At a trendy east village restaurant that bears a resemblance to a mausoleum, three members of the British group Radiohead and a pair of American journalists are sipping wine and chatting about their favorite new bands. As names like Mercury Rev, Supergrass and the Geraldine Fibbers are tossed out like popcorn to pigeons, vocalist Thom Yorke frowns with annoyance, slaps his hands over his ears and hums to shut out the discourse. Finally he slams his fists on his lap and shouts, “You’re not talking about music, you’re talking about opinions. Can’t we talk about something else?” The conversation switches to movies, and Yorke rolls his eyes and resumes sulking.
Meet Thom Yorke, the man behind the deliciously disturbing pop of Radiohead. Emotional outbursts are common for the singer, whose inner turmoil has driven the band to notoriety since its stormy single “Creep” helped make 1993’s Pablo Honey a gold record. But Yorke’s disposition contrasts sharply with the passive countenance of his band mates. A few hours ago, while Yorke was passed out under a table, guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien, bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway were munching sandwiches and playing an exciting game of . . . not poker, not gin rummy but bridge at the other side of the room.
And even though Yorke says he has “always been melodramatic about everything,” even he tends to avoid public hissy fits. Radiohead have never thrown a television out a window, and a few weeks ago, when their opening act, David Gray, trashed the band’s dressing room, the group tidied up the place after Gray’s entourage had left. When Radiohead hit the road with R.E.M. and Soul Asylum this fall, they probably won’t even touch the deli trays without first asking the headliners. “We were all brought up in middle class Oxford [England], and there’s an air of politeness there that’s hard to escape,” says the soft-spoken O’Brien, shrugging.
This politeness makes Radiohead’s turbulent melodies all the more compelling. Alternately quivering with heart-rending insecurity and self-deprecating anguish, the band’s new album, The Bends, is an emotional seesaw that never remains balanced. In contrast to groups like Green Day and Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose songs reflect their personalities, Radiohead’s warped pop expresses such sentiments as sexual inadequacy existential dread and red-faced rage – feelings most of the band members have trouble communicating without the aid of amps and guitars. “The only time I feel comfortable is when I’m in front of a mike,” says Yorke, who looks like a cross between John Lydon and Martin Short. “I’m obsessed with the idea that I’m completely losing touch with who I am, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there isn’t anything to Thom Yorke other than the guy that makes those painful songs.”
“People sometimes ask me if I’m happy, and I tell them to fuck off,” Yorke says later in the bar of his hotel. “If I was happy, I’d be in a fucking car advert. A lot of people think they’re happy, and they live these boring lives and do the same things every day. But one day they wake up and realize that they haven’t lived yet. I’d much rather celebrate the highs and lows of everyday life than try to deny them.”
Yorke seems to thrive on tension and instability, cherishing the role of the suffering artist he has created for himself. “He doesn’t like to feel satisfied,” says Selway. “When things are going well, he will throw things off balance so that he’ll be in a state of flux. That’s the way he works best.”
Such flux galvanizes songs like “My Iron Lung” and “Planet Telex,” which feature sweeping sonic mood swings that arc from hushed despair to fiery frustration. But the overriding feelings are of longing and isolation. From the title track of The Bends, in which Yorke proclaims, “I need to wash myself again to hide all the dirt and pain/I’d be scared that there’s nothing underneath/And who are my real friends?” back to the career-launching “Creep,” in which Yorke asked, “What the hell am I doing here?” and exclaimed, “I wish I was special,” Radiohead’s songs are the narratives of a cynical misfit who longs to be loved. “There’s a pervading sense of loneliness I’ve had since the day I was born,” Yorke says. “Maybe a lot of other people feel the same way, but I’m not about to run up and down the street asking everybody if they’re as lonely as I am. I’d probably get locked up.”
Yorke was born in Wellingborough, England, in 1968 and grew up in Scotland near a beach covered with World War II bunkers and barbed wire. His father sold chemical-engineering equipment and was a champion university boxer. “One of the first things he ever bought me was a pair of boxing gloves,” says Yorke. “He used to try to teach me to box, but whenever he hit me, I’d fall flat on my ass.” When Yorke was 8, his family moved to Oxford. At 10 he formed his first band, and two years later he wound up at a boys boarding school near Abingdon, England, where he spent several of his most unhappy years. He had few friends, fought frequently and, despite his formative training, usually lost boxing matches. His social woes were amplified by an abnormality in his left eye for which he was teased mercilessly but has since learned to accept. “When I was 18, I worked in a bar, and this madwoman came in and said, ‘You have beautiful eyes, but they’re completely wrong.’ Whenever I get paranoid, I just think about what she said.”
After dropping out of a school punk band, Yorke decided to form his own outfit. He hooked up with classmates O’Brien (because he looked like Morrissey) and Colin Greenwood (because he dressed weird and went to lots of parties) and soon after completed the lineup with Selway and Greenwood’s brother Jonny. They named themselves Radiohead after a song from Talking Heads‘ True Stories and finally landed a record deal in 1991.
While Yorke’s hang-ups figure largely into Radiohead’s sound, the group is more than the product of one distraught mind. If Yorke crafts Radiohead’s emotional roller coaster, Colin Greenwood greases the rails. “Thom writes these songs that sound like a slightly more sinister Elvis Costello, then I come in and add extra structures and chords to make it more interesting,” he says. “I have such a low boredom threshold that I need something more than good songs to keep my attention.”
In concert, Greenwood refuses to play premeditated solos, viewing gigs as opportunities to experiment with parameters of sound. “I don’t think I could play anything fresh if I’ve heard it 100 times before,” he says. “I wouldn’t be dangerous and there’d be no chance of going wrong.
When it comes to rocking, Radiohead deliver. During a recent show in Denver at a shoddy, sweltering venue that looked like a barn, the band displayed enough sexual charisma and high-wattage energy to keep the dehydrated crowd screaming. But when approached by attractive, lustful women after the show, the group wasn’t quite so eager to please. “I’ve never taken advantage of the opportunity of one-night stands,” says Greenwood. “It’s like treating sex like sneezing. Sex is a fairly disgusting sort of tufted, smelly-area kind of activity, which is too intimate to engage in with strangers. I’m all for the erotic in terms of imagination, but the physical side is something different.”
For Yorke, sexuality is an even more complex issue. “I feel tremendous guilt for any sexual feelings I have,” he says, “so I end up spending my entire life feeling sorry for fancying somebody. Even in school I thought girls were so wonderful that I was scared to death of them. I masturbate a lot. That’s how I deal with it.”
In addition to attracting groupies, Radiohead’s confessional music has entranced a number of eccentrics usually reserved for bands like Slayer and Pantera. A few weeks ago in Canada, a fan insisted that Greenwood autograph his arm, then returned the next day with a tattoo tracing the signature. And after Pablo Honey came out, a British murderer who identified with the character in “Creep” wrote Yorke a chilling letter from prison. “He said, ‘I’m the creep in that song. I killed this bloke. They made me do it. It wasn’t me, it was the words in my head,'” Yorke says. “I felt like someone had walked over my grave.”
While The Bends is dynamic and passionate, it’s not an immediately easy listen. Anyone expecting the fluid melodies of Pablo Honey may be thrown by the amalgam of experimental noise and meditative beauty. But it’s that dichotomy that transforms the band’s songs from pop ditties into seismic tugs of war. “It’s all a reflection of us,” says Yorke. “It’s cynical and nervous, and it doesn’t make sense. And you get the feeling at the end of it that something’s wrong, but you can’t quite work out what it is.”
This story is from the September 7th, 1995 issue of Rolling Stone.