You come from Oxford. You thrash power chords on your tennis-racket in front of the mirror. You start a band at school with your mates. You pass your A-levels and go to university. Your mum and dad are proud. Then suddenly you’re in the biggest rock band in the world. Work it out. Radiohead can’t.
A couple of hours earlier, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke had looked like a bedraggled refugee who had hitchhiked all the way to California from Sarajevo, slouching about in floppy striped trousers and a black leather jacket so worn out it was beginning to disintegrate. Even with 4in-thick soles on his scruffy trainers, he seemed shrunken and stunted. You’d never imagine he was a rock star. You’d be more inclined to buy him a bowl of soup.
Yet now, here he was on stage at the Troubadour on Santa Monica Boulevard, looking like he was about to murder somebody by sheer willpower. Radiohead were in the midst of playing “Talk Show Host”. As they stoked the song to a climax, Yorke became Robovocalist, strutting across the stage like a starship trooper ruthlessly subjugating some unsuspecting new planet, thrashing manically at his guitar. As the tension seethed upwards and began to verge on the unbearable, with Yorke and guitarist Ed O’Brien combining in a cyclone of whiplashed chords and ear-popping reverb, Yorke’s eyes narrowed to a squint and his lower lip began to jut out obscenely.
He advanced to the edge of he stage, and his gaze fixed on a hapless onlooker in the front row. For what felt like hours, with the band raging around him, he glared pitilessly down at his target with an expression of concentrated hatred. It seemed that, at any moment, steam would come out of his victim’s ears, his eyeballs would melt, and his head must surely explode.
Then suddenly the song was over. Yorke spun contemptuously on his heel, and the spell was broken. I made a mental note never to stand in the front row at a Radiohead show.
Yorke is the grand enigma of Radiohead, the central mystery of a band that a few sceptics still claim are merely English pomprock revisited, perhaps because their background recalls the arty educatedness of veteran progressive groups such as Genesis and Pink Floyd. It’s as if they were created to be the polar opposite of the professional yobbishness of Oasis’s Gallagher brothers. The quintet are articulate, cerebral and all live in Oxford, determined to steer clear of the backstabbing ferment of London.
Where Oasis play primitive meat-and-potatoes rock with stubble and underarm hair, Radiohead’s new album, their third, OK Computer, is 53 minutes of complex, allusive music, often unbearably emotional and as intricate as classical music or jazz. The band’s growing confidence in their own abilities and judgement was written all over the disc’s first single, “Paranoid Android”. As if to cock a snook at frothy trivia such as the Spice Girls or Hanson, it was a six-minute micro-symphony in four movements, complete with a “destabling” passage in 7/8 time.
“There was this popular conception that we were all set up to do the big third crossover album,” reflects lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. “I think people who know The Bends [their second] will like it, but I’m not sure it’s going to cross over into middle-American kids.”
“I don’t think it’s quite as people imagined it would be,” adds Yorke, with a twisted smile. “A lot of people have experienced a nasty shock.”
It’s possible that without Yorke, Radiohead would be too technical for their own good. With him, they’ve grown into a formidable combination of expertise and musical ambition, given focus by Yorke’s eerily affecting voice and the howls of rage, anguish and disgust that teem through his lyrics. “At the end of the day, the vocal is the most important thing,” says O’Brien. “It’s more important than any guitar textures or rhythms or anything. The vocal is the thing that pulls you into the song.”
At the soundcheck before the Troubadour show, Yorke put the group briskly through their paces, trying out most of the songs they would play during the set later on. There was an absolute minimum of time wasting, though during pauses to fiddle about with drum-mikes or O’Brien’s amplifier, Jonny Greenwood squatted down on stage to speed-read the last few pages of a Paul Theroux book.
“Let’s do ‘The Bends’,” said Yorke sharply, so they did. He cut them off after a couple of choruses. “Let’s do ‘Planet Telex’.” Thirty seconds in, Yorke waved his arms impatiently to signal a halt. He had a problem with his guitar.
The others didn’t notice and kept playing, so Yorke scrubbed grumpily at his Telecaster to shut them up. Everybody jumped smartly to attention.
But Radiohead are intelligent and adult enough to accommodate everybody’s personality foibles, small or large. The quintet have known each other, and played music together, since they all attended Abingdon Boys’ School. All of them read music to some extent, and four of them have degrees. Jonny Greenwood is the exception, although you’d hardly call him the thick one. With his long, gangling frame, thick flop of black hair and dramatically angular bone structure, Jonny could have stepped out from an early Pink Floyd album sleeve, especially when he wears bell-bottom jeans and skinny T-shirts. Being the youngest, Jonny had to quit his psychology and music course if he wanted to stick with his graduate fellow-musicians as they sought to turn the band into a serious professional enterprise.
Bassist Colin Greenwood, Jonny’s smaller but less shy elder brother, has an English degree from Peterhouse, Cambridge, and is usually reluctantly cited as Radiohead’s leading intellectual. Top of his hit-list are modern American poetry and English Renaissance literature. If he wasn’t in a band, he murmurs, he wouldn’t have minded having a go at writing. Between them, the Greenwood brothers bring an aura of dreaming-spired bohemianism to Radiohead. It’s the sort of thing that makes some music critics spiteful about the band’s intellectual middle-classness. Radiohead try not to take any notice. “We’ve never hidden it,” shrugs O’Brien, rolling himself some Golden Virginia while slouched beside the swimming pool at the pseudo Camelot of Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont hotel. An inflatable shark and a baby dinosaur bob in the blue water, perhaps subliminal reminders of the prevailing Los Angeles business ethos and the monstrous success of Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park, at that moment devouring the nation’s box offices.
O’Brien is as personable and gregarious as you could wish, and makes such a marked contrast to the furtive, twitchy Yorke that they could be a comedy writer’s idea of the perfectly mismatched couple.
“I was amazed to hear that Joe Strummer went to public school,” O’Brien reflects languidly. “‘Well, we’re not very good actors. We haven’t paid our dues. We went to college and stuff like that, and that’s all part of the make-up of the band. It’s very important for us. We carried the band on during college, but we were able to go off and do different things. Thankfully, we didn’t get a recording contract when we were 18, [although they did get a demo tape rejected by Island Records] and the fact that we signed when we were 22 or 23 meant we didn’t need to seek out the rock’n’roll lifestyle. Our student days were fairly wild, and we got it out of our system to a certain extent.”
Yorke’s view is angrier and more melodramatic. “The middle-class thing has never been relevant. We live in Oxford, and in Oxford we’re fucking lower class. The place is full of the most obnoxious, self-indulgent, self-righteous oiks on the fucking planet, and for us to be called middle class... well no, actually. Be around on May Day when they all reel out of the pubs at five in the morning puking up in the streets and going ‘haw haw haw’ and trying to hassle your girlfriend. It’s all relative.”
And that’s not all. “The thing that winds me up about the middle-class question is the presumption that a middle-class upbringing is a balanced environment, when in fact, domestic situations are not relevant to class,” he hisses. “A bad domestic situation is a bad domestic situation. It’s just such a fucking warped perspective on things.”
Calm is restored by drummer Phil Selway, the oldest member at 30. He briefly held down a “real” job as a desk editor with a medical publishing firm in Oxford. O’Brien remembers how the others recruited Selway when they were still at school and he’d already left, lending the sticksman aura of experienced adulthood. A summit meeting was arranged in a local pub, and they all pussyfooted gingerly round the subject of his recruitment so nobody should lose face.
It’s rare, I suggest to Selway, for a band to have stuck together as long as Radiohead without a single personnel change. Not even a Spinal Tap-style exploding drummer. “It’s odd in some ways, because on some levels you feel you’re still stuck at that stage of your life and you’ve never actually left school,” says Selway drily. “I think the original feeling about the band and the loyalty to each other and the friendships are still very much intact. You have to allow each other a lot of scope for development, especially when you’re working so closely together, and I think we’ve managed that.”
Selway is aghast that the press has discovered he used to be a Samaritan. “God knows how this ever got out in the first place,” he winces. “It’s hideously embarrassing, because it’s supposed to be confidential and you’re supposed to remain anonymous. I’m sure any other Samaritans who read that are thinking ‘jumped up little tosser, putting himself across as some kind of saint’.”
On the other hand, it could be very useful to have a practiced sympathetic ear inside the pressure-cooker of a hard-working rock band. The stresses of touring have driven apparently well-balanced musicians round the twist, let alone a character as volatile as Thom Yorke. Some of Yorke’s morbid, isolated lyrics on their last album, The Bends, as well as the band’s self-hating 1993 hit, “Creep”, have drawn assorted freaks, emotional cripples and even convicted murderers to the band. REM’s Michael Stipe, a Radiohead admirer who is accustomed to having meanings he never intended foisted on his own lyrics, suggested that Yorke could do himself a favour by masking the bleeding edge of his emotions. OK Computer thus finds our small but feisty hero making a conscious effort to look outside himself.
For all its bleak psycho-medical imagery, Yorke reckons The Bends did him a power of good. “I realised afterwards there were a lot of things that had been sorted out in my head. I’ve always used music to sort myself out, because that’s what it’s there for. At the end of The Bends’, I felt charged by external things and I wasn’t internalising everything. Everything became much less of a personal trauma, which is why it was a bit of a strain to read that that is still the way people see us.”
But transforming the public perception of Radiohead will take time, particularly when OK Computer, for all its subtleties and melodic grace, is frequently as jocular as a midnight coach-ride through Transylvania. ‘While to some extent the band only have themselves to blame for starting the “miserabilism” bandwagon rolling, episodes such as the notorious Melody Maker article which lined up Yorke as the man most likely to follow Kurt Cobain into DIY oblivion still rankle. “It was awful for the rest of us, seeing a friend go through that,” says O’Brien. “I wanted to go down to the Melody Maker offices and say, ‘Do you know what you’re doing? The impact your writing has on someone’s character?’ It’s really irresponsible.”
The extent to which listeners’ responses can be brainlessly pre-programmed is astonishing. One American journalist automatically assumed that “Exit Music (For A Film)”, despite its painstakingly literal title, must be about suicide. In fact, it was written to play over the end credits of Baz Luhrmann’s movie of William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.
“I think it’s got to the stage of fuck it, you can’t be responsible for people being screwed up and unstable,” reckons O’Brien. “When you have people writing in from Death Row, it’s quite a heavy burden on young shoulders, to put it mildly. Patti Smith said something about a song capturing a time and that’s it, you can’t be responsible six months later if people take it differently. I think people have seen over the last year that Thom is not the tortured artist, and he’s really enjoying being able to look outside himself.”
“I’ve always seen our songs as being quite positive really,” Selway argues. “They confront very painful topics but at some time there’s always a sense that there’s a struggle with them and an attempt to overcome them, so I don’t think there’s anything in there that would intentionally incite people to do anything. You can’t censor yourself overly, can you? You would just get a very half-baked second-guessing album. I think we are quite direct, both musically and lyrically, and long may that continue.”
Radiohead have a perverse streak which makes them kick against expectations, and they’re deeply suspicious of doing the obvious. The Bends, from 1995, was a majestically brooding piece of work whose gleaming production and string of powerfully melodic songs made it feel suspiciously like a mainstream American rock album. The new disc, by contrast, is exactly what your average FM radio programmer would not have ordered.
You have to figure that Thom Yorke is the ringmaster, the éminence grise. The group seem to need Yorke’s edginess and unpredictability to keep goading them forwards. One moment he’ll be sunny, charming and glad to talk. Then he’ll be withdrawn and tetchy, and will growl at you if you ask him a question. It’s as if he lacks a protective layer between his emotions and the outside world. He’s like a sheet of emotional blotting paper. If he feels angry, he’ll bleed hot, red anger. If he feels frustrated, his pinched face and clenched body-language scream “frustration”.
“It all comes from Thom really, and they all sort of gather round and support him,” according to John Leckie, who produced The Bends. (The band didn’t use him on OK Computer because they say they no longer needed a “father figure” in the studio.) “It’s a good chemistry because Jonny’s pretty wild, you never really know what he’s going to do. When they’re in the studio, they jump around the same way they do on stage and knock things over, and Thom rolls on the floor just doing a guide track. It’s pretty exciting.”
Anything else? “They’re drug-free, as you probably know. The occasional little puff or something with me... it’s not so much that it’s frowned upon, it’s just something they don’t connect with. And they do The Guardian crossword every day. That’s the most important thing, I’d say. Things like that, which set them apart from the usual lads kind of thing.”
Leckie also recalls that debates about such topics as which song should be the next single would go on for weeks, with nobody able to take a final decision, but Yorke thinks the band have become more outspoken in their dealings with each other. “I think we’re much more used to 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’ll decide, so that’s kind of cool. It’s sort of like a marriage, when you learn to shout at somebody and that it’s a good thing.
“I could very easily walk in and say we’re going to do this, this and this, but it won’t work because it’s going to sound flat. I think the most exciting thing is when everyone in the band feels they can try things out, but there’s a point where you have to say no, we’ve got it. I think it’s a case of recognising when you’ve got it; that’s the difficult bit, because you can go on for ever otherwise.”
Their record company expects OK Computer to be a landslide victory, and the band took their promotional duties so seriously that they even swallowed their pride and played for half an hour at the annual Weenie Roast event organised by radio station KROQ, at the Irvine Meadows open-air amphitheatre south of Los Angeles. The station wields such influence in the LA area that bands daren’t refuse to participate, even though they don’t get paid. This prompted the bizarre spectacle of Oasis and Blur on the same bill, alongside the Foo Fighters, The Wallflowers, The Cure and many more representatives of what the Americans call “modern rock”.
I tagged myself on to the Radiohead convoy as they trundled down highway 405, aiming to arrive in plenty of time for their mid-afternoon slot. Despite rumours that Radiohead are “big in America”, their lowly position on the Weenie Roast bill was proof that they aren’t, yet. Once through the aggressive security cordon, we found ourselves in a glum backstage wilderness of Portaloos and tiny mobile dressing-rooms barely large enough for a medium-sized solo artist, let alone a quintet featuring two very tall guitarists. “Welcome to hell,” said Colin Greenwood, gazing around him in saucer-eyed horror.
With some difficulty, tour manager Tim Greaves had acquired canteen meal-tickets for the band, but the food was a digestion-challenging mix of polystyrene burgers and the kind of salad probably best suited to mopping up oil in your garage. Jonny Greenwood gazed down sceptically at his plate. Yorke, nursing a hangover, propped his head on his fist and glowered.
Television evidence would later prove that Radiohead were there, but their spirit wasn’t. Yorke spent the afternoon in a state of sullen misery, and spat and snarled at the audience even though they were trying to respond favourably. “Are there any screaming little pigs in the audience?” he demanded, squinting malevolently at the half-full auditorium. Some girls shrieked back at him obligingly. “This song’s for you,” said Yorke, and they launched into “Paranoid Android”. Colin wasn’t needed on bass for a time and sauntered about beside his amplifier with his hands in his pockets, like a man waiting for a lift home. Then they played “Exit Music”, which seemed to go over rather well, but Yorke had convinced himself that he was at war with the crowd. “You fucking loved that, didn’t you,” he sneered, then cued Radiohead vengefully into “The Bends”. Afterwards, the band admitted sheepishly that it hadn’t been their finest hour.
At least it was evidence that the group haven’t succumbed to brain-dead crowd pleasing, with all their performances running as predictably as a piece of computer software. You often hear that they’re due to become “the new U2”, but it isn’t something they seem to want. After all, it would mean making an album every four years and only playing in football stadiums.
In the end, when all the psychoanalysing and brainstorming and earnest debate is over, Radiohead still love to crank it up, rock out and hit the audience between the eyes. Maybe they should do it more often. Consider that legendary powerchord that kicks off The Bends.
“Oh, it’s better every night live,” Yorke enthuses, suddenly animated and sitting up in his chair. “It’s always a let-down when you hear it on tape, because when you’re standing in the room with all the amps on, you just remember why you want to play electric guitar. In America, I often walk on stage and go, ‘Hello, this is the chord of D’ – BLAAAAAM! That’s what it is, y’know? There’s a song attached to it, but basically it’s just BRRRAAAAANNNGGG!!!”
OK Computer is out now on EMI