(Presentation of the article in the NME Originals issue about Radiohead from 2003)
Radiohead's The Bends is one of the albums of the year. We already know this. We also know that Thom Yorke is the next richeykurt rock'n roll martyr. But what we don't know is that the 'head are all mad bastard jokers obsessed with trousers, booze and shagging! Or are they?
"Oh, for Christ's sake, I did not write this album for people to slash their fucking wrists to." But they are Thom, they are. Whether Thom Yorke likes it or not, The Bends is now an integral part of this end of the century/culture of despair thing we keep hearing so much about on the "6 o'clock news" and in The Guardian and in The Mirror and in The Sun and in The Times, and every hour on the hour on the radio.
In Utero, The Holy Bible, The Bends. This is your library as you go under for the third and final time. In Utero, The Holy Bible, The Bends. (Now I can't climb the stairs/ Pieces missing everywhere/ Prozac/ Painkillers/ Crawling on all fours... Drying up in conversation... all your insides fall to pieces/ You just sit there wishing you could still make love... you will be the one screaming out... I try to behave but it eats me everything is broken) - this is your diary for the last year. This is your day-to-day.
"It's not my fucking day to day. It's not my life. These lyrics aren't self-fulfilling. The Bends isn't my confessional. And I don't want it used as and aid to stupidity and fucking wittery. It's not an excuse to wallow. I don't want to know about your depression-if you write to me, I will write back angrily telling you not to give into all that shit". Thom taps his knife briskly on his wine glass. He takes a deep breath. He is clearly very annoyed. He spits :"Shut up, fuck off, and go and buy The Smiths' back catalogue instead. Our music is of no use to you".
Beating Yourself Up From The InsideSo, if The Bends is not the final sigh of a man in a warm bath with razor blade on hand to cure those itchy wrists, where does the weight, the steam-roller head-fuck of The Bends come from?
Repulsion. Internalised repulsion. This is, in essence, what one is dealing with when writing about Radiohead. Thom Yorke isn't another desperate, depressive Kurt or Richey-style rock'n roll martyr - the truth spins along the lines of: Thom has tantrums which he turns in on himself, and burn him up from the inside, hence the fall-out of sparks and friction.Thom's disgust with the world is large and the 'job' he holds down forces him to do things that make him shudder - the slime-fed corporate lunches; the meet and greets; the re-recorded radio-jingle whoring; the desperate insincerity - this isn't why he's spent a decade in a band. This isn't why he hauls himself out of bed and writes down the music that drifts in with sleep; this isn't why he embarked on the American tour with "Creep" that nearly finished off the band. Thom feels the "business end" of the music industry holds him back from the music and the adrenaline gut-kick that comes with something as simple as playing a great live set. He worries that meeting too many gits in suits will take the "sturm und drang" from his storm-symphonies; that knowing what "units" are will take the poetry from his soul and sully his friendship with the rest of the band.
Now, worry coupled with impotence makes panic, and long-stewed panic leads to anger. And as you can't slap the hand that holds the paycheck, all you can do is beat yourself up from the inside. For caving in and letting slide your morals. Internalised repulsion. Couple this with the enormous pressure of writing a follow-up to the million-plus selling Pablo Honey and you have the twisted emotions that ribbon The Bends. Despite the heavy strobing, future-machine roll of "Planet Telex"; Thom's rasping voice as he confesses he "used to fly like Peter Pan"; the vertiginous waltz of "Nice Dream"; the broken-backed lament of "Black Star"; the whole air of triumphalist misery...despite all of this, and unlike The Holy Bible and In Utero, The Bends is not a diary album. These are half-remembered traumas, not current ones; nightmare-songs on behalf of the scared and the scarred and the shattered. Empathy for the bedevilled. That's what we are dealing with, in a very real sense, when we talk about Radiohead. And yet, on the other hand, we're dealing with Colin's trousers. This job never gets any easier. Radiohead aren't too happy about their recent press - more specifically they aren't too happy with The Stud Brother's bleak front-cover story detailing the raw emotions that produced The Bends. So unhappy in fact, the Melody Maker photographers were told to fuck off at the recent Bristol Sound City bash. Coupled with even the most cursory glance at The Bends frustration-laden lyric-sheet, and varied reports that Thom is "moody" and "troubled", and the rest of the band not far behind in the angst-ridden stakes, you half expect to see a hyperactive semi-circle of ambulances around the hotel door, bearing worryingly heavy stretchers.
"Oooooh, it is hot. I feel I'm melting just like a runny ice-cream. Mmmmmmm, ice-cream. I just fancy one, don't you? My favourite's choc chips. How about you ? You can't really beat rum 'n raisin, can you ? I think I got squiffy on rum 'n raisin once. Oh, I did feel peculiar".
On stage, Johnny Greenwood is a blur of glossily tossed hair, coat-hanger hips and shiny, squalling guitar. His brother, Colin, looks impassive - sharp-suited, concentrating on his bass. Maybe thinking about art, or fine china. Offstage, they are Viz's "Pathetic Sharks". We are in Rome, on a day so hot the walls have heat-rash and the Coliseum is wearing shorts. Johnny, on the other hand is wearing a 100 per cent wool T-shirt, having mislead the rest of his clothes is Paris, and Colin is fretting about his suit. "It's smart. But is it too smart ?" he worries. "I don't want to look desperate", "But you are desperate" his brother quietly reminds him. "We call him Shabba", guitarist Ed O'Brien chips in "you know, Shabba Ranks, Mr Loverman. He likes the ladeez".
Ed is tall, dark, handsome and wise and polite. He is very much like Frasier, the moral Mountie from BBC's Due South. He is so polite in fact, that one imagines he says ma'am after every utterance. "OK Rome are you ready to fucking rock'n roll? Ma'am" Like that.It's because of his politeness that one assumes Ed purposely hasn't pointed out the more usual cockney rhyming slang connotations of his new nickname. Welcome to the bleak, miserable, polite world of Radiohead.
Case in point : the band's entrance to tonight's gig.
The GigColin strides onto the stage. This is a proud moment for Radiohead - nay, Britain - as the band are the first non-Italian band to play the prestigious slot on Cornetto FM. Four million people are listening. All of EMI Italia are watching from seats ringed high around the stage, executive jewellery shimmering in the light. The "vibe" all day has been that The Bends will be one of those Huge International Crossover Albums, and will continue selling for the next 15 to 20 years, thus enabling Radiohead, as greying forty-something's to buy large Angst Farms in Scotland and retire.
But this is all in the future. The present is still fresh and contains Colin shining sweaty as the lights dim and he breaches the further reaches of the stage. Perhaps his Angst Farm future is weighing on his shoulders and ruining the line of his suit- for lo! Suddenly a cog in Colin's brain clicks into the place and he wheels around, only to realise...that he is alone! Yup, tonight, Radiohead are represented by Colin and no one else but Colin. He spins on his heel, and looks desperately for his bandmates. Thom, Jonny, Ed and drummer Phil Selway can be seen through a small window at the back of the stage, pointing at Colin and laughing. Ed is pulling what can only be described as "Nyuuuur" faces. Thom is doubled over, and you can almost hear his wheezy laughter from a hundred yards away. This is what Radiohead are like. There is no accident waiting to happen here. No obituaries due for the next 40 years. Move along, please.
ThomWe don't see much of Thom Yorke for the first 10 hours in Rome. The first time we do see him close up is in the tour van, driving from the gig to a restaurant. Thom's face is creased up in a Muttley out of "Dastardly and Muttery" cackle as Colin asks, with increasing Pathetic Sharkness, "Are we there yet?" Thom has been absent the rest of the day - hidden in his hotel room when we arrived, lost inside himself the rest of the time. At 2 a.m., around a drunken and riotous restaurant table, the summons finally comes. "Thom is ready to see you now". Thom is sick of interviews. You feel it seeping from every pore as you approach his chair. You can tell from the resigned slump in his back as you sit down. This is a man who doesn't want to be asked what his influences are. He will punch anyone who want to know about "Creep". We decide to approach this one sideways, all crab-like and sneaky.
What's the best party you've ever been to then?
Best party - which one?
Thom thoughtfully pours a small vineyard into his glass, then drinks it. All of it.
"There was a summons", he begins, "it felt like that. I was at university. You have been chosen to attend The Greatest Party Ever, held by, erm, this guy. All meet at such and such a place. Bring a sleeping bag. So I toddled along, breathlessly, anticipation building, and met a fair-sized crowd. The agenda was carefully set. We all had to get in this car, and let it roll down a hill with the lights on. I think there were a few crashes. Then we built huge fires to see by, as it was right at this point, and starting taking the car apart, and made musical instruments out of the various components. With what was left of the car, we made a huge Chinese dragon, which we danced around in. These shamanic drumbeats started up from somewhere, and we all started twitching and gyrating until daybreak. It was pretty pagan. Then we crashed out in the open in our sleeping bags, and I was awoken at 7 am by the smell of bacon and some loon with a megaphone shouting "Wake up ! Time to die !". That was pretty cool".
Yeah, that is pretty cool. I was expecting the usual, "Well, me and a couple of mates and a couple of birds and a sick-pack...". "Well, I was special and artistic even at that age", Thom says, heavy on the irony. Rock `n roll is all about gangs, packs - were you ever in a gang? Thom hoots. "Heh, heh, heh, Nah, the only gang I was ever in kicked me out !" Why so ? "I had Velcro buckles on my trainers instead of laces. They thought I was letting their cool down. Bastards".
Thom relaxes in his chair, and picking up his glass, savours the bouquet of his very good red wine.Then he belts it down in one. I figure I can slip in a music question. Thom, did you or did you not, as the intro to "Planet Telex", nick the middle eight to Paul McCartney's "Live and let die"? "Whaaaaaat?". "Live and let die". You did, didn't you? "No, let's be very clear where we nicked things from", Thom says, bristling. "We nicked "Planet Telex" from "Tago Mago" by Can. So fuck off, we are arty us". Thom grins. It's a beautiful thing. He drinks more wine. He seems at peace with the world. Right ...
Big Important "Newsnight" QuestionsSo, Thom, you are rock martyr up-in-flames, fame-as-your-crucifix, black hole sun bloke, no?
"Smack addict", adds Thom, now heavy on the sarcasm. "Don't forget smack addict. I like a big bowl of smack for breakfast. Big crack pies too". He sighs, and starts reeling off a list :"I like morphine, I like David Lynch, I like graveyards, I like defacing dolls, I like wearing ripped dresses and make-up, I love turning crosses upside down and setting fire to them - and I'm gonna top myself any day now". He raises his eyebrows and stares intensely. Then he giggles.
"Let's get one thing clear - I didn't write this album for people to slash their fucking wrists to. That last feature the Melody Maker did was so, so fucking strange. I can't really complain about it, because every single word on those pages I said - but the conclusions they drew! And that whole debate on depression the Melody Maker held (where The Bends, and Thom in particular, were cited as party of The Holy Bible/In Utero/rickykurt triangle)...in a music paper? Excuse me?"
Thom giggles again, in disbelief. "The whole thing was qualified by saying, "Oh, I had a mate who chucked himself off a bridge or something"". Thom rolls his eyes, ""and therefore I know all about this, I have something valid to say about it". It all just seemed reminiscent of the time Pepsi discovered Generation X, and it's answer for Generation X, this whole demographic, this whole cultural trend was to come up with Pepsi Maw. Y'know like, "We know you're all feeling bad and nihilistic and suicidal, so...here's Russell Senior from Pulp to say "Stuff and nonsense!""Jesus, I found it all really offensive. The ultimate insult".
Why ? You seem really het up.
"Because...because..." Thom falters for a minute, and stutters. "Because I've felt like that, I've known how it feels to...well! And to have it written about in the music papers seems like depression has become the property of music hacks".
Have you ever met Taylor Parkes?
Depression is property. He drives around in a big Depression van, handing out angst to the poor. But anyway, vulture-eyed-depression-watchers will have noticed the past tense in Thom's outburst. "Known how it feels". There's no gaping wound here - just a few, silvery thin scars. The past. The past.
Another Big, Important "Newsnight" QuestionSo, Thom, do you think The Bends is a depressive album?
"I've got a theory", he says, tipping back in his chair. "I have a theory that all good music is uplifting, whether it be chirpy acoustic guitars and stuff about "taking the weather with you", or whether it sounds like Joy Division with lyrics about your dog dying in a well". Bizarrely enough, Jim Shaw from the ever-cheery Cranes has an identical theory. Maybe something to do with making beautiful music. But you figure it's sad because beauty is terrifying, and always doomed ? Whatever.
"And it's incredibly annoying that no one's noticed the giggles in that album", Thom continues.
"The song "The Bends" is completely jokey, completely taking the piss. None of that stuff had ever happened to us when we wrote it".
What, the "They brought in the CIA/The tanks and the Marines/To blow me away/To blow me sky high" bit? Are going do all that stuff on your American tour?
"No, all that stuff about aeroplanes and not knowing who your real friends are. That was our Bowie pastiche! Our joke song !". Thom laughs. "And really do wish I'd never written that fucking song - it's become the bane of my life. Hunddreds of journalists asking - every single fucking interview : "Do you wish it was the sixties ?" No, I don't wish it was the fucking sixties - Levis jeans wish it was the sixties - I certainly fucking don't."
Why did you make the album?
"I can't remember". Thom stirs the ash in the ashtray with a matchstick. "I really can't remember what emotions I took into The Bends - which I think is the mark of a good album. I know I never thought songs like "Bulletproof" would work - it was too slow and soppy. But even tthough I find it uncomfortable to listen to the album. I still think it blows the opposition away. Fucking Bush - urgh. Spit. People in Calvin Klein underpants desperate to prove they have an affinity with... The Bends is miles ahead of every other fucking band, miles..."
Thom stops suddenly and looks uncomfortable. He has been boastful. This is not polite, and therefore against the Radiohead Rules of Conduct. He says six "I dunnos" as penance and has another drink.