Radiohead embody the classic rock ’n’ roll success story – the school band who went on to become the biggest name in British music. HARRY WYLIE traces their meteoric rise over the past decade.
AT the end of October 1991, a local Oxford band called On A Friday – named after the night of the week they used to get together to rehearse – gig the Jericho Tavern, a local pub in the more bohemian end of the city. Spiky guitar pop by an indifferent band with a diminutive front man is duly played out in front of a mid-sized audience.
A mere two weeks later they are playing the same venue again, and they are already the 'must-have' signing of the day. An audience consisting largely of A&R men watch the proceedings and major label Parlophone are the first to snap them up. Things seem to be running exactly on course for the band, already honed on over six years of rehearsals and gigs during their school days, and their first recordings - which were to become 1992's Drill EP - were anxiously awaited by their new label masters.
But it was to take a name change, a failed, first LP, and two years slog before Radiohead were truly an item on the UK music scene. And what else did it take? A song called Creep…
The music scene of the day was all shoegazing indie pop; the Manchester scene had peaked, and fellow Oxford bands like Ride and Slowdive appeared to be the ones to watch. The early Radiohead sound was too obvious, too rockist, too bombastie – and for the next year the dismissive tag of 'the next U2' was to plague the band. Early songs like Stop Whispering, Anyone Can Play Guitar and Thinking About You, all of which would surface on debut LP Pablo Honey, were great tracks, but nothing that the band was playing was going to get them noticed amidst the slew of new signings.
Creep was different and anyone who heard it knew it - instantly. The track that was to make them was initially known as singer Thom Yorke's ‘Scott Walker song", but it took the blow out of Jonny Greenwood's guitar crunches - rumoured to be his way of ruining a song he hated – to make it the masterpiece we all know and love.
With producers Paul Q Kolderie and Scan Slade, who had recently worked with Buffalo Tom, debut album Pablo Honey was recorded in three weeks. Creep was released in September 1992 and the album was released in the new year. Initial response was underwhelming, to say the least, with Creep peaking at number 78. The response of music paper NME was the harshest - describing the band as 'a pitiful, lily-livered excuse for a rock 'n' roll group'. This comment was to kick off the band's long-running feud with the UK music press, and Yorke was later to gleefully quote it back to the same paper when they requested an interview years later.
But, as other bands before them have found, you can still make it without the help of the press, and a Number One spot for Creep in Israel and a huge response to the track when played on US college radio saw the song leap to popularity. Pablo Honey went gold in the States and Creep was re-released in the UK, reaching number 7 in the singles chart. The song became a slacker anthem and a monster hit. But for the band, who are all relentlessly self-critical, even this wasn't enough. As guitarist Jonny Greenwood summed up: “We never felt that Radiohead was successful, we felt Creep was successful, but it got our name put about, so that sped things up for US."
BABY'S GOT THE BENDS
The success of Creep meant the pressure for a follow-up hit was enormous. Singer Yorke already had some brilliant material written, but the difficulty of getting it down on tape was almost to spell the end of the band. As he explained; "The thing that paralysed us for the first two or three months of recording The Bends was the fact was that we were paralysed about what people would think. We were all crawling around the studio, not walking around. We were really scared of our instruments.”
In spite of the presence of veteran producer John Leckie and the use of first rate studio space, RAK in North London, first sessions for what was to become The Bends were disappointing. The rest of the band, bassist Colin Greenwood, brother Jonny, drummer Phil Selway and rhythm guitarist Ed O'Brien, wanted a break after the slog of touring. Yorke insisted they carry on. The direction of their music was deteriorating daily. As O'Brien recalls: “We had one song. November Rain, that had loads of strings and heavy guitars. It was very epic and sounded like Guns N' Roses”. Temporarily the magic of Creep seemed to have deserted them, so the band returned to what they did best – touring – kicking of a lengthy stint in the Far East and Latin America.
THE NEW SOLUTION
Working live was to prove a cathartic experience and the new songs changed shape radically when tested out and reworked in soundchecks and during gigs. The entire band dynamic also changed, with the then withdrawn Yorke finally confronting his inner demons. As he explains: "It all just came out on tour, all the stuff that we'd always been fighting. Years and years of tension and not saying anything to each other. I think that completely changed what we did and we all went back and did the album and it all made sense."
Back from tour the band dumped all but two tracks. High And Dry and a live take of Iron Lung recorded on tour, then finished the rest of the album in two weeks. To this day, the process of making The Bends is something all the band members recall as being excruciatingly hard. As Yorke sums up, "that record is a document of a period of time and that was a difficult period of time, and the fact that people really like it now makes me very proud."
Guitarist Ed, often cast in the role of band spokesman, goes into it a little deeper. “We have a week that's good then we have three weeks that are really soul-searching, tearing ourselves to bits. We definitely put ourselves through it. The Bends was really difficult to make. But if we're gonna push ourselves it's got to be difficult."
The music of the day was concerned with the brash and the obvious, with lyrics as dumb as Supergrass' Alright, or Blur’s comic book cockneyism, and the lager-fuelled excess of Oasis. Radiohead meanwhile were writing songs about emotional dysfunction, life in hospital and the falseness of a world of plastic garden furniture (!). Yorke's emotional decompression chamber was bleak and vulnerable, and it was also staggeringly honest and personal.
Unsurprisingly, New Wave of New Wave and Britpop ignored them. The Bends hit the album charts at number four. Amazingly, The Brits failed to award them any nominations. Their greatest single from The Bends, Just (You Do It To Yourself) - later described by Yorke as “a competition by me and Jonny to get as many chords as possible into a song" was even refused a playlist by Radio One on the grounds that it wasn't 'radio-friendly’.
The band now acknowledged as having saved the face of English pop in the '90s had almost destroyed themselves creating their masterpiece. Now it was time for the world to take notice of them.
If there is one development that defines The Bends, it's the growing confidence of the band as songwriters. As they approached their next work, with a characteristic sense of mischief, they decided to turn their new skills on their head. As Yorke summed up: ''I'm really into this theory now that anything worthwhile is really difficult. And if it’s becoming easy, it’s time to f**k it up."
There is a new spirit on OK Computer that if any songs sounded too straight – too normal – it needed a shift or was abandoned, As O'Brien sums up: "it would be very easy for us to do straight-ahead songs. We certainly used to do that, and I don't think we do that anymore. We are striving to find different sounds.”
The confidence within the band was at an all-time high. After completing a support tour with REM in the US, where band actually began to unwind on tour for the first time, they asked for, and were given, permission by Parlophone to spend a year on the next album. They bought and set up their own studio to add to the mobile recording facility they constructed with the help of Nigel Godrich, John Leckie's engineer on The Bends. It’s hard to overstate the importance of Godrich in creating the next evolution of the band, and Ed happily concedes that he had by now become the sixth member of Radiohead.
Whereas The Bends was recorded in a regular recording studio, with a regular producer, OK Computer was made in Jane Seymour's mansion near Bath. After four months jamming in the library of the mansion, surrounded by an ever-growing arsenal of equipment, the sonic palate of the band was growing daily. Rumours began to circulate of Radiohead going 'progressive', and an early taste of the new album, in the shape of Lucky, released for the War Child Help album, showed a new grace and depth beginning to edge into their sound.
Lyrically this was to be a different project too. Yorke was determined "not to make another negative record" and instead cast himself as an observer of society - writing as a witness. “That was my ideal. A series of pictures.” No more soul-searching or painful revelations, and from this time onwards Yorke has restricted all interviews and press, presumably bored of the lame attempts at psychoanalysis by idle-witted journalists.
WORK IN PROGRESS
For an album that sounds highly structured and produced, it is surprising that many songs were still the result of live jams, As lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood explains: "Thom does the lyrics and usually kicks off the song, writes the majority of it or a tiny part of it. Things just get extended, altered and butchered by the rest of us."
The spirit of innovation also required a new sense of dynamics within the band, as Jonny acknowledges: "we are all quite prepared to do nothing for half a song. We all realise that if we are needed for ten seconds in the middle of one song, and that's all, then that's what we do. No-one wants to play solos or take a lead."
Even though he's often referred to as lead guitarist, Jonny spends almost as much time on keyboards and other instruments “I'm just not that in love with the guitar, or anything else really. I'm yet to find an instrument that has really obsessed me. I'm happy to skip around from glockenspiel to whatever else the song needs." Next time you see the band live, catch a glimpse of Jonny's dual-handed Fender Rhodes, xylophone and glockenspiel playing, with Telecaster waiting in attendance and you'll get the idea.
After almost a year and half of rehearsal and recording, the band knew they were on to something good. But no-one in the music press expected the onslaught of their first single, the six-minute Paranoid Android, a song jokingly referred to by bassist Colin as a combination of DJ Shadow and The Beatles. For Ed O'Brien, Paranoid Android represents the pinnacle of the band's achievements to date: “It was basically about sticking three songs into one, seeing if it would work. It was difficult to get up and play live initially. It was that whole thing about a band at a certain time being really able to play. We realised that we were playing the best we had in 12 years."
AIBBAGS & AIRCRASHES
Based on the popularity of The Bends, Parlophone made a prediction of how many records they planned to sell of OK Computer. Rumour has it that when they heard the record, they cut the prediction in half. There was nothing like Creep – in fact, there wasn't anything remotely close to a catchy song on OK Computer that US radio stations could latch on to. "I think some panic buttons were hit, which was cool," says Yorke with a shrug. "We didn't expect anything else."
In fact no one was expecting what OK Computer turned into – a woozy and intoxicating slide into Radiohead’s messed up world of euphoria and escape, paranoia and panic. Jonny: “there's lots of stuff about speed, about things happening too quickly. I know Thom is quite obsessed about people climbing into cars every morning and going to work, and not necessarily getting there."
Aircrashes, airbags, information overloads, robot voices – it all fits into the bizarre world that the band created, as their kind of contemporary Sgt Pepper. No band had gone as far, musically or lyrically, during the entire decade. OK Computer rightly stands as one of the best albums of recent years, by a band that has developed the most mature and unusual voice in the current music scene. Unsurprisingly, universal critical acclaim wasn't long in following the release of the album. And with a triumphant Glastonbury headline slot that summer, Radiohead's time had finally arrived.
the new album
With work already almost complete on the fourth album, and a release date of May/June provisionally planned, it looks certain that Radiohead will continue their ascendancy through the ranks of British pop. Nigel Godrich is once again in the producer’s chair and there have been several tempting early glimpses of the new material, although the name of the album is still undecided. Ed O’Brien is keeping an online diary to inform fans of how the songs are coming along (www.radiohead.com). Among the new stuff, highlight are Egyptian Song, which Thom played at the Tibetan Freedom Concert last year, and he now claims is “the best thing we’ve committed to tape, ever”, the epic tracks How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found and OK Computer reject Motion Picture Soundtrack – another Yorke favourite.