SHINY UNHAPPY PEOPLE*
(Presentation of the article in the NME Originals issue about Radiohead from 2003)
*Only kidding. RADIOHEAD aren't solely responsible for the Culture Of Despair. But they are prone to the occasional spot of miserablist navel-gazing, and they have just been on tour with REM in America. ANDREW MUELLER, who isn't alone in considering 'The Bends' the best album of 1995, observed the two bands' mutual appreciation society first-hand. Photos: PAT POPE.
"It's a very good idea," nods Thom Yorke. "It's not the idea I'm arguing with. The idea, in itself, is fine." Thom is sitting, shrouded in his enormous fake black fur coat, on a luggage trolley in the foyer of Hartford's Sheraton Hotel. He's just stumbled off the tour bus from Philadelphia. A bow-tied porter hovers in the background, as if unsure whether to move Thom along, or just ask him which room he'd like to be wheeled to. Bass player Colin Greenwood is crouched in front of him, earnestly outlining his plans.
"My question," continues Thom, at pains to sound reasonable, "is where the fucking hell we're going to find 500 ping-pong balls in this fucking place on a Sunday afternoon."-- There's a pensive silence. Thom has a fair point. We could hardly find a beer in Hartford at eleven o'clock last night.-- "We'll just have to think of something else," says Thom, and chews on a thumbnail.
Washed and changed an hour later, we pile into the minibus to the venue, and Colin explains the above exchange. Tonight, Radiohead will play the last of their shows on REM's American tour, and have been warned to expect some sort of practical joke by way of farewell. Believing that revenge is a dish best served pre-cooked, Radiohead have been plotting retribution in advance.
"Mike Mills," explains Colin, "told us not to wear anything we want to wear again."
"Paint," speculates Thom, gloomily. "It'll be paint. Or custard pies. Oh, God."
"So the idea with the ping-pong balls," continues Colin, "was that we'd get the crew in the lighting gantries in the roof to drop them on REM during their last song."
A contemplative silence settles as we drive through Hartford. If you've never driven through Hartford, the effect can be duplicated in the comfort and safety of your home by going to sleep. The venue, the Meadows Music Arena, sits like a crash-landed spacecraft in a vast car park. Inside, things get stranger still. The lot of the journalist backstage is not generally a happy one. Usually, you're approached by laminate-laden jobsworths who ask two questions: 1) Who the fuck are you?; 2) What the fuck are you doing here? This afternoon, however, I am accosted by cheerful, helpful people saying, "Hi! Where are you from?" and, "Hey! How are you?".
"Yeah," nods Thom, "it does seem more like a Christian revival rally than a rock'n'roll tour at times, but they've been brilliant to us, they really have."
In Radiohead's dressing room, Thom draws a smiley face, and the caption, "Thanks for having us, you've been brilliant, love Radiohead", on a piece of paper to be secreted among the sheets on Stipe's lyric stand. Gratitude notwithstanding, a Plan B has been hatched. The idea now is that, as REM close their show with 'It's The End Of The World (As We Know It)', the enormous red lampshades that dance across the backdrop will be joined in flight by Radiohead, suspended from harnesses.
In the meantime, Radiohead soundcheck (they've been getting an hour, every night - ask any band that's ever supported another how often that happens). Teasing snatches of 'Radio Free Europe' emerge between songs. They wouldn't dare, surely. Radiohead return to their dressing room to be told that the harness jape is off - REM's tour manager isn't having it. They'll have to settle for running across the stage with monster lampshades over their heads. Phil tries one on. He looks silly beyond description. "I can't see," he announces.
"Typical," snorts Thom, momentarily recalling, as he sometimes does, the mock-nasty snarl of John Lydon. "Very bloody Keith Moon, aren't we?"
He goes back to drawing things on his Mac laptop, and waits in silence for showtime. Jonny tries to evade an interview with the local radio station. He asks if I fancy doing it. "They'll never know," he says. He explains that several foreign magazines, especially in Japan and Taiwan, currently trailing Radiohead exclusives, are in fact running with the thoughts of his mates, cousins or anyone else who was sitting around his house when the phone rang. "Go on," he goads. "It's easy. How are you finding touring with REM? Do you feel under pressure to follow the success of 'Creep'?"
Jonny's ambition is to leave America having said "wanker" and "bollocks" on every radio station in the country.
TOUR MADNESS WITH THOM. PART ONE
"We did a session at this station in Dallas. Natalie Merchant was playing as well, and we walked in and the first thing this woman running it said was 'So, we hear Natalie Merchant's a real bitch'. This is live on the radio. So we said, 'Well, we haven't met her, but we hear you're a complete cow', and it went downhill from there. 'Creep' was the only thing she'd play after that".
After much agonising, Radiohead decide not to storm the stage looking like Devo after a gig in downwind Kiev. After the show, REM and Radiohead convene their mutual admiration society for one last session of handshakes, hugs, and conversations in dark corners of dressing rooms. Every friend or relative of every member of REM makes both bands stand together for souvenir shots; photographer Pat Pope has been quietly advised that any attempt on his part to get in on the act might result in an abrupt cessation of goodwill to all people from REM's crew, so you'll have to imagine it.
Colin brings me a beer, because he is the most relentlessly pleasant person in the world. So. Colin. How are you finding touring with REM? Do you feel under pressure to follow the success of 'Creep'?
"It's been brilliant," he says. "And it's been really, really good for us. Especially Thom. This seems to have been his year for meeting his heroes. Like, Elvis Costello came up and introduced himself at this thing we did in Italy. That kind of thing has helped him a lot."
Bill Berry comes over to say goodbye. He's wearing a purple Radiohead tour T-shirt.
TOUR MADNESS WITH THOM. PART TWO
[paragraph missing from transcript]
I catch up with Thom again in New York the next evening. Radiohead are playing a secret gig at the Mercury on East Houston. We head for a coffee in a place up the street. The waitress, one of New York's hardened indie-Anglophiles, is wearing a Sleeper T-shirt. She double-takes at Thom but evidently can't place him. She carries on double-taking at him while we sit there.
"The thing that's really freaked me out doing a tour with a band as big as REM," he begins, "is seeing how being so famous can change the way that everybody, absolutely everybody, behaves towards you.
There was an incident in Finland, where we did this arts festival. We'd done one encore, and come on for another one, and I noticed this girl down the front going 'Get off, get off" to some bloke. And he was basically feeling her up, and this girl was really frantic. But he was also the guy who'd jumped on to the stage three or four songs beforehand. So the best moment of the show for me was when he climbed on stage again and received my guitar in his bollocks. Such a graceful movement. Made my day".
— Someone once wrote that the curse of being Marlon Brando was that you'd never see people being themselves.
"Absolutely. It is really hard to be yourself in front of somebody famous. I find it... Fuck, you know, I don't want that to happen. But that's presuming we're even going to make another record that people like."
— Colin was saying last night that you'd found meeting a few of these people helpful. What happens? Do you have those artistic conversations artists want people to believe artists have, or do you stand there gawping like a fan?
"No, it's more... you're there, there's millions of things you can ask, but the fact that you've met them becomes enough. Even someone like Elvis Costello, you can still judge on first impressions to some degree, and he was really nice, really trying to be nice. I mean, he can obviously be extremely sour, just like I can be, just like a lot of people under pressure can be, but he was nice. The music business is quite a bitchy and competitive thing, and then after all that to meet people you really admire, and suddenly that whole competitive thing is gone, just not important. I found that helpful. Just being able to say I've met him. That's enough."
— So you just talk shop like everyone else.
"I bloody hope not. Although, to some degree, you find yourself in the same boat, having gone through the same experiences, and they're quite a limited set of experiences, and they turn you into quite a limited personality. So it's - I think - principally a shock when you discover that there are other people who have gone through that, are a few years ahead in the time machine, and have come back and said, you know, it's all right, I'm still alive."
— That was the common take on 'The Bends', the song, that it was railing against the way that stardom, rather than the liberating force people imagine, is in fact incredibly limiting and ultimately cretinising. It reminded me of Costello's 'Hand In Hand' or Nirvana's 'Serve The Servants', that I've-got-what-I-always-wanted-and-I-don't-want-it vibe.
"Well, no... that song was really just a collection of phrases going around in my head one day. The crazy thing about that song is that there was no calculation or thought involved. It was just whatever sounded good after the previous line. It was written way before we'd ever been to America, even."
— It's an understandable response. All those sleepy-eyed views from aeroplane windows, the alcohol drip-feed, the fear that the surface everyone sees is all you've got left...
"Oh, absolutely, but that hadn't started at all. I wrote it before we recorded 'Pablo Honey'. We hadn't been anywhere. Is that the time?"
It is. Half an hour till showtime. I pay for the coffees while Thom polishes his shades outside. The waitress, meanwhile, has figured it out. Yes, I tell her, it's the guy who sang 'Creep'. Radiohead, yes. Up the street, in half an hour. Sold out, I think. Keep the change.
TOUR MADNESS WITH THOM. PART THREE
"We did this awful promo thing in Vancouver, just me and Jonny. Jonny had his amps, I had my acoustic guitar. It was a Friday night, and the audience was a mixture of people who'd left work, and people who had been set up by the record company to come to this vibey - that's my new favourite record company word - vibey gig. And one table down the front just got louder and louder and louder. I just stopped one song and said 'Look, we've gone all round the world on this tour, but you are the rudest fuckers we've ever met'. There was this complete silence, and then they started talking again, but this time the rest of the crowd just moved in on them, and there was this huge fight. There's me and Jonny playing 'Fake Plastic Trees', and people throwing each other over tables."
Strewn around the Mercury after a typically incendiary show are record company flyers for "The Bends'. The flyers trumpet a few excerpts of the critical praise that "The Bends' has attracted, from the delightfully ambiguous ("Radiohead toss and turn like the best Pearl Jam and U2 anthems" - People) to the plain worrying ('Thom Yorke's voice is as enigmatic as Billy Corgan's" - LA Times; "Jesus, thanks a fucking bunch" - Thom). Colin is more perturbed by the line from Rolling Stone. "It's four stars in quote marks," he says. "Does that mean they just swore at it?"
There's a record company party across the road which we get to after Radiohead have finished saying thanks to everyone who's hung around on the pavement to tell them they're, like, really awesome, and after Thom has accepted the apologies of a girl whose heckling boyfriend came very close to having Thom's guitar shoved down his neck. After everyone's shaken hands with everyone else at the party and had a drink or several, we repair to the painfully fashionable Paramount Hotel. Here, we stage a chaotic photo session, interrupted by Jonny's incredulous readings from the in-house video library catalogue ("I'll give anyone five dollars to ring downstairs and ask for Honey, I Blew Everybody"). Thom and I eventually head downstairs to a table overlooking the foyer, a pop-art hallucination concocted by Phillip Starck. We order several beers. Thom is on good form, having enjoyed the gig and, unusually, the meet'n'greet afterwards.
"I was great, wasn't I?" he laughs. "A complete tart. It is unusual, yes. I was nice to people tonight because I thought we'd done a fairly OK gig, and I was really buzzing."
— What happened with that bloke down the front?
"He was just particularly rude, and he was pissing other people off as well. It's one of those things. You can feel really awkward really quickly. If someone is goading me, I do react aggressively, because I am actually quite embarrassed. So we had a few words." - Yorke peers over the glass balcony at a tottering mannequin, bulging out of a dress that could scarcely be less comfortable if it was made of nettles. - "Dear oh dear. It's the Versace jeans that cost £300 and still look like jeans, I like."
— I've never understood the point of spending that much money on something you'll only spill coffee on.
"Makes you feel good."
— Yeah? How many bathmats died to make that coat, then?
"Very good. Colin bought a suit for £900, which I thought was pretty good going, but he only wears it now and again. Doesn't want to get it dirty. I had a lovely pair of ?100 sunglasses, but they got nicked."
— So have you made a load of money?
"Errr... Ed's the person to ask, because I find it all ultra-confusing. One moment we'll have half a million in the bank, the next moment we'll have nothing. Ed keeps saying, 'It's all right, it's all about cash flow. It'll all come through in the next six months'."
— You want to watch him. He'll be sipping mint julep on his Brazilian plantation while the rest of you are busking at Oxford station.
"Yeah... bloody hell."
Thom's squinting over the balcony again, this time at one of the alabaster goddesses that the Paramount seems to pay to saunter languidly about the building.
— She's looking at me, Thom.
"Yeah, they all are... it's when they start coming up to you and saying hello that you get completely freaked out."
— Happen often, does it?
"Nan. I mean, yes, it happens all the fucking time. I mean, nah. The crew cop off a lot more than we do."
— Always the way. Though that can be an amusing spectacle. If you're into squalor.
"That's the essence of good sex, isn't it? That borderline between extremely cheap and extremely beautiful, that duplicity about it. But someone coming up after a show and invading your body space ridiculously, or... being in a lift! I was in the lift earlier with my fur coat on, and this woman - she's obviously into teddy bears or something - got in the lift, and started, like, stroking me, and her opening line was 'Oh, we're in the green lift'. Maybe I should wear my coat more often."
Thom smiles, which he does a lot more than he's given credit for. He's relaxed into his role a lot more this year, but the assumption that it's other people's love of his work that spooks him most still seems a fair one.
"There's a few key words... sorry, you're asking for my hard disk, and only RAM's working at the moment. They say it's beautiful, and then they say nice stuff about the way I sing and the atmospheres and things. I was trying to get away from that with 'The Bends'. By printing them, I was trying to burst the bubble, saying they're just words, it's..."
— They're important, though. You wouldn't write them otherwise.
"The problem is having to deliver that sense of importance all the time. That's where the problem lies, because then you get into that Morrissey territory of contriving situations simply to perpetuate the way that you think people think you are."
— How do you rate yourself as a lyricist? "Inconsistent. Definitely inconsistent." What's the best one you've written? There's a very long pause.
"'Suck your teenage thumb'," he decides. " 'Toilet trained and dumb/When the power runs out we'll just hum/This is our new song/Just like the last one/Total waste of time/ My iron lung'."
(Odd looks from the waitresses. Thom continues). "Some woman gave me 'Highway 61 Revisited' the other day saying "Thom, you're a poet, listen to this'. I listened to it, and then I read the sleevenotes and just burst out laughing. I mean hang on a fucking minute..."
— That was Dylan, though. Stipe, too. Spurious nonsense that sounds like it means the world.
"Well, I'm coming to the conclusion that your brain functions more honestly in spurious crap than it does in... things like 'My Iron Lung' happen every Saturday, say. The rest of the week it's that spurious crap. When I was much younger, I did this four-track demo, and this girl, a really close friend of mine, listened to it and said 'Your lyrics are crap. They're too honest, too personal, too direct, and there's nothing left to the imagination' and I've had that in the back of my mind ever since. But now I'm starting to reject that, and I want to write that spurious stuff that's coming straight out of my head. There's a song on 'Blood & Chocolate', by Elvis Costello, the one that goes on for yonks..."
— 'Tokyo Storm Warning'.
"Yeah. Gibberish! Complete fucking gibberish. And it's wondrous. Because you open yourself up to that, because that's the way human brains think. I just think Radiohead are in a really dangerous position at the moment, where we could really end up supplying that sense of pathos and angst all the time, and I think there's a bit more to it than that."
— A closing line if ever I've heard one.
"Mmm. I'm dying for a piss, as well."
'The Bends' is not doing half the business, in America or anywhere else, that the 'Creep'-fuelled, two-million-selling 'Pablo Honey' did. Thom reckons this "probably a compliment", and certainly an aid to his continuing sanity. 'The Bends' is, however, The Album Of '95 by a yawning margin - a glorious catharsis, a masterpiece of atmosphere, sorrow and redemption. While we're on the subject, 'Lucky', from the 'Help' charity bash, mixes it with the year's best singles.
The powers that be would rate "The Bends' a disappointment (or, as Ed deadpans, with apologies to Spinal Tap's Ian Faith, "Our appeal is becoming more selective"). Radiohead are happy with it, and they're right to be; this sacrifice of quantity for quality is entirely in keeping with their confident contrariness ('The Bends', as an album, is nothing if not a process of revelling in life's Pyrrhic victories).
"I was talking to someone about this the other night," Thom had said in Hartford, "and we decided that the next record should be a celebration. Because that really would be a challenge for Radiohead."
IN A BLUE YORKE STATE OF MIND
Radiohead in America
Melody Maker, October 1995
“IT’S a very good idea,” nods Thom Yorke. “It’s not the idea I’m arguing with. The idea, in itself, is fine.”
Thom, sunglassed and shrouded in an enormous fake black fur coat, is sitting on a luggage trolley in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in Hartford, Connecticut. He’s just stumbled off the tour bus after a long drive from Philadelphia. Behind him, a bow-tied porter hovers vaguely, as if unsure whether to heave this bedraggled apparition into the street, or ask him which room he’d liked to be wheeled to. Crouched on the floor in front of Thom, Radiohead’s bassplayer, Colin Greenwood, is earnestly outlining his plans.
“My question,” continues Thom, at pains to sound reasonable, “is where the fucking hell we’re going to find five hundred fucking ping-pong balls at short notice in this fucking place on a Sunday afternoon.”
A pensive silence ensues. Thom has a fair point. I’d hardly been able to find a cold beer in Hartford at eleven o’clock last night.
“We’ll just have to think of something else,” says Thom, and chews on a thumbnail.
AN hour later, with everyone washed, changed and infused with caffeine, we pile into a minibus to the venue, and Colin explains a few things. Tonight, Radiohead will play the last of their shows as the support act on R.E.M.’s “Monster” tour. They have been warned to expect some sort of practical joke by way of farewell. Clearly believing that revenge is a dish best served pre-cooked, Radiohead (Thom, Colin, drummer Phil Selway, guitarists Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood - from whom, presumably, Thom stole the “h”) have been plotting their retribution in advance.
“Mike Mills,” says Colin, “told us not to wear anything we want to wear again.”
“Paint,” speculates Thom, gloomily. “It’ll be paint. Or custard pies. Oh, God.”
“So the idea with the ping-pong balls,” continues Colin, “was that we’d get the roadies up in the lighting gantries above the stage to drop them on R.E.M. during the last song.”
A contemplative hush settles as we drive through Hartford. If you’ve never driven through Hartford, the effect can be recreated in the comfort and safety of your own home by going to sleep. I flew in from London last night with Melody Maker photographer Pat Pope and Radiohead’s press officer, Caffy St Luce. Our efforts to hit Hartford and paint the town red had come to naught; we couldn’t even claim to have painted the town beige. The first place we tried was a sports bar, decorated with fading hockey pennants and populated by four lone, middle-aged men staring morosely into their drinks. We asked the barman what people in Hartford did for fun. “They come here, sir,” he replied. We finished up in a deserted cocktail bar where the star turn was a drink called a Zombie. “Limit two per customer,” said the menu. I asked a waitress what happens if you drink three. “You can’t walk,” she replied.
“I wonder why people build cities in these places,” says Thom, balefully surveying the fist-chewingly unremarkable scenery. It’s a real graveyard with streetlights, this place, the kind of town where you could fire a Gatling gun down the main road without hitting anybody - and if you did, you’d be doing them a favour.
The venue for tonight’s show is the Meadows Music Theatre, a giant half-indoor, half-outdoor affair, something like Wembley Arena with a back yard. It’s early afternoon, hours before showtime, but we’ve arrived early so Radiohead can soundcheck and do some of the aimless milling about that constitutes the major part of any rock’n’roll tour. In Radiohead’s commodious dressing room, Thom draws a smiling face and the words “Thanks for having us, you’ve been brilliant, love Radiohead” on a scrap of paper and gives it to a roadie who will secrete it amid the sheets on Michael Stipe’s lyric stand. This gesture is at odds with the received wisdom on Thom Yorke, which is that he’s slightly less amenable than a cornered mongoose.
“Yeah, well,” he shrugs. “They’ve really been brilliant to us. We’re getting a whole hour to soundcheck every night, and you know how often that happens to support bands in real life.”
Gratitude notwithstanding, the other members of Radiohead have been talking, and a Plan B prank has been hatched. R.E.M.’s stage set is an extravagant homage to Alexander Calder that includes a backdrop of enormous red lampshades, swinging from the stage roof. The idea now is that as R.E.M. close their show with “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” the lampshades will be joined in flight by all five members of Radiohead, suspended from harnesses. Colin, Jonny, Phil and Ed look well pleased with this scheme. Thom looks rather less so.
“It’ll never work,” he says. He’s Catweazle with attitude.
Radiohead go off to do their soundcheck, which I watch from the hill at the back of the empty arena. Between songs, Ed plays snatches of “Radio Free Europe”, R.E.M.’s first single. I’ve often thought that it’d be a great gag for a support act to close their set by playing the headliner’s biggest hit, but I suspect Radiohead want to be invited back one day.
Back in the dressing room, Radiohead are informed that the harness jape is off - R.E.M.’s tour manager isn’t having it. Someone else says, probably quite rightly, that Radiohead’s insurers would pop a rivet if one of their clients got injured in a mid-air collision with a giant item of lounge furniture.
Phil brings one of the big red props into the dressing room for further discussion.
“We could,” he offers, “just put them on our heads and run around the stage.”
He tries it on. He looks silly beyond description.
“I can’t see,” he announces, muffled.
“Typical,” snorts Thom, momentarily recalling, as he sometimes does, the deadpan snarl of John Lydon. “Very bloody Keith Moon, aren’t we? Other bands seem to be able to misbehave without looking like utter wankers. I wonder what our problem is.”
He clomps off to wait in silence for showtime, fidgeting with some artwork he’s got stored in his Macintosh laptop. Jonny, meanwhile, is trying to evade a phone interview with some local radio station. He asks if I fancy doing it. “They’ll never know,” he says. He explains that several Japanese and Taiwanese magazines currently trailing exclusive interviews with Radiohead’s right-angle-cheekboned guitar hero are, in fact, running with the thoughts of his mates, cousins, or anyone else who was sitting around his house in Oxford when the phone rang.
“Go on,” he goads. “It’s easy. How are you finding touring with R.E.M.? Do you feel under pressure to follow the success of ‘Creep’?”
It’s a tempting offer, and the trust Jonny is offering at such early acquaintance is touching - after all, there’s nothing to stop me saying “We’re only supporting R.E.M. for the money, all of which we plan to invest in companies which test cosmetics on baby seals and pay Malaysian children three cents an hour to drill those pointless little holes in the ends of toothbrushes, and I am sleeping with your sister”. However, I’ve done more than a few phone interviews myself, I know how prone they are to literal and metaphorical crossed wires even when you’re talking to who you think you are, and I don’t want to wind up a fellow hack unnecessarily. There is some honour among scoundrels.
“Suit yourself,” he says. “I’ll ask one of the crew.”
Jonny tells me that his driving ambition is to leave America having said “Wanker” and “Bollocks” on every radio station in the country.
GIVEN that Hartford is what it is - the kind of place where they’ll have to close the zoo if the chicken dies - it’s not surprising that the venue looks full to its 30,000 capacity an hour before Radiohead are due on.
To get to the arena from backstage, I have to run an ideological gauntlet of stalls operated by the organisations R.E.M. have invited on tour with them: Greenpeace, Rock The Vote, the National Coalition To Abolish The Death Penalty, and some people who’d like it to be more difficult for other people to buy handguns. There’s a couple of groups with more nebulous names, like People For The American Way and Common Cause, which sound excitingly like rogue shotgun-wielding militias of squirrel-eating far-right rednecks that have snuck under R.E.M.’s wire, but these also turn out to be cheerful liberals encouraging others to be cheerfully liberal. I talk to a few of them. I probably even agree with most of them. I’ve just never grown out of that shockingly juvenile reflex of rebelling against any opinion that is being thrust at me in tones of righteous certainty, even if it’s my own. By the time I get to my spot on Radiohead’s mixing desk, I’m almost goose-stepping.
Radiohead are brilliant tonight, but as they rarely display any aptitude for being anything else, it’s not surprising. As for R.E.M.’s threat of practical jokes, this pretty much turns out to have been the practical joke itself. Ed is briefly tormented by a radio-controlled car operated from the wings by Mike Mills, but no custard pies or paint bombs are deployed. Nevertheless, Radiohead have convinced themselves of the worst: as soon as the last note of their last song (a rousing version of “Nobody Does It Better”, dedicated to R.E.M.) fades, they down tools and leg it as fast as they decently can. As Radiohead complete their flight, R.E.M. wander on stage bearing a tray of champagne glasses, seeking to toast their support act, and find nothing but 30,000 people laughing. After a couple of agonising minutes, Thom, Ed, Jonny, Colin and Phil are retrieved, and the R.E.M./Radiohead mutual admiration society drinks its health to sustained applause.
Backstage at the end of the night, every friend or relative of every member of R.E.M. and Radiohead makes both bands stand together for souvenir last-night pictures. Peter Buck gently taunts Radiohead for their eventual, agonised decision not to storm the stage during the encore. Colin brings me a beer.
So, Colin. Do you feel under pressure to follow the success of “Creep”? How are you finding touring with R.E.M.?
“I can remember listening to R.E.M.’s first couple of albums on my Walkman on the way to school,” he says. “They’re one of the reasons I wanted to be in a band. This is still really strange.”
During R.E.M.’s set, Colin had shepherded me out onto the stage, to a position just behind Peter Buck’s amplifiers, where we spent the set giggling like two starstruck teenagers who’d snuck into someone’s soundcheck.
“They’ve been so good to us, and it’s been really good for us, especially Thom. This seems to have been his year for meeting his heroes. Elvis Costello introduced himself at this thing we did in Italy. I think that kind of thing has helped Thom a lot.”
Bill Berry, R.E.M.’s drummer, comes over to say goodbye. He’s wearing a purple Radiohead t-shirt.
THE following night, in a New York City feeling the first chills of winter, Radiohead are due to play a secret show at the Mercury Lounge, a tiny venue on East Houston. The band leave Hartford by minibus while myself, Pat and Caffy get on a train, which breaks down, then a bus, which gets a flat, and then another bus, whose unspeakably sadistic driver hits upon “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” as just the video everyone is going to want to see by this stage.
When we get to the Mercury, almost hysterical with irritation, Radiohead are mid-soundcheck. I stand up the back and try to be inconspicuous, which isn’t easy in a brightly-lit venue almost too small to change your mind in.
“There you are,” grins Thom from the stage. “Any requests?”
Someone’s in a good mood, at least. I suggest “Sulk”, a deliciously bitter tune that sounds roughly the way you feel when trapped in an interminable bus journey while being subjected to a film which could have been based on your misery, except that you know Steve Martin is going to get home eventually.
“We were going to do it anyway,” says Thom, with a smirk. They play it, and things suddenly seem like they could be worse: my favourite band of the moment play a four-minute concert for an audience consisting of me and the bloke on the mixing desk.
Thom and I head for a coffee in a place up the street. The waitress is wearing a Sleeper t-shirt - evidently one of New York’s sub-species of ardent anglophile indie-rock fans. She double-takes at Thom, but obviously can’t quite place him. She carries on double-taking while we talk.
“The thing that’s really freaked me out about doing a tour with a band as big as R.E.M.,” begins Thom, “is seeing how being so famous can change the way everybody, and I mean absolutely everybody, behaves towards you.”
Someone once wrote that the curse of being Marlon Brando, I think it was, was that you’d never see people being themselves.
“Absolutely. And it is really hard to do, to be yourself in front of somebody famous.”
The waitress is beyond double-taking and is now staring. She’s worked it out.
“I find it. . . fuck, you know, I don’t want it to happen. But that’s presuming we’re even going to make another record that people like.”
Colin was saying last night that you’d found meeting a few people in your position helpful. What happens? Do you have those magnificent, unfathomable conversations that artists always want everyone else to believe that artists have, or do you just stand around gawping like a fan?
“No. . . it’s more. . . you’re there, and there’s millions of things you can ask, but just the fact that you’ve met them becomes enough. I mean, even someone like Elvis Costello you can still judge on first impressions to some degree, and he was really nice, really trying to be nice. He can obviously be extremely sour, just like I can be, just like a lot of people under pressure can be, but he was really nice.”
I think the reputation he’s got - rather like the reputation you’ve got - is more than anything to do with an inability to suffer fools gladly, or even at all. If you can’t cope with imbeciles, and you work in the music business, you’re going to upset people.
“You’re right, and the music business is quite bitchy and competitive, but after all that, you meet people you really admire, and suddenly that whole competitive thing is just not important. I found that helpful. Just being able to say I’ve met him. That’s enough.”
So you just talked shop, like everyone else.
“I bloody hope not. Although, to some degree, you do find yourself in the same boat, having gone through the same experiences, and they’re quite a limited set of experiences, and they can turn you into quite a limited personality. So, I think, it’s a shock when you discover that there other people who have gone through that, who are a few years ahead of you in the time machine, and have come back and said it’s okay, you know, they’re still alive.”
Since Radiohead’s debut single, “Creep”, went supernova in the States in 1994, the band as a whole, and Thom and particular, have reacted to the fame thrust upon them with the bewilderment and disgust of a Methodist who inherits a brothel. The common take on “The Bends”, the title track of the album Radiohead made against the backdrop of that success, was that it was a vicious, splenetic rail against the fact that stardom is not the liberating force that people imagine. The truth is that fame is actually incredibly limiting, and ultimately, unless you can ignore it, rise above it or find a way to have fun with it, utterly cretinising. “The Bends”, like The Byrds’ “So You Want Be A Rock’n’Roll Star”, Costello’s “Hand In Hand” and “Pump It Up”, or Nirvana’s “Serve The Servants” and “Pennyroyal Tea”, sounded like one of those records often made by newly successful bands - they’ve got what they always wanted, and discovered that they don’t want it.
“Well, no. . . ,” says Thom, sounding almost apologetic for tearing down this hastily-constructed theory. “That song was really just a collection of phrases going round in my head one day. The crazy thing about that song is that there was no calculation or thought involved - it was just whatever sounded good after the previous line. It was written way before we’d ever been to America, even, but yeah, it’s always interpreted as this strong reaction against the place and everything that went with it for us.”
Understandable, though. The lyric is loaded with sleepy-eyed views from aeroplane windows, an alcohol drip-feed, the fear that the surface everyone sees is all you’ve got left.
“Oh, absolutely, but that hadn’t started at all. I wrote it before we recorded the first album. We hadn’t been anywhere. Is that the time?”
I imagine so.
“Shit, we’re on in half an hour.”
I pay for the coffees while Thom waits outside, polishing his sunglasses on the hem of his baggy jumper.
“Is that the guy who sang ‘Creep’?” asks the waitress.
STREWN around the Mercury after another typically incendiary show are record company flyers plugging “The Bends”. These trumpet excerpts of the blanket critical praise “The Bends” has attracted. Radiohead have predictable difficulty taking any of it seriously.
“Radiohead toss and turn like the best Pearl Jam and U2 anthems,” recites Jonny, from one leaflet.
“With the emphasis on toss, presumably,” adds Ed.
“Thom Yorke’s voice,” reads Thom Yorke’s voice, “is as enigmatic as Billy Corgan’s.”
Thom blinks a few times.
“Thanks a fucking bunch,” he splutters, less than enigmatically.
Colin, meanwhile, is perturbed by the critical line taken by Rolling Stone. “It’s four stars in quotation marks,” he grins. “Does that mean they just swore at it?”
Outside on the pavement, a few dozen people have waited for Radiohead to emerge so they can tell them that they’re, like, rilly rilly awesome. One woman apologises to Thom for her boyfriend, who’d been making a nuisance of himself down the front during the gig, and had come very close, at one point, to having Thom’s guitar shoved down his throat. Sideways on, to judge by Thom’s expression.
There’s a record company meet-and-greet bunfight we’re supposed to be at, though nobody is keen on the idea. Thom and I get in the last of the fleet of taxis that Caffy has flagged down.
“Right,” he says. “Here’s the plan. We hit the room, we charge around it as fast as possible, we shake hands with and smile at as many people as we can, whether we know them or not, and then we get out and go back to the hotel. I hate these things.”
“If it doesn’t kill us,” says Thom, “it makes us stronger.”
It turns out to be fairly low-key and relaxed, and everyone eventually stays for more than a few drinks. Even Thom could be mistaken for a man who’s not having all that terrible a time. When we get back to our lodgings at the Paramount Hotel near Times Square, it’s long past midnight, so we stage a chaotic photo shoot in Pat’s tiny room - to allow all of Radiohead to get in front of the camera, I have to sit in the bath. Pat’s efforts to encourage Radiohead to look like stern, seen-it-all road warriors are not aided by Jonny who, as Pat loads new film, reads choice titles from the catalogue of the hotel’s in-house video library. “I will give anyone in this room five dollars in cash,” he announces, “if they will ring downstairs and ask for ‘Honey, I Blew Everybody’.”
When Pat finally despairs of getting any sense out of them, Thom and I head downstairs to a table overlooking the lobby. The Philip Starck-designed Paramount is a triumph of style over substance. Everything in the hotel has been built or chosen to look good, regardless of whether it’s any use - this creed applies equally to the furniture, the staff and most of the guests. If everything written about Thom Yorke was true, there’s no way he’d come in here except with by a beltful of grenades and a flamethrower, but he seems to find the place amusing. We order a tablefull of beers, though we’re both well on our way already. Thom peers over the glass balcony at a tottering catwalk mannequin loitering in the lobby below, bulging out of a dress that could scarcely be less comfortable if it was made of barbed wire and nettles.
“Fashion victim,” says Thom, pointing unabashedly. “Dear oh dear. Though what I really like is those Versace jeans that cost £300 and still look like jeans.”
I’ve never seen the point of spending that much money on something you’re only going to spill coffee on.
“Makes you feel good.”
This from a man who is still wearing a fake fur coat that looks like it was assembled from the pelts of a dozen bathmats.
“Colin spent £900 on a suit, but he only wears it now and again. Doesn’t want to get it dirty. I did have a lovely pair of £100 sunglasses, but they got nicked.”
My point exactly. So. Have you made a load of money, then?
“Ed’s the person to ask, because I find it all ultra-confusing. One minute we’ll have half a million in the bank, the next minute we’ll have nothing. Ed keeps saying ‘It’s okay, it’s all about cash flow, it’ll all come through in the next six months’.”
You might want to keep an eye on him. It won’t seem so funny when you’re back busking outside Oxford station and Ed is sipping julep on the verandah of a plantation homestead with commanding views of Lake Tanganyika.
“Yeah. . . bloody hell.”
Thom’s squinting over the balcony again, this time at one of the under-dressed, alabaster-skinned goddesses that the Paramount seems to pay to saunter languidly about the building. We play a short game of she’s-looking-at-me-no-she’s-looking-at-me-no-she’s-looking-me-yeah-right-I’m-the-pop-star-and-she’s-looking-at-you-fat-chance.
“It’s when they start coming up to you and saying hello that you get completely freaked out.”
“No. I mean, yes, Andrew, it happens all the fucking time. I mean, no. The crew cop off a lot more than we do.”
Always the way. Though that can be kind of funny. Other peoples’ sex lives usually are.
“That borderline,” says Thom, “is interesting, that duplicity between extremely cheap and extremely beautiful. But someone coming up to you after a show and invading your body space ridiculously, or. . . or being in a lift! I was in the lift earlier on, with my fur coat on, and this woman - she’s obviously into teddy bears or something - got in the lift, and she was, like stroking me, and her opening line was ‘Hey, we’re in the green lift’.”
“Mmm. Maybe I should wear it more often.”
Thom smiles, which he does more than he’s given credit for. If he’s relaxed into his role over the last year, he still seems unduly spooked by the way other people react to his work. He has bridled at several interviewers who’ve accused him of relentless miserabilism, of preaching to a constituency of adolescent misanthropes who regard his lyrics less as songs and more as pre-packaged suicide notes.
“There’s a few key words that keep coming up. . . I mean, you’re asking for my hard disk, and it’s really only the RAM working at the moment. Um, what people actually usually say is that the songs are beautiful, and they say nice stuff about the way I sing and the atmospheres and things, and the lyrics. Which I find quite weird. I was trying to get away from that on ‘The Bends’ by printing them on the sleeve. I was trying to burst the bubble, saying they’re just words, it’s. . .”
They’re important, though. You wouldn’t bother writing them otherwise.
“The problem is having to deliver that sense of importance all the time. That’s where the problem lies, because then you get into that Morrissey territory of contriving situations simply to perpetuate the way that you think people think you are.”
How do you rate yourself as a lyricist?
“Inconsistent. Definitely inconsistent.”
What’s the best one you’ve written?
“Um. . .”
There’s a very, very long pause. It’s hard to say whether Thom is indecisive or embarassed.
“Suck your teenage thumb,” he decides. “Toilet trained and dumb. When the power runs out, we’ll just hum. This is our new song. Just like the last one. Total waste of time. My iron lung.”
He rattles it out in an everyday, conversational tone.
“Some woman gave me Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ the other day,” he continues. “She said, ‘Thom, you’re a poet, listen to this,’ so I listened to it, and then I read the sleevenotes and just burst out laughing. I mean, hang on a fucking minute. . . “
That was Dylan’s act, though. Impenetrable, spurious nonsense that, for some reason, sounds like it explains everything. Michael Stipe does a fair bit of it as well.
“Well, I’m coming to the conclusion that your brain functions more honestly in spurious crap like that than it does in. . . things like ‘My Iron Lung’ happen every Saturday, say. The rest of the week it’s just that spurious crap. When I was much younger, I did this four-track demo, and this girl, a really close friend of mine, listened to it and said, ‘Your lyrics are crap, they’re too honest, too direct and too personal, and there’s nothing left to the listener’s imagination,’ and I’ve had that somewhere in the back of my head ever since. So now I want to write that spurious stuff that’s coming straight out of my head. There’s a song on ‘Blood & Chocolate’, by Elvis Costello, the one that goes on and on for yonks. . . “
“Tokyo Storm Warning”.
“Yeah. Gibberish! Complete fucking gibberish! And it’s just wondrous. Because you open yourself up to that, because that’s the way human brains think. I just think Radiohead are in a really dangerous position at the moment, where we could end up supplying that pathos and angst all the fucking time, and I think there’s a bit more to it than that.”
A closing line, if ever I’ve heard one.
“Mmm. I’m dying for a piss, as well.”
THE interior of the urinal in the Paramount’s lobby is covered - ceilings, walls and floors - in gleaming, mercilessly reflective, polished steel. There is nowhere you can look without seeing everything else that’s going on while you’re in there, and from an alarming variety of angles. Thom and I pause, aghast, just inside the door.
“You go first,” says Thom. I’ll wait outside. I’m still too British for this.”