LOOKING TO BUILD ON THE STATESIDE SUCCESS OF THEIR 1993 HIT "CREEP," RADIOHEAD DID THE ONLY THING THEY COULD: MAKE A GREAT--AND INACCESSIBLE--NEW LP
At this moment, Thom Yorke looks like the happiest man in rock & roll.
Radiohead's majordomo is minutes away from his band's debut on the Late Show With David Letterman. Perched on the edge of a couch in Letterman's green room, the diminutive, 29-year-old Yorke is vigorously playing air drums to the Warren Zevon chestnut "Werewolves of London," which Letterman's house band (led tonight by Zevon) is vamping on. Grinning impishly--he looks like he's just itching to shout "AAAOOOOWWW-WWOOOOOO!"-- Yorke pounds his invisible kit with the gleeful intensity of a beat-happy kid. Can this be the same guy who's currently in contention for the title of Rock's Premier Tormented Pre-millennial Genius?
The other members of Radiohead--guitarists Jonny Greenwood, 28, and Ed O'Brien, 29; bassist Colin Greenwood, 28; and drummer Phil Selway, 30--are noticeably less animated. Selway and Colin Greenwood jointly peruse a British music magazine with Radiohead on the cover, while the guitarists amble about the room distractedly. In a few moments, Radiohead will perform a riveting version of their new single, "Karma Police," an eerie, almost baroque ballad. The lyrics, delivered by Yorke in his trademark helium whine, seem to serve notice that Radiohead are not just another band of Brit-pop blokes to casually tune in or out: "This is what you get when you mess with us...."
Those who know Radiohead only from "Creep," their 1993 hymn to low self-esteem, or from the U2-ish big-guitar rock of their second album, 1995's The Bends, are going to need to readjust their preconceptions. The band's latest album, OK Computer, features some of the most challenging, least commercial music Radiohead have ever made. The first single, "Paranoid Android," for instance, was a six-and-a-half-minute mini-suite that strikes an uneasy balance between bedlam and calm, and lacks an easily identifiable hook. Yet OK Computer has drawn the sort of accolades most bands have to hire flacks to write.
And it's not only rock critics who've fallen under the spell of Radiohead's sometimes beautiful, sometimes discordant tone poems. Michael Stipe, who's been a fan since Radiohead toured with R.E.M. in 1995, has called the band "so good it scares me"; Alanis Morissette requested that they open for her on her 1996 tour; and the East and West Coast dates of their recently concluded American tour were veritable celebrity magnets, attracting, among others, Courtney Love, Sheryl Crow, Bono, Madonna, Liv Tyler, Sandra Bullock, Steven Dorff, Claire Danes, and Calvin Klein.
Like R.E.M. in 1987, or Smashing Pumpkins in 1992, the Oxford, England-based Radiohead, which formed in the mid-'80s as On a Friday, seem to be on the brink of cracking the mainstream. Naysayers may carp that the band is going about it all wrong; after all, didn't R.E.M. and the Pumpkins get more accessible over time? Still, judging from the 4,000 or so worshipful fans who recently packed Manhattan's Hammerstein Ballroom on the last date of Radiohead's American tour, relishing every stray bit of feedback or vocal nuance, a Radiohead show is a near-religious experience. On such devotion are empires built.
The day after that Manhattan concert and a day before the Letterman taping, Yorke is seated in his hotel room, woozily responding to an interviewer's questions. His left eyelid droops at perpetual half-mast due to a botched childhood operation, giving his features a slightly menacing cast. He slumps in an armchair, exuding palpable world-weariness. Or maybe he's just hungover. "The only time I feel like a pop star is when I'm leaning over the [toilet] bowl at six in the morning," he confesses, alluding to the prior evening's post-gig celebration. Art rock's current buzz boy wasn't out partying with actors and models, however. In fact, Yorke's lack of interest in hanging with such types cannot be overstated: "It's fuckin' weird how people try to link you up with these celebrities. I'd rather go out and talk to some kid who paid money to get into the show."
With venomous sarcasm, he adds, "I had a great conversation with Calvin Klein last night...about underwear."
"I understand Mr. Y. Fronts and Mr. Jock Strap were at the show," pipes in Jonny Greenwood.
Of his relationship with Stipe--the two are said to be closer than the R.E.M. frontman's haircut--Yorke will say only, "He's been really helpful when I've needed help." Clearly, Radiohead's head man is far more interested in discussing music than in talking about his famous fans. So, okay, mere human, what's the deal with your band's sharp left turn into avant-gardesville?
"We write pop songs," says Yorke matter-of-factly. "As time has gone on, we've gotten more into pushing our material as far as it can go. But there was no intention of it being 'art.' It's a reflection of all the disparate things we were listening to when we recorded it."
"Jonny and I were listening to a lot of Faust and Can," he says, referring to a pair of obscure European prog-rock outfits. "And Miles Davis' Bitches Brew."
Right. Pop music.
On the subject of OK Computer's vaunted antitechnology theme--the album has been hailed as a conceptual masterwork about the dehumanization of an overly mechanized society--Yorke laughs. "It has no theme," he says. "Lyrically, it's a mess. I wasn't, shall we say, confident about what I was writing at the time. If it's about anything, it's just dealing with noise and fear, and trying to find something beautiful in it."
Though Radiohead's intricate guitar rave-ups and judicious sampling have caused speculation that the band represents the future of both rock and electronic music, Yorke scoffs at such talk, preferring to position his band's music as apart from both. "We're not interested in saving rock," he says. "It should have been dead years ago." As for techno: "A bunch of dodgy bullshit, mostly."
Radiohead, he maintains, will chart their own course, trends be damned. "We made the only album we could," he says. "It was terrifying because we knew it wasn't what people expected. But now, the fact that people are getting it is an intense source of pleasure to me."
And to those who get it as well. With pop music at a crossroads, Radiohead present a thinking person's alternative to the cavemen-with-computers bluster of Prodigy on the one hand, and the never-say-die rockism of countless indie/alt bands on the other. Perhaps the only thing that can stop Radiohead's ascent is Radiohead themselves. Yorke professes to have no interest in seeing his band become the next U2: "I don't see much point in aspiring to be a stadium band."
Nonetheless, if the momentum continues to build, Radiohead could wind up as 1998's Smashing Pumpkins, a guitar band that breaks big despite--or because of--its penchant for shoehorning an art-rock sensibility into a pop package. Yorke says he doesn't want to be a superstar. But wouldn't he like to see Radiohead's music topping the charts, if only for the sheer subversive thrill of it?
"Subversive," Yorke says, savoring the word. He breaks into a grin. "Yes. We'd like that very much, actually."