Written by Andrew Barr (@weeandreww)
It goes without saying that Radiohead’s seminal OK Computer needs no introduction. The record’s place on countless “greatest album of all time” lists speaks for itself. However, rather than awards or reviews; one of the greatest tributes to the record has come from Radiohead themselves. The Oxford five-piece have been praised for constantly innovating over their 30-year career without ever standing still. However, when their landmark OK Computer turned 20 this year, it caused the groundbreaking Radiohead to look back for possibly the first time in their career, to release the OK Computer OKNOTOK reissue.
OKNOTOK’s tracklisting begins with remastered versions of the legendary 1997 album, but, in all honesty, the difference between the “remastered” album and the original is seemingly non-existent. However, the second half of OKNOTOK contains the reissue’s real treats – 11 b-sides from the OK Computer sessions – including 3 fan favourites from the band’s shows around 1997 which never saw the light of day as studio recordings – I Promise, Man Of War and Lift.
This track was originally performed in 1996, along with other tracks which would make it onto OK Computer, when Radiohead supported Alanis Morisette on tour, and, until recently, was only known to fans via shaky phone-shot videos. With the studio version’s recent release, it’s easy to see why fans have been demanding it for 20 years. I Promise is perhaps one of the Oxford group’s simplest tracks from a songwriting perspective but revels in this simplicity. Guitar strums are complimented by beautiful strings as the track builds to a crescendo, capped off by Yorke’s stunning vocals at its very best, pledging alternate wedding vows to a partner in arguably his most romantic lyrics – “even when the ship is wrecked…tie me to the rotting deck, I promise”.
MAN OF WAR/BIG BOOTS
Man of War (previously Big Boots) dates as far back as 1995, around the time that OK Computer’s precursor, The Bends was released. However, this track differs from I Promise in that it received a semi-official release; a lo-fi version of the track could be heard in the Radiohead documentary Meeting People is Easy. The “proper” version though remained unheard until OKNOTOK. Despite the fact the band see it as a Bends track, it actually has more in common with the tracks which were selected for OK Computer. Man of War is almost overflowing with paranoia – a feeling which personified OK Computer – from the eerie, finger-picked guitar that opens the track to the cynical lyricism – “Search the whole world/ but drunken confessions and hijacked affairs/ will just make you more alone”. Not one to listen to with the lights off.
Arguably Radiohead’s most popular forgotten track, Lift was also played on the Alanis Morisette tour, and was apparently the song which garnered the best audience reaction – surely that would guarantee its inclusion on the album? Where Radiohead are concerned, it doesn’t. Ed O’Brien recently confessed that they chose not to release it as it would have made the band too popular. To be fair, it’s easy to see why: the track’s intro seems to be the blueprint for Yellow by Coldplay (but that’s none of my business) and the chorus feels anthemic, a sound which Radiohead have always avoided. However, it also has mainstream appeal for a reason; it’s a fucking excellent track. Thom’s vocals in the verses have a soft lullaby quality to them, enhanced by more strings, and the chorus truly soars, underpinned by one of Ed O’Brien’s best renditions of his first name in the entire Radiohead discography.
With the release of OKNOTOK, Radiohead have offered even more insight into the legendary OK Computer sessions – and a glimpse into what the album could have been. Of the 3 unreleased tracks, Man Of War feels like it could have fit most snugly on the record, with its eeriness reminiscent of the nightmarish Climbing Up The Walls.
While it is a stunning track, I Promise feels a bit too simple and straightforward to have fit on OK Computer. It’s easy to see why people who aren’t fans of Radiohead would view Ed O’Brien’s comments on Lift as pretentious in the extreme, you have to agree it has “hit” written all over it, and the band wouldn’t have wanted a record as good as OK Computer overshadowed by a hit single, especially given Radiohead’s track record of relationships with their big singles (you know the one).
Regardless, Lift, Man Of War and I Promise are 3 unbelievably good tracks, written and recorded by a band in a purple patch on steroids – and deserve their own legacy, even if they differ from the almighty legacy that OK Computer has earned.