As lead singer of Britain's
brainy rock band Radiohead. Thom Yorke seems to be on the verge of fame
and fortune. But the acclaim surrounding his group's latest CD is a burden
he can do without.
by Elizabeth Benzetti
The weight of the world is apparently resting on Thom Yorke's frail, hunched shoulders. The singer and guitarist for Britain's brainy rock band Radiohead is facing the morning like a man - he hasn't sloughed off an interview like the way his bandmate Jonny Greenwood did, complaining of tummy ache.
Still, it's been less than 12 hours since Radiohead was on stage at Toronto's Opera House for a concert that sold out in minutes (and led to a grumbling form fans that only a fraction of the 700 tickets went on sale to the public). Reportedly, Bono and REM's Michael Stipe showed up a a recent Radiohead gig in New York.
It's this kind of creeping fame, as well as the unforgiving light of morning, that causes Yorke to cradle his pale, spiky head in his hands. It's all too much, Yorke says, as he contemplates the release of the band's latest record, OK Computer.
Released last week, OK Computer is a record that the band's label, EMI, has been touting as if it were a lost Bach cantata with a new Beatles songon the flip side. Critics seem to agree about its merits: a dark. sprawling, multilayered effort that mixes sharp guitars with washes of keyboards and Yorke's sepulchral vocals.
"To have all this hype around the record is not something I've ever had to deal with," said Yorke. "A lot of the hype is being shouldered by me. I'm not into it at all."
There was quite a bit of hype around the band's previous record. 1995's The Bends, although it was more critical hot air than widespread appeal. Radiohead, five friends from the city of Oxford who have been playing together since they were teen-agers more than a decade ago, is the kind of band that nerdy, serious music lovers know about before anyone else, and pray to God their friends don't discover.
It might be that the music provides a challenge to ears accustomed to treacly pop and simple-minded punk, or that Yorke's lyrics seem spun from a teen-age fretfulness "I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo," he sings in the band's only authentic hit, 1993's Creep. "What the hell am I doing here?"
There is also the undeniable appeal of someone like Yorke (who looks as though he knows what it's like to be picked on) wreaking revenge through music. "When I am king," he sings in the band's new single Paranoid Android, "you will be first against the wall."
Right now, the prospect of increased attention seems a burden Yorke can't bear. "I'm not moaning," he said, although he is. "It's just not something I can get my head 'round in any way at all."
The small matter of a large London stadium is also preying on his mind. "In Britain, selling out Wembley Arena is the clichéd thing to do. It's the thing the pissed bloke in the pub says to you as a cultural statement. Well, we sold it out in a day and a half."
Yorke may not have to worry about seeing the band end up in People magazine, because OK Computer is not exactly the Spice Girls. It's not yet clear whether the buying public - and its jungle drum, radio - will want to embrace something that seems at first too prickly to be embraced.
While it's not exactly a concept record, and Yorke would probably spit up his breakfast it told that it were, OK Computer it a loosely linked collection of songs made possible by technological advances (listen to all those cool effects), yet expressing skepticism about where these advances lead. Fitter Happier is not a song but a voice, fed through a synthesizer, intoning a list of proper adult virtues: "Fitter, happier, more productive, comfortable, not drinking too much...no longer afraid of the dark or midday shadows." At the other end is the ghostly Exit Music (for a film) which is exactly that. Written for Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film Romeo and Juliet, it's a delicate song that rises into a furious crescendo as Romeo curses his parents and Juliet's - and, by extension, grownups everywhere.
The band is certainly not reaching out to a wider public with the video accompanying Paranoid Android, a three-part, six-minute song one writer has compared to Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody (though much less campy). The video features not a single member of the admittedly unvideogenic band. Instead, it's a weird, primitive cartoon about angels and sadomasochism.
The animated video is part of the Radiohead master plan, which involves creating mini-movies for each of the 12 tracks on OK Computer and showing them at the Edinburgh festival. Radiohead's ambitions seem alternately very grand or very pretentious for what is, after all, a pop band.
Or are they a "prog-rock" bamd, as in progressive rock, as in Genesis, Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer? Rolling Stone magazine called OK Computer "a stunning art-rock tour de force" When The Bends was released, bassist Colin Greenwood told a journalist that an executive at the band's label had listened to the record and sneered, "I don't intend to take some (bleeping) prog-rock album." Most damning of all, they have admitted to loving Rush. So what does that make Radiohead, some kind of Pink Floyd for the new millennium? It is a question - or an allegation - that makes Yorke's thin lips curl. The art-rock label, he said, actually started out as Jonny Greenwood's running joke "that he was listening to all these dodgy Genesis concept albums. On this record, the influence is more Ennio Moricone and classical stuff, rather than "prog-rock".
Yet Yorke admitted that when the band huddled in England last year to write and record new material, they deliberately headed away from the hairy-chested world of three-chord rock that had launched them on their 1993 record Pablo Honey."We weren't listening to guitar bands, we were thoroughly ashamed of being a guitar band. So we bought loads of keyboards and learned how to use them, and when we got bored we went back to guitars."
The band is lucky to still be together, because the sudden and unexpected success of Creep caused things to fall apart - or, as Yorke said, "We lost the plot." He said things are much improved and the band much matured - they actually speak to each other now.
What further proof is there of the band's success than being chosen to write a song for a James Bond film? (That's if you consider the U2-penned Bond song, not the ones by Duran Duran or A-Ha.) Radiohead was approached by the Bond people, but couldn't find the time. Yorke, brightening momentarily, professed himself more thrilled at the prospect of a James Bond song than anything else fame might offer. "That was about the most exciting thing that's ever happened to me."