Radiohead: Making Music That Matters

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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.

Reader's Poll: The 10 Best Radiohead Songs

"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."

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