Radiohead's Thom Yorke is a miserable sort, but so far this year no other shoe-gazing Brit has reveled in his sadness quite so beautifully -- and thoroughly -- as Yorke does on Radiohead's sophomore effort, The Bends. The band's sobering reply to its million-selling Pablo Honey -- and, more particularly, to that disc's surprise hit, "Creep," which plastered the British quintet's wan complexions all over MTV -- The Bends is a complex, tortured, hook-filled wonder.
At its center is "My Iron Lung," Yorke's in-a-nutshell summation of the drawbacks of (almost) instant fame. "This is our new song / Just like the last one / A total waste of time," Yorke grumbles in its final verse, following a series of chiming, Byrds-ish guitar notes. Bitter stuff, but also dramatic when measured against the swarm of distortion that periodically breaks up the tune's melancholy. Yorke precedes any condescending notions with a first-verse declaration of self-doubt: "Faith, you're driving me away / You do it every day / You don't mean it, but it hurts like hell."
These mood swings are the formula for much of The Bends: scholarly politeness and bedridden hopelessness juxtaposed with venomous outbursts worthy of the nastiest pub brawl. That's much like the personality of Yorke himself. Well-spoken and opinionated, a deceptively steel-clad frontman with a fiery stage demeanor somewhat akin to Sex Pistols-era John Lydon, Yorke chooses to confine his neuroses to private moments, and writing is one of those. Mentions of Prozac, impotence, nervous breakdowns, debilitating depressions and anxiety-ridden nightmares litter The Bends, all of it draped in an aural canopy that punctuates and feeds off of such desperation.
Airing one's insecurities in song can be liberating. But it can also, as Yorke is well aware, be debilitating, especially if it leads to an international hit that results not only in sudden fame, but also a public image that's not all that accurate. "The 'Creep' thing really shook us up," he admits. "We thought, 'This is going to kill us before we even start.'"
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The tune, with its "I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo" refrain, sullen vocals and stutter-and-start guitar, is Yorke at his most self-pitying. It struck a chord among disaffected Gen Xers, selling like crazy with the help of its heavily played video, which offered a sampling of the nervous energy Radiohead can generate on-stage. The touring behind "Creep" was relentless, continuing for well over a year, until the song took on a sour life all its own. "The thing is," says Yorke, "we couldn't even approach anybody after 'Creep,' and ask to release another single, 'cause they'd just laugh." "People only knew us as that 'Creep' band," adds bassist Colin Greenwood. "You could argue that it's not even the best song on the album."
That you could, though realistically "Creep" overshadows everything else on the debut. Follow-up singles (among them the shrill "Stop Whispering") eventually came and went. The pupils had learned their lessons well, ingesting the best their British Invasion forefathers had to offer, along with the melody-driven panache of '70s glam rock and the boisterous experimentalism of their Boston-based idols, the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr., but it all seemed to amount to little more than a one-hit fluke.
"The fact that we were making some money wasn't enough for us. It didn't make up for people dismissing us," Yorke says. "Up until now, we've had this pretty peculiar path that we've walked. We were just about to make our second album when things spun out of control." Had Radiohead been allowed to do its second CD earlier, it would, says Yorke, "have shown that we were something else." But the success of "Creep" took its toll on Radiohead. There were rumors of drinking binges and breakups, as well as accusations from the press that the group, which could come off arrogant and uncooperative in interviews and media appearances, had let success go to its head. Privately, Yorke was struggling more than his public persona let on. "Psychologically, psychosomatic stuff was going with me all the time: falling down, passing out, not being able to breathe, getting terrible back pain," Yorke recalls. "It was all basically just stress."
Ultimately, according to Yorke, "the beauty of The Bends is that it ever got made." Given the two-year stretch between Pablo Honey and The Bends, not to mention the dreaded sophomore jinx that often befalls bands trying to better a successful debut, Radiohead should be thankful they've come out of it all relatively unscathed. And they are, to a point. "We learned a lot about the industry, and we're grateful for that," says Yorke, half sarcastically.
The Bends shows that Yorke took the lashings from the media to heart. On it, Radiohead churns out a song cycle reminiscent of Ziggy Stardust's rock classicism. Thematic centerpieces such as the new single "Just," as well as "My Iron Lung," "Bones," "Black Star" and the gorgeous first single, "Fake Plastic Trees," stand on their own as fully fleshed-out mini-epics, all lush with layered guitars and synthetic strings and buoyed by larger-than-life melodies. While The Bends (named after the formation of nitrogen bubbles in the blood of divers who rise to the surface too quickly) is earning Radiohead the respect of critics who've slagged the band in the past, it's hardly selling mountains -- not yet, at least. But Yorke admits that this time around he was after respect more than anything.
"Our whole attitude was to scrap everything and start from scratch," he says. "To be honest, praise was what we were looking for."
Radiohead's five members -- Yorke, Greenwood, Greenwood's brother Jonny (guitar), Phil Selway (drums) and Ed O'Brien (guitar) -- are nothing if not subdued. While the guys have been given to fits of attitude, they've never let it spill over into crude public displays. Fans all over the world have picked up on the band's polite-is-best approach: the Japanese have formed a club for the least obtrusive member, drummer Selway, calling it "Phil Is Great," and Egypt is crazy for Jonny. Blame it on their cultured Oxford upbringing: friends since they were kids, the five fell in and out of the groove -- forming bands, then breaking up -- always suspecting that they'd end up together in the long run.
"It was always like in our plans, really," Yorke says. "But it was mostly talking at first."
Yorke has been writing since he was 16, typically as a way to vent the frustrations and inadequacies he felt growing up, much of those feelings of inadequacy centering around a mild abnormality in his left eye that was the focal point of abuse from other kids. Not particularly popular, Yorke, the son of a chemical equipment salesman, kept largely to himself, struggling through moves from England to Scotland and back to England. When his family finally settled in Oxford, Yorke, then ten, formed his first band. But soon he was sent off to fester in a boarding school, a time in his life, he freely admits, that he looks back on as particularly lamentable. While at school, Yorke took up with an existing punk band but quickly lost interest, deciding instead to put together his own group with classmates O'Brien and Colin Greenwood. Selway and Jonny Greenwood wandered in soon thereafter.
So they'd have a backup if things didn't work out, the members went off to university, confining their practicing and recording to holidays and weekends. "At college I was writing all the time," says Yorke, who still managed to squeak out a degree in fine art and literature. "It was sort of a weird situation. I remember saying one term in art class, 'I haven't actually done any art, but I have these songs I've written.' I offered to play them. It didn't work."
The band eventually worked itself into shape, taking the name Radiohead from a song on the Talking Heads' True Stories. They'd been calling themselves On A Friday, a name that was both somewhat bland and an obvious nightmare for promoters scheduling weekend shows.
Not long after the name change, a three-month A&R scramble ensued; by 1991, the group had a record deal with EMI. Their debut, Pablo Honey, was released in early fall 1992, but took more than a little while to catch on. In fact, it wasn't until September 1993, when the CD was re-released, that Radiohead had a hit on its hands. Now the British press, after a premature spurt of backlash, have embraced the band, with a few publications going so far as to dub Radiohead the next U2.
But Radiohead, and Yorke in particular, would rather focus on the small victories, letting the accolades fall where they may.
"After finishing The Bends, I had to get up every morning to put it on and check while I ate my breakfast," Yorke says. "I just did nothing else for two or three weeks afterward but listen to it and think, 'At last!'"
Radiohead opens for R.E.M. at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, September 15 and 16 at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. Tickets are $28 and $38. For info, call 629-3700.
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