You've Come A Long Way, Baby...
The secret life of Radiohead: From Playing gigs to two men and not even a dog to getting mobbed at Glasto, from busking in oxford and Elvis Costello covers to MTW and ‘Planet Telex’… the unlikeliest rock’n’roll band in the world have been ten years in the making. This is their story…
“HMMN. THE STRANGEST THING THAT has happened to me since we started was...” Scrawny, wiry-haired Thom Yorke pauses forthought, skulking into a disconcerting silence and adopting a vacant, two-thousand-yard stare. For five lengthy minutes he doesn’t speak or move. Even the increasingly comic actions of a nearby waiter struggling with a cocktail shaker fail to distract him. Eventually, he looks up. “Hmm. It would have to be the time I got a letter from a convicted murderer. I can’t say much more, but basically he said he identified with me. How did it feel? Fuck! Like someone walked over your fucking grave.”
THOM YORKE IS THE MOST INFAMOUS Creep in the world. After ‘that song’ epitomised the mood of ‘93, from Finland to the Far East, Yorke instantly became “that Creep guy”, just like Beck was “the Loser”. It seemed to fit – here was an intense, awkward, scatty, nervous, moody, self-professed “flaky twat” with a big mouth, a daft haircut, a degree in Fine Art and Literature and a million selling debut album to his credit. A creep?
“I always took that song to be a bit of a joke,” he says, swigging from a bottle of beer. “The one thing I regret about that song is people identifying me as the creep. Everyone sets me up to be Mr Serious Of Rock which is ridiculous. I used to take myself very seriously, so I suppose I asked for it. Oh well, it could be worse, I could be a Mod, for example.”
In March 1993, Thom’s first serious musical project, Radiohead, made the Top 30 with their debut album, ‘Pablo Honey’. They’d spent five years in private; hanging out, learning, living together and making four-track demos with no desire to commit anything to vinyl. They ‘came out’ in 1991, changed their name from the somewhat ill-advised and promoter-confusing On A Friday to Radiohead, and incited a three-month record company cheque-book frenzy. Finally they signed to EMI. Despite all this, they were still little more than a promising young indie guitar band with a weird, saturnine frontman, who were overly keen and willing to support everyone from Sultans Of Ping and Kingmaker to James and Dr & The Medics.
In September 1993, exactly one year after it had first appeared to almost universal disinterest, ‘Creep’ was re-released. This time around, its combination of hesitantly premature guitar chords and Thom’s etiolated whine sent it crashing into the Top Ten. The stuttering frustration of the record overcame language barriers everywhere else – they’re huge in Egypt, apparently – and they were obliged to extend their seemingly never-ending ‘Pablo Honey’ tour.
Two years later, on the verge of unleashing their second album, ‘The Bends’, Radiohead now are proving themselves to be an outstanding, full-on, fully-fledged, rock’n’friggin’roll band. And they did it without Britain’s permission. It rarely happens this way. So often our great British exports – The Jam, The Smiths, Suede – end up floundering somewhere in the Atlantic clinging to a mere handful of record sales. But for Radiohead, it was different: the Americans chose to embrace and cherish these gangling, small-time English boys and send them home worthy rock stars. Now they have something of the charismatic poutiness and – with ‘The Bends’ – the songs to be enormous. It no longer seems unlikely that by the middle of next month we could see them stepping out with supermodels photographed in exotic locations by Anton Corbijn and becoming the epicentre of an intercontinental multi-media circus.
Well, alright, it does seem unlikely, but not impossible. Radiohead – the next U2, anyone?
THE FIVE MEMBERS OF RADIOHEAD ALL MET AT A PRIVATE boys’ school in Abingdon on the outskirts of Oxford, run by a man Thom maintains was a “power-crazed lunatic who banned music and walked around in robes impersonating a bishop”.
Thom Yorke was, unsurprisingly, something of an odd child. When he was eight he was given a small Spanish guitar by his mother. He immediately had a revelation: Yes! A guitar! It was the future! He would be the next Brian May! Fame, adulation and outlandish curly perms would be his! Sadly, all he could play at the time was ‘Kumbaya’.
At the age of ten he formed his first ‘band’: Thom played his ugly homemade electric guitar, while his friend preferred to concentrate on making weird noises by dismantling old TV sets. Intermittently, the TVs would give his sidekick severe electric shocks. Mates would stand around and watch. Two years later, Thom joined the school punk band, TNT, and stepped in front of the microphone for the first time. No one else wanted to be the singer, so he thought he’d try it.
“I started singing into this little stereo mike tied to the end of a broomstick handle. Everyone just started falling about laughing, and that was that. That was my introduction to singing.”
Once he realised that the other members of TNT all had bigger mouths and bigger egos than he did, he began stalking the corridors of the school in search of the people to make up his own band.
“I formed it with Ed (O’Brien, guitarist) because I thought he was cool and looked like Morrissey; and with Colin (one half of the Greenwood brothers) because he was in my year and we always ended up at the same parties. He’d be wearing a beret and a catsuit, or something pretty fucking weird, and I’d be in a frilly blouse and crushed-velvet dinner suit, and we’d pass around the Joy Division records. I sympathised with him for being in TNT after I left, so I told him he could join if he played bass like Peter Hook. He never did.”
The first thing Thom ever said to Phil the drummer was, “Can’t you play any fucking faster?”
Could you describe what each member of the band is like in three words?
Alright. Instead of trying to define their personalities, how about imagining what each of them would bring to a party.
“Oh! A game!” Thom rubs his hands together gleefully. “OK. If I had a party and I invited all of them, I’ll tell you what they’d bring. Hmmmn. Phil would bring a large bottle of gin and tonic from Tesco’s. Jonny would bring in all his jazz albums. Colin would bring an awful lot of beer and loads of his friends. And Ed would bring his car keys and drive home. Or sit in a corner and skin up. Or both.”
He offers up an eager smile. “Does that help? It doesn’t really, does it?
“YES. I DO REMEMBER THE FIRST WORDS THOM ever said to me,” laughs Phil Selway, the so-called “binding force of the band”, pouring tea into two large mugs in his ‘fish-themed’ lounge. “I soon learned to play faster.”
Phil is quiet, mild-mannered, courteous, softly-spoken and a newly-wed. The band nicknamed him Mad Dog. Sometimes the others will wind up a new producer or engineer by warning them of Phil’s perilous unpredictability. How they shouldn’t be fooled by his amiable labrador veneer. And how, if you say the wrong thing, he goes completely snooker loopy and throws his drums through windows.
Phil has a degree in English and History, completed a publishing post-grad course and, for a short while, held a job as a desk editor. The oldest member of the band (he was in his last year at school when they all met), Phil’s the one responsible for the band’s cheque-book. He sees his role not so much as the father figure, but more the band social worker.
“No, we’re all quite civil really,” he mumbles pleasantly. “It sounds a bit wet but we all respect each other – of course they all have their little quirks.”
Phil learned to play percussion at school, discovered that he was pretty good and decided the “ultimate indulgence” of being in a band was something to aspire to. His parents, like all of the band’s parents bar Ed’s dad, offered little encouragement and refused to back their academic sons in the pursuit of what they deemed senseless musical idiocy. Thom had torun away and pretend to be staying at a friend’s house whenever the band gigged. And the Greenwood brothers, Jonny and Colin, even now have their mother asking them when “all this hideous nonsense is going to stop”.
Ed’s dad however, is a rare breed, a fanatic – he regularly reads industry magazine Music Week from cover to cover.
“Ed will come home from a rehearsal,” smirks Colin later, at his house, “or touring or whatever, just wanting torelax with a traditional double vodka, and his dad will come in waving the music papers, wanting to discuss the new Primal Scream single.”
Jonny, crouching on a chair in the kitchen, nods his head in agreement. Sometimes called the Greenwood sisters because the brothers are so “in tune with their feminine side” there appears to be little sibling rivalry.
“Ah, see,” explains Colin. “Unlike the Gallaghers we beat each other up in private and get on very well in public.”
Jonny, a jazz fanatic, is the youngest member of the band. He’s the one all the girls go for. Although he admits he’s a dreadful flirt, he, like the others, says he wouldn’t know what to do if a girl seriously began coming on to him.
Thom: “Girls didn’t figure in our lives for a long time, going to a boys’ school, they didn’t really. They were freaks of nature you saw every now and again and wondered how they worked. I think I still feel like that.”
For the last couple of years, Jonny’s been involved with an Egyptian girl he met while the band was on tour. On one of the visits he makes whenever he can, he was stopped at Egyptian customs and dragged into a small room for a dead-cert all-body-cavities drug search. Mere seconds before the rubber gloves were snapped on, an official burst in and began apologising profusely: “Please forgive us,” he begged, “We didn’t know who you were...”
And who, wondered the nonplussed Jonny, was he exactly? “Why, sir, you’re in Radiohead.”
“You’re a rock axe god,” smirks Colin.
“I have an enormous but well-hidden ego.”
“Not that well hidden.”
When Jonny was six, he bought Squeeze’s ‘Cool For Cats’ on pink vinyl, and used to sing songs to the dinner ladies. Something of a musical prodigy, he spent his childhood in various orchestras, playing everything from the recorder to jazz guitar, the piano to the viola. He spent a year bugging the band to let him join until, finally, one day Colin called him and told him to bring along his harmonica.
“It was a way ofkeeping an eye on him,” says Colin. “He was only 13, it was a difficult age.”
“Yeah,” agrees Jonny. “Y’know that awkward embarrassing shuffling phase... which I hope to leave any day now.”
A week after his first rehearsal, the band played at their local venue the Jericho Tavern, during which Jonny sat on the side of the stage, eagerly clinging to his harmonica. At last, Thom signaled for him to get up onstage with them. He was in.
Shortly afterwards he bought a keyboard. Now the nascent Radiohead sounded like a cheesy Talking Heads sixth-form band. Then they hit upon a fantastic new idea: a horn section. They brought in saxophone players, two pretty sisters who responded to jeers with their delicate middle fingers. Then they went to college – all except Jonny, who stayed behind at school. Now they were well on their way to being a well-educated band who met up every once in a while to sound terrible.
They tried to get gigs whenever they could get together. Colin, now at Cambridge University and Peterhouse college ents officer, managed to wangle shows in Cambridge; they treated slots at the Rock Garden in London as chances to have a day out. In the meantime, college offered new opportunities for musical experimentation – at Exeter, Thom played lead guitar in a techno outfit called Flickernoise, in Liverpool, Phil played drums in a college revue version of Return To The Forbidden Planet. None of these exploits, of course, was even remotely successful.
When Colin, Phil and Ed left, college in the summer of 1990, both the horn section and the encore featuring Elvis Costello’s ‘Pump It Up’ were still an immutable part of On A Friday. By now, the band were not only out-of-step, but off the planet.
After waiting a year for Thom to finish his course, the band regrouped in Oxford in the summer of 1991, and spent their time listening to the Pixies and Lou Reed’s ‘New York’.
They decided to take this band thing seriously alter all. They binned the brass section. They changed their name to Radiohead. Jonny picked up a guitar and within weeks he could play just like Brian May.
Thom: “The bastard.”
COLIN GREENWOOD POTTERS ABOUT HIS FARMHOUSE kitchen, making tea and crumpets for everyone. He wears a tatty green gardening jumper, intermittently, he makes vague and disinterested attempts to wash up. Colin is regarded as the rock’n’roll element of Radiohead.
When he was younger he used to wear make-up and sneak off to Alien Sex Fiend and Fall concerts, and sleep on station benches. After his degree, for nine months before the band were signed, he worked in Our Price to broaden his musical knowledge. He’s also considered to be “frighteningly intelligent” by both Phil and Thom. He did his thesis on the writing of Raymond Carver. The victim of an over-active mind, he suffers greatly from insomnia.
“I suppose I’m the most gregarious member of the band because I don’t like spending time alone. I like having meals with friends and staying up late drinking. Hardly rock ‘n’ roll. But what is? Pissing in hotel rooms? Doing cocaine? I used to share a room with Ed on tour until he refused to, I kept on waking him up at all hours of the morning. So I had a room to myself, which was a shame because Ed’s very entertaining. He talks in his sleep – actually it’s more like sleep shouting. He starts having conversations that you just wish you could hear the other half of. He sometimes does accents too. He once came out with this thick Irish brogue, started shouting ‘HELP! THE BUILDING’S ON FIRE... AND TERRY WOGAN’S UP THERE’. It was hilarious.”
Colin jokes about his background, says it was like the Von Trapp family, only his mother was tone deaf. In fact his family are all very close. His big sister introduced him to Magazine, Joy Division and John Cooper Clarke. The brothers also lovingly joke about their mother. “Jonathan often teases her about all the drug benders he goes on, and she sits there saying, Oh yes? How nice dear. It was funny, when we first got signed she wouldn’t tell our grandfather what we were doing because she thought it would finish him off.”
“She is quite proud of us I suppose,” adds Jonny. “Her favourite song on the first LP was ‘Thinking About You’ which has the line ‘I’m playing with myself’, she had no idea it was about wanking. I remember one time she was doing the Independent crossword and she called over, ‘Jonathan, four down, a female bird, do you think it could be c***?’ I was like, erm, how are you spelling that mother?”
Jonny is the only member of the band not to have a degree. He dropped out of his Psychology and Music course in favour of the band, much to Ed’s annoyance.
“I remember him asking me if I was sure about what I was doing,” laughs Jonny. “He was trying to oust me! I could see him, sharpening his plectrum behind his back.”
“Having three guitarists,” says Thom, “there’s a lot of competition – who’s going to come up with the best line first. Jonny always wins.”
Before the band signed, Thom and Jonny spent all their time writing songs on a four-track (Colin came in once to add some shouty backing vocals and accidentally wiped the tape). Or they’d go out busking together, until it became too depressing.
“Tramps started throwing two pences at us, and we knew the only way we’d make money was if we played REM songs. Oh yes and one time (Jonny’s eyes light up) Ride, who were big local stars, walked passed and actually stopped to listen... Well, erm, it wasn’t that much of a big thing,”
Just before Christmas, the two of them recreated those glorious busking days, this time showcasing the new album in front of 2,500 excited fans, at The Beacon Theatre in New York.
NOW YOU’VE COME SO FAR, DO YOU EVER FEEL YOU MIGHT get swallowed up in the ludicrousness of it all?
“Nah,” says Thom confidently. “Nah... well... maybe.”
Who’s in charge?
“Hmmn,” he ponders. “We operate like the UN; you can get the veto, but I’m definitely America.”
Radiohead have now been together ten years. ‘The Bends’, although only their second LP, sounds so accomplished, full-bodied and un-indie that it could easily be their sixth album. After the alarming success of their debut and the two-year promotional tour that followed, the pressures surrounding ‘Pablo Honey’’s successor very nearly split them up.
“Was I freaked out?” gasps Thom. “I couldn’t have been more freaked out. If we hadn’t have pulled this record off I would have given it all up. It has got to be the hardest thing I’ve ever, ever done.”
As it was, they had problems. They spent two months in a recording studio in St John’s Wood, feeling intimidated about committing anything to tape. They sat around for days doing nothing. If anyone played a note Thom’d say, “That sounds crap, shut up” so they’d sit around some more.
“We had days of painful self-analysis, a total fucking meltdown for two fucking months.”
The man who had to hang around and wait for them to feel inspired was producer John Leckie. Somewhat familiar with this situation, having waited five years for The Stone Roses to get it together, he ordered everyone to go home except Thom, told him to sit down and “just fucking play it”. He did, it worked, the band relocated to Abbey Road Studios and the album “fell out” in just under three weeks.
“I don’t want to set this album up as being precious because it’s not, that’s why it worked. It’s so fucking good because we had so much to prove. The confidence level was pretty low but, despite that, things started falling into place. There was a time when I didn’t think it would happen, I thought we’d killed ourselves off. As for my lyrics, I think the best way to explain them is to say that I made them all up, it’s all lies. That way people might stop writing me all these fucking weird letters.”
Thom, now the LP’s finished how do you feel?
“Pretty fucking good,” he smiles, holding up his beer in a celebratory fashion. “I listened to it for weeks, every day. I’d put it on really loud and run around the house, manically, waving my arms and shouting, EETS ALIVE!”