Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’: An Oral History
The June 15th Rolling Stone cover story took an in-depth look at Radiohead‘s OK Computer in honor of the album’s 20th anniversary. The band let us hang backstage over the course of two days at the Berkeley Greek Theater as they shared memories from that tumultuous and wildly innovative time in their lives, and a week later Thom Yorke sat down with RS at an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles to chat some more. All in all, the members of Radiohead spoke on the record for more than seven hours in anticipation of the upcoming OKNOTOK reissue, which contains a remastered version of the LP along with a bonus disc of B sides and outtakes.
We couldn’t begin to fit everything they told us into the main story, so here’s an expansive oral history of OK Computer put together from the many, many outtakes. It features all five members of the group along with their producer Nigel Godrich, tourmates Michael Stipe and Alanis Morissette, art director Stanley Donwood, filmmaker Grant Gee, and actress Jane Seymour, who owned the house where they recorded the album.
I. The Beginning
In 1985, high school friends Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway began playing around their hometown of Oxford, England, as On a Friday.
Ed O’Brien (guitar): From the very first band practice in high school I felt, “Oh, I found it. I found my purpose in life.” It’s very lucky to feel that at 16. Life is quite chaotic as a teenager. We went to private school, so there was all this stuff like, “What are you going to do? You’re going to do this, that?” And none of it resonated. And suddenly when the band came along it was like, “Voom. This is it.” If you have that, then the rest is just detail. But that thing, that pull, was complete and utter “I have to do this.” There was no other question.
Colin Greenwood (bass): We loved the music that we were making together, and the songs Thom was writing. And I think it was a way for us to be creative together in a world, at the time, that wasn’t perhaps so creative in terms of school. Me and Jonny’s mum used to say, “Well as long as it keeps you off the street.” Like we’d somehow be, like, shooting up or selling ourselves for crystal meth or something. On her 70th birthday, we took her to Paris to see us play at the Zenith. She was very worried if anyone was going to turn up, and she was also worried about why there weren’t any tables or chairs for people to sit down and listen to the music. It was very sweet.
Phil Selway (drums): We realized there was something that had a lot of potential. Musically it was kind of exciting, but we hardly did any gigs for that first five years. It was just us getting together in practice halls wherever we could find to rehearse. And I think you can actually acquire some fairly grandiose ideas about how good you are.
Jonny Greenwood (guitar): We just got loads of pleasure from rehearsing and writing music and recording. I can remember one winter they came back from college and we just rehearsed every day of the week up until Christmas Day. And then after Christmas everyone went back to college. And there’d been no sort of goal. There’d been no function. We didn’t play in concerts. It’s weird looking back. I guess we were just very into kind of hearing ourselves and hearing each other. Looking back now at those early songs, I realize how surprisingly well-written they were, and how good Thom was already when he was 16.
Ed O’Brien: They never felt like lean years. It was exploring. And musically we were exploring. We started off at the time of the Smiths’ The Queen is Dead, that era. By the end of that period, or the middle of that period, there was the Pixies, Happy Mondays and Stone Roses and all these things. We dipped our toe, not very effectively, in each. But in doing so we came out with a sound. We came up with our thing. And that’s how we got signed.
II. Early Success
In 1992, the band signed a deal in with EMI, who urged them to change their name. They went with Radiohead after the obscure 1986 Talking Heads song “Radio Head.”
Thom Yorke: We got destroyed for signing to a major label. Everyone was like, “Why did you sign with EMI?” And we were like, “Well, because they had the Beatles, Queen and Pink Floyd. And they were the ones that believed in us.”
Colin Greenwood: A lot of those indie labels were labels that were owned by major labels. It was a weird bunch of coincidences more than anything. It was [that] our managers knew people at the record company. I happened to be selling records with a guy who got a job as an A&R rep, so it was a weird bunch of coincidences.
Their debut EP Drill hit in May of 1992 and barely made a dent on the U.K. charts, but later that year they began work on Pablo Honey (named after a Jerky Boys routine) and a new song called “Creep” that became their first single. It took off first in Tel Aviv and slowly broke all over the world over the course of a year. They supported it with a tour that took them to America for the first time.
Ed O’Brien: Having a big hit like that wasn’t in the game plan. We were giddy. People were saying, “You know, this isn’t normal.” And the first tour we sold out, and our American tour manager was going, “You know, I’ve toured with bands who have been doing this for seven, eight years, and this isn’t usual.” So it was really great on the one hand. But on the other hand we couldn’t follow it up. The album had a couple of other songs that were OK, but we didn’t have a body of work. We didn’t know what we were doing.
Thom Yorke: Having a big hit was a bit of a mind-fuck on one level, but it was extremely useful on another level. It was like a pass that allowed us to do whatever the fuck we wanted for a few years.
Phil Selway: At this point now, we can look back and realize what a wonderful thing “Creep” did for us. It was kind of a snakes-and-ladders game and we’re suddenly quite a few rows ahead of where we should have been.
Thom Yorke: I remember we arrived in America the first time. “Creep” was all over KROQ and that sort of shit. It made sense to keep coming here ’cause back in Britain we were a band driving around in a van. And then suddenly, here, we had a tour bus and we were being woken up early in the morning to go and play on radio stations. We were told we had to meet a lot of people and talk to a lot of people, so we met a lot of people, we talked to a lot of people, we played endlessly.
Jonny Greenwood: We were always disgusted by the British attitude toward America, which was always quite condescending. It was always like, “We’re going to go America and show them how to do it.” It would be from such a position of superiority. But we were just excited to go see San Francisco. See Portland. Explore. What could be more exciting than that? See the country. It was kind of more tourism than ambition, really. It was waking up early and being in a new city and having a whole day there before the concert. Just amazing. And suddenly there’s Chicago. Then you do a concert, get on a bus and you fall asleep and you wake up somewhere else.
III: The Bends
Ed O’Brien: If you’re at a big company like EMI, it’s very easy to get sort of forgotten about. And the good thing about “Creep” was, just on a purely business side, it meant that we weren’t in debt to the company. We broke even on that first record. So it meant, artistically, that when we made The Bends, we didn’t have the record company breathing down our neck. They basically let us get on with it.
Phil Selway: The initial sessions for The Bends were quite stilted. Some good stuff came out of it. Like “Just,” “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Planet Telex.” So it wasn’t all bad, but there wasn’t an ease to it.
Ed O’Brien: We were very insecure. Studios aren’t great places necessarily for making you secure. And I think we hadn’t really found our modus operandi. The great thing about [Bends producer] John Leckie was nothing seemed to phase him. We were sort of rabbit-in-the-headlights some of the time.
Colin Greenwood: Bless John Leckie. He was very patient with us. We were aware that what we were going to release would have scrutiny after the first record.
A young engineer named Nigel Godrich worked on the album and produced “Black Star” when Leckie was away at a wedding.
Colin Greenwood: “Black Star” is a beautiful song and that went really well. We used to hang out with Nigel and he was amazing. We love him so much.
Nigel Godrich: They were under intense pressure. That they had a lot of material, a lot of good songs, and they were being pushed in a certain direction. I think that maybe they didn’t want to become this sort of pop band that the label would have them be. People from the label would visit and it got very uncomfortable. Thom called me a few months after I thought the album was done and asked if I could record them in their rehearsal space. We did three or four songs, including “Black Star.” It felt like the adults were away and we could work without any restrictions. It also became very, very clear that Thom is a very, very gifted writer. I remember he’d just written “Subterranean Homesick Alien” while we were doing The Bends. He’d sit there with his little book on his knees turning the pages. This wasn’t “Anyone Can Play Guitar.” It was much more on point.
IV: The Endless Bends Tour
To support the Bends, Radiohead went on a grueling tour between early 1995 and late 1996 that would take them all over the planet many times over.
Jonny Greenwood: We never got into that fog of not knowing exactly where we were. It was always quite … what’s the word? It was fun. It was good. Always a blast. We played a lot of cards. It’s a repetition of waking up on the bus, and it’s still moving, and it’s seven in the morning, and you’ve got another four hours before you get to Athens, Georgia, or whatever. And it’s just kind of getting up and sitting up front and watching America roll past. Feeling like, “I wonder what Athens is like? I know it just from all the R.E.M. videos.” So you’ve got so many popular culture references tied to American cities. And you want to feel the real thing.
Ed O’Brien: There were 12 of us on a bus. And personally speaking, I loved it. Everybody had a sense of purpose. We just had this thing about wanting to get better. And our sound manager, who’s still doing our sound now, would come back and we’d say, “How can we get better? What can we do?” And so it was all about getting better.
Colin Greenwood: We played places that most English bands wouldn’t end up playing, like El Paso, Texas. I loved and adored practically every second of it. We were opening for some bands, and people would come and listen to us, and then they’d leave. And the headliner would come on. My memory of that time was that everything was very sweaty.
Phil Selway: You get into the whole rhythm of life on a tour bus and you value any private space that you can find. You’ll have your bunk, and then once you pull over the curtain, that’s your space. You become very tight [as a band] in a lot of ways. It gives that cohesion to what you’re doing musically.
In September of 1995, they opened for R.E.M on the Monster tour in America.
Phil Selway: I think it would have been very presumptuous of us to think, “OK, that’s where we’re going to be, so let’s watch and learn from them.” But they set a very good example. They were very generous with us. They were very gracious about how they conducted themselves. There wasn’t anybody bigger at the time, really. They just handled it with such dignity and intelligence.
Michael Stipe: We managed to climb to great heights of success and popularity without becoming complete cheeseballs and without selling totally … I hate the term “sellout,” but without compromising our vision of what we could or should be. That provides for someone like Radiohead, a bit of a roadmap. A part of that is really listening to yourself and trusting your intuition, trusting your gut, and they’re really good at that.
They began plotting out their third album by the the summer of 1996, but then they got an offer to open up for Alanis Morissette on her Jagged Little Pill tour they just couldn’t turn down.
Alanis Morissette: I was on tour in Europe and my bandmates and I were traveling overnight at three in the morning after a show to Italy, and we all decided to just sit and listen to The Bends from beginning to end and my mind was blown. Before that I just knew “Creep” and “Fake Plastic Trees,” which I’d covered on tour. It’s just such a flawless piece of music in my mind. I don’t entirely know how the tour logistically came together, but it was such a lovely pairing in my mind. It was really grounding for me to be with such bona-fide-to-the-bone artists. It felt really validating because the industry was very wild and patriarchal, so to be on the road with such true savants was a gift for me.
Ed O’Brien: That tour was a really important thing. Her album was real pop. We played stuff off The Bends and “Creep.” No one knew anything off The Bends. They knew “Creep” because it was a Top 40 hit. And we were like, “Oh. …” So we ended up just playing “Creep,” and all the rest were new songs. So we played “Let Down,” “Climbing Up the Walls,” “Paranoid Android,” “No Surprises.” They were all new songs. We had a song called “Lift” that didn’t make it. They responded really well to that one night. It had a really killer groove. It kind of got them rocking in the aisles. But then they’d be like, “Oh, there’s ‘Creep.’ Whoa! We know that one.”
Colin Greenwood: I remember we played Jones Beach [in Long Island]. We all wore black and sort of scowled onto the stage, and played our heavy tunes. And, like, mums were there. Preteen girls starting to cry.
Alanis Morissette: It was always a misassumption that my audience was always filled with 12-year-old girls because the truth is it was a whole range. The people who came to my shows were very open-hearted and very open to musicality and musicianship. It was lovely to know that the people in the audience would behold them with great openness. My audience is so musical and tender and fierce that it’s such a great group of people to play new songs to because their attention was rapt.
Thom Yorke: It was actually a really nice experience. And we by that point were well adept at playing to people who didn’t give a rat’s ass about us.
Thom Yorke: By the time we got to the end of The Bends tour we felt like, “OK, we’ve done that now.” Then the record company kind of shut up and went, “Alright it’s fair enough, do what you want and whatever you do next we’ll totally back you.” If you think about it, if you’re a movie director in the studio, like J.J. Abrams, Paramount comes around and says, “Whatever you want, mate, you got it.” We were like, “OK, we want all our own gear. We want our own studio and we wanna work with Nigel.” And they went, “OK!”
V: Recording OK Computer
Shortly before the Alanis tour began, they began cutting songs for their third album at Canned Applause, their rehearsal space near Didcot, Oxfordshire.
Nigel Godrich: We were recording in, essentially, a cork box without a toilet. It was out in the countryside next to a field with some cows in it, and a power station in the distance.
Jonny Greenwood: The isolation appealed to us. A little bit of English Gothic, a little bit of Evelyn Waugh.
Ed O’Brien: In May and June [of 1996] we did the initial recordings there. I think we’re in there for about two months. It’s an apple-storage shed on a farm. And there’s nothing around. The big thing is we didn’t want to go into conventional recording studios. We felt that there was this whole move to make the space our own. We felt like we’d used as much as we could of Canned Applause.
Nigel Goodrich: And after a while we thought, “OK we’ve done really well, but we need a change of scene. I think we deserve something a little bit more luxurious.”
Days after the Alanis tour wrapped, the sessions moved to St. Catherine’s Court, an enormous Elizabethan manor house in Bath, England – just a few turrets short of an actual castle – owned by the actress Jane Seymour.
Jane Seymour: Being an American and not being a resident in England, I could never spend more than 90 days in England in any given year. So the house had to be rented out when I wasn’t there, it just didn’t make any sense otherwise and it’s a house that needs to be lived in.
Nigel Godrich: The people who had sold us gear had set up the Cure to make [Wild Mood Swings] there. It had been proofed as a space. And we just went down there and it was really very nice. I mean, why would you go into a space where people had done the same thing a thousand times? It’s like using a public toilet. Why wouldn’t you just go and find your own? Throughout my career one of the things I’ve loved doing the most is just setting up in weird spaces.
Colin Greenwood: It was incredible house and we all lived there. In the morning I’d go down into the basement-kitchen for cereal and then wander up into the library, which is where the control room was. And there were lots of snaking cables down the beautiful, old, dark wooden corridors, ’round to the old ballroom where the live room was. It was this incredibly beautiful, peaceful place before we ruined the silence with the music. We went there twice. We went there for three weeks and then another three weeks.
Jonny Greenwood: We were very privileged. We didn’t have to think about anything but eating and making music.
Nigel Godrich: It was the band and me and Peter “Plank” [Clements] who was their roadie. Literally, it was just me working on the album. I didn’t have an assistant; I didn’t have any help. Plank had never been in the studio before, but he’d help me lugging the stuff around. It was the seven of us plus the cook and Mango, Jane’s cat. The gatekeeper looked over the cat. He’d say, “Don’t let the cat in the TV room since it pisses on the carpet.”
We recorded in the ballroom, which had a beautiful wooden floor and a wooden panels with a big Medieval tapestry on the wall, which is perfect. It sounded beautiful. There was sort of a corridor in between, and the other side was this amazing library space, which is a lovely dead space to set a control room. At the top there was a nursery, which was full of soft toys, which it sounds really good. And then stone rooms and stuff like that. Outside, there was an orangery attached to the building where we ended up recording a lot of vocals in.
Thom Yorke: I don’t remember sleeping a lot. I remember it was very haunted.
Jane Seymour: People had claimed they had seen what they thought was my [dead] mother in a big blue dress walking through walls to go into the bathroom. Clearly, that was obviously odd. We had séances. We got people who specialize in that kind of thing to wander around the house. Everyone who ever wanted to find a ghost had been at that house and nobody found anything.
Nigel Godrich: It was very Scooby-Doo.
Stanley Donwood: All the old houses in England are haunted. I think it’s the law.
Thom Yorke: The ghosts would talk to me while I was asleep. You couldn’t discern the conversations because there was more than one at the same time. I got really spooked while recording the vocals for “Exit Music.” It felt like someone was standing next to me.
Colin Greenwood: We never left the house. And the one time we left the house we went to Bath for the day, and it was a bit like an episode of Homeland where you’ve been kidnapped and the negotiations have succeeded and the kidnappee has been freed out of a van in the middle of a really busy town or city. We were just wandering around, like, the middle of the shopping center in Bath with obviously hundreds of people looking around just thinking, “This is really weird.”
Ed O’Brien: I remember some amazing walks at night. We’d walk out one night, heavy frost and a full moon. Everything was so bright. It was a time of magic. I really believe the stars were in alignment for us.
Stanley Donwood, who happened to live nearby in Bath, would often ride his bicycle over to work on the artwork.
Stanley Donwood: I wanted to just create a kind of fog world. There were lots of fragments of images and found stuff, things I just found on the street that I scanned into a computer along with bits of text. One was an airplane-safety guide Thom stole from a commercial flight. [The main image on the cover] is a road taken from a skyscraper or airplane or something. I don’t remember. [The image appears to have recently been pinpointed to a highway junction in Hartford, Connecticut. The group played there with Alanis Morissette on August 20th, 1996.]
We layered it all together and then tried to obliterate it, almost like a terrible criminal trying to conceal the evidence of what he did. I got the completely mistaken idea that white was somehow the color of death, so I wanted it white. I know it’s usually black, but I was thinking it was some other culture where white is the color of death. I was quite a morbid character.
Nigel Goodrich: Visitors would come and go on weekend. [Thom’s girlfriend] Rachel [Owen] came. At the end of the second three-week session we felt like we used it up. We were like, “We shouldn’t have come back. We should have gone somewhere else.” But it was fine. When it was done we went to studio for a few odds and sods and then we started mixing.
VI: The Songs
Thom Yorke: I was really frightened of cars back then, but “Airbag” was almost the opposite of that. If you get into a crash or a potentially disastrous situation and walk away, you feel a thousand times more alive regardless of what that is. It’s more about that. I was also sort of experimenting with the way that Michael [Stipe] wrote lyrics where you’ve got this thing of semi-nonsense, but when you add them together, it has a cumulative expression of something.
Nigel Godrich: The drum loop on that song was inspired by DJ Shadow. It’s a departure from a rock band. What happened was I told Thom and Phil to sit there for a couple of hours and create a drum loop. And a day and a half later, they were like, “OK, we’ve got it.” But it wasn’t very exciting sounding, so I ran it through Jonny’s pedal board. And we just did three takes of him just like doing all sorts of shit to it and we put it all in.
2. “Paranoid Android”
Thom Yorke: It was 50 percent “Bohemian Rhapsody,” if I could ever get that many vocals together, and 50 percent “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” Have you heard the original ending?
Jonny Greenwood: It originally had a Hammond organ solo that goes on forever. It’s hard to listen to without clutching the sofa for support.
Ed O’Brien: To me, the song sounded like Queen meets the Pixies.
Nigel Godrich: When we started at Canned Applause they would play the song linearly. Nothing really happened with the outro. It just spun and spun and it got very Deep Purple and went off. Then it was like, “We’re going to change sonically what happens in the middle, so it’s a jump.” At the end, Thom came up with the whole thing about the delaying the band coming in. So the moment we think it should go up, he just goes around on the acoustic. I thought that was very clever.
We had to put different sections of the song together from completely different parts. We had to fake and tape-edit to make the different sections of it go into each other. It’s a very hard thing to explain, but it’s all on 24-track and it runs through. But I had to do a sort of pretty snazzy … I was very pleased with myself. I sort of stood there and said, “You guys have no idea what I’ve just done.” It was pretty clever.
Stanley Donwood: I remember watching them run a microphone with a long wire out into some little ornamental building, a shed, in the garden. They were cutting vocals for “Paranoid Android,” and Thom was just letting go and screaming his head off. It was a very strange evening.
Nigel Goodrich: He did that in the orange room. I think he just needed to go out and scream. It’s in a room made of glass out in the garden.
Ed O’Brien: People thought it was prog, but prog always took itself so seriously. And “Paranoid Android,” there’s a kind of serious message in there, but it’s kind of cartoon-like.
Jonny Greenwood: There’s a Mellotron on it. I remember hearing a Genesis record and thinking the Mellotron sounded amazing, so I stole it. It was either Nursery Cryme or Selling England by the Pound. It didn’t sound like any other keyboard. Instead there was a choir, and a weird, fucked-up sort of choir. I love the fact that the notes run out after a few seconds. Some relative of the inventor was trying to remake them and had a few. They came with the tapes in and it turned out they all belonged to Tangerine Dream, which is getting into prog territory.
3. “Subterranean Homesick Alien”
Thom Yorke: That was like Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Jonny Greenwood: I remember Thom playing a really fantastic few seconds of “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” just a few bars. And either through a mistake or something, those two seconds were wiped. And a part of me will always regret that I can’t hear that again, because the way the reverb played, it sounded great. We got something nearly as good. But I find it really interesting that it can’t be rescued from a hard drive. You know, control-Z, return to life.
4. “Exit Music (for a Film)
Thom Yorke: [Romeo + Juliet director] Baz Luhrmann sent me two random scenes from the movie. One is where they first meet around a little fish tank. And then they sent me one other which I can’t remember. And I had a half-formed song going one way, but then I got totally obsessed with the prison tapes by Johnny Cash.
Nigel Godrich: We listened to Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison a lot. At the beginning of “Exit Music” the voice comes in very loud, and that was something that struck from from Johnny Cash. We also listened to Remy Zero a lot. Colin was really into that. Pet Sounds too.
Thom Yorke: As far as I’m concerned, Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy. It’s about two people who can’t be together and are naïve and young enough to believe that they’ll go see each other in the next life so they choose to go there.
Jonny Greenwood: I remember working at the chords with Thom for the choir part. It was really painstaking. We had to relearn how to really concentrate and focus on something small and work at it, properly. And not just go, “Yeah. That will do.” Looking at how the chords run into each other and not be too long and boring. I can remember it making me really tired having to concentrate on that stuff.
5. “Let Down”
Thom Yorke: That came from being in the bubble and looking at things as they passed by me. If you spend all your time time traveling on airplanes or on buses or whatever, you’re bound to get this sense like in “Let Down.” It’s like hanging onto something and having the floors collapse underneath you.
Ed O’Brien: Thom used to demo a lot of stuff on tour, and we recorded at soundcheck, too. With “Let Down,” I remember us playing on Easter Monday on the Bends tour. Thom had done a demo of the song and we were in this place with lots of reverb. And it was like, “Oh, this makes sense.” It was recorded live without people recording overdubs. A lot of that record was recorded live.
Nigel Godrich: We recorded that in the orangery. If you go to a recording studio, the best thing you’re going to get is the kind of clichéd video of people in the studio, you know? But if I set you up in that corner here, you’ll always remember this room and you’ll be inspired by that plant or whatever. It brings a different sort of thing to it.
6. “Karma Police”
Jonny Greenwood: I remember recording it and thinking it wasn’t right and then recording it again. And then hearing a demo, hearing a rehearsal recording and thinking, “That’s better. Why don’t we do it like this?” And all judgment sort of goes out the window, when you do it like that, sometimes. I remember doing the high voices at the end, the high kind of pitch-shift voices. That was kind of a nod to the Smiths, I think.
Thom Yorke: I recorded the actual buzz from a fridge for that on the demo. It was partly the way of just expressing how some people just talk and they’re not really saying anything. I just remember traveling around a lot, especially in America, and, like, modern rock was just like … [imitates the sound of a loud fridge buzzing]
Nigel Godrich: “Karma Police” was recorded as a song in completion, and then when we went to a proper studio to go and record some piano. Thom and I went out for a pint and he sort of complained about how he didn’t like the second half. “Can we construct something from scratch?” It’s the first time we’d done that. From the middle section to the outro, it’s a completely different technique of building up a song. It’s not like the band playing. It’s just samples and loops and his sort of thing over the top, which sort of was the forerunner of a lot of things to come, good or bad.
7. “Fitter Happier”
Nigel Godrich: I remember working downstairs in the library space. Dan [Stanley Donwood] had been upstairs writing short stories and getting Fred [the nickname for their Apple Macintosh] to speak them and he’d send them to his dad. He was just having this kind of conversational discourse, which we all thought was hilarious. But Thom had disappeared for a few hours. And he came down and just said, “Oh, I did this.” Played it. And it’s like, “Fuck. That’s perfect.”
Fred’s voice is so unemotional. I’ve always been interested in voice synthesis, because it’s such a sort of bizarre juxtaposition of technology, trying to communicate verbally, which is what we do naturally. It’s a very, very, very flat kind of delivery. And so that was clearly something that moved all of us. And then he had his Dictaphone stuff, which had the piano on it, which is just him at home. And I had all of those electronic sounds of stuff that I was just making out of experimental stuff in the studio. And then Jonny scored the strings to his piano thing and Thom added some dialogue from Three Days of the Condor he’d taped off the TV.
Thom Yorke: [The final line “a pig in a cage on antibiotics”] was from a book and then I did some reading up about it. It was the first time I’d ever really read anything about farming stuff. The fact that we’re pumping the animals we eat full of antibiotics before we buy ’em, which are then going into our bloodstream, making us resistant to antibiotics, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah.
Thom Yorke: I was reading [Noam] Chomsky for the first time and [makes a fart noise with his mouth]. We were endlessly glad-handing like politicians. “Hi, how are you?” “Hi, it’s good to meet you.” “You guys are great.” “Well, thank you for your support.” We had to meet a lot of people and I wasn’t the best at it, but luckily other people in the band were. Colin, especially. He could talk you into the ground if necessary.
We had [Tony] Blair coming into power and there was a lot of optimism in the air, but I think a lot of it was really self-serving. Some good films got made, good music got made, bah, bah, bah. And there was for a brief moment in Britain the belief that the politics could be removed from self-interest and removed from vesting interest. But then it was obvious within months that wasn’t gonna happen.
9. “Climbing Up the Walls”
Phil Selway: [Because of the ghosts] I probably went to bed with the duvet pulled up to my nose every night. So the album did have that slightly wired feeling to it, which I think you can hear in “Climbing Up the Walls.”
Thom Yorke: That one’s a bit of a mystery to me, to be honest. I used to work in a home for the severely mentally ill for a while in this little village. And I remember one of them escaping one night – he was perfectly harmless, but he was really ill. I mean he couldn’t be out in society anyway. But because it was in a little village it sort of stuck with me. This idea of this guy in the middle of a field and the police chasing him.
Then I had read some newspaper piece about about a normal domestic murder where obviously the person concerned was not well. I was fascinated in a kind of twisted way about what is it that makes someone who can go through life and just snap one day and do something that you can’t possibly imagine. And it was in the context that people don’t get looked after like they should. Depression for example at the time was something that everybody just went, “Oh, well, you’re just depressed.” But now it can lead into other things like if someone gets ill, they can be a danger to themselves and to other people. That’s what I think about when I play it now.
10. “No Surprises”
Colin Greenwood: That was recorded at Canned Applause in our rehearsal room. It’s a song that has something to say about now as well as then.
Thom Yorke: [The line “Bring down the government/They don’t, they don’t speak for us”] has become this weird thing, it gets this weird reaction [when we play it now]. But again that was written on a shitty bus journey. A two-hour bus journey with a bunch of old-age pensioners in Britain. I don’t know why my car wasn’t working. It actually wasn’t a political thing at all. It was like, “Why have people like this been dropped? Why are we just left to rot? If this is a democracy then they should be helping us. Why aren’t they helping us?” It was just that.
The song was recorded in 1995 for the War Child benefit project The Help Album.
Nigel Godrich: We did it in five hours. They were actually on the road. I had only heard the song on a cassette. They showed up and we set up – they played it the night before onstage. So they’d worked it out and we just did it and I mixed it. And I tried later on to sort of remix it [during the OK Computer sessions] and it was like, “No, it’s fine.” That really is the beginning of OK Computer, that day.
12. “The Tourist”
Thom Yorke: That’s a classic situation where Jonny had written this incredibly slow, moving riff so I started singing about slowing down and we were traveling, endlessly traveling, endlessly. Everything was about speed. Everything was moving so fast. I had that sense of sitting in looking out a window and things moving past me so fast you could barely see them.
Nigel Godrich: The final thing you hear on the album is a triangle. It was played by Phil, I think.
The group recorded several songs that didn’t make the album.
Phil Selway: “Lift,” “Man-o-War,” “I Promise,” these were the songs that I think people at the label were looking at thinking, “Yeah, there we go. That’s gotta work.” And we delivered an album that didn’t have them on there, even though they’d been recorded. So I think probably, initially, we probably wrong-footed quite a few people.
VII: The OK Computer Tour
From May of 1997 through June of 1998 Radiohead were on the road supporting OK Computer. They hired documentary filmmaker Grant Gee to chronicle the crazy ordeal.
Grant Gee: It was mind-blowing, really. Right before the album came out I filmed a press event in Barcelona. They had the top floor of this hotel and there were journalists circling outside in the corridors. And then the door would open and then Ed would be in there and then someone would go in and another door would open, and there would be Phil. It was just this kind of bizarre procession. In every available space it seemed like there were photo shoots going on. From the start it was quite clear that they were quiet and articulate people being put through this industrial process of sort of being vacuumed for image and information and quotes and thoughts. That might have brushed off their backs if they were thick-skinned, but I got the sense they were going to react in a thin-skinned kind of way.
Thom Yorke: Partly we were told that’s what we had to do all this, and partly we thought, “Let’s really fucking go for it. Let the machine do what it needs to do and we’ll try to give it as much as we can.” But you end up feeling pretty fake really quickly. Talk about yourself enough and you’ll feel fake. I was doing about five interviews a day. I got to a point where I couldn’t do even one before a concert. I was kind of a basket case for a bit.
Ed O’Brien: There was a sense of, “You have to get to a place where you’ve earned the right to say ‘no.'” We needed to pay our dues.
Colin Greenwood: Thom was having a tough time. He was definitely having a tough time. Especially those U.K. arena shows [in November of 1997]. I remember he was very spun out from the whole thing. Because I think he was fighting hard for things to have meaning after the repetition of doing the same thing over and over. But if we hadn’t done all of the stuff that we did then, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you now.
Phil Selway: We really did enjoy the shows, but at a certain point the imposter syndrome starts to kick in pretty strongly. Because you’re thinking, “Do we warrant that kind of platform at the moment?” We started to feel a little fraudulent.
Thom Yorke: During this whole period Michael [Stipe] took me under his arm and was trying to look after me.
Michael Stipe: It’s just not an easy thing to have that level of adulation thrown at you or deal with people wanting you to be everything at once for them, personally, for their community or for their generation, for their country, for their philosophy or ideology. I mean, it’s ridiculous. And what’s really ridiculous is you start to believe the things that you hear, and that includes the critiques. I do remember telling Thom simple things like, “Don’t forget to breathe.” I think if you find yourself in a near panic state over one thing or another it’s good to have someone who can just talk you off the ledge.
Jonny Greenwood: Grant tended, just by chance, to come by on some of the darker periods of that whole time. There were also joyful, happy things going on as well. But there are times you’re in Northern Germany and the lights are going out at four in the afternoon and it’s freezing cold and Thom has a sore throat and you’re worried about the next few gigs. And then six months later you’re playing at some joyous Portuguese place and it’s the noisiest, most exciting room you’ve been in.
Ed O’Brien: Grant is brilliant. Every time he came out, he always found us at a kind of crisis time. But there was levity. There was light. There was a lot of fun. I’ve seen a bit of Hi8 footage that I took around that time when I had a video camera. We’re goofing around and having fun.
Grant Gee: I’m sure they did have fun, but I honestly never saw the whole band having a great laugh together.
Ed O’Brien: By the end of that tour we were exhausted. I mean, from ’93 through to ’98 when we finished that tour we just had January of ’96 off. That was the only time. We just kept doing it. Our manager said, “You can’t really stop until you’ve got to a place where you can take some time off and people aren’t going to forget you.” So we got to that place and then it was just kind of like, “OK, we’re here. Right. OK. Now we can breathe.”
Thom Yorke: It was obvious that [our manager] Chris [Hufford] pushed us – especially me – too far. At the end he said to me, “You’ve earned the right to disappear.”
VIII: The Aftermath
Thom Yorke: I remember after the tour Nigel and Michael [Stipe] were mixing an R.E.M record [Up] in New York. I wanted to go see them because they’re two of my favorite people in the world and I needed something to do.
Nigel Godrich: The day came and we heard nothing from Thom. Michael and I looked at each other, and we’re like, “Shit, what do we do?”
Thom Yorke: I didn’t even call them. So they both went to the airport, JFK, to greet me. And I didn’t get off the plane and they freaked out. No idea what had happened to me and called me, I didn’t answer. They were freaking out.
Nigel Godrich: We knew we couldn’t call home because it was the middle of the night and that would freak them out if he did leave. That was kind of a bit of a, “Fuck, what do we do?”
Thom Yorke: I can’t even remember why I didn’t go or where I went.
Nigel Godrich: I was fucking pissed off at him. When we tracked him down I said, “Don’t do that again!” And apparently what happened was he was on his way to the airport and he just decided to turn around him and go home. But he didn’t want to let us know.
Thom Yorke: I was just so out of it. That day was a real low point for me because Michael was my fucking hero. I remember going to dinner in New York with him. He always does this. Just when we’re leaving he’ll go, “Oh, yeah, we’re going with U2 and there’s going to be this belly dancer too. It’s gonna be great.” I’m like, “You bastard.” But it was a nice evening. The was something where I’d normally be like, “Fuck off, no way.” But he was gently forcing me into these scenarios.
So when the tour ended I got a house in Cornwall, which I’d always wanted to do, and I tried to get a life. That involved spending a lot of time walking the moors and walking along cliffs and drawing and trying to find some space for myself and waiting for the monologue to stop in my head. Friends forced me into situations like going to the local pub and sitting and talking to normal people.
That bit was OK, but [I was] working too a lot longer because whenever I started to work the analysis would start, this self-analysis and self-doubt. Looking back, I don’t think the band stopped for long enough. We were building a studio, so there was a big delay, but at that time I was working in Cornwall on songs like “Hunting Bears.”
While they were taking time off, Radiohead-inspired groups like Travis (whose 1999 breakthrough LP The Man Who was produced by Godrich) and Coldplay began hitting the scene.
Thom Yorke: Oh, did they? [His voice dripping with sarcasm] They’re still there, aren’t they? I was really fucked off about that because they were doing that and they’d deny it. It’s one thing to say, “We’re influenced by this.” But they were doing it and slagging us off. That wasn’t cool. [Note: To be clear, Yorke didn’t reference a single specific group.]
Nigel Godrich: Something would come on the radio and he’d look at me funny and I’d be like, “What are you so upset about?” He’d be huffing and puffing like someone copied him. I’d say, “You’re just imagining it. Look, it’s a guitar with some drums behind it. You didn’t invent that. You were copying someone else. Just relax.” I think that’s a byproduct of being so focused on what he wanted to do that he figures he’s the only person that’s ever had that idea. [As far the Travis comparisons] I just think that’s lazy journalism. It’s a guy singing in falsetto with an acoustic guitar. But if that’s what made him go away and do something different, at least it lead to more interesting times.
Thom Yorke: This big flashing neon light over my head went off that said, “Meanwhile in the rest of the fucking universe, this is happening.” And I started blindly buying all this stuff from Warp Records and inevitably getting into Aphex Twin and all this stuff and wanting to buy synthesizers.
It was difficult for the others [in the band] ’cause when you’re working with a synthesizer it’s like there’s no connection. You’re not in a room with other people. It was a big mistake on my part because I insisted we would record everything even it was unrehearsed, so it was impossible to know what the fuck was going on. I made everyone’s life almost impossible. But I was sort of trying to create freedom, but actually I was doing the opposite.
Ed O’Brien: Thom sort of dragged us into Kid A in a way that hadn’t happened before. He was listening to this stuff over here, this electronic music. And we were like, “Oh … OK.” Trying to figure out how that would work in a band context was kind of tricky. We also just didn’t take enough time off. We finished touring in the middle of ’98. By the fall of ’98 we were rehearsing for Kid A. We were at Canned Applause, rehearsing. So we did end up back in the studio in January ’99. And we were still reeling. We were having growing pains.
Thom Yorke: They didn’t really know what to contribute, which I completely understood. But I just knew we weren’t going to repeat OK Computer. We’ve never been able to repeat anything.
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