The pain in Spain falls mainly on, er, RADIOHEAD. Caught on the promotional treadmill, Oxford's rock graduates finally understand the game: kiss enough arse for the next two years and maybe you will never have to do it again. Ever. If you're as big as U2. TED KESSLER joins them for a bowl of mud spaghetti. In Madrid. Blee! Snappler: STEVE DOUBLE.
(Presentation of the article in the NME Originals issue about Radiohead from 2003)
Chris Hufford wakes with a start as the adverts blare out on CNN. He rolls over and scrunches his nose at the cornflakes being poured through the air on the screen, momentarily stumped. He doesn't know where he is. Spain for sure because it's 6.30pm and he's just had a siesta, so... where? Radiohead's groomed manager fixes the bathroom mirror with a glare and runs through the facts as they present themselves to him.
If it's Thursday and Elastica are in Barcelona on Friday, he reasons slowly, then Sleeper must be there today with The Boo Radleys. Babes In Toyland have a day off today and are in transit across Spain towards its capital. Slide the names around, slot them into the right places and... bingo! We're in Madrid doing press! Superb! He brushes his teeth and leaves the room. So, he wonders as the lift doors slide shut behind him, how do the two giants standing in FC Barcelona tracksuits either side of me fit into the scheme?
Relax Chris, they don't. It's just a coincidence that Barcelona's basketball and football teams are staying in the same Madrid hotel where Radiohead have arranged to meet the Spanish press. They are not on the promotional treadmill, they're preparing for sporting endeavour.
The lift hits ground and releases the three of them into the lobby. Chris heads across the shiny reception area towards the bar and a double vodka and tonic, while the two athletes stop to limber up by the front desk.
Colin Greenwood, skinny, hyperactive bassman with Radiohead, is suddenly distracted from his rap about life as a cool rocking fop in Paul Smith suits. He nods to his manager as he walks by and rests his gaze with the toe-touching colossi.
"Mmmm, sportsmen and rock stars: so little in common and yet there is a bond between this palaver of promotion and self-analysis and the life of an athlete," he says in a manner that suggests Christopher Walken playing Eddie Izzard. "In a way we are sportsmen too. Being in Radiohead is a bit like a rock version of It's A Knockout and that was sport, wasn't it? Yes, see, you have to avoid the holes and go through the hoops, only there's no Eddie Waring or Stuart Whatshisface going 'ooooh, they fucked up another interview and they lose 5,000 sales of "The Bends" for that!' Maybe it's more like Challenge Anneka with the challenge being not to turn into a complete twat. Dunno.
But I do like this bass-playing life. I'm mad for it, as I'd say if I was in Oasis. Only I'm not and I wouldn't. I like getting drunk and meeting people and eating good food and finding out about different cultures and what people do. I think I'd make a very good member of the Royal Family, shaking hands with individuals in large crowds: 'Oh hello, I play bass, get pissed and talk about myself. What do you do?'"
The answer, if you're Adela from Zaragoza's Hot Teeth fanzine and the very next person whose hand Colin will shake, is wait. She waits in hotel lobbies to talk indie rock at least three days a week. Tomorrow she'll be waiting to talk with Tim Boo Radley at four, with Louise Sleeper at five and with Babes In Toyland whenever. Saturday she'll be waiting on Annie Elastica but, right now, she's gurning patiently in the direction of Ed and Colin Radiohead, just trying to get them to sit with her. She's finished, however, with Jonny and he's more than finished with her.
"It's been explained to us why we're travelling across the globe talking to hundreds of different people we don't know every day, but, when you hear the words 'global' and 'markets', you just turn off."
The angular, uptight, gifted guitarist slumps down in the seat his brother has occupied, opposite the journalist from England as opposed to the journalist from Spain, Norway, Holland or Brazil. Hello.
"I got really despairing in Canada about three weeks ago because I hadn't seen an instrument for weeks but had still been talking about Radiohead every day. I started ranting about how we should perhaps sign to an obscure indie label and just play loads of concerts in England and do more recording, but then we met Elastica in Cologne and I really bonded with Annie. We were both saying 'Oh, we had to do that radio interview in Oslo too, and we had do that fanzine in France' and it was just so good to talk about it. I asked her what kind of bass she played and she said 'a black one'. It was the first time I had laughed in ages. So it is good to talk sometimes, you know."
We know. It's good to remember what thrust you onto this PR rollercoaster and it's good to play your awesome current album "The Bends' and hear that there is ample reason for all this attention. It's good to recall that when people compare you to U2 they don't necessarily mean the records, they mean that's how big you, Jonny from Radiohead, will get if you play the game. Even if you would rather be in Moonshake if it meant not traipsing around the world talking for three months. So, yes, it is good to talk. So let us begin...
Meet the gang cos the boys are here, the boys to entertain you... R-A-D-I-... er, Radiohead: Thom Yorke, Ed O'Brien, Phil Selway, Colin and Jonny Greenwood. Five old chums from Abingdon School near Oxford who've battled through tremendous odds to be here today, on the threshold of massive stardom across the global market.
Let's see. They went to an all-boys public school. They're university educated. They spent the best part of a decade playing together under the name of On A Friday before they signed a deal as Radiohead. Their first EP for Parlophone, 'Drill', peaked at Number 101 in the charts. Their first photo in NME was of Thom Yorke, swamped by one of the worst post-Oi haircuts imaginable, giving the photographer the finger. It has not been easy.
"Why did I do that?" asks Thom rhetorically. "I did it because I was having a shit time at a shit gig and didn't want anyone to see me. I didn't know what sort of person I should be in that situation. I was scared, man, and I didn't want anyone to write about that."
They released another single, 'Creep', in September '92, but that only reached Number 72. They looked in the mirror and guessed that what stared back at them was the only thing that halted their progress. They began to develop a complex.
Then the next single, Anyone Can Play Guitar', grazed the Top 10 and their debut album, 'Pablo Honey', lodged at Number 25. They'd made a dent in the consciousness of the British record-buying public, but their attention had been diverted elsewhere. 'Creep' had connected in a big way with white, teenage America and they had a huge hit on their hands.
Back in England the re-released 'Creep' reached the Top 10, but Radiohead were living on tourbuses in the USA, busy playing gigs and pressing flesh across the continent. Their faith in their own worth had been wholly vindicated, but they were slowly going nuts. They returned with a handful of Thom's new songs for a second album but suddenly felt awkward and uncomfortable in each other's presence. They couldn't couldn't wait to be apart from each other at the end of each fruitless session.
"It was horrible," says guitarist Ed. "We were questioning everything too much, questioning the fundamentals of what we were doing. It was horrible, but I think that's the problem with a university education. You just end up thinking too much."
For producer John Leckie, not so fresh from his abortive stint on the Stone Roses' 'Second Coming', it was all too familiar. He let them fanny around for a couple of weeks before pulling Thom away and ordering him to work out what he was doing on his own. Thom went away and thought about the songs, played them while touring Mexico, and when they returned to England, everything tumbled out beautifully in a glorious two-week summer stint. They emerged with an album that sounds deep, connected and important, from the opening futuristic whirl of 'Planet Telex' through the softly anthemic new single 'Fake Plastic Trees' to the final gentle guitar maze of 'Street Spirit'. They found themselves with something that rates as a benchmark '90s album. Still, they had everyone worried for a while.
"I was shitting myself to be honest," says Hufford. "Me and my partner started shopping around for another group to manage (they ended up astutely plumping for SUPERGRASS) because they really didn't look like they would make it. I'm glad they proved us so wrong."
"Most really brilliant bands don't know what they're doing until their third or fourth album, so to have 'The Bends' acclaimed as a really important album in NME opens so many new doors in our heads," says Thom. "Maybe that will wipe out some of the paranoia that I can hear in "The Bends'. I wish it wasn't there because it's so uncomfortable. It shows how we were functioning as a band then."
It is 11.30pm and the Radiohead publicity machine is putting up its shutters after another tough day on the southern European leg of their world chat tour. Tomorrow they play an afternoon gig for the benefit of local radio and press before the luxury of three days off back in Oxford. Then it's off to Japan for another week's press. With Thom's head in such a whirl it comes as no surprise to him that he should find himself eating mud masquerading as pasta in an Italian restaurant in the heart of Spain. He was doing the same thing in reverse in Rome yesterday.
"Yeah, the food's revolting but it's a relief to be in Europe again. We had this promo thing in America recently where we were living through pure fucking hell on an average of three hours' sleep a night. We were doing a gig at midnight to 100 people who didn't give a fuck for some radio station who didn't give a fuck, getting to bed at three, getting on a plane at six, getting to the next destination, doing a day of interviews, getting to the soundcheck, something to eat, back onstage at midnight..." His voice trails off in horror as he pushes his slop around the plate in front of him.
"Five nights in a row, man. And people wonder why you moan! The only reason that people could give me for not going home was that in five years' time we might be lucky to find anyone to talk to us. They've obviously said that to Tricky as well. He and Portishead are both on the same ludicrous treadmill we're on, only they're probably more realistic because I kept saying I was leaving. But I didn't because I would've lost my job as a public relations exercise."
But you must think that 'The Bends' justifies all this?
"Of course, I'm so glad we allowed ourselves to make the record. It's great. We've always had this suspicion that we're like Pink Floyd for people, even more so now because we keep meeting people who like us and say we're influential, and we've sold quite a lot of records, but like Pink Floyd everyone ignores us and pretends we don't exist. It's like NME. Everyone reads it but no-one will admit they like it. It's helped us though because it's made us rely on things other than respect or support. We've never had that inflated-ego, Manchester thing. We question everything we do and I should really chill out. We're a good band and we've made a good record. That's it."
As Thom swaps his plate of brownish green pasta for a melted cheese and tomato butty optimistically described on the menu as pizza, he excitedly discusses the direction he'd like Radiohead to take next. He talks of computers, of techno, of politics and the need to make space to change.
"I get really envious when I hear good jungle or stuff on Warp or the Tricky album. I get this sense that they made it in isolation and that there wasn't this need to be in a bollocks guitar band going 'I want my guitar solo'. There's none of that, and there's none of that in Radiohead either. None of that 'we're going change the world with six strings and loads of drugs', and I'm proud of that. It's not that I believe there isn't anything new to be done with the guitar. I hear it with Jonny every day of the week, so I don't think guitar bands are dead by any means, but I've heard what Supergrass are doing before. It's fine, but I'm not interested. There's just this sense of innocence and adventure working with computers that's so exciting. We touched on it on the album with 'Planet Telex' and I'd like to explore that more. Depends on the songs."
Do you think you'll be able to move away from the personal, introverted lyrics of 'The Bends'?
"I've been trying to write something political but it's hard not to come up with Live Aid '80s bollocks. I'm going to keep trying because I think it's a shame that music is purely entertainment now. It's like saying the painting you hang in your house shouldn't mean anything, it just looks nice. It's not true. But I don't think anyone has the guts to say anything outside typical song barriers. It's all good time music, and you know how I love that.
I have a problem with politics being a separate entity anyway. It's the same with music. You go home, put on a record and watch the Nine O'clock News and everything has its place in isolation. It's as if everything is a marketable 45 minutes. You make one record and then the next time make the same thing with 'New Improved' on it and that's your life. Buy Simple Minds! New and Improved but a bit old and dodgy now!"
Or U2, a band you're sometimes compared to...
"Wrongly, of course. Except U2 are different, same with The Fall, Tom Waits, Talking Heads. Different because at some point they stopped being a publicity machine and got a life. That's what we're most conscious of, a need to stop being this tumble dryer spewing stuff out. Those are the acts we'd like to emulate.
There'll come a point when we'll say 'enough'. Otherwise we could be selling anything, just playing dodgy clubs in America going deaf. In America they want your angst if you're skinny and white or your soul if you're black. It's geared around narrow MTV parameters and there's not a lot you can do. Over there it's like going to your parents' 50th wedding anniversary every day. You've got to serve sausage rolls, wear shorts and be nice. It doesn't matter what you've said in NME in England, you've still got to kiss ugly arse over there. That's why we've got to engineer enough room not to do that much longer. And I think with the record, and all this work we're doing now, it'll allow us that space to grow."
Sometimes I wonder what on earth enables us to be a band," says Thom, gesturing towards his colleagues around the dinner table. "We don't look, dress, talk or behave like bands. Friends, yes, but a band..."
It's true. As the Radiohead office tie is slowly loosened with each fresh intake of Spanish wine, the behaviour is not that of debauched rockers but more akin to drunk, off-duty teachers.
Ed and Johnny are peppering their conversation about Hanif Kureishi's Black Album with the occasional shout of "lions!", which isn't particularly funny but keeps them amused. Drummer Phil is talking sincerely about his wife with one of the Spanish record company employees, while Colin is revealing how he'd like to start a fellowship in rock'n'roll at his old Cambridge college, Peterhouse.
"When I'm 40 I see myself as some sad, tweed-jacketed, leather-patched Sterling Morrison academic with my own tugboat and creative writing course. I've got this fantasy of mixing rock with academia; I like the combination of the deep and the superficial. I'd be a seedy middle-aged you-know-what with a string of vastly successful albums, hanging around the lecture hall with my nubile 18- to 21-year-old students. I'd have black shades and a pathetic red Porsche outside. The other plan is to start the rock fellowship, which costs a quarter of a million pounds. Part of the interview to join would be how well you roll a spliff or deal with groupies, stuff like that. It would be the combination of the deep and the ephemeral that Radiohead are all about."
Thom doesn't see this mature group personality as a product of their public school education, however.
"Imagine what it was like! I didn't see a girl for seven years except on the bus home. You leave at 17 and they've arrested your emotional development. You have to learn rudimentary communication skills. It's meant to be a preparation for life but it took me five years to get any grasp of reality after I left."
Johnny is even more damning: "I just associate it with incredibly arrogant and insincere people. They make 10 per cent come out as go-getting businessmen and 90 per cent leave as confused Fall fans. I remember reading Mark E Smith saying that public schoolboys were the scum of the earth and the next day everyone came in saying, 'He's right, we're just like that, we're complete wankers!'"
But Radiohead have collectively escaped both traps. They've emerged as a thoughtful, sensitive, progressive rock group in an era that encourages none of those things. And now they're coming to terms with that.
"It's taken me two years to accept that I do this for a living," says Thom, "to realise that I don't have to sell myself in the way margarine is sold forever. I'm not a relaxed person but I'm more relaxed now I don't have to prove something. I'm calmer because 'The Bends' justifies our position. Everything isn't a fucking battle now. It's just a question of whether I can enjoy it more now."
And then he leaves the restaurant to return to his hotel. Back to his strange bed to prepare for another day's rigorous self-promotion. He's not happy, but he knows he might be one day.