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.”