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The Repentant Completionist: When Outtakes and Demos Become Too Much

Completionism: that’s a word, isn’t it? Yes. Yes, it is. It’s the desire, the need to complete the set of whatever you’re collecting or the drive to finish every level in a game. I gave up on collecting every record by bands I liked a long time ago. I was too broke to be a proper completionist. I was getting there with De La Soul albums on vinyl, but then my brother nicked the records and sold them or lost them somewhere in California. No biggie.

The one band who’ve most tempted me back to completionism is Radiohead. I own all the studio albums, the I Might Be Wrong live album, Com Lag and the bootleg Oxford’s Angels, which includes early stuff including the Drill EP songs, the B-sides, the Record Store Day exclusives, that rejected Bond Spectre theme song and then there’s the special edition of… oh, shut up, Joel. Either you’re a Radiohead fan and there are fond tears welling up in your eyes or you’ve glazing over and are very close to skipping to the last paragraph, so let’s just get to the point.

That Radiohead leak

In June 2019, someone leaked over 16 hours of Minidisc recordings of Radiohead demos, rehearsals, soundchecks, song sketches on tinternet. These recordings from the late 90’s weren’t ever meant to be made public. In wake of the leak, the band begrudgingly decided to officially release all this material on Bandcamp for a limited time: the deal was you had 18 days to download the whole lot for £18. The profits would go to the environmental group Extinction Rebellion. The band, bless ‘em, tried to make something positive out of a genuinely frustrating situation. The unabridged and quite fascinating story of the stolen and leaked material is in this super nerdy Reddit thread.

Naturally, I, like thousands of other fans, was curious to hear these recordings. Allegedly there were hidden gems and full songs amongst the half-baked ideas, false starts and melodic vocal place-holders.

So, to Bandcamp. I’m at work sorting through and editing photos. Perfect time to listen to this unexpected mammoth audio treat.

The first minidisc ‘MD111’ is 70 minutes of material. Unsurprisingly, by the time I’m listening the hardcore fans have already provided tracklists and notes, for those who can’t quite read the scrawled tracklists in the artwork. And sure enough it does feature a rarity, an early version of True Love Waits, but it’s mainly songs I know and love being soundchecked or in various stages of not-yet-dressed.

Radiohead circa 1997, from ‘Meeting People is Easy’

Importantly ‘MD111’ also features Thom Yorke’s wails and murmurs as he attempts to get those initial song ideas out of his head. Onto the next minidisc, and the next one. More gems and more curiosities and more raw song sketches. It’s fun…for a while.

Five hours later it feels like I’m treading on sacred territory; sacred and to be honest, not that enjoyable. A voice is saying, ‘Leave Thom alone, let him bloody finish writing the song before you listen to it.’

I don’t edit photos very often at work. In fact, there aren’t spare hours throughout the day to meaningfully do this minidisc marathon. I persevere. 15 minutes here, a couple more tracks there, but I’m lagging. Despite the seams of sonic gold, I’m increasingly less motivated to listen to songs that Radiohead, given the chance, would’ve hidden away forever.

Thom writes on the Bandcamp site about the leaked collection, ‘it’s not v interesting’. He’s looking forward to the moment when ‘we all get bored and move on’. Sure enough, most casual listeners and culture vultures do get bored and move on. Some fans will continue to cherish these recording as part of their complete Radiohead archive. Me? I’m in neither camp. I didn’t get bored. I got uncomfortable.

The need for hidden processes

I never made it to ‘MD128’. The Bandcamp download deadline passed without me downloading it and I decided not to ask other fans for a cheeky zip file. And I’m content.

As someone lamented after the publication of Kurt Cobain’s journals: ‘Private thoughts should remain private thoughts’. Unpublished sketches have a purpose within the creative process. They exist as a reference often for an audience of one. As a society we’ve developed a weird gluttony for the unheard, the unseen, the unpublished, the unfinished, the alternate version, the leaked edit, the ill-advised DVD bonus feature and in doing so, we’ve trampled on delicate artistry and diminished its ineffable glow.

Unpublished sketches have a purpose within the creative process. They exist as a reference often for an audience of one.

I get it. We’re human. We’re stubbornly curious creatures. The creative process can be interesting. We somehow hope that some of that magic will rub off on us, or that we’ll discover some brilliant, otherworldly technique or that we’ll find a distilled form of the creative elixir the artist draws from before offering it to the public.

We want to feel like insiders. We sense that the creative process is what many artists most love, therefore we want to get a glimpse or him/her/them mid-composition. Ironically for many of us this isn’t about completionism, it’s about feeling an ephemeral moment of intimacy with an artist we’re drawn to.

PJ Harvey Dog Called Money Seamus Murphy Sputnik Faith Arts
PJ Harvey recording. From Seamus Murphy’s ‘A Dog Called Money’

PJ Harvey recorded her 9th album in a recording studio with one-way glazing, allowing visitors to watch Harvey, her band, producers and engineers make the song. Most musicians would find this terribly distracting. If in 1995 I’d been sitting there next to Thom Yorke as he stumbled through his new song No Surprises, he’d never have finished it.

I feel like I’ve dodged a bullet. For me the mystique of this band is still intact. Their ability to create transcendent moments and lyrics that speak my own thoughts is wonderful and baffling. During the Minidisc bonanza, we were just a few days away from the release of Anima, Yorke’s new solo album, a fully realized work he actually wanted people to hear. Right now I’m listening to the song Not the News and my whole body is tingling. Woah.