Radiohead recycled: why rare 1980s Thom Yorke footage holds no surprises

Newly discovered archive video of High and Dry – performed by the frontman’s university band – underscores Radiohead’s shrewd refusal to surrender material

Radiohead: Back in the days before riders and arenas Image by Karen Mason Blair/CORBIS Photograph: Karen Mason Blair/ Karen Mason Blair/CORBIS

Radiohead love to recycle. We all know that! But were you aware Oxford band employ the same regenerative approach to their music as they do their yoghurt pots?

A recently uploaded YouTube video, reportedly shot at some point in the 1980s, follows Thom Yorke’s former band Headless Chickens as they perform a prototype version of High and Dry. Without any of the qualities that make the eventual Radiohead version – the downbeat, hollowed-out percussion and Jonny Greenwood’s eerie, nagging EBow – the Exeter University band scuttle through the scrappy indie anthem while bathed in smoke machine and a spectrum of coloured lights. It might not have the same finesse of the single that ended up on The Bends in 1995, but it already has a chorus even the band’s own bassist seems impressed by.

While most would rather forget the “art” we once created on campus, Radiohead are famously open to the idea of digging up the past – an ironic concept for a band so dedicated to progressive thinking. A few weeks ago, Greenwood confirmed the group are working on a new version of Lift, a song that dates all the way back to 1996:

“What people don’t know is that there’s a very old song on each album, like Nude on In Rainbows,” Jonny Greenwood told 3voor12. “We never found the right arrangement for that, until then. Lift is just like that. When the idea is right, it stays right. It doesn’t really matter in which form.”

s well as Nude, the track on 2007’s In Rainbows that dates back to 1997, there’s a short clip of Yorke singing I Will during 1998’s rockumentary Meeting People Is Easy, five years before its final version arrived on Hail to the Thief. Then there’s True Love Waits, a song that was first spotted in 1995, and only emerged on 2001’s I Might Be Wrong live album. In the hands of Radiohead, even acoustic sketches or furious on-stage experimentation can take shape into something far more ambitious: a fragment of an instrumental played live around 2008 recently ended up on Jonny Greenwood’s Inherent Vice soundtrack, entitled Spooks.

To some, the concept of dusting off decade-old archive material every time a new album is on its way might sound a little lazy. But I love that Radiohead’s songs have had time to gestate; that the band have their own internal history with a song. There’s a beauty in seeing something incubated until its ready to hatch. Something incomplete evolving. Like a headless chicken.


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