1993 Fall | Fender Frontline
Creeping Into the Limelight
You know the feeling. You're finally secure in your own wretchedness, at peace with the fact that your clothes aren't the hippest
and your friends aren't big wheels. But then you're drawn to someone so perfect, so unattainable, you just want to weep--and
instead you end up berating your pathetically uncool self and sneering at this special person't position. Yeah, right.
Last year, English pop sensations Radiohead eloquently cast that feeling into their first single, "Creep". Vocalist Thom E. Yorke's
initial quiet despair is cracked wide open with a jarring, fragmentation grenade of a guitar riff that grabs you ears and twists hard.
When the video hit MTV earlier this year, U.S. masochists lapped it up--much to the Oxford quintet's surprise.
"It's frightening," confides soft-spoken "abusive guitar" player Johnny Greenwood, the one responsible for the soul-ripping blast that
diffuses Yorke's depression like any good manic swing should. "We still feel very much like a new band, really. It just feels very
Indeed, "Creep" -- from Radiohead's debut Capitol Records album, Pablo Honey--seemed to take over the airwaves rather
suddenly. But the song actually languished for months in the band's native land, partly because, Greenwood says, journalists there
were more interested in Radiohead for the group's release of a cleaned-up version, in which the object of desire is merely "so very
special." (The version on the CD expresses the same concept, albeit a bit more stringently!) Greenwood says they initially balked
at going radio-friendly, but ultimately decided that, if Dinosaur Jr., and Sonic Youth could do it, so could Radiohead. "But, sadly, we
didn't get away with it," he notes, in reference to the band's lambasting by the press for "selling out." (Curiously, by the end of 1992,
those very same writers had changed their tune, voting "Creep" one of the year's best singles. Go figure.)
This minor controversy has fortunately not overshadowed Radiohead's real noteworthiness as one of the most exciting new pop
bands around. They've managed to translate heaps of angst into a fetching fusion of loudness and introspection, and the appeal is
cemented by creative three-guitar interplay among Greenwood, Yorke, and "polite guitar" player Ed O'Brien, ably propped up by
Colin Greenwood's inventive bass and Phil Selway's rock steady drumming. Each member has distinct musical tastes--from
classical to country--but Radiohead's unique sound is a focused blend of punk, new way, and grunge. Educated ears will, however,
notice an undeniable question from The Hollies' "The Air That I Breathe" near the end of Creep--and rest assured it was
"What happened was, we wrote 'Creep', and the middle eighth just had...my guitar playing a tune," says Greenwood. "And Ed
stopped [us]and said, 'This is the same chord sequence as that Hollies song,' and then sang it. So Thom copied it. It was funny to
us in a way, sort of feeding something like that into [it]. It's a bit of change."
The press kit contends that Radiohead is "the antithesis of rock'n'roll," but the band is grounded in rebellion, and what could be
more rock'n'roll that ? They twist typical subjects like romance into festivals of simultaneous self-hatred and lashing out, with
Yorke's poetic lyrics venting frustration, anger, and yearning, channeled through rampaging, grimy riffs that are barely held in
check by the songs' tight structures. And, although optimism pops up regularly on tunes like "Anyone Can Play Guitar" (the second
single) and the plaintive soul tonic "Lurgee", you get the feeling that Yorke is one troubled individual.
Not exactly, says Greenwood. "Like the rest of the band, he sort of doesn't have any friends, really--which is a bit weird. We got
back to Oxford after touring...and it was really sad. We all got home, and I phoned up one or two people that we knew, who were
away, and then we ended up sort of phoning each other up again."
This group of college chums started playing music together for the same reason most people do: out of boredom. With such a
guitar-heavy sound, it's shocking to learn that earlier editions of the band, which officially became Radiohead in 1991, were not so
axe-intensive. Weirdly enough, the first incarnation included a horn section. "It was just basically the same [kind of sound] but with
saxophones," says Greenwood. "It's hard to believe, but we had three of them, and it harder and harder to write parts for them."
Although Colin, Radiohead's bassist, is Jonny's older brother, it wasn't easy for Jonny to grab his own slot. "The rest of the band
are basically [Colin's] friends," Jonny says. "So it was me following them around and begging them to let me be in their band for
two or three years. And they finally let me in on the harmonica, actually, and then the keyboards, and finally the guitar."
While still novices in the big world of rock, Radiohead is adjusting nicely to the lifestyle. Extensive touring in the U.S. and Europe
has connected them with adoring fans, who mostly just want to talk, says Greenwood, although there was a rather bizarre groupie
incident in Los Angeles, which is a naked young woman appeared at his hotel-room door. "Luckily, I wasn't there," he says. "I was,
like, miles away. But it was described to me. I felt very, very thankful [to have been away]."
The band has also rubbed elbows with the newly canonized PJ Harvey, opening up for them in New York and Los Angeles, which
Greenwood says was a real honor. "She's really great," he enthuses like a fan-boy. When Radiohead hits the road again in
September they'll pair up with Tanya Donelly's band Belly. "We can't wait," he says, confessing like a schoolboy that, when Belly
played a gig at London's Town & Country club, "Tanya kissed me, and I nearly fell over."
While the band will certainly soon be working on material for their next album, Greenwood says he prefers the road life.
"Recording doesn't really excite me as much, not yet, anyway." The guys travel by bus in perfect harmony. "Four of us just sit in
the back playing bridge for most of the journey and stuff like that," he says. "No exciting scandal." They've made a point of
exploring the cities they visit, he says, and he "fell in love with" Chicago Seattle. But his favorite souvenir was from Israel, where
he met his current girlfriend. "I'm very attached to [her]... She's staying with me right now."
So it would seem that these boys aren't such creeps after all. Anyway, notes Greenwood, the tune itself isn't necessarily negative.
"It's not a bad thing to be, in some ways. Part of the song is about following the girl around and dying to be part of her kind of
special group, but it's also about knowing what you are."