Radiohead interview: The Golden Age of Radiohead
What with their Grammy nominations, hit singles and critical raves, Radiohead look like rock’s Next Big Thing. But who are they?
Flip through the end-of-the-year critics’ polls of just about any music publication in the world, and see a stunning consensus: 1997’s top band was Radiohead, and their album OK Computer (Capitol) was the year’s masterpiece.
But don’t think for a second that this British quintet’s ambitious, expansive rock is just the sort of stuff only music scribes drool over. OK Computer, Radiohead’s third full-length release, has also caught the fancy of plenty of average listeners. It’s the band’s fastest-selling and highest-charting album to date, and in January of this year it received high honors from U.S. industry types with a pair of Grammy nominations, including one for Album of the Year. Not bad for a collection of 12 sonically and emotionally uncompromising tracks, the first single of which was a six-and-a-half-minute, four-part mini-suite called “Paranoid Android.”
All this adulation comes as a bit of a surprise to Ed O’Brien, who along with Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood make up Radiohead’s formidable three-guitar contingent. “When we were cocooned in the studio making OK Computer, we were immensely proud of it,” says O’Brien. “But the longer the recording process went on, the less sure we became—it’s very difficult to be objective, anyway. When the tapes went off to record company people all over the world, the marketing people were not exactly optimistic about how it would sell, apart from the U.K., which unanimously thought it was fantastic. So we were a little nervous, because we want people to hear our music. There’s a lesson to be learned from the album’s success. It underlines the fact that radio and record companies underestimate what the general public are capable of listening to. This is not above people’s heads. We’re people, and we’re making it; other people can get it too.”
Over the years, comparisons of Radiohead to the likes of Pink Floyd and U2 have become more and more frequent, and the band’s visionary studio work and transcendent live shows suggest that these comparisons may be justified. In a relatively short time, Radiohead has turned from pop flavor of the month to one of the most acclaimed rock bands working today.
The Radiohead story began in the mid Eighties at Abingdon School, a “public,” boys-only grammar school located just outside the city of Oxford. Drummer Phil Selway was a year above Thom Yorke and Ed O’Brien, bassist Colin Greenwood a year below them, and Colin’s multi-instrumentalist brother Jonny a year below him. Though the five didn’t know each other that well, they began meeting up in the school’s music department, which Yorke describes as “great—no one came down there, and there were these tiny rooms with sound-proofed cubicles.” Colin remembers Abingdon’s music school as a place “where we would all run and hide away from the tedious conformity of timetables and uniforms.”
It wasn’t long before the boys formed a more or less permanent band, playing music heavily influenced by acts like Joy Division, Magazine, U2, R.E.M., Elvis Costello and the Smiths. After trying and ditching a series of names, they finally settled on the rather uninspired On A Friday in honor of the day they regularly rehearsed. The band played their first gig in 1987, at Oxford’s Jericho Tavern. Jonny, who hadn’t yet officially been asked to join up, sat onstage with a harmonica, “waiting for his big moment to arrive,” as Selway recalls.
Even though the band were already fairly certain that they wanted to keep playing together, when it came time for college, all chose to bow to parental pressure and continue their education, putting music on the back burner. For almost four years On A Friday didn’t play a single gig, and they rehearsed only during holiday breaks. (The only member of Radiohead without a college degree is Jonny, the youngest, who abandoned his course in psychology at Oxford Polytechnic when the band got signed.)