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."
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