Despite conquering America with the anthem to self-loathing, "Creep", Radiohead found that success didn't bring them any respect in their home country. The band were under pressure and it gave them The Bends, the first great British rock album of the year...
In an Oxfordshire health club Radiohead's singer Thom Yorke forces one more mid-air leap out of his skinny, frail-looking body. For a moment, the flailing limbs suggest the contorted energy of the band's live shows, before he falls back wearily into the eight-foot-deep pool.
Over the past two years, Thom's life has been torn between manic strength and limp inactivity. For the sick-looking 26-year-old, the shift from relentless touring to "a lazy time in my flat when I just let everything go" was not only emotionally difficult, but actually left his body paralysed with a painful physical disorder. "My joints had become hyper-mobile on tour and when I stopped working like that they just seized up. My whole body was aching like I was an old man."
As Thom's five-foot-five body slumps on a redundant rowing machine, the lyrics of the band's self-loathing anthem "Creep" are given a fresh ironic twist. "I don't care if it hurts/I want to have control/I want a perfect body," he sang in 1992. It's easy to imagine the singer squinting at the lean, muscular bodies around him and sneering: "You're special/You're so fucking special/But I'm a creep."
Radiohead are the awkward, ungainly misfits of the English music scene who express their insecurities with such force that, at their most extreme, they've touched a chord among the residents of Death Row. Thom shifts uneasily as he admits: "I don't want to set myself up like that again; I've had letters from Death Row, guys who have killed people, and they're responding to the lyrics on 'Creep'. That really fucking scared the hell out of me."
Guitarist Jonny Greenwood, who is sprawled alongside an empty Jacuzzi, also acknowledges that "the nature of the band does attract a lot of those kind of people. We do meet a lot of people who aren't very articulate."
Radiohead's new album, The Bends, probes into dark, introspective territory with greater intensity than their debut, Pablo Honey, which often lost its venom in rock posturing. Musically, The Bends is a taut but powerful album, spewing out Thom's lyrics with a fierce directness that is badly lacking in the arty minimalism of contemporaries like The Auteurs or Brett Anderson's second-hand romanticism. Certainly the stresses created by the massive success of "Creep" in the States have fueled some of the songs.
However, these experiences have brought the band's own doubts and lack of confidence into sharper focus, rather than turning the whole record into a self-indulgent rant against fame. Thom avoids songs about idealised relationships and "LA Woman"-styled rock'n'roll fantasies, cutting right to the bone on the anatomical-sounding tracks like "My Iron Lung", "The Bends" and "Bones". As Jonny says: "It's a real medical album for me. Thom went into a hospital to take pictures for the cover artwork, and it struck me the other day how much it's all about illness and doctors. It kind of makes sense, because we've all been on a cycle of illness. I've been rundown with gastro-somethings, horrible things with Latin names that are attached to my lower intestines..." he says, adding perversely, "which is great."
"There's also that feeling of revulsion about your own body; that resentment that you're so reliant on it. Just looking at your hands all the time and seeing all the bones. Urgh."
For the singer, his sense of frustration with the limitations of his body is rooted in more than hippy paranoia.
"When I was born, my left eye was completely paralysed," he says, propped up against the chrome of the fitness machine." My eyelid was permanently shut and they thought it would be like that for the rest of my life. Then some specialist bloke realised he could graft a muscle in, like a bionic eye. So I had five major operations between the age of nought and six."
"They fucked up the last one and I went half blind. I can kind of see. I can judge if I'm going to hit something, but that's just about it. They made me go around with a patch on my eye for a year, saying: 'Oh well, it's just got lazy through all the operations,' which was crap because they'd just damaged it. The first operation I had, I was just learning to speak, and apparently I asked: 'What have I got?' I didn't know. I woke up and I had this huge thing on my eye, and according to my parents, I just doubled up and started crying."
The singer's problems got worse, however, as he grew older and more self-aware.
"The only thing that affected me really badly was walking around with a patch on my eye for a year, with everybody taking the piss out of me. I was starting to become more self-conscious and that was about the worst thing that anybody could possibly have done, especially as my family moved twice in six months. It meant that I had to face a new classroom, where, unlike my old school friends, they weren't used to the problems I was having with my eye."
The feeling of being an outsider is still with him as he finds himself in the position of being a spokesman for society's freaks, a marketable pop star/songwriter for corporate America and an easy target for media cynicism and music industry back-stabbing in England. He's fighting to get across his own ideas on all three fronts, but it's hard work, and he often ends up sounding confused and stand-offish.
Thom's attempts to deflect from his own personality through more oblique lyrics have largely failed. Although the songs are not as openly personal of those as Sinead O'Connor or Courtney Love, Jonny hints at the truth when he says: "All Thom's songs eventually come down to how's he's feeling." The mustard-haired frontman insists that "I don't think we always write about fraught anxieties", and then gives up with a shrug: "Well, I'm trying not to."
Thom's position as an MTV icon is also a source of confused resistance. The fame of "Creep" has created its own strange notoriety, for which he is usually the focus. The band's other guitarist, Ed O'Brien-the only band member whose physique actually fits in with the health surrounding-recalls how "people come up to Thom and say: 'Hey, aren't you the 'Creep' guy?' You can see he's about to react, and that's where we all leap in, wave our arms around and go: 'Yeah, man, we're the 'Creep' guys." In the band's new promo video for the single, "High And Dry", Thom has tried to reclaim this monster for himself by wearing one of the American promotional badges, which declares, "I Am A Creep". This confident assertion that the song belongs to him is partly explained by the huge promotional budget on offer from the band's US label, Capitol, which promises to blast away the shadow of "Creep" and establish the band as an album-based, long-term proposition. Radiohead's manager, Chris Hufford, reveals that he label boss, Gary Gersh, "is completely into us and has us a priority act." However, he also confesses that Gersh's "hands-on approach" may undermine the band's current confidence if he tries to steer them too far in his own direction.
For the moment, Thom has retained a firm grip over how the band is represented by working on all the artwork himself. He's also happy with the videos and choice of singles, but if they fail to achieve the commercial breakthrough that Capitol expects of them, the situation is likely to detoriate rapidly. As Chris says, with managerial diplomacy: "A lot of American executives speak a different language. They're not completely truthful."
Jonny is also wary of placing to much faith in Capitol's support. "There was even talk of the Americans not releasing the second album at one stage. This was before they heard it. We were just kind of discounting America pretty much, because they had us down as a pop act. Now we have record company bigwigs ringing us up and telling us how we should be doing things, which is worse, in a way."
Meanwhile, Thom tears into the "incestuous" nature of the British music industry with all the zeal and bitterness of a discredited heretic. "Other bands really wind me up. I'm very competitive and antagonistic. I just hate meeting other bands. I read this quote from Portishead about the NME's Brat Awards and the guy [Geoff Barrow] said: "I don't know what I'm doing here really; it's just a lot of indie bands drinking loads of beer and shouting at each other across the tables.' And that's exactly why I don't like it. The British music scene is so insular, so petty and so fucking bitchy I just don't want to have any contact with it. That's why we've never moved to London. If we did, that would be it. We'd last a month and then split up."
He sums up his current two-fingered stance by stating: "It doesn't bother me that we're not accepted in England. I'm rather hoping that we stay like this for a few years. I think we've got the biggest fanbase in Britain and ultimately I don't really give a fuck. In a bloody-minded way, I hope we're left alone. I thrive on being an outsider. I think the worst thing that could happen is if a British music paper put us on the cover saying that we're the best band in Britain. "Although," he adds with a smile, "it's not very likely that will happen."
When Steve Wright read out, during his Radio 1 afternoon show, a report in London's "Evening Standard" headlined "British Pop Unknowns Storm USA" he unwittingly reinforced a false picture of Radiohead's career. Before "Creep" reached the Top 40 in the States, they'd already charted with two singles and an album that had peaked at 25 in their home country (it was later awarded a gold disc). Although hardly spectacular, they were making a bigger commercial impression than some of their much-touted contemporaries, such as The Auteurs and Stereolab. This confusion continued to affect them through 1993, as the Top Ten placing of "Creep" at home was dismissed as a one-off achievement made on the back of the song's reputation in the US. As a result, the release of "My Iron Lung" last year again met with blank-eyed hostility, despite their fanbase taking it to 24 in the British charts without radio support.
To make matters worse, the band's attempts to send-up their success in the States only backfired on them. They began to present themselves as tea-drinking English fops, "low on testosterone" but enthusiastic about playing bridge. This only only served to emphasise their college-boy pasts (they all went to university or poly) and suggested further comparisons to The Fixx, a pompous, middle-class act in the '80s who were big in the States but were never taken seriously in their own country.
Thom winds up for another attack, half exasperated at the band's own foly as he snaps: "Well, all that tea-drinking stuff is complete bollocks, obviously. We were trying to keep it as a joke, but the joke wore thin because it didn't have any basis in reality at all. The reality is that we were probably doing as many drugs as everybody else. I wouldn't go on a chat show and talk about it, because it's purely recreational. I love getting stoned, it's the best thing in the fucking world. We put together a lot of this album when we were stoned...Shit, I've said it now."
"He sounds uncomfortable and unconvincing as he continues: "I go through phases of drinking myself into the ground. I'm just one of those people who binges. I did last week in Los Angeles; I was drinking all the time."
Ed O'Brien admits that Radiohead are "inherently middle-class" and this affable man from a "medical family" also owns up to a "holier than thou attitude" when on tour. After a gig in Dallas two years ago, this side of his nature came to the fore.
"This absolutely beautiful girl comes up and says: 'My parents are away; do you want to come back with me and do loads of coke?' I didn't have a girlfriend at the time and we had a day off the next day, but I was just flabbergasted. I was very polite, but I thought of us a very moral band and I said 'no' because I wasn't sure what the others would think of me."
The flipside to this gentlemanly reaction to rock culture shock was a crippling confusion within the band as how to make their next move.
Despite being friends since school, by the start of 1994, Radiohead were barely communicating with each other as they tried to retain a stiff upper lip and bottled-up the doubts that they were all feeling. This was made all the more horrific because they only had each other. They neither liked nor trusted the entourages that grew around them as they moved from city to city, a feeling that is captured in "The Bends" when Thom sings: "We don't have any real friends."
"That represents how we felt, yes", says Jonny. "There is a sense of isolation being in Radiohead."
The situation came to a head when they started their first recording sessions for The Bends at RAK studios in London. "I could tell we'd held everything in because there wasn't enough energy there", says Thom. "We were all crawling around the studio, not walking around. We were really scared of our instruments. That might sound over-dramatic, but that's how it felt. It must have been tortuous to watch. I know it was very hard on our producer, John Leckie, who didn't know what the fuck was going on. We'd be gong to him: 'So what do you think? What shall we do?' He was like: 'Well, I don't know, it's up to you. You can do what the fuck you like, just do it rather than sit there thinking about it.'"
The band site this period as their worst since forming in 1991, although Jonny's description of an "insidious and depressing" time is lifted by drummer Phil Selway's comic sense of English restraint. He sums up the band's implosion as "a time when the in-band communication just went to pot," aptly illuminating some of the problems that the band had in talking openly with each other.
When Radiohead left RAK, they came away with a few recordings that, if released, would have set them up for universal ridicule as aspiring stadium pomp-rockers.
"We had one song that had loads of strings and heavy guitars. It was very epic and sounded like Guns N' Roses' 'November Rain,'" says Ed. "By this time, Thom was trying to shut off from everything. There was a lot of pressure for us to make a loud, bombastic record," he grimaces, "and all I ever wanted to do was the exact opposite."
In the end, the unhinged excitement of last year's tour in Mexico proved the catalyst for a change in direction and attitude, as they rediscovered the raw enthusiasm that had fuelled Pablo Honey. When they returned to England, they recorded the rest of the album in two weeks, and only retained live and demo versions of "My Iron Lung" and "High And Dry" from the earlier sessions.
The band are fiercely proud of The Bends, but Thom is psyching himself up for another face-off with Radiohead's critics.
'If the music doesn't go beyond our own experiences, then the whole point of making this record is lost,' he declares. "If there's one thing I can see people slagging us off for, it's that, but that's because they're not listening to the music. People have defined our emotional range with that one song, 'Creep'. I saw reviews of "My Iron Lung' that said it was just like 'Creep'. When you're up against things like that, it's like: 'Fuck you.' These people are never going to listen."