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

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

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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