Their album outsells Suede's by 15 to 1, their single is in the Top 50 and MTV can't play their video enough times - in America, that is. Are RADIOHEAD destined to be the greatest British band we never had? PAUL MOODY visits the band in their hometown of Oxford and reckons it's about time we claimed them as our own.
It's midnight and Radiohead
are still trying to prove how un-rock 'n' roll they are. Here's bass playing
Oscar Wilde lookalike Colin: "We did this gig in Dallas, and afterwards
this beautiful girl homed in on Ed. She said her parents were away, that
she had loads of coke and that they
could be back there in ten minutes. We had a day off the next day and everything, he could've easily gone with her, but he didn't. That's just sp typical of the way we are."
He muses on this for a moment: "God knows why he didn't go."
THE ENGLISH ARE COMING! A newsflash: Life for Radiohead is changing. In America, 'Creep' is glued to the MTV schedules and has breached the top 50; 'Pablo Honey' has sold half a million copies and is outrunning Suede's sales by 15 to one, and even Arnie (not known for his indie upbringing) has made noises to the effect that he wants 'Creep' to be featured somewhere in his next film. This is ground-breaking stuff.
The last time such waves
were created by an English group. Jesus Jones and E.M.F seized hold of
the top US charts and embarrassed us for weeks. But now they are buying
the best English rock album of the year (source: Moody's Almanack) in droves
whilst Radiohead singles have to stage pitched battles to get into our
own Top 40.
The terrible thing is, this time the Americans have actually got it right, whereas our greatest previous exports The Smiths, Stone Roses, the Mondays - always managed to baffle them.
Oddly, Radiohead are chronically underrated here. A correspondent for an adult rock mag assures me their readers will have no idea who their singer is; the tabloids have even adopted the band as a plaything to wrap their 'Unknowns Storm US Chart' headlines around. As things stand then, they are little short of being the Fixx (80's pomp poppers loved in the states and loathed over here).
Colin: "No! No! Don't call
us the Fixx! We've been thinking thta ever since it all started taking
off in America. We're releasing "Stop Whispering" as the follow up single
over there and apparently a load of radio stations are already behind it,
so hopefully we'll counteract all that."But the Fixx had more than one
hit in America!
"Oh no! The thing is we desperately want to be successful over here. If it was a choice between the two then I think I'd want success here, personally."
Hmm. Things seem not to be as well in Radiohead's paradise as they might be. Despite massive success in America (in comparison to most of the bands featured in these pages their sales elevate them to the level of demi-gods) the band seem ill at ease with the conjecture and plagued with doubts about the microscopic press attention now pursuing them.
We've come to Oxford to catch
them away from the pressure cooker strains of America (and to see a low
key Reading warm up at the Venue, scene of the "Creep" video) but the mood
seems to be one of wariness, of a reticence to become re-involved in the
clutches of the press. Ideally we're here to gauge the mood of Thom, to
see how someone whose songs are consumed with fear and self-loathing is
coping with the holy grail of pop stardom, but this is proving difficult.
He is apparently 'interviewed out' following the press circus surrounding
"Creep" in America, and now leaves all such duties in the hands of band
diplomats Colin and John Malkovich clone Phil.
So we shizz around Oxford in a bright red Mini, talking about nothing, until we end up in Colin's flat 20 minutes before they go on, discussing the day they signed their souls away.
Colin: "It was a typical Radiohead day that we went down to London to sign the contracts and then decided to come straight back. Someone suggested we should go out for a drink so we split up and agreed to go out later on. Except by now it was pouring with rain and we spent hours walking around Oxford getting soaked looking for each other.
Phil: "The thing is, we always knew it was going to happen, even when we were On A Friday. We all went off to college but we knew we'd end up back together in the end. There was no one driving force, we were all determined to make it work."
The gig is amazing. Thom, his hair is a shaggy mustard and white peroxide, is in best frazzled mode, detonating the "It's inevitable" chorus of "Ripchord"; lashing into "Vegetable"; and careering through a white hot "Pop is Dead" like revenge for it having faltered on the steps of the British Top 40. Jonny, his gaze never lifted from the floorboards two inches in front of him, circumnavigates an endless stream of skyrocket riffs and later abruptly disappears in search of a party where teenage hearts will melt in his honour. The reception given to 'Creep', fizzing up from the jangled intro to the first titanic "You're so f-ing special" is the roar of a hundred support bands, happy just to be tangled up somewhere in the midst of the success story. Afterwards Thom is too exhausted to talk, and instead Colin and Phil frantically plug the gaps, squeezing out insights on their achievements in America along the way.
Colin: "I think going to America holds a mirror up to yourself. It can be whatever you want it to be. There was a metal band out there that Capitol (Radiohead's US label) wanted to sign and they gave them everything they ever wanted. They took them to Sunset Strip, got them whatever they wanted and some hookers and let them live out all their fantasies. All we got were a couple of decent meals."
Next morning comes the news that Thom will, after all, see us at the hotel at noon. His entry, much like his behaviour the previous night, is one of the tiny, imperfect pop star, aloof to the polite cracked smiles at reception, impervious to the alarmed looks of the businessmen scattered around the lounge. So IS simple success what he's been looking for?
"I can't really take any
of it seriously. America is such a wierd place. The people are really generous
and nice and kind, but..it's also got an energy that most European countries
lack. It's a dumb animal basically."
Did you not feel under the microscope out there?
"Not really. I dreaded coming back to be honest. I didn't feel so much under pressure from the press out there. I have a totally antagonistic attitude toward the press, especially the British press, because they've treated me like shit, and I really can't handle it. I decided on the plane back over that I wasn't going to talk to the British press, and I'm only doing this as an exception. Isn't it an English attitude in general to find fault with ourselves whereas the Americans do exactly the opposite? They can't even have slackers, say the whole grunge thing, without it being successful.
"Well, they're in love with success, but the thing about Britain is that you can't do anything without being assimilated into the mainstream. Even pop groups can only exist if they appeal to the normal world. All the people in Art Colleges only end up in bands because that's the only possible way of getting by. San Francisco is full of artists simply because they can survive doing that.
The general mood of the Radiohead
camp seems to be one of extreme caution toward the vagaries of the music
press whilst on a general slide toward the arms of America- They're one
of the great English pop groups who are leaving us - not because they want
to, but because they feel as though there's nothing left for them here.
Thom IS acutely aware of his own position as the band's figurehead but
agonises over it to such a degree that his supposed deficiencies tend to
tear him apart.
"I am being really f-ing difficult over things now. I'm much harder on myself and the rest of the band because it's even more important that we get things right."
And what about that un-rock'n'roll tag, does that still apply?
Thom laughs a rock star laugh and runs his fingers through his mustard-white hair.
"I dunno, not really."
He leaves, swaggering through the hotel foyer to aghast looks, into blazing afternoon sunshine. For the moment he's recovered the confidence born in Los Angeles. His final words are "I can't wait to get back".
He's the best pop star in Britain, but only until he reaches Heathrow.