(Presentation of the article in the NME Originals issue about Radiohead from 2003)
‘OH NO! POP IS DEAD…
THE JET LAG PATENTLY HASN’T SET IN.
Four tequilas and half an hour into our first night out in LA - Hollywood's absurdly swish Yamashiro bar to be precise - and Thom Yorke, Radiohead's unshuttupable strop-symbol, has already met and exchanged compliments with a nearby Ian Astbury (of Cult "fame"), attracted curious looks from some "Baywatch" folk on the next table and terrified my innocent tape recorder with enough contentious quotes to keep Backlash busy till the end of the summer.
To wit, a selection: "So, am I really supposed to be excited or even challenged by Suede, for f***’s sake? I mean, I don't like to be cynical, but if that really is the best that pop music can do in the space of a year or two, then there's no hope for the world.”
What is it that riles you about Suede?
"There's nothing that riles me about Suede. That’s the whole f***ing point. It's not so much that they're manufactured, which they are. But that the product that's been manufactured isn’t a particularly interesting one.
"There are adverts on the television that challenge me more than any song I've heard this year. There's more art in the 'Tango' and ‘Pot Noodle’ adverts than there is in 'Animal Nitrate’ or anything by Bikini Kill or Cornershop."
Radiohead's new single, if you hadn't already guessed, is called "Pop is Dead”, and it’s their most gloriously caustic slab of acrid pop mayhem since last year’s vinegar-sweet "Creep".
It’s also at this point that I start to get rather confused...
…LONG LIVE POP’
YOU see, sometimes I listen to Radiohead and I think they're full of shit. Crammed fit to burst with facile apocalyptic declarations regarding the state of pop, the band's eve move tainted by frontman Thom Yorke's insatiable urge to find the nearest works and throw a spanner in them.
Then I put on Radiohead's magnificently surly "Pablo Honey" album. And you know what? I realise that every other pop star that's hijacked these centre pages in the past year is typical of the growing inability of pop music to enthral, enamour and enrapture a million 16-year-old kids into believing a song on "Top Of The Pops" might just change their life.
What's so f***ing special" about THIS band, then, that sets them apart from yer Huggies and yer Bellys and yer Suedes? And what gives Thom Yorke the divine right to make sweeping generalisations about the death of a genre that he has, after all, sought to salvage a career from?
Talking to Thom, you get the feeling that at some level he must know that stardom awaits him. And that any time he embarks on one of his semi-legendary rants, the belief at the heart of his soliloquies is that there simply aren't many singers around at the moment that can do it as well as him. Anyone who's witnessed one of Radiohead's incendiary live performances will agree that if Thom Yorke is indeed an arrogant f***', then he's got enough charisma to carry it off.
Meanwhile, back at the Yamashiro, we've decided it's far too glorious a spring evening to argue about the future of pop. And besides, you try having a serious debate and getting that business with the salt, the lime and the tequila the right way round. Not even Ian Astbury can do it, and he's a roper, proper pop star.
However, I'm still not convinced that "Pop Is Dead". We resolve to conclude the argument over a morning swim, before we embark on three hectic do s of PR.
All being well, our sanity will be there to greet us at the other end…
‘I NEVER WANTED ANYTHING BUT THIS’
"POP Is Dead" is in some ways a dangerous move for Radiohead to make after the sideways swipe that "Anyone Can Play Guitar" took at what Thom calls "hair bands".
Isn't it just a bit ironic that you're lounging by a rooftop swimming pool in LA trying to convince me that pop is dead?
"What? You're implying that there's a contradiction?" enquires Thom between slurps of Earl Grey, sitting up on his sunbed. "I don't think there is. First of all, if you’re a band on a major label coming to America, you can't help but step into 'Spinal Tap’ the moment you walk off the plane! There was a white stretch limo waiting for us with a TV and a bar inside it. But that's just the paraphernalia of pop culture. It exists for film actors, ballet dancers and half the population of California.
"Pop culture will always exist," Thom continues, squinting at the sun. "What I was thinking about when I wrote ’Pop Is Dead’ is tact pop music has a very marginal part to plan in pop culture. So that whereas you had programmes like 'The Tube’ and 'Whistle Test’ that were purely music based, you've now got 'The Word’. That says it all."
What do you mean? Lots of people watch 'The Word’. Doesn't that indicate some kind of success?
"Not really," sighs Thom. "People like to watch car crashes as well. The producers of 'The Word’ are delighted because it's the most talked-about programme in the country As if that's a criterion for success. People should be talking about 'The Word’ because it's good"
“I've never met a person who's watched 'The Word’ all the way through and hasn't felt totally screwed up. And I know that sounds really petty, ranting on about what‘s on TV, but when you're 13 years old, watching a great band on television for the first time could mean the world to you."
THESE PEOPLE AREN'T YOUR FRIENDS/ THEY'RE PAID TO KISS YOUR FEET’
"ARE you the ‘Creep’ guy?" squeals a blubbery Capitol marketing woman as I walk across to the water dispenser.
Like everyone else in the tower (all of whom have been made to wear Radiohead tee-shirts in honour of the band's presence), she's apparently besotted with Radiohead's US hit to be.
Anyway, I tell her they're in the next room, but by now she's shaking my arm out of its shoulder socket with lunatic glee.
"Well, let me congratulate you on your song. I haven't heard such a great song since Lord knows when."
Thank you very much, but I'm not actually in the band. The’ re in the next room.
"Well, you're obviously connected with Radiohead, and it's a privilege to meet someone associated with 'Creep'.”
I thank her once more and take my horribly disfigured right arm into the neighbouring office, domain of one Art Jaeger. Art is second-in-command at Capitol, and looking at his office you can't help but wonder at the irony of his name. Radiohead are all in there being affectionately shouted at by the rotund executive. He's person today to shake their hand and tell layer, "Pablo Honey", has single-handedly saved Western civilisation.
Thom Yorke scratches his befuddled bleached barnet and contemplates this promotional pantomime.
"Erm…. I hear that Michael Stipe has to do this, too," he whispers, conspiratorially.
That's all right, then. Doesn't any of this make you at all wary of signing to a major label?
"Put it this way: we're not regretting that we didn't sign to Wiija. It's nice to have people working for us. The thing that people fail to mention about majors is that in many ways, a decent band that signs to a major can't lose. If the next album bombs and it all goes horribly wrong, then we'll be dropped and they'll have to write off our debt."
That's not very cred of you, is it?
"Well, that was never the idea. We never want to be the most exciting band in our ghetto. The idea was to cut straight through all that ’paying your dues’ shit and get the whole world to see us. That was part of all the attraction that our record deal offered us. The contract signed us to Parlophone 'all around the world and in the known and unknown universe’. I like that breadth of vision."
‘PLEASE FORGET THE WORDS/THAT I JUST BLURTED OUT/IT WASN’T ME’
KEVIN, the DJ at K-ROQ, LA's biggest radio station, makes Bruno Brookes seem like Bertrand Russell. He wants Thom to step inside his studio for a moment. Thom doesn't ta word in edgeways to refuse or ask why, so eventually he shrugs his sagging shoulders and follows him in.
It transpires that Radiohead's cracked self-hate anthem "Creep" is the second most requested song on K-ROQ, and Kevin thinks it would be a great idea for Thom to record a couple of plugs for K-ROQ into the mic, both of them based tenuously around lines from the song.
Thom complies, perhaps in gratitude for the station's championing of the band. However, the final straw comes when he's asked to sing a message to the tune of "Creep" that the show is "so f***ing special. He virtually retches at the suggestion, but this merely results in Thom being subjected to some subtle psychological blackmail.
"You did actually sin on that record, right?" asks Kevin.
"Of course I f***ing did," retorts Thom, indignantly.
"Well, how about it, then?"
Eventually, a sorely embarrassed lead singer croons the jingle and shuffles out of the studio vowing never to be caught out like that again. "It's all right when you turn on your radio and there's Lenny Kravitz going, 'Heyyy! This is K-ROQI"' sighs Thom. "And you're sat there thinking, 'You cool bastard!'. But whenever I hear myself talking, it's like f***ing voodoo."
Today, if nothing else, Thom Yorke of Radiohead realised that he isn't Lenny Kravitz.
Some of us are grateful.
‘PROTECT ME FROM THE WORI.D’
WATCHING Radiohead tackle their collective media duties, I'm reminded of something Julian Cope said about Teardrop Explodes, just as "Reward" was becoming their first Top 10 hit. Cope remembers the Teardrops as a bunch of crazies trying desperately to convince the world that they were “like all the other pop stars”.
Like the young Julian Cope before him, Thom Yorke is a very British star. Despite the grand claims he makes both for his band and their superiority to most of the current opposition (he cites Polly Harvey and The Auteurs as Britain's only potential pop saviours), a lot of the time you get the impression that he feels unable to justify the "star" aspect of his role in the band; that, just like the song, he knows he's "a creep" and "a weirdo".
So why is everyone being so nice to him? And how does he reconcile his notoriously low self-image to the bloke in the limo signing autographs? Do you feel guilty about any of this?
Pause. Then a realisation.
"Erm… I think I am, aren't I?"
I'd have said so.
"I never think about guilt very often, but you're right. I never thought I felt guilty, but then it's hard to justify a lot of what you find yourself doing you're working in a business that lets you live out every myth that you romanticised as a kid. Myth is what keeps 90 per cent of the music business alive. It’s certainly not music. Myth sustains back catalogue. Myth keeps people wanting to know about you.
"I can't believe people still interview us and ask, 'Is it all sex, drugs and rock'n'roll? And you're thinking, Come on! If it was, you wouldn't wanna buy my f***ing record."
LATER that night, it's Radiohead's turn to scrutinise their fans. It's back to K-ROQ,this time for a show called "Love Lines", where listeners telephone the station and discuss their personal troubles with the band. Unfortunately, none of us were quite prepared for the sheer gravity of some people's traumas. Or for the moronic and insensitive interjections of the show's DJ.
Moments of light relief come with guitarist Ed's admission - in sympathy with a 14-year-old caller whose boyfriend is 25 - that if he fell in love with a 14-year-old who was suitably mature and intelligent, then he'd be fully prepared to go to bed with her. It's a sight to treasure, if only for the outrage it provokes in the show's resident doctor.
As Oxford's five moonlighting Samaritans emerge bedraggled from three hours of counselling strangers, Thom Yorke -a picture of frustration and relief - asks me if I’d like to join him for that night of clichéd rock'n'roll excess he's been promising himself ever since he got here.
Well, being partial to the odd bit of rock'n'roll excess myself - and slightly sore from the fact that nobody would come with me to Anthrax’s party on the hotel roof last night - I'm ready to burn some proverbial rubber on the Rock'n'Roll Highway Of Thrills.
Two hours later, it looks like Thom will never get to go on that binge. We're walking down Sunset Boulevard trying to find a place that looks lively or open. Finally arriving at a likely-looking bar, the mountainous door ogre won't even entertain the idea of letting us in.
"I bet Jim Morrison never had this trouble when he was cruising down Sunset Strip," jokes the wannabe rock demigod, disappearing to buy a strawberry milkshake.
Radiohead are performing at London ULU tonight (Wednesday). ’Pop Is Dead‘ is out now on Parlophone.