Radiohead - Biography
By Marcus Kagler
About once a decade an artist comes along and defies commercial trends to the ecstatic joy of the populous and changes the face of music as we know it. Elvis Presley shook his hips on national television, The Beatles redefined pop music, Led Zeppelin gave heavy metal to the masses, The Sex Pistols brought anarchy into households around the world, and Nirvana fused poetry, punk, and melody into an entirely new genre. When grunge died from overt commercialization in the mid 90’s it was a second tier English band named Radiohead who continued rock music’s evolution. Combining underground avant-garde electronic music, crushing guitar melodies, and obtuse lyrical content the Oxfordshire quintet served as one of the few mainstream bands to inject intelligence and artistic originally into the late 90’s barren musical landscape littered with candy coated boy bands and grunge knockoffs. The key to Radiohead’s continued success is their knack for never underestimating the intelligence of their audience. Whether they are experimenting with soundscapes or bucking the archaic music industry business model the band has consistently stayed a step ahead of cultural trends. Unlike most bands of their ilk, Radiohead has sold millions of albums and become a worldwide phenomenon by not conforming to the expanding commercialization music. By maintaining their artistic integrity and releasing challenging albums of exceptional quality Radiohead have secured themselves a slot in the top tier of the rock n’roll pantheon.
Radiohead formed in 1986 when Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, along with older brother Colin, Ed O’Brien, and Phil Selway were teenagers attending the Abington School in Oxsfordshire, England. They first began playing under the name On A Friday because that’s when they would rehearse in the school’s music room. The childhood friends continued to hone their musical skills playing various gigs in their hometown while attending university. Utilizing three guitarists and Yorke’s passionate vocal falsetto the band developed an emotionally epic indie pop sound layered with guitar fuzz and a driving rhythm section. Eventually they earned enough recognition to sign a six album deal with EMI although the label encouraged them to change their name. The band took the name Radiohead from a Talking Heads song and released the Drill EP (EMI) in 1992 to little notice. They released the single “Creep” later in the year but it was mostly dismissed by critics and the public at large. In a musical landscape dominated by Britpop and grunge the band’s debut full length, Pablo Honey (1993-Capitol), was either too dour or too pop to be considered either and the album fell through the cracks in Britain. But in the United States the single “Creep” was gaining moment receiving heavy video rotation on MTV. Almost overnight Radiohead had achieved one hit wonder status and the band toured relentlessly. While on tour they began testing new material within their live sets, a tradition they continue to this day.
Seeking to reign in their quiet/loud guitar attack aesthetic the band regrouped with producer John Leckie and released their sophomore effort, The Bends (Capitol) in the spring of 1994. Mixing ambient computerized sound effects with fluid guitar hooks while further honing ethereal ballads The Bends was Radiohead’s first cohesive album and served as a blueprint for future releases. The album sold moderately upon release but slowly garnered the band a strong following on the strength of breakthrough single “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” and its otherworldly video. Thanks to the support of Michael Stipe the band secured an opening slot for R.E.M.’s stadium tour and The Bends was ultimately voted one of the best albums of the year by UK music press. Still, Radiohead found themselves swimming in the college charts unable to shake their one hit wonder status established by “Creep”.
Upon returning to England the band holed up with producer Nigel Godrich in their rehearsal space, Canned Applause (a former apple shed) to begin work on a new album. After laying down a handful of tracks they hit the road supporting Alanis Morrissette to road test the new material. After the tour Radiohead reunited with Godrich at the 15th century mansion, St. Catherine’s Court, to complete their third full length, OK Computer (1997-Capitol). The album expanded upon their previous efforts with epic tracks combining twisted song structures with ethereal computerized textures and Yorke’s conceptualized themes of human alienation within the modern technical world. OK Computer was a massive critical success debuting at #1 on the UK charts and found commercial success off the single, “Karma Police” and its heavily rotated video.The album also earned Radiohead their first Grammy award for Best Alternative Album of the Year and a nomination for Album of the Year. Capitalizing on their commercial success the band set off on the wildly successful year long world wide“Against Demons” tour.
The subsequent documentary tour film, Meeting People Is Easy (1999-Capitol) showcased the band’s slow yearlong burnout and dissatisfaction with the music industry. After three albums, commercial success, and the rigors of the road Radiohead had come dangerously close to unraveling. The band went on hiatus throughout the rest of 1998 and reconvened early the next year to begin recording their fourth full length. Once again reunited with producer Nigel Godrich the year and half long recording process was rocky at best. Yorke suffered from severe writers block and tensions between the individual members of the group grew as the band sat a creative crossroads. Constantly writing and re-writing songs, Radiohead settled on the idea of creating a sonically experimental studio album without giving any thought to live presentation. The result of the sessions was over 30 songs ranging from ambient electronic numbers to free form jazz experiments. Deciding against a double album, the band split the tracks into two separate albums to be released within months of each other.
The first album from the sessions, Kid A (2000-Capital), segregated fans and critics alike. Built on experimental computerized ambience with nary a guitar to be heard the album shunned the OK Computer aesthetic that brought them worldwide acclaim. Kid A contained no radio singles and no music videos aside from Internet only short films. To many it seemed Radiohead were bent on sabotaging their commercial popularity yet the innovation of Kid A was undeniable and the album debuted in the U.S. at #1 and won them a second Grammy for Alternative Album of the Year with a second nomination for Album of the Year. Dissatisfied with corporately owned stadiums the band toured Kid A around Europe in a custom made tent. In June of the following year the band released the Kid A companion album, Amnesiac (2001-Capital). The Amnesiac tracks were more guitar oriented and showcased elements of jazz song structures. Although not as cohesive as Kid A the album was another critical and commercial success and the band embarked on a world wide tour. Near the end of 2001, Radiohead released their first live album, I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings comprised of different Kid A and Amnesiac tracks recorded throughout their world tour.
After some time off, Radiohead kept with tradition and toured Spain and Portugal in the summer of 2002 to showcase and road test new tracks written for their upcoming sixth album. Hail to the Thief (2003-Capital) was created in a whirlwind two week recording session with producer Nigel Godrich in Los Angeles, California. Although the album wasn’t the milestone of its predecessors, it did serve as a consistent amalgam of the band’s different incarnations and they embarked on another world tour that ended with a headlining slot at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
The next few years proved to be relatively quiet for the band. Yorke released his first solo album, The Erasure (2006-XL) while Jonny Greenwood turned to scoring various films. Yet with Radiohead’s contract to EMI fulfilled the world questioned what their next move would be. The band answered on September 30, 2007 with the announcement that their seventh album, In Rainbows, would be released as a digital download from their website without the backing of a label. Adding insult to injury the band put no price tag on the record only adding a $1 service charge and a banner reading, “It’s up to you”. Once again, Radiohead defied expectations and bucked a music industry already in a serious state of fluctuation. Critically, the album was heralded as the bands' finest and most unified collection of songs since Kid A and the band announced plans to tour sometime in 2008.