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Members include Colin Greenwood, bass;Jonny Greenwood, guitar, keyboards; Ed O'Brien, guitar, vocals;Phil Selway, (born c. 1967), drums; Thom E. Yorke, (born 1968, in Wellingborough, England; son of an industrial salesperson; attended Exeter University, late 1980s), vocals, guitar. Addresses: Record company-Capitol Records, 304 Park Ave. South., 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10010.
Arty English rockers Radiohead have found themselves starring in one the most unusual success stories in alternative music. Dismissed as one-hit wonders for their unexpected 1993 hit "Creep," in subsequent years the band slowly accrued critical adoration and a devoted cult following; by late 1997, their third album, OK Computer, appeared on year-end lists of one of the most outstanding releases of the year in publications as diverse as People and the Village Voice.
"This is one of the few bands in recent years to surf a brief wave of post-Nirvana success in the early `90s, watch it die and then paddle out again in search of the big one," wrote Rolling Stone's Matt Hendrickson of Radiohead. Much of the group and its musical persona is centered upon lead singer Thom Yorke. Born in 1968 and once described as across between onetime Sex Pistol Johnny Lydon and comic actor Martin Short, the gaunt, orange-haired Yorke grew up in both Scotland and Oxford, England. He also spent time at a boys' boarding school, institutions that are somewhat notorious in the British Isles for their sadistic atmosphere; Yorke was thin, suffered from a lazy eye, and was often pummeled. His father, an industrial salesman, had once been a champion boxer, and had tried to teach Yorke the sport, but usually succeeded only in flattening him. These traumas of his youth led Yorke to form his first band around the age of ten, in which he played guitar while a friend destroyed television sets. But later, at the detestable boarding school, he taught himself to sing in the rehearsal rooms there.
It was also at school that he met fellow boarder Colin Greenwood. The duo formed a punk band called TNT before graduation. Back in Oxford, Yorke and Greenwood put together another band called On a Friday in 1987 with friends Ed O'Brien and Phil Selway. At their first gig, Colin's younger brother Jonny sat near the stage with his harmonica until he was finally invited on stage. The band dissolved after a short while after most members departed to different universities in England. Yorke studied English literature at Exeter University, where he became politically active in the anti-fascist movement, which once again made him an easy target for battery. In 1991, he found himself back in Oxford and reassembled his friends once more; this time they called themselves Radiohead, borrowing the name from a Talking Heads song.
Radiohead quickly became a fixture on the Oxford club scene. Most bands in the British Isles, after some hometown success, head to London to play what is called "showcase" gigs in the city=s thriving club scene; the venues in London are frequented by Artist and Repretoire (A&R) people from labels looking for new acts to sign. Radiohead refused advice to play London and stubbornly stayed put; buzz about them and their sound grew so loud that at one Oxford gig, thirty record-industry people from London were in attendance. Later in 1991, they signed to Parlophone, part of the EMI family, who put them on tour. They played a hundred shows around Britain in 1992. They also headed into the studio to record their debut album, Pablo Honey. The album was released in the United States in 1993 and went gold only because of the success of "Creep," a wry homage to Yorke's personal demons. "I wish I was special," he laments in its chorus. "I don't belong here." He later tired of interviews that wanted to discuss the song and his self-esteem. "Self-loathing is something we can all relate to," guitarist Ed O'Brien explained to Billboard's David Sprague about the impetus for the song. "Every day, we see people who are better-looking or richer or more worthy than we feel."
The Bends a Critical Success
The other tracks from Pablo Honey, when released as subsequent singles, failed to make a similar impact on the American modern-rock charts and, by the time of their 1995 release, The Bends, few were expecting a repeat of "Creep." Though it sold nowhere near as many copies as their debut, The Bends established them as a solid, lyrical force. "Alternately quivering with heart-rending insecurity and self-deprecating anguish," wrote Rolling Stone's Jon Wiederhorn, the record "is an emotional seesaw that never remains balanced." Singles such as the title track and "Fake Plastic Trees" hit a good nerve with music-industry insiders, and the alternative press penned homages to Radiohead and their record that were almost unanimous in approval. Wiederhorn called The Bends "dynamic and passionate," granting that it was a bit less accessible than their debut, but termed it an "amalgam of experimental noise and meditative beauty."
That same year, Radiohead was paired as an opening act for R.E.M., a contact that made a profound influence on the way they would handle their creative/business career from then on. They also opened for Alanis Morissette during 1996, which presumably made less of an impact but gave them great exposure. The band returned to England to record a third album, much of which was done in a gothic manse near Bath that actress Jane Seymour often rents out to bands for extended stays. "Everyone said, `You'll sell 6 or 7 million if you bring out The Bends, Part 2," O'Brien recounted to Rolling Stone's Hendrickson. "And we're like, `Yeah, right.' But we're not going to do that. The one thing you don't want to say to us is what we should do, because we'll kick against that and do exactly the opposite."
When OK Computer was finished, their record company did an unusual and expensive publicity stunt to promote it: an advance cassette was glued into a Walkman and sent out to critics. It was an almost unnecessary act, though: the music press frothed over it. Entertainment Weekly named it "Album of the Year" for 1997, as did numerous other year-end polls and lists, and its music critic David Browne called it a "subtly resplendent opus.... No other piece of music this year so eloquently captured fin de siecle wariness." Eric Weisbard of the Village Voice compared Radiohead to Pink Floyd, as had some other critics, and wrote that "the sounds on OK Computer ... range from twinkly-tone steely guitar lullabies to jarring crash landings, often within the same number," and lauded it for the "gorgeous mood of elegy that takes over toward the close."
Hendrickson, writing in Rolling Stone, found OK Computer "a glorious piece of moody, spaced-out art-rock madness," and his magazine named Radiohead them Band of the Year, as did its competitor Spin magazine. The latter's Pat Blashill described OK Computer as "full of spindly guitars and freaked-out noise, poppy songs with Beatles in-jokes and other numbers that ramble on for minutes before they actually become songs, and it's especially full of mystery. Nothing is explained, everything is suggested." The band said influences for some of the bizarre tunes--"Subterranean Homesick Alien" and "Karma Police" among their titles--ranged from Miles Davis to seventies-era German experimentalist rockers Faust to overblown Genesis albums they despised.
The Lovable Creep
Yorke seemed more comfortable handling the press and dumb interview questions after a few years' experience. Indeed, some have noted that the real impetus behind Radiohead and its unusual, though accessible, music, has its origins in the frontman's--antankerous persona. "A self-described perfectionist and control freak, Yorke is also a moody codger," wrote Hendrickson. "It is this unpredictability that drives his band mates, who feed off the singer's mania and channel it into an explosive, complex and melodic mix of guitar rock and electronics." The rest of the band have also won critical recognition for their musicianship and daring. "Thom writes these songs that sound like a slightly more sinister Elvis Costello," Colin Greenwood told Wiederhorn in Rolling Stone, "then I come in and add extra structures and chords to make it more interesting. I have such a low boredom threshold that I need something more than good songs to keep my attention."
In 1998, Radiohead released the mini-EP Airbag/How Am I Driving?, the first of which was a single from OK Computer. Vehicles and automobile accidents remain somewhat of a songwriting fixation for Yorke. When asked about this and some other previous songs about car crashes, Yorke explained to Spin's Blashill, "I just think that people get up too early to leave houses where they don't want to live to drive to jobs where they don't want to be in one of the most dangerous forms of transport on earth. I've just never gotten used to that." The rest of the band seems to agree. "The record company always wants to send us limos," Colin Greenwood told Rolling Stone's Hendrickson. "I hate them. I's much better to have a van. There's no cachet anymore with limos. What's the point?"
by CCarol Brennan
Band formed in Oxford, England, as "On a Friday," 1987; disbanded for a time; reformed and renamed themselves Radiohead, 1991; signed with Parlophone/EMI (United Kingdom), 1991; released first single, "Creep,"1993; debut album, Pablo Honey, Capitol, 1993.
OK Computer, named in several entertainment industry listings as "Album of the Year," 1997; received Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Performance; 1997, voted Band of the Year in the 1998 Rolling Stone Critics= Poll.
- Selected discography
- Pablo Honey , Capitol, 1993.
- The Bends , Capitol, 1995.
- OK Computer , Capitol, 1997.
- Airbag/How Am I Driving? , Capitol, 1998.
August 28, 2003: Radiohead won an MTV Video Music Award for best art direction in a video for "There There." Source: CNN.com, www.cnn.com, August 29, 2003.
April 13, 2004: Radiohead's album, Com Lag, was released. Source: Billboard, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_3/index.jsp, April 16, 2004.
May 2004: Band member Jonny Greenwood was named the British Broadcasting Corporation's (BBC) composer in residence and was commissioned to write a new work for one of the BBC radio stations. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, May 19, 2004.
June 2005: Spin cited Radiohead's album, OK Computer as the top album of the past 20 years. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, June 21, 2005.
- Billboard, May 15, 1993, pp. 17, 20.
- Entertainment Weekly, December 26, 1997.
- Rolling Stone, September 7, 1995, pp. 19, 21; October 16, 1997, pp. 64-69; January 22, 1998; May 28, 1998, p. 58.
- Spin, January 1998, p. 64.
- Village Voice, August 26, 1997, p. 63.
- Additional information for this profile was provided by Capitol Records publicity materials, 1998.
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