Radiohead: “We were spitting and fighting and crying…”

Thom Yorke and co on Amnesiac, OK Computer and "two-month" meltdowns

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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.”

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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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