‘One-song wonders’ tag neatly avoided with superb second album.
“THEY’RE NOT ABOUT SEX.”
Singer and guitarist Thom Yorke is struggling to describe Radiohead’s songs.
“They’re little snapshots of intense emotional and personal experiences,” smirks bassist Colin Greenwood, with mock sincerity.
“If I knew exactly what I wanted to say,” Thom continues, “then I wouldn’t write the song.”
Radiohead are in Liverpool, about to play a semi-secret show at the wonderfully Cavern-ish Lomax club. The gig is a warm-up to a sold-out showcase in the band’s home town of Oxford (with support from local heroes The Candyskins and Supergrass) to be followed by a UK tour and the release of a new album, entitled The Bends. Both more mature and more accessible than their 1993 debut, Pablo Honey, this latest work is a concerted effort to win some of the respect Radiohead have been sorely lacking.
Pablo Honey shifted a million units worldwide, quietly making Radiohead Britain’s biggest alternative rock group. This success has been something of a mixed blessing, especially when they came out with the monumental Creep – a song so gut-wrenchingly great that it cast a shadow over everything else on the album. Like Nirvana with Teen Spirit, Radiohead were in peril of becoming one-song wonders.
“At least their album sounded like Teen Spirit all the way through,” remonstrates Thom. “And ours didn’t. They had a formula with which to work, and we didn’t.” The band admit they felt the pressure to find new material that matched the immediacy of Creep.
Thom: “The general feeling was we really wanted to cut ourselves off into our little corner and create something really…”
Colin: “Soft and beautiful?”
In actual fact The Bends does have a generous helping of moments both soft and beautiful. Radiohead are one of those bands who can play sweet as well as hard. In fact, it was getting this combination dead right that accounted for the phenomenal success of Creep. Of the new material, there are strong contenders in the achingly poignant Nice Dreams and Fake Plastic Trees. The band play the latter in Liverpool to a crowd who’ve never heard it before, and there’s barely a dry eye in the house.
So Liverpool loves them. It’s time to get back to Oxford for the mooted Apollo Theatre supergig. Clearly the event is some kind of showcase for the international media...
“The Oxford Circus,” deadpans guitarist Ed O’Brien.
“A triple whammy of top Oxford talent,” adds Colin. “And it’s so exciting to play in a venue we saw our favourite bands in…”
“John Inman in Mother Goose,” recalls Ed. “Dana in Cinderella.”
Colin: “People that inspired you to tread the boards...”
“Little and Large in Aladdin, and they were superb,” Ed is now lost in a reverie. “I was in the balcony, and Eddie Large did a very good Bruce Forsyth impression.”
Ed decided to become a musician the summer that Elvis died, when all The King’s movies were repeated on TV. The nascent Radiohead were school friends who kept the band (previously named On A Friday) going through school, college and dead-end employment. Ed was a barman; Colin worked in Our Price; drummer Philip Selway had a proper job in publishing; while Thom had a traumatic time at art school. Radiohead’s youngest recruit, guitarist and brother of Colin, Jonny Greenwood was ‘kidnapped’ by the band after just a month at Oxford Poly.
Colin sums it up thus: “We made the transition from short trousers to long trousers together.”
Therefore, a band barely two albums old have been playing together for close to a decade. Accordingly, they are a fantastic live act, with incredible control over their sound. Guitar effects you hardly notice on the records knock you sideways when reproduced onstage; the rhythm section, strongly influenced by the Stax/Atlantic crew, are right in the groove. And then there’s Thom’s voice. This short, frail man with weirdly sensual features possesses perhaps the finest voice in British rock since David Bowie. Radiohead’s records may be an acquired taste, but live the connection is immediate. Haltingly, Jonny Greenwood explains: “When you play together long enough, something is added to the sound, in all the melee, in all the noise.”
“We’re a mess,” adds Thom with an air of triumph. “But it’s a great mess, a glorious mess...”
The story so far
May 1993 Drill (EP) Parlophone
Sep 1993 Creep (EP) Parlophone
Feb 1993 Anyone Can Play Guitar (single) Parlophone
May 1993 Pop Is Dead (single) Parlophone
Jul 1993 Pablo Honey (album) Parlophone
Sep 1993 Creep (single reissue) Parlophone
Sep 1994 My Iron Lung (EP) Parlophone
Feb 1995 High & Dry/Planet Telex (single) Parlophone
Mar 1995 The Bends (album) Parlophone