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Radiohead’s “Lift” Is a Poignant Reminder of the Band They Could Have Been

INDIO, CA - APRIL 21: Musician Thom Yorke of Radiohead performs on the Coachella Stage during day 1 of the 2017 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival (Weekend 2) at the Empire Polo Club on April 21, 2017 in Indio, California. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images for Coachella)

Sometime in between The Bends in 1995 and OK Computer in ’97, Radiohead became a different band. The first of those two albums is filled with quietly adventurous pop-rock songs, crafted with an uncommon melodic and emotional sophistication but nonetheless unmistakable as the work of people playing guitars, bass, and drums. The second one opens with a line that arcs like a buzzsaw blade, played on something that could be a guitar–or is it a cello? or both?–and a fractured percussion track jacked straight from the toolkit of DJ Shadow. The latter sound announced Radiohead as something more complicated than a group of brainy rock’n’rollers, and it was the germ of the brilliance that the band has consistently exhibited in the two decades since then. But hey, The Bends is pretty brilliant too. What would have happened if Radiohead had decided to keep doing that?

Part of the answer comes via the OK Computer B-Sides, many of them collected on the Airbag/How am I Driving EP released in ’98. With a few exceptions, like the tripped-out instrumental “Meeting in the Aisle,” it’s obvious why these songs didn’t make the record, great as they are: they sound like The Bends. “Polyethylene” and “Palo Alto” are robust rock songs; “Lull” a twinkling midtempo tune that could have slotted nicely somewhere into the album’s second half. With the release of OKNOTOK 1997 2017, the deluxe OK Computer reissue, we get three songs that are yet another step removed from the canonical OK Computer: “Lift,” “Man of War,” and “I Promise,” recorded during sessions for the album but left unreleased entirely until now, apparently deemed unworthy even of B-Side status.

Which is a shame, because each of them is great in its own way, providing yet another window into the competing creative impulses that defined Radiohead in the mid-’90s. Each of them is also already well known to Radiohead obsessives, circulating as they have for years as live versions and studio demos. Still, it’s fascinating to hear how these lost tunes sounded in their most “official” versions.

“Lift,” available for listening for the first time today, is not the best song of the bunch–that would be “Man of War,” also known to bootleg collectors as “Big Boots“–but it most fully captures the contradictions of this transitory period. It’s a big ballad in the vein of “High and Dry,” but instead of lyrics about a failing relationship, it’s got fantastically strange verses about a man being rescued from an elevator in which he’s become stuck–just the kind of J.G. Ballard-inflected stuff about the futility of man in the modern age that would come to define OK Computer. Likewise, the arrangement balances oddball touches–like a synth line that bounces in unison with Thom Yorke’s voice during the chorus–and otherwise straightforward Britpop. “If [‘Lift’] had been on that album, it would’ve taken us to a different place, and probably we’d have sold a lot more records, if we’d done it right,” Ed O’Brien said in a recent BBC Radio interview. “And everyone was saying this, and we kind of subconsciously killed it.”

Radiohead have always been perfectionists about their recordings–it’s why “Nude” and “True Love Waits” didn’t make it onto albums until many years after they were written–and O’Brien added that the band “didn’t do a good version, because when we got to the studio and did it, it felt like having a gun to your head. It was too much pressure.” And it’s true that the studio version of “Lift” sounds strangely neutered, with drums that patter instead of exploding with energy like they do on fan-favorite live versions. If you’re looking for a version that explains why listeners have been anticipating the song’s official release so eagerly, check out the undated live recording below, which circulated on the beloved Napster-era bootleg collection Towering Above the Rest. For me, this one remains the canonical “Lift.”

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