On The Road With Radiohead

Waking up from a bad dream is probably nothing new for Thom Yorke but, hours later, this morning’s dream is still lingering, still bothering him. Radiohead’s notoriously maudlin front-man looks positively aggrieved, wounded, by it.

He describes it to me with all the twitchy trepidation of someone obviously reluctant to seem as if he’s taking a dream too seriously, but who can’t help talking about it, if only to try and purge it.

“In the dream, everybody I’d ever met in my whole life came to a party at my house and I had to be nice to everyone,” he says. “Some people I’d been really horrible turned up and I had to be nice to them too. Every person I know was there, watching.”

You must have had a very big house, I point out, by way of consolation.
“Yeah I did,” he admits. “I’m rich. In the dream, I mean – I’m rich.”

As dreams go, it’s not exactly difficult to interpret. Fear of fame and being submerged by it; suffocated; fear of the falseness that invariably follows it; the fear of changing, becoming alienated, because of it. It’s all fairly self-evident.

He knows where the dream came from – from a party the previous night following Radiohead’s triumphant showcase gig in New York. Thom stood at the back in the corner clutching a carrier bag, looking like some sort of scruffy urchin bunking off school, a gamin gate-crasher at his own party, drinking faster and faster out of nervousness as the groupies and star-gazers moved in.

Yorke shudders.
“The thing about what happened in the dream was… I liked it. Even though it was awful, I liked it. Cos everyone was being nice to me.”

This last revelation – anxiously blurted out almost despite himself – hangs in the air between us, leaves us both feeling rather despondent. Clearly, it condemns him. We sit there for a minute in silence, pondering his hypocrisy, his shallow stardom, struggling to come up with a more positive interpretation of what the dream says about him; some mitigation.

His blatant insecurity is not the problem (it’s actually quite endearing), although dreaming that your life is turning into Blur’s Country House is enough to get anyone down.

What’s more unsettling is the possibility that this was not a dream at all. What if, we are both thinking, it’s the future ?

Certainly, it’s not difficult to foresee Yorke’s dream/private nightmare turning into reality.
Their last album, ‘The Bends’ was such a quantum leap (creatively and commercially), these days it’s almost not possible to see the name Radiohead without the description “the next REM”, “Britain’s answer to Nirvana” or “the U2 it’s OK to like” written alongside it.

Sometimes it seems the only choice ahead of him is whether to embrace the band’s new-found stadium status with his integrity intact (like Michael Stipe) or with the shameless complacency of a band like Simple Minds, and turn into Jim Kerr.

Maybe it’s just something he thought would never be open to him.

Thom Yorke doesn’t really have the ego for the job of superstar. As he says two or three times when I’m with him: “I just think I have an unfortunate face.”

Born with one eye closed and paralysed, Yorke grew up used to being the victim. The alien. He had 5 major operations before the age of 6, and spent a year with a eye-patch, being laughed at by the other kids who called him Salamander. Each time his family moved was a new ordeal and the same trauma.

It’s as if all this time he’s been getting up on stage, he was simply shoving his defects, his disability, in the audience’s face, challenging people to reject him on an even bigger scale. Except now they’re worshipping him. No wonder he finds it confusing.

As he said to Rolling Stone magazine, “I’m completely obsessed with losing touch with who I am.”

Curled up on his bed in the band’s American tour bus, an hour before they’re due to go on stage in Boston, he is still reeling.
“The work just sort of exploded and everything opened up,” he stammers, managing to make it sound like something wholly detrimental.

“Things are moving so fast. You know that point where your whole life flashes before your eye (he does not say ‘eyes’)… I seem to get that alot.”

In retrospect, missing out on the Brit Pop bandwagon turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to Radiohead. Passed over by the press, as the likes of Elastica, The Bluetones and Pulp cashed in their chips to claim their 15 minutes, Radiohead became the ugly ducklings of Brit Pop, The Band That Missed The Boat.

Gradually though, helped by a series of stunning videos for singles
like ‘High & Dry’ and ‘Street Spirit’, the months went by and the impact of the album grew in momentum and ‘The Bends’ is now widely regarded as the most accomplished and enduring of the lot.

Their first release since ‘The Bends’ (‘Lucky’) was so obviously the stand-out track on the Bosnia ‘Help’ compilation, Melody Maker wrote, “Radiohead are no longer capable of anything other than brilliance.”

America obviously agrees, responding to Yorke’s almost adolescent sense of social anxiety and unease, his dark sentimentality, embracing them as a kind of Oasis With Emotion or Oasis With Intellect.

Sleepy-eyed and pale, quizzical as a cartoon with his tatty Woody Woodpecker haircut and his thin bones lost inside crumpled clothes, he just doesn’t look cut out for it.

“We just wanna go home really,” he scowls. “Go home and lock the door.”

Where most bands would be coasting, cruising, Yorke sees only ice-bergs.
“The temptation is to just keep going, push it higher and higher, like Oasis have. But that would be at the expense of whatever would happen when we stopped. All you’re really doing is postponing the comedown, prolonging it.”

At least success has given them something new to worry about.

For years, the fuel to Radiohead’s fire – their whole raison d’etre – has been their sense of inadequacy and anxiety, their sense of not amounting to anything. Throughout their career, they have virtually fetishised the threat of failure, cultivated their sense of imminent collapse into a permanent state.

Formed in Oxford, around 1991’s Summer of Love, and bonded by a love of bands like Magazine and Joy Division, Radiohead were instantly unfashionable, immediately out of step. Out of time.

Yorke squirms.
“It was a period of acute embarrassment. I was pretty into it at college but there wasn’t enough emotion to it. I kept trying to go to raves.”

Their first EP in May 92, ‘Drill’ (first chorus: “I’m better off dead”) was refreshingly dark and insistent, invigorating enough to immediately win them a fiercely loyal following.

But disaster struck when their second, ‘Creep’, with the chorus “I wish I was special/So fucking special/But I’m a creep” became a one-song phenomenon, an American anthem of alienation and self-loathing, propelling their first album, ‘Pablo Honey’ into the American Top 40. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, Thom became “the ‘Creep’ guy.”

Far from providing some sort of palliative for their neuroses, Radiohead turned success into something that only made matters worse.

Encouraged by their American record company to capitalise, they toured the States for months, realising too late they were still playing material that was over two years old; just another band that turns into the thing they hate.
“We sucked Satan’s cock,” Yorke spits, with typical scorn. “It took a year and a half to get back to the people we were… to cope with it, emotionally.”

By now, says guitarist Jonny Greenwood they were “operating in a kind of stasis. Thom was trying to shut off from everything. The rest of us just weren’t communicating.”

Sick of touring, almost ingeniously, they managed to turn the natural remedy into something worse. By the time they went into the studio, they had become phobic about recording anything. Their confidence was shot.

“We were playing like paranoid little mice in cages,” says Greenwood. “We were scared of our instruments, scared of every note not being right.”

Perhaps the secret of their success is that they learnt to turn their neurosis into a virtue. Contrary to popular wisdom, it’s often a band’s second album which proves to be their most natural, and direct expression; where they shake off their influences (in Thom’s case, early Costello) and get the confidence to be themselves.

After scrapping their early recordings (“Guns ‘N’ Roses pomp rock”), they returned to record ‘The Bends’ in majestic form, although the title perfectly summed up the band’s state of flux and Yorke’s personal alienation bordering on repulsion, brought on from the rigours and unreality of touring:
“Baby’s got the bends/we don’t have any real friends…
I want to live and breathe/I wanna to be part of the human race.”

The sense of malaise and self-disgust becomes more and more palpable the more you listen to ‘The Bends’, literally physical.

Jonny Greenwood has said it shocked him “how much it’s about illness, doctors…it’s a real medical album.”

‘The massive success of the album and their tour supporting REM has given them more confidence – “the confidence not to tear each other apart,” Yorke scoffs, “and tear everything that we do apart – even before we’ve done it – which is what always used to happen.”

Their insecurity has become so ingrained, they remind you of that joke: “Just because I’m paranoid, it doesn’t mean I’m not being persecuted.”

Like anyone who considers themselves afflicted, they get the rejection in first. They have happily adopted the status of pariahs.

The way they see it, they have never belonged, never been made welcome – by the press or the industry. Radioplay has always been denied them (too gloomy). Radio One even refused to put ‘Lucky’ on its playlist, even though it was for Bosnia.

Deep down, even the adoring music press has always treated them with suspicion. They have far too many ideas, layering their records with strangeness and innovation, obviously aiming for something bordering on beauty, with suspiciously mature, muso, sensibilities. They can play their instruments: always a worry.

Too MOR and too middle-class, five students who first met at Abingdon boarding school, Radiohead have never been fashionable. (They are one of those bands that spend their spare time on their tour bus playing bridge. When I’m introduced to bass-player Colin Greenwood, he’s lending someone a book – the socio-economic history, ‘The Collapse of Power’.)

Yorke’s lyrics are seen as alarmingly angst-ridden and precious, practically poetic. This, at a time when the music papers’ current messiah is Noel Gallagher whose most complicated idea is to whack out a version of ‘Cum On Feel The Noize’ and live the lifestyle ‘What’s The Story ? Line of Charlie’. “Radiohead Do Not Party” is regarded as an immutable by-law among music journalists. When support act David Gray trashed their dressing-room, the story goes, Radiohead simply tidied it up again.

‘Lucky’ encapsulated the sceptics’ worst fears. A hauntingly uneasy ballad about Yorke’s preoccupation with mortality, with a theme reminiscent of Peter Weir’s movie, ‘Fearless’, ‘Lucky’ has a Pink Floyd-sized guitar solo, offering Americans unbridled air guitar solo and lighter-waving opportunities.

The common conception was that Radiohead, like Bush or The Cranberries before them, were heading for the American mainstream, a sort of alternative version of Tears For Fears, set to follow in the footsteps of bands like James and Simple Minds and sell out as soon as possible.

Watching them soundcheck in New York, I can’t say you’d notice.

True, the unnaturally affable Colin Greenwood (bass) and drummer Phil Selway fulfill the Wyman and Watts role with foot-tapping aplomb.

For the others, though Radiohead can make for unorthodox, even uncomfortable viewing.

Stage left, the tall, bug-eyed figure of guitarist Ed O’Brien charges round the stage performing a series of the most overly-energetic leaps and glory poses since The Clash or The Who in their heyday.

Stage right (wearing what can only be described as a pair of mid-70s style ‘cans’), Radiohead’s second guitarist, the impossibly beautiful, charmingly bashful, Jonny Greenwood (Colin’s brother) appears to spend most of his time plucking agitatedly at the wrong end of his guitar. He crouches on the floor, coaxing the sort of noises more closely associated with Van Der Graaf Generator – the sort of thing that has elder critics reaching for the word “extemporisation”.

Jonny’s role in Radiohead is to take Yorke’s tunes – which he describes as “slightly sinister Elvis Costello” – and sabotage them – “change them as much as possible without doing a Country & Western version.”

In the middle Yorke strums away furiously on his guitar, like an unnaturally absorbed, slightly deranged, busker, blessed with the voice of an angel (an anxious angel).

“They love me like I was a brother/They protect me/Listen to me/They dug me my very own garden/Gave me sunshine/Made me happy” he sings, before tearing into the chaotic chorus,
“Nice dream/Nice dreeeeam”.

The others shuffle off, leaving the tiny frame of Yorke performing a pretty-sounding acoustic number, a piece of emotional protest music that years later will turn up on Kid A as the opening to Motion Picture Soundtrack.

“White wine and sleeping pills/make me feel like I belong/Cheap sex and sad films/help me get where I belong…” he sings between anger and pleading.

With his eyes closed tight, his head hanging to one side, convulsing with spastic energy, as its caught in some sort of spiritual G-Force, he stands there singing his heart out, a bitter, twisted mannequin.

The punchline, sung in beautiful soprano, rings round the empty hall: “I will see you in the next life” and then he’s gone.

It’s like watching a nervous breakdown gone solo.

Earlier, I had been reading an interview where he summed up ‘The Bends’ as “cynical and nervous and not making sense. You get the feeling at the end of it that there’s something wrong, but you can’t work out what it is.”

Sitting watching him here, it’s obvious the something wrong with it is….him.

THOM YORKE IS 27, 5 foot 5”, clean and English and indulgent, his punched-in face scrunched up into a permanent scowl by his injured eye.

His baggy maroon chords falling over his shoes, in a red GAME BOY t-shirt, and thin grey jumper, he wanders round the empty auditorium with the sort of jaunty cockiness that reminds me of a Belfast schoolboy throwing stones at soldiers.

Yorke is, predictably, a mass of contradictions: a strange blend of snide cynicism, bitter self-pity and earnest decency. He is very PC, capable of being terribly nice to people.

There is still something studenty about him – his juvenile sense of humour; his rather naff sense of ‘outsider’-ness (forever looking at his reflection in shop windows and thinking “that doesn’t represent who I am”), his student radical idealism.

He wants to change the charts, change the government, change the NME, and sits at home grumbling, shouting at the telly. He thinks the media should be “creative and informing, empowering” but is just a distraction instead, making a spectator sport out of fame and now he’s becoming part of it.

He has notions that what he is doing is corrupting it from within, though part of him probably despises his naivety.
“The press could destroy us,” he mutters darkly. “They have a million weapons.”

He thinks things like following football or liking The Clash are “not feminine enough for him. (He really needs to get in touch with the masculine side of himself).

Mostly, he worries. He worries about swearing too much, about being too nice or too nasty; about not writing back to the fan mail he carries about in a duffle bag (“not exactly fountains of joy”) and what the next record is going to sound like; whether all his darkest secret fears are just being re-packaged into music for people to play on their car stereos as they travel into work.

He worries about whether his life is becoming too glamorous and removed or too banal, too corporate. He sits there hugging his knees and scowling into space, worrying whether he’s turning into Jim Kerr.

I can’t help but point out there was in fact a time when Jim Kerr used to spend his interviews talking about existentialism and the Speed of Life, the alienation and anxiety of travel and global communication like Thom does. And look what a travesty he turned into.

He worries about how to behave with all the screaming girls and groupies.
“I tend to run away if it’s anything beyond them saying they like the music. We were at a single sex school, so… you know… Anyway I have someone that I love,” he blushes. “So it’s… nice.”

He worries about the words to new songs, works on them dutifully, and is obviously happy that they matter. But he squirms at the idea they’re meant to be treated like poetry and that it’s just pure misery.

America in particular fails to see the irony, the way he’s prepared to send himself up. The New York Times started its review: “The world is caving in on Thom Yorke. He has no real friends. He loses faith in everything every day and he thinks he’d be better off dead.”

At the same time, he can’t help worrying about the idea that some 12 year-old girl in Seattle is sitting in her room at this minute, listening to ‘Street Spirit’, trying to decide which way to kill herself.

In New York, where the ‘culture of despair’ is something akin to a teen craze, you can see the kids before the gig – 12, 13 years old – drinking beer, smoking dope and popping Prozac, wearing their Nine Inch Nails t-shirts and clutching their Dennis Cooper novels. During the gig, just before ‘High & Dry’, someone shouts something out, and Yorke repeats it before the next song.
“This one’s dedicated to the girl who just shouted ‘help me Thom, I’m dying” – the Radiohead equivalent of a heckle.

“Some famous pop star told me to lighten up. You can probably guess who if you thought about it long enough. (My guess is Michael Stipe.) And I felt really proud of myself. I felt really fucking good because i haven’t lightened up. I have absolutely no intention of lightening up because when I lighten up i really will turn into Jim Kerr. But I think, the music on ‘The Bends’, when it works, transcends the bedroom feeling. There’s that sort of elation.”

Of course, despite everything, he’s a jolly little chap. He’s tough, with the sort of cocky cock-suredness that likes to get into fights prone to protecting his tetchy temper as a point of principle.

He is getting fed up of interviews treating him like some sort of casualty, propped up on Prozac and poetic despair. He’s started making jokes about being on heroin and attempting suicide, telling people if they want music to slash their wrists to listen to The Smiths’ back catalogue instead, even though that’s what he always did.

Still, for all his brave denials, as Jonny Greenwood says, “all Thom’s songs eventually come down to how he’s feeling.”

Talk to the others about him, and apart from an almost awestruck adherence to the belief that he is the most articulate, interesting lyricist of his generation, what you find is a sense of protection.

What they all say about the last year, is that the success of ‘The Bends’, combined with the REM tour and their largest headlining gig yet to date – 5000 people in Toronto – have done him the world of good, “given him more confidence.” Except for Jonny that is, who just giggles insensibly at the very suggestion.

Only an incident in Germany, described by the NME as ‘Thom’s tantrum’, clouded the idea that everything was going swimmingly.

“I freaked out. I couldn’t sing. Threw stuff around. The amp, the drum kit… I had blood all over my face. I cried for two hours afterwards.”

His explanation – that he was ill, and couldn’t cope with his strange medication, and cracked up when his voice started giving out – did nothing to allay the idea that he was undergoing some sort of burn-up, being pushed further into the flame of fame and self-destruction, like Bowie or Kurt Cobain were.

He jokes about his imminent demise doing wonders for his back catalogue but stops when he realises it probably would do.

RADIOHEAD’s dilemma with what they’ve achieved is what to do next. What sort of band do they want to be ? How big do they really want to get ?

As Jonny Greenwood muses:
“What people have said to us is, if we don’t progress, it’s like going backwards. Treading water. I dunno. None of it’s planned. None of it was even hoped for.”

Part of them obviously loves it of course. (Colin in particular is so affable he could probably hum his way through the apocalypse.)

Guitarist Ed O’Brien admits he found playing to 5000 people in Toronto “fantastic” and says that supporting REM showed them “there is a good way to play big stadiums – if you can make it sound and feel personal, make each member of the audience feel as if you’re playing directly to them.”

Jonny for his part thinks that 5000 people is “more than enough” and sighs that “nothing would depress me more than the idea of a Radiohead t-shirt with the dates of our world tour down the back.”

Yorke seems somewhere in the middle, torn between the two.
“It’s a very weird position to be in,” he shrugs. “To be the stadium rock band it’s OK to like. I thought it might double my paranoia level, but it’s exciting. It’s actually more liberating, knowing that more people are into what we’re doing. I’m excited by the idea that people might wanna hear it.”

He admits that before he saw U2 and REM in action, he had never understood why anyone would WANT such big fame.

“But there is still something you can offer in that situation. REM showed that you can just stop, play four completely obscure songs in a row and not give a fuck.”

Still, he can’t help sneer about “sit down audiences” and admit that by the end of this last stint in the States, he had done so much glad-handing, he felt more like a politician than a musician
– so much so he even started shaking hands with people and saying ‘Vote For Me’ (“well I thought it was funny…”).

Then there is the ‘Creep’ factor. Yorke does his best to disguise how much he hates it, introducing it through gritted teeth, with English apology, saying, “it’s a good song, so fuck it, we’re gonna play it and we’re gonna play it as best we can”.

But there is something truly disheartening about hearing thousands of American kids singing “I wanna perfect body” with none of its original irony or pathos, turning it into the opposite sort of sentiment he intended.

What Yorke probably wants of course, is the best of both worlds, something similar to the artists he most admires – people like Costello, Neil Young or Tom Waits.
“You know just come back every three or four years, then go off and record an album down the bottom of the garden.”

But he has the grace to allow himself a smirk and say:
“Simple Minds probably said that too.”

Just thinking about it gives him an attack of anxiety, a ridiculous sense of responsibility. He can’t help worrying about what would happen to all the crew, all the “friends” whose wages he pays, if they did step back and indulge their art.

“Paying people retainers suggests that the next record is going to do well automatically. The idea that what I do pays someone else’s wages at all is just so fucking weird. Disturbing. I’m not sure how long I’d be able to handle that – creatively. At the moment, the idea that we could be as big as U2 or REM, well, we just couldn’t handle it.”

WHAT Thom Yorke is doing now is trying to get a life, make a life, before it’s too late, so at least he has one to be taken away from him.
“It’s almost like frantic desperation at the moment,” he grins, desperately.

He’s bought a house in Oxford and he’s been trying his hand at normal life – “spending as much money on High Street appliances as possible. Taking them home to my girlfriend and the other girl who lives in the house and saying ‘here you go’.”

The house is still full of them, still in their boxes.
“It’s just stuff that I bought to try and claim my life back,” he says sadly. He calls it The House That ‘Creep’ Built.

Repeating the commercial and creative success of ‘The Bends’ must seem pretty daunting. The new songs are coming thick and fast, and the ones I heard (as yet unrecorded) sound simpler, more mainstream, more REM with some Roxy Music/Magazine synthesisers thrown in. Those of us worried about the Simple Minds factor will be alarmed to hear them talking about their excitement of “just hearing each other play.”

‘Electioneering’ is pretty upbeat – almost Clash-style skiffle – while ‘Airbag’ is another scrape with his mortal self (“in a deep, deep sleep/I’m amazed that I survived/An airbag saved my life”). Another new one, ‘I Promise’, is, he murmurs, “about faith, in, er, a relationship. It’s supposed to be quite positive.”

It’s possible their ultimate fate will depend not on Yorke but on Jonny, who provides the avant-garde edge off-set Yorke’s perfect pop.
“The next challenge,” he muses, “is to find the great, extremely catchy atonal riff.”

He admits he’s been exploring his growing “prog-rock” collection (luckily so far he’s found most of it “unlistenable. The lyrics are unforgivable”) and learning the viola and even the flute.

“It’s a bit pastoral isn’t it ?” he sighs. “A bit One Leg Up On A Log.”

Besides synthesisers, he’s also been getting into dub – “which I suppose means the new stuff will be a heady mixture of Augustus Pablo meets Rick Wakeman.”

The predominant atmosphere in the band, they all make a point of saying, is “very positive”. (Radiohead fans will, understandably, immediately start worrying.)

“I think we’ve got back to how we were when we started. Same kind of excitement. We’re so uptight generally, I wouldnt contemplate the idea of getting complacent. We’re not used to people liking us, so I don’t think it’ll ever happen.”

Yorke, for his part, is beaming.
“All of us have been given great belief in ourselves. It’s ike a flash of release more than inspiration. I know we can do it now. The next album will be about that release.”

Things have been going so well, anything maudlin or miserable would seem ungrateful.
“Absolutely ! I don’t think I’ve particularly lightened up or anything, but I know I’ve found a pathway I wanna go down. It’s very uplifting. The way we’re writing and the way we feel when we play together is about release now. And it is grateful and will hopefully be good because of that. I have every intention that the next record will be a very grateful record.”

It’s a nice dream.