With their inspirational third album, OK Computer, released this July, Radiohead became one of the decade’s cornerstone British acts. Emotionally ragged and musically precise in equally excessive measures, the album is a passionate statement of personal insecurity and new-technology blues. Since getting together as schoolfriends in Oxford in the mid-1980s, the group has always traveled on a five-way ticket, but singer Thom Yorke is the man with the vision thing. In a voice as bleak as it is beautiful, he sings of plane crashes (“Lucky”), creeping paranoia (“Climbing up the Walls”) and “a heart that’s full up like a landfill/A job that slowly kills you” (“No Surprises”). But what really frustrates him is that no one finds any of this at all funny.
What springs to mind when you look back on 1997?
We did this show in Dublin which was by far the biggest show we’d ever done, and we were headlining in front of about 33,000 people. It was sheer blind terror. My most distinctive memory of the whole year was the dream I had that night: I was running down the [River] Liffey, stark bollock naked, being pursued by a huge tidal wave.
You could have a ball psychoanalyzing that one. Do you know what dreams mean?
No. But I find it imperative that I write them down, just for my own sanity.
OK Computer got a rapturous reception from the critics. Were there any comments that stuck out?
[Journalist] Nick Kent said it wasn’t the best thing we would do by any means and we’d overstretched ourselves but it was admirable for that. I thought, “Thank God someone’s said that.”
Do you find creative people always expect to get trashed?
Exactly. While recording, we had the bullshit detector and lie detector constantly working and more than 50 percent of the time going off. You’re constantly tearing everything apart. Every emotion that goes into it has tobe genuine – otherwise there’s no point. But people picked up on what we were saying, which shook me.
The album didn’t make the Top 20 in America. Why do you think that was?
We don’t fit the format. Fucking obvious. No Doubt fit the format, and we don’t. That, to me, is a kind of bonus.
You don’t sound heartbroken.
We’ve done what we can. We’re going back to tour again. We’re just resigned to it. To me, the alternative-rock stations . . . what’s going on? I just don’t get it. What are they playing? I’ve given up. I don’t listen to them anymore.
Are Americans waiting for you to make another “Creep”?
No. I think that was the product of a particular environment. [“Creep”] fit the format. I think it was just that guitar noise. If that guitar hadn’t exploded where it exploded, there’s just no way it would have got on alternative radio. And we wouldn’t be anywhere.
What world events were you affected by this year?
Personally, I was affected by the Tibet festival, in New York. I actually believed for a moment that it would be possible to change things. I’d never thought that before. My generation grew. up with the legacy of Live Aid and Margaret Thatcher taxing the proceeds. But actually being at the Tibet show – it wasn’t like that. It was incredibly moving. In a completely different way, the death of Princess Di really affected me. It was so fucked up, as if we were really grieving over something else, which I can’t quite put my finger on. I felt very sympathetic about what her brother said. That made me cry.
Do you like the Spice Girls?
No. I agree with whoever said they’re soft porn. They’re the Antichrist. I don’t want any part of it, and if I had kids, I wouldn’t want them to have any part of it, either. I’d move to an island where you can’t get hold of any Spice Girls stuff.
Do you think that people miss the humor in what you do?
Absolutely. That’s the one thing I find frustrating.
And what about “Fitter Happier”? It sounds as if you took it straight from the pages of a self-help manual.
I bought a whole load of those how-to-improve-your-life books, and we’d been trying to use them in various different ways. One said something like, “You will never make friends unless you like everyone, genuinely.” Oh, well, I’m fucked then, aren’t I? And the legacy of these books goes on. You still meet people who really believe that the way to succeed is to adopt that smile and that smile will sell: “Unless you believe in the product, you will not sell the product.”
You believe in what you’re doing, don’t you?
Absolutely. It’s just that look on people’s faces when they’re trying to sell you something. It’s a look of more or less complete madness. It’s funny but really sad at the same time.
So what sort of a year have you had? Prosperous, perhaps?
An enlightening year. I’ve seen how fast things can change. Obviously I wouldn’t say prosperous. I’m British, and we don’t say things like that.
This story is from the December 25th, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone.