Radiohead Week

On A Friday: Radiohead In The ’80s

Before Radiohead released The Bends in 1995 and kicked off an unimpeachable run, there was 1993’s Pablo Honey. For a time, I ranked Pablo Honey alongside stuff like the Clash’s Cut The Crap: embarrassments by bands that were otherwise unassailable, the kind of albums the band and fans alike tried to willfully write out of history. A closer relative to Pablo Honey is probably Blur’s 1990 release Leisure. Both are less bad than their reputation suggests. Their main failings are being pretty derivative, merely solid efforts from artists that would later achieve just about the greatest successes possible for a rock band.

But before even that, Radiohead were On A Friday, a group of high school friends who rehearsed — drum roll, please — on Fridays, in the music room at their high school. On A Friday existed on and off through the latter half of the ’80s dependent on where and when the various members were away at university. By 1991, they started to go at it in earnest, garnered a label deal, and made a wise (label-mandated) choice to change their name, opting for the much, much better option of stealing the title of a latter day Talking Heads song. In the years leading up to all that, there were phases: an era without baby brother/crazy musical genius Johnny Greenwood, an era with three (three!) saxophonists in the band. And let’s just say this was before our friends in Radiohead got into Charles Mingus and were writing “The National Anthem“-style avant freakouts.

A few years back, some On A Friday songs began to leak out from a 1986 demo that was supposedly the group’s first recording. This was that pre-Johnny Greenwood era, and it’s a fascinating glimpse into Radiohead’s very, very early days. Starting in late 2011, these particular demos were uploaded by a YouTube user called klootme, who provided this explanation:

History behind the tape is that my husband was at school with the band and partied with them (before Jonny joined them!). Phil was at Uni with us both in Liverpool. The demo was given to my husband at 17 in school. We used to go and see them play in Oxford and was friends with them. They were fairly inactive from 1987-1990 as a band. But when everyone had finished Uni they got back together and tried to make a go of it. They went to the States … we went backpacking to India for 6 months. Six months later we retured from India…saw Colin with a binbag full of laundry at the lauderette … “so much for the States” we laughed … I remember seeing them in Oxford where me and my husband made up an audience of 6!

When Pablo Honey came out, critics called it derivative of grunge, and it wasn’t hard to hear a lot of Pixies and Sonic Youth DNA mixed with some light U2-isms. But when Radiohead turned into this famous, groundbreaking band, it wasn’t uncommon to hear about the influence of R.E.M. or the Smiths or Talking Heads on the band, though you could rarely hear that explicitly on, say, Kid A. What’s really cool about some of the On A Friday stuff is how you can see the slightest, slightest traces of the good Radiohead stuff that’d come ten or more years later, but they also sound like a bunch of kids playing derivative music that’s more or less a lot cooler than the derivative music they’d put out on their actual debut. You can really hear the Smiths and Talking Heads in some of these songs.

If you poke around the internet — or use the handy guides on fan sites like Citizen Insane — you can find On A Friday demo material from throughout the 1986-1991 period leading up to the band’s re-christening as Radiohead. Some of it is naturally better than the rest, some of it is flat-out bizarre and/or hilarious (get ready for some ska, and imagine what might’ve happened if the Stone Roses were Thom Yorke’s favorite band), but it’s all revelatory in a minor way. At the least it’s fascinating to glimpse a band that would come to define the latter ’90s and ’00s back in their nascent stages, in the days where they might write a straight up ’60s-style rock song or title a song “Tell Me Bitch” or go through whatever other growing pains it took to get to “Everything In Its Right Place.” So, 20 years after The Bends — the album that really, truly, in essence started Radiohead as we know them — let’s take a look back at the Radiohead of before. Here’s a guide to some of the good/bad/strange highlights of On A Friday’s career.

“Fragile Friend”

These first four songs are all from that ’86 demo that was initially circulating a few years back. Maybe it’s my prejudice toward almost all things ’80s, but I actually really like these On A Friday tracks, which have some serious ’80s college-rock vibes (even though the band members were still teenagers). I’d be really curious to hear the band take the best of these early songs (like this one) and flesh them out into some quick project; the results could actually be awesome. There’s a lot of not-totally-necessary saxophone in here, though. Get ready for that — it is something you can say about many On A Friday songs.

“Girl (In The Purple Dress)”

There are a few things in “Girl (In The Purple Dress)” that actually feel like long-ago precursors to certain elements of Radiohead’s music as we know it: The way the drums keep this hyperactive beat underneath calm piano chords isn’t too far off from some of the really percussive and synth-based compositions of ’00s Radiohead. Like “Fragile Friend,” there’s a general vibe of ’80s mope-rock going on here, but you can also hear the drive toward some of the anthemic qualities Radiohead would let into their music early in their career. Yorke’s delivery is very, very early-’80s Bono. And, hey, there’s a sax solo in this song, too.

“Everybody Knows”

Given some of the absolutely batshit experiments to come on this list, the existence of “Everybody Knows” kind of blows my mind. Here these guys are, super early in their career and in high school, and yet it wouldn’t take too many small changes to make “Everybody Knows” fit in right alongside material from Pablo Honey or, more importantly, The Bends. The way the guitar part and vocal melody plaintively play off one another feels like a very early practice run at future masterpieces like “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” and it’s another one of those early demos where I’d be pretty curious to hear a finished studio version. There’s another saxophone solo here, by the way. That’s where you have to remind yourself that these people did wind up becoming Radiohead.

“Fat Girl”

If you heard Radiohead’s straightforward-but-great cover of the Smiths’ “The Headmaster Ritual” and didn’t hear the Smiths influence in their music, here you are. Kinda hard to imagine Thom Yorke naming a song “Fat Girl,” but maybe this was written after The Queen Is Dead came out and he’d heard Morrissey sing “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others.” Well, either way, the guy was still 17.

“Happy Song”

These next three are from a 1988 demo, and “Happy Song” is the oddest of the bunch. I wouldn’t put it past a late-’90s or early-’00s Radiohead to sardonically write something called “Happy Song” that turned out to be some bleak, apocalyptically electronic meditation, but this is a legitimately bright, cheery, uptempo track. I mean, is that a marimba in there? It pretty much sounds like a marimba, which isn’t a sentence I expected to be writing about the band that became Radiohead.

“To Be A Brilliant Light”

Unlike “Happy Song,” “To Be A Brilliant Light” has a little bit more in common with the tracks from that ’86 demo in that you could at least see how this group would eventually grow up into Radiohead. It’s a morose mini-epic, with a few rises and falls, and there are parts here that make this another one of those On A Friday tracks that, with a little rearrangement, could’ve potentially been an interesting early Radiohead song. Other patterns of early On A Friday hold here. There are some saxophone parts that feel a bit cheesy (this is when there were three saxophonists in the band). And I kind of love the way Yorke belts out “To be a brilliant light, yeah!” at the end, which comes off as his attempt to match the gravelly boom of late-’80s Bono.

“Sinking Ship”

A lot of this strikes me as On A Friday Does R.E.M., which makes this a pretty cool little Radiohead artifact, if you ask me. Honestly, I’d be pretty interested if you told me the next Radiohead album was going to be them doing their version of jangly ’80s indie rock.

“Climbing Up A Bloody Great Hill”

These next five songs are from a 1990 demo and, man, this is where things get kinda weird. Funnily enough, as we’re getting pretty close chronologically to where Radiohead became Radiohead, the music is getting way more all over the place, with On A Friday moving away from those early songs that actually, distantly sound like Radiohead, and through a bunch of genre experimentations that, well, don’t. I guess “Climbing Up A Bloody Great Hill” is a funk-pop song, or something? It has some ’60s-esque touches (though not nearly as much as a song still to come on this list). It doesn’t sound anything like “Climbing Up The Walls.”

“Rattlesnake”

Lest you think Radiohead’s interest in experimenting with sampling and electronics only came later, after great achievement and subsequent boredom with guitar music, the ’90 demo has a few very bizarre songs built on very primitive loops. (Citizen Insane includes an explanation that Yorke built the beats by playing stuff off his Walkman into the recorder.) It kind of sounds like early-/mid-’90s Beck, actually. Anyway, this is one of those On A Friday moments that’s a weird and transfixing surprise, but it isn’t much to listen to.

“New Generation”

All of the things you could say about “Rattlesnake,” you could also say about “New Generation.” It’s another one of the ’90s demo’s strange electronic experiments. This one has Colin Greenwood contributing an, uh, idiosyncratic vocal performance in the verses. You can actually hear Yorke start to crack up a bit in the final chorus.

“Tell Me Bitch”

I know when you woke up today you probably said something alone the lines of, “My life’s great, the only thing it’s missing is an early, hopefully probably jokingly cartoonized ska song by On A Friday called ‘Tell Me Bitch.'” Well, here you go.

“Keep Strong”

Amidst all these weird, zig-zagging moments on the ’90s demo, I should also point out that it is actually where you can start to trace some actual roots to Radiohead. There’s an early version of “How Can You Be Sure?,” which later wound up a B-side to “Fake Plastic Trees.” “The Greatest Shindig Of The World” was the beginning of what would eventually become “Maquiladora,” a B-side to “High And Dry” and one of the first in Radiohead’s long line of killer B-sides. But, amidst all that, there is all the surprising experimentation of the demo in general, and the one that really stands out is “Keep Strong.” Everything about this sounds like a catchy, garage-y ’60s pop song to me, from those opening “Hey! Hey!” calls, to the bridge and chorus melodies, and even the chorus’ guitar line in spite of it having more of a ’90s tone on it. In spite of myself, I kind of really like this one.

“Stop Whispering”

All right, it’s 1991 and we’re getting closer to the band we know. “Stop Whispering” is, obviously, one of the singles from Pablo Honey, and one of the songs I can actually get behind from that album. Relative to the other On A Friday demos, we’re starting to get more melancholic mood-wise, and instrumentally we’re getting pretty close to Radiohead’s actual sound. What I really love about this demo, though, is a lot of it actually sounds like what I’d picture if you told me there was a “Stop Whispering” arrangement from the In Rainbows era, perhaps from the excellent From The Basement recordings. The whole thing has this kind of washed-out quality. But structurally it does have more of a meditative feeling than an anthemic one, the percussion and guitars perpetually feeling like they’re about to crest without ever truly breaking.

“Give It Up”

Not to say there weren’t a few other curveballs possible. Here’s an alternate history for you: Imagine a world in which Yorke & Co. got obsessed with Madchester and baggy, and their debut’s derivativeness wound up more Leisure than Pablo Honey. As long as we still got all the other Radiohead stuff as-is, I think there’s a part of me that’d be curious to live in that alternate history.

“I Can’t”

Here we are. Another 1991 demo, the final under the On A Friday moniker, the tape that’d become known as the “Manic Hedgehog Demo.” This is where the band started to build steam toward a label deal, and this is where you can hear the early Radiohead sound coming into its own. There are songs on Pablo Honey that feel a lot grungier than this, but the general aesthetic and emotion is all there. “I Can’t” sounds a little bit like a gnarlier Smiths song, making it a cool lost gem from the era, and one of the final missing links between all the developmental stages of On A Friday and the still-developmental-but-getting-closer stages of Radiohead’s earliest days.