Radiohead played their first gig in 1991, reportedly to “five friends”.
The following September, my schoolfriends and I had blagged our way into the BBC Radio Sussex studio, and entered a competition by holding up the written answer to the DJ booth glass. We left, minutes later, clutching our prize tickets to see The Frank and Walters, whose support act – Radiohead – we’d never heard of. We ignored the buggers, of course.
Then about halfway through, Thom yelled, “F*** YOU!” – I’ll still never know if it was part of the song. It got our attention, and gradually the room fell quiet and we watched the rest of the gig in rapt silence. The applause at the end was deafening. They’re the only band to appear twice in my all-time top 10 list of gigs.
We saw them again in October and again in November. I almost came to regard Jonny and Colin Greenwood as friends. They were the unofficial PR for the band – mingling before and after each gig and chatting to their rapidly-growing fanbase. They recognised the regulars and would always make time to say hello. They played over 150 concerts worldwide in 1993.
In 1994, they returned to the Brighton Centre East Wing as headliners, and I sat interviewing them for my college fanzine: Jonny and Colin responding fully and patiently to my inane questions and Thom glaring sullenly from the opposite end of the table. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he actually hated me.
That summer, they played the Reading Festival, and Colin still paused to say hello to me before they took the stage to play to 50,000 people. Like, presumably, everyone he had made those courteous efforts for, I felt invested in the band and cheered them on with my whole heart. I couldn’t believe how rapidly they’d risen, but felt that they thoroughly deserved it.
Like every “overnight success”, it wasn’t the real story.
The members of Radiohead met at the exclusive boy’s school they attended in Oxfordshire. They began meeting in the school’s music room in 1985 and called themselves On A Friday because that’s when they rehearsed. Though the older members went off to university, they continued to practice and gig regularly in the local area and were eventually signed to a six-album deal with EMI in 1991. The label insisted the band change their name.
Radiohead recorded Pablo Honey in 1992, but the single Creep tanked in the UK – poorly reviewed in the NME and blacklisted on BBC Radio 1 because it was “too depressing”. Rumour has it that the song’s trademark distorted effect was initially Jonny’s attempt to sabotage a song he hated. Either way, the song’s soft-loud dynamic had them pegged as “Nirvana-Lite” and the band could have ended there and then.
An influential radio DJ in Israel, Yoav Kutner, started playing Creep in 1993, and the band were invited to play in Tel Aviv. Then KITS radio in San Francisco picked up the song, and it spread to other west coast stations. By June, Radiohead were touring the US and MTV were playing Creep in heavy rotation. The Frank and Walters had, unlike other bands at the time, not charged Radiohead or Suede to support them on tour. It gave the band the break they needed to establish an increasingly loyal support base – a favour the band returned by not charging their own support acts. EMI re-released its previous failure, and Creep reached number seven in the UK charts.
The sudden pressure almost broke the band up, and they became increasingly annoyed with having to spend two years promoting old songs with no time to write new ones. This frustration honed the band’s sound from well-written but fairly standard indie grunge to something harder-edged and more interesting.
The band hired John Leckie to produce The Bends, which featured five hit singles and was a critically-acclaimed financial success. The Bends wasn’t just a much better album than Pablo Honey, it was probably the best indie-rock record ever made. The pent-up aggression in their personal lives established itself in hard-edged cynical songs built around beautifully-written pop hooks. Leckie’s production was a masterpiece: dense, intricate layers of sound that established Radiohead as leaders rather than followers – Muse were just the first band to sound like them – but few bands of their type could match the trick of making a record that sounded different every time you heard it because of all the little noises buried in the mix.
It would have been very difficult for Radiohead to have followed up The Bends with an indie-rock album, because The Bends was the pinnacle of what you could achieve with that sound. Instead, they squirrelled themselves away in a 15th century mansion for a few months in 1996 and recorded whatever, wherever and whenever they felt like it. They listened to The Beatles, DJ Shadow, Ennio Morricone and Miles Davis for inspiration, to achieve something genuinely unique.
One evening in the summer of 1997, on the weekend of OK Computer‘s release, I sat with two of my music industry colleagues in Donna’s living room as we tried to convince Paul that this record was truly amazing.
“They’re just another s***y indie band,” he said.
“Hyped-up rubbish for NME-reading teenagers who think they’re being cool, but it’s just vacuous sub-Nirvana drivel for people who’ve never heard any better,” he continued.
Donna sighed and walked over to the turntable. She pressed play.
I won’t repeat the combination of expletives and blasphemy that the astonished Paul muttered within four bars of the first song, but the following morning, Paul went out and bought OK Computer.
Thom Yorke told Select he was “amazed it got the reaction it did. None of us f***ing knew any more whether it was good or bad. What really blew my head off was the fact that people got all the things, all the textures and the sounds and the atmospheres we were trying to create.”
Then again, having made two virtually perfect (but entirely different) records in a row, there’s no way Radiohead could return to either. Thom developed severe depression and writer’s block, which resulted in a succession of meandering “experimental” albums that didn’t have much in the way of actual music.
I paid £17 for Kid A on its day of release. This was the only song that was any good.
I didn’t bother with either Amnesiac or Hail to the Thief. The former produced Pyramid Song (piano, f***ing boring) and the latter, There There (guitary, less f***ing boring). Neither induced me to part with my paycheque.
By the time In Rainbows came out in 2007, it had been a full decade since Radiohead had done anything good.
The band had to get back all the fans who had drifted away, so they released the record on a pay-what-you-will download basis, shifting 1.2 million copies on the day of release. I paid just over £1 – a contribution for bandwidth costs – but was sufficiently impressed to spend £10 on the CD when it came out a few months later. It reached number one in the UK and US charts.
In Rainbows was a return to proper songwriting. Yes, it had the difficult rhythms, jittery noises and wilful meanderings – but, crucially, you could hum it. Stylistically, it was closest to OK Computer as there were “proper rock songs” as well as lush, sample-laden, string-backed soundscapes. In fact, it was a companion-piece to OK Computer – not just its successor, but its twin.
The thing I find truly astounding about Radiohead is not that they are brilliant, but that they are famous. After all, Foetus are also influenced by Morricone and Penderecki and have never had a number one album. Maybe it’s just that Radiohead channel those inspirations via REM and The Beach Boys – in much the same way that Nine Inch Nails eclipsed Skinny Puppy by filtering industrial through Prince and Queen pop hooks.
The new album, The King of Limbs, makes few concessions to its audience – it’s almost overwhelmingly dense and complex – but it is a genuine pleasure to listen to. The opposite of boring. Yes, the attention given to the new album would be mystifying and a little alarming to those yet to be convinced by the band’s songwriting talents – but to those of us who’ve followed them for nearly 20 years, that such an uncompromising band is so successful in this day and age is cause for celebration in itself.