Although its members have kept their creative flame burning with an array of side-projects, soundtracks and solo albums, Radiohead’s output as Radiohead has dramatically reduced over the past decade and more. There has been just one new record from Thom Yorke & co. in that period – 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool – as the most forward-thinking rock band of their generation have become more occupied with digging into their vaults for bonus material to be included on the OK Computer, Kid A and Amnesiac reissues.
You imagine that the extras on those reissues barely scratch the surface of the Radiohead rarities gathering dust on their hard drives: in an interview with The New Cue a couple of years ago, the band’s long-term collaborator and producer Nigel Godrich said there was a Radiohead archive room that was very much the group’s own version of the mysterious storage facility at the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Who knows when the tracks that the Oxford quintet recorded with Mark ‘Spike’ Stent during the In Rainbows sessions might see the light of day, or if the session they did at Jack White’s Third Man Studios in 2012 will ever be unveiled?
Perhaps it should be enough that, even away from their nine studio albums, there is an abundance of non-album Radiohead music already out there and much of it matches up to their best work. In the '90s, B-sides sometimes acted as an inkling to where Radiohead were going to go next, whilst some of the outtakes that have been let loose into the wild hinting at where they might have gone.
Here are ten of the band's most essential B-sides, outtakes and non-album tracks.
Radiohead transformed as a band between their first two records. With its quiet-loud-quiet dynamics and forlorn wailing, their 1993 debut Pablo Honey had them pegged as slacker-y grunge acolytes who felt a bit sorry for themselves. But the mammoth success of their woe-is-me anthem Creep put a steeliness in Radiohead, who were determined to shake off the “one-hit wonder” tag and prove themselves as an ambitious, daring rock band.
The Iron Lung EP, from 1994, is where they first put that approach into action. The title track is a direct response to their dalliance with mainstream success via Creep, but it’s Permanent Daylight that’s the EP’s most curious standout. With its patterns of angular chords, warped guitar effects, buried vocals and a driving Krautrock groove, it has a brilliantly odd feeling about it, like you’ve walked in on it halfway through, a signpost to the more interesting and experimental band to come.
Not just one of the most crucial B-sides of Radiohead’s career, but one of the most important songs of their whole catalogue. Their second record, 1995’s The Bends, had seriously shifted the dial on both Radiohead’s sound and what people thought of them. The album’s widescreen, anguished rock had been made with John Leckie but the producer quite literally left the door open when he was absent for the day Radiohead were putting down some B-sides. In his stead, up stepped engineer Nigel Godrich. What emerged was Talk Show Host, a song that's solemn, soulful vocals, stop-start rhythmics, haunting guitar riff and minimalist soundscapes was a new sonic template for the band to explore. In Godrich, they’d found a match – he’s produced everything the band have done in the 28 years since.
Around the same time, Radiohead also had a song that everyone knew was something special. Lift, an uplifting, mid-tempo rock song with a great big soaring chorus, had been played live since 1996 but when the band tried to get it down in the studio as part of the OK Computer sessions, something was missing. Guitarist Ed O’Brien later said it was a mixture of trying to nail what they felt would become a classic and that they had moved on sound-wise to more exploratory territory. “Lift had a magic about it, but when we got to the studio and did it, it felt like having a gun to your head,” he said. The band eventually released a demo version on the OKNOTOK 1997 2017 album, but that felt more plodding than the versions of it performed live. A definitive take surfaced on MiniDiscs [Hacked] set, however, Lift as it was meant to be, Radiohead as they didn’t want to be, a song that basically feels like the group inventing Coldplay.
You can see why Radiohead were hesitant to go down the Lift route - this is what they wanted to do instead, a spacey trip-hop instrumental with a cosmic, Air-style bassline, heavily reverbed guitars and a silky beat. A B-side to Karma Police, this is what they walked onto during the arena tour to support OK Computer. It’s special because it sounds like nothing else they did before or since, a brief but brilliant diversion into Radiohead as a downtempo electronica act.
It would be possible to do a separate list of the masterful stripped-down songs in the wider Radiohead universe, tracks that solely feature Thom Yorke and an acoustic guitar or piano. Of those, You Never Wash Up After Yourself, Last Flowers, How I Made My Millions and Follow Me Around would be right up there, but none could shift Fog [Again] (Live) from the top spot. Fog is a song that they struggled to get right so indecisively that there’s actually three versions of it floating around, but this raw live take is the finest – descending minor chords locked into a hypnotic loop around Thom Yorke’s plaintive croon, totally mesmeric.
There’s a hint of self-sabotage the deeper you get into Radiohead’s career, with some recordings coming across a bit like the band turned a song on its head so it doesn’t sound too much like Radiohead. That’s certainly the vibe on 4 Minute Warning, which, with its acoustic sway and yearning lyrics, suggested it could be the new Fake Plastic Trees on early live renditions. It morphed into a lo-fi folk number when it eventually emerged on the In Rainbows extra disc, less straightforward than it should have been perhaps, but becoming something more disquietly fascinating, a slightly out of tune piano and an acoustic guitar that sounds like it’s missing a string or two slowly staggering around a doleful Yorke vocal.
The band’s The King Of Limbs era seems like an odd point for Radiohead looking back because none of the period’s best songs actually made the album and were issued as standalone singles after release. Supercollider was a pulsing, slo-mo banger, The Butcher was all chopped-up beats and dubby menace and The Daily Mail had their best clanging outro since You And Whose Army?. This was the pick of the bunch though, all percussive criss-crossing, future-funk guitars, gliding synths and a beautifully forlorn Yorke vocal. A latter-day Radiohead classic.
Man Of War is one of the longest-running sagas of Radiohead’s career. Written and played live around The Bends era, tormented attempts to record it were captured in the 1998 documentary Meeting People Is Easy. They tried again some years later, recording a version of the song to be used as a Bond theme for Spectre – with its swooping strings and grand chord changes, it would have been a perfect Bond theme! – but it was nixed when producers said they needed to have the theme tune be an original song to qualify for the Oscars. That version saw the light of day on OKNOTOK 1997 2017, and it is stunning. Listen to this and then listen to the bobbins Sam Smith song that did eventually soundtrack Spectre and then go outside and shake your first angrily at the sky.
Whilst Radiohead have undoubtedly amassed a mountain of unreleased material throughout their career, most of it has been heard in one shape or another, with the band keen on roadtesting songs either live or in soundcheck. It made it surprising, then, that on 2021’s Kid A Mnesia’s set there was this never-before-heard-of cut, a wonderfully unhurried four minutes of loose grooves and atmospheric guitars.
Recorded as a tribute to the titular Patch, the last surviving soldier to have fought in World War 1, Harry Patch (In Memory Of) is a remarkable one-off in Radiohead songs, featuring nothing but lush strings alongside Thom Yorke’s voice. Released in August 2009, all proceeds from the single were donated to the Royal British Legion.