Remake/Remodel: Arranging Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ b-sides into an album unto itself

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Welcome back to Remake/Remodel, the column where one of Treble’s editors or contributors takes a classic—if imperfect, to our ears—album, and proposes an alternate tracklist in an effort to provide a different, albeit highly enjoyable listening experience. Today, we celebrate one of the greatest albums of all-time by making a counterpart record: We’re turning the b-sides from Radiohead’s OK Computer into an entirely new album. Doing so requires an acknowledgement of a couple of facts. For one, this isn’t going to be anywhere near as ambitious or transcendent as the original album. And, more fascinatingly, it depicts what sounds a lot like an entirely different band.

The b-sides released during the OK Computer era and the outtakes on last year’s OKNotOK reissue sound more like they belong to the Radiohead of The Bends. “Lift” is a fairly conventional, mainstream alternative rock song. “Palo Alto” is the Britpoppiest thing they ever did. “Man of War” even pays homage to the music of James Bond—they even submitted the track for consideration in recent Bond entry Spectre, before writing a new song entirely for it (and then losing out to Sam Smith after all that). None of this sounds all that much like the band who, consensus would dictate, released the best album of the ’90s. But these are still excellent songs, an endlessly replayable counterpoint to the too-serious version of Radiohead that are more about art than writing some fun songs. So let’s see what an entirely different version of Radiohead might release as their third album.

What’s Gone: Nothing, technically. Unlike most editions of this column, this actually isn’t built from an existing tracklist, but made into one from bits and pieces the band didn’t see fit to include on OK Computer for one reason or another. So here’s how our Radiohead OK Computer 2.0 alternate tracklist looks.

(“Karma Police” b-side)

The shimmering guitar riff of “Lull” simply feels like an album opener. And in context, the song feels more connected to the band’s material on 1995’s The Bends than the atmosphere of OK Computer, but that can also be said of most of the b-sides of the era. Its gradual rise and climax is brighter and poppier than anything on OK Computer for that matter, and almost seems like a glimpse of an alternate history of Radiohead in which they gave into those instincts over their more progressive instincts. It’s a damn good song, though, and makes for a brief but excellent beginning.

(“Paranoid Android” b-side)

For some reason, Radiohead’s louder rock songs always fare worse in critical evaluations of their work, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Sure, “Electioneering” might not be the best song on OK Computer, but then again “Just” fucking smokes. So does “Pearly,” the Suede-like rock ‘n’ roll samba that lived a past life as a “Paranoid Android” b-side. It’s a raucous and rich song, and kicks up the tempo and energy after the sunrise of “Lull.”

“I Promise”
(from OKNotOK)

“I Promise” is a simple, gorgeous little song. It almost doesn’t even bear any resemblance to the band that Radiohead became. It does, however, share a bit in common with Bends-era ballads like “Fake Plastic Trees” and “High and Dry,” its mixture of simple strums and marching drums a stunning exercise in how to turn something so stripped-down into a breathtaking anthem. Following the bombast of “Pearly,” it feels like a natural transition, and leads to the curious question of why they left it unreleased for 20 years.

(from OKNotOK)

There’s been much written about “Lift,” a song that Radiohead began playing while on tour with Alanis Morrissette, and much of it feels a bit overblown. The band supposedly decided not to release the song because they felt it sounded too commercial, which is probably true when compared to something like “Lucky” or “Paranoid Android.” And it, indeed, is a wonderful little pop song. It’s also just as dark as the album it was cut from; “Lift” is a reference to an elevator, and the line “Today is the first day of the rest of your days” is essentially Thom Yorke being bleak as usual, depicting a meaningless existence that drones on and on (buzzes like a fridge?). It’s maybe more middle of the road for the band, but it doesn’t feel any more commercial than, say, “Karma Police.” And it feels right here, just before another explosion.

“Palo Alto”
(“No Surprises” b-side)

Seriously, Radiohead have written some damn fine rock songs. “Palo Alto” is the most over-the-top of the bunch, so much so that Jonny Greenwood’s chugging glam-rock chords seem to be peaking. It’s noisy, brutish and rude, all the while Phil Selway and Colin Greenwood groove their way into a riff on “Tomorrow Never Knows” or “Taxman.” Much like “Pearly,” it sounds more like the work of Bernard Butler-era Suede than Radiohead—they did evade being lumped in with the Britpop bunch, just narrowly—and it’s a hell of a lot of fun because of it. Radiohead, fun? Yeah, it’s true. And this barn-burner of a track closes out side one brilliantly.

“A Reminder”
(“Paranoid Android” b-side)

Alright then, side two. “A Reminder” is almost the opposite of “Palo Alto,” its hazy psychedelia moving slowly amid curious effects and a restrained, mournful vocal from Yorke. It’s essentially just a few chords over and over again, with more stuff happening on top, a mish-mash of cool sounds crashing into each other and creating a strange, shoegazey waltz of a dirge. It’s not so much that not much happens with this song, but it happens very gradually. And once the complete picture comes into the frame, it’s quite a stunner.

“Man of War”
(from OKNotOK)

“Man of War” sounds like the theme for a James Bond film. And, along with this alternate history of Radiohead, it might have ended up as the theme for “Tomorrow Never Dies” instead of Sheryl Crow’s (wow, absolutely nothing about the ’90s makes sense in hindsight). It’s a pretty spectacular tune, though, actually written as an homage to Bond themes, as well as with its share of Beatles-inspired guitar riffs. Following the hazy dirge of “A Reminder,” it feels like a much-needed burst of energy.

(“Paranoid Android” b-side)

“Melatonin” is short and slight, with synths that sound like strings and a skipping beat that, ultimately, does make it feel like a b-side more than a proper album track. But it works here, just before one of the most dramatic and grandiose songs on this tracklist.

“Polyethylene Parts 1 and 2”
(from the Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP)

The fact that this has a part one and a part two of course means that it’s a big statement of a song. And those two parts are basically: quiet part, then loud part. But instead of transitioning back and forth between the two, a la every grunge single essentially, they stay with the loud part once they get there. It’s prime art rock, a soaring belter of a track that finds Thom Yorke unleashing some of the most impassioned vocals of the OK Computer b-sides. It’s a stellar climax before the comedown.

“How I Made My Millions”
(“No Surprises” b-side)

And it’s a gorgeous comedown indeed. “How I Made My Millions” is lo-fi and stripped-down, just piano and voice, with more than a little static tracing the edges. It’s not the only song of its kind in Radiohead’s catalog, but it’s a gorgeous one all the same, and wraps up what would be a neat little alternative rock/Britpop album that serves as a companion piece to their much grander masterpiece.

Optional: Add “Meeting In the Aisle” between “Palo Alto” and “A Reminder.” It feels like a transitional piece anyway, like the “Fitter Happier” of this particular alternative-history version of Radiohead.

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