Dateline 1992: Despite signing to EMI earlier in the year, Radiohead’s initial brace of releases (the Drill EP and Creep single) have entirely failed to chart. The band’s debut album (the as yet unnamed Pablo Honey) has been recorded but will remain in the can until February ’93.
With the mainstream music press absent, vocalist Thom Yorke wiles away his downtime prior to taking the stage at Colchester’s Essex University (as support to Kingmaker) ‘pathologically disrespecting’ Jim Morrison.
How horribly gutted were you by the failure of people to pick up on Creep?
“Absolutely horribly gutted, pissed off, self-righteous. There are good and bad things to it though. A lot of people are asking ‘why isn’t it a hit?’, that’s a good thing. It stands us in good stead.”
There’s already talk of re-releasing it after your ‘inevitable success’.
“There’s no point in re-releasing it until it’s worth it, so yeah… after the inevitable success.”
[Pablo Honey producers] Sean Slade and Paul Q Kolderie are renowned for producing bands as dry and as close to their live sound as they possibly can. Is that what happened with you?
“That’s exactly the thing with us. We’re really a live band. We were sent their tape and it’s got stuff like Lemonheads, 360s, Dinosaur Jr, all these bands; genius stuff, and we freaked. We thought it’s gotta happen. They have interesting, different angles on things and work together really well. It was a very intense three weeks… a fucking manic three weeks.”
Was there an actual person that made you feel a ‘creep’ then?
“Hmm… (takes a long drag on his cigarette). I’ll now just say yes to that, because I’ll get into trouble. Yeah. It was a pretty strange period in my life. When I was at college and stuff and I was really fucked up and wanted to leave and do proper things with my life like be in a rock band. (Laughs)”
There’s nothing like a bit of teenage angst to bring out the best in a songwriter.
“Well this is it, you see. Maybe I ought to get fucked up again and write some more good songs. I don’t know (laughs).”
Why did you opt to remove the word ‘fucking’ from promo versions of the Creep single’s chorus and replace it with ‘very’?
“Well, there was a very good reason for that. I mean the same reason that Sonic Youth took it out in Youth Against Fascism. Just to get it played on the radiowaves. The problem, of course, was that it didn’t get played on the radiowaves, but the couple of times that it did, the people who heard it presumed that the version without the ‘fuck’ in it was the version in the shops. But in actual fact, you cannot buy a copy with the ‘very’ on it. So it was pointless accusing us of copping out, because in actual fact we’re not at all. All we’re doing is exactly what the radio would do and we didn’t want a bleep there, we didn’t edit that particular part out, so we put another word in.
The way I write lyrics is just to ramble away for ages and ages, and that was the ramble I came up with and I just kept using it – and it fits rhythmically really well. I like it because it’s a really wanton use of the word, as well. It doesn’t stick out, but it’s a kind of cursor in the song. The song goes along and then you have that ‘fucking’ thing and then you have Jon’s ‘Ker-runch’ thing come in, and the song is like slashing its wrists. Halfway through the song it suddenly starts killing itself off, which is the whole point of the song really. It’s a real self-destruct song, there’s a real self-destruction ethic in a lot of the things we do onstage.”
What sort of song have you got coming up as the follow up? More self-destructive angst?
“No, the follow-up is a song called Anyone Can Play Guitar, which is a very different song, deliberately, because a lot of bands, no names mentioned, beginning with S [he’s talking about Suede, very much the band of the moment], will release a song which is exactly like the first one. And that’s fine in some ways, but, I mean, we can’t write another Creep even if we wanted to, so there’s no point in even trying. And that was like one song of many…I mean, I write songs all the time and it just happens that that one’s been isolated.”
Ultimately, variety is the spice of longevity, and too many bands are stuck in a single, self-constructed pigeonhole.
“It’s a really naff thing to say, but one of the principle reasons for being in this band is because of the songs and that we change very, very fast as a band. We have a sound, but at the same time we change all the time. Anyone Can Play Guitar is like a chant almost. And another principle thing behind the band is that lyrically it’s an anti rock-ego song. The second verse is ‘I wanna be Jim Morrison’ and I’ve got this pathological disrespect for Jim Morrison and the whole myth that surrounds Jim Morrison, simply because it affects and has affected the people in bands and in the rock business, in that they think they have to act like fucking prats in order to live up to the legend.”
The mysticism that’s grown up around Morrison since his death is similar to that which guitarists seek to perpetuate around their instrument. That there is something more metaphysical to it than just a bit of practice: that it’s a gift that’s bestowed rather than a craft that anyone can accomplish with a bit of application.
“Yeah, it’s really hard… bullshit! And the better you are at the guitar the worse songs you write. I hope that maybe one day that song will appear on MTV in between a couple of rock tracks and you’ll get all these guys with stupid wigs on going widdly-widdly and then we come on going ‘Anyone can play the fucking guitar, it doesn’t mean anything!’
Jim Morrison’s a fat, talentless bastard and he’s dead. And none of that means anything, It’s more important just to have your own voice within the business than to live up to this thing that you’re supposed to live up to. I’m reading this book by Lester Bangs at the moment and there’s this brilliant thing about how on the one hand rock’n’roll should be taken very seriously, while on the other hand it should be completely taking the piss out of itself. Like The Stooges… on the one hand they’re a real, fucked-up band, but on the other they just take the piss. Iggy Pop is totally taking the piss so badly.”
The bands that really stand the test of time and exert the most influence are invariably the ones that the actual musos look upon with real scorn. Creativity will out and the less you know about the accepted technicalities of playing the less bound by the rules you are, that’s why most people’s first albums are often their best.
“Definitely, yes, the excitement of being in a band is discovering how to play together. But as soon as you discover that, you shouldn’t lose it. It’s that sensation of: you’ve finally got the song together, everyone knows their little bits, and it will hopefully come together in the studio. Like Anyone Can Play Guitar was written about two days before we went in to record the album and, because of that vibe around it, it was a really exciting song because we were trying it out in loads of different ways and messing about.”
You’re signed to a major label, and while this gives you the advantage of having a mighty corporate machine behind you, it does have its downside. There are certain expectations, and if you don’t have a hit after your third or fourth single you’re gone.
“They get very nervous... There are pros and cons to it. Look at Julian Cope [formerly signed to Island]. He hits his creative peak, releases a brilliant album, suddenly he’s got his act together and being really disruptive like he always should have been, and he gets dropped from his label. To be honest, it’s really, really nerve-racking. There are loads of bands that we know that are getting kicked off. At the moment, we’re in a very strong position because our record label has a lot of faith in us. And it’s one of those things, you have to be very honest with them, you can’t mess them about. But at the same time, we signed with them because it was an amazingly good deal.”
How did you get signed?
“It was a demo tape – not a particularly good one. It was meeting our managers through a friend, and they were really excited about it, and that kind of changed our perspective and we started getting a really good following in our home town in Oxford. Things happened in Oxford really quickly and there was a really good local newspaper called Curfew that really picked up on us as well. So the vibe in Oxford was really good and at the same time our managers used their contacts in London, and sort of fished about, seeing if anyone was interested and for some reason EMI picked up on it.
"And we thought ‘wow!’ And because they picked up on it, all the other majors were running around like blue-arsed flies as well. As they do, one does, the others do. And there was one gig we did at the Jericho Tavern in Oxford and by that time we were more or less band-in-residence, we were there every two weeks, and there were like 36 A&R men there for that gig. And basically that gig was in November and we signed at Christmas. EMI were always the first ones there, always really ahead, always really clued-up on what we were trying to do.
"It was a really weird situation because basically we signed at Christmas and we’d never played out of Oxford. Ever. It was so frightening… A lot of people say: ‘Why are you with EMI?’ and we say; ‘Well, they offered us this great deal.’”
You’re not going to turn it down though, are you?
“Well, no. Nobody else would so why should we? And the thing is we signed at Christmas and it’s taken us a good six months to actually find out what we’re about since then. And locate ourselves within the music industry, work out what we’re about, work out what we wanna say. As a band we’ve known each other for years but never really got it together until we all returned to Oxford from university. The idea then was just to do as many gigs as we possibly could.
"By the end of this year we’ll have done about 100 gigs and it’s taken us all that time to get to a situation where we’re now really confident about what we’re doing. All the best bands are good live bands and we had to get good, so we put everything else on pause and just went out and did all of these really crappy supports everywhere, just drove round the fucking country playing in front of 10 people and stuff.”
Have you found airplay a problem?
“Oh yeah, it’s just one of those things. I personally think the record industry at the moment is killing itself because it’s recycling its own talent and hasn’t got the balls to push through new talent. Radio 1 is the only station in the country that’s really doing anything about new talent at all, because unfortunately, barring Xfm [then still awaiting confirmation of a broadcast licence] it’s the only station actually playing new records.
"All the other stations follow it but at the same time, there’s not enough off-peak time on Radio 1’s airwaves where they can justify developing new talent. There’s the [Mark] Goodier [pre-dating the Steve Lamacq-era] show, and if you’re really lucky you might get played on the daytime radio, and that’s it. If Xfm don’t get the franchise then you can kiss goodbye to the majority of new music in this country. Cos it’s just not gonna happen. The music industry itself is just going to collapse.
The whole basis of the music industry is the promotion of new talent and they’re simply not doing that anymore. They’re too shit scared. What can I say? Bastards! (laughs)”
This interview originally appeared in issue 11 of Classic Rock Presents Prog