It's interesting that a British band like Radiohead chose to dedicate its second album, The Bends, to Bill Hicks, a dead comedian from Austin, Texas. In case you've never heard of him, Hicks was a critically acclaimed stand-up comic who was on his way to being to England what Jerry Lewis is to France. Yet in his own country, Hicks was basically unknown outside a number of David Letterman performances--the last of which ended up on the cutting-room floor because producers found the material too offensive. Hicks pushed the limits--he lived recklessly and died in relative anonymity of pancreatic cancer in 1994, only 32 years old. His was a brilliant career that never quite got off the ground in the States.
Similarly, when "Fake Plastic Trees," Radiohead's first single from The Bends, was unleashed on American radio audiences, it fared poorly, receiving little airplay. And though heralded by many critics and musicians as one of the best albums of the year, The Bends basically flopped in the United States. For most, the name Radiohead is still associated with their first album, Pablo Honey, which featured the alternative-rock radio smash "Creep." After cleaning up the song lyrically to meet radio profanity laws (they changed "You're so fucking special" to a more FCC-friendly "You're so very special"), "Creep" went into heavier rotation than gym socks in a washing machine. But the rest of the album was fairly lackluster--and besides, Radiohead had gone against Andy Warhol's golden advice to the Velvet Underground: "When you record the songs, leave the dirty words in."
Radiohead seemed little more than one-hit wonders who lacked sufficient faith in themselves and sold out at the first opportunity, and they'd probably even admit that themselves. In fact, they are admitting it--or rather, bassist Colin Greenwood is admitting it, as we sit at a conference room table around lunch time at Capitol Records' New York City office.
"Everything was so new and different then," Greenwood explains of the song that became such an annoyance to them that they later rechristened it "Crap." He fiddles with the telephone cord incessantly, twirling it around his wrists, then slamming it down on the table, as if battling an imaginary snake, until drummer Phil Selway steals it away from reach, cursing his neurotic habits. "It's like learning in public," he continues, regaining possession of the phone cord--this time a bit more calmly. "But you eventually learn that all you can do is just be yourself and try to be natural."
Greenwood is of a small build with messy jet-black hair and a black T-shirt with Japanese writing on it--definitely up on trends, and more like someone who'd be working at an indie record store than a rock star. He seems genuinely interested in other people's opinions of Radiohead's music. Particularly American opinions. It's a typically English trait to feign indifference on the outside and be starving for affirmation within. But Greenwood is more forthcoming than the usual Brit.
Selway is sporting a recently shaved head of the "assume control over your natural hair loss" variety. Most of the time, he's looking on expectantly while Greenwood's eyes are glued to the table.
We're only a few minutes into the interview, and already it's become obvious that Greenwood and Selway, despite their phone-cord antics, are remarkably intelligent and well spoken. Greenwood studied history and literature at university, and his brother Jonny is said to have enjoyed flying paper kites early in the mornings during the recording of their new album OK Computer, revealing something of his Syd Barrett side. Still, they are quick to downplay the connections between Radiohead and early Pink Floyd that many critics have made, choosing instead to identify themselves more with the Beatles and Oasis than anything.
"We look at it ironically and jokingly only. I think the Pink Floyd thing is more just Jonny's interest in early Pink Floyd, and specifically Syd Barrett," Greenwood says of his brother. "As a band, I don't see much of a connection." Still, Jonny has been known to force his bandmates into studying videos of Live at Pompeii for inspiration.
Asked about the quantum leap both musically and lyrically between Pablo Honey and The Bends, Greenwood simply replies, "The studio time we had to do The Bends was essential." That's it? No great catharsis or coming of age? "No," he says, "We'd only been signed less than a year, and we just needed more time."
It's a good case for the argument that record companies should try to make more long-term investments in nurturing talent rather than exploiting just a single, then disposing of the band. Luckily, in this case, Radiohead's label has faithfully stuck with them, offering practically unlimited time and creative control over their recordings. Besides, as Greenwood points out, on a worldwide basis, The Bends ultimately sold as well as Pablo Honey; it was only in America that it didn't fare so well.
"That's because it didn't have a radio smash," Greenwood says, looking like he just swallowed something quite distasteful. Indeed, even the strength of songs such as "Planet Telex" and "High and Dry" couldn't overcome the "Creep" stigma, which is nearly as great an injustice as if Beck would've been known only for "Loser."
"I remember when Thom was recording 'Planet Telex,'" says Greenwood, "It was about 2 or 3 a.m., and he was lying on his back on the floor. I was just watching the television, thinking 'What is this?' It sounded really tedious. But then it all came together quite beautifully."
In fact, The Bends is among the best guitar-pop albums to come along in the past few years. Orbiting around Thom Yorke's lyrical self-analysis and catchy guitar riffs that range from straightforward acoustic to otherworldly hard rock, it was a literate man's International Pop Overthrow, with more the mood and intelligence of Ride or The Stone Roses backing it up.
Their latest effort is on the same level. Radiohead recorded about a third of OK Computer in a converted apple shed outside Bath, England, and the remainder in the Oxford country home of Jane Seymour. The choice of "studios" was an artistic decision.
"I think the intention was to bring it back around to the way it was in the beginning, just listening to ourselves record on a four-track," Selway says.
The result is an album that is even more spacious, atmospheric, and experimental than The Bends. And though it lacks some of the pop cohesiveness of its predecessor (perhaps owing to the fact that it was self-produced, whereas The Bends was overseen by John Leckie, one of the U.K.'s top producers), OK Computer is another step in the right direction for Radiohead.
Employing simple acoustic melodies as a base, then constructing elaborate--if not schizophrenic--structures around them, vocalist and songwriter Yorke has created yet another excellent album that begs a redefinition of the term "pop." Conforming neither to standard length nor structure, songs like "Airbag" and the single "Paranoid Android" are as complex as they are appealing--which basically means most radio station programmers aren't going to touch them.
"You're the second person today that's said that to us," Greenwood says. "And you're right. There's no 'Creep' on here. Actually, I think the sound of the record is more akin to a traditional '70s English rock album. It doesn't fit into the standard 1990s definition of what a rock album should sound like."
It's also much darker than The Bends, moving still farther away from the Material Issue or Oasis sound to a more sullen, perhaps even dreamy perspective. Radiohead has always been about contradictions, though, and their music can't be confined to a single depressing dimension.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"That's true even more so on this album," Selway says. "It's got quite acerbic lyrics on top, with a different feeling underneath. It's one of our many contradictions. Even within the same song, you'll often find quite opposite feelings."
In terms of marketability, Radiohead has lowered its expectations a lot since Pablo Honey, which basically just bought them the time and status to do what they please. "We're not a band who goes for easy options," Greenwood says. "So don't expect another big single."
They've always been a bit of an anomaly as a band, anyway (does "What the hell am I doing here?/I don't belong here/I don't belong here" ring a bell?). They say the absence of an identifiable "scene" in the U.K. makes them feel a bit more at ease now.
"In that sense," Greenwood says, "we fit in perfectly.