Anthems for creeps and misﬁts... ugliness as a sign of strength... a song called 'Pop Is Dead'... a place in the rock 'n' roll pantheon as the '90s Mott The Hoople to Brett's Bowie? Welcome to the warped world of RADIOHEAD - twisted, nasty and set to entrance a generation of neurotic outsiders, according to STUART BAILIE.
(Presentation of the article in the NME Originals issue about Radiohead from 2003)
They're so freakin‘ special. Bernard from Suede rates ‘em, Loz out of Kingmaker is a fan, The Frank & Walters say they're the Cork tips for '93. In plenty of signiﬁcant places, folks agree that Radiohead are the ones we need to help us whup the current personality recession.
And so say you, the NME readers who saw them play one of their hundred gigs last year - voting them into our New Bands poll between Therapy? and Verve. So say the masses of studes who jammed out ULU a month ago, bleating along with obscure B-sides, blacking out the stage area, leaving just the top of Thom’s spikey barnet on view. Only if you stretched your head enough could you see a spasm of disbelief on the singer's face that betrayed the unthinkable: are Radiohead utterly worth it?
Well, there's this vision – this beautiful rock ’n’ roll ritual that clinched it for me, proving how Radiohead will be a band that many of us will care deeply about this year. And it was in Chelmsford, of all places, in a pokey old YMCA hall, that we found our thrill.
Early in the show and you already guessed it was going to be the ultimate freak scene. Every reject from every cult was there; the fat rockabilly, the past-it glam boy, the clueless indie clones and gawky babes. And there was this blubbery kid who looked like a swine even by their standards, who'd taken to painting - with boy-neurotic brutality - an enormous ‘CREEP' on the back of his saggy shirt, with an arrow pointing right at his head.
And he just stood by the front of the stage for the duration, the accusing arrow on his shirt twitching like some kind of geek-detector as the owner jerked to the music he liked, or when he tried to maul the dumpy girl beside him. It was an excruciating carry-on, right up to the time when the band played their most famous song. His song.
And ‘Creep’ was just the most perfect thing, with Radiohead conﬁdent enough now to stack up the drama; Thom submerging in his vat of loveless, hopeless pity and guitarist Johnny jack- kniﬁng away, hacking out his frustration, clanging into the chorus and through to that excoriating loser litany...
"I want a perfect body/I want a perfect soul..."
By this time, Creep Boy was beautifully radiant; leaping high, singing his life, all his angst on the line. emancipated the way that the ugly-bugs used to get during a classic Smiths show. The ceremony had been rediscovered, relived, completed. At that moment, Radiohead were just the greatest.
THOM YORKE is freaked because some kid has sneaked into the soundcheck and keeps bad-vibing him. People ask Thom what the boy said to him, but he answers that nothing was said. “He just kept staring at me." Thom mumbles.
He's not as freaked as he was last year, though, when touring got to him and he drank and smoked to excess and then shaved all his hair off. Or before then, when he worked in a menswear department and people used to laugh at his Oxfam suits, and then accused him of stealing clothes from the shop. Or that terrible time when the girl he was obsessed with blew him out and he had to write “Creep” to take some of that intensity overground. Say Thom, did the girl ever get to hear “Creep” in the end?
“I got into a lot of trouble over that. I shouldn’t have admitted to her being a real person.”
So when you’re on This Is Your Life, they can play the song and she’ll come striding out to shake your hand, to remind you of the good old days…
“I’m sure she didn’t give a shit, really. She never gave a shit. She wasn’t even that nice, anyway…”
Radiohead used to be ugly, characterless, lacking in confidence, mooching about Oxford, never good or different enough to get the media interested. Before they signed, A&R men looked at them and saw nothing special. Then, through inspiration or fluke, they were swept away by the man who signed up The Sundays and, late, Luke Goss. They started to play lots and recorded songs with magical bits in them - records that will forever call fans back to the zip and anxiety of the early '90s. Consequently, the people who passed the baby Radiohead over aren't so dismissive now.
“People still call us ugly,” Thom ﬁgures, “but there are bigger criticisms.”
So what about the vulnerability, the self-hatred in the music? Does that just come splurging out naturally?
“For ages I didn’t want to deal with that. Then I realised it was one of my strengths. And people called us ugly ducklings. So we came to a point where we had to turn it around and start using it, rather than trying to hide it.”
Isn't there a danger, though, of Radiohead over-using that angle, and becoming the Woody Allens of rock - turning therapy sessions into art?
"I think I'd get bored far too easily. I hope we don't get to the point where people will think, shut up and stop moaning. Besides, we like to be angry too, and one of the new songs, ‘Pop is Dead’ is really vitriolic."
AH YES, “Pop is Dead”. The closing song in the Radiohead show, a wonderfully sustained farce in which the shagged-out corpse of popular music just isn’t able to manage any more It gets dragged out on its knees, and then keels over. It's had so many face-lifts that its face pops open like an old onion. Rotten old pop. Thom likes to dedicate it to Freddie Mercury.
It's a theme that's reprised all the way through the Radiohead show, most notably on the new single, ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’, in which the author is unsure just what to make of rock'n'roll, whether it's a splendid, liberating art or just a forum for chancers, ﬁxers and rubbish talent. So, if it's as bad in the song as you say, Thom, why bother?
“The song is an attack on people who think that growing their hair long and wearing tight leather trousers constitutes being a rock star - and God, it doesn't. It's such an easy way to market yourself."
And what does it take, then?
"Songs, ideas, thought… all the things that you're not expected to have. Also, connecting yourself with an audience is really important. Like, Bowie, he would stand there and strike all these poses. And everything would be-really mannered and clever but… you knew he was just clever. When you become a caricature of yourself, it’s time to give up.”
Which is why Jim Morrison is given a tough time in the new single and video?
“Well, Jim Morrison was a bimbo. He was great looking and stuff and took loads of drugs and girls loved him, but his poetry just f---ing sucked. The day they brought out a book of his poetry, it was all over. It‘s not art, it's pop music."
And pop is dead, right? So why bother if you don't like it, you contradictory, messed-up kid?
"Yeah, it's a good job. Like I say in the chorus of the song, I want to be in a band when I get to heaven. It's the best thing you can possibly do with your life.
“It's like when kids wanted to run off and join the circus to get away from the real world, and be glamorous and travel and have all these things. Being in a band is as much about that desperate attempt - that last ﬂing before you ﬁnally give up and take up a job. That last attempt to give up and grab life in a different way before you realise that you can't... “Being in a band is about not wanting to grow up. We're all little kids. Julian Cope is just a mad little kid, isn't he?”
DON'T YOU just love the follies and delusions of rock‘n’roll? And aren't you glad of the number of great songs that have sprung out of this romantic source? Like ‘Star’, ‘Complete Control’, ‘Long Live Rock’, ‘All The Way From Memphis‘, ‘You Love Us’, ‘So You Wanna Be A Rock And Roll Star‘ - all of them infused with some cynicism, but still luxuriating in the panstick ‘n’ vaudeville roots of the trade. Ultimately, the singers of those songs are in love with the job.
And, of course, the great era for all that was the '70s, when being a star was such a desirable achievement. When you had to be a full-timer; royally weird, awe-inspiring, unfathomable, singing about starships and the girl you fancy next door.
Suede, of course, know this stuff. And it seems like Radiohead are feeling their way in that direction too. You just have to glance at a year of press clippings to see how they've started to look less like village retards and more like boy princes from Planet Pop, flaunting those unusual angles, cultivating the fragile personae, even mincing a little - though not so much as their mums might notice....
Which brings me to my pet theory of the week: if Brett is rehearsing for this era's Bowie job, then it ﬁgures that Radiohead, with their shaggy, creepshow appeal and their fascination with the image of rock 'n' roll lore, are shaping into this generation's answer to - wait for it - Mott The Hoople. ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’ is Radiohead’s “Honaloochie Boogie’. And ‘Pop Is Dead’ translates as ‘The Ballad Of Mott The Hoople'... Easy!
"Oh God, don't let us be Mott The Hoople!" says Thom, horriﬁed. "We might as well do the Bowie cover now and have done with it!”
But aren't you infatuated with the myth and all its failings, the way Ian Hunter was?
“No. I'm not trying to deﬁne rock ’n’ roll. To me, rock 'n’ roll just reminds me of people with personal hygiene problems who still like getting bIow-jobs off complete strangers. That's not what being in a band means to me. Lester Bangs would say it was ‘The Party’ - the party of life."
Well, at the very least, Radiohead ought to confess to putting some extra intrigue into rock ’n’ roll again. For ﬁnding poetry where last year's T-shirt bands were so depressingly prosaic. For electing to swoon and be mysterious when the rest of them just want to shout....
“I think being cryptic is great. Last year, everyone was being really obvious. What really bugged me was looking at the T-shirt charts, and it seemed like the only way to sell a T-shirt was to have ‘F- Off! in really long letters. It was so boring."
And there's masses of other things to explore, right? Like writing a damn song that can make you break down and cry. Like singing anthems for creeps and misﬁts. Like having a show that doesn't cater to arse-brain stage-divers. Stay special, you freakin‘ dudes. Carry the news…