Thom Yorke – circa 2011
“And if London burns / I’ll be standing on the beach with my guitar” – ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’ (Radiohead)
There is a terrible, discordant crash. It is 1992 and English band Radiohead is in the recording studio. Their vocalist and leader, Thom Yorke, is singing a song called ‘Creep’. The band’s lead guitarist, Jonny Greenwood, hates the song and, unaware that the recording tape is rolling, sets out to sabotage the song with the loudest outburst he can coax from his instrument. Bizarrely, it is this contrast that makes the song work.
This incident is symbolic for two reasons. Firstly, it shows how Radiohead’s experimental nature can lead to some of their greatest accomplishments. Secondly, it is an example of the volatile tug-of-war between Jonny Greenwood and Radiohead’s creative centre, Thom Yorke.
Thomas Edward Yorke is born 7 October 1968 in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, England, United Kingdom. Thom Yorke’s father is a nuclear physicist and, later, a salesman of chemical equipment. “People are born with certain faces,” Thom observes, “like my father was born with a face that people want to hit.”
At birth, Thom Yorke’s left eye is fixed shut. Doctors determine that the eye is paralysed and the condition is permanent. A consultation with a specialist results in the suggestion of a muscle graft to repair the eye lid. The boy undergoes five eye operations before he is 6 years old. One more procedure is then performed. Yorke describes this surgery as “botched” because it is not completely successful and leaves him with a drooping eyelid.
Just after Thom Yorke’s birth, his father obtains a job with a firm in Scotland and the family lives in that land until Thom is 7. Thom has a brother named Andy (who will later become the vocalist for a band called The Unbelievable Truth). Because of his eye problems, Thom Yorke has to wear a patch over his left eye as a child. Other children tease him because of his affliction.
Thom Yorke receives his first guitar when he is 7. His interest in the instrument is inspired after watching Brian May of glam rock outfit, Queen.
The Yorke family moves home frequently between 1975 and 1978 due to their father’s work as a salesman. Each new school brings a new set of tormentors for Thom. Although the kids may be different, they are united in teasing the boy about his eye. The family finally settles in Oxfordshire in 1978.
By the time he is 11, Thom Yorke has joined his first band and written his first song.
While attending Abingdon School – an independent school for boys in Abingdon, Oxfordshire – Thom Yorke meets the other four people who, in the future, will join him in Radiohead.
The first one he meets is Colin Charles Greenwood (born 26 June 1969 in Oxford, England). Colin Greenwood is in the same year as Thom Yorke at the school.
Two others are in the year above Thom and Colin: Edward John O’Brien (born 15 April 1968 in Oxford, England) and Philip James Selway (born 23 May 1967 in Abingdon, Berkshire, England).
The fifth member of the crew is Colin Greenwood’s younger brother, Jonathan Richard Guy Greenwood (born 5 November 1971 in Oxford, England). Colin is the only one in the band who calls this youngster Jonathan; to everybody else he is Jonny. The boy is colour blind. Jonny trains as a violinist. He is recruited into the band as a harmonica player, but soon gravitates to becoming first, the keyboardist, and then the lead guitarist.
The future members of Radiohead first come together in 1985. They are: Thom Yorke (vocals, guitar, keyboards), Jonny Greenwood (lead guitar, multiple instruments), Ed O’Brien (guitar), Colin Greenwood (bass) and Phil Selway (drums). In 1985 they are known as On A Friday – because that’s the day on which they rehearse in their school’s music room. “School was bearable for me because the music department was separate from the rest of the school,” says Thom Yorke. “It had pianos in tiny booths, and I used to spend a lot of time hanging around there after school.”
On A Friday play their first gig at the Jericho Tavern in Oxford late in 1986. Amongst those who attend the band’s early shows at this venue are Chris Hufford and Bryce Edge who become the group’s managers. The four older boys leave Abingdon by 1987, but the group still gets together on weekends and holidays.
For the next few years the quintet busies themselves with higher education. Phil Selway attends Liverpool Polytechnic.
Thom Yorke postpones tertiary studies for a year. He works ‘in a few jobs’ including a stint as an orderly in a mental hospital. During this time he is in a car accident that leaves him ‘wary of any kind of mechanised transport.’ In 1988 Yorke leaves Oxford to study at the University of Exeter. Yorke is apparently an art student because he meets Stanley Donwood ‘when both are art students’. Stanley Donwood will later provide the album covers and artwork for Radiohead from 1994. Thom Yorke works as a disc jockey in Lemon Grove and, for a short time, plays with a band called Headless Chickens. It is also during this time that Yorke meets Rachel Owen, a fellow student, who becomes his long-term girlfriend.
With everybody except Jonny Greenwood having finished their degrees, in 1991 the members of On A Friday reconvene. Basing themselves in Oxford, On A Friday begin playing more gigs and attracting interest from record companies.
Colin Greenwood is working in a record shop when he meets Keith Wozencroft, an artists & repertoire representative from EMI Records. Wozencroft signs On A Friday to a six album deal with the Parlophone label through EMI. However EMI wants the group to find a new name. Thus, On A Friday becomes Radiohead, taking their appellation from the song ‘Radiohead’ on the album ‘True Stories’ (1986) by American new wave band Talking Heads.
The music of Radiohead is commonly categorised as alternative rock or experimental rock.
Alternative rock as a genre begins in the early 1980s. In simple terms, it is a substitute for mainstream, chart-oriented rock. The earliest alternative bands release music too left-of-centre for a mass audience, but are not really interested in courting a larger group of listeners, remaining content with their devoted fans. As time passes and tastes change, at least some of these allegedly alternative acts find themselves in a more mainstream position, however unconsciously that may have come about. Radiohead’s influences include such alternative rock acts as R.E.M., The Smiths and Nirvana, though all three also enjoyed substantial mainstream success.
The experimental rock becomes more relevant in later stages of Radiohead’s career. As the alternative becomes the centre, Radiohead keep reaching for the fringes in search of fresh sounds. This sometimes invites comparisons to the progressive rock (or prog rock) of the 1970s which sought to appropriate the grandeur of classical music and the radical stance of avant-garde music’s sonic explorers. However Jonny Greenwood scoffs, “most prog is awful.”
Officially, the songwriting in Radiohead is credited to the band as a whole. However, it seems openly acknowledged that the lyrics are nearly all written by Thom Yorke. ‘Most Radiohead songs originate with his melodies and ideas which are then expanded upon by him and the rest of the band.’ As Thom Yorke puts it, Radiohead are like “the United Nations…and I’m like America.” If that’s right then, to extend the comparison, Jonny Greenwood is Russia (or maybe China?), the ‘other’ superpower that moderates the dominant force. Jonny’s elder brother, Colin Greenwood, is seen as the diplomat and peacemaker. “That means I agree with everyone and make the tea and coffee,” he jests.
Thematically, many Radiohead songs deal with struggles with self-esteem. This, fairly obviously, dates back to Thom Yorke’s childhood and the teasing to which he was subjected. Sometimes it just comes out as depression, but sometimes it becomes an angry dose of misanthropy. Whichever way it goes, there is a lot of darkness involved. Listening to Radiohead requires steely nerves. Ed O’Brien notes that “Emotional honesty…[is] one of our greatest strengths – and also one of our great weaknesses.” Thom Yorke insists that, “The biggest battle I have…is to persuade people that a lot of the lyrics I write are very funny.” Jonny Greenwood concurs, “I think there’s a lot of humour in our records – quite dark, admittedly…” His brother, Colin, concludes, “Anyway, we are not as miserable as everybody makes out.”
Radiohead’s first release is the E.P. ‘Drill’ (UK no. 101) in May 1992. This disc is produced by the band’s managers, Chris Hufford and Bryce Edge. Its ‘chart performance is very poor.’ The four tracks on ‘Drill’ are ‘Prove Yourself’, ‘Stupid Car’, ‘You’ and ‘Thinking About You’. All of these songs, except ‘Stupid Car’, are included on the band’s subsequent debut album, albeit in new recordings.
The single ‘Creep’ is released later in 1992 to a very muted reception.
‘Pablo Honey’ (1993) (UK no. 22, US no. 32, AUS no. 86), the debut album, is released in February. It is produced by Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade. ‘Creep’ (UK no. 7, US no. 34, AUS no. 6) is the clear standout track. This sad, brooding ode to ostracism finds Thom Yorke singing, “But I’m a creep / I’m a weirdo / What the hell am I doing here? / I don’t belong here.” The melancholy is punctured not only by Jonny Greenwood’s bursts of corrosive guitar, but Yorke’s own coarse language: “I wish I was special / So f***ing special.” Still, it’s hard not to sympathise when he mournfully claims, “I want a perfect body / I want a perfect soul.” ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’ (UK no. 32, AUS no. 97) and the nagging ‘Stop Whispering’ are also released as singles, but ‘fail to become major hits.’ Tracks like ‘Ripcord’ and ‘Blow Out’ showcase Jonny Greenwood’s extraordinary guitar prowess, though he modestly claims, “I think guitarists are really over-admired and over-revered.” ‘Pablo Honey’ is recorded in three weeks. Thom Yorke states, “We never expected anybody to buy it at all…We did it to learn.” Although there is some truth to allegations that the influence of Nirvana is a bit strong here, ‘Pablo Honey’ is a better album than its reputation suggests.
‘Creep’ becomes a hit in Israel in March 1993. Radiohead give their first live appearance overseas in Tel Aviv, Israel. Following this, the song achieves airplay in the U.S.A. as well and Radiohead tour America for the first time in June 1993. In this circuitous manner, ‘Creep’ becomes a hit in the U.K. as well in September 1993. “When I got back to Oxford I was unbearable,” Thom Yorke observes ruefully. “[I] hit the self-destruct button pretty quickly,” he says of drinking bouts that left him unable to perform on stage.
In 1993 Jonny Greenwood marries Sharona Katan, an Israeli-born artist who uses the name Shin Katan in her art. The couple go on to have three children: a son, Tamir (born 2002); a daughter, Omri (born 2005); and a son, Zohar (born February 2008).
Radiohead’s second album is considered ‘less angsty and more operatic.’ ‘The Bends’ (2004) (UK no. 4, US no. 88, AUS no. 23) is also their best album. Here, Radiohead jell as a band and it is this strong group dynamic that elevates the work. In terms of rock music, the ‘template for the second half [of the 1990s] is set by Radiohead.’ Thom York’s sad, wheedling voice is accompanied by acoustic guitars on ‘High And Dry’ (UK no. 17, US no. 78, AUS no. 62) and the affecting ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ (UK no. 20). Jonny Greenwood’s explosive guitar powers ‘Bones’ and the title track, ‘The Bends’. But, between the poles of Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood’s extremes lie the album’s most successful tracks. ‘Just’ (UK no. 19) marries a brutish guitar to Yorke’s continuing battle with self-esteem issues: “You do it to yourself / You do / And that’s what really hurts / You do it to yourself / Just you.” He pleads for protection on ‘Bulletproof…I Wish I Was’ and curses the heavens on ‘Black Star’. ‘My Iron Lung’ (UK no. 24, AUS no. 100) has a hypnotic, mechanical pulse but is disrupted by Greenwood’s stammering, choking guitar. The sinister ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ (UK no. 5) closes the album but, with typical perversity, the biggest hint of the future is the opening track, ‘Planet Telex’. “You can force it / But it will not come,” warns Yorke over sounds that are positively unearthly, a transmission shimmering into view. Although ‘The Bends’ is produced by John Leckie, one of the engineers is Nigel Godrich. He becomes Radiohead’s regular record producer with their next album and a virtual sixth member of the band. ‘The Bends’ is also the first Radiohead album to feature the deeply unsettling graphic art of Thom Yorke’s old art school friend Stanley Donwood. He will continue to visually counterpoint Yorke’s disturbing lyrics.
Radiohead spend most of the next two years on the road. “We did quite a lot of growing up [in this period],” says Thom Yorke.
‘OK Computer’ (1997) (UK no. 1, US no. 21, AUS no. 7) is recorded at the home of actress Jane Seymour while she is away filming. On this set ‘the band begins pulling at its sound like taffy.’ The album begins with ‘Airbag’ (a reminder of Thom Yorke’s car accident circa 1987-1988?). Clawing from the guitar wreckage, the vocalist sings, “I am born again.” The strained and itchy ‘Paranoid Android’ (UK no. 3, AUS no. 29) finds Yorke’s narrator seeking relief from “All the unborn chicken voices in my head.” He says in an interview, “’Paranoid Android’ is definitely a joke. You can’t take that song completely seriously unless of course you’re a critic.” Guitarist Ed O’Brien suggests the song “was basically [Thom] being a voyeur in this totally hideous bar in Los Angeles and watching all these people around him, the ‘Gucci little piggy’ line.” ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ is a widescreen soundscape with stars wheeling overhead. The poisonous ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’ hatefully bids, “We hope that you choke.” ‘Karma Police’ (UK no. 8, AUS no. 71) is Radiohead’s finest song. It is deceptively straightforward and accessible. Over a deadpan piano, Thom Yorke urges, “Karma police arrest this girl / Her Hitler hairdo is making me feel ill.” Karma is an Eastern concept of balance; that good actions will be repaid with good fortune and bad actions will reap punishment. Radiohead harness that idea to their own sour worldview here. It succeeds through combining a typically bitter lyric to a classic melody. ‘Electioneering’ is the nearest thing on ‘OK Computer’ to the rock music of the band’s previous albums. The lullaby ‘No Surprises’ (UK no. 4, AUS no. 47) is also present. Despite the electronic voice on the brief (1.57) ‘Fitter, Happier’, Thom Yorke tells interviewers, “I’m not afraid that computers are taking over the world.” ‘OK Computer’ is regarded as ‘one of the best rock albums of all time.’
After the end of their 1997-1998 tour Radiohead are ‘largely inactive.’ Thom Yorke struggles with ‘severe depression.’
In December 1998 Radiohead’s bass player, Colin Greenwood, marries Molly McGrann, a U.S. literary critic and novelist. They go on to have three sons: Jessie (born December 2003), Asa (born December 2005) and Henry (born December 2009).
Radiohead returns with ‘Kid A’ (2000) (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 2). It features ‘a more abstract, fragmented form of songwriting.’ This is matched by more oblique sounds. With this album, Jonny Greenwood begins using the ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument employed by French composers like Oliver Messiaen and Arthur Honegger. “I think ‘Kid A’ is the best album we’ve recorded,” states Colin Greenwood. “It has amazingly strong emotions, moods and colour.” ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ sounds like it is being beamed in from Mars with its mangled and edited vocals smeared over an electric piano. The song, ‘Kid A’, also features a processed voice and a tinkling, naïve melody, but it is infiltrated by a disco rhythm. An insistent bass line from not Colin Greenwood, Radiohead’s regular bassist, but Thom Yorke, throbs through ‘The National Anthem.’ This track also features brass aplenty and climaxes in ‘an eight-horn pileup.’ If the dour Radiohead title a song ‘Optimistic’, the immediate suspicion is that it must be meant sarcastically. However, ‘Optimistic’ appears surprisingly genuine. “This one’s optimistic,” Thom Yorke assures over rhythmic guitars and tom-toms. He sagely advises, “Try the best you can / The best you can is good enough.” Dance floor electro-pop rhythms return on ‘Idioteque’, but its compulsiveness is undercut by Yorke’s warning, “Ice age coming, ice age coming.” ‘Kid A’ is an experimental work full of ‘fractured twisty’ sounds.
In 2001 Thom Yorke becomes a father. His long-time girlfriend Rachel Owen gives birth to a son, Noah (born February 2001). The couple go on to have a daughter as well, Agnes (born October 2003).
‘Amnesiac’ (2001) (UK no. 1, US no. 2, AUS no. 2) in June consists of additional tracks recorded during the ‘Kid A’ sessions. The best known piece from this set is the haunting and sepulchral ‘Pyramid Song’ (UK no. 5, AUS no. 25).
‘Hail To The Thief’ (2003) (UK no. 1, US no. 3, AUS no. 2) contains some oblique references to war and mixes electronic experiments with guitar-oriented rock. This set is home to ‘There, There’ (UK no. 4, AUS no. 28) and ‘Go To Sleep’ (UK no. 12, AUS no. 39).
By 2004 guitarist Ed O’Brien is married to Susan Kobrin, who worked for Amnesty International. Ed and Susan have two children: a son, Salvador (born January 2004) and a daughter, Oona (born 2006).
Drummer Phil Selway and his wife, Cait, have three children: Leo, Jamie and Patrick.
The demands of reproducing on stage Radiohead’s increasingly experimental recordings results in some odd sights. ‘Jonny Greenwood [is] like a mad professor, surrounded by bizarre equipment…[He stands] in front of a box that looks like a pinball machine cum old telephone exchange, with wires sticking out, and he makes it sound like nothing on earth…The concert ends with Greenwood and Ed O’Brien the last band members on stage. They are hunched on the floor, no guitars in sight, fiddling with little boxes that deconstruct what is left of…’Everything In Its Right Place’…’
When Radiohead announce they will release their seventh album on the internet first, it also marks the end of their association with EMI Records. Doom-sayers shake their heads despairingly at the band’s intention to offer the album for download on a ‘pay what you want’ basis. That means, ‘consumers can make whatever payment they deem appropriate, including paying nothing at all.’ ‘In Rainbows’ (2007) (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 2) is released through Radiohead’s website in October 2007 with a physical disc issued in late December 2007 by XL Recordings in the U.K. and in January 2008 on TBD Records in the U.S.A. Contrary to the expectations of some, ‘In Rainbows’ is a commercial success, though it’s questionable if the strategy would have worked so well for an act in a less dominant position than Radiohead. Two of the better known songs from ‘In Rainbows’ are ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’ (UK no. 30) and ‘Nude’ (UK no. 21).
‘The King Of Limbs’ (2011) (UK no. 7, US no. 3, AUS no. 2) is also released via Radiohead’s website before being physically issued to retail outlets.
Thom Yorke and Rachel Owen split up in August 2015 after twenty-three years together as a couple. (Rachel Owen dies from cancer at the age of 48 on 18 December 2016.)
‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ (2016) (UK no. 1, US no. 3, AUS no. 2) is the Radiohead album released in May. This set is co-produced by Nigel Godrich and Radiohead. Listening to this album is described as feeling ‘like being plunged into icy cold water and held under until panic strikes.’ The weird and implacable ‘Burn The Witch’ (UK no. 64, AUS no. 63) features strings by the London Contemporary Orchestra. Through ghostly wailing vocals, leader Thom Yorke warns of “A low flying panic attack.” The hushed ‘Daydreaming’ (UK no. 74, AUS no. 73) has a toy-like piano underpinning its vocals. The feel is spacey and cosmic. The video for ‘Daydreaming’ is directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, director of such films as ‘There Will Be Blood’ (2007), ‘Magnolia’ (1999) and ‘Boogie Nights’ (1997). In this surrealist video, Thom Yorke wanders in and out of places, houses and buildings.
Radiohead’s first success, ‘Creep’ was born out of a bold experiment. They continued to use a probing approach on later recordings. On their first four albums, Radiohead were a great rock band. Jonny Greenwood’s guitar-work was thrilling and expressive. ‘OK Computer’ tipped the balance towards experimentalism, but that disc and ‘Kid A’, unearthly though they were, still held an attractive power. Throughout their later career, Radiohead were lionised by critics and devoted fans. Radiohead were ‘one of the few alternative bands of the early 1990s to draw heavily from…grandiose arena rock…but the band internalised that epic sweep, turning it inside out to tell tortured, twisted tales of angst and alienation.’ They were ‘the most adventurous and consistently creative major rock band since the 1970s…[who] took risks without losing either kudos or their core audience.’
- ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 182, 183, 198
- Internet movie database imdb.com as at 7 December 2013
- wikipedia.org as at 14 October 2013, 3 January 2017
- Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 14 October 2013
- ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 287
- ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia newspaper) – Thom Yorke interview (21 February 2013) p. 44
- ‘Sunday Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia newspaper) – Colin Greenwood interview conducted by Nue Te Koha (25 April 2004) ‘Inside Entertainment’ lift-out p. 5
- ‘Inside Radiohead Documentary’ (Japanese video) (1997)
- ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 49, 54, 70
- ‘The Bends’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (EMI Records Ltd, 1995) p. 12
- ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia newspaper) – Cameron Adams review of Radiohead show at Rod Laver Arena on 26 April 2004 (28 April 2004) p. 50
- allmusic.com, ‘Radiohead’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 8 December 2013
- ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia, newspaper) – ‘The Hit 2016 Music Round-Up’ by Cameron Adams, Kathy McCabe (22 December 2016) p. 29
- Google Play Music as at 7 January 2017
Song lyrics copyright Warner Chappell Ltd
Last revised 11 January 2017