Radiohead spurn the temptations of the rock 'n' roll lifestlye for anxiety attacks and contract bridge
By Caren Myers
In the world of pop, it is the Englishman's prerogative to whine. While American self-hatred is dumb, messy, and usually involoves blowing your head off with a shotgun, the English revel in moments of exquisite humiliation.
Radiohead's single "Creep" was a classic of the genre. A cross between the Smiths' "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" and the song from Disney's *The Flying Mouse* that goes "You're nothing but a nothing," it transformed the experience of being blown off by a girl into a raging anthem for inadequates everywhere. The sight of Radiohead on MTV -- four embarrassed, gawky boys and one slight frontman, features twisted with self-disgust as he sneered, "I wish I was special/You're so very special/But I'm a creep" -- touched a nerve. With "Creep," Radiohead took their place in the fine tradition of English self-deprecation, along with Morrissey's fey melancholia and Robert Smith's choking psychodramas. But this time, the hand-wringing had loud guitars that went *crunch*.
Their debut album, Pablo Honey, is wimp rock with teeth, a tinny English clatter saved by an amateurish exuberance. Thom e. Yorke's petulant but vulnerable lyrics spin tales of loneliness, frustration, and all-around kvetchiness. The rest of the band -- guitarists Ed O'Brien and Jonny Greenwood, bassist Colin Greenwood, and drummer Phil Selway -- build up pretty melodies, then scribble all over them with clanging power chords and whistling feedback. Yearning acoustic ditties are offset by stadium-rock grandiloquence -- "Stop Whispering" has a clarioncall vocal that recalls Bono before he got the black plastic outfit. And sometimes the words hit home, expressing all the dreams and wishes pinned onto rock music: "Anyone can play guitar, and they won't be a nothing anymore."
Ignored for the better part of a year in Britain for being neither glamorous nor grungy, Radiohead connected in the States this past spring. For melancholy boys who shrank from the rippling torsos of bands like the Chili Peppers, Radiohead provided a chance to feel worthless on an equal basis. Here, after all, were five boys with no torsos at all. And girls saw a nonthreatening, adolescent moodiness (never mind that they're in their mid-twenties) that made them want to take care of the group.
So they played "Creep" at the MTV Beach House and on Arsenio. Girls screamed at them in Chicago. They had panties thrown at them in Detroit. A naked would-be groupie knocked on Jonny's hotel room door in Los Angeles. "Luckily, I wasn't in." And *Pablo Honey* sold almost half a million copies.
Nice middle-class kids who met at an all-boys' private school, Radiohead sometimes seem less like a band than a group of school chums on an outing. They're all poetry buffs. Thomas Edward Yorke (Thom for short) shrank his middle initial in tribute to e. e. cummings. They're given to starting sentences with phrases like "As Arthur Miller said in his autobiography" or " I think a good place to start would be Noam Chomsky." Only Jonny betrays any self-consciousness, breaking off in the middle of describing a Sylvia Plath poem, apologizing for referring to poetry in a pretentious fashion. Don't worry, I tell him, you've all done it.
His eyes widen. "Have we? How ghastly."
They've been called "a lily-livered excuse for a rock band," which makes them rather proud. It's their way of getting away from "all the ugly male sleazy semen-smelling rock bullshit," as Thom puts it. Other bands throw up in their tour bus. Radiohead play bridge.
"We've got a flight-case bridge table for the next tour," confides Jonny. "It helps if you're just a little pompous about these things. You enjoy them that much more."
With the bulk of Radiohead's advance safely deposited inan interest-bearing account ("So if we're dropped, we'll have enough money to put out another album on our own label"), the most extravagant thing Thom has bought is a Sony Discman. "We could have lived better, but we're quite tight with the old purse strings," says Ed with modest pride.
They were so frugal, the record company finally gave them a clothing allowance. Ed bought one white shirt. Thom bought a whole bunch of secondhand stuff "which I then discovered didn't fit or looked awful."
Attitude is provided by Thom, a cranky, diminutive figure with the complexion of a peeled egg. I first meet the band at their rehearsal studio, a converted apple shed in a field near Oxford. Thom shakes hands, says hello, then he doesn't utter another word. In the beer garden of a nearby pub, the rest of the band chatter gaily while Thom stares stonily into his mineral water. After fifteen minutes he leaves. Hmm.
"I don't like strangers," he explains lamely in a more docile moment. But it's more than that. He's trying to atone for the "aggressive pain-in-the-ass bigmouth" reputation he's gotten himself through a series of flippant remarks about, well, you name it. Lampooning Radiohead's dubious superficial resemblance to Nirvana, he said he looked "incredibly like Kurt Cobain" but didn't have a "fat ugly wife." Kurt Cobain was pretty sore about that.
"Oops," says Thom, embarrassed. "It was a joke. I didn't actually expect him to read it." Thommy's got a lot to learn. He now has a new philosophy of life: "Fore God's sake, keep your bloody mouth shut."
Success has given Thom something new to grouse about. "You go from being this person who's completely unknown, writing these personal songs, to being someone who's stretched very thin along some kind of torture instrument," he complains. "I thought I could deal with it, but I've discovered that I can't."
He blinks at me. His left eyelid is twitching slightly. He is being precious, but he can't help it. He takes everything to hear -- year-old criticisms, derogatory photo captions, the fear that as the band gets bigger, he'll fell cheapened. He obsesses over everything, from the metaphysical to the mundane -- he even dreams about sound checks.
At Abingdon School, outside of Oxford, Thom and Colin were in the same year. They used to crash the same parties, Thom wearing a dinner suit, Colin a body stocking and a beret. Phil's buddies -- they were two years older -- used to beat them up. Colin met Ed on a school production of Gilbert and Sullivan's *Trial by Jury*. Thom had wanted to be in a band ever since he got tired of Lego blocks, so he got the others together to play everything from ska to country.
They rehearsed on Friday evenings, so they called themselves On a Friday. Colin's little brother, Jonny, who was fourteen and was playing viola in the Thames Vale Youth Orchestra, hung around their rehearsals until they let him join. He was in his first semester of college when the band -- having survived an existence limited to summer vacations and a change of name -- was signed. He had to drop out, but he takes his textbooks on tour. He still finds it a little strange to be playing with the big boys. But he's the one who gets fourteen-year-old girls telling him they love him.
IN LEUVEN, BELGIUM, RADIOHEAD ARE PLAYING AT the Marktrock Festival, the kind of event where Willy DeVille makes the top of the bill. In the kitchen of a run-down hotel that serves as a dressing room, Ed dictates the set list to Jonny by playing charades. "First word," says Jonny obediently, "sounds like..." He watches Ed get funky. "Groove?...'Prove Yourself.'"
The stage is set up at one end of the town square, and people are leaning from windows to watch the show. Live, Radiohead have the kick they're missing on record, and the drunken Belgian teenagers (they've been at it since 2 P.M.) hoot appreciatively.
Walking back to the hotel, Ed spots a cookware store. "I could spend a fortune here!" he exclaims, gazing at the copper saucepans. "My mum bought me a fish steamer for Christmas, and that was the most exciting thing ever."
There's something endearingly hapless about Radiohead. The world is their oyster, but they blunder along as if nobody had told them. It's the festival's last night, and there's a party atmosphere in the streets. As if by instinct, Radiohead turn down the only street that leads away from the lively cafes and Gothic churches, to an ersatz English pub with a few dispirited locals inside. It smells a little ripe, so we sit outside, at a table in the gutter, up against the bumpers of the cars parked there. "This is completely Radiohead," says Thom. "We're crap." In the distance, the good times rumble faintly.
Caren Myers is an American writer living in London.