Radiohead: Making Music That Matters

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'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.

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