Radiohead were one of the most innovative and provocative bands of the 1990s and 2000s, five very serious Englishmen guys who developed their own sound and always tried really, really hard.
The band, who were also the biggest art-rock act since Pink Floyd, began as purveyors of a swooning, from-the-gut sound that Alicia Silverstone aptly labeled as “complaint rock” in the film Clueless. But albums like 1997’s space-rock opera OK Computer and 2000’s slippery, is-this-even-rock? Kid A (which was Rolling Stone’s album of the decade for the 2000s) were game-changers—future-shock opuses that showed off shadowy, meticulously constructed electronic textures and inspired thousands of imitators, none of whom had Radiohead’s talents.
Born in 1968, singer Thom Yorke formed his first band at the age of 10 despite admittedly having few friends. An abnormality in his left eye made Yorke the victim of teasing in his childhood, with Yorke telling Rolling Stone in 1995 that he often got into fights with his peers. These youthful experiences no doubt contributed to Yorke’s antisocial and confrontational lyrics.
In 1985, Yorke met two of his future bandmates at the boys-only Abingdon School and the seeds of Radiohead were planted: Guitarist Ed O’ Brien (recruited because Yorke thought he looked like Morrissey) and bassist Colin Greenwood (recruited because he dressed weird and went to lots of parties, Yorke told RS.) Drummer Phil Selway joined soon after, and Greenwood’s younger brother Jonny rounded out the lineup, first as harmonica player, then as keyboardist and finally, as guitarist. After parting ways to attend university, the group, then named On a Friday, reconvened to record a series of demo tapes including one called Manic Hedgehog, which caught the ear of EMI in 1991 during the wave of grunge fever. The label promptly signed the group to a six-album deal but requested they changed their moniker. Thus, in 1992, On a Friday became Radiohead, named after a Talking Heads song that appeared on that band’s True Stories.
Radiohead’s debut EP Drill was released in 1992. Heavily inspired by the Pixies at this time, a group Yorke would champion as one of the greatest ever, the EP featured four songs, three of which would appear on the band’s debut 1993 album Pablo Honey. Titled after a Jerky Boys skit, Pablo Honey featured the smash hit “Creep,” a song that remains Radiohead’s most lasting and successful single even though they’ve all but disowned Pablo Honey in the shadow of their later work. With Yorke’s Kurt Cobain hair, its depressing story about unrequited love and the way “Creep” borrowed the Pixies’ loud-quiet-loud aesthetics, many were quick to bunch Radiohead in with the overgrowing pool of Nirvana rip-offs, another one-hit wonder from the other side of the Atlantic plundering Nevermind for instant and fleeting fame.
1995’s The Bends proved that Radiohead was no one hit wonder: With its mix of sonic guitar anthems and striking ballads, the band’s second album was critically applauded immediately, and Radiohead were elevated above their Brit pop peers on the strength of songs like “My Iron Lung,” “High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees.” Yorke’s lyrics now began to paint a more haunted landscape, with themes of sickness, consumerism, jealousy and longing. While no singles scraped the heights of “Creep,” The Bends was a smash success in the U.K. and wound up selling well in the U.S. The music on The Bends was so potent and fresh that bands like Coldplay and Muse, two Brit rock groups directly influenced by Radiohead’s second album, would go on to enjoy multi-platinum fame by adhering to its blueprint.
The Bends would also mark the beginning of a pair of collaborations with important ancillary members of the Radiohead family that would continue until this day. Nigel Godrich, an engineer on The Bends, would go on to serve as Radiohead’s fulltime producer, a fortuitous partnership that has deservedly drawn similarities to George Martin’s relationship with the Beatles. The Bends was also the first Radiohead album to don the artwork of Stanley Donwood, an Exeter College friend of Yorke’s whose own artwork seemed to mature visually at the same pace as the band’s sound was maturing aurally. On Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time, The Bends placed at Number 110.
The success of The Bends scored Radiohead gigs opening for Alanis Morissette—with the band using that trek to road test tracks for their third album—and R.E.M. Yorke and R.E.M’s Michael Stipe became friends while their two bands on the road, and the whole experience would go on to influence the trajectory of the band’s career. “We were a different band after we toured with R.E.M.,” Ed O’Brien told Rolling Stone in 1997. “They did it their own way, and we spoke about that as the way that we wanted to do it: go out there and gig, and win a few more people over on each album.” A collection of B-sides from The Bends were released as the My Iron Lung EP, and the track “Talk Show Host” would appear on the soundtrack for the film Romeo + Juliet. While not on the soundtrack, the end credits song from that film was another new Radiohead composition called “Exit Music (For a Film),” a track inspired by William Shakespeare’s tragedy that would reappear a year later on Radiohead’s third album.
“Everyone said, ‘You’ll sell 6 or 7 million if you bring out The Bends, Part 2, ” O’Brien told RS in 1997, “And we’re like, ‘Yeah, right.’ But we’re not going to do that. The one thing you don’t want to say to us is what we should do, because we’ll kick against that and do exactly the opposite.” Gone were the introspective Brit pop anthems, in their place something bleaker, atmospheric and more sophisticated. OK Computer’s dozen songs touch on paranoia, the repetitive minutiae of suburban life, alien abduction, car crashes, plane crashes and the foreboding computer age.
In just four years, Radiohead had gone from “Creep” to OK Computer’s lead single “Paranoid Android,” a six-and-a-half minute multi-part epic that drew comparisons to everything from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” to the Beatles to prog-rock. Two more singles from the album got heavy airplay, “Karma Police” and “No Surprises,” and the success of OK Computer both critically and commercially—the LP would hit Number One on the U.K. Album Charts—jettisoned Radiohead to global fame. The wears of the ensuing tour and Yorke’s almost inability to adapt to this new popularity was documented in the film Meeting People is Easy.
After the monumental success of OK Computer, expectations were unfathomably high for Radiohead’s fourth album. With Yorke suffering from writer’s block and the band divided over what direction their music should take—whether to return to rock or go further off the deep end—Radiohead once again teamed with producer Nigel Godrich to begin recording Kid A in 1999. With Kid A, Radiohead took OK Computer, dismantled it down to its motherboard, added technology both cutting edge and antiquated and rebuilt it all as an actual paranoid android. Radiohead’s most recognizable instrument had always been Yorke’s unique voice, but Kid A intentionally rendered his vocals mechanized and mutilated. Gone was the tender and elegiac voice that serenaded listeners on “High and Dry” and “Exit Music (For a Film)”; in its place was something distant, alien and largely inhuman.
The presence of guitars, the supplier of the riffs that brought Radiohead’s worldwide fame on their previous albums, was minimal on Kid A, and when they did emerge that were severely treated. Throughout Kid A, Jonny Greenwood used one of the earliest electronic instruments, the ondes Martenot, in new ways, and it’s fitting that on Kid A’s centerpiece and most revolutionary track, the apocalyptic disco of “Idioteque,” the band sampled Paul Lansky’s “Mild Un Leise,” an innovative computer-born piece of 1970s electronic music. On Kid A, Radiohead looked back at all the music that inspired them—rock, jazz, dance, classical, electronic, avant-garde, Krautrock—threw all those influences in a shredder and rearranged them piece-by-piece to form music for a new millennium. “I find it difficult to think of the path we’ve chosen as ‘rock music,'” Yorke told Rolling Stone in his only American Kid A-era interview. “Kid A is like getting a massive eraser out and starting again.”
It’s ironic that songs from an album so intent on being listened to as a singular work of art would leak individually and out of order in the early days of Napster, making Kid A one of the first albums to prematurely appear on the file-sharing program, a problem that would later cripple the record industry. Even though Napster conspired against the way Kid A was meant to be heard, Radiohead became one of the first bands to embrace the Internet as a promotional tool, posting brief snippets of Kid A songs to whet the appetite of fans.
As Kid A yielded no music videos, singles or interviews from the band, these little “blips” were all the band did to promote their album; in fact, the positive word of mouth circulating around the Kid A leak helped create more prerelease buzz than any video or single could have. Despite no singles, no videos and an album that was readily available for free to anyone with access to a high-speed cable modem, Kid A debuted at Number One on the Billboard album charts upon its release.
The sessions for Kid A were rumored to have produced enough songs for two full albums, so when Radiohead began playing new songs while touring in support of Kid A, it seemed like fans wouldn’t have to wait long for the band’s next LP. And they didn’t, as Amnesiac arrived in June 2001, just eight months after Kid A, with a more conventional release complete with singles and music videos.
Mistakenly dismissed as an inferior Kid B before its release, Amnesiac did approach many of the similar themes of its older brother, as evidenced by the redux “Morning Bell/Amnesiac.” The sweeping, mournful “Pyramid Song,” Amnesiac’s first single, ranks among Radiohead’s most beloved songs, and second single “Knives Out” was the closest thing the band’s later output came to The Bends. Amnesiac also produced the anthemic “You And Whose Army?,” the orchestral dub of “Dollars and Cents” and the jazz band closer “Life in a Glass House,” plus sonic experiments in the form of “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” and “Like Spinning Plates.” The album’s one true rocker, “I Might Be Wrong,” served as the foundation for an EP that showcased the band’s stunning stage show, 2001’s I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings, which proved that Radiohead was still a marquee rock band onstage.
While touring in the summer of 2002, Radiohead premiered another dozen new songs onstage. These tracks provided the backbone for the band’s next album, 2003’s Hail to the Thief. More song-minded and tuneful than its predecessors, the first sound the listener hears on HTTT opener “2+2=5” is the sound of a guitar being plugged into an amp, signifying the album would be a slight return to the rock Radiohead all but abandoned on their previous two albums. The album was also a reflection of the gloomy state of affairs in the post-9/11 world; George W. Bush’s America was marching hand-in-hand into Iraq with the United Kingdom and all the paranoia of Yorke’s earlier lyrics suddenly seemed justified. Among the highlights on Hail to the Thief were the Grammy-nominated “There There,” a Can-inspired single paced by a thunderous army of drums, the rock-oriented second single “Go to Sleep” and “A Wolf at the Door,” a foreboding album closer that Yorke delivers so frenetically it borders on hip-hop. A collection of Hail-era B-sides and remixes were released on the COM LAG EP in 2004, and after releasing three critically acclaimed albums in the span of three years, Radiohead went on hiatus to begin work on solo projects.
Yorke, more fascinated with music born out of computers than guitars, finally placated all his electronic yearnings on his debut solo album The Eraser, released in July 2006. A departure from Radiohead’s work but still distinctively Yorke, the album was received warmly by both critics and fans. It wouldn’t be until October 2009 that Yorke would finally bring Eraser tracks to a live setting, teaming with Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea and Godrich for a band named “????”. Yorke’s side project was enlisted to perform at the 2010 Coachella Festival. Meanwhile, Greenwood and his continued mastery of the ondes Martenot were drafted to score director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Oscar-nominated film There Will Be Blood. In his first true attempt as film composer, Greenwood’s score earned rave reviews.
Recording on the band’s seventh album began in mid-2005 through early-2006, but the band grew frustrated with what was coming out of those sessions. For the first time since Pablo Honey, Radiohead tried working without the aid of Nigel Godrich, adding Mark “Spike” Stent for the embryonic stages of the recording. By April 2006, however, Stint was relieved of his duties and Godrich was reinstated.
Taking what they worked on during those early sessions, Radiohead crafted their new songs during a tour in the summer of 2006, including the band’s now-historic headlining performance at Bonnaroo that boasted many of the tracks that would later appear on their next album. After perfecting the new songs on the road, a refocused and reinvigorated Radiohead reentered the studio in 2006. A year later, the band’s official Website Dead Air Space would sporadically come alive with veiled messages, decoded as gibberish. Still, it was apparent that the gears were turning on the Radiohead front. Then, on October 1st, 2007, a message on the Radiohead Website read: “Well, the new album is finished, and it’s coming out in 10 days…We’ve called it In Rainbows.”
Six albums into their career and on the verge of their seventh, Radiohead finally found them in a position they hadn’t been in since before Pablo Honey, as the band’s record contract with EMI expired following HTTT. “If the major labels had their shit together about the Internet… They’ve been sticking their heads in the sand over new technology,” Yorke told Rolling Stone in 2000 as the record industry struggled to adapt to Napster and the digital medium. “They reaped some pretty bad karma doing that, and now they’re paying the consequences.” Free of their record contract, the stage was set for the band’s riskiest masterstroke to date with the 2007 release of In Rainbows.
In a move that would revolutionize how artists would distribute their music, Radiohead offered up In Rainbows by allowing people to pay what they wanted for a digital copy of the album, thus letting the fans decide what the music was worth to them. The theory was, since all of their albums since Kid A had leaked prior to its release—including Hail to the Thief in an unmastered form—they’d leak the complete album the way it was meant to be heard themselves while essentially putting a digital tip jar on the album’s official website. The majority opted to download In Rainbows for free, but the band later revealed that the In Rainbows experiment did more for their own pocketbooks means than the release of their previous albums.
In addition to the “pay-what-you-want” approach, which was both applauded and criticized but was inarguably an industry-changer, Radiohead also offered up a “disc-box” version of In Rainbows, a physical release that included and a bonus disc sporting eight additional songs from the In Rainbows sessions. Despite being distributed for free legally and illegally—peer-to-peer downloads of In Rainbows reportedly eclipsed legal downloads—the album still reached Number One on the Billboard 200 when it was physically released on CD on January 1st, 2008. In Rainbows itself was Radiohead’s most lush and accessible LP since OK Computer, and introduced the band to a whole new generation of fans. Radiohead toured in support of In Rainbows throughout 2008.
2009 brought a pair of new Radiohead recordings, the charity single “Harry Patch (In Memory Of)” and a free download of an IR leftover “These Are My Twisted Words.” Thom Yorke also released a 12” single with two new tracks “The Hollow Earth” and “Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses” and also contributed the song “Hearing Damage” to the Twilight: New Moon soundtrack. In early 2010, Radiohead began work on their follow-up to In Rainbows.