Radiohead “Minidiscs [Hacked]” (2019)

In June of 2019, Radiohead made available a mother lode of mostly unreleased recordings for only 18 days on Bandcamp, consisting of nearly 18 hours of private recordings from the OK Computer era. Recorded between 1995 and 1998, these recordings consisted of countless demos, outtakes, alternate versions, unreleased songs, live cuts, and other curiosities which were mostly related to the English alternative band’s 1997 masterwork. Why did they do this? On the band’s official website, guitarist/keyboardist Jonny Greenwood explained it like this:

“We got hacked last week – someone stole Thom (Yorke)’s minidisc archive from around the time of OK Computer, and reportedly demanded $150,000 on threat of releasing it. So instead of complaining – much – or ignoring it, we’re releasing all 18 hours on bandcamp in aid of Extinction Rebellion. Just for the next 18 days. So for £18 you can find out if we should have paid that ransom. Never intended for public consumption (though some clips did reach the cassette in the OK Computer reissue) it’s only tangentially interesting. And very, very long. Not a phone download. Rainy out, isn’t it though?”

However, this site contradicted that ransom story and purported to tell the less intriguing true story about how the recordings were actually leaked.

Whatever the truth may have been, the band did sell the digital album on Bandcamp for 18 GBP, beginning on June 11th of 2019 and ending on the 28th of that month. The site warned that the full album, titled Minidiscs [Hacked], was 1.8 GB in size – so, if you happen to come across this massive digital album, be sure you have enough disc space and a high-speed internet connection to handle the download. The 18 tracks were only labelled as “MD111” through “MD128”, and almost every track was as long as a full-length CD. This shared Google Doc attempted the Herculean task of describing the extensive contents of each minidisc, as did the Rateyourmusic entry.

Speaking as someone who binge-streamed the minidisc files during that brief time they were available on Bandcamp, I would describe Minidiscs [Hacked] as a treasure trove for devotees of Radiohead, particularly admirers of the OK Computer album. Although a very high percentage of the recordings have bootleg sound quality, the mostly lo-fi delight is hardly ever boring, giving us a long look at the arty OK Computer-era material in often more primitive form, and in various working stages.

It’s hard to pick favorite tracks or moments from this much material, especially after cramming it over a short time period. The various versions of “Paranoid Android” and “No Surprises” scattered throughout the minidisc tracks are reliably good listens. Many unreleased songs – some recorded by the full band, others by frontman Thom Yorke alone – also are very interesting, and often make one wonder how those songs might have turned out if they had been fully developed as OK Computer tracks. “MD117” is one minidisc that comes close to being all-killer-and-no-filler; it would have made a respectable indie-label alternative CD in its own right, complete with a small-club-suited funk jam and a moment of Metal Machine Music-style white noise manipulation. “MD121” and “MD122” contain many live cuts that are presentable enough for commercial release, although a few small anomalies are noticeable, and possibly easy to clean up.

Fortunately, the set of minidisc recordings was apparently cleaned up to some extent. Much of the extraneous non-musical content described in the Google Doc was cut from the Bandcamp files, especially on “MD116” and “MD123”.

An example of a lesser minidisc would be “MD119”, which basically consists of a series of messy rehearsals, although even they have moments of intensity. By contrast, some of the demos and rehearsals on “MD120” noticeably had better sound than most.

As if it was designed to be a climactic minidisc of the set, “MD125” begins to include the final or almost-final versions of the OK Computer tracks, albeit in unmastered form. “MD126” presents the album tracks in an early alternate listing order. The final disc, “MD128”, served as an odd denouement, containing more personal solo recordings by Yorke, some acoustic and some a cappella.

A few more brief highlights culled from my notes: one unreleased full-band song on “MD115” reminded me of Sonic Youth; one of the Thom Yorke solo acoustic recordings from that same disc made me think of the Strokes (a band that did not yet exist at the time of these recordings). An early solo acoustic performance by Yorke of “Last Flowers” (later an In Rainbows-era Radiohead track) on “MD116” stood out as a good moment. “MD118” contained an early live soundboard recording of “Karma Police” which sounded notably psychotic.

The digital equivalent of a sprawling 18-CD deluxe OK Computer box set, Minidiscs [Hacked] may be the ultimate example of a band putting so much of their creative process on public display – even if they only did so reluctantly and for a very limited time. Radiohead are certainly known for their experimentalism, in terms of their music and the ways in which it is distributed. Minidiscs [Hacked] might accidentally be their boldest experiment yet.

(Note: The cassette referred to in Greenwood’s statement was the mixtape included with the actual – and much more concise – official Deluxe Edition box set of the 2017 reissue OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017 (XL Recordings XLMX868). The shared Google Doc has info on which tracks from the minidiscs appeared on this cassette).

Radiohead “Minidiscs [Hacked]” (Bandcamp) 2019

Track listing:

1. MD111 (1:10:47)
2. MD112 (1:01:27)
3. MD113 (1:05:08)
4. MD114 (57:21)
5. MD115 (57:04)
6. MD116 (25:57)
7. MD117 (55:28)
8. MD118 (57:03)
9. MD119 (53:37)
10. MD120 (58:17)
11. MD121 (1:00:21)
12. MD122 (1:13:13)
13. MD123 (17:52)
14. MD124 (1:12:22)
15. MD125 (56:10)
16. MD126 (1:08:04)
17. MD127 (26:49)
18. MD128 (41:52)