Main Index >> Media Index >> Amnesiac Media | UK Media | 2001 Interviews
How to disappear completely
Words by Stephen Dalton / Photography by Tom Sheehan

THE towering inferno is visible from miles away. Thom Yorke drives towards the horizon, the acrid stench of toxic smoke filling his car. He cranks up the air-conditioning to maximum, but still the rank odour is inescapable. A wave of choking nausea shudders through him. The Radiohead singer is passing Arscott Farm in Devon, on his way back to Oxford from his Dorset hideaway. Here a mountainous funeral pyre of 7,000 animals, slaughtered under foot-and-mouth regulations, will burn for a week. Maybe longer. By some sick twist of voodoo economics, this grotesque flesh bonfire will pump more potentially cancer-causing dioxins into the food chain than all of Britain's worst chemical plants. Death stalks the natural world, making it safe for capitalism.
Thousands of miles away, the masked foot soldiers of free trade are using riot shields, tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to beat down 400 anti-globalisation protestors outside a World Trade Organisation summit in Quebec City. Meanwhile, high above the Atlantic, R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck is engaged in a drunken orgy of air rage that will see him charged with assault and threatening behaviour on landing. The bad karma police are out in force today.
All these disconnected but simultaneous events somehow link back to Thom Yorke, choking in his smoke-filled car, a tiny speck crawling across the Devon landscape. Rage, nausea, motion sickness, animal corpses in flaming heaps. The vomit, the vomit. And then Thom remembers – tomorrow he has a day of press interviews scheduled in London. Being the planet's most critically revered rock icon comes with a heavy price. His heart sinks. His lip trembles.
Why can't these buzzing bullshit media-noise insects leave Thom alone? Why must he be crushed once again between the giant wheels of multinational marketing? It's a major headfuck. It makes him very, very ill. The bile rises in his throat once more. He can't breathe. He starts to choke...
RADIOHEAD don't look like rock stars. More like Edwardian grave-robbers, pre-Raphaelite laudanum addicts, Dickensian consumptives or World War I flying aces. Twitchy, well-spoken, deeply posh English eccentrics to a man. But like it or not, the secret history of British rock has been fought on the playing fields of Eton, Westminster, Abingdon and other venerable public schools. Most privately educated bands dumb down their accents and cover their tracks. But these Oxford oddballs do the exact opposite, almost to the point of Bertie Wooster caricature.
At a riverside London cafe in spring 2001, affable bass-playing Christopher Walken lookalike Colin Greenwood greets Uncut with sardonic quips about the Tory cabinet, G K Chesterton and "the officer's mess". His Jackie O-haired guitar-virtuoso younger brother Jonny likens Radiohead to "18th-century rakes who live life in the country and go to London to gamble the night away". Somewhere in the studio complex behind us, guitarist Ed O'Brien, drummer Phil Selway and Thom Yorke are grudgingly selling their souls to Uncut's photographer.
Although global in reputation, Radiohead are deeply English in person. Middle England is their home, geographically and spiritually. Articulate, literate and soberly dressed in autumnal hues, they could pass for trendy vicars or junior theology professors. The Greenwood family tree is entangled with the Army, the British Communist Party and the socially progressive Victorian liberals of the Fabian Society. Even Radiohead's political conscience reeks more of puritanical duty than punky passion. It's church meetings and temperance halls, more Methodism than Marxism.
Radiohead do not inhabit the chippy, colloquial, know-your-place Britpop kingdom of Cocker or Weller. Theirs is not the mythic North of Lennon or Morrissey, nor the fabled London of Brett or Damon. All five belong to an oddly nostalgic Middle England of bracing walks and improving books, cold showers and warm beer, Oxbridge and Ambridge.
But close exposure to Radiohead throws up a distorting mirror against all this comfortingly bookish, tweedy Englishness. Existential alienation, sexual nausea, middle-class guilt, bodily disgust, fear of women, volcanic self-loathing – all of these unsavoury themes, mere background radiation in Radiohead interviews, explode like volcanic pustules across Thom Yorke's bilious, cathartic lyrics. Middle England turned inside out, stripped of its outer skin, raw and visceral.
Repressed passion and thwarted ambition are the lingering scars of the schoolyard rebel. The kind of upper-middle-class hothouse background that spawned Radiohead may turn out politicians, BBC governors and other Establishment pillars with mechanical ease, but it also throws up square-peg absurdists and prickly class traitors like George Orwell, Peter Cook, Joe Strummer, Stephen Fry and Mark Thomas.
And Thom Yorke. Uncut has been chatting happily with the rest of Radiohead for almost two hours when Yorke is ushered into the cafe by management minders. Necks noticeably stiffen. The temperature drops a degree or two. Listen carefully and you can hear the singer's tightly wound internal motor whirring at full speed, ready to snap.
Yorke is bearded and pale, his hair a concentration-camp crop. He wears a duffel coat and shoes seemingly made from Cornish pasties. This is the hair shirt, pastry-shoes chic which divides serious artists from mere pop stars. He slumps down, staring intensely at the table. Once more into the fridge-buzzing media noise bullshit machine. A condemned man, facing the gallows. A caged animal, pumped full of antibiotics. A rabbit in the headlights.
So, then – an easy, ice-breaking theme to start the interview. Thom's new baby son, Noah.
Cuddly, inoffensive, human interest stuff. The soft side of Mr Radiohead. So how's fatherhood, old chap?
"Great. It's good."
Babies ,eh? Ahhh! Was he planned?
Is Thom doing his fair share, changing nappies and everything?
Decorated the spare bedroom yet?
"Not really, no. Well, yes, I guess, sort of. Anyway, personal – next." Yorke throws his head back, a slow motion spasm, his face contorted with disgust. "Also, asking me whether it was planned or not is about the most personal thing you could possibly ask,” he snarls, "so maybe you want to retract that…"
This is not a contest, Thom. If something is too personal, just say pass.
"Well, pass."
Yorke is no more keen to talk about his long-term girlfriend and Noah's mother, Rachel. "Off limits, sorry." Has she inspired any Radiohead lyrics? "Whoah, man! Fucking hell! Next! Bloody hell – what do you think this is?"
As anyone who has met Radiohead knows, this is what you get when you interview Yorke: acid sarcasm, tense silences, sullen grunts and Kevin The Teenager huff. And, just occasionally, violent outbursts. Later, he will threaten to break the legs of Uncut's music editor. And he will be deadly serious.
So should we talk about the weather? Or should we talk about the government? Either way, Yorke will probably take mortal offence. But surely the new Radiohead album is a suitably non-confrontational subject. Right? Amnesiac was recorded during the same sessions as last year's parameter-pushing Kid A, and appears to build a bridge between its sister album's avant-noise/post-rock soundscapes and more traditionally recognisable pop forms, from acoustic ballads to big band jazz. Its reception has been mostly positive, restoring Radiohead's high critical standing after the bafflement that greeted Kid A.
"As far as I was concerned, a lot of grubby hands were put over Kid A," says Yorke, gnawing at his fingernails, a habit of his. "A weird reaction which people... it's entirely their own fucking problem but it was a bit upsetting. The stuff about no one getting to hear it, and all that overprotection of it. It meant there was a sort of weird smell that went with it and I think that was unfair. As far as I'm concerned, it was nothing to do with the music, and there was kind of no way to avoid it, but it didn't stop it being a pain in the arse."
The security and secrecy around Kid A meant that reviewers had very little time to live with it before making their assessment. "It was weird to spend that long on something and just have journalists unzip their trousers and pee all over it,” he sniffs, "and then walk away thinking how clever they were."
Is that what happened? "I don't know. I didn't actually read much of it." This is said with a straight face. "I sort of read the aftermath, which was kind of worse."
Actually, Kid A was almost universally well reviewed. "Really?" says Yorke, raising an eyebrow. "Well there you go, you see – I'm totally confused. That's what comes of not... trying to avoid it but getting the second-hand stuff. It was totally confusing."
Kid A seemed to many to be an attempt by Radiohead to short-circuit their own fame. While Amnesiac was trailed in press reports as a more commercial offering, it turned out to be almost as wilfully "difficult" as its predecessor. The disingenuous party line within the band is that it is all "pop" – as Yorke told Radio Four's Front Row recently, "We don't make music to exclude people, or show how clever we are."
No, but how about to sabotage expectations?
"But the way you're putting that across is in terms of: you've set something up with OK Computer and you copped out by not supplying the demand you've created,” says Yorke through gritted teeth. "That's fucking sales pitch, that is... it's bullshit."
This is about fame, not commerce. Perhaps Radiohead just got sick of being a big band and fancied downsizing to cult size? "Well, we certainly don't want to be a big band,” is his acrid reply. "Who the fuck wants to be a big band?"
It's not such a terrible ambition. You can be big and clever – The Beatles managed it. "OK, you can be big and clever,” he Sighs. "Two very operative words, yeah... bit of a non-argument."
Maybe, but a lot of big bands of the last decade seem to have taken a deliberate left turn after staring pop fame full in the face. Pulp and Blur, for example. "Can't think why: he snaps back with paint-stripping sarcasm. "If we'd split up at the end of OK Computer, it would have all been nice and neat and tidy. Everybody would have been happy they'd built us up, they got the record they wanted at the end of it, blah blah blah, and everybody could go on about it for the rest of their lives. The fact that we actually choose to carry on is wrong, that's not right, you know what I mean? We should have split up while the going was good. For everyone, in order to like... become a myth."
So did Radiohead consider splitting after OK Computer? Yorke pulls a toothache face, rolls his eyes skywards and groans.
MOST great artists are sell-serious, self-pitying and self-absorbed by nature. It goes with the territory. But for a fan of Radiohead's music, especially its apparent intelligence and sensitivity, Thom Yorke's petulance is disappointing. On record, an achingly fragile choirboy. In person, Rick from The Young Ones.
He would hate the comparison, but Liam Gallagher springs to mind. Where Gallagher gets his way by being aggressive, Yorke is passive-aggressive: forever playing the wounded victim, too delicate for this cruel world. As a control mechanism, it is highly effective. In the support staff around him, the minders and managers and fellow band members, there is an unquestioned acceptance of constant, low-level tension. People tiptoe around the singer like courtiers around a tyrant.
Yorke would call such observations "lame post-Freudian bullshit". But later in our interview, he will confess to creating a "climate of fear" in Radiohead, and becoming "this horrible ego that was out of control". Then he will compare himself to fun-loving mass murderer Joseph Stalin. However, before we can reach the singer's self-deprecating side – and he does have one – we need to cut through years of ingrained disgust and distrust.
It should be explained here that Yorke has a serious aversion to journalists. Even though he gets almost wholly reverential press coverage, he views interviews like pulling teeth, and reporters as malicious irritants.
He seems particularly wary today because Uncut's music editor Paul Lester commissioned a Melody Maker feature six years ago that still incenses him to this day (see Thom Yorke Vs The Press panel). "Paul Lester's the c*** that stitched me up in the first place,” is his assessment of the whole sorry incident.
But far more intriguing than media navel-gazing is what lies behind all this passive-aggressiveness and paranoia. What makes Yorke's life such a trip that he suffers constant "headfucks" and "breakdowns"? Why is recording every Radiohead album a "fucking nightmare"? Why does even the highest critical acclaim leave him "completely unhinged"? What is wrong with Thom Yorke?
"You'd have to live with me for a while,” he shrugs. Can he describe the problem, at least? "I can't. What's the point?"
Do you suffer from depression?
"This is why I get defensive,” he replies, sinking back into his chair. "People reflect this back onto the music we make as well and it makes me quite angry. Depression is a medical condition, and in this country especially it's very badly stigmatised and it damages the people who suffer from it. If you suffered from dyslexia, for a long time that was stigmatised. And now it's sort of encompassed and you can have treatment. If you suffer from depression, you are stigmatised. You're a freak, you can't get a job – things like that – if you're medically depressed."
He lurches forward, boring a hole in the table with his gaze. "For there to be a culture of antagonism towards music that involves depression or any form of self-expression where perhaps the artist suffers from depression, well, you know, the artist is a freak and will get attacked for it. And it will reflect back in the music. And I think that absolutely fucking stinks."
There is hardly a culture of antagonism towards depressive music, more a climate of reverence. Look at the cult of lan Curtis, Kurt Cobain or Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers. "Yes,” Yorke frowns, "but equally…"
People trivialise it? "Yes, and I have a problem with that. Because that shows utter irresponsibility and lack of respect for, not just me, but anybody who suffers at all from depression. It can be an illness – I'm not saying it's an illness for me because I I've sort of dealt with it. But for a lot of people it really is an illness, and for the sake of them I think it's highly offensive."
How did he deal with his depression? "Not very well, as you can see." But has he tried therapy? Or anti-depressants? "No. I needed to stop what I was doing and answer questions about it and sort of just stand the right way up for a while."
Was there a single event or period which shaped his mental state?
"Depression's not like that. When you say you suffer from depression it's a condition, it's something that's there, that's all. It's not particularly strong, it's not particularly destructive, it's not particularly bad - I' m very lucky. Lots of people are much, much worse – lots of people can't leave the house. They've got no idea why, maybe they never will find out why. And all the drugs they get given don't work, or whatever, and all the therapy is completely pointless. That's kind of not the point."
Several Radiohead biographers claim Yorke's childhood illnesses, including five operations on his lazy left eye, left him with a legacy of bitterness and anger. "The old Freudian legacy," he sneers. "Everything has to be traceable back to your youth. It's all bullshit."
So he doesn't believe there is any truth in this theory? "No, I don't." This "post-Freudian" line of questioning is starting to needle Yorke, and he wants to shut it down. "Why do you think we've just got all this pop shite around now?" he seethes. "Because people just got sick of all this in-depth character analysis, and it didn't mean anything. It was post-Freudian, lame, university psychology bullshit. A lot of creative people hear voices, a lot of people have crazy thoughts, a lot of creative people want to jump off bridges. So fucking what?"
So what, indeed. But the reason people sometimes take the piss out of depressed pop stars is because the subject has been trivialised by the rich and famous, too. Fairly or unfairly, every Prozac-popping Priory case on their 19th nervous breakdown boosts the perception of mental illnesses just another celebrity pose.
"I'm sure the aftermath of this interview will be exactly the same thing,” he shrugs wearily, then adds a warning to Uncut's music editor. "I'm quite prepared to talk about this, but if Paul Lester chooses to spin it out and put it on the cover, I will come around and break his legs! Tell him that, because I will do it..."
THOM Yorke has spent 10 years living in a glass house, and at least five trying to remix himself out of Radiohead's emotional equation. But every step he takes away from the media microscope only seems to find him backing into the limelight.
It was 10 summers ago that pre-Radiohead hopefuls On A Friday reconvened in Oxford after returning from universities and colleges across Britain. The band moved into a shared semi in Ridgefield Road, turning it into a "fucking hole" of a makeshift rehearsal space. The house was haunted by its previous occupant, the sink stacked high with unwashed pots. It was The Young Ones scripted by Samuel Beckett.
Seasoned veterans of Oxford's live scene since their teens, On A Friday's first post-graduation show was at the Hollybush pub on July 22, 1991. Less than three weeks later, after another gig at the Jericho Tavern, they had a management deal. Chris Hufford and Bryce Edge were two ex-New Romantics who ran the Courtyard studio complex in Sutton Courtenay, a sleepy Oxfordshire hamlet where George Orwell lies buried.
By November there was a five-track demo in circulation and a bidding war in progress. Jonny Greenwood, the youngest and newest Radiohead recruit, abandoned his psychology and music course at Oxford Poly to join the band full time. On December 22, the band signed an eight-album deal with EMI's Parlophone label.
Greenwood Snr remembers the occasion gloomily. "We were in Leicester Square going, 'Yeah, we've signed!' Then driving back to Oxford in the pouring rain, the clouds were gathering, already starting to worry and panic, how are we going to do this?" The band members agreed to meet for a drink in Oxford, but instead got lost and soaked and missed each other. "It was a typical Radiohead day,” he sighs.
Early in 1992, EMI took the band aside for a makeover conference. They were given a £300 clothes budget and told to sharpen up their act. "There was one A&R man in particular who gave us a lecture on how we could get our shit together,” recalls Colin Greenwood, "and he gave us people like Primal Scream as an example, in terms of how they looked and they had a soapbox. He said we needed a manifesto."
Instead, they changed their name. Gravitate, Music and the Thomas Hardy-inspired Jude were all candidates. But Radiohead, taken from an old Talking Heads tune, won the day. "You receive and you consume," Yorke explained afterwards. "It's very much about the passive acceptance of your environment."
Despite their ingrained Englishness as people, Radiohead's music always seemed like a missile aimed squarely at America. Their rowdy, raw, guitar-heavy sound owed more to grunge and hardcore than the arse-end of Madchester or the birth pangs of Britpop. Yorke's octave vaulting growl and universal lyric were never hobbled by parochial irony or geographical bias. And their choice of Boston duo Scan Slade and Paul Kolderie to produce their debut album may have been a nod to their beloved Pixies – Kolderie had engineered Come On Pilgrim – but it also highlighted their transatlantic ambition.
Mildly positive reviews greeted the band's debut Drill EP in May 1992 and second release, "Creep", in September. This future anthem of seismic self-loathing stalled at 78 in the single charts first time around after an impressive three plays on Radio One. The song was dropped from the playlist for being too depressing.
Of course, "Creep" would be Radiohead's making and breaking in the month to come. In March 1993 the single went ballistic in Israel, of all places, followed by a Billboard Top 40 placing in the US. That same month the band's debut album, Pablo Honey, made number 25 in the UK charts. Beyond stand-out like "Creep" and "Stop Whispering", the record's dense and polished three-guitar racket offered few hints of the band's skyscraping potential.
Radiohead played their first show in July and toured themselves sick. Yorke "hit the self-destruct button pretty quick" and began shaving off clumps of his hair. Then he got peroxide hair extensions and went slacker metal. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jon Bon Jovi declared their love for "Creep". The band played it beside a swimming pool on MTV's Beach Party. "This was the early days for MTV," smiles Colin apologetically, "before they got their hit together."
With a huge hit on their hand, groupies swarmed to these new British invaders. But some perverse sense of decency, or perhaps a deeply English embarrassment about sex, prevented the band from taking advantage. In Dallas, O'Brien politely declined the offer of a cocaine-fuelled sex session. At the infamous Hyatt in LA, Jonny had a naked girl call at his hotel room. "Luckily, I was out," Greenwood Jr said later. "I've never taken advantage of the opportunity of one-night stands. It's like treating sex like sneezing. Sex is a fairly disgusting sort of tufted, smelly-area kind of activity which is too intimate to engage in with strangers."
Pablo Honey sold two million copies worldwide, but the pressure of following up "Creep" weighed heavily on Radiohead. The single became a Top 10 smash on its UK re-release, a global Generation X anthem to rival Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit". But neither "Anyone Can Play Guitar" nor "Pop Is Dead" made even a fraction of the impact. Meanwhile, Yorke was growing to despise the song which had made him a poster boy for self-loathing, rechristening it "Crap". Even today, he rarely discusses or performs it.
"It was everything that went along with it rather than just the song," insists Jonny. "Thom just doesn't like playing it – it's his words, he can do what he wants with it. It's like, he's not in that emotional space any more so he doesn't like playing it. And one of the things that's so good about him that he's a performer with emotional convictions.”
Radiohead continued their relentless touring schedule as support act to Belly and PJ Harvey. Big band relations became strained and shows were cancelled – including a high-profile Reading festival lot, scuppered by Yorke's throat problems. A December tour with James culminated in a fraught band summit in Hamburg. Then all five separated and scattered, back to Oxford.
In Yorke's words, Radiohead had "sucked Satan cock" and paid a bitter price. "As soon as you get a success you disappear up your own arse and lose it forever," the singer admitted later. "When I got back to Oxford I was unbearable. You start believe you're this sensitive artist who has to be alone – this melodramatic, tortured person – in order to create music. The absolute opposite is true."
Radiohead were starting to feel like one-hit wonder, a cash cow to be cynically milked dry by their short-term paymaster. To make matters worse, they were barely communicating. Their house of cards teetered on the verge of collapse.
IN early 1994, Yorke and his girlfriend Rachel moved into a three-bedroom detached house in the Oxford suburb of Headington – just around the corner from the location of Radiohead's South Park mini-festival this month. The singer christened his new home "the house that 'Creep' built", arguing that it may be his one financial reward from short-burn rock fame.
Typical Yorke paranoia, perhaps, but this rime the singer's fears were not wholly imagined. Locked in creative stasis in their new rehearsal space, a converted apple shed jokingly christened Canned Applause, Radiohead's future looked highly doubtful. Their US record company Capitol were withholding their second-album option until they heard promising new material. According to some reports, their UK label also gave the band a six-month ultimatum.
Manager Edge and Hufford, by their own admission, were" hitting themselves". They began hopping around for new acts, and found one under their nose: Supergrass. Hufford would later recall this period as the bleak low point of his relationship with Yorke.
Inter-band relations were also in tatters. "It was a very silent, cold thing," Jonny revealed later. "We thought we were trapped in one of those Twilight Zone slow time machines." O'Brien would later claim Radiohead had entered "this huge, energy-sucking black hole... it was horrible. At one stage everyone was trying to find their get-out clauses." Yorke called the sessions "the hardest thing I've ever, ever done... we had days of painful self-analysis; a total fucking meltdown for two fucking months."
Recording moved to RAK studios in London, with former Stone Roses/Fall producer John Leckie. Still, the new material was painfully slow in conception. Before Radiohead played the London Astoria in May ’94, Yorke told NME, “I’m fucking ill and physically I’m completely fucked and mentally I’ve had enough.”
The summer saw Radiohead play both Glastonbury and Reading, after which Phil married his long-term girlfriend Cait and honeymooned in Lyme Regis. Album sessions then resumed at RAK and Abbey Road in London, and the Manor in Oxford. But the band hated many of their new songs: “High And Dry” was dismissed as a “Mull of Kintyre” rip off by Jonny and “fucking dreadful” by Yorke. “Planet Telex” was completed in the early hours, with Yorke drunk and bent double on the floor. And “Fake Plastic Trees” was going nowhere until producer John Leckie made a divine intervention.
"It was going really slowly,' Colin Greenwood recalls, "so John Leckie said, '’Why don't we go out?' We went to see Jeff Buckley play at The Garage. He just had a Telecaster and a pint of Guinness. And it was just fucking amazing, really inspirational. Then we went back to the studio and tried an acoustic version of 'Fake Plastic Trees'. Thom sat down and played it in three takes, then just burst into tears afterwards. And that's what we used for the record."
An October mini-tour in Mexico brought all the pent-up bile of the past year into the open. "It was like a band imploding, when it needed to find its feet,” says O'Brien. "Years of tension and not saying anything to each other, and basically all the things that had built up since we'd met each other, all came our in one day," Yorke admitted later. “We were spitting and fighting and crying and saying all the things that you don't want to talk about. It completely changed and we went back and did the album and it all made sense."
Bur Radiohead were not making much sense to their American label, who released new single “My Iron Lung" with minimal promotion in November. According to Capitol Marketing VP Clark Staub, "My suspicion was that there was no fanbase.” As if to confirm this self-fulfilling prophecy, the single virtually disappeared overnight.
In Britain, "My Iron Lung" made number 24 despite no Radio One airplay. Britpop was hitting its cheery, inward-looking, London centric peak and Radiohead's murky gravitas seemed once more out of step with the national mood.
Even so, Radiohead's next single. "High And Dry", landed at number 17 in March 1995. Then their second album, The Bends, entered the chart at six. This dark masterpiece was a massive leap forward from Pablo Honey. Beyond the typically fraught, lurching guitar anthems it boasted grace and grandeur, epic soundtracks and programmed rhythms. The title track was widely interpreted as an acerbic commentary on the disorienting effects of sudden fame. In fact, it had been written long before "Creep".
Yorke claimed his voice was now "just another instrument rather than me personally giving you everything in my soul. You do that once and you never ever want to do it again." Only later would he admit that The Bends was "an incredibly personal album, which is why I spent most of my time denying that it was personal at all."
Lyrically, Jonny Greenwood claimed The Bends was about "illness and doctors… revulsion about our own bodies". The album's cover image, adapted by Yorke from hospital snapshots, seemed to reflect this theme, "I was a sickly child," he told reporters. "The content of my lyrics shows that I am almost obsessed with my health. If I get ill on tour, it really does something to me emotionally."
The album's air of sickness haunted Radiohead. After suffering sharp head pains, Jonny began wearing protective headphones during concerts. This was on top of the splint he had taken to strapping on his right hand to counteract repetitive strain injury. Yorke was also obliged to plug his ears after they began filling with fluid due to the constant pressure changes of air travel.
The Bends barely dented the US charts despite a year of almost constant touring. Yorke's fragile state grew worse on the US tour. Where Radiohead were "living through pure fucking hell" on three hours of sleep a night. Before a New York show in May, the singer suffered “a complete breakdown" and begged tour manager Tom Greaves to book him on the next flight home, He was talked into staying by his fellow band members, a testament to the brittle new mood of unity within Radiohead.
Radiohead's future direction was also beginning to take shape in Yorke's mind. "I get really envious when I hear good jungle or stuff on Warp or the Tricky album," the singer told NME in May. "I get this sense that they were made in isolation and that there wasn't this need to be in a bollocks rock band." Prophetic words.
A prestigious summer tour supporting longtime idols R.E.M. showed Radiohead a more positive way to deal with fame. Meeting Stipe, Yorke says, taught him that "it is possible to do more than two albums, and to like the idea of sticking around. Learning to forget how you did something and not trying to compete with yourself. It's a cool thing, just learning to not have to fight and argue with yourself all the time."
But Radiohead's idyllic summer evaporated into frustration again as they toured The Bends to a largely indifferent America in late 1995, During an October jaunt with Soul Asylum, all the band's equipment was stolen in Denver. Later, in Vancouver, Yorke interrupted the show to silence a table of chattering industry types. "We've gone all around the world on this tour," he raged, "and you are the rudest fuckers we have ever met."
Radiohead's recurring ill health caught up with them again in Munich in late November. A sick Yorke tried to cancel a show, but the promoter called a doctor who pronounced the singer fit for action. On stage, a clearly disturbed Yorke blew a fuse before blacking out and collapsing.
"I just got really fucking freaked out," he said later. "I got tunnel vision, I didn't know what happened. I threw stuff around and threw my amp around and the drum kit and ended up with blood all over my face. I cried for about two hours afterwards."
This incident was labelled "Thommy's Temper Tantrum" by the NME in a short, innocuous news story. The singer claimed, "I'm Sure the NME don't give a fuck, but what they wrote in that piece hurt me more than anything else anyone has ever written about me." He then froze the paper out of interviews for over five years. 'Forgive and forget' is not Thom Yorke's motto.
"When things get personal," he says, "when you're a moving target, once you've had to deal with that, you find it very difficult to forgive and forget."
A SLEEPER hit propelled by positive word-of-mouth, The Bends would gradually notch up two million global sales and re-enter the Billboard Hot 100. It eventually went platinum in Britain and climbed to a late peak of Number Four. But as 1996 dawned, Radiohead's second album seemed overlooked and underrated.
In February, Yorke and Brian Eno jointly collected the Freddie Mercury prize at the Brits for the WarChild compilation, Help. But Radiohead were beaten in all their nominated categories by all-conquering new boys, Oasis. The Gallaghers had become rock's new clown princes almost overnight, much to Yorke's disdain. He dismissed the Mancunian brothers as "a freak show" and "mentally ill".
In this charged atmosphere, work began on the next Radiohead album. Writing and recording self-produced material with an open-ended deadline was supposed to defuse tensions between the group. Instead it made them worse. But initial sessions at Canned Applause were marred by problems more fundamental than musical differences. According to Jonny, "There was nowhere to eat or defecate, which are two fairly basic human drives."
In August, Radiohead played a short us tour supporting Alanis Morissette. The "silly money" they earned almost made up for Morissette's big haired covers of "Creep" and "Fake Plastic Trees". Back in Britain, with £100,000 worth of newly purchased mobile studio equipment, Radiohead decamped with engineer Nigel Godrich for two months to St Catherine's Court, actress Jane Seymour's 15th century mansion near Bath.
The location was beautiful, spooky and silent. Inevitably, Yorke hated it. "It became a complete fever, like being ill all the time," he said afterwards. "It was fucking horrible, I could never sleep."
OK Computer was initially planned as an upbeat reaction to The Bends and defiant demolition of Radiohead's gloomy image. But as recording progressed, its trip hop symphonies and sci-fi lullabies brimmed over with nausea, disgust and travel sickness: "The crackle of pig skin, the yuppies networkinglThe vomit, the vomit." Pigs, crashing vehicles and millennial despair became recurring motifs. "To me, the album's more about speed and transport rather than the future and technology," says Jonny Greenwood now. "The songs are very transparent; it's very clear what they're about."
Yorke tried to make his voice sound different on every track. "He was getting very sick of the fact that he could sing about garden furniture and it would still sound very passionate," says the guitarist. Dark references to "the IMF and cattle prods" also reflected the singer's growing interest in "voodoo economics" and digestion of political tracts like Will Hutton's The State We're In and Eric Hobsbawm's The Age Of Extremes. .
The track "Fitter, Happier" was voiced by computer speech software and ended with the brutal comment on modern consumerism, "a pig in a cage on antibiotics" – a line adapted from Jonathan Coe's darkly comic novel about arms dealing and the death of the welfare state, What A Carve Up! This extraordinary slice of digital nihilism was even considered as the lead-off Single for OK Computer.
Instead, the towering six-and-a-hall minute "Paranoid Android" was chosen with an animated video by Magnus Carlsson featuring murder, mutilation and topless mermaids. MTV censored the mermaids. Eleven minutes long in its original form, this neo-prog epic was hailed as a "Bohemian Rhapsody" for the Nineties. Jonny began to despise it. "I just couldn't stand it after the second time,” he recalls. "If I was working in a shop or a factory, I'd go out for a cigarette break."
Colin Greenwood says "the idea behind "Paranoid' Android" was to do a combination of DJ Shadow and The Beatles. We've always aimed ourselves at this trajectory towards other people's music that we've fallen in love with. It's like a lover's flattery: we try to emulate these people and we always fall short. When we did "Creep" we were heavily into Scott Walker. We aim for the stars, and we hit just north of Oxford – ha!"
Ominously, Radiohead's US record company Capitol heard OK Computer and immediately downgraded sales forecasts from two million to 500,000. Radiohead themselves were hardly expecting to find themselves the most acclaimed band on Earth in the summer of 1997.
EARLY signs had been mixed. On June 8, Radiohead played the Tibetan Freedom concert in New York followed by an Irving Plaza gig attended by R.E.M., Madonna, U2, Blur, Courtney Love and Lenny Kravitz. O'Brien moved Madonna to make sure his mother had the best table in the house. But at their next show, previewing mostly new material at the KROQ "weenie roast" in LA, they were booed offstage. Yorke exploded at the crowd, branding them "fucking mindless".
Released on June 16 in Britain and July 1 in the US, the reviews for OK Computer were beyond hysterical: "The first album of the 21st century... The world's most important, innovative band... The Beatles' true heirs... The first British band since The Smiths to move rock onwards and upward." At the Barcelona album launch, Jonny Greenwood glumly mused: "Journalists like it, which is always ominous." Yorke added, "Oh shit, now we're in trouble."
"We were so insecure: says O'Brien four years on. "The only reaction we'd had at that stage apart from the UK was the Americans calling it commercial suicide. We needed those good reviews and record sales. We were nervy because we hadn't gone for the easy option; we hadn't gone for The Bends Part 2."
Glastonbury 1997 caught Radiohead in the grip of both triumph and adversity. Yorke was blinded by stage light, his monitors blown, buzzing and vibrating like a human lightning conductor. He "played six songs to a pitch-black wall of nothingness” and almost left the stage.
"The lights on the floor just burned Thom's eye out so he couldn't see anyone or hear anything," Colin Greenwood recalls. "He started to make mistakes and miscues and nearly walked off stage, but Jonny and Ed basically talked him out of it. He didn't have any monitors for the encore, which is amazing. So we have very mixed feelings. But if we'd done that a year before, we would have definitely left the stage – our career in ruins."
Headlining Glastonbury was one of the most powerful and certainly one of the most significant performances in Radiohead's career to date. It was also the point where everything started to go supernova – and off the rails. Following more monitor trouble at the Torhout festival in Belgium in July, Yorke lambasted the “special people" in the crowd and stormed offstage. He began freezing up when "Creep" was mentioned in interview and refused requests to play it live. "Fuck off, we're tired of it," he bawled at a Montréal audience. Fans who demanded old favourites were dismissed as "anally retarded".
OK Computer matched critical acclaim with commercial clout, going gold in the US (500,000 sales) and platinum in the UK (also 500,000) before Christmas. It topped almost every end-of-year album poll and was even voted the best album ever by one rock monthly. But once again, a more conventional rock'n'roll success story – The Verve beat Radiohead at the Brits in February 1998. As consolation, the Oxford misfits still picked up two Ivor Novello songwriting awards and a Grammy for Best Alternative Rock Performance.
Radiohead toured OK Computer around the world and into immortality. Along the way, Yorke guested on the UNKLE album, Psyence Friction [sic], with DJ Shadow, while he and Jonny recorded three Roxy Music covers for the Velvet Goldminesoundtrack. Band tension was never far away, though Yorke claimed at the time, "We're much better at shouting at each other now, which is good. There used to be a lot of serious in-fighting under the guise of reasonable discussion, and now it's lots of shouting and eventually we decide, so that's kind of cool. It's sort of like a marriage."
A marriage heading for divorce, judging by Grant Gee's Radiohead tour documentary, Meeting People Is Easy. Premiered in November 1998, this queasily beautiful tapestry of millennial unease was the Koyaanisqatsi of rockumentaries. Mimicking the shifting textures and gear-crunching tempo changes of OK Computer, Gee's film caught the mind-warping mundanity and motion sickness of life on the road with a homesick, paranoid, psychologically scrambled art-rock quintet.
"He did so many edits of it," says Colin Greenwood. "This hot summer in London, this tiny room, we saw hundreds of them. The poor man. We ended up with over eight hours of edited footage from 40-odd. It was a mammoth undertaking – the heartache! But for all that stuff that you saw, there was all this paddling about in the sea in New Zealand and going to barbecues and getting wasted and go-karting – but no one wants to see that. It confirmed what everybody likes about us anyway."
Despite the multiple re-cuts, Gee was given a mostly free hand by the band. "We saw it before editing, and bits and pieces that felt like too much were taken out," Yorke explains. "Equally we kept saying to him, 'Can we have some light bits?' He was going, 'No.' Hurg hurg!"
Indeed, the film somehow failed to capture Radiohead's naturally sunny, bouncy, happy-go-lucky side. "The idea really was to sort of burn out that element of the myth really, or the glamour bit," Yorke adds glumly. "The actual brutal reality when you turn your domestic digital camera on and film somebody backstage before a show is a bit like Meeting People Is Easy. It's kind of supposed to be a rough guide on reasons not to be in a band."
Featuring teasing snippets of future Kid A and Amnesiac tracks, the film also caught Britain's most neurotic band on the verge of a nervous breakdown. "It was Radiohead, wasn't it?" Colin smiles feebly. "Eddie Izzard would do a good pisstake."
One scene in Meeting People Is Easy finds Yorke berating his fellow band members about the "headfuck" brought on by OK Computer, dismissing the acclaim as "bollocks" and concluding, "We should get out while the going is good."
Was it really that stressful? "It wasn't stress, it morphed into something far more interesting," grins Yorke, rocking gently in his seat. "I don't know what. Totally out of control, almost like hallucinating all the time. It was great."
After OK Computer, Radiohead were proclaimed the most important, forward-looking band since The Beatles. Radiohead's third album was one of the most hysterically praised releases in rock history, earning the band a global popularity rating somewhere between The Beatles and Jesus. How did Yorke react? It was a "total headfuck", a "fucking nightmare", he became "totally unhinged".
At the peak of their career, Radiohead were a quivering mess of sickness and insecurity. It was time to rethink the band – or get out of the game altogether.
THOM Yorke gazes at the greasy, grey river slipping by outside. The afternoon has darkened, but he is brightening slightly. After an hour of nit-picking tension, he's relaxing, opening up. Hell, even laughing. He talks about how the fall-out after OK Computer meant rewriting the ground rules, rebuilding Radiohead for a new millennium. But first, and perhaps more importantly, he had to learn to stop acting like a spoilt bastard.
By his own admission, Yorke had become an egomaniac dictator who ran Radiohead as his personal fiefdom. His power within the band was "absolutely unbalanced, and I chose to subvert everybody else's power at all costs. But it's not as bad as that any more. It's actually a lot more healthy democracy-wise now than it used to be, partly because I was so paranoid and uptight about not getting my own way, and growing a beard and starting to bake your own bread and stuff has made me realise that maybe I'm not right all the time."
That must have come as a shock. "It was a fucking nasty shock, man," Yorke nods with a guilty grin. "I was terrible, awful. I created a climate of fear, the same way that Stalin did. Hurg hurg! I was very paranoid that things would get taken away from me. It was to do with being under massive amounts of pressure, as much as anything. You cannot make mistakes, you don't have time, you have to get this right. And it takes its toll, so I had to sort of attack."
In 1996, Yorke admitted, "I'm always losing my temper, and it's very rarely justified." In 1997, he told this writer, "You have to oscillate wildly between screaming megalomania and neurosis." But the OK Computer period turned him into something of a tyrant. "We should have stopped earlier and we didn't," he says with the benefit of hindsight, "and in order to cope with things you build up all these fences, and there was part of me that was this horrible ego that was totally out of control. It was kind of just annoying, you know?"
How bad did it get? Did Yorke ever try and sack anyone in the band? "I don't think so, no. The others wouldn't let me do stupid things like that."
Does he treat Radiohead as his personal kingdom? "Not any more." And other people's creative ideas are given breathing space? "Yes, and it's more fun it's pointless otherwise, completely pointless. It was never really like that, but I kind of started thinking that it was... I started thinking that it was all my idea, and it wasn't, it had never been my idea, but I started kidding myself that it was. In retrospect, I'm quite amazed that I got that bad, but I did."
The last time we met, Yorke had just thrown a fit onstage and the rest of the band seemed to tiptoe around him carefully. "Yes, it's something I used to do a lot," he owns up. "I try and stop doing that, because it's damaging and pointless."
ROCK’N’ROLL has always indulged the Charismatic Bastard. John Lennon became an immortal beacon of Punk Truth by sneering and bullying, while cheery, level-headed, professional Paul McCartney went down in history as Mr Light Entertainment. Just compare the critical standing of Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Johnny Rotten, Mark E. Smith or Kurt Cobain to their more courteous and reasonable contemporaries. Thom Yorke is an icon to tortured teens everywhere; Colin Greenwood is the bass player in Radiohead.
Does Greenwood ever take offence at Yorke's volatile outbursts? "Not really, because it won't be on a personal level, so you can't take it personally," he says. "I think everyone is fairly tentative with everybody else anyway. But obviously Thom reacts acutely and is very sensitive to his environment."
The loosening of Radiohead's power structure also freed up their creative agenda. "It was weird," says Yorke. "It was like starting the band again, in some ways, because a lot of the time you would have something written and go in and just bash through it. But now ideas come from all over the place which is good, much better." He remains on a higher royalty rate as the band's main songwriter, but says in his defence that "it's not massive at all... it's pretty even, actually, because that's the only way it would work. Otherwise it all gets very peculiar.”
With born-again fervour, all five band members immersed themselves in the growing underground subculture of electronica, and began to use computers as a prime compositional tool. With another open deadline, the intent was to remake Radiohead for the 21st century, blurring the old Singer-plus-band boundaries, teasing out the ghosts which haunt the vast no man's land dividing rock from techno.
"There's this middle ground between the two," says Yorke. "It's the grid that depresses me, being locked in a grid all the time. That's the best way of putting it, really – that we've been locked on a grid."
Part of Yorke's agenda was to remix his emotions out of the spotlight, slurring vocals into textures and tone poems. But buried voices, cryptic words, cancelled interviews – all these add weight to the myth of Yorke as tortured soul. As David Stubbs wrote in Uncut's review of Amnesiac last month, "There's more 'said' in Yorke's pained, implacable, soaring wail than in many of his lyrics." If he is trying to avoid marketing himself as a "personality", Yorke is failing gloriously. The less he tries to give away, the more it seems worth knowing.
ANOTHER spur behind the creative left turn of Kid A was doubtless the new crop of emotionally charged guitar bands cruising in Radiohead's wake, their corporate paymasters hoping to bathe in reflected glory. Just as Travis, Muse, Coldplay and their peers seemed to consolidate this A&R trend, the original Radiohead wisely set their controls for galaxies new.
"Everybody's got to start somewhere," offers Yorke diplomatically, but his tone is one of thinly veiled contempt. "Just like we were ripping off the Pixies when we started, or trying to and failing. But at the same time, the one thing that does my head in about it in this country is that Radio One will willingly play that lot and won't touch us with a bargepole – that sort of makes me spit blood. It's all about supply and demand and as, of course, we're not supplying that demand now, then someone else ought to."
Radiohead stumbled through 1999 with recording sessions in Gloucestershire, Paris and Copenhagen, but progress was slow. "It's taken us seven years to get this sort of freedom," confessed O'Brien in his online diary at the band's website, "It's what we always wanted, but it could be so easy to fuck it all up."
After OK Computer, Yorke bought a new house overlooking a remote Dorset beach, and blasted his overheated brain with fresh air. "I got back into drawing," says the man who left Exeter University with a 2:1 in English and Art. "Lots of drawing, and lots of walking. It was the best help I could get, really, especially in extreme weather and strong winds and things like that. It kind of reflects what's going on inside."
A thoroughly English cure. Never mind the self-medicating slackers of the Prozac Nation, we do things rather differently over here. Fresh air and solitude. A brisk walk, an improving book. Very Radiohead.
Yorke's windswept comedown sessions also helped alchemise personal angst into political anger. The undercurrent of social protest which haunted OK Computer finally crystallised into serious social activism, and Yorke became a spokesman for the Jubilee 2000 campaign to drop Third World debt, finding a healthy outlet for his natural persecution mania in the growing anti-globalisation movement. If nothing else, he gained a sense of perspective. "Radiohead very much came out of the culture of complaint," announced Yorke in 1999. "We've grown up now and it's dawned on us that our problems are utterly, utterly irrelevant."
Radiohead's frontman had been on protest demo as far back as the late Eighties, but grew impatient with old political definitions. "I got involved with left-wing stuff when I was at university and it was just so boring, like comparing the size of your penis – how much redder am I than you? It's just really dull, really macho. A waste of space, really. This to me has nothing to do with the politics that are being discussed. This is to do with the operations of people like the IMF who are responsible for the deaths of millions of people every year around the globe, who we have put into power, we finance, and we don't know who they are, and they're not answerable to us in any way, and yet they decide everything. This is a humanitarian issue."
So it was a personal connection? "Yes, it was exactly that. I had to wait for it to become personal, which it did, really. And getting involved in things like Jubilee 2000 made it personal for me."
The Jubilee 2000 march at the 1999 G8 summit in Cologne showed him the power of political spin, with armed police keeping protestors at bay while Tony Blair claimed his own victory against Third World debt. "Complete bull shit," is his honest assessment of the event. "He [Blair] hijacked it because he'd failed on all the other issues he was trying to deal with that weekend. When you're actually there and that shit's happening to you, you think: this is amazing, I'll never ever see this again, I'll never be this side of the fence. It was a completely peaceful protest and they were calling us trouble-makers. Jubilee 2000! It's a bunch of Christian women in cardigans!"
During the lengthy, sporadic sessions which eventually spawned Kid A and Amnesiac, Yorke digested Naomi Klein's seminal anti-globalisation tract, No Logo. A ready-made manifesto for Radiohead?
"Not really, because all the songs were written," explains Yorke. "You know, we'd read our Chomsky and our John Pilger. But she put connections together which I thought were good. And since then, as she says herself, she has a pretty face and she can sell the ideas to people and he gets asked onto chat shows and she knows exactly what she' doing. I think that's a cool attitude. She knows she's being used."
The Trojan Horse idea? Fighting the system from within? "Totally. But because of the nature of the protectionist media, people like her will be hung, drawn and quartered at some point, and patronised by a large section of mainstream political media. But she knows it's going to happen, and that's fine. At least the issues are getting into the mainstream, even though they're roundly dismissed by all those on the payroll."
But surely Klein and Radiohead are "on the payroll". After all, both of these anti-globalisation figureheads are bankrolled by huge media conglomerates: Radiohead by EMl, Klein by the Murdoch-owned HarperCollins. For all his anticorporate rhetoric, Yorke's music is promoted and distributed by a vast global marketing machine. Can he live with this contradiction?
"Not really, I'm pretty touchy about it," he says. "But if you want to actually have your record in a shop, then you've got no way round it because you have to go through major distributor and they've all got deals and bah blah blah. There isn't a way around it. Personally, one of the reasons that I wanted to be in a band was actually to be on the high street. I don't want to be in a cupboard. I write music to actually communicate things to people."
So you can't do anything without getting your hands dirty? "Well, you can, and I respect people who do because I think that's the correct thing to do. If you can do it, then you should. And if you can't, then you can't."
Naomi Klein and Radiohead have become friends, and namecheck each other in interviews. Two highly respected anti-brand brand leaders joined in cross-marketing synergy. An unavoidable consequence of being "products" in the marketplace, maybe, but the irony is amusing.
However, Klein tells Uncut that "I really don't think it's accurate to give the impression that the band is offering some kind of celebrity endorsement for these ideas. Their political ideas clearly inform the way they interact with the world in a far more organic way than that."
Klein also claims that her "personal influence on Radiohead has been greatly exaggerated. The band had these political ideas long before reading my book, but until a couple of years ago there was less going on politically to tap into. That's the way movements work – they are contagious. If some of the band members gave the impression that the book inspired them to get more actively involved in activism, I suspect they were referring less to No Logo than to being inspired by the movement itself, ie. Reclaim The Streets, Indymedia, Drop The Debt, the protests in Seattle – which, after all, is the subject of No Logo."
Even so, Klein's book was widely assumed to have influenced Radiohead's sponsorship-free big tent tour in summer 2000. "The only statement was having a good sound to people's ears," says Jonny Greenwood. "The lack of adverts was kind of a lucky byproduct. It didn't save us any more money, or make us any more." Radiohead also played London's Meltdown festival at curator Scott Walker's personal invitation – a full circle of sorts, since "Creep" was their attempt to write a Walker song.
KID A finally arrived in September 2000. An artfully sequenced collage of drones and tones, fissures and moans, Radiohead's audacious reinvention proved impenetrably self-indulgent to some, heroically avant-garde to others. The cultural significance of a huge global rock act releasing these fragmented, opaque, largely guitar-free moonscapes on a major label was almost palpable.
This was head music for post-rave ears, the weightless abstraction of techno wedded to the weighty inner monologues of rock. Comparisons with late Sixties Beatles and early Seventies Pink Floyd proved irresistible. Miles Davis, PiL, Joy Division, My Bloody Valentine and Aphex Twin were added for good measure.
With no Singles, no videos, minimal press and only a handful of hysterical (but useless) "i-blip" TV clip as promotion, Kid A carved its own rarefied media space. Perhaps because it was the first Radiohead record to abandon the visceral thrust of what Thom once called "all the ugly male sleazy semen-smelling rock bullshit", some called the record a failure of nerve. Were Radiohead raising the stakes or simply retreating to the experimental margins?
"The dangerous thing is that all this is presupposing we were somehow trying to be experimental" frowns Jonny, "which I'm not sure is true. To me, half of Kid A sounds like half of OK Computer. There was no line drawn underneath, we just carry on. I mean, for the market we've arguably been making wrong turns since The Bends, and that was so long ago. But it's not something we try and do or avoid, really. I think if we'd done three or four albums full of "Creeps" or something, and then done this, I could understand. But we're just drifting off and always have been."
An emphatic validation came when Kid A topped the album charts on both sides of the Atlantic. But even this achievement Colin Greenwood dismisses as a fluke. "It was like prize-giving day at the media," he grimaces. "They had the gold trophy that the headmaster was about to give to us because of previous form. Then they heard the record and it got put back in the glass cabinet for the next people. It was like we won before we'd actually done the race."
OVER the past year, Radiohead have busied themselves with non-band projects and personal concerns. O'Brien joined an all-star supergroup with Johnny Marr, Tim Finn, and Lisa Germano in New Zealand. Yorke sang a duet on PJ Harvey's album. In February, his first son was born.
Meanwhile, Amnesiac was released last month to very positive reviews, completing the cycle started by Kid A. "One kind of answers the questions that the other one throws up, maybe that's the best way of saying how they are related," says Yorke. "I think it makes much more sense of Kid A. It explains Kid A in a cool kind of way. But it's nice to get it all finished and move on."
Contrary to advance press speculation, Amnesiac proved easily as experimental as its sister album, although some of its crackly textures sound more antique than futuristic. If Kid A resembled a sense-warping bulletin from the mid-21st century, its sequel seems to excavate the lost musical civilisations of the mid-20th century – especially the progressive jazz moodscapes of Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus and Chet Baker. One track, the sublime "Life In A Glass House", even features, 80-year-oId veteran jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttleton and his band. Having mapped the sci-fi fringes of (post-)rock on OK Computer and Kid A, Radiohead are now reinventing the pre-rock past.
Amnesiac arrived in the same week as Tony Blair's historic second election landslide. Pure coincidence, of course, but one track, "You And Whose Army", has been widely interpreted as an attack on the prime minister. Yorke has lambasted Blair in the past, but plays down any personal animosity. "It is," he says, "about anybody who is put in a position of power and is then surrounded by his cronies and goes off and does this thing and doesn't feel that he's answerable to anybody."
Blair, Yorke argues, is merely a "point man" for the shadow forces of globalisation. "He's just a pawn, a cog in the wheels. But politicians are being incredibly naïve if they think people are going to sit down and let it happen. They won't, I don't think. They're not that fucking stupid."
By the end of our two-hour chat, Yorke has eased his foot off the paranoia pedal, laughed seven times, smiled five, and taken the piss out of himself twice. An improvement on our frosty start. Is the passive-aggressive pop pixie more at ease with himself these days?
"Oh yes, big time," he nods. "In a superficial, late twenties kind of a way. Hitting 30, entering 32, about to probably visit 33. Mellowing out, beards, big cars, baking your own bread. Definitely. Just growing up, really. Growing up is something to be proud of. Unless you're The Rolling Stones, of course."
Radiohead are not The Rolling Stones. They could never hope to recreate that level of cultural impact. Leaving footprints on history as deep as personal heroes like Joy Division or The Smiths might prove a tall order. Radiohead may outsell both these cult icons many times over, but the wheel has already been invented and The Bible written. Pop's cultural space is much more cluttered today, its consumers far more sophisticated and cynical. Amid the distracting buzz of lifestyle pornography and what Thom Yorke calls "media noise bullshit", it is impossible to matter now in the way that The Beatles or the Pistols mattered.
When David Bowie made Low and "Heroes", or Pink Floyd made Dark Side Of The Moon, they were operating in a virtual vacuum of avant-garde ideas. But Radiohead share their era with Portishead, Primal Scream, Massive Attack, Mercury Rev – even U2 have flirted with deconstructed, post-rock textures. That's why Radiohead need to be big to matter. Does Squarepusher fill stadiums? Will Tortoise ever headline Glastonbury? Anyone can be a fringe cult; it's much harder to be left-field superstars, dragging a large chunk of pop culture behind you.
But history has not finished with Radiohead yet, and vice versa. The Oxford oddballs have undoubtedly moved rock forward, expanding the grammar of pop with Kid A and Amnesiac. Their importance in the coming decade depends on whether their vast global fanbase is prepared to follow them into uncharted waters, and whether other mainstream rock acts will pick up the gauntlet they have thrown down.
ANOTHER transatlantic chart smash, Amnesiac is the first Radiohead album not to include lyrics. "I've sort of changed my relationship with the words I sing on this one,” Yorke tells Uncut. "It's much less confessional. I've really just fucking had enough of that."
Funnily enough, he said that around the release of the last album. And the one before that. "That's tight, yes. Bugger! Shit! All right, it's less than it was – all right? "Pyramid Song" is hardly what you'd call confessional, really... although it is."
Cryptic, evasive, a conspiracy theorist, even. But Thom Yorke’s decade-long experiment in "How To Disappear Completely" has been a failure – thank God the sheer emotional charge you get from Radiohead is something that sets them apart from the competent strummers and techno boffins.
After 10 years of break-ups and breakdowns, Radiohead have settled into some kind of workable routine. They live apart from the media glare. They tour in short bursts, usually when they choose. They have their own studio, their own rhythm, and the commercial mandate to do what they please. They now seem to be down to one serious band meltdown per album.
"It's been pretty stable, really," assesses the long-suffering Colin Greenwood, the band's chief diplomat and peacemaker. "I used to think it's all going to end tomorrow, every day – but I don't think about that any more because it's unhealthy. Am I ready for it to end? Probably not. You know people go to The Priory for rehab for drugs? I'd have to go to rehab for organising my life."
Does Greenwood need Radiohead more than Radiohead need him? "Definitely. That's the one most emphatic answer, to all the questions in your interview; a big 'Yes', underlined, italicised, with a flashing red light behind it."
Right now, there are half-finished tapes all over Radiohead's studio, but no future masterplan, no clear direction. "It's much more like, this is an ongoing, healthy, slightly less destructive, slightly more enjoyable thing that we decided to do," say the singers, visibly brightening as his car ride back to Oxford looms.
But if an air of calm hangs over Radiohead today, history tells you it won't last. Yorke will find the success of Amnesiac too much to handle. There will be tears and traumas. The crucifixion of Thom Yorke dictates that genius equals pain.
"It's not genius," correct Ed O'Brien, ever so politely, before dashing off to a gathering of Victorian polar explorers. Or not. "It's just that if you want something good to come out of something, you have to put in a lot of effort, and that involves a lot of hard work, and a lot of blood, sweat and tears. No different to anything, no different to what we all do."
The interview is over. Radiohead are moving onwards. Maybe we'll travel with them, or perhaps we'll get off at the next stop. Thom Yorke might make the world a finer, fairer place. Or maybe he will end up choking on the festering contempt for his fellow man which seems to fuel his bilious lyrical worldview.
“Really? Hmmm," he considers the possibility for a moment, scanning his mental hard disk. Eventually, he decides: “I don't think it's about people. A lot of it's about self-created demons. People build themselves their own mazes that they can't get out of... but no, I'm not negative. In fact, if I was negative about strangers in the street then I think I'd go mad, definitely."
So Thom Yorke has some faith in the human race?
"Yes," be answers softly, carefully. "Given time and the correct amount of information. That's one of the things I really hang on to. If you explain yourself, then things will be all right. Ignorance is the reason people get hurt."
The people paid to protect Thom Yorke are hovering now, eager to wrap the golden child back up in cotton wool and whisk him away to safety. In fact, so keen is he to escape that he gets up from the table and leaves through the wrong exit, searching for a taxi that isn't there. He returns a minute later, laughing sheepishly.
Uncut is determined to bid farewell to pop’s most paranoid android on an up note, a note of conciliation and of we-must-do-this-again. You know what, Thom? You really should do more interviews.
He's already halfway through the door when he responds.
"You know what…?"
He never does finish that sentence.
Amnesiac is out now on Parlophone
All photography © Tom Sheehan