Record label executives can babble on ad infinitum about what numbers comprise the formula for a band's success. They can theorize all they want about demographics and target markets. About which consumer type wants to hear what when. I couldn't care less; information like that makes my eyes glaze over. After all, when it comes down to it, what happens when that record hits the street is as random as a lottery. As whimsical as a butterfly's flight pattern. In fact, toss formula and theory out the window: the fickle finger of fate's in charge now and there's not a thing anyone can do about it.
Case in point: the unpredictable world of rock'n'roll has smiled on Radiohead. One day they're simply a talented bunch of Oxford lads who happened to choose music as a career. The next they're teen idols, guitar heroes, rock stars- you name it. It happened so fast it's caught them with their figurative pants down, and frankly, they haven't had time to react. Indeed, the ridiculous demands of success have so blind-sided them, they've had to (at the time of our interview) visit London, Paris and New York in one 24-hour period.
"This is an ‘oh, shit’ time." gangly lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood says, sitting cozily on the band's plush tour bus. “We're all very nervous and scared. When you get to this sort of position, things get out of control. But I guess it's exciting, too."
“Happy? Yeah, it's fun," adds second guitarist/songwriter Thom Yorke, "but things have changed so fast we have trouble keeping track of it all. It's tough to assimilate it in a way we can understand."
What is much easier to understand is one of the quintet's reasons for their success: stunningly crafted, three-guitar madness. With Greenwood on self-proclaimed "abusive" guitar, lid O'Brien on "polite" guitar and Yorke on an "inaudible" one, Radiohead has managed to style a sophisticated hard rock sound out of a potential sonic disaster.
"It's harder to write all the parts for three guitars," Greenwood says, stretching his long, purple-clad legs across the aisle, a copy of Marquis de Sade's Misfortunes of Virtue beside him. “But in the end it really creates the color of our sound. You can have more color in arrangements and ideas and sounds. It's worth the struggle."
"There's an element of chaos in it," Yorke adds, tossing his unnaturally blonde, Dutch-boy hair. "When one of us doesn't know what the chords are we'll just go off on a tangent and eventually come back around," he laughs. "We'll usually just hammer out the chords, trying to maintain some song structure, but usually by that time Jon and Ed are going off into their own little world. I love it."
And - if you take a quick look at the charts - so does everybody else. The album Pablo Honey is certified gold and the band's first single, the anthemic "Creep," with its blunt expression of self-alienation and crunching chords, has crept into the hearts of outcasts everywhere. The song made it into the upper reaches of Billboard's “Hot 100" and was the summer's #1 most requested song at alternative radio. Yet over and above everything it's that edgy, hyper-driven guitar noise that is the true success.
“I don't know any guitar scales," Greenwood states without a trace of irony as Yorke shoots him an incredulous look. "It's true! Well, I know one major one - that's it - and l just move up and down the neck depending on what modes I want. But you can get by with just chords. Rather than being able to play two thousand notes a minute, I can play an E chord anywhere on the neck and that's more interesting, I think." He sweeps his hair off his forehead.
“We have this new song called ‘Banana Co’ and it's all E minor and C major and it doesn't change at all," Yorke explains. “Then Jon goes and puts a B in it to make it a C7, which is totally the wrong note but it isn't. He puts it in his solo and it's the best bit of the song!"
Whether it's the distorted chicka-chicka that unplugs the emotional and musical dike on "Creep" or the opening fuzz on the cynical "Anyone Can Play Guitar,” or the gentle arpeggios and melodic hooks that decorate the entire album, Radiohead has come on as a volatile and stylish guitar band.
“For me," says Yorke, “it's all about not looking at a guitar for a week, then when you come back to it you have something inside you that wants to get out and the novelty of the chord really comes through."
“But beyond all that craft," Greenwood adds, picking up a copy of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and slapping it into the bus CD player, “we're still suckers for going on stage, plugging in, turning it up and getting our ears blown away. "
Hmm... Couple that kind of attitude with the exuberance of youth and scads of ingenuity, toss the bone on an unsuspecting slacker public, and shit, come to think of it, you actually may have the formula to succes.