlier era, alongside some tasty and unreleased radio sessions and a brace of live stuff on a DVD. It is a value package that tidies up most of the early years in about 55 songs of joy, most of which you may have never heard before.

A short two years later meanwhile, and ‘The Bends’ blew everything out of the water. At the time of release, Radiohead were largely seen as ‘also rans’. On the verge of being a second-rate pre-Menswear scrabbling for some kind of relevancy, they returned with an album that smashed your preconceptions of their abilities and gave an assured, brave do-or-die second album. In all probability, EMI were going to drop them shortly anyway, so they went for broke and did whatever they wanted. And what an album. Timeless, even now, ‘The Bends’ is half a set of fragile and beautiful ballads that soundtracked a million exhausted commutes, and angry ennui rock songs. Some of them – ‘Bones’ and ‘Sulk’ were only slight progressions beyond the debut – but overall, the album hung together with a fluency.

The second CD captures all the bands b-sides from the time: many of the songs as good as anything they recorded for the main album, songs such as ‘The Trickster’ and ‘Permanent Daylight’ are the type of songs other bands would base whole careers on. Particular mention has to go to ‘You Never Wash Up After Yourself’ (the best song title ever), and the glorious gem that is ‘Talk Show Host’. There are 22 songs here from the golden era most people have not really heard, and if you have any interest in Radiohead, these are songs you should climb inside and live with forever.

The BBC Sessions are fabulous alternate versions of the well known songs, dispatched with passion. Sadly, the audio CD is incomplete: lacking the alternate versions, demos, and remix versions of ‘Talk Show Host’, ‘Planet Telex’ and ‘The Bends’ as well as about 15 live songs issued on b-sides of weird format CD singles across the world. (Close EMI, but no cigar).

Most baffling is the absence of the ‘Mogadon’ version of the b-side ‘Killer Cars’. This song, one of the most important in their canon to date, explicitly pulls together all the influences, adds a dash of the direction they were about to go into, and easily the equal of most of ‘OK Computer’. At the very least it should be included on some of the unused space on the ‘Ok Computer’ bonus disc. This song is far too good, important, and essential to be left to rot on a 15 year old CD single.

The DVD meanwhile is a further triumph. The rest of the Astoria concert is here (between this and ‘Pablo Honey’ you get the whole concert), alongside two TV sessions for BBC and Holland, and a slew of promo videos and other appearances. As a compendium, it is pretty damn definitive. Aside from the missing songs, EMI have done themselves proud with a 57-song package across three discs.

Final release is ‘OK Computer’. It’s over-rated and under-rated, all things at once, the sound of Radiohead confidently striding forward into a territory of complete freedom. It is as good as everyone else has said : maybe better, in fact. They may never make an album as complete or as artistically successful in sound, vision, or songwriting again. But right now, at this point, Radiohead were heading out into space. Taking it’s cue from the dystopian work of J.G.Ballard – all car crashes, airbags, techno fetishism, alien abductions, and political neurosis, ‘Ok Computer’ painted a damning picture of the immense emotional costs of the final moments of Conservative Britain in the ashes of Britpop. Whilst Oasis and their ilk were scribbling around producing shallow drivel, Radiohead had an eye not for the Be-Here-Now, but for the future we would be spending the rest of our lives in. The record is a plea to a world gone mad to slow down, stop killing us, start thinking. And aside from the verbose and runaway ‘Electioneering’, a sly comment on the madness of touring for approval, be it political or musical, there’s little trace of the embryonic band that birthed ‘Pablo Honey’ just four years earlier.

Second CD contains – you guessed it – every B-side in order of release. There’s sadly no sign of the collaboration Thom Yorke made with Drugstore – the marvellous ‘El President’: and the songs are all presented, again, with no thought for how they may sound listened to in order, and there are some songs missing – the BBC Session of ‘Talk Show Host’ is bafflingly absent, as is an alternate take of ‘Pearly ’ which was released on a foreign single – but otherwise all is present and correct.

The DVD meanwhile is not much of a draw compared to the other reissues: aside from the three promo videos, there’s some songs on BBC’s Later, and nothing else. The DVD is over in 29 minutes and only 6 songs long. Considering the previous releases, could EMI have not licensed the rather brilliant Glastonbury 1997 TV Broadcast?

That said though, again, like the other 3 disc sets, these are exhaustive, huge, and keenly priced sets that make any search for the vast majority of Radiohead’s obscurities and long-lost gems redundant as they are almost all here, and in great value packages presented with no short amount of care. They are imperfect, to say the least, but overall, each is a fine compilation that covers almost all reaches of Radiohead’s work in their early years, presented with some care and detail. If you liked the albums then get these, go further.

Radiohead official website

For more from Mark please visit The Mark Reed website