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.)

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.”

The one single released by the band during 1994, “My Iron Lung,” was greeted with puzzlement at the time, but in retrospect its jangly, ring-modulated opening hook, smooth McCartney-esque vocal verse melody and pulverizing guitar explosions in the bridge sections mark it as a prime example of the new Radiohead style. But “My Iron Lung” fits in perfectly with the rest of the material on The Bends, and it has since become a concert highlight. (Interestingly, “My Iron Lung” is actually a live recording, taken from a show at London’s Astoria in May, 1994. Only the vocals were replaced; there are no other overdubs.)

The Bends was released in March 1995, and right from the opening—heavily echoed chords of “Planet Telex” (a sound produced by running a piano through three vintage Roland Space Echo units in series)—it was clear that Radiohead had taken a stunning leap forward. This was powerful music of the arena-rock variety, no doubt, but with an intelligence and sensitivity that indicated something special. Arrangements had become more intricate; for the first time, the band was making creative use of its three-guitar lineup.

Ironically, O’Brien says this came about as the result of playing less: “We were very aware of something on The Bends that we weren’t aware of on Pablo Honey. There was a need to put more and more guitar tracks on Pablo Honey, and you had to play all the time. Whereas the approach to The Bends was, if it sounded really great with Thom playing acoustic with Phil and Coz [Colin], what was the point in trying to add something more?” As Yorke jokes, “Sometimes the nicest thing to do with a guitar is just look at it.”

In general, it could be said that the division of guitar labor in Radiohead is that Yorke plays rhythm, Jonny Greenwood plays lead and Ed O’Brien makes weird noises. But that’s an oversimplification, as any of the three are capable of doing anything at any time. Yorke downgrades his guitar skills, saying, “I just keep time, really,” while Greenwood bristles at being called a lead guitarist: “You could describe it like that, I suppose, but it’s not really like that.” But Yorke quickly comes to Greenwood’s defense: “When I run out of melodies, there’s usually something on Jonny’s guitar that’s a melody, like Mr. [George] Harrison used to do. You know, pick a melody up here [fingers upper reaches of imaginary fretboard], and so on, because it gets a bit boring listening to one voice all the time.”

Two other prominent differences on The Bends are the expanded use of keyboards (mainly played by Jonny), and the amount of group contribution in the songwriting. Though all Radiohead’s songs from the start have been credited to the group, most of the early ones were mainly by Yorke (he still writes nearly all the band’s lyrics, though he says “the others help me with spelling, stationery and basic grammar.”) This changed during The Bends. “Nice Dream,” for example, was originally a simple four-chord Yorke composition, but Greenwood and O’Brien added more parts, including the intro, while the music to the propulsive “Just” was largely written by Greenwood, who Yorke says “was trying to get as many chords as he could into a song. It was like writing a medley.”

Probably the best-known song on The Bends is the slow-building “Fake Plastic Trees,” which it would be tempting to call a “power ballad” if the band weren’t so diametrically opposed to the kind of histrionic show of (usually false) emotion that normally characterizes such songs. Yorke remembers the recording of “Fake Plastic Trees” as “a fucking nightmare.” O’Brien says, “There was one stage at the first session when it sounded like Guns N’ Roses’ ‘November Rain.’ It was so pompous and bombastic, just the worst.” Yorke explains that the song was saved through a mixing error: “Paul [Kolderie] missed a cue, so the electric guitars don’t come in at the right place. It was a mistake, but we kept it.”

Radiohead supported The Bends with more rigorous touring, including five U.S. visits. New songs soon began appearing in the set lists, several of which would appear on the band’s next album: “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” “No Surprises,” “Let Down,” the raucous “Electioneering” and the rather Floydian “Lucky,” the first of OK Computer’s songs to be recorded (originally for a 1995 benefit album for Bosnian war relief), which opens with the sound of O’Brien strumming his guitar’s strings above the nut with a nail file. It was also during this time that Jonny’s aggressive, arm-snapping playing style began giving him serious pain. A doctor diagnosed a repetitive stress injury and advised Jonny to wear a brace on his right arm, which has since become something of a trademark. “I enjoy putting it on before I play,” he confesses. “It’s like taping up your fingers before a boxing match.”

In a March 1996 interview, Yorke said that he felt The Bends succeeded because “we had to put ourselves into an environment where we felt free to work. And that’s why we want to produce the next one ourselves, because the times we most got off on making the last record were when we were just completely communicating with ourselves, and John Leckie wasn’t really saying much, and it was just all happening. I don’t know if it’ll work again, but I hope it does.”

With the assistance of engineer Nigel Godrich, Radiohead did produce their next album themselves. They bought their own recording gear and went to work, first in their own rehearsal studio, then in actress Jane Seymour’s 15th-century mansion near Bath. Their plan was to stay away from traditional recording studios and the bad vibes they’d previously set off in the band. But the same tension present during the Bends sessions appeared once again during the tracking for OK Computer.

“We thought we could get the same relaxed atmosphere recording the album as we’d gotten recording B-sides in our rehearsal studio,” O’Brien laughs. “But that idea was quickly scrapped.” Yet the band eventually realized that creative tension wasn’t necessarily bad. “Part of it came from the fact that we’d never produced ourselves before,” says Selway, “and there was a lot that we had to learn in a short time. But we know now that there are always going to be clashing moods whenever we make anything worthwhile. We’ve developed our coping mechanisms.”

Everyone in the band seemed pleased with the results. Yorke calls the epic “Exit Music (For a Film)” “the first performance that we recorded where every note of it makes me really happy.” As on The Bends, much of OK Computer’s music was contributed by members of the band besides Yorke, especially Jonny Greenwood, who wrote the slow “rain down” section of “Paranoid Android” and all the music to the album-closing “The Tourist.” Also like The Bends, many of the more interesting sounds, like those at the end of “Karma Police,” which features O’Brien’s AMS digital delay unit feeding back on itself, were recorded with a sense of abandon. “We said, ‘Put down the headphones and just go,’” says Yorke, “and so he made weird noises, and we taped that a few times. Sometimes the best stuff happens when you’re not even listening at all. Once we get to a studio, we either do it together live at the same time, so we can hear what we’re doing, or we do the exact opposite, so we don’t know what’s going on at all. A lot of the time you have to either make it really random or really calculated. There’s no middle ground.”

Among the more random moments on OK Computer, the use of transistor radio noise and tape loops on “Climbing Up the Walls.” (Yorke: “Whenever there was tape all over the studio floor, I knew things were going well.”) Among the more calculated: The drum track to “Airbag,” which was recorded, sampled with an Akai S3000 sampler and then laboriously edited and manipulated over two days on the band’s Macintosh. Yorke admits this technique was inspired by the work of DJ Shadow [a sample/turntable artist from the San Francisco Bay Area who has released two acclaimed albums on the London/Mo’ Wax label—GW Ed.], and the result has led many to argue that Radiohead are in fact creating a sort of new rock/techno hybrid. O’Brien downplays this idea, though.

“I think that’s more a critics’ interpretation. We do try to be diverse. The guitar sound on ‘No Surprises’ was supposed to hark back to [the Beach Boys’] Pet Sounds, ‘Let Down’ was a nod to Phil Spector, ‘Exit Music’ had a [composer Ennio] Morricone atmosphere, ‘Airbag’ was an attempt to do something like DJ Shadow—but because we haven’t paid the dues, if you like, to play those types of music, we fail to get what we hope to achieve. But by going down that route, we find our own thing.”

Other notable albums that influenced OK Computer included Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew (as demonstrated by the presence of so much Fender Rhodes electric piano on the album) and the Beatles’ “White Album” (the tripartite nature of “Paranoid Android” was inspired by “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” while the chorus of “Karma Police” owes an undeniable debt to “Sexy Sadie”). Of course, it’s the way Radiohead absorbs these influences and turns them into something very different that’s most interesting. They may be shooting for a certain familiar sound at first, but what they come up with is invariably new and quite their own. As Yorke says, “Aiming and missing is the whole point, really.”

Radiohead followed up the release of OK Computer with their most rigorous touring schedule yet. One of their most notable shows of 1997 took place at New York’s Irving Plaza, where the guest list included members of U2, R.E.M., Oasis, Blur, Marilyn Manson, Courtney Love, Madonna and many other notables—including Ed O’Brien’s mother. “It was the first time she’d seen us in four years,” O’Brien says. “Before the doors opened, I went round looking at the V.I.P. section, and I saw that Madonna had the best table in the house and my mum’s table was way in the back. I thought, ‘I’m not having this,’ so I swapped the signs on the tables around. So,” he continues with a giggle, “Madonna was at the back, and my mum had the best table in the house, between U2 and R.E.M. And that’s exactly how it should be.”

After the accolades of 1997, what’s next for Radiohead? Word has it that their touring will continue, and they’re traveling with a mobile recording setup, taking down ideas for new tunes. O’Brien confirms this, but doubts most of the tracks recorded on the road will be used on an album. How and when the follow-up to OK Computer will be recorded is still anyone’s guess, but if Thom Yorke’s comments are anything to go by, it’ll be done as naturally as possible. “I just read in a magazine in L.A. that [writer Charles] Bukowski was once asked, ‘What’s your philosophy of life?’ And he said, ‘Don’t try.’ And that’s right. You can’t try. If you try, you’re fucked ’cause then you’re like everybody else.”

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