Radiohead interview: The Golden Age of Radiohead
On A Friday relaunched itself in the summer and autumn of 1991, playing a series of gigs at Oxford’s Jericho Tavern and circulating its first real demo tape (which was officially released the following year as the Drill EP and featured three songs—“You,” “Thinking About You,” and “Prove Yourself”—that later appeared on Pablo Honey). The band quickly attracted attention; within a few months, they acquired both management—Chris Hufford and Bryce Edge, who remain their managers to this day—and a record label—EMI, to which they signed on March 2, 1992. Neither the label nor the band, as it turned out, cared much for the name On A Friday, and so it was changed to Radiohead (taken from the title of a song on Talking Heads’ True Stories album).
The release of the Drill EP in May 1992 didn’t exactly set off any whoops of joy in the sales department (it reached Number 101 on the U.K. charts), so the band went looking for new producers. They chose the Boston-based team of Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade, who’d previously worked with artists like Buffalo Tom and Juliana Hatfield. The first two songs they’d planned to record as the next single, “Inside My Head” and “Lurgee,” didn’t turn out so well, but another song carelessly tossed off during the sessions proved far superior. “Creep” was recorded in one take, and the story goes that the band wasn’t even aware that Kolderie and Slade were rolling tape. Kolderie remembered the session in an interview for the British music magazine Mojo:
“At the end, everyone in the place was silent for a moment and then they burst into applause. I’d never had that happen before.”
Once again, that reaction wasn’t matched by U.K. sales figures. “Creep” only crept up to Number 78, and got hardly a notice in the press. But the situation changed radically once the song reached America where “Creep,” like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Beck’s “Loser,” crystallized the attitude of a generation uncomfortable in its own skin. With the release of Pablo Honey in February 1993, MTV latched onto “Creep” with a vengeance, making Yorke’s lazy-eyed, Johnny Rotten-meets-Martin Short visage a familiar sight. U.S. rock radio quickly followed suit, rocketing the single to Number 34 in Billboard and causing the album to go Gold in the States. (It has since gone Platinum, the only Radiohead album so far to sell over a million copies in America.) As the year continued, the song became a worldwide hit, even re-entering the British charts, this time reaching Number 7. Radiohead commenced a rigorous touring schedule, visiting the U.S. twice and playing a total of 130 gigs in 1993.
The big problem with this success was that the band were never entirely keen on Pablo Honey. It had been recorded (with Kolderie and Slade) in only three weeks and featured six previously released songs, including their third single, the roaring anthem “Anyone Can Play Guitar.” Jonny feels the album “lacks freedom. On the first record, we were so frightened. It’s a lot more regimented, I think, due to our own fear and inexperience.” O’Brien agrees: “We’d never been in a studio before, we were not very cohesive as a band and we were totally insecure.” With all the touring, the band quickly tired of playing the same old songs, but their attempt at a new single, “Pop Is Dead,” was poorly received in Britain and never released in America. “Thank God,” O’Brien says now. “It was rubbish.”
It’s fashionable these days for enthusiasts of Radiohead’s more recent work to put down Pablo Honey and the early singles, but listening to that music, traces of what was to come can be heard. Sure, the influence of bands like the Pixies—whom Yorke has repeatedly called “the greatest band ever”—may be worn a little too obviously, but tracks like the dramatic “Stop Whispering” and the album’s climactic closer “Blow Out” are still impressive. “There are lots of mistakes on it,” O’Brien says, “but you learn from your mistakes. I still think it’s a valid album. It’s very up, quite hedonistic—‘Let’s put on eight guitar overdubs and turn them all up!’ I think it’s one of those albums you might put on in an open-top car on a Saturday night going to a party, but I could be wrong.”
More touring followed in 1994, plus rehearsals and recording for what was to become Radiohead’s second album, The Bends, which, although without a defining single like “Creep,” sold steadily and was hailed by critics. Perhaps more importantly, it laid the groundwork for OK Computer. The band’s pick for producer this time was John Leckie, whose previous work included albums by XTC, Magazine and the Stone Roses. (Kolderie and Slade still mixed the album.) “The best part about working with John Leckie,” Jonny recalls, “was that he didn’t dictate anything to us. He allowed us to figure out what we wanted to do ourselves.”
Even so, the early Bends sessions proved exceedingly difficult, as the pressure to make a follow-up that would build on the success of Pablo Honey created high levels of tension within the band. The solution: taking the show on the road. Radiohead took a break from recording and toured Australia, Southeast Asia and the Far East, during which time they continued to break in the new songs. The album was completed in about two weeks after they returned to England. “When we finished The Bends,” Yorke says, “it felt like going back and doing four-tracks again. That’s what was so exciting—that we were in control of it, that it was our thing. We were simply satisfying ourselves.”
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