It's five minutes after midnight
in Cambridgeshire, England, some three hours north of London, and Thom
Yorke is standing in the middle of an empty field. Five seven. rail thin,
and balding rapidly, Yorke is an unlikely rock star; save for his leather
jacket and Pan-Cake makeup, the lead singer of Radiohead looks more like
a monk from the local cathedral. Suddenly, a pair of headlights appear
in the fog. A big Chrysler New Yorker pulls up beside Yorke. Shivering,
he slides into the backseat. Then the driver gets out and leaves him alone
in the still-idling vehicle. "A car driving itself," Yorke says with a
shrug. "Story of my life."
Last week, Radiohead released their third album, a pivotal effort called OK Computer. Though the Oxford quintet now command the respect of critics and high-profile peers (Madonna, Marilyn Manson, U2, and three supermodels were among the guests at the band's recent sold-out New York show), the new record -a furious and occasionally impenetrable work filled with meandering five minute sonnets-is what is euphemisticlly referred to as "difficult." It's clear that Radiohead will need a great video to conquer America.
Which brings us back to Cambridgeshire, the English equivalent of upstate New York. Yorke is here to work on a two-night video shoot for "Karma Police," the new album's third single. (The band's already made an animated, MTV-approved clip for "Paranoid Android" and a stop-action video for "Let Down.")
Radiohead have a reputation for strikingly innovative videos, but no amount could possibly Justify the strategy for the new album. Tonight's shoot is the third project in a grandiose, if ill-advised, plan to turn the entire disc -twelve tracks-into videos. It's a move of Michael Jacksonian proportions, more in keeping with a superstar than a "sensitive" alternative outfit. "It's financially suicidal," Yorke admits, with a twisted smile on his face. "This video alone would cost us a really nice house somewhere."
It's slightly after I A.M. now, and tensions are high. It's very cold. The remote-control camera seizes up. Technicians mill around. Suddenly, the director yells "Action," and everyone scatters. Everyone except Yorke; he's still in the backseat, a camera inches from his face. Music pours from a pair of hidden speakers and Yorke begins to lip-synch: "This is what you
get / This is what you get when you mess with us.'" Cut! "
Yorke's nailed the take, but now there's a new problem: Fumes from the engine are irritating the singer's lungs. "You can smell it, can't you?" the soundman says. A technician pokes his head into the vehicle: "Smell it? You can see it! " The British press have long pegged Yorke as a solitary, tortured soul, but neither of these qualities is evident during this long, cold night. A slightly dazed Yorke appears unconcerned. "Ah, well," he says, "at least I'll be warm when I die."
It's a tale of retribution, kind of a Samuel Becketty psychological tease." Director Jonathan Glazer is explaining the plot of "Karma Police" to a visitor on the set. "You're the point of view," he says, "and Thom is a passive passenger." Despite the faulty equipment and extreme fog, Glazer is clearly enthused. Preparing the next take, he pauses for just a moment, then turns around. "Great band, eh?" Later, a climactic shot will require a special-effects man to set the vehicle on fire. It's a risk: Video-channel censors have a tendency to pass on pyrotechnics. But even if MTV blinks, there's a plan to take the twelve-clip project directly to the film-festival circuit. It's possible the entire collection will also be available for purchase later this year, just in time to stuff a stocking near you.
It's approaching 2 A.M. In spite of the cold, Yorke remains on the set to watch a battered-looking actor run madly from the vehicle. The whole thing is seriously frightening. "Did you see that?! " Yorke says to no one in particular. "He looked absolutely terrified!"
Later, the crew and the singer stand around a monitor, reviewing the night's work. Yorke is particularly pleased with a rather ordinary-looking take of him lipsynching in the backseat. "I could do this for a living," he says, only half joking. "You just have to get in a car and move your mouth." The exhausted crew nod, patting both his back and his ego.
On the way back to Oxford after the shoot (3 A.M. for those of you still keeping track), someone pops a video into the minivan's VCR. "It's the new, censored version of 'Paranoid Android,"' the band's creative director explains. The six-and-a-half-minute animated epic has created something of a controversy. "Certain countries have objected to certain parts," she says. "The big problem was the mermaid's breasts; we had to cover the cartoon nipples. Her eyes roll.
As the music plays, Yorke watches the colorful footage in awe, singing along in the backseat. When the "offensive," footage hits the screen, he breaks into hysterics. "Now all you notice are the naughty bits! " he yells, laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. 'Brilliant," he says, wiping the tears from his eyes. "Absolutely bloody brilliant!"