Radiohead: “I don’t want to be in a cupboard… I write music to communicate” – Part 2
As Thom Yorke’s Atoms For Peace complete their London Roundhouse residency – check out John Mulvey’s blog on their Wednesday night show – it seems a good time to delve back into Uncut’s history to find this illuminating Radiohead interview from August 2001 (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
A sleeper hit propelled by positive word-of-mouth, The Bends would gradually notch up two million global sales and re-enter the Billboard Hot 100. It eventually went platinum in Britain and climbed to a late peak of Number Four. But as 1996 dawned, Radiohead’s second album seemed overlooked and underrated.
In February, Yorke and Brian Eno jointly collected the Freddie Mercury prize at the Brits for the WarChild compilation, Help. But Radiohead were beaten in all their nominated categories by all-conquering new boys, Oasis. The Gallaghers had become rock’s new clown princes almost overnight, much to Yorke’s disdain. He dismissed the Mancunian brothers as “a freak show” and “mentally ill”.
In this charged atmosphere, work began on the next Radiohead album. Writing and recording self-produced material with an open-ended deadline was supposed to defuse tensions between the group. Instead it made them worse. But initial sessions at Canned Applause were marred by problems more fundamental than musical differences. According to Jonny, “There was nowhere to eat or defecate, which are two fairly basic human drives.”
In August, Radiohead played a short US tour supporting Alanis Morissette. The “silly money” they earned almost made up for Morissette’s big-haired covers of “Creep” and “Fake Plastic Trees”. Back in Britain, with £100,000 worth of newly purchased mobile studio equipment, Radiohead decamped with engineer Nigel Godrich for two months to St Catherine’s Court, actress Jane Seymour’s 15th-Century mansion near Bath.
The location was beautiful, spooky and silent. Inevitably, Yorke hated it. “It became a complete fever, like being ill all the time,” he said afterwards. “It was fucking horrible, I could never sleep.”
OK Computer was initially planned as an upbeat reaction to The Bends and defiant demolition of Radiohead’s gloomy image. But as recording progressed, its trip-hop symphonies and sci-fi lullabies brimmed over with nausea, disgust and travel sickness: “The crackle of pig skin, the yuppies networking/The vomit, the vomit.” Pigs, crashing vehicles and millennial despair became recurring motifs. “To me, the album’s more about speed and transport rather than the future and technology,” says Jonny Greenwood now. “The songs are very transparent; it’s very clear what they’re about.”
Yorke tried to make his voice sound different on every track. “He was getting very sick of the fact that he could sing about garden furniture and it would still sound very passionate,” says the guitarist. Dark references to “the IMF and cattle prods” also reflected the singer’s growing interest in “voodoo economics” and digestion of political tracts like Will Hutton’s The State We’re In and Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age Of Extremes.
The track “Fitter, Happier” was voiced by computer speech software and ended with the brutal comment on modern consumerism, “a pig in a cage on antibiotics” – a line adapted from Jonathan Coe’s darkly comic novel about arms dealing and the death of the welfare state, What A Carve Up! This extraordinary slice of digital nihilism was even considered as the lead-off single for OK Computer.
Instead, the towering six-and-a-half minute “Paranoid Android” was chosen with an animated video by Magnus Carlsson featuring murder, mutilation and topless mermaids. MTV censored the mermaids. Eleven minutes long in its original form, this neo-prog epic was hailed as a “Bohemian Rhapsody” for the ’90s. Jonny began to despise it. “I just couldn’t stand it after the second time,” he recalls. “If I was working in a shop or a factory, I’d go out for a cigarette break.”
Colin Greenwood says “the idea behind “Paranoid Android” was to do a combination of DJ Shadow and The Beatles. We’ve always aimed ourselves at this trajectory towards other people’s music that we’ve fallen in love with. It’s like a lover’s flattery: we try to emulate these people and we always fall short. When we did “Creep” we were heavily into Scott Walker. We aim for the stars, and we hit just north of Oxford – ha!”
Ominously, Radiohead’s US record company Capitol heard OK Computer and immediately downgraded sales forecasts from two million to 500,000. Radiohead themselves were hardly expecting to find themselves the most acclaimed band on Earth in the summer of 1997.
Early signs had been mixed. On June 8, Radiohead played the Tibetan Freedom concert in New York followed by an Irving Plaza gig attended by R.E.M., Madonna, U2, Blur, Courtney Love and Lenny Kravitz. O’Brien moved Madonna to make sure his mother had the best table in the house. But at their next show, previewing mostly new material at the KROQ “weenie roast” in LA, they were booed offstage. Yorke exploded at the crowd, branding them “fucking mindless”.
Released on June 16 in Britain and July 1 in the US, the reviews for OK Computer were beyond hysterical: “The first album of the 21st century… The world’s most important, innovative band… The Beatles’ true heirs… The first British band since The Smiths to move rock onwards and upward.” At the Barcelona album launch, Jonny Greenwood glumly mused: “Journalists like it, which is always ominous.” Yorke added, “Oh shit, now we’re in trouble.”
“We were so insecure,” says O’Brien four years on. “The only reaction we’d had at that stage apart from the UK was the Americans calling it commercial suicide. We needed those good reviews and record sales. We were nervy because we hadn’t gone for the easy option; we hadn’t gone for The Bends Part 2.”
Glastonbury 1997 caught Radiohead in the grip of both triumph and adversity. Yorke was blinded by stage lights, his monitors blown, buzzing and vibrating like a human lightning conductor. He “played six songs to a pitch-black wall of nothingness” and almost left the stage.
“The lights on the floor just burned Thom’s eyes out so he couldn’t see anyone or hear anything,” Colin Greenwood recalls. “He started to make mistakes and miscues and nearly walked offstage, but Jonny and Ed basically talked him out of it. He didn’t have any monitors for the encores, which is amazing. So we have very mixed feelings. But if we’d done that a year before, we would have definitely left the stage – our career in ruins.”
Headlining Glastonbury was one of the most powerful and certainly one of the most significant performances in Radiohead’s career to date. It was also the point where everything started to go supernova – and off the rails. Following more monitor trouble at the Torhout festival in Belgium in July, Yorke lambasted the “special people” in the crowd and stormed offstage. He began freezing up when “Creep” was mentioned in interviews and refused requests to play it live. “Fuck off, we’re tired of it,” he bawled at a Montréal audience. Fans who demanded old favourites were dismissed as “anally retarded”.
OK Computer matched critical acclaim with commercial clout, going gold in the US (500,000 sales) and platinum in the UK (also 500,000) before Christmas. It topped almost every end-of-year album poll and was even voted the best album ever by one rock monthly. But once again, a more conventional rock’n’roll success story – The Verve – beat Radiohead at the Brits in February 1998. As consolation, the Oxford misfits still picked up two Ivor Novello songwriting awards and a Grammy for Best Alternative Rock Performance.
Radiohead toured OK Computer around the world and into immortality. Along the way, Yorke guested on the UNKLE album, Psyence Friction, with DJ Shadow, while he and Jonny recorded three Roxy Music covers for the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack. Band tension was never far away, though Yorke claimed at the time, “We’re much better at shouting at each other now, which is good. There used to be a lot of serious in-fighting under the guise of reasonable discussion, and now it’s lots of shouting and eventually we decide, so that’s kind of cool. It’s sort of like a marriage.”
A marriage heading for divorce, judging by Grant Gee’s Radiohead tour documentary, Meeting People Is Easy. Premièred in November 1998, this queasily beautiful tapestry of millennial unease was the Koyaanisqatsi of rockumentaries. Mimicking the shifting textures and gear-crunching tempo changes of OK Computer, Gee’s film caught the mind-warping mundanity and motion sickness of life on the road with a homesick, paranoid, psychologically scrambled art-rock quintet.
“He did so many edits of it,” says Colin Greenwood. “This hot summer in London, this tiny room, we saw hundreds of them. The poor man. We ended up with over eight hours of edited footage from 40-odd. It was a mammoth undertaking – the heartache! But for all that stuff that you saw, there was all this paddling about in the sea in New Zealand and going to barbecues and getting wasted and go-karting – but no-one wants to see that. It confirmed what everybody likes about us anyway.”
Despite the multiple re-cuts, Gee was given a mostly free hand by the band. “We saw it before editing, and bits and pieces that felt like too much were taken out,” Yorke explains. “Equally we kept saying to him, ‘Can we have some light bits?’ He was going, ‘No.’ Hurg hurg!”
Indeed, the film somehow failed to capture Radiohead’s naturally sunny, bouncy, happy-go-lucky side. “The idea really was to sort of burn out that element of the myth really, or the glamour bit,” Yorke adds glumly. “The actual brutal reality when you turn your domestic digital camera on and film somebody backstage before a show is a bit like Meeting People Is Easy. It’s kind of supposed to be a rough guide on reasons not to be in a band.”
Featuring teasing snippets of future Kid A and Amnesiac tracks, the film also caught Britain’s most neurotic band on the verge of a nervous breakdown. “It was Radiohead, wasn’t it?” Colin smiles feebly. “Eddie Izzard would do a good pisstake.”
One scene in Meeting People Is Easy finds Yorke berating his fellow band members about the “headfuck” brought on by OK Computer, dismissing the acclaim as “bollocks” and concluding, “We should get out while the going is good.”
Was it really that stressful? “It wasn’t stress, it morphed into something far more interesting,” grins Yorke, rocking gently in his seat. “I don’t know what. Totally out of control, almost like hallucinating all the time. It was great.”
After OK Computer, Radiohead were proclaimed the most important, forward-looking band since The Beatles. Radiohead’s third album was one of the most hysterically praised releases in rock history, earning the band a global popularity rating somewhere between The Beatles and Jesus. How did Yorke react? It was a “total headfuck”, a “fucking nightmare”, he became “totally unhinged”.
At the peak of their career, Radiohead were a quivering mess of sickness and insecurity. It was time to rethink the band – or get out of the game altogether.
Thom Yorke gazes at the greasy, grey river slipping by outside. The afternoon has darkened, but he is brightening slightly. After an hour of nit-picking tension, he’s relaxing, opening up. Hell, even laughing. He talks about how the fall-out after OK Computer meant rewriting the ground rules, rebuilding Radiohead for a new millennium. But first, and perhaps more importantly, he had to learn to stop acting like a spoilt bastard.
By his own admission, Yorke had become an egomaniac dictator who ran Radiohead as his personal fiefdom. His power within the band was “absolutely unbalanced, and I chose to subvert everybody else’s power at all costs. But it’s not as bad as that any more. It’s actually a lot more healthy democracy-wise now than it used to be, partly because I was so paranoid and uptight about not getting my own way, and growing a beard and starting to bake your own bread and stuff has made me realise that maybe I’m not right all the time.”
That must have come as a shock. “It was a fucking nasty shock, man,” Yorke nods with a guilty grin. “I was terrible, awful. I created a climate of fear, the same way that Stalin did. Hurg hurg! I was very paranoid that things would get taken away from me. It was to do with being under massive amounts of pressure, as much as anything. You cannot make mistakes, you don’t have time, you have to get this right. And it takes its toll, so I had to sort of attack.”
In 1996, Yorke admitted, “I’m always losing my temper, and it’s very rarely justified.” In 1997, he told this writer, “You have to oscillate wildly between screaming megalomania and neurosis.” But the OK Computer period turned him into something of a tyrant. “We should have stopped earlier and we didn’t,” he says with the benefit of hindsight, “and in order to cope with things you build up all these fences, and there was part of me that was this horrible ego that was totally out of control. It was kind of just annoying, you know?”
How bad did it get? Did Yorke ever try and sack anyone in the band? “I don’t think so, no. The others wouldn’t let me do stupid things like that.”
Does he treat Radiohead as his personal kingdom? “Not any more.” And other people’s creative ideas are given breathing space? “Yes, and it’s more fun – it’s pointless otherwise, completely pointless. It was never really like that, but I kind of started thinking that it was… I started thinking that it was all my idea, and it wasn’t, it had never been my idea, but I started kidding myself that it was. In retrospect, I’m quite amazed that I got that bad, but I did.”
The last time we met, Yorke had just thrown a fit onstage and the rest of the band seemed to tiptoe around him carefully. “Yes, it’s something I used to do a lot,” he owns up. “I try and stop doing that, because it’s damaging and pointless.”
Rock’n’roll has always indulged the Charismatic Bastard. John Lennon became an immortal beacon of Punk Truth by sneering and bullying, while cheery, level-headed, professional Paul McCartney went down in history as Mr Light Entertainment. Just compare the critical standing of Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Johnny Rotten, Mark E Smith or Kurt Cobain to their more courteous and reasonable contemporaries. Thom Yorke is an icon to tortured teens everywhere; Colin Greenwood is the bass player in Radiohead.
Does Greenwood ever take offence at Yorke’s volatile outbursts? “Not really, because it won’t be on a personal level, so you can’t take it personally,” he says. “I think everyone is fairly tentative with everybody else anyway. But obviously Thom reacts acutely and is very sensitive to his environment.”
The loosening of Radiohead’s power structure also freed up their creative agenda. “It was weird,” says Yorke. “It was like starting the band again, in some ways, because a lot of the time you would have something written and go in and just bash through it. But now ideas come from all over the place – which is good, much better.” He remains on a higher royalty rate as the band’s main songwriter, but says in his defence that “it’s not massive at all… it’s pretty even, actually, because that’s the only way it would work. Otherwise it all gets very peculiar.”
With born-again fervour, all five band members immersed themselves in the growing underground subculture of electronica, and began to use computers as a prime compositional tool. With another open deadline, the intent was to remake Radiohead for the 21st century, blurring the old singer-plus-band boundaries, teasing out the ghosts which haunt the vast no-man’s-land dividing rock from techno.
“There’s this middle ground between the two,” says Yorke. “It’s the grid that depresses me, being locked in a grid all the time. That’s the best way of putting it, really – that we’ve been locked on a grid.”
Part of Yorke’s agenda was to remix his emotions out of the spotlight, slurring vocals into textures and tone poems. But buried voices, cryptic words, cancelled interviews – all these add weight to the myth of Yorke as tortured soul. As David Stubbs wrote in Uncut’s review of Amnesiac last month, “There’s more ‘said’ in Yorke’s pained, implacable, soaring wail than in many of his lyrics.” If he is trying to avoid marketing himself as a “personality”, Yorke is failing gloriously. The less he tries to give away, the more it seems worth knowing.
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