The Lung And Whining Road
(Presentation of the article in the NME Originals issue about Radiohead from 2003)
AMERICA, WINTER 1993 — THE DESERT PRATS
Thom Yorke looks out the window of the tour bus. A relentless vista of stupid, boring desert — it just empties your head after a while. All that's left are the murky, scary thoughts, the stuff that's prone to mess your brain up at the best of times. And it's kicking in bad, now. If he doesn't occupy himself soon, the singer realises, his mind will get completely mangled. So Thom thinks of five things he can do to pass some time. These are:
1) Watch The Exorcist on video. On your own. Again. Maybe not.
2) Get drunk. Done it already.
3) Read something. There's a whole stack of books that Tanya from Belly has brought over. Let's see. Jeanette Winterson and Joan Didion, and some heavy German poetry. There's a copy of Faust, of course, which is a half-ironic tour totem, or Bill Bryson for those more upbeat moments. You don't need any of this right now.
4) Sit at the back of the bus and mess around with the portable tape machine, and try and finish that song you wrote about the current Radiohead conundrum — your career kept alive by a song you despise, all the rotten duties that your job now involves. That's far too depressing to even contemplate.
5) Talk to the other band members. You 'd rather die.
The voices in Thom's head tell him that he doesn't need to deal with the rest of Radiohead any more — that he's the kingpin, the poet, the most sensitive soul in the group. He's gonna leave them after this tour, deffo. He'll go back to Oxford and nurse his bruised, tortured spirit. Really indulge himself. Nobody's talking anyway — to see them, you wouldn't think that Radiohead had all grown up close to each other, gone to school together, consoled each other when they'd been given short shrift in Britain. Former mates who'd freaked and then rejoiced when their single went nuclear in America, and subsequently took off all over the world. That's probably when it started to go wrong, really. 'Creep' was never meant to be the definitive Thom song but everybody else thinks it is. So now you've got to face up to that one song every hour of the day, and there's nothing you can fucking do about it.
'Creep' has turned you into something you hardly recognise. So when it's finally reissued in the UK, you make sure you're on the other side of the Atlantic. But as soon as you start your second American tour, you realise that it's no longer so groovy here either. The hype and excitement over 'Creep' has passed, and the other singles didn't sell so well, really. The band is playing terribly, not even trying to communicate, which sets everyone off drinking afterwards, and so the problems are accentuated. Colin is the most affable guy on the bus. He's happy trying to get legless on weak American beer with the roadies, keeping clear of the worst of the band politics.
Drummer Phil, he's quiet enough — maybe he's preoccupied with his forthcoming marriage. Ed's alright too; laughing when the occasional journalist asks him about his relationship with Tanya Donelly. But you don't want to talk to him just now. Jonny's dealing with the pressure in a strange way. He's not unfriendly, but he's grown more introverted, lying on his bunk listening to BBC talking books on his Walkman. His favourite is the Sherlock Holmes story about Red Claw — narrated by Jeremy Brett, who portrays the detective as a cocaine-snorting perv. Jonny loves it, and peppers his conversation with Sherlock quotes, alongside ultra-dry steals from Stephen Fry and gibberish out of Viz. A few more months of this and he'll be royally mad.
Jonny probably adds most to the tour ambience, though. He's the one who turned Radiohead on to the mournful strains of Messiaen — music that was scored in a Silesian prison camp at the start of the century. Jonny's a big Nick Drake fan too, and he and Thom have even written a song together, called 'Lozenge Of Love', that's pure Drake.
Jonny is also the closest Radiohead have to a flamboyant figure, prone to donning, say, a woman's lace bodysuit. The guitarist keeps the tone ambiguous also, by referring to his lover in Israel as «my partner» — never using the term boyfriend or girlfriend.
People call Jonny and Colin «The Greenwood Sisters' because they're so lacking in macho qualities. Colin calls his brother Jonathan, never Jonny. «It's really nice to be with a member of your family in a small place and you get on really well»,he says.
That's no comfort to Thom, however. Radiohead figured they could conquer America while so many other Brits died in the act. But now the USA is taking Radiohead down as well, and Thom Yorke, soon-to-be solo artist, proper prima donna, feels glad about it.
GLOUCESTER, AUGUST 1994 —
THE GRAND OLD KOOK OF YORKE
He didn't actually leave the band, though.
«I thought I could go it alone,— says Thom.— I thought I didn't need anybody, but I fucking do. It's such an easy frame of mind to lock yourself into. As soon as you get any degree of success, you disappear up your own arse and you lose it forever. That's probably number one in the 'thousand ways to lose it' list. When I got back to Oxford I was unbearable. You start to believe that you are this sensitive artist who has to be alone, and you have to become this tortured, melodramatic person in order to create wonderful music. The absolute opposite is true, I think now. All those things happen to you anyway; you don't have to sit there and make them happen. Otherwise you're not a human being».
Just after the American tour, Radiohead were booked onto a European circuit with James. It was a horrible prospect, so when they arrived for the first show in Hamburg, the band tabled an emergency meeting, to work out whether they should bother at all.
It was the best thing they'd done all year. Thom got to express all the things that were bothering him, and everybody else chipped in, until the only conclusion was that they were still friends and that Radiohead «should not be strangled at birth». The benefits were immediate. During that evening's soundcheck, they were joyfully blasting away again, and James' crew all stopped what they were doing to look up at them, gobsmacked. The shows that followed, G-Mex, all those places, were the best they'd ever done.
Five things you notice about Thom these days:
1) His hair's a lot shorter. When he picked up the NME issue that featured the Brat Awards winners last February, he gazed in horror at the state of his barnet on the cover and decided that enough was enough. He looked like Rod fucking Stewart. At least he wasn't as bad as Brett Suede and Justine Elastica though, who looked like «a pair of Hitlers».
2) Thom's smiling, relaxed now. This time last year, on the eve of blowing out the Reading festival, he was falling to bits. He went to a Harley Street specialist who felt his neck and said it was like concrete, he was so stressed out. This year he'll be fine.
3) He's not lugging his video camera around so often now. When he took it to the Brat Awards, Thom got so pissed that he allowed the camera to film bits of the carpet for ages. And there was also an excruciatingly long section of footage that featured a close-up of a woman's breasts. Thom insists that this was an accident; that she just happened to be standing next to a friend of the band. «A bit difficult to explain, that».
4) He's headed for a holiday in Ireland straight after Reading, so Thom's extra cheery.
5) Thom's got into books so intensely that he becomes completely wired by them. When Radiohead were mixing their new songs at Abbey Road recently, they were commuting a lot along London's Westway. Thom was reading JG Ballard's 'Crash' — about the sexuality of cars mashing each other up, and «the million ways that a gear stick can damage a woman's womb». He was crapping himself. A few days ago, Thom was reading The Tin Drum when he was gigging in Sopot, near Gdansk, and he found out that parts of the book were apparently set in the hotel he was staying in, a converted asylum, with scarily thick doors on the rooms. Woo-ooh!
Thom's talking about Richey Manic, Sinead, Kurt Cobain; breakdown, morbidity and despair, and the compulsion to write about such bleak stuff. What troubles Thom most is the fact that even Kylie's doing «dark music» at the moment. «I'm sure there is a Zeitgeist, there must be. People just don't all come up with the same thing spontaneously. They don't just say, 'well, this is our next angle'. You could see it happen with the Manics for a while. And for the past two years I suppose there was nothing else that we could have written about either.
«You can't say, 'Hey guys, this is too much, let's tone it down a bit and write some bright, happy songs', cos it wouldn't have worked. The stuff we've been going through is mind-altering. Emotionally and things. That sounds really over-dramatic, like we're playing up to it, but we're not really». The new Radiohead single, 'My Iron Lung', closes with the lines, «This is our new song, just like the last one, a total waste of time». The scabby guitar and hang-dog vocals recall NIRVANA's 'Heart Shaped Box' — itself a corruption of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'. It's got that kind of lineage. To quote Ed: «It's not all chuckle-trousers stuff with us, you know; we've had our lows recently».
Thom started to write it on the morning of the abortive Reading appearance in '93. His voice was completely totalled, so his friend Rachel had to ring up the management and tell them it was all off. Thom suddenly remembered a tune he'd been carrying in his head, and found words to fit — sentiments that ridiculed the band and the rock'n'roll ceremony they'd found themselves part of. At college, Thom had come across a picture of a sick kid inside one of the old '50s iron lung machines — just his head poking out the top of this modern behemoth, little humanity remaining, nowhere left to go. He used the picture relentlessly for six months, until he lost it. But the image fitted perfectly with the current Radiohead situation; dehumanised by the music biz, fortified by the now-hateful 'Creep'. In short, 'My Iron Lung' became the sound of ritual infanticide, with Radiohead trying to do away with their hit tune and all its baggage.
«That's absolutely true,— says Thom.— It's me trying to kill the beast. I wrote the second half of the song when we were in America — most of it in one day. It normally takes me ages. I wrote virtually half the album in the back of the bus, with my tape recorder and my guitar. It was about me trying to get it out of my system once and for all. It's not just about 'Creep'. It's about everything we've ever experienced. It's not just a full-stop on 'Creep', it's a full-stop on everything that was turning us into something we didn't want to be. «But at the same time, it's our life-support system. You have to play certain games, kiss certain arses, and shake hands with certain people you'd rather hit in the face. But everybody has to do that, it's part of being human, and 'Iron Lung' is us trying to come to terms with it».
AUGUST 27. LONDON ASTORIA —
THE FURIOUS CREEP BROTHERS
This is a wonderful show. The crowd is carrying all of the tunes, and even 'Creep' isn't such a terrible chore. This is why you went on tour; to find inspiration again, to break away from the fruitless graft of the studio. Jonny picks out the weird arpeggios for the intro to 'My Iron Lung', and you can feel that it's going to sound ace. The melody lines collide as Ed and Johnny lunge and thrash under the scorching white light.
After the show, producer John Leckie is beaming. They've all spent months trying to get the proper mood for the new record, and on stage tonight, it's just revealed itself. 'My Iron Lung' sounded as good on stage tonight as it will ever get — so just use the live tapes, keep it spontaneous, like you did with Jonny's impatient clanging on 'Creep'. You can even use the MTV tape of the Astoria gig as a video. It's just perfect. Five ridiculous facts about Radiohead:
1) Their Polish record company, Pometta, is the old Boy Scouts' label. They have sold 152 copies of 'Pablo Honey' in Poland to date.
2) Every time American girls throw underwear on stage, Colin thinks of the The Heater House Knicker Thief at Cambridge University, whose activities were curtailed only when his identity was caught on camera.
3) On the new track 'You Never Wash Up', you can hear Phil set down his drumsticks halfway through the song and walk out. He thought it was just a rehearsal.
4) The artwork on the 'Iron Lung' sleeve is a fourth generation video reworking of a TV image ('some legs and a limo'). Thom accepts that the visuals may be a little arcane.
5) The inspiration behind the title 'Pablo Honey' was a hoax phone call by the Jerky Boys, masquerading as a fretful old Cuban biddy. Calling a stranger who she pretends is her errant son, she enquires about his personal hygiene: «You washin' your ass?»
Parting words from Thom Yorke:
«When you're in isolation for so long, away from the place where you came from, you feel like you've turned into someone that everyone's gonna hate when you come back. It's like you've been adopted by someone else, and your parents aren't gonna recognise you when you get back. I thought I'd turned into a monster».
Are you happy that you're not a monster? «Yes, thank you».
The patient's on the mend. He really, really is.