2006 May 21 | The Independent
Thom Yorke: Protest singer
Thom Yorke is able to do whatever he wants: not content with being the creative genius of Radiohead, the 37-year-old is about to release a solo album and can breezily turn down invites to Downing Street. So why, wonders Nick Duerden, has the king of guitar rock become such a grump?
Published: 21 May 2006
In a little over a month's time, Thom Yorke releases his first solo album. This is a typically unpredictable move from someone forever at pains to follow no other script but his own. His band have recently embarked upon a mini UK tour, showcasing up to six new songs and thereby suggesting their seventh album was imminent. Not so. These songs, Yorke has since explained, are merely works in progress, part of a teaser campaign, if you like, to sate impatient fans and to remind everyone else that Radiohead remain an ongoing concern.
But from July, Yorke will be a solo artist. The album is called The Eraser and has been produced by longtime Radiohead collaborator Nigel Godrich (it features, in part, "bicycle wheels and a prosthetic arm" in lieu of regular instruments). Yorke is adamant that this latest move not be misread.
"As you know, the band are now touring and writing new stuff and getting to a good space," he recently posted on his website. "So I want no crap about me being a traitor and whatever, splitting up [the band], blah blah. This was all done with their blessing. And I don't wanna hear the word 'solo'. Doesn't sound right." A peculiar thing to say given that The Eraser is, unarguably, a solo record - but then that's Thom Yorke for you: even his fansite missives sound grumpy. Still, what did we expect? The man is no more likely to mellow with age (he is now 37) than he is to commandeer a team of huskies and go trekking to the Arctic Circle.
Radiohead, of course, are the leading band of their generation, unwittingly responsible for myriad soundalikes (Coldplay, Keane, Snow Patrol, Athlete... take your pick). The quintet formed in their native Oxford back in 1988, initially under the name of On A Friday. By 1992, they had released "The Drill" EP - which today, incidentally, brings a tidy sum on eBay - that established them as an uncommonly emotive guitar band who took inspiration from various quarters (The Pixies, REM, even Nirvana) while making a sound quite their own. A year later came "Creep", their signature tune, whose cranking guitar chords and plaintive refrain, "I wish I was special", promptly elevated them into superstars for the abject and forlorn. A hit everywhere, Radiohead suddenly became a global concern. Events were to proceed rapidly from this point, the band's members often scrambling to keep pace.
If Pablo Honey, their 1993 debut album, was notable largely for its promise than its innovation, then 1995's The Bends made them the country's leading guitar act. Thom Yorke, formerly an affable, if awkward, young man had now become A Tortured Artist. His crooked teeth and lazy eye brought him condolences he didn't welcome and a cruel mockery he couldn't abide (Liam Gallagher once laughed at his "fucking cabbaged eye"). But rather than shy away from attention, he dyed his hair blonde, then shaved it off altogether. He took to scowling, not just with his face but every coiled inch of his five and a half foot frame. He griped, newly transformed into a perennial malcontent. The band's 1999 Meeting People Is Easy documentary would suggest that there are few things in life more dissatisfying than being in a successful rock group.
Creatively, though, Yorke was reaching the height of his powers. Alienation and millennial discontent had rarely sounded so thrillingly ornate as on 1997's OK Computer, and its breadth of imagination shamed the band's competitors, toiling with the old verse-chorus-verse approach to songwriting. In it's masterful opener, "Airbag", Yorke sings: "I'm back to save the universe." Many agreed, and the album has been voted the best record of all time in innumerable magazine polls. The four other members of Radiohead were, presumably, thrilled. This was what being in a band was all about, after all: success, worship, the burgeoning of the bank balance.
For Thom Yorke, however, things started to go awry. It's clinical depression, said some; a midlife crisis come early, say others. Whatever the reason, Yorke's cheerless worldview seemed only to be compounded by his group's success.
Over the next five years, Radiohead would become an altogether different kind of band. Fans - and, more pertinently, the record company - may well have wanted more of the same mesmerising and, ultimately, "commercial" music, but its frontman had other ideas. While it has never been officially acknowledged, so far as studio recordings went Yorke effectively rendered his band unemployed. For the next three albums, Kid A (2000), Amnesiac (2001) and Hail To The Thief (2003), the singer belligerently ploughed ever deeper into the field of computer-generated electronic music.
These were deliberately bewildering records, jarring and elliptical and obtuse, from which one could infer Yorke's bleakening mood. In spite of their anti-easy listening content, each reached number one in the UK charts. Yorke was duly mortified but he had, perhaps mercifully, finally found a worthy vent for his ire. He became a face for Oxfam's Make Trade Fair campaign, and took an active part in Friends of the Earth's The Big Ask, a crusade for a new law to force the government to cut carbon dioxide emissions by three per cent each year.
"We have to do something dramatic," he said recently on the subject. "There is no way climate change will be dealt with unless it's structural - as a law. We can't address the issue on a voluntary basis." On why he felt moved to lend his name to such a worthy cause, he commented. "You have a certain amount of credit you can cash in with your celebrity, and I'm cashing my chips in with this."
Recently, Friends of the Earth asked whether he would meet with the Prime Minister at Downing Street to discuss the issue further. He declined, saying that Blair was a man with "no environmental credentials. I have no intention of being used by spin doctors to make it look like we make progress when it is just words. I don't want to get involved directly. It's poison. [So] I'll just shout my mouth off from the sidelines."
Last year, Radiohead severed ties with their record company after 13 years. Just as he takes issue with so much in life, Yorke also takes issue with conglomerate-owned record companies who work their artists like Trojans to then reap the vast majority of the financial rewards.
Noel Gallagher once said that the path of the solo artist is "a very long road to loneliness". But life can't all be bad for Yorke. He is happily married, after all, to his university sweetheart Rachel, and the father to young Noah, five, and Agnes, two. Those who have heard his imminent solo album have described it as "customarily brilliant", and reports from the recent Radiohead tour suggest the band still have creativity to burn.
But then his curmudgeonly nature is surely the key to what makes Thom Yorke such a fascinating artist. If he were happier, it might be harder to tell the difference between him and the likes of James Blunt. Dissatisfaction is the emotion on which he thrives, and thank goodness for that. The snarl suits him. m
'The Eraser' is out in July on XL Records.