Radiohead Destroys Rock to Save It

British art-rockers take chances as others hold on in a collapsing business

Thom Yorke of Radiohead performs in Jersey City.
Barry Brecheisen/WireImage
Thom Yorke of Radiohead performs in Jersey City.
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This is how Radiohead became one of the most successful bands of the past decade: by choosing risk over safety, taking their biggest chances as other acts tried to hold on in a collapsing business. Radiohead opened the century by ditching their status as the new Pink Floyd for the digital subversion of 2000's Kid A, their first U.S. Number One album (and RS's best album of the decade). At the start of the Iraq War, as American stars struggled to balance patriotism and protest, Radiohead took dead aim at the Bush White House with 2003's Hail to the Thief. And when the band's major-label deal expired, Radiohead released 2007's In Rainbows as a download, at any price consumers wished to pay. "If I die tomorrow," singer Thom Yorke said, "I'll be happy that we didn't carry on working within this huge industry that I don't feel any connection with." Life in a band now is about "the decentralizing or power," says guitarist Ed O'Brien. "Record companies can't control us anymore. There's an element of chaos, but in the way chaos always maneuvers itself into some kind of form."

He notes that in the U.K. "one in three people didn't pay anything to download In Rainbows. "But when we played live, our audience in front was teenagers. We had released a record in thew ay they understood, so they gave it a chance." The gambles have had a profound effect on Radiohead's music. "We have been rehearsing for a new record," O'Brien says, "and we are in a very different place. 'Morning Bell,' on Kid A, was our version of Joy Division, with a great undertone of darkness. Where we are now is about light and movement. We feel it in our bellies as we play – we're on a big move here.

This story is from the December 24th, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 1094: December 24, 2009