Radiohead: Making Music That Matters

After Thom Yorke hit rock bottom, the most inventive British band of the last decade went on not only to reinvent itself but to nearly reinvent rock & roll as well

August 2, 2001
radiohead rolling stone cover
Radiohead on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Lee Jenkins

Radiohead singer Thom Yorke can tell you exactly when and where he hit rock-bottom: November 19th, 1997, the moment he walked offstage after a concert at the NEC Arena in Birmingham, England.

Yorke, guitarist Ed O'Brien, drummer Phil Selway, bassist Colin Greenwood and guitarist Jonny Greenwood, Colin's younger brother, had been touring Europe and America for seven months on behalf of their third album, OK Computer. They had five months to go. But Yorke was already toast — exhausted by the explosive neurosis of his performances, gagging on the backstage circus of plastic love and promo.

"I came off at the end of that show," he remembers, "sat in the dressing room and couldn't speak. I actually couldn't speak. People were saying, 'You all right?' I knew people were speaking to me. But I couldn't hear them. And I couldn't talk. I'd just so had enough. And I was bored with saying I'd had enough. I was beyond that.

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"You can fall very easily into the mind-set of being the victim," admits Yorke, 32, talking over the roar of lunch-hour traffic at an outdoor cafe in Radiohead's hometown of Oxford. "It only takes a few times for you to give into things that you shouldn't have. The easiest thing to do is resent it.

"And I was incredibly good at being the victim. You can abdicate responsibility, fuck things up whenever you choose and not have to explain yourself."

He then cites a line from "Everything in Its Right Place," the quietly tortured opener of Radiohead's fourth album, Kid A: "Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon." "Lots of people say that song is gibberish," Yorke says irritably. "It's not. It's totally about that" — the mute, vengeful paralysis he felt in Birmingham, which stayed with Yorke deep into the strange, simultaneous recording of Radiohead's twin hits, Kid A and the just-released Amnesiac.

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In England, Yorke explains, "sucking a lemon" refers to "the face you pull because a lemon is so tart." He twists his sharp features into a ferocious grimace.

"That's the face I had for three years."

Those three years are up. Radiohead, the most inventive British rock group of the last decade, are now one of the most successful and uncompromising bands in the world.

"What they have done seems to be very clear and smart," says R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe, an avowed Radiohead fan and close friend of Yorke's since the two groups toured together in 1995. "Which is, with the number of hits they've had, they are simply staking their claim as their own band, making music they want to make — no one's lapdogs, whether it's an audience, a record company or their peers.

"And fucking kudos for that," Stipe raves. "It's not easy to listen only to yourself and to react accordingly."

Radiohead were poised for greatness all through the 1990s. "Creep," Yorke's scathingly funny song about self-loathing on the 1993 album Pablo Honey, established the band as modern-rock radio stars. The futurist nerve and vintage guitar drama of 1995's The Bends and the '97 million-seller OK Computer put Radiohead in a direct line of succession to the Beatles, Pink Floyd and U2 as classic-rock gods, a band that mattered with sales to match.

But Radiohead chose to test the creative and commercial license that came with the prize. Last October, Kid A became Radiohead's first Number One album in America, despite its dark, largely guitarless temper and a lack of accompanying singles and videos. The equally enigmatic Amnesiac recently entered Billboard's album chart at Number Two, held back by Staind's Break the Cycle but actually beating Kid A's first-week sales by nearly 25,000 copies. And on a late-May afternoon at Bray Studios, a film-production complex on the Thames River outside London, Radiohead are rehearsing for a summer tour that includes their first extended U.S. visit since that '97-'98 death march.

"It feels good to have that whole period over," Yorke says brightly. He is wearing a denim jacket, very baggy jeans and a few days' growth of reddish-brown beard. "And it's nice," he adds, "to feel that there was a reason for it."

The relief in his voice is huge enough to fill the hangarlike soundstage where Radiohead run through nearly thirty songs from their last four albums. "Thom has this amazing ability to affect the environment of emotions around him," says Colin Greenwood, 32, who has known Yorke since they were both twelve, taking classical-guitar lessons at Abingdon School near Oxford. Chris Hufford, one of Radiohead's three managers, agrees. He describes Yorke as "incredibly charismatic. In the old days, when he entered a room and he was pissed off, everybody knew it. And he didn't have to say anything."

At Bray, Yorke is happy in his work — singing right into the sound hole of his acoustic guitar during "Airbag," from OK Computer, his head so close to the instrument he seems about to dive inside; intoning the final lines of "Street Spirit (Fade Out)," from The Bends, with the haunting sustain of a medieval hymn. Selway, O'Brien and the Greenwoods pick up on that electricity, turning the liquid hum of Amnesiac's "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box" into surging funk, a 1970s German-rock groove shuddering with Rolling Stones-guitar clang.

Later, O'Brien, 33, points out his favorite part of the day, when the group finishes with "The Tourist," the yearning climax of OK Computer: "The thing that always makes me smile is at the end, where we huddle around Phil's kit, playing together. Everybody is drawn in there, feeling it."

That magnetism comes naturally. Radiohead issued their first record, the EP Drill, in 1992, but they have been a band since the mid-1980s, when they began writing and rehearsing together as students at Abingdon under the awkward name On a Friday. Jonny Greenwood, the youngest, was thirteen when he first played with the others. The older four scattered in their college years — Yorke to Exeter, Colin to Cambridge, O'Brien to Manchester, Selway to Liverpool — but met on weekends and holidays with Jonny to compose and make tapes. All five still live in the Oxford area (Jonny, Colin and O'Brien also have places in London), and they recorded most of Kid A and Amnesiac in their new studio, a converted barn, not far from Abingdon School.

"Hermetic is a very good word for us," says Colin. Yorke notes that when Radiohead brought in the Orchestra of St. John's to play on Amnesiac, a woman in the string section expressed concern about the Radiohead setup of mixing business and fraternity. "Five boys together for over ten years — that is extraordinarily unhealthy," she told Yorke. "It's fine for women to do it. But men, no."

That sealed-in feeling nearly blew the band apart. Yorke came off the OK Computer tour convinced that Radiohead were in a gilded rut. He wanted extreme change at any price.

O'Brien believes that included personal relationships.

"I've always maintained that our friendship is absolutely crucial," he says. "I think Thom has thought it hasn't been crucial — at times. That says a lot about us as people. Thom's got that drive: 'I've got to tame that thing, at whatever cost.' I'm a softie." Left to his own devices, O'Brien says with a sheepish grin, "I probably wouldn't achieve anything."

Yorke insists that making Kid A and Amnesiac was "a lesson in not being personal about things. A lot of the time, it was me getting too impatient about things. But it's all stuff that had to happen. We had to get a lot of garbage out of the way.

"It would have been really sad to have just done what people said we were doing, which was go all electronic and weird," he argues. "It wasn't like that at all."

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