Around this time of year in 2017, Radiohead re-released OK Computer as OK Computer OKNOTOK, for its 20th-year anniversary. This same time last year, a leaked compilation of the band’s archives were uncovered. As it turned out, these archives contained some of the songs used for the OK Computer re-release, as well as alternate versions of some other songs. Altogether, the current version of this compilation streams on Bandcamp at a running total of 16 hours and 18 minutes. There was a large number of people with mixed emotions as far as the rumors behind this collection. The truth, however, turns out to be a much more nuanced story.
The story starts with discord user Zimbra. He appears in a Radiohead server and asks for help with bootlegs. Zimbra goes to a user, Rhett, to verify the validity of his acquisition: 17 or so hours’ worth of Radiohead leaks from their OK Computer sessions. After sending a few previews, it had been established that these files were legitimate archives, and Rhett went to a few close associates of his from the fandom.
While deliberating, it was discovered that Zimbra had already sold a now well-circulated version of “Lift,” a version that hadn’t been heard on OK Computer OKNOTOK. Zimbra had thought to sell this file and the others for 500 dollars and to sell the live versions for 50. Drawing together all the tracks and clips, Zimbra could have made roughly $150,000 from the leak.
At the very beginning of all of this, much misinformation was being spread. Rumors were being widely spread, as websites and blogs covered the inaccuracies of the entire situation. This includes claims that the leak was 18 hours long, instead of 17. It was also believed that Zimbra was holding the minidisks for ransom and was demanding $150k.
None of this, however, was at all the case.
Once the greater Radiohead fanbase got word of both the story and its rumors, the outrage grew all the more fervent. The reactions to Zimbra having them in his possession, much less wanting to sell them, sparked a lot of virtual confrontation. Users were contacting Zimbra with demands that he release the leaked material.
With due time and some deliberate discussion among some of the first users he interacted with, Zimbra decided to release the minidisks. He posed as an infamous bootlegger and posted the link to the W.A.S.T.E discord server soon after the viral outburst. Very soon after the initial shock of this release, though, Radiohead responded with a much better response: The band released a cleaned-up version of the collection. Clipping out nearly an hour of chatter and other miscellaneous clips, all proceeds of this more organized project go to a charitable cause.
According to their site, Extinction Rebellion is an international movement in the United Kingdom that focuses on climate change through international action. With no partisan inclinations, this movement is focused on governmental transparency and citizen involvement via citizen’s assemblies. Radiohead’s support of the movement has also brought many eyes to ER’s mission, including my own.
As far as the actual esteemed compilation itself, there is a collection of 18 minidisks, each having anywhere from 30 recordings to 18, and even as few as 7. All throughout are renditions, clips, b-sides, solos, and full band rehearsals of RH’s songs. I have a few favorites, that, simply from the beginning to its end, I could listen to as an entire RH album.
MD120 is my favorite, simply for the earlier renditions of “Hospital,” or an early version of what is now “Last Flowers.” The song isn’t the somber, reflective song that it is on “In Rainbows.” These versions instead play a more cathartic refrain after panicky, frantic rhythms in the verses. Following immediately are the skeletons of “True Love Waits,” from A Moon-Shaped Pool. Hearing these variations from what I had known the songs to be only proved to be a testament to the creative processes Radiohead goes through when recording albums.
The Radiohead story defines a controversy that surrounds all bootleg recordings. Many artists have different feelings on the release of bootlegs. There seems to be a huge difference in the way artists feel about the release of bootlegs that feature live recordings as opposed to bootlegs of unreleased studio recordings that include outtakes, demos or even completely finished songs that for one reason or another were not released. Many artists hold back songs because their style simply did not fit the feel of the album. These songs may be held back to be released on future albums. Studio time is very expensive. Having a finished song ready to go for the next album could save hundred of hours of studio time. When fans release songs like that, it is incredibly crippling financially for bands. At least that’s the way it was when bands actually sold records. Of course, maybe the band didn’t release the song because they simply didn’t like it or thought it was not up their level of standard releases. It can be incredibly embarrassing for a band to have a song released that does not define them in a flattering sense. Nonetheless, if a band does not release a song for whatever reasons, no one should feel that it is their decision to release it. It is and has always been criminal to do so.
Many bands and artist feel a bit different about the release of live recordings as bootlegs. A live show is a public performance and so the band has already exposed themselves to the world from that performance. Of course, from a finical standpoint they are not happy about it, but from an artistic standpoint, its material that they have already performed in public. Over time, especially in the past five years, artists have fought back against the bootleggers in the same way Radiohead combated a bootleg release of their archives. Many artists now sell their shows directly from their websites. Bruce Springsteen who is one of the most heavily booted artists of all time, now sells all his concerts from his website for a fraction of the price bootleggers used to charge.
Frank Zappa was the artist who paved the way for the fight against bootleggers. In the 1980s Frank Zappa took about 10 actual bootleg albums of his work and printed them himself and sold them in a box set called Beat The Boots. Its was brilliant and it gave many other artists ideas to do the same thing. Nonetheless, in 2020 we live in a very different world and all one has to do is click on YouTube and they can get pretty get anything they want. That’s a medium that is literally impossible to stop.