Radio-Unfriendly Unit Shifters
Radiohead were prophets without profit in their own land until their monument to misery, 'Creep', finally matched its phenomenal US success by charting in Britain last year. Their new single 'My Iron Lung' is an even fiercer blast of airwave-hostile nastiness. So how come the 'Head are such easy-going chaps in person? And how come Mr. Fear & Loathing Thom Yorke is having his hair cut?
The whole world says it knows just how Thom E. Yorke feels. Course we do: millions of Yanks and Brits and Israelis and Japanese (and Jon Bon Jovi) sang along to that fatally first-person hit single, didn't we?
Aww. Cute self-loathing l'il punkin. Pocket-sized Thom wanders into the chilly studio where a modern-rock hitparade (Sugar, Depeche Mode, Teenage Fanclub, Morrissey) floats distractingly from a ghettoblaster and Radiohead, on the eve of a new single, are waiting to get on board again. Photo shoot:
click, pose, click, pose. Interview tell us about your new album. Tour "Play 'Creep'!" All over again.
And, like everyone who imagined that that song offered the key to the singer's psyche, I figure I have Thom sussed. And see in his face - which has that weirdly skewed look of the just-woken - the hunched expression of mute suffering that puppies have when you squeeze them too hard.
It's enough to make you write a song about Victorian hospital equipment. Cue the slashing, alternately delicate and savage 'My Iron Lung', complete with unedited swear word and undisguisably loud guitars. What could be further from the winsome insecurities of 'Creep' than a little number about a life support system cum torture instrument?
"'My Iron Lung' makes me happy. It's probably the strongest pop narcotic I've taken this year: a hazy, 'Sgt Peppers'-drenched psychedelic swirl, Yorke's near-falsetto brushing silk and venom over a strangled lullaby. Proof, I think, that the Oxford quintet are the real deal. Whatever posterity says about "whoever that band was that did 'Creep' ", as Thom likes to grimace, 'My Iron Lung' is a staggering and unexpected return.
'Pablo Honey's diversity told me they could do a lot: this one suggests they can do anything.
'My Iron Lung' scares the shit out of me, too. Exactly two minutes into the song, its blurry, lightheaded sounds go terrifyingly wrong. Like the sound of an oxygen deprivation victim thrashing desperately for air beneath distorted vocals and freak-out guitars. And I know where I've head it before.
This is like what Kurt Cobain started writing after 'Nevermind'.
My creepy theories probably wouldn't cut much ice with four-fifths of Radiohead, bright young men who could all serve as poster boys for How To Survive Pop Success. Drummer Phil Selway, just back from a honeymoon in exotic Lyme Regis, is the one I meet first and mentally dub "The Sensible One" - until I notice three other members who fit the same easy-going, witty, friendly category. As we head to the studio, Phil tells me about yesterday's spate of phone interviews which ended with a call from an abusive journalist "from the most widely read arts journal in the Midlands". Said scribe later called the band's management to hurl abuse at them as well. Perfect example, I think to myself, of what the next two years is going to belike.
Except, of course, that was actually guitarist Ed O'Brien taking the piss.
Still, I figure, there's no way they couldn't be living in dread knowing that for the next eon (autumn UK tour, dates in Mexico and Thailand and other places where Radiohead succeeded and 'Primal Scream', 'Suede' and 'Oasis' are still unknowns, followed by the release of a John Leckie-produced second album in February), Radiohead will be strapped back into, their plane seats and tour bus bunks and spots onstage. Like so many iron lungs in the front row.
SO. The single, I announce professionally as Ed (the tall, handsome, slightly bequiffed one), Phil, guitarist Jonny Greenwood (the slender, delicate, shyly charming one) and his brother, bassist Colin (the sharp, sharp-cheekboned, quick-on-the-draw one) settle obligingly around the sofa. It's loud, isn't it? Some people might say it's too loud for radio.
"They've said it already,- contributes Thom as he goes by. - It's already been deemed 'too raucous' by Radio 1".
"Well, it isn't loud for that long, - corrects Jonny. - We're quite wary of noise. It's the only thing on the album where it does do that. And whereas some bands would go to that level and stay there, we're only there for as long as we need to be".
Some people reckon this song is pure 'In Utero'.
"Uh, okay, - says Jonny. - But i don't have that LP".
"Me neither,- concurs Ed, adding,- Nirvana were very good at writing melodies. So I guess there's a similarity there".
"I actually think 'Nirvana's songs are very different to ours,- corrects Jonny. - Most 'Nirvana' melodies are very modal and very reliant on the chorus, and Thom's aren't. The best thing about 'Nirvana' is when the vocal melodies lead the chorus into strange chords and..." - he drifts off into musician-speak, leaving me behind.
So you don't agree?
"Well, if everybody says that,- opines Colin, - we're e doomed. We should give up now".
But the lyrics? — "Suck your teenage thumb, toilet trained and dumb
When the power runs out, we'll just hum" — are pretty corrosive. What do you think about when you're playing it?
"I'm just concentrating on keeping it going during the quiet bits,- confesses Colin. - And the loud bits, making sure I can keep up".
So what is the iron lung, then?
"Ask Thom",- says Colin.
"Yeah, - Ed adds firmly. - Ask Thom".
Okay. Quick reshuffle. I ask if the band are dreading having to play all these songs to death everywhere in the world.
"We were certainly aware of it when we were writing this record, - says Ed. - We kept saying, you know we're going to be touring this one forever - so let's make it good!"
And it's not, they tell me, as if they haven't had to face gigs day in day out before.
''We've supported every band in the world, - says Jonny. - Dumpy's Rusty Nuts!"
"The Funking Bastewards," - Ed adds.
"We'd say yes!"
"Bum Gravy, - admits Colin daringly. - We were there".
Why did you bother?
"We wanted to play! We wanted to reach out to reach out to the kids!" adds Ed, wryly. - We played 100-odd gigs before anyone knew who we were!"
Which rather flies in the face of the assumption that, because Radiohead signed to a major label straight off, you were cobbled together in somebody's A&R workshop.
''Yeah, right! If they had... they'd have done it much better!" Colin laughs.
"Photogenically, - Jonny says, looking over at Thom, who is searching for volunteers to cut his hair. - Musically! Less annoyingly!"
"Better prepared!" - Ed snorts.
Colin says, "I was talking to another person in another Famous Name Band who said, 'Well, of course, we always prepare our interviews beforehand... 'And I thought, 'Oh no! Oh God!'"
"We once had this A&R man, - Ed chips in, - who said: 'Chaps, what you've gotta have is An Agenda. A Manifesto'. - His face registers mock horror at the recollection. - He sat us all dawn -he'd obviously done a few lines - and eased back in his chair and Explained lt All. And, okay, we were kind of insecure, we were thinking -aaah! We can't be in a band! We haven't got manifestos! Is this what its all about? The Stone Roses - they must have been successful because, well, they had fantastic manifestos!"
So whats your secret, then, if no one had any useful advice?
"Well, reveals Colin slowly, for the last year we've survived using this code. Three simple rules. The first one's 'Be Nice'. Always be nice.The second one's..."
"Take It Outside",- offers Ed. "Yeah, take any trouble outside. Erm... no, the first one is 'Walk Away'."
Sounds like the rules for bouncers, I observe.
"Got it in one!" - Ed claps his hands and guffaws. "Of course, - he tells me later, - two months later that A&R guy was sacked. I saw him in Soho Square looking a lime down and out".
"That's the fun, - spotting that nobody knows anything about how it all really works, - Colin adds, - But it's also the grief, when people pretend they know exactly how things are going to go before if even has a chance to happen".
And yet you must have felt vindicated when 'Creep' was finally a hit here after if succeeded in America.
"Well, when it went into the charts at Number Seven here on its second release, - recalls Ed, - they sent us a bottle of champagne. - We didn't even open it, because we were too busy worrying about a rehearsal! That's typical Radiohead - a rehearsal which meant nothing in the overall scheme of things. The things that bother us most are never the really big, fundamental. But the success here must have proven something to UK journalists who ignored you, I persist. Colin looks at me quizzically. "But we don't play for journalists!" - he smiles.
I wonder, though, if it's possible to avoid worrying that succeeding in the US carries with it the worry that If They Like Us, We Must Be Crap.
"Aaaan, - writhes Colin half-jokingly. - The Fixx, you mean! The curse of The Fixx!"
"Although in our experiences, we've met so many Americans in the business who are real music fans, people here do expect you to think Americans are thick as shit", - admits Ed. Someone tells me later that the band had been invited out for a beer by members of 'Blur' just before Radiohead's first UK tour. They never made the date, but found out later that Albarn and Co had been hoping to warn them of the inherent hideousness of the Yank experience, the inherent stupidity of the populace.
"I've never met so many people who wanted to be well-meaning", - adds Jonny of the Americans they've met, going on to note that if anything was offputting it was "their instant desire to confess. You can sit in a meeting with someone who will say, 'Well, it's still going quite badly since the divorce and the abortion last month. And then she'll look at you to convey something similar when you haven't even learned her name yet. The cathartic thing,- he adds knowingly. - Whereas, being English, the difficulty of getting good tea in the US is subject enough for conversation". I point out that maybe they'd be more popular with the press here if Radiohead ("we're famous for being anecdote-free, I'm afraid, - Jonny says apologetically, - although I really could write books about the Great Launderettes Of Europe") could be picked up, shaken by their heels and made to reveal their criminal records for the benefit of people like me. "Which is why Sebadoh are cool and we aren't, - sighs Colin as he gets up for another photo opportunity. He pauses to listen to the sounds of 'Heart Shaped Box' raging from the ghettoblaster in the corner, and turns to me.
"Oh, - he says, - Is this 'In Utero', then?"
One haircut later, Thom plops down next to me on the sofa. And I'm ready. "My Iron Lung, you driving me away. You do it every day. You don't mean it but it hurts like hell"...
— Is this about the suffocation of fame?
"It's more a statement about some of the people who come to see us... - he casts about slowly. - Or... certain members of certain audiences we've experienced. They haven't really got beyond toilet training as far as l can see. Not really our audience, more..."
"Too cynical to speak" - that's not about journalists, surely? Could it be worth the effort to write about them?
"No, - says Thom firmly. - I did that one. It was boring".
Still. An iron lung is a great image, and I confess I'm surprised it hasn't already been used by a heavy metal band, with attendant scary video. "Yeah, - Yorke laughs, - I was terrified that the week we released it we'd find out someone awful was releasing a album with the same name!"
I ask Thom whether he was sickly as a child, wondering if health preoccupations were the motivation.
"Yeah, - he agrees readily. - I still am. Under stress I get ill quite easily". l admit I can't say I'm even sure what an iron lung looks like. "Well, they have respirators now. But go back to your books... I had a photo of one, a huge fucking piece of machinery. It just seemed like a great image, a metaphor, for..."
For... what? One of the changes here, it appears, is that unlike 'Creep' with its first-person-singular immediacy, 'My Iron Lung' shifts quickly into a pronouncement about Us. Whoever Us is.
"I've started using 'we' all the time because I'm sick of projecting things onto myself,- he says, making a quick face. - The danger is... seeming very indulgent. Using 'we' sounds more like you're working in advertising, coming up with slogans. When I write, I suppose I have a thing about having eight or nine different people within me... Everybody has different charakters following them around. I think that everyone, with the first album, was presuming that there was this one character who was writing this stuff. I don't agree".
Although it makes it seem more powerful, more immediate.
"Definitely. The momentary thing can be very stimulating. 'We're too cynical to spesk' - they'll probably say, Oh God, he's off on one about His Generation again". He leans forward". Or it could be just another soundbite. People have incredibly short attention spans. there's no point in trying to fight it, because it's there, it's in the media and it's there when you're talking on the phone, flicking through channels on TV. 'My Iron Lung' is definitely one of those songs where, line by line, it's a series of statements to be taken as such and move on. But the problem, - says the man whose statements have come blaring out of millions of radios, - is that when something is repeated over and over, it becomes ad nauseam, like adverts. There's a certain stage in an adverts lifespan, where it's at its most potent, and then it becomes ridiculous.
It's exactly the same with 'Creep'. Or with any hit. With Nirvana. With Suede".
PHOTO sessions over, the band start to drift towards the door. Thom looks tired - and his hair looks a little different - but continues to listen to my questions with interest.
After everything that surrounded the album, I persist, weren't you a basket case? Aren't you afraid that physical and mental fatigue will do that to you again?
"Yeah. Mental fatigue is part of it. It makes you think that everything that's good and great about what's happening is not part of you — and all that's left is fatigue, physical exhaustion. I'm not very good at ignoring people who slag us off. I won't just laugh it off. To my cost, - he mutters half-sadly. - But if you take it on, you take it on for all it's worth, - Thom Yorke says with a flash of defiance. - But that's fine by me".