Radiohead Week, Day 4: “I Can’t Pretend…”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 14, 2007
A little bit of noise will destroy you
Any Radiohead fan worth his ammonia knows that musically, the albums only tell half the story. The rest can be found through the band’s practically countless amount of b-sides, unreleased tracks, remixes, alternate versions and live covers–view all 24 DISCS of the widely internet-circulated box set Towering Above the Rest for evidence of this (and no, the original albums aren’t even included). Frankly, at this point, a comprehensive and official box essaying all of Radiohead’s non-LP material would probably be even more exciting than a new album, although to really be comprehensive, the thing would probably cost in the hundreds. Hey, no one ever said Radiohead fandom came cheap.
So, naturally, one of the most fun things about being a Radiohead fan in the early days of file-sharing (ahhh, Audiogalaxy, we’ve yet to find your equal) was unearthing all these tracks–scouring ‘Head discographies over at Follow Me Around and AtEase and creating my own b-sides & unreleased mini-comps. I’m not gonna go into too far depth about all the great discoveries I made–I’ll continue to up a bunch of them each day, and most of them are old hat by now anyway. But suffice to say, I truly believe that you could’ve made alternate cuts of The Bends, OKC and Amnesiac using only the stuff that didn’t make the albums, and they’d be nearly as good as the LPs they missed.
Anyway, one particular favorite of me and my friends during this time (Spring of ’01, just before Amnesiac was released) was a b-side we found called “Cuttooth.” It was this really cool, spooky number, just Yorke and a four-note piano riff for a few minutes, until about halfway through when Johnny’s manic guitar scrapes enter, and then the whole band kicks in for this cacophonous, pounding, bad-ass sounding squall. Almost instantly, we bumped it up to the highest echelon of our favorite Radiohead tracks (and oh yes, we made lists), and pointed to it as one of the definitive examples of the kind of insanely creative, unique shit that Radiohead could afford to toss off on b-sides. The only thing unusual about it was that I couldn’t figure out where it came from, since I couldn’t find a listing for an official release of it or anything. But that wasn’t that weird–tons of Radiohead’s best songs were never officially released, so I didn’t think about it too much.
But then really something strange happened. I had amassed a set of the “Pyramid Song” and “Knives Out” singles, I think through an online CD trade or something, and I popped it the “Knives Out” single that “Cuttooth” eventually ended up on. And the song that came on…well, it wasn’t “Cuttooth.” It wasn’t just a different version, it was an entirely different song–a swirling, neo-psychedelic sort of song that was actually one of the poppiest things I’d heard Radiohead do in a long-ass time. It was quite good, as all the Amnesiac b’s were. But what the hell was the song my friends and I loved so much? I did a little lyric googling, and I learned something that made my jaw drop, and my stomach turn–because I didn’t just get the title of the song wrong, I got the band wrong.
It was a Muse song.
And not just a Muse song–a b-side, some “Muscle Museum” flip that the band’s own rabidest fans probably couldn’t care less about. This would perhaps not register quite so resoundingly outside of my group of friends, but Muse had always been something of a musical punchline to us. They were the palest of pale imitations, a band with zero originality that would only be worth a damn in a universe where Radiohead had either failed to materialize or were banned by law to listen to, on punishment of death. My friend Anton actually dared to stick up for them, and we never stopped giving him shit for it. So for us, this plot twist was some Crying Game-type shit.
Unsurprisingly, that was more or less the end of our rabid “Cuttoth”/”Con Science” appreciation. My friend REL, the most vocal proponent of the song, soured on it completely–now that he realized it was actually Muse behind the song, he claimed that he no longer appreciated the “originality” of it, and thus could not enjoy the song on the same level. And personally, I certainly never heard the song with the same ears again–I still liked it, but I certainly wouldn’t have put it up against my favorite RH songs or even b-sides anymore. Anton must’ve felt vindicated as a motherfucker.
Listening to it now, I can’t imagine how we ever could’ve mistaken “Con Science” for a Radiohead track. Musically it sounds like one, I guess, but how we allowed ourselves to believe it was Thom Yorke singing–I mean, the falsetto’s a dead ringer, but the rest is clearly Matt Bellamy, even though I would never have been able to name or identify him at the time. And I do still think it’s a pretty cool song, but then again, I’ve come to respect Muse a lot more across the board. They still sound a lot like Radiohead, sure, but their songs are getting stronger and more ambitious (can’t wait to play “Knights of Cydonia” on GHIII), and I appreciate that they give RH fans something to chew on while the ‘Head is off noodling for years at a time, and often refusing to give the fans what they want. They’re like the RJD2 to Radiohead’s DJ Shadow. And while I’ll never respect ‘em on the same level, I can acknowledge now that there’s a place for them in the art-rock sandbox.
In the end, I think we all learned a valuable lesson about the nature of music, and of art in general–the politics of who created a song isn’t what’s impotant, what’s important is the way a song makes you feel, and it shouldn’t matter if it’s The Clash or if it’s Rancid that’s actually peforming it. Or, failing that, at least always make sure to doublecheck your Audiogalaxy file information.
*Underrated Radiohead & Radiohead-Related Songs of the Day*:
“Million Dollar Question“ One of their earliest classic b-sides, a poppy rave-up that could’ve really energized side two of Pablo Honey.
“Kid A (John Mayer Version)“ Probably one of the five least likely Radiohead songs for a notoriously sensitive singer/songwriter to take on, but his rendition does the song surprising justice. Just about quintupled my respect for the dude.
“Meeting in the Aisle“ This “Karma Police” flip is one of Radiohead’s most unapologetically cinematic numbers, a trip-hop beat matched with gorgeous cascading synths and sweeping strings. What I sort of hoped Moon Safari would sound like. One of my favorite titles of theirs, too.
“Creep (Aoiwe Remix)“ There’s a wonderful and frightening world of ‘Head remixes out there, and though I’m still catching up, this one is definitely a winner. Removing the rhythm track and emphasizing the song’s atmospherics, Aoiwe turns “Creep” into what it might’ve sounded like if Radiohead had recorded it a decade later.
“I Promise“ A live track that never saw official release, a surprisingly sweet-sounding love song from Yorke and co. Of course, there’s a creepy, sinister subtext in there somewhere, but ignoring it every once in a while won’t kill you, will it.