Radiohead: “I don’t want to be in a cupboard… I write music to communicate” – Part 1
This week's archive feature is an illuminating Radiohead interview from August 2001's Uncut (Take 51). With Amnesiac, their second smash hit album of uneasy listening in just over six months, at the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, the band are even more determined to retain their anonymity. As for Thom Yorke, he wants the myth-making to stop… Words: Stephen Dalton
The towering inferno is visible from miles away. Thom Yorke drives towards the horizon, the acrid stench of toxic smoke filling his car. He cranks up the air-conditioning to maximum, but still the rank odour is inescapable. A wave of choking nausea shudders through him.
The Radiohead singer is passing Arscott Farm in Devon, on his way back to Oxford from his country hideaway. Here a mountainous funeral pyre of 7,000 animals, slaughtered under foot-and-mouth regulations, will burn for a week. Maybe longer. By some sick twist of voodoo economics, this grotesque flesh bonfire will pump more potentially cancer-causing dioxins into the food chain than all of Britain’s worst chemical plants. Death stalks the natural world, making it safe for capitalism.
Thousands of miles away, the masked foot soldiers of free trade are using riot shields, tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to beat down 400 anti-globalisation protestors outside a World Trade Organisation summit in Quebec City. The bad karma police are out in force today.
All these disconnected but simultaneous events somehow link back to Thom Yorke, choking in his smoke-filled car, a tiny speck crawling across the Devon landscape. Rage, nausea, motion sickness, animal corpses in flaming heaps. The vomit, the vomit. And then Thom remembers – tomorrow he has a day of press interviews scheduled in London. Being the planet’s most critically revered rock icon comes with a heavy price.
Radiohead don’t look like rock stars. More like Edwardian grave-robbers, pre-Raphaelite laudanum addicts, Dickensian consumptives or World War I flying aces. Twitchy, well-spoken, deeply posh English eccentrics to a man. But like it or not, the secret history of British rock has been fought on the playing fields of Eton, Westminster, Abingdon and other venerable public schools. Most privately educated bands dumb down their accents and cover their tracks. But these Oxford oddballs do the exact opposite, almost to the point of Bertie Wooster caricature.
At a riverside London café in spring 2001, affable bass-playing Christopher Walken lookalike Colin Greenwood greets Uncut with sardonic quips about the Tory cabinet, G K Chesterton and “the officer’s mess”. His Jackie O-haired guitar-virtuoso younger brother Jonny likens Radiohead to “18th-Century rakes who live life in the country and go to London to gamble the night away”. Somewhere in the studio complex behind us, guitarist Ed O’Brien, drummer Phil Selway and Thom Yorke are grudgingly selling their souls to Uncut’s photographer.
Although global in reputation, Radiohead are deeply English in person. Middle England is their home, geographically and spiritually. Articulate, literate and soberly dressed in autumnal hues, they could pass for trendy vicars or junior theology professors. The Greenwood family tree is entangled with the Army, the British Communist Party and the socially progressive Victorian liberals of the Fabian Society. Even Radiohead’s political conscience reeks more of puritanical duty than punky passion. It’s church meetings and temperance halls, more Methodism than Marxism.
Radiohead do not inhabit the chippy, colloquial, know-your-place Britpop kingdom of Cocker or Weller. Theirs is not the mythic North of Lennon or Morrissey, nor the fabled London of Brett or Damon. All five belong to an oddly nostalgic Middle England of bracing walks and improving books, cold showers and warm beer, Oxbridge and Ambridge.
But close exposure to Radiohead throws up a distorting mirror against all this comfortingly bookish, tweedy Englishness. Existential alienation, sexual nausea, middle-class guilt, bodily disgust, fear of women, volcanic self-loathing – all of these unsavoury themes, mere background radiation in Radiohead interviews, explode like volcanic pustules across Thom Yorke’s bilious, cathartic lyrics. Middle England turned inside out, stripped of its outer skin, raw and visceral.
Repressed passion and thwarted ambition are the lingering scars of the schoolyard rebel. The kind of upper-middle-class hothouse background that spawned Radiohead may turn out politicians, BBC governors and other Establishment pillars with mechanical ease, but it also throws up square-peg absurdists and prickly class traitors like George Orwell, Peter Cook, Joe Strummer, Stephen Fry and Mark Thomas.
And Thom Yorke. Uncut has been chatting happily with the rest of Radiohead for almost two hours when Yorke is ushered into the café by management minders. Necks noticeably stiffen. The temperature drops a degree or two. Listen carefully and you can hear the singer’s tightly wound internal motor whirring at full speed, ready to snap.
Yorke is bearded and pale, his hair a concentration-camp crop. He wears a duffel coat and shoes seemingly made from Cornish pasties. This is the hair shirt, pastry-shoes chic which divides serious artists from mere pop stars. He slumps down, staring intensely at the table.
Thom Yorke has spent 10 years living in a glass house, and at least five trying to remix himself out of Radiohead’s emotional equation. But every step he takes away from the media microscope only seems to find him backing into the limelight.
It was 10 summers ago that pre-Radiohead hopefuls On A Friday reconvened in Oxford after returning from universities and colleges across Britain. The band moved into a shared semi in Ridgefield Road, turning it into a “fucking hole” of a makeshift rehearsal space. The house was haunted by its previous occupant, the sink stacked high with unwashed pots. It was The Young Ones scripted by Samuel Beckett.
Seasoned veterans of Oxford’s live scene since their teens, On A Friday’s first post-graduation show was at the Hollybush pub on July 22, 1991. Less than three weeks later, after another gig at the Jericho Tavern, they had a management deal. Chris Hufford and Bryce Edge were two ex-New Romantics who ran the Courtyard studio complex in Sutton Courtenay, a sleepy Oxfordshire hamlet where George Orwell lies buried.
By November there was a five-track demo in circulation and a bidding war in progress. Jonny Greenwood, the youngest and newest Radiohead recruit, abandoned his psychology and music course at Oxford Poly to join the band full time. On December 22, the band signed an eight-album deal with EMI’s Parlophone label.
Greenwood Snr remembers the occasion gloomily. “We were in Leicester Square going, ‘Yeah, we’ve signed!’ Then driving back to Oxford in the pouring rain, the clouds were gathering, already starting to worry and panic, how are we going to do this?” The band members agreed to meet for a drink in Oxford, but instead got lost and soaked and missed each other. “It was a typical Radiohead day,” he sighs.
Early in 1992, EMI took the band aside for a makeover conference. They were given a £300 clothes budget and told to sharpen up their act. “There was one A&R man in particular who gave us a lecture on how we could get our shit together,” recalls Colin Greenwood, “and he gave us people like Primal Scream as an example, in terms of how they looked and they had a soapbox. He said we needed a manifesto.”
Instead, they changed their name. Gravitate, Music and the Thomas Hardy-inspired Jude were all candidates. But Radiohead, taken from an old Talking Heads tune, won the day. “You receive and you consume,” Yorke explained afterwards. “It’s very much about the passive acceptance of your environment.”
Despite their ingrained Englishness as people, Radiohead’s music always seemed like a missile aimed squarely at America. Their rowdy, raw, guitar-heavy sound owed more to grunge and hardcore than the arse-end of Madchester or the birth pangs of Britpop. Yorke’s octave-vaulting growls and universal lyrics were never hobbled by parochial irony or geographical bias. And their choice of Boston duo Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie to produce their debut album may have been a nod to their beloved Pixies – Kolderie had engineered Come On Pilgrim – but it also highlighted their transatlantic ambition.
Mildly positive reviews greeted the band’s debut Drill EP in May 1992 and second release, “Creep”, in September. This future anthem of seismic self-loathing stalled at 78 in the singles charts first time around after an impressive three plays on Radio 1. The song was dropped from the playlist for being too depressing.
Of course, “Creep” would be Radiohead’s making and breaking in the months to come. In March 1993 the single went ballistic in Israel, of all places, followed by a Billboard Top 40 placing in the US. That same month the band’s debut album, Pablo Honey, made Number 25 in the UK charts. Beyond stand-outs like “Creep” and “Stop Whispering”, the record’s dense and polished three-guitar racket offered few hints of the band’s skyscraping potential.
Radiohead played their first US show in July and toured themselves sick. Yorke “hit the self-destruct button pretty quick” and began shaving off clumps of his hair. Then he got peroxide hair extensions and went slacker-metal. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jon Bon Jovi declared their love for “Creep”. The band played it beside a swimming pool on MTV’s Beach Party. “This was the early days for MTV,” smiles Colin apologetically, “before they got their shit together.”
With a huge hit on their hands, groupies swarmed to these new British invaders. But some perverse sense of decency, or perhaps a deeply English embarrassment about sex, prevented the band from taking advantage. In Dallas, O’Brien politely declined the offer of a cocaine-fuelled sex session. At the infamous Hyatt in LA, Jonny had a naked girl call at his hotel room. “Luckily, I was out,” Greenwood Jr said later. “I’ve never taken advantage of the opportunity of one-night stands. 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.”
Pablo Honey sold two million copies worldwide, but the pressure of following up “Creep” weighed heavily on Radiohead. The single became a Top 10 smash on its UK re-release, a global Generation X anthem to rival Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. But neither “Anyone Can Play Guitar” nor “Pop Is Dead” made even a fraction of the impact.
Meanwhile, Yorke was growing to despise the song which had made him a poster boy for self-loathing, rechristening it “Crap”. Even today, he rarely discusses or performs it.
“It was everything that went along with it rather than just the song,” insists Jonny. “Thom just doesn’t like playing it – it’s his words, he can do what he wants with it. It’s like, he’s not in that emotional space any more so he doesn’t like playing it. And one of the things that’s so good about him is that he’s a performer with emotional convictions.”
Radiohead continued their relentless touring schedule as support act to Belly and PJ Harvey. But band relations became strained and shows were cancelled – including a high-profile Reading festival slot, scuppered by Yorke’s throat problems. A December tour with James culminated in a fraught band summit in Hamburg. Then all five separated and scattered, back to Oxford.
In Yorke’s words, Radiohead had “sucked Satan’s cock” and paid a bitter price. “As soon as you get any success you disappear up your own arse and lose it forever,” the singer admitted later. “When I got back to Oxford I was unbearable. You start to believe you’re this sensitive artist who has to be alone – this melodramatic, tortured person – in order to create music. The absolute opposite is true.”
Radiohead were starting to feel like one-hit wonders, a cash cow to be cynically milked dry by their short-term paymasters. To make matters worse, they were barely communicating. Their house of cards teetered on the verge of collapse.
In early 1994, Yorke and his girlfriend Rachel moved into a three-bedroom detached house in the Oxford suburb of Headington – just around the corner from the location of Radiohead’s South Park mini-festival this month. The singer christened his new home “the house that ‘Creep’ built”, arguing that it may be his one financial reward from short-burn rock fame.
Typical Yorke paranoia, perhaps, but this time the singer’s fears were not wholly imagined. Locked in creative stasis in their new rehearsal space, a converted apple shed jokingly christened Canned Applause, Radiohead’s future looked highly doubtful. Their US record company Capitol were withholding their second-album option until they heard promising new material. According to some reports, their UK label also gave the band a six-month ultimatum.
Managers Edge and Hufford, by their own admission, were “shitting themselves”. They began shopping around for new acts, and found one under their noses: Supergrass. Hufford would later recall this period as the bleak low point of his relationship with Yorke.
Inter-band relations were also in tatters. “It was a very silent, cold thing,” Jonny revealed later. “We thought we were trapped in one of those Twilight Zone slow time machines.” O’Brien would later claim Radiohead had entered “this huge, energy-sucking black hole… it was horrible. At one stage everyone was trying to find their get-out clauses.” Yorke called the sessions “the hardest thing I’ve ever, ever done… we had days of painful self-analysis; a total fucking meltdown for two fucking months.”
Recording moved to RAK studios in London, with former Stone Roses/Fall producer John Leckie. Still, the new material was painfully slow in conception. Before Radiohead played the London Astoria in May ’94, Yorke told NME, “I’m fucking ill and physically I’m completely fucked and mentally I’ve had enough.”
The summer saw Radiohead play both Glastonbury and Reading, after which Phil married his long-term girlfriend Cait and honeymooned in Lyme Regis. Album sessions then resumed at RAK and Abbey Road in London, and the Manor in Oxford. But the band hated many of their new songs: “High And Dry” was dismissed as a “Mull Of Kintyre” rip-off by Jonny and “fucking dreadful” by Yorke. “Planet Telex” was completed in the early hours, with Yorke drunk and bent double on the floor. And “Fake Plastic Trees” was going nowhere until producer John Leckie made a divine intervention.
“It was going really slowly,” Colin Greenwood recalls, “so John Leckie said, ‘Why don’t we go out?’ We went to see Jeff Buckley play at The Garage. He just had a Telecaster and a pint of Guinness. And it was just fucking amazing, really inspirational. Then we went back to the studio and tried an acoustic version of ‘Fake Plastic Trees’. Thom sat down and played it in three takes, then just burst into tears afterwards. And that’s what we used for the record.”
An October mini-tour in Mexico brought all the pent-up bile of the past year into the open. “It was like a band imploding, when it needed to find its feet,” says O’Brien. “Years of tension and not saying anything to each other, and basically all the things that had built up since we’d met each other, all came out in one day,” Yorke admitted later. “We were spitting and fighting and crying and saying all the things that you don’t want to talk about. It completely changed and we went back and did the album and it all made sense.”
But Radiohead were not making much sense to their American label, who released new single “My Iron Lung” with minimal promotion in November. According to Capitol Marketing VP Clark Staub, “My suspicion was that there was no fanbase.” As if to confirm this self-fulfilling prophecy, the single virtually disappeared overnight.
In Britain, “My Iron Lung” made Number 24 despite no Radio 1 airplay. Britpop was hitting its cheery, inward-looking, London-centric peak and Radiohead’s murky gravitas seemed once more out of step with the national mood.
Even so, Radiohead’s next single, “High And Dry”, landed at Number 17 in March 1995. Then their second album, The Bends, entered the chart at six. This dark masterpiece was a massive leap forward from Pablo Honey. Beyond the typically fraught, lurching guitar anthems it boasted grace and grandeur, epic soundtracks and programmed rhythms. The title track was widely interpreted as an acerbic commentary on the disorienting effects of sudden fame. In fact, it had been written long before “Creep”.
Yorke claimed his voice was now “just another instrument rather than me personally giving you everything in my soul. You do that once and you never ever want to do it again.” Only later would he admit that The Bends was “an incredibly personal album, which is why I spent most of my time denying that it was personal at all.”
Lyrically, Jonny Greenwood claimed The Bends was about “illness and doctors… revulsion about our own bodies”. The album’s cover image, adapted by Yorke from hospital snapshots, seemed to reflect this theme. “I was a sickly child,” he told reporters. “The content of my lyrics shows that I am almost obsessed with my health. If I get ill on tour, it really does something to me emotionally.”
The album’s air of sickness haunted Radiohead. After suffering sharp head pains, Jonny began wearing protective headphones during concerts. This was on top of the splint he had taken to strapping on his right hand to counteract repetitive strain injury. Yorke was also obliged to plug his ears after they began filling with fluid due to the constant pressure changes of air travel.
The Bends barely dented the US charts despite a year of almost constant touring. Yorke’s fragile state grew worse on the US tour, where Radiohead were “living through pure fucking hell” on three hours of sleep a night. Before a New York show in May, the singer suffered “a complete breakdown” and begged tour manager Tom Greaves to book him on the next flight home. He was talked into staying by his fellow band members, a testament to the brittle new mood of unity within Radiohead.
Radiohead’s future direction was also beginning to take shape in Yorke’s mind. “I get really envious when I hear good jungle or stuff on Warp or the Tricky album,” the singer told NME in May. “I get this sense that they were made in isolation and that there wasn’t this need to be in a bollocks rock band.” Prophetic words.
A prestigious summer tour supporting longtime idols R.E.M. showed Radiohead a more positive way to deal with fame. Meeting Stipe, Yorke says, taught him that “it is possible to do more than two albums, and to like the idea of sticking around. Learning to forget how you did something and not trying to compete with yourself. It’s a cool thing, just learning to not have to fight and argue with yourself all the time.”
But Radiohead’s idyllic summer evaporated into frustration again as they toured The Bends to a largely indifferent America in late 1995. During an October jaunt with Soul Asylum, all the band’s equipment was stolen in Denver. Later, in Vancouver, Yorke interrupted the show to silence a table of chattering industry types. “We’ve gone all around the world on this tour,” he raged, “and you are the rudest fuckers we have ever met.”
Radiohead’s recurring ill health caught up with them again in Munich in late November. A sick Yorke tried to cancel a show, but the promoter called a doctor who pronounced the singer fit for action. On stage, a clearly disturbed Yorke blew a fuse before blacking out and collapsing.
“I just got really fucking freaked out,” he said later. “I got tunnel vision, I didn’t know what happened. I threw stuff around and threw my amp around and the drum kit and ended up with blood all over my face. I cried for about two hours afterwards.”
This incident was labelled “Thommy’s Temper Tantrum” by the NME in a short, innocuous news story. The singer claimed, “I’m sure the NME don’t give a fuck, but what they wrote in that piece hurt me more than anything else anyone has ever written about me.” He then froze the paper out of interviews for over five years. ‘Forgive and forget’ is not Thom Yorke’s motto.
“When things get personal,” he says, “when you’re a moving target, once you’ve had to deal with that, you find it very difficult to forgive and forget.”
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