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

radiohead rolling stone cover
Lee Jenkins
Radiohead on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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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."

Radiohead work like this: "When all five of them say, 'This is great,' then it's great," says Chris Hufford. "If just two of them — say, Ed and Phil — say it's great and the other three say it's rubbish, then it's not going anywhere. And Thom definitely has the veto." Hufford knows this from long experience. He first saw the band play, as On a Friday, at an Oxford pub in 1991, and produced the demos that led to the group's signing with EMI that year.

"Normally, our approach as managers is when all five of them are greenlighting something, then it's a go-er," Hufford says, referring to his partners Bryce Edge and Brian Message. "If it's just Thom, proceed with caution."

Yorke himself is not a cautious man. He is quick and direct in conversation and walks with brisk purpose. Although he stands quite still at the microphone in concert, Yorke's head bobs violently from side to side as he sings, as if he is physically shaking the words out of his mouth. He was a fighter in school, too, unwilling to tolerate hazing despite his bantam size. "There were times," Yorke says, "when the person concerned didn't come back for more."

He was all battle stations when the Kid A/Amnesiac sessions commenced in Paris, then Copenhagen, in February and March 1999. On the second day in Copenhagen, Radiohead laid down three songs: "Knives Out," "Dollars and Cents" and the Kid A version of "Morning Bell," a song so good they cut it again for Amnesiac. "Pyramid Song" was done either that day or the next — Selway can't remember which. But the drummer recalls feeling good about the results. Briefly.

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"That first day was remarkably good," says Selway, at thirty-four the oldest member of Radiohead. "At the same time, we were relying on our old methods, of playing in the studio live." OK Computer was made that way at St. Catherine's Court, a fifteenth-century manor near Bath, owned by actress Jane Seymour. The group recorded the basic tracks live in the gargantuan ballroom, and Yorke nailed many of his vocals in first takes.

This time around, he had other ideas. "I thought chords were boring," he snaps. "If anyone was playing a straight beat on a snare drum, I was like, 'Fuck this.'" After the band took an early stab at Kid A's "How to Disappear Completely," Yorke said, "That sounds great, but it sounds like old Radiohead."

Yorke concedes that he was all commitment and no map. "There is a certain state of mind I'm in when I write songs — it's like a bad virus," he says with a pained smile. "Everything is the wrong way up and inside out." Yorke was so disoriented by the mass and chaos of what he was writing, mostly extended poems and non-linear fragments, that he pinned computer printouts of his lyrics to the studio walls "to see what other people thought."

The singer knows he put his band mates and Radiohead's engineer/coproducer, Nigel Godrich, through protracted hell. "It wasn't huge fucking rows," Yorke protests, then laughs. "No, there were. That's a lie. Completely."

"Thom is constantly testing us," O'Brien says without rancor. "You think, 'Do I have to keep proving myself?' Yeah, you do. That's why he's such a great bandleader. He keeps you on your toes. But it is a band. I have no doubt that Thom would make amazing music on his own. But we give him the soul." On the group's records, all song-writing and production are credited collectively to Radiohead.

Yorke was a pusher from the beginning. "The first time I met Thom," says Jonny Greenwood, now twenty-nine, "he was in the drum room at school, drumming. Or rather, I was — and he came in to take over. He told me to play the double bass. I said, 'I can't.' He said, 'Just do this' — he showed me something. 'It'll be fine, just attack it.' He had that attitude that you can just go for it.

"There is this idea of Thom sitting in a corner, being apathetic and annoying," says Jonny, actually a gifted multi-instrumentalist (viola, recorder, keyboards, electronics) who played in the Thames Valley Youth Orchestra and now writes Radiohead's string arrangements. "It does not square with the enthusiastic, hungry, musically buzzing person Thom is. Some of his ideas aren't very good" — Jonny grins devilishly from under a sweeping curtain of long, dark bangs — "but he wants to see them through to the end. That's typical of Thom. He's the last to give up."

The weirdest thing about Kid A and Amnesiac is how honest, and human, they are. The combative and self-mocking song titles ("Knives Out," "You and Whose Army?," "Everything in Its Right Place") plainly indicate a band in crisis. And much of what you hear is real rock singing and chops, altered beyond easy recognition. Selway is playing drums somewhere inside the robotic "Kid A." Amnesiac's "Like Spinning Plates" is the track from another, unreleased song, "I Will," run in reverse. "Thom learned to sing the backward melody forward," says Colin. "You can hear what the words are, but they sound like they're backward.

"I don't think either of those records is entirely different from what we had done before," Colin claims. "But everyone expected us to become this U2 type of band, with that stadium credibility. It was our time to inherit the mantle."

Radiohead have paid for their deviance. In The New Yorker last fall, Nick Hornby — who wrote the definitive rock-geek novel, High Fidelity — nuked Kid A, likening it to such icons of perversity as Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music and Bob Dylan's Self Portrait. The review was "a most eloquent display of betrayal," Colin says with a sort of admiration. "He was looking for something else."

So is Jon Clews, an 18-year-old Radiohead fan from Rugby, England. He is one of three devotees — the others are Mark Higgenson, 21, from Manchester and 16-year-old Amy Garrick from the Shetland Islands in Scotland — seated across from Yorke, Colin and O'Brien in a London radio studio. The fans won a Radiohead trivia contest on the Evening Session, a BBC program hosted by DJ Steve Lamacq. The grand prize: a chance to interview the band.

Clews gets right to the point. He tells Yorke that he liked "the electronic flirtation" on Kid A but misses the songs and sound of The Bends, "the best album ever made. I'd really like to see [you] go back to that."

Yorke's comeback is cordial but firm: "That's like saying to a painter, 'Can you just paint that again?'" But Yorke owns up that the negative reviews of Kid A were "a real shock to the system . . . I couldn't understand what we'd done to deserve it."

The hour, moderated by Lamacq, passes swiftly. Yorke, Colin and O'Brien are impressed by the fans' knowledge and repay their ardor with autographs, snapshots and warm banter. Yorke commends Higgenson, a graphics student, on a portfolio of Radiohead CD art that he designed as a personal project. O'Brien is amazed when Garrick says Kid A is her favorite Radiohead album. "Can you imagine listening to all that electronics," he exclaims, "in the dark, wet cold of Scotland?"

Clews, Garrick and Higgenson are, in turn, thrilled to be this close to their heroes and to discover that Radiohead are not arty, high-strung cranks. "Do you think we get up our own arses?" O'Brien asks during the interview, turning the tables.

Clews answers immediately: "Having met you now, no, I wouldn't say that."

'The best way I can describe Oxford is what Thomas Hardy wrote in Jude the Obscure: You're either on one side of the wall or the other," Yorke says one morning over coffee. He gestures past the high, vanilla-colored stone lining the patio of the Old Parsonage Hotel in central Oxford to the majestic ramparts, spires and iron gates of the warren of colleges collectively known as Oxford University. "There's a certain elitism to Britain that is accentuated in a place like Oxford."

"Everything that is worth seeing, that is beautiful and traditional, is behind a very tall wall," Jonny agrees, "designed to keep the students in and to keep you out." That siege mentality — a compound of paranoia, distress and impending violence — courses through Radiohead's music, especially in lyrics like Yorke's chorus to "Karma Police," on OK Computer: "This is what you get when you mess with us." But Jonny denies that Radiohead's outcast temper has much to do with growing up on the wrong side of Oxford's walls: "Our world was very small, centered around going to school and rehearsing with the band."

Jonny, Colin and O'Brien were all born in Oxford, although the Greenwoods, whose father was a British army major, moved throughout Germany and England before settling in nearby Abingdon. Selway arrived in Abingdon from Cambridgeshire. The son of a chemical-equipment supplier, Yorke is a native of Northamptonshire. Born with a paralyzed left eye that was partially corrected in a series of operations, he lived in Scotland until he was seven and was nine when his family came to the Oxford area.

Yorke declares that he knew, at the age of eight, that he would be a rock star. He is not being facetious. "I decided that," he says, "when I saw [Queen guitarist] Brian May for the first time on TV." When Colin and Yorke met at Abingdon School, the latter was already composing songs. "The National Anthem," on Kid A, is based on a riff that Yorke wrote when he was sixteen. And O'Brien reveals that amid Radiohead's oldest demos lurks a Yorke solo album, a tape called Dearest that the singer made by himself in the late 1980s. "It was really good," O'Brien says, "quite Jesus and Mary Chain-ish, with delays and reverb."

Still, Yorke took the time to complete his studies in art and literature at Exeter University, leaving with a bachelor of arts degree. He also made his vinyl debut there, recording a song with a local group, Headless Chickens, that appeared on an indie compilation EP. "My principal thing was still music," Yorke says, dismissing his degree as "bloody useless for anything. But if all I learned the whole time I was there was to keep working when you're stuck, well, that's all I need to know."

Colin, Selway and O'Brien graduated from their respective schools as well. Jonny left Oxford Polytechnic in his first year when the band signed to EMI in late '91, at which point the group wisely changed its name from On a Friday to Radiohead, after a song on the 1986 Talking Heads album True Stories. "There was always a plan to get back together after university," Yorke notes. "I also wonder what would have happened if we hadn't gone off to college like good little boys. I think we would have freaked if we'd gone straight into the Radiohead thing."

But Yorke's borderline psychosis onstage was, at the time, painfully real, according to Hufford: "It was a young man's energy — very angry, demanding attention. When it worked, it was electrifying. But I know he found it emotionally draining" — Radiohead played more than 130 shows in 1992 alone — "because he meant everything he was doing."

The delayed success of "Creep" in the U.S. in 1993 — a year after the single flopped on its initial British release — complicated Yorke's struggle to control and direct his intensity. His comic snarl in the chorus ("You're so fucking special/I wish I was special") was mistaken for literal sourness. After shows, people came backstage looking for Yorke, asking — O'Brien swears this is true — "Where's the 'Creep' guy?" "Thom didn't want all that attention," Colin says. "He wanted respect, the kind that people give to artists like Lou Reed and Neil Young."

Yorke has that respect now. He is also stuck with a public image — immortalized in Meeting People Is Easy, Grant Gee's unflinching 1999 documentary of the OK Computer tour — as a brilliant grouch, up to his scalp in a misery of his own device. "He's not like that at all," swears Michael Stipe. "Maybe he thinks too much. But part of growing into success is becoming more comfortable with people wanting to know more about you, when that doesn't have a whole lot to do with the music you're making. And I think he's more comfortable with it now."

Smiling broadly, talking freely about the band, himself and fatherhood, Yorke does not look or sound like the prisoner of war of Meeting People. He became a first-time father in February when his girlfriend, Rachel Owens, gave birth to a son, Noah. (Selway also has two children.) Yorke says he had the name picked out long before the boy's arrival: "It's a strong name. It was perfect. He came out all rough and tumble, ready to go at the world." Much like his father.

"It's a record of where we were at, rather than a celebration," Yorke says of Meeting People. "I reject it now. And I find it very weird when other bands pick up on that state of mind, trying to imitate it.

"Look, it's not cool," Yorke says of his bad old self. "That's just where I was at."

At the end of June, Radiohead completed the West Coast leg of their current U.S. tour. They will be back at the end of July to cover the East Coast. There are concerts in Europe and Japan going into October, then nothing. "Everything stops," says Hufford. "The calendar is completely empty.

"Our plans go, maximum, about six months in advance," he says. Radiohead "don't want to think much further down the line. And it's fine. There's no problem, once you get away from the industry mind-set, which has gotten worse and worse, where you're in this dreadful sausage factory, churning out nicely bundled packages for the marketplace.

"We represent them," Hufford says of his partners and charges. "We don't represent the industry. We have to do what is best for the band." That means a little at a time.

Yorke, Selway, O'Brien and the Greenwood brothers all say they feel better about the future of Radiohead than they have in years. Jonny says the group will never give up touring: "If we stopped playing live, we'd lose half of what we are." Yorke is invigorated by the way the Kid A and Amnesiac songs bloom with thick-guitar muscle in performance.

"The other times we'd recorded, in the back of your mind was, 'How are we going to do this live?'" he says, "Now we do the version in the studio." For the gig, "it's like learning a cover." He laughs, "We're a Radiohead cover band."

There are new songs too. At Bray Studios, they tested one called "The Reckoner," and Colin says Yorke has another new corker, "Bring On the New Blood," about "these multiplatinum artists hooking up with the latest French disco producer to do their new record." Regardless of what anyone thinks of Kid A or Amnesiac, Colin says Radiohead never were, or ever will be, that desperate.

"If you sell enough records to carry on making records, that's all that matters," Colin claims. "We've projected our lives into this since we were in our early teens. That's where the genuine nature of it comes from — we've played together since we were kids." He then mentions something he calls "castles in Spain" — a kind of showbiz disease in which "some big, old rock band goes on a megatour. You know they've paid off the mortgage on the house and have enough money to raise a family. But they also have the obligations of the yacht and the castle in Spain.

"It won't happen to us," Colin declares, "because we're very successful at keeping a certain level of sanity," which he illustrates with a story about Radiohead's appearance last year on Saturday Night Live, the week Kid A busted into the Billboard chart at Number One. After the show, as the band members left the NBC studios at New York's Rockefeller Center, they found three limousines and a Jeep Cherokee lined up in the garage. All five guys piled into the Cherokee. "Somebody from the record company said, 'Oh, these limos are for you. Have your pick,'" Colin recalls.

To which Yorke responded, "Fucking typical Radiohead: We're all still getting into the same car."

This story is from the August 2nd, 2001 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 874: August 2, 2001
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