"We're going to save pop music!"
This is the (ironic?) claim being made by RADIOHEAD, an intense five-piece from Oxford who hate Sub Pop, want to bring pop stars down to size and might well be the next Smiths/Jam/any band with a religiously loyal following. PETER PAPHIDES digs the new breed on the verge of megadom with their acerbic new single, 'Anyone Can Play Guitar'.
(Presentation of the article in the NME Originals issue about Radiohead from 2003)
THOM YORKE HAS A FEW gripes about the music scene he'd like to share with you.
"I'd love to be on Sub Pop. Wouldn't that be just great? I wouldn't have to bother writing any songs then, just get myself a couple of Marshall stacks and some pedals, and I'd be well away, eh?"
Thom Yorke has a few gripes about the music press he'd like to share with you.
"Pop music has become so compartmentalised. As a group, you're not allowed to just exist anymore. You've got to be either a grunge band, or an indie band, or a soul band."
Thom Yorke has a theory about what makes for interesting music that he'd like to share with you.
"The only thing that makes for interesting music is personality - and I don't see that anywhere in those bands. I see it in Polly Harvey, The Fall, even in Loz from Kingmaker. But Sub Pop bands have no personality. They have hair.”
HARSH words, perhaps, but then Radiohead’s honey-voiced frontman has more reason than most to be arrogant.
Since signing to EMI last year, Radiohead had no option but to take the hard road to our hearts, negotiating the abyss that separates the corporate payroll and indie credibility.
What’s more, they did so with such immaculate grace that they stand poised on the brink at the Top 40 with their third single.
And it’s not without a little irony that they've chosen the acrid powerpop of "Anyone Can Play Guitar” as the song to break them. It's an ambivalent look at the trappings at stardom, that sees Thom sardonically deflating the mystique attached to Jim Morrison and every other mythologised pop star that followed in his wake.
At least, that’ s what I thought it was about, but Johnny Greenwood, Radiohead’s lead guitarist and a man with the stage presence of an atom bomb, has other ideas.
“It’s actually about how I learnt to play," he says. "Me and my grandfather would play show tunes together, you see? He'd sit me on his knee when I was three, and teach me how to play the banjo. And I remember saying one day, ’Enough of My Fair Lady!’ And that's how rock'n’roll was born."
Rock’n’roll was born in your house?!"
“Sort of. I was actually born at Sun Studios. I've got a letter from Cliff saying. ‘Thanks a lot’."
But Cliff was British."
“Ah, but Elvis copied Cliff, you see? That’s my theory. It’ll end with Cliff. You'll see", Jon continues his apocalyptic rant. "Armageddon will happen. It’ll end with a yellow tracksuit."
RADIOHEAD, it appears, don't especially want to talk about their music. Eventually, Thom takes pity upon this poor hack and comes clean.
"Oh yeah... The new single, that was your question, wasn't it? It’s really just a series at thoughts about getting up onstage, making a brat of yourself and making a career out of it. I'm sure it was great to be Jim Morrison in 1968, but a lot of people can't relinquish these obsessions... Like certain film directors…”
It's at approximately this point that the alarmed clientele of Georgina’s coffee house in Oxford turns to our table, as Ed, Radiohead’s huge rhythm guitarist, booms "Oliver Stone!"
Impervious to his new audience he continues, "That film! [’The Doors’] What a boring subject! Like, as it millions of people really give a shit about Oliver Stone [director of ’The Doors’] going back to his roots."
So you're not too preoccupied with this Being A Rock Star lark?
"Nah, look at us," says Thom. "We're a lily-livered excuse for a rock band. We might as well accept the truth and carry on."
IT'S this self-deprecation that lies at the heart of Radiohead’s success. One look at Thom will explain why cruising to notoriety on the heartthrob ticket was never an option. The "Drill" and "Creep" EPs that preceded "Anyone Can Play Guitar" were psychologically last well as musically) enthralling. If Thom wasn’t thinking about suicide in "Prove Yourself", he was muttering in tongues at sheer self-hatred in "Creep".
Although, for some critics, Thom’s lyrics are no more than a cynical plot to implicate the listener in his network at hang-ups, a couple of hours in Radiohead’s company indicates that the band really can't get to grips with the idea that anyone could ﬁnd them important.
Take, for instance, what happens next.
We’re walking out of the cafe towards Ed's car, when suddenly the rest of Radiohead look at each other and collapse into giggles.
Thom and Jon, handling the situation with a remarkable lack of cool, hide behind me, using my considerable land mass as a shield through which to stare covertly at the sudden subject at their attention.
And the cause of all this merriment? They’ve just spotted someone wearing a Radiohead tee-shirt.
Spurred on by this spectacularly unsuperstar-like behaviour, I enquire whether or not Radiohead are at all nervous about impending TV appearances an relates pressures.
Jon's elder brother Colin nods earnestly."
Actually, we are nervous. But not about all that stuff. We've agreed to play Ride at football, and the match is in two weeks’ time."
AS the afternoon progresses, it transpires that this is not going to be the definitive shock-horror-probe revelatory Radiohead interview.
It's too sunny and relaxed to dwell too I deeply on the horrors of the school that threw them together, or on the deranged headmaster who would spit forth right-wing propaganda in every assembly.
So Ed takes us for a drive through Oxford, and we talk instead about how doing music tor a job has changed them.
"Well," says Jon, "the main difference is that we see each other within rather than outside work."
"Yeah," agrees Colin, "we thought it would be cool if we all lived together in a big gang."
You could have your own theme song, I offer.
Thom perks up at the idea.
"Like The Monkees!’Hey, hey, we're Radiohead/And people say we Radiohead around’ Nah. We're too pathetic to be a cool gang. We're the only band I know that actually accumulates drink as we go on tour, says Thom, proving the point when we arrive at his Flat by pulling open the fridge door to reveal the considerable remnants at the riders tram Radiohead’s last few gigs.
"Anyway", continues Thom, regaining his thread, "after we got signed we didn't need to hang around together quite as much.”
So how did EMI eventually seal the deal with you? Did they take you for a power lunch?
"What," asks Ed "is that like a chilli?"
Momentarily confused, Ed pauses and switches on the car radio. The all-too-familiar wail at Phil Collins’ voice watts out of the speakers like an unwelcome tart.
Suddenly, Ed decides to embark on a speech, a withering tirade aimed squarely at the likes at Genesis, Mike & The Mechanics, Cliff Richard, Paul McCartney and Freddie Mercury.
Judging by the looks at trepidation from the rest of the band, Ed’s rambling monologues on all things pop are a familiar hazard.
"PABLO Honey", Radiohead’s debut LP, shows Radiohead working within the dynamics and sensibilities at pop rather than rock (Moonshake and Sonic Youth are cited as kindred spirits), unlike many of the Sub Pop bands that Thom so despises.
That’s fantastic news for anyone who's a sucker tor a devilish! Hummable chorus delivered by a bona fide singer.
Of course, if it was all quite so simple, Radiohead would be reactionary tosh, which is where the contorted, cacophonous three-pronged phalanx of Johnny, Ed and Colin comes in.
Both live and on "Pablo Honey”, the guitars serve to inject Thom’s croon with an invigorating, bilious abandon, as superbly evidenced by "Creep" and the album’s stand-out track, ”Pop Is Dead".
Explains Thom,”I wrote ’Pop Is Dead’ as a kind of epitaph to 1992. Hence the lines, ’Pop is Dead/ Died an ugly death by back catalogue’.”
What are Radiohead saying here, Thom?
“Well," grins the modest Mr Yorke, "with this LP, we’re actually going to save pop music. Then we're going onto write an album of grunge film music and, by the third album, we're all leaving the band and replacing ourselves with members of The James Last Orchestra."
It must be something in the Oxford water.
’Anyone Can Play Guitar’ is out now on Parlophone