El Cholo, a popular Mexican restaurant located smack in the middle of Los Angeles' Koreatown, has the sort of kitschy decor that's part Southwestern stucco and part basement rec room: cheesy wall ornaments, table-top video games, worn couches. The din is intense tonight: Amid a symphony of clinking glasses, one group is screeching "Happy Birthday to You," while the women at a nearby table are hooting and hollering, and various drunken professional types are sitting at the long wooden bar, turning happy hour into a liquid dinner.
Radiohead guitarists Ed O'Brien and Jonny Greenwood survey the pandemonium with bemused looks. "This is insane," says O'Brien, who, at 6 feet 4 inches tall, towers above the rest of his band. "I'm going to the bar." Margaritas are ordered for all except Greenwood, who requests an espresso. Just as O'Brien returns with drinks in hand, singer and guitarist Thom Yorke arrives at the restaurant and, with a look of mock horror on his face, quickly finds a seat in the adjacent lounge as far away from the fracas as possible. His band mates follow close behind him. As he takes his seat, Yorke grabs a friend's jet-fueled margarita and exclaims, "What . . . is . . . this?" He takes a sip. "Yeow," the scrawny singer yells, shaking his head. "I think I'll be having one of those."
Radiohead have chosen El Cholo as the place for an impromptu kickoff dinner for their North American tour. Given the downpour of accolades for their latest album, OK Computer, and the sold-out performances, it would be understandable if the band's mood was fraught with nervous excitement. In fact, the complete opposite is true. Despite serious jet lag, the group's members – all but drummer Phil Selway, Radiohead's eldest member at 30, who rarely ventures out after dark – are in a jovial mood, making jokes about the Spice Girls and devouring enchiladas and burritos. Sold-out tour? Rising superstars? Shut up and pass the guacamole.
Chalk up Radiohead's laissez-faire attitude to experience. This is one of the few bands in recent years to surf a brief wave of post-Nirvana success in the early '90s, watch it die and then paddle out again in search of the big one. Until now, Radiohead were best known for their 1993 hit, "Creep" (the sarcastic, self-deprecating baby brother to Nirvana's "Negative Creep"), which helped their first album, Pablo Honey, to sell nearly 800,000 copies. Subsequent singles from that release were given scant attention, and the band was relegated to the one-hit-wonder bin by the time of its second album, The Bends, in 1995.
The Bends was more expansive and intricate, both sonically and lyrically, than Pablo Honey, but it sold only half as well. Then, due in large part to Radiohead's relentless touring (they crisscrossed America five times), a burgeoning reputation for electrifying live shows and the moderately successful single "Fake Plastic Trees," the band crept toward renewed popularity by the end of the record's run, headlining theaters and large clubs. Capping off the hard-earned comeback was a string of dates opening for Alanis Morissette, during which Radiohead tested new material – much of which ended up on OK Computer – including a 10-minute, hair-raising version of their current magnum opus, "Paranoid Android."
The stage was thereby set for OK Computer to be Radiohead's breakthrough. And while it still may be – the record debuted at No. 21 on the Billboard chart but fell somewhat in subsequent weeks – the album is certainly not what people expected. OK Computer is a glorious piece of moody, spaced-out art-rock madness that alternates between compassionate, twisted tracks like "Climbing Up the Walls" and "Exit Music (For a Film)" and prickly, aural thorns such as "Airbag," which require numerous listens. "Women have told me they think the record is romantic," says gregarious bassist Colin Greenwood, Jonny's older brother. "I think that's pretty cool." Despite its popularity, OK Computer's sense of adventure was actually Radiohead's big "fuck you," a piss into the wind of success. "Everyone said, 'You'll sell 6 or 7 million if you bring out The Bends, Part 2,' " O'Brien says. "And we're like, 'Yeah, right.' But we're not going to do that. The one thing you don't want to say to us is what we should do, because we'll kick against that and do exactly the opposite."
Radiohead have been going against the tide from the beginning. Thom Yorke, who was born in 1968, moved with his family from Scotland to Oxford, England, when he was 8 years old. At the age of 10, he formed his first band, an unintentionally arty pop duo: Yorke played guitar while a friend smashed televisions. Yorke's aggression would play out in more constructive ways after his difficult stint at a boarding school in nearby Abingdon, where he was picked on and frequently engaged in fistfights, which he usually lost. Yorke spent ever-increasing amounts of time in the school's soundproofed rehearsal rooms, teaching himself to sing. He soon joined a punk band, TNT, which featured one of his schoolmates, Colin Greenwood, on bass. After leaving that band, Yorke formed his own group with O'Brien, invited Colin Greenwood to join them, christened the band On a Friday and added drummer Selway to the fold. Jonny was reluctantly made a full-time member after he waited patiently at the lip of the stage, harmonica in hand, during On a Friday's first gig, in 1987.
Soon after, the band was put on hold as each member went off to a different university. Yorke enrolled at Exeter, where he studied English literature and fine arts – and resumed his fighting career. "I was going out to a club one night, and these blokes just descended on me," he says, "just because I blew them a kiss." While at Exeter, Yorke played guitar in a techno outfit called Flickernoise and joined the university's anti-fascism club, which would hold demonstrations outside the town's European-football stadium. Unbeknown to his club's members, the supporters of the local football team – who also happened to be members of the racist National Front organization – would take pictures of Yorke and his cohorts, from which they could later be identified. "We'd be sitting in the pub, and these skinheads would come up and start fucking with us," Yorke recalls. "It wasn't a pleasant experience."
After college, the members of On a Friday regrouped, in 1991, and renamed themselves Radiohead (the band name comes from a song on Talking Heads' True Stories). Following a few gigs in Oxford, they landed a record deal with Parlophone. The rage that had been seething within Yorke since childhood found its way into his tortured lyrics on Pablo Honey. With songs that were more musically focused and cohesive, Yorke's anger and disgust only intensified on The Bends.
In 1995, Yorke said in an interview in Rolling Stone, "People ask me if I'm happy, and I tell them to fuck off." The singer was promptly anointed in the U.K. press as the Next Artist Most Likely to Put a Bullet in His Head. Now, he is more reflective. "The downside [about The Bends] was that everything I wrote had this significance to it," he says. On OK Computer, Yorke has replaced his earlier raw, confessional lyrics with a more oblique, universal discomfort; the songs seem to come from the perspectives of different characters, who comment on society. "I'm not trying to fight people in the same way [that I used to]," he says. "A lot of that was misplaced anger directed in the wrong way – toward myself. You say all these things, and you realize that you're revealing things that you really shouldn't be saying to anybody, except the people you really, really love."
Yorke's band mates defend him, saying that his misery has been overemphasized. "People try to pin this persona on him that has nothing to do with him," says Colin Greenwood.
A self-described perfectionist and control freak, Yorke is also a moody codger. In a matter of minutes, his demeanor can run from caustic crankiness (often displayed by burying his head in his hands) to unexpectedly charming. It is this unpredictability that drives his band mates, who feed off the singer's mania and channel it into an explosive, complex and melodic mix of guitar rock and electronics.
Yorke's control is not lost on the rest of the group. "Thom uses a great analogy," O'Brien says. "We're like the U.N., and he's like the U.S. He is the communicator, and the pressure on him is enormous."
The members of some bands might be resentful about such behavior, but Yorke's mates tend to stand by their man. They are a tightknit lot who all live within minutes of one another in Oxford. Yorke is also supported by a group of close friends from college, including his girlfriend of more than six years. "She's doing her doctorate in Dante's illustrations to The Inferno," he says proudly. He recently bought a house in Cornwall, England, that he uses as a sort of clubhouse. It has plenty of beds to accommodate his friends, who are not overly affected by his stardom. "When I go home, we talk about what's going on for five minutes, then everything's back to normal," he says. "It's as exciting for them as it is for me. They see me as happy, and that's cool."
Under a hot sun in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, the members of Radiohead are sitting in the production lot of Burbank's NBC Studios, waiting to perform on The Tonight Show. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. "I am so fucking bored," announces O'Brien, thumbing through the New York Times. The only member who is not going out of his mind is Colin Greenwood, who plops down on the curb and rummages for a cigarette. "I'm quite enjoying not thinking about anything at the moment," he says. Colin is two years older than Jonny, and the two could not be more different. With his big brown doe eyes, pouty lips and flailing, chain-saw-starting guitar moves, Jonny exudes the most onstage rock-star charisma, while Colin prefers to anchor himself by Selway's drum kit, delicately chugging to the beat. Offstage, the roles reverse. Colin is open, friendly and chatty, the one most likely to go out on a bender, while Jonny is quiet, self-absorbed and often in bed by 11. Despite their opposite personalities, Colin and Jonny remain close. Colin recalls only one fight in their relationship. "Jonny is colorblind," he begins, "and when we were young, I gave him a red crayon to use for the grass he was coloring. It was a blood bath." Their father died when Colin was 7, leaving Jonny and him to look to their older sister, Susan, as a role model. "She's responsible for our precocious love of miserable music," Colin says. "The Fall, Magazine, Joy Division. We were ostracized in school because everyone else was into Iron Maiden."
Colin is nonchalant about Radiohead's success. "Enjoy it while it lasts," he says as he spots a giant limo carrying another one of Jay Leno's guests, Evander Holyfield. "The record company always wants to send us limos," he continues. "I hate them. It's much better to have a van. There's no cachet anymore with limos. What's the point?" The band's tour manager hands Colin an itinerary for his girlfriend, who will visit him in two days. "One of the benefits of being successful," he says with a crooked grin, "is flying someone you care about across the country. That's nice."
After the band's abrasive performance of "Electioneering" on The Tonight Show, the hallway of the NBC studio degenerates into a hellish fun house of celebrities. The group retreats to its dressing room, dodging Ed McMahon, Arsenio Hall and Magic Johnson. The Arsenio sighting brings up a discussion about which talk-show host gives the better gifts. "Arsenio gave us great bathrobes," says Colin. "We get food baskets from Jay."
All the band members leave the dressing room except for Selway, who stands and looks at the baskets. "I suppose it would be rather rude to leave them," he says. The comment underscores Radiohead's greatest collective character traits. They're polite, thoughtful and charmingly down-to-earth – the exact opposite of fellow Brits Oasis, whose bratty, headline-making antics far overshadow Radiohead's in the U.K. Thus, Selway gathers up the baskets, heads outside to the parking lot and gives them to the limo drivers.
In the lot, things get off to a strange start. Kato Kaelin – remember him? – is milling around the parking lot with a woman at his side. "Oh, yes, that guy," exclaims O'Brien rather loudly. "Should I go get his autograph?" Kaelin shoots a glare in the band's direction. Everyone stares in silence. After a few tense moments, Jonny mutters, "Nice hair, though."
Alarmingly, Yorke once had hair similar to Kaelin's. Around the time of "Creep," Yorke's gaudy blond tresses were a frightening collision of English mod meets L.A. glam. These days, Yorke has settled on a buzzed, spiky look, which today is dyed black.
After the band's performance at L.A.'s Wiltern Theater the following evening, Yorke jumps into a car and crawls into the back, slouching down low. "You're probably going to be followed," he informs the driver. "You know how to lose people, don't you?"
Yorke is on the way to a private after-show party, at a restaurant in West Hollywood, that was organized by R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe. Since Radiohead opened for R.E.M.'s 1995 Monster tour, Stipe and the rest of the band have become big brothers to Yorke and Co., offering advice on how to navigate the potholes on the road to fame. "We were a different band after we toured with R.E.M.," O'Brien says. "They did it their own way, and we spoke about that as the way that we wanted to do it: go out there and gig, and win a few more people over on each album. Then when we met them, they seemed to really enjoy the position they were in, and they were being creative. It was really important for us to see that." Yorke and Stipe have since formed a tight bond. Before this evening's show, they even went shopping together, which nearly caused Yorke to be late for Radiohead's gig. "He's a good friend," says Yorke of Stipe. "He's been very helpful."
Yorke arrives at the open-air restaurant and shuffles in with his hands stuffed into his pockets, a sheepish grin on his face. Seated at the long table is a motley collection of rockers (Stipe, Mike D of the Beastie Boys, Hole's Eric Erlandson) and actors (Liv Tyler joined by three of the Phoenix siblings: Joaquin, Summer and Rain). Yorke settles into a chair, accepts a glass of champagne and orders french fries and a salad.
Yorke receives congratulations with a smile and a nod, and instead of working the room, chitchatting with the celebs, he stays in his chair, quietly eating his midnight meal and politely answering questions. ("I'm running out of people to get star struck over," he will say later.) Only after the plates are cleared does Yorke excuse himself to huddle one-on-one with Stipe. After an hour, the tour bus arrives to pick up Yorke for Radiohead's overnight trip to San Francisco. He says goodbye to Stipe, turns and gives a wave to the rest of the party, and saunters off, half-drunk and smiling.
A month after the tour began in California, the Radiohead juggernaut has made its way to Philadelphia. By all accounts, it has been a success, and, according to O'Brien, last night's Boston show was the best gig they've played yet. ("Aerosmith, eat your heart out," he boasts jokingly.) Joined on their tour bus by openers Teenage Fanclub for the drive to Philly, the bands tie one on until 5 a.m.
Understandably, there's a feeling of lethargy hanging in the Electric Factory, a Blade Runner-like venue just north of Philadelphia's Independence Hall. The band plays an average gig by its standards, but it does nothing to tarnish its reputation as one of the best live rock acts. Yorke's voice is still in unbelievable shape, even after four weeks on the road, and the crowd is spellbound by tense versions of "Exit Music" and "Karma Police," as well as a gripping "Paranoid Android."
It's a little odd, however, when "Creep" is played and Yorke, who has preened and posed his way through the song, lets the crowd sing the second verse. The song isn't a favorite of Jonny's, and when the time comes for his guttural belch of a guitar part, he rips into it with added vengeance. Yorke introduces the number – as he does most of the time – by saying, "We play this because it's still a good song," an unnecessary apology for their biggest hit.
"Sometimes I do have to justify it," he says. "Sometimes it's karaoke, and I enjoy hamming it up, but some days it really means something to me." It is the crowd's response to the new songs that means the most to Yorke. "I've been amazed that people know the new material so well," he says. "Sometimes we play 'Creep,' and halfway through we stop and say, 'Sorry, that's boring.' If people don't want to hear it, you can tell."
After the show, the band piles onto the bus, eager to get to New York for the tour's finale, two days later. The bus is held up momentarily while Yorke signs autographs. "Whew, I almost didn't get out of there," he says as he sinks into the couch at the front of the bus. It's been a recurring event throughout the tour and has given Yorke a whiff of the idolatry that is simmering in America. But instead of running to the solitude of the tour bus as he might have four years ago, Yorke has mellowed and accepted, albeit reluctantly, his public stature. "When we first came here, it was baptism by fire, and it was really freaking me out," he says. "I'm used to it now, and I have developed a leave-me-alone face."
Despite punishing fatigue, the guys are in good spirits. O'Brien and Colin attempt to roll a couple of spliffs. "Five weeks in America, and I still can't roll one," Colin says, displaying something that looks more like a soggy noodle. After the joints are passed around, the band pops in a video of Kiss' infamous 1976 interview with Tom Snyder. The segment is sidesplittingly funny, with Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley playing it straight while Peter Criss and Ace Frehley are bombed out of their minds.
"What a wanker," says Yorke as Simmons talks like a cocky businessman. "I'm sure there's a lesson for us somewhere in this interview."
When the tape ends, Jonny moves to the front of the bus to watch the looming New York skyline. "Oh, my God, look at that," says the driver. He's not referring to the World Trade Center; he's pointing to a tollbooth collector who is holding cassettes of OK Computer and Pablo Honey, shaking them vigorously. "He wants autographs!" the driver says. Jonny sits frozen in amazement, staring at the zealous fan. But the bus accelerates, leaving the fan empty-handed. Jonny turns around, looks at Yorke and deadpans: "Apparently we've made it."
"Yes," Yorke agrees. "We've made it."
This story is from the October 16th, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone.