Kicking and Screaming

How Radiohead became themselves in 7 not-so-easy steps.

Photo: Bob Berg/Getty Images
Photo: Bob Berg/Getty Images
Photo: Bob Berg/Getty Images

What the hell are they doing here? This Friday night, Radiohead will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Thom Yorke is blowing off the ceremony to work on piano pieces in Paris. Other members — it is not clear how many — will hit the Barclays in their inimitable fashion. They’re so effing special. Any artist that has been around long enough to be inducted into the Hall of Fame — around 25 years for Radiohead — faces their share of hurdles. Radiohead transcended them over and over again. Here is how they did it, in seven crisis points.

1. Creeps: How to Overcome a Tongue-in-Cheek Breakout Single That Everybody Thinks Is Serious

“Creep” was released as a single in 1992 — months before Radiohead’s debut album Pablo Honey — when Kurt Cobain was at the peak of his fame and his exegetes were circling. Cobain wrote a song called “I Hate Myself and Want to Die,” which most people assumed was a joke, but it was serious. He actually did hate himself and wanted to die, all while most of his audience prided themselves on a kind of flannel-based irony. Radiohead, even at the beginning, knew how to play both sides — from self-pity to tongue in cheek.

Many Gen X-ers felt like creeps, too, or at least felt for them. But did they understand it? When the band recorded it, they announced it was their “Scott Walker song” — in other words, ironically overblown melodrama.  (The producers needed to be reassured it was not a Scott Walker cover when they realized it was a hit.) Did the audience get it? From the video, it appeared that the singer had a lazy eye. It must have been autobiographical, right?  

In a canny career move — the first of many —Radiohead refused to play the song on their OK Computer tour, then brought it back here and there when they felt like it. It was covered by many, and one of the many was Prince — stunningly — at Coachella in 2008. Was “Creep” a joke it took listeners years to get? Did Yorke really write “Your skin makes me cry” in earnest? And did he say that he no longer felt like the writer of the song, which meant he once really meant it? It doesn’t matter. (There was, incidentally, the rest of Pablo Honey, which has its counterintuitive defenders, even when “Stop Whispering” sounds like U2 taking a personal day.) The harmony, the melody, and especially that vocal — when Yorke jumps from “She run, run, run, run, ruuuuuuuuuuhn!” — dares listeners not to be blown away, even after they got sued for plagiarizing the middle eight from the Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe.” They would take in much of their own air soon enough, and it would become more rarefied. But before they could inhale, they had to defer honor and dignity a little longer and, in 1994, play the MTV Beach House before plotting their ascent. It is an unsettling document to watch. These pale, skinny boys were shoved outdoors, forced at gunpoint to sing for teenybopper hedonists. Someone should have called Amnesty International. When Yorke cried, “I don’t belong here,” he totally meant it. The success of “Creep” brought them this far — was it worth it? They were not here to be voices of a generation, and they were here to last. There were plenty of one-hit wonders in the ’90s. How did Radiohead survive becoming a male version of 4 Non Blondes? Or, for that matter, Blind Melon or the Proclaimers or Crash Test Dummies. The race was on.

2. Bending Toward Justice: How to Make the Best Rock Album of 1995 Even If Nobody Knows It Until 1998

In 1995, the top spot for world’s biggest band was up for grabs. REM’s Monster found the band following trends rather than setting them. U2’s Zooropa was an unconvincing transition to electronica and glib postmodernism; they later conceded defeat, auditioning, again, to be the world’s biggest rock band. This left a spot for … Oasis. Their biggest hit, “Wonderwall,” was a reference to an obscure film soundtrack by George Harrison, who responded by calling the band “rubbish,” deeming them “not very interesting. It’s ok if you’re 14 years old.”

Radiohead’s second album, The Bends, did not come close to dethroning Oasis, certainly not in sales. Rolling Stone wasn’t quite convinced, at least not initially. The triumphant sounds of stadium rock hid a dystopian vision that would soon be unmistakable. The music soared, but it was also crying for help, not just for the wounded singer of “Creep,” but the rest of us. But they would have to endure the holding pattern a little longer. Alanis Morrissette, a huge admirer, chose them as an opening act, and they would thus spending the summer of 1996 previewing “Paranoid Android” and “Karma Police” t0 sullen teenage girls, when “Fake Plastic Trees” was featured on the Clueless soundtrack. When would this “I don’t belong here” business end? The Bends would eventually be viewed, by critical consensus, as their way out, but most of those critics didn’t notice it. Were you aware of it at the time? Did you write it off as juvenilia?  Listen again.

This album might not be talked about today without what happened right after, but it certainly deserved more. EMI, in a gesture of largesse unimaginable today, wisely let its modest success be the basis for generous support for the band’s follow-up. The not-easily-impressed Yorke was excited when EMI told him they could have as long as they wanted, and by the time they could cash in, they had done a lot of growing up, and growing beyond The Bends. Some of it is cruel, maybe naïve and over-the-top, but, as they kept climbing, it was an absolutely necessary step, exactly as they played it, sang it, bled for it. Those trees are fake and plastic. Everything is broken. Don’t want to be crippled and cracked, left high and dry. You do it to yourself, and that’s what really hurts. They wish something would happen. It was about to.

3. Back to Save the Universe: How to Make a Space-Rock Masterpiece and Surpass Your Peers, Your Influences, and Yourself

How’s this for timing? On or about June 16, 1997, human character changed, yet again.  (Was the Bloomsday release intentional?) The music was intended for people who depended on, but also despised, their computers. They were part of an economy that was setting the breakneck pace of the world, but wondered, after debugging, what it all meant. 1997 might be remembered as the last year before getting wired was compulsory — professionally, personally, and, eventually, musically, when the screech of dial-up hailed a new attention suck. Radiohead took their time recording this one — a year and a half (the Beatles could have made three Sgt. Peppers in that time), after they cut “Lucky” and realized they were onto something way better than they had done before.  They were right.

As they were shaking off the ennui of their last tour, Radiohead’s indignation would be decanted and oxygenated to perfection, as documented in the film Meeting People Is Easy, a late-’90s capsule, where they took their contempt for the press to Don’t Look Back levels, making them even more irresistible. (They were the last band big enough to bite the hand that fed them so lavishly — pretty much the last big rock band with a hand to bite.) OK Computer opened with “Airbag,” about how technology can save you and ruin you at the same time, with an economical Colin Greenwood bass line with enough space for a Miles Davis solo. Following Yorke’s childhood trauma with a near accident, the song was also a personal disclosure, like another Radiohead song, not on OK Computer, “Killer Cars.” This guy was on the road and fearing it the whole time. That dread does not lead to “Wake Up, Little Susie.”

The cognitive dissonance between a triumphant sound and 0blique lyric was all over the album.  If you ever loved the melody, the ambience, and the overall power of these songs, you could look at the words and wonder what lines like “Her Hitler hairdo is making me feel ill” or “A handshake of carbon monoxide” are supposed to mean. Those chords, plucked out of the air, sound like they always needed to exist. The lyrics came from someplace else, and are not always meant to make sense. The music of “Paranoid Android,” slowed down, could almost be a Pink Floyd track, except no one else, certainly not David Gilmour, would have sung “I’m trying to get some rest / From all the unborn chicken voices in my head.” You could listen to the album for over two decades and never figure out that one; it just sounds so glorious.  

And yet OK Computer’s initial U.S. sales were underwhelming. It did not get past No. 21 on the Billboard chart. They did not win polls from Pazz and Jop, Rolling Stone, or Spin. By 1998, the conventional wisdom changed. The New York Times Magazine announced that the album was way better than you thought it was; soon, there would be no need for apologetics. To live in the age of OK Computer was to live in contradictions. You, in 1997, were getting mixed messages.  Did you cry at Titanic knowing the dialogue was awful? Did you vote for Bill Clinton, realizing he was aiding and abetting a slightly mellowed right-wing agenda? Were you aware that the internet revolution would be a double-edged sword, when privacy would be gone for good and your boss could always track you down with your phone? That’s right, your phone! What the hell?  Radiohead: Cassandras of the Late ’90s.

“Hey, man, slow down,” they warned us at the album’s end. They knew it was futile, but the sound was as intoxicating as anything they had ever made. These songs — and some of their sublime outtakes released 20 years later, including “Man of War,” an outtake better than most people’s takes — were like miniature symphonies. Yorke’s voice, thin and petulant, could soar on those elongated lines. We still hang on to them, as we try to escape from a digital future that would fit into the palms of our hands and swallow us up in the end.

4. So Alone: How to Lose Fans and Influence People

Poor Radiohead. First, they had to live down “Creep,” then had to figure out how to follow up an album that became immediately canonized. It now seems so inevitable that the Beatles followed Sgt. Pepper with Magical Mystery Tour, then the White Album; or that Bob Dylan followed Blonde on Blonde with John Wesley Harding, then Nashville Skyline; that Miles Davis followed Filles de Kilimanjaro with In a Silent Way, then Bitches Brew; that Picasso followed his Blue Period with Cubism. And it seemed inevitable that the rock theatrics of OK Computer had to evolve into minimalism, electronica, and the further abstraction of Kid A. They weren’t retreating, they were advancing in a different direction. They could not make OK Computer II, because their adventurousness was their brand. They were neither Coldplay, Travis, nor Muse, and they were not even themselves five minutes ago. And he who is not busy being born is busy dying. Time for new DNA.

“All melody bored me,” recalled Yorke. Did this freak the rest of the band out? Yorke wasn’t just throwing out melody, but also rock-and-roll instruments. No drums for Phil?  No guitar for Jonny or Ed? No bass for Colin? Just Yorke and keyboards and synth-drum programs? Artistic development or labor crisis? The new, digitized and sampled Radiohead opened with a rage for order — “Everything in its right place,” and try cleaning your apartment to that one — to be followed with the proposition, “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon,” daring critics in search of a nasty quip. (Thom Yorke woke up sucking a lemon, and here we are …) These assertions are repeated like mantras, while you are kneeling at the guru of the new machine. Those ok computers were being put to use.

Critics and fans were divided. A New York Times critic told me that Brian Eno had already done it, but what was it, exactly, and would Eno agree? By the end of the decade, when Rolling Stone ranked that best albums of the aughts, Kid A was at the top — and for good reason. “The National Anthem,” which they performed on the Colbert Report, in on the joke, made the claim that the internet was bringing us all closer, a notion that was less than comforting. “Everyone is so near,” sang Yorke, like a hostage. “Women and children first,” he cried on “Idioteque,” headed for an iceberg. The rock lineup did emerge for “Optimistic,” “In Limbo,” and other tracks saved for later. They performed their controversial new songs on SNL, with Yorke spazzing out. We would have to hug this one out.

Amnesiac, culled from the same sessions, would be released the following year, right before 9/11 changed the subject. “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case,” Yorke sang, sounding like anything but. “We ride tonight / Ghost horses.” This line seemed worth repeating at the end of “You and Whose Army.” Not much of a guide, not much of an escape. This would not be a reasonable new millennium, and it ventured into a darkness no one saw coming.

5. Used to be All Right: How In Rainbows Gave the Industry the Finger and Offered Its Listeners a Gift

Quick: What were you doing on June 9, 2003?  Were you exhausted from all those antiwar marches? Were your 20s gone, was your youth misspent? Were you entranced by that song of the summer, “Hey Ya,” just shaking it like a Polaroid picture in your final catharsis of misspent youth? Were you newly married, or betrothed or committed, and bewildered about your new adulthood?

That’s right, Hail to the Thief — a belated allusion to the 2000 Florida recount —  returned to the guitar-based rock of OK Computer while retaining some of the electronic experimentation of Kid A and Amnesiac. The album is actually splendid, more than a placeholder. Imagine what it would have done for you in the summer of ’03 — your optimal brooding soundtrack. The lyrics were as cryptic as ever. When you’re aswirl with “Sail to the Moon,” try coming to terms with its advice: “I sucked the moon / I spoke to soon / And how much did it cost?” Go easy on sucking that romance, or inspiration, even as the song is brimming with it, with startling, otherworldly chords. But what really made people take notice would come a few years later, when the band did not renew with EMI and instead released In Rainbows on their own, first with a “Pay what you want” strategy (like paying a penny to go to the Met), before everyone got used to consuming music on the internet, back when Napster was taking down Tower Records. The entire music business was abuzz about this, because no one had done it before.

Eventually, Radiohead released it as an old-fashioned $80 box set, and the music — not the medium — was the message, and they got to win and keep it all. The album opened with the bold rhythmic premise of “15 Step” — in 5/4 time, the same, seldom-used time signature used in Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” — performed with a marching band on the Grammys. Everything they did seemed like a deliberate departure from where they had gone before. “Nude,” a tweaked holdover from the OK Computer tour, is lush, warm, open, hypnotic, until you are buzzkilled by the words: “Don’t get any big ideas / They’re not gonna happen,” and the soaring melody dazzles while the words damper down. It still sounds luscious, still takes off its clothes.

By the time In Rainbows happened, Yorke had stopped rhyming most of his lyrics a while ago.  The rhyme, it is said, is supposed to remind the listener of what she has just heard, and Yorke apparently felt that the melodies and non sequiturs would do that on their own. “Faust Arp,” one of Radiohead’s many Dante-inspired songs (Yorke’s significant other was a Dante scholar), sounds like Paradiso, with strings as astonishing as the sumptuous scores Jonny Greenwood was starting to write for P.T. Anderson films. “The infrastructure will collapse, the voltage spikes,” Yorke announces at the beginning of “House of Cards,” on an album with a physical release date of January 1, 2008, as if he could see the financial crisis coming, while cashing in on Radiohead’s big gamble.

6. You’ve Got Some Nerve: How Tom Yorke Became a Meme and Continued the Dance

Thom Yorke’s dance moves evolved from chaos to something rhythmic, intentional, and weird enough for a meme. No matter how many times you watch the video for “Lotus Flower,” it will never normalize, and you are confident he will not give up his day job. That day job will be continuing to confront and astonish his listeners with each new Radiohead release. On King of Limbs, released February 18, 2011, it meant percussion parts so ornate and contrapuntal, they needed a second drummer, Portishead’s Clive Deamer, to play them live. (The pair look like they are in the Being John Malkovich portal.)

And once you’re exhausted — if you are watching Yorke dancing and thinking, Hey, I could do that — be prepared for the two ballads that close the album, and be seduced by their petulant, deceptively comforting brand of Zen. “Slight of hand / Jump off the end / Into a clear lake / No one around.” These thoughts, from the sublime “Codex,” would have sounded incongruous with the grand paranoia of OK Computer. It’s 2011 — time to take a break from the screens and detach, and not think about the debt ceiling.

7. Low-Flying Panic Attack: How True Love Waited, Beyond the Point of No Return

“Keep your cool.  Do not give into emotion.” This is the advice from the most recent Radiohead track, dropped innocuously, called “Ill Wind,” also the title of an Arlen-Koehler standard recorded by Billie Holiday. They no longer had to shut down their entire internet presence — as they did for their last two albums — to let this track out. OK Computer was a long time ago. Things were moving briskly and chaotically, just like they told us they would, and they needed no announcement to get one more message to the world. On “Ill Wind,” Yorke’s ice-cold intonation was set to a samba beat that sounded as if Antonio Carlos Jobim moved to Mount Baldy and reached a frosty awakened state.

The song was a coda to A Moon Shaped Pool, released digitally on May 8, 2016, which was not just an album, it was a miracle. Nearly every track was a beatitude. Some thought “Burn the Witch” saw Trump coming (its origins were earlier). The string arrangements explored new splendors, providing a soft landing for this low-flying panic attack. Are you in line with your earbuds, waiting to get a latte and listening to “Glass Eyes” or “The Numbers” or “Desert Island Disk”? Don’t listen too closely, or you will break down and weep in public. These songs were not just intonations of dystopia. In their cold, English way, they plaintively and elegantly went straight for the heart. And after confounding us all these years, Yorke was finally ready for unfiltered vulnerability, dusting off a song, “True Love Waits,” that they had been playing live since 1995. Yet for all those years, the band was never quite satisfied with its performance, leaked on B sides and bootlegs. It was only when the song’s title became ironic that they could do it justice, when it was an elegy. By the time Radiohead recorded the song, Yorke was separated from Rachel Owen, the Dante scholar who was his partner for over two decades and the mother of his two grown children. She passed away from cancer the next year. Her illness lingers over the entire album.

Gloom was a default setting throughout Radiohead’s career, but this was different, a relentless sadness, augmented with a lush orchestra. Those live performances of “True Love Waits” sounded a little too triumphant. This love song wasn’t done until the love itself had been exhausted. Yorke’s voice sounds desperate, meek, ready to give up. The keyboards rumble arpeggios underneath, like rococo layers of experience, like a Greek chorus bearing witness. While “Creep” was misunderstanding turned immortality, “True Love Waits” bears its heart on it sleeve, after it matured and unfolded after two decades, like Radiohead themselves. The only attitude left is surrender, a final gauntlet.

Live long enough, and you will have survived something. You may retreat to the music of youth — perhaps yours. But you may need something that matches your own adult mourning and melancholia, and as Yorke sang from his grief, he gave us succor. This is all the more reason to respect his wishes while the show at Barclays goes on. Radiohead still fill Madison Square, or any other comparable venue, playing exactly what they feel like, mostly recent songs. And, as we still wonder who will actually make the gig, Radiohead has finally unloaded the gems they have been hoarding for decades. “True Love Waits” is finally on record; “Man of War,” “Melatonin,” “I Promise,” “Lift” and so on — fans have been begging for them for years — are committed to the OK Computer anniversary edition.

The Rock Hall beckons, and for Thom Yorke, it is exceedingly less important than working on piano pieces in Paris — probably less important than working on piano pieces in Paris, Texas.  (David Byrne, the inductor, whose Talking Heads’ song “Radio Head” saved the band from calling itself On a Friday, has been here before, when he inducted an absent David Bowie.) True love waits indeed — not always in real life, but since when was rock and roll about real life? It’s about a fantasy, and if it’s persuasive enough, you could devote your life to it. You could devote your life to a whole lot worse. The Rock Hall acknowledges an artist after the quarter-life crisis of 25 years. “Dreamers, they never learn,” sings Yorke. “Beyond the point of no return.” This is not real; it is Plato’s cave, and we will never make it out. It is frustrating, it is intolerable, and it is Radiohead’s muse. What the hell are we doing here? It is a question that has been resounding since 1992. Radiohead is still asking it.

How Radiohead Became Themselves in 7 Not-So-Easy Steps