Growing up with Radiohead
Words & curation by Pete Paphides, cover art by Mick Clarke
The main thing I remember as I boarded the plane from Heathrow was fear. But it wasn’t the flight I was afraid of. It was what I had agreed to do in exchange for it. Melody Maker had commissioned me to write a cover story about Radiohead — an Oxford five-piece who had recently supported The Frank & Walters on their nationwide tour and, in the middle of that tour, released a song called Creep which had become something of a word-of-mouth sensation. As a result of that song and its follow-up single Anyone Can Play Guitar, Radiohead were beginning to get a bit of a profile, but the real heat around them was in the States, where college radio had just got hold of Creep and it was causing a sensation. Capitol Records had moved quickly to break Radiohead across America.
I was new at Melody Maker and, a few months previously, I had been despatched to an Oxford cafe called Georgina’s to write my first ever feature about this somewhat guileless, excitable quintet. I realise now that the band — yes, even Thom Yorke — was as nervous about meeting me as I was about interviewing them. Their bassist Colin was trusting, open and sweet. The sort who’d be first to introduce themselves to you on your first day at a new job. He’d seen that I recently reviewed a gig by London Brit-soul group, D-Influence. “Do you like soul?” he smiled. “I’m a bit of a soul boy too!” I didn’t know how to write features, but on this occasion, my word count was short, and with a short word count it’s sometimes just about possible to wing it.
So, three months later, when Parlophone offered to fly a journalist out to cover the band’s maiden American adventure, the job defaulted to me. No-one else at Melody Maker really cared for Radiohead at this point. There was a perception that they were posh public school boys in thrall to Pixies and Nirvana. Of the other British bands coming though, Suede, The Auteurs and Manic Street Preachers could all talk a good record. If you’d seen Radiohead live, you knew that something thrilling was fomenting — especially that hot young guitarist bent double over his guitar with hair like molten vinyl — but the problem was that not many people had done. All of which explains why I was sitting on a plane bound for Los Angeles feeling somewhat terrified because my ticket alone had cost nearly £1000 and once you factored in my hotel room at the Hyatt — the Hyatt on Sunset Strip! — then that was an awful lot of money to spend on someone who didn’t actually know how to write magazine features.
When we finally met the band, it was around 10pm. Having arrived the day before, they’d just finished their second day of back-to-back interviews and promo obligations. They’d been driven to a bar in Beverley Hills to unwind. Their other hot guitarist Ed O’Brien pointed at a familiar face at the other end of the bar. It was Ian Astbury. A famous person! We giggled like school kids. There was a lot of giggling over those next couple of days, but not the relaxed, easy sort of laughter you might expect from a band who are about to break America before most people in their own country have heard of them.
From record store to radio station to label meet-and-greet over and over again, the buzz around Creep was deafening. At the mythical Capitol Tower building, all the staff had been made to wear blue t-shirts bearing the Capitol logo, but with ‘Creep’ replacing the label’s iconic imprimatur. It was like the scene in the ‘Monorail’ episode of The Simpsons where the everyone in Springfield keeps saying the word ‘Monorail’ over and over again. “Creep, Creep, Creep, Creep, Creep, Creep…” “Are you the Creep guy?” one label employee asked me. I shook my head and pointed at Thom. If you record a song about self-loathing and this is what happens to it, what’s that going to do for your self-esteem? You’d think it might make it better, no?
I was 23, and a very young 23, at that. It took me a while to realise that strange energy projected by Radiohead on that trip was a vastly supersized version of the trepidation I felt about my presence on that trip. The fear that consumes you when you get what you always wanted, but you don’t feel you can deliver what’s expected of you. They weren’t stupid. They could see even then that they weren’t being perceived as a band. They were a five-headed personification of one song. A human jukebox with just one seven-inch single inside it. And if they were ever going to be given a chance to create something that might supersede it, they were going to have to suck this up over several months, until finally they could enter a studio and make a record that obliterated the doubts of their sceptics. Because ‘Pablo Honey’, the album that paid host to Creep, wasn’t going to do that for them. It wasn’t a bad record. It was just the sort of debut that lots of guitar bands make. An album where you play your live set to the producers assigned the job of showing you how the studio works and they tell you which twelve songs you should include on the record.
Why didn’t I notice the full extent of Radiohead’s anxiety? Well, like I said, I was struggling to see beyond my own fear. I boarded the plane home and transcribed all the interviews I’d done while I was out there. My questions were rubbish, which meant that the quotes I got back weren’t that great either. I had to file my feature on a Wednesday morning. I arrived at the office on Tuesday (I didn’t own a computer at this point) and stared at a blank screen for eight hours, panicking increasingly as I did so. It didn’t get any better. I was still there at 3am staring at one solitary paragraph. Finally, in a flurry of panic, I bashed out something approximating a feature by 10am. I didn’t want this to be my first cover story and, thankfully, it wasn’t. Someone had just heard Björk’s debut album and it was apparently incredible, so that feature got promoted. Also, the pictures — on account of having Björk in them — were better. Phew.
Twenty-seven years have elapsed since that episode, but I have occasion to think about it all the time. No-one tells you how to be in a band beyond the lift-off period when you can trade newness for attention and you’ve no reason to believe it might not always be like this. Between ‘Pablo Honey’ and ‘The Bends’, I stayed in touch with the members of Radiohead. I knew they’d written a bunch of new songs — opening for James at Brixton Academy, they premiered a sublime new song [Nice Dream] — but they were acutely aware, by the end of 1993, that there was a perception problem around the ubiquity of Creep that they might never overcome. My Iron Lung would be the first new recording to emerge in the wake of ‘Pablo Honey’, and it addressed the problem around Creep using the metaphor of its title. You’re incarcerated in the very thing that’s keeping you alive.
And, for a while, I wondered if that would happen to Radiohead. My worries began to dissipate in May 1994 when they played a one-off gig at the Astoria in London. Something had changed, and it was impossible for anyone who was there to not notice it. It had taken the wisdom of an older outsider to save Radiohead from overthinking their way into oblivion. After sessions for their second album stalled around the suitability of Sulk as a possible single, producer John Leckie suggested they reconnect with the thing that made them form a band in the first place, and play a string of live shows — starting abroad, away from the scrutiny of British audiences and music press, then climaxing with the Astoria show. They sounded reborn. That evening, I heard Bones and Just for the first time — two songs so pugnaciously at odds with the all-conquering Blur and the elementary triumphalism of Oasis — that you couldn’t help but worry if their brilliance would be enough to find them an audience. Also in the set was My Iron Lung, which sounded so arresting that night that this would be the version they’d use for The Bends, albeit with a re-recorded vocal from Thom Yorke.
I had no reason to feel proud of Radiohead when each single from ‘The Bends’ did a little more to lengthen the trail of critical acclaim that followed them. After all, it’s not as if I had a part to play in any of it. And yet, I couldn’t help myself. They were a group for whom I always knew I was going to root. Not just because I knew them and liked them at this stage, but because, that’s how it works with your favourite bands. Your relationship with their music becomes a kind of correspondence. You’re not seeking perfection from every release, any more than you would compare the writing in a letter from a friend who lives abroad to the quality of previous letters. But this a sentence written by a 50 year-old man — a sentence which articulates something I only realised on the day that David Bowie returned in 2013 after a long absence with Where Are We Now? And while some critics were complaining that it was all a bit downcast and underwhelming, I just felt so happy that he was back (and I thought the song was great too).
When I was in my mid-20s though, I hadn’t worked any of that out. And I don’t think Radiohead had either. The sessions for ‘OK Computer’ were drawn out and characterised by a self-doubt that would intensify with ensuing albums. One evening, I bumped into Colin Greenwood at a gig in town and, having missed his last train, he stayed over at my flat. “How’s the album going?” I asked. The writing sessions were better now, he replied, somewhat uncertainly. Reaching into his canvas shoulder bag, he pulled out a cassette. Do you want to hear some of it?” He played two songs, a smouldering ballad called I Promise that reminded me of R.E.M.’s Time After Time and a hugely atmospheric radio-friendly number called Lift. So, about a year later, when I finally received the advance cassette of OK Computer and neither song was on there (they eventually made it onto the expanded ‘OKNotOK’ version of the album) I was just a bit surprised.
Weirdly, the morning I received Radiohead’s third album, I was leaving the house to go to Los Angeles for the first time since meeting Radiohead there in 1993. Serendipity played a blinder that week. I was there to interview Beck, but my interview wasn’t scheduled to take place for until two days after my arrival. Accompanying me on the trip were a PR and her boyfriend — both managing enormous cocaine habits — and a famously highly-strung photographer. Between them, the PR and her boyfriend made up the full cocaine psychosis bingo card. Nosebleeds in reception. Top floor suites with the blinds drawn in the middle of the afternoon and room service pizza left uneaten in the corner of the room. The low-voltage strangeness of that trip was further heightened by the hotel staff. The second evening, as I was picking up my room key, the receptionist looked me up and down and told me that “things get a little exclusive” in the bar after 9pm. I understood what she meant. Ideal preconditions for loading up my Walkman and listening to an album whose standout tracks featured Paranoid Android and Karma Police. Walking along a Sunset Strip that had been gently baking in the summer sunshine all day was pretty much the perfect way to listen to Subterranean Homesick Alien. Twenty-two years later, I have a daughter who tells me she can’t imagine a more perfect piece of music, and there’s every chance she might be right.
Except… of course, there are plenty of other Radiohead songs it’s going to need to fend off if we’re going to come to a final decision about that sort of thing. For many people, ‘OK Computer’ is Radiohead’s unsurpassable achievement. I don’t have a view about that. But if you ask me what their smartest album is, there’s surely no argument. Without ‘Kid A’ and its sister album ‘Amnesiac’, I don’t think there would even be a Radiohead. It’s the album you make when you want to keep an audience without turning into your own tribute band. To do that is not without its attendant risks. And it’s now a matter of record that Radiohead came famously close to dissolving completely when they were making it. Tales of Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood sitting one room with laptops, while the others wondered if they would even be needed that day, have become legion.
However, what they emerged with effectively redrew the parameters of the rock album for the new century. The padded cell ambience of Everything In Its Right Place and Morning Bell seemed custom-built for the obsessive-compulsive times they were ushering in — as did the fin de siecle night terrors of The National Anthem and Idioteque. And throughout it all — most notably on How To Disappear Completely and Optimistic — Radiohead still found time to remind us that, when the fancy took them, their electrifying live synergy was still intact. Anyone seeking to establish the last time a mainstream rock group released such an experimental record and maintained their commercial stock would have to go all the way back to 1968 and what The Beatles did with The White Album.
It’s a comparison that bears weight in other ways too. The preconditions for being a band in your early 20s are wildly different to those as you enter the following decade. When you’re in your early 20s, family has all but receded into the distance and the idea of starting one of your own couldn’t be further from your thoughts. If you know the right people, this family-sized space can be filled by a band. But in your early 30s, when plans need to be made around wives and children and the obligations that come with that, you’ll suddenly find that cold hard expediency is now the only glue keeping your group together.
And, as with so many things, the first band to solve this dilemma was The Beatles. When the manual was still being written, it seems that they had worked all of this stuff out for themselves. Playing live was something that you had to do when you were trying to make it. Indeed, playing live was pretty much all you did when you were trying to make it. But, by 1966, The Beatles were all in steady relationships, scattered around different parts of London and the commuter belt. Were they to try and draw upon the same energies that propelled them to superstardom, they would surely find that the tank was close to empty. Revolver was the record that effectively saw them disassemble and reassemble as a studio entity. An ever-shifting and adapting collective that existed to solve the problems presented to them by their increasingly ambitious songs. The Beatles were the first band to realise that you can never go back (not even when you embark on a project called Get Back, conceived to do try and help you do just that).
This realisation is also the pivot from which 20th century Radiohead swings into its 21st century version: from a creatively unsustainable model to a sustainable one. Like all metamorphoses, the process was so painful that the group seemed only able to talk about it freely once it has happened. When I interviewed them for Mojo in 2003, they were backstage at the BBC’s Wood Lane studios. Earlier that evening, on Later… With Jools Holland, they had delivered a version of There There (from ‘Hail To The Thief’) so incendiary that, across the other side of the studio, you could see the blood draining from Billy Corgans’s face as he realised his group Zwan were going to have to top that.
Talking about the sessions for ‘Kid A’, Colin admitted that he wondered if there would even be a role for them in the band by the time the record was finished. As Thom and Jonny fiddled around with new software in one studio, poor old Colin described what it was sometimes like for the others: “We had this sense of duty that you should sort of hang around, which was probably not necessary at all. Sometimes it was a bit like two years of intense manual reading. You felt like an underpowered middle manager for, I dunno, a shoe company, who the bosses are trying to edge out. So they tell you they’re moving you to Tokyo and you have to learn Japanese in a week, or else. And you’re on the language course, and you haven’t got a hope in hell, but you have a go.”
The result of that process, however, is the reason my teenage daughters and their friends talk about Radiohead the way baby boomers talk about Pink Floyd and The Beatles. It’s the reason why they’re the only “indie” band of their generation to be name checked by successive waves of electronica expeditionaries. Because they’re not so much a band as a modular working arrangement — a workshop of musicians who seem happy to reconvene from time to time as long as their shared history and intersecting curiosities continue to produce great work. Once you’ve challenged commercial suicide to a staring contest and lived to tell the tale, you become fearless. For a band once so visibly apprehensive that their chance to succeed might be taken away from them, that’s a long way to travel.
And, of course, fearlessness begets fearlessness. ‘In Rainbows’ erased the space between the two default modes of Radiohead. Prior to its release, they had variously sounded like a great live band or hermetic musos prodding around on powerbooks in the hope the the next noise might yield a new direction. In Rainbows offered a seamless blend of both. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi refracted the The Aphex Twin’s occasional journeys into Cornish digi-folk through a gauzy analogue fever dream; 15 Step was a hobnail-booted military drill which owed just as much to forgotten avant gardists Disco Inferno as Thom’s beloved Four Tet. Even after its game-changing name-your-price download release, it entered the US and UK charts and number one. For a long time, it had felt like big and clever were mutually exclusive. But not any more.
And because of that, I sometimes wonder of their closest commercial rivals feel a pang of envy when they see the space that Radiohead have marked out for themselves. They do similar numbers to U2 and Coldplay, yet they effectively remain a cult concern, announcing new releases with perilously little notice at times. And if they fall short of expectations? Somehow built into the brand they’ve created for themselves is an insurance against the effects of that. ‘The King Of Limbs’ is, for me, their least loveable album. On Side One of the album. Little By Little is the only song you’d take home to meet Lucky, Pyramid Song, There There and all the other guys, thanks to a hushed, claustrophobic performance from Thom, squeezed still by an ornate tendril-grip of bass and guitar. Side two, thankfully, is better. I can never get tired of Thom’s stoned soul falsetto on Lotus Flower, evoking Lewis Taylor and D’Angelo over a swampy, somnambulant funk; or Give Up The Ghost, on which two alternating three note motifs act as the de facto beat to which one of two exquisitely resigned acoustic guitar and viola melodies are played out.
But, perhaps the decisive reason Radiohead are still able to repeatedly throw off the weight of their past achievements and keep you interested is because, at any given time, they’ve always held something back. Each of their albums sounds like a bridge to the next one rather than the culmination of the previous ones. For a route into 2016’s ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’, listen to the dawn opium haze of 2011’s Codex, pluming slowly out of fragile major chords into a rapture of muted trombones and ominous strings. That’s your slip road, right there.
I don’t think that Radiohead have mined as deeply for pure beauty as they have on ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ and re-emerged with such a dazzling cache of treasure. It’s the one I’m happiest to listen to from beginning to end without any interruptions. Some of that might be attributable to Jonny Greenwood’s snowballing reputation as film composer flexing some muscle in the group. Certainly, it bears astonishing fruit on The Numbers, a soft-focus, slo-mo collision of diaphanous ensemble playing suddenly brought into sharp relief by a string and piano arrangement which recalls those on Movements — the magnificent 1970 instrumental album by Scottish composer Johnny Harris. The record’s cinematic resonances are all over the place, in fact, a bit of Bernard Herrman here, a garnish of Michael Nyman there. Burn The Witch eschews anything you would recognise as guitar or keyboard, instead favouring a string section whose brittle mechanical motions call to mind a Hammer House of Horror version of ‘Titanic’ in which the band’s playing is somehow what’s making the boat sink.
Back in 2003, Thom Yorke told me that he never wants to expose himself lyrically the way he did on ‘The Bends’ and ‘OK Computer’ — and that was another reason why he started to use his voice in a more oblique way from ‘Kid A’ onwards. For some early fans, that was a decision that diminished the impact of what Radiohead would go on to do. To those fans, I would suggest that you spend time with ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ and tell me if this really does feel like a less personal record than any of the group’s early work: the 4am fever dream of Present Tense; the metronomic hyperventilations of Ful Stop; and, of course, Decks Dark and Glass Eyes, lunar lullabies of quite unearthly splendour. I can’t imagine how these songs could possibly sound any more intimate.
The great thing that no-one tells you about reaching 50 — as all of Radiohead apart of Jonny have now done — is that you don’t have to submit your wisdom for inspection or the verification of an audience who can ratify your sincere intentions. You have lived. You tried the best you can and found that, by and large, the best you can is good enough. The weather of life has changed your voice (both individually and collectively) into something that commands attention. I guess what we’re talking about here is character. And, in this case, the weather that has given Radiohead their character is self-improvement, curiosity and an openness to new stimuli. And, in doing so, they’ve helped shape decisions that that extend far beyond the ‘R’ section in my record shelves.
Afterword: When the band announced the opening of the Radiohead Public Library a few weeks ago, I thought it might be time…but as lifelong fans, nobody on the regular TSS team felt up to it. Knowing what a fan he was and that he had had some previous with the band, I decided to invite Pete to do it and to my delight he said yes. Enjoy the results and leave today’s gratitude practice to one side today, listen to this playlist instead!
Pete’s book, Broken Greek is published on Quercus soon and you can pre-oder it on Waterstones.
For more playlists, artwork and sleeve notes go to https://www.songsommelier.com/