IN THE BEGINNING RADIOHEAD WERE MEN OF THEIR WORD AND THEY STILL ARE.
It is Sunday morning but not yet sun, and we are sitting on chaise lounges watching the Mediterranean smack the coarse sands of the harbor, and nobody’s doing much of anything but watching and letting the absinthe and the wine and the food and the sounds of salsa music ease out into the night or the morning or whatever it is. A surprising number of us are yet afoot in Barcelona, walking unsteadily up Las Ramblas toward hotels and apartments and whatnot, public displays of affection conducted without shyness, the untrained relegated to holding up doorways, too few cabs, too little night remaining.
And though the thought does not occur until much later, we writers and friends have been summoned here by the ghosts of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, called by the deadliest of the seven words and the miracle by which it appeared on American radio. In short, we are here in this Catholic, Catalan city mostly because of that one word: Fuck.
It’s a good, old Anglo-Saxon word, fuck is. And, to borrow from Carlin, it’s a weird commentary on the progress of western thought that humanity’s most intimate act has become its most biting invective. And at that, it’s lost it’s bite, hasn’t it? (And perhaps its intimacy, but that’s a notion for another time.)
Still, fuck put Radiohead on American radio, even though the FCC continues officially to ban its use. “Creep,” their first single, the one where that fuck word shows up, had the great fortune to arrive at precisely the moment when commercial alternative radio was bent on proving its cutting edge status to the disbelieving hip and the open-eared masses. And so, like nine inch nails’ “I want to fuck you like an animal,” which had to be garbled for airplay but was still suitably unsubtle, Radiohead’s “Creep” – provided in censored and uncensored versions, so the DJ could prove how outré and cutting edge his/her station REALLY was – became a coded entré into the commodified pseudo-underground.
None of which really has anything to do with Radiohead. It’s not their calculus, just luck and the certain logic of the song writing itself. They happened to tap the same vein of twentyconsciousness that “Teen Spirit” and “Loser” and Trent and Alanis and the whole industry stumbled upon like a stray dog on the strand. It was a smashing song, “Creep” was, and then, in its turn, a bit of a curse.
Radiohead, a quintet of college lads from Oxford, took their name from the Talking Heads’ slightest of albums, True Stories, and their spirit from the still-hopeful grandeur of mid-’80s U2. They dare to hope, dare to construct complicated tapestries of song, and Thom Yorke happens at times to sound a bit like Bono.
“Creep”, of course, was four years ago. On its strength Radiohead did that most un-English of things, and broke in America first. (Actually, they point out, “Creep” broke in Israel first.) Pablo Honey went platinum in the US, gold in the UK; its successor, The Bends, went gold in the US and platinum in the UK. They’ve toured with R.E.M. and Alanis and whomever, with the resultant big stardom and staying in a four-star hotel in Barcelona (they were in Lisbon the week before) greeting vagabond journalists from around the globe. This is because they have a new album coming, titled OK Computer, and they have elected to make the annoying process of explaining themselves as painless as possible.
And, for the record, they use the word “fuck” nine times in slightly over an hour.
The Bends was a troublesome record for Radiohead – the songs wouldn’t write themselves, wouldn’t play right, wouldn’t anything, and then came out in a gush at the end and made some kind of sense. (The result is more coherent than the process, in any event.) That was all about grappling with fame and trying to outlive “Creep.” They have the rhythm of the thing now, understand the beast as much as anything so untamed as pop music may be understood, and have undertaken to ride with the reigns firmly in hand. Their hands,
And so O.K. Computer is theirs, all theirs. Written and produced by the band, recorded in part at their Oxford rehearsal space – Canned Applause – within walking distance for everyone in the band, and recorded in the other part at St. Catherine’s Court, a mansion outside Bath. In between sessions the band returned to America, test-driving new songs while opening for Alanis.
Back at their four-star suite, Jonny Greenwood, the handsome guitar-and keyboard-playing brother who looks something like the cutest Monkee, is amusing himself by taking photographs of everybody with infrared film. Thom Yorke sprawls across a chair, diffidently examining the newest stranger. Some tall bloke documents the entire process on film.
“The idea,” Jonny says, focusing, “was not to get bogged down, and keep moving around and rehearse a lot. It was done in pieces because you need distance from what you’re doing. Plus you get bored, too. Studios aren’t simply lovely places to spend the day.”
“For a year that we were supposed to be taking it easy, I don’t think we really did,” Thom says softly.
The tour with Morissette offered a crucial opportunity to test-drive the new material. The rest of the band – drummer Phil Selway, guitarist Ed O’Brien, and bassist Colin Greenwood – meet the press in the rooftop garden of a different four-star hotel, where Ed recalls with a certain gleam in his eye, “We could try five new songs each night.”
“It means that you’re a bit more confident going into the studio,” Colin explains. “The arrangements have usually been worked out beforehand, and it’s just the timing and finding a tempo that is actually crucial for us.”
Could audience response have talked you out of a song?
“Absolutely not,” Colin says, and his eyes adopt that same certain gleam. “If we weren’t into it and it was obvious that other people weren’t, then…”
“We’d place it twice,” Ed laughs.
“We just liked the idea of going out and playing in front of these people who didn’t know us, and weren’t singing the words and finding out what would happen,” says Thom.
O.K. Computer has a kind of sonic coherence about it that is somewhat surprising, given that the band chose to produce themselves on only their third long-player. (That’s a bit misleading actually; they’ve also released ten singles in the UK, where such things still matter, and so have spent rather more time in studio than their US presence might suggest. Oddly, their most recent single, “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” charted highest in the UK, topping out at No. 5.)
Some of Computer’s internal coherence may be laid to the engineering of Nigel Godrich, and some to the band’s own internal sense of how best to proceed. “We wanted to all start at the same point,” is Thom’s explanation, though it took some time to sort out the new dynamics. (Good producers are gentle referees, and they’d worked with one of the best - John Leckie - on The Bends.) “I think the first three weeks of recording we’d do a take and then we’d walk around: ‘I don’t know, what do you think?’ But it worked out okay, because we got it together. It was weird, there were responsibilities that we hadn’t bargained for. ‘How do we do this song justice?’ We learned a lot along the way. Which is good. And then we tried just to be objective.”
Buffeted by fame, Radiohead also returned to a common framework and understanding of why they were in the studio. “Jonny and I were constantly referring to the way we used to do four-track stuff, when we first played,” Thom says. “You know, if you did it, great, if it didn’t work, you’d scrap it. But that was the motivation. That, in retrospect, seemed the purest motivation, because there’s no one tapping on your shoulder asking for the rent, but there’s also no members of the press talking about what the lyric means. That stuff confused me. So it was quite reassuring to find that the motivation was there, in fact it was much stronger if those people in the background would just get on.”
One very large piece of metal also lurks at the bottom of this new Computer: An East German plate reverb Radiohead bought for the sessions, and then had to lug around.
“Well, we bring this in and started getting into Scott Walker and blah blah blah,”
Thom says, ducking his own pretenses. “It cost a fortune, but we knew that we had to have it. It’s an enormous thing, and it used to break all the time. But it just had this metallic – obviously – metallic reverb thing that everything fed off. Everything we did, every performance we did, everything was based around this big block of metal. You’d often hear this shout coming through, ‘Can I have a little more of the reverb in my headphones while we’re playing?’”
“We also had it very dose to what was physically going on as well,” Jonny says, “so if it wasn’t being used, it would be vibrating with what was happening as well. So we abused the hell out of it.”
Minus their unportable reverb, Radiohead are again test-driving O.K. Computer’s songs, three shows in Lisbon, two in Barcelona, before doing a real rock start deal that comes with world tours and big rooms. They play a club called Zeleste in Barcelona, a big black square of a room, the blueprints of which have been shared by club owners in Seattle, Nashville, Los Angeles, Chapel Hill, the world over. “We’re still very much in the good night, bad night, indifferent night rhythm,” Ed says, at ease with the process now. “We haven’t settled down.” Provoked by the journos, perhaps, they don’t play “Creep” tonight, but the crowd spills into the street happy enough, after two encores, without that token of obeisance.
New songs will continue to dominate set-lists – or at least that’s the plan. There s talk in the hotel bar, or maybe it’s just the excellent local red wine spilling around the edges, that Radiohead will record again in September. Perhaps they're learning from their time on the road with R.E.M. “The idea for the next album is maybe try and do it on the move,” Ed admits, though he suspects September is a bit early. “It would be nice to do an album, as we intend to do B-sides, go in for a few days at a time, whack out three songs, and not try to think things to bits.”
“I think O.K. Computer had a very steep learning curve for us,” Phil says, “and now that we've got that tackled I think we should be able to work a bit faster.”
“We'll probably do a tour and come back for about five days, be home, do some recording, and go on,” Ed says, sighing slightly.
Going on is a triumph all its own. Radiohead are, at heart, heirs to the long discarded intellectual (read: progressive) tradition of rock music. “Creep” may accidentally have caught an airwave in America, but by and large their impulses run against the current both at home and abroad. The English press, they report with disinterest, is currently enthralled with electronica and punk rock (“When you don't know what to write about, go find some really, really young punk bands,” Jonny says, tired).
And since Radiohead take certain pride in the fact that they actually, um, read books, they hardly fit the paradigm of the noble savage, of the punk and the underclass basement DJ.
“Yes,” Thom says, properly energized for the first time, “We actually do other things than music. I'm not this fucking idiot savant, this noble savage. I'm not just a fucking musician, I had a life before this, and it feels good to live through this process, to come out the other side and do some good work. Have done whatever it was that you have in your head, and done it successfully.”
The sun is flickering over one of the apartment buildings Antonin Gaudi built in the 1890s, a great molten mass of inspiration that no planning commission could countenance today. We are still walking, and probably Radiohead are asleep guarding their energy and their privacy, and maybe they saw something of Barcelona beyond the hotel bar, but certainly – at last – the choices were theirs. And that, in the end, is all they fucking want. Or need.