At last! Radiohead have finally charted with 'Creep' and are subverting the nation's youth! On th eve of the band's triumphant US tour where their debut album, 'Pablo Honey', has just gone gold, Dave Jennings speaks to head 'Head Thom Yorke about fame, fortune and the rigours of touring.
Thom E Yorke sounds breathless,
amazed and exhilarated. Radiohead's singer has had plenty of surprises
in the past couple of years -- but this is the most astonishing yet.
"Getting to Number Seven - whoa! That's as silly as America!"
And this with a re-release that the band vehemently opposed for ages.
"We did a lot to interviews where people asked us, 'Are you going to re-release "Creep"?'
And we said 'Oh no! Not in a million bloody years! Over our dead bodies!'
'But then we got back from America and just thought, 'Why not?' l suppose the song won in the end.'
Now that "Creep" has crashed dramatically into the Top I0, Thom can say that without fear of contradiction. But Radiohead's devastating psychodrama of rejection and self-loathing was largely ignored by press and public alike when first released last year.
Radio One deemed the song "too depressing", declined to play it, and "Creep" fell short of the Top 75. The band went on to score minor hits with "Anyone Can Play Guitar" , "Pop Is Dead" and their debut album, "PabloHoney" but it looked as if their early masterpiece was destined to remain a too-well-kept secret.
Then, earlier this year: Radiohead toured America for the first time. As soon as they arrived, Thom saw a portent of things to come...
"My first memory of getting to America was that we drove overnight from Paris, caught the ferry, drove to Heathrow, then flew to New York. So in 20 hours we covered Paris, New York and London, and then we drove straight out to Boston. I woke up on a coach, walked into this hotel in Boston at seven o'clock in the morning, switched on MTV, and there was 'Creep'! It was like, 'Oh my God. . . "
"Creep" eventuaIly became a Top 40 hit in America, "Pablo Honey" did likewise, and the quintet from Oxford we're suddenly thrust into what must have seemed like a parallel universe. The single's success led to a particularly surreal national TV appearance on 'The MTV Beach Party", with the band performing their bitter ditty next to a swimming pool while surrounded by people who looked like extras from "Baywatch".
"It was all such a contrast to what we were used to," remembers Thom. "The gigs can be so unpredictable -- it's like going to Mars or something, but it's enjoyable.
"One of my favourite memories is of driving through New York in a white limosine. It was like 'Jim'll Fix It'! You couldn't take it seriously, but at the same time it was wicked fun. We really didn't know what to expect from day to day, and that was really exciting. The thing I like most about America is that it's silly. That's a relief sometimes."
Yorke did however, also get to see the sinister side of The Land Of The Free.
"In Dallas, there was this hotel we stayed in, and there were loads of homeless black guys who just hung around the hotel because they had nowhere to go. And there was this one cop who used to stand outside the hotel and spend his whole day trying to do them for jay walking."
Just the black guys?
"In Dallas, the only people on the streets were the black homeless guys! A lot of the big Southern cities were like that.
"In America, it doesnt' really occur to anyone that you might want to go for a walk. The attitude is like, "Why do you wanna do that? Go take a cab!"
"But if all you saw was the inside of hotels, with everyone being nice to you and everything
being beautifully clean, you'd go mad very quickly. So what we tended to do was just disappear during the day, and go exploring each city -- never really seeing much, because you're only there for one day.
"Me and Jonny [Greenwood, one of Radiohead's guitarists] were mad enough to waIk through Dallas! We were lucky -- we got lots of weird looks, but didn't get into any scrapes. But our sound engineer got mugged at knife-point in NewYork."
"Creep" may have been a Stateside success, but it wasn't necessarily understood.
"A lot of journalists said 'This is a joke song, right?'" says Thom, still sounding astonished at the memory. "Well, yeah but no...I was quite shocked by that!
"It is an outsider's song, and I suppose it touches not a nerve with a lot of people -- but it's not a nerve I'd want to tap again. I couldn't, anyway. Itwas
an accident first time.
"I suppose it is ironic now, because I have to ask myself all the time whether or not I'm still an outsider. I think I am. I've just been pushed into a different corner.'
Because you're no longer doing many ordinary things?
"That's right. l have to look for ordinary things to do now -- like finding an ordinary house to live in. I was in a basement flat before, which was actually very oppressive. I couldn't write there. lt was a bit weird, a bit dark. But I was never there anyway."
Well, at least now he's in a corner lit by limelight, and one where he's unlikely to get bored. A hell of a lot of frantic activity has been
going on in Thom's corner. We speak on the day he's moving across Oxford from that basement flat to a more spacious new home; and he's squeezing the change of address into his schedule on the day before Radiohead are due to cross the Atlantic again, to go on tour with Belly. It's just the latest excursion in a round of touring that's kept the band ludicrously busy for the past two years.
But Thom isn't weary of it all yet.'
"I'm really looking forward to playing in front of a lot of mad Americans again,' he says, cheerfully. 'I really feed off the energy when we're out there.
"And I'm actually looking forward to doing some more gigs -which is pretty peculiar, after doing about 100 already this year! But I think that after this huge lump of touring, we're going to disappear completely and not come back until we've written the album. We're going to do a Stone Roses, but not as bad. No legal wrangles!
'While we've been touring, Jonny and I have been writing a hell of a lot. We've got a lot of half-written songs, but we've never been able to just sit down and work on the new songs.
This is pretty clearly a sore point.
"Pablo Honey" was a huge commercial success -- particularly in the States, where it's outsold
Suede's eponymous debut LP by a factor of 15 to one. Nevertheless, Thom admits to being dissatisfied with Radiohead's first long-player; and so keen are the band to move on that they have, he tells me, been throwing new songs into their live sets despite the lack of rehearsal
opportunities, learning them as best they can at sound checks.
"We've been really pushing ourselves to do that, because otherwise we'd go completely
doolally. It's a good way to keep excited about what we're doing, to put in a song you hardly know. The audience might think it's a shambles, but it helps us!
"The second album is going to be much better than the first. The first one was quite flawed, and hopefully the new one will make more sense. I like the first album, but we were very naive. We didn't really know how to use the studio.
"The reaction when it come out was very ambivalent. People went, 'Yeah, there's something there' but it was difficult to find'. And "Creep" was one of the songs on the first album where we did start to realize what a studio could do - that there's a lot more to it than just going in, setting up and trying to make it sound like it's live.
"The first album was quite varied and there's still going to be a lot of styles. lt's going to be a lot calmer and a lot simpler, without being boring. The hysteria will be more subtle. We're learnin to play quietly again, and to rely on the strength of the songs.'
GREAT. But come on Thom; these concerns are for the future. Savour your success.
Let's get corny: how does it feel to be in the Top 10 with that song- probably one of the most emotional extreme hits ever?
'Well ... now we know what we can do when we try! Because it took off in other places, we realised its potential; but we were shocked that so many people picked up on it so heavily.
We thought it was a good song - but you don't sit around at
the end of a recording session saying, 'Hey, this is going to be a hit in America, guys!' 'When it first came out in Britain, we were stiII at the stage when we were thinking, 'We've only just started'. We kept saying to the record company, 'Leave us alone! We don't really know what we're doing yet!' We were just learning the ropes, which is a really naff thing to do in the public eye but we didn't really have any choice.
"Touring changed our attitude. We started getting more confident about what we were doing, and became a professional band rather than just this amateur outfit who'd been given a load of money and didn't know what to do with it.
"That attitude reached the record company. Everyone was really excited about 'Creep', and when we came back from America, it seemed really odd that the country we were coming back to didn't know about it. We thought every one would slag us
off for it. But then we thought, 'Hang on -- we'll be in America! So if this doesn't come off, we'll already have done a runner!"
These days, Thom's almost redundant when Radiohed play 'Creep' live. A roomful of voices variably sings every word of the song for him.
"Yeah - but that's great, isn't it? I had thought,
'Oh God, this is silly. This one song that we write, and everyone goes mad over it. But the main thing is not to let it affect how you work and how you write, and to keep pushing yourself harder all the time.
"Peter Buck said recently in an interview that if, in your career, you write three songs that people go crazy about all over the world, so that everyone knows them wherever you go - then you've done what you set out to do. I read that and thought, "Yeah!"
Two years into his career, Thom's a third of the way to that target.