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Radiohead’s Genius and Paranoia

Radiohead look back at the making of their prescient masterpiece, ‘OK Computer’.

Thom Yorke has four words of blunt advice for his younger, twitchier self, that paranoid twentysomething humanoid who made his band’s turn-of-the-millennium masterpieces. “Lighten the fuck up,” Yorke says, laughing hard. Radiohead’s frontman, who turned 48 in October, is long past his days of hiding in tour buses and venting pain and fear into spiral notebooks. Now, he dances onstage and DJ’s in clubs.

At the moment, he’s sitting in Little Dom’s Italian restaurant in the Los Feliz neighbourhood of his adopted hometown of Los Angeles, wearing a bleached denim jacket with the collar popped up, a thin white T-shirt and what appear to be leather pants. His long hair is pulled back into a tiny, tight bun; he has a stylish grey beard. Little Dom’s is one of his favourite spots – he was here the night before for dinner – but now it’s midafternoon, and the restaurant has opened early just for him. He orders an English breakfast tea, and later an espresso. In his hand is an iPhone with a sticker on the back that sums up his response to nearly every conceivable query: fuck what you heard.

He just wrapped up a U.S. tour with Radiohead, playing to roughly 90,000 people at Coachella’s second weekend. That performance was uneventful – unlike a week earlier, when the sound system went completely dead twice, midshow. Faced with a similar incident at Glastonbury in 1997, Yorke stormed offstage, “ready to kill”, at the end of the show. But this time he was able to laugh it off, mostly. “I’d love to tell you a joke, lighten the mood, something like that,” he told the crowd. “But this is Radiohead, so fuck it.” (Still, he says, “It was literally like one of those recurring nightmares – you’re playing your guts out and you realise no one can hear you.”)

Yorke has spent a lot of time confronting his old nightmares – and his old self – recently. It’s the 20th anniversary of the band’s breakthrough album, OK Computer, and he’s been poring over his old journals, sketchbooks and demos from the era for inclusion on a deluxe edition of the LP. “It’s been really, really, really mental going through it,” says Yorke. “Going back into where my head was at – it’s really bonkers.” The stacks of paper – which include handwritten lyrics on hotel stationery, instructions for the use of an inhaler (“Try very hard not to panic”) and drawings of airplanes, helicopters, cars, escalators and other modes of transport – reveal the innermost thoughts of a 27-year-old who was beginning to crack after living on a tour bus for four years in a row. “I was basically catatonic,” Yorke says. “The claustrophobia – just having no sense of reality at all.”

Radiohead enjoyed opening for Alanis Morissette: “The crowd was eating chicken dinners,” says Yorke. “we were trying to get them to choke.” 

To most listeners, lyrics about nasty car accidents, airplane crashes, paranoid androids and alien abductions, not to mention a sinister-sounding robot declaring that man was little more than “a pig in a cage on antibiotics”, tapped into a general sense of unease about the oncoming 21st century – and the frightening, exponentially accelerating rate of technological innovations, as beepers became cellphones and computers became vessels for news and pornography. “I was getting into the sense of information overload,” says Yorke. “Which is ironic, really, since it’s so much worse now.” The lyrics also drew on Yorke’s personal demons – the struggles of being in a rock band that never gave itself a moment of rest, but also deeper insecurities dating back to his childhood. 

Released in the autumn of 1997 – a time when music was fragmenting into a thicket of subgenres and the relevance of guitar rock seemed to be fading (guitarist Jonny Greenwood recalls thinking that “bands are already old hat”) – OK Computer was the last masterpiece of the alt-rock movement, and a reminder that there’s still room for rock bands to carry on the late-Beatles mission of using the studio to create grand artistic statements with heretofore unheard sounds. “It was the album where they threw everything out the window,” says Yorke’s friend Michael Stipe. “They re-imagined and decontextualised what it was to be a band. It was a yearning, emotive, grounded urge to create something real.”

“We had a lot of self-confidence and stupidity,” says bassist Colin Greenwood. “Stupidity is the wrong word. Lack of experience. When you’re 24 or 25, you don’t know how wrong this could go because you think you can do anything. And it’s fantastic!”

OK Computer transformed Radiohead from a cult British act into the most important rock band on the planet. But in classic Nineties fashion, its success only left Yorke more adrift. “Back then,” Yorke recalls, “the person I saw in the mirror kept saying, ‘You’re shit. Everything you do is shit. Don’t do that. It’s shit.’ ” For a minute there, he lost himself.

Jonny greenwood still feels sorry for all of those young Alanis Morissette fans. Morissette, who adored Radiohead’s second album, 1995’s anthemic, guitar-heavy The Bends (“I loved every bass line, every keyboard note, every beautiful note hit by Thom,” she says now), had invited Radiohead to open on her Jagged Little Pill tour, where they faced antsy, indifferent kids who wanted them to get off the stage so they could hear “Ironic”. “My main memory of that tour,” says Jonny, “is playing interminable hand-organ solos to an audience full of quietly despairing teenage girls.”

But they used amphitheatre stages as an unlikely rehearsal spot for OK Computer, trying out complex unreleased tunes full of despair and longing – “Karma Police”, “Let Down”, “Paranoid Android” – in broad daylight. “We were well adept at playing to people that didn’t give a rat’s ass about us,” says Yorke. “I used to quite enjoy it. People are sitting down to their chicken dinners. We were trying to get them to choke on the bones.”

It was just one more run of shows, four years into a brutal cycle that began in 1992, when the band of high school friends (Yorke, drummer Phil Selway, bassist Colin and guitarists Ed O’Brien and Jonny) from Oxford, England, scored a freak worldwide hit with “Creep”, an anthem of self-loathing that threatened to turn them into just another 1990s one-hit wonder – no different than Marcy Playground and Spacehog. And they were all too aware of big British bands, like the Stone Roses, who were never willing to put in the roadwork to break through in the U.S. 

So Radiohead crammed into an American Eagle bus (complete with the incongruous airbrushed image on its side of a stallion running on a beach) and hit every corner of America in support of The Bends. In 1995 alone, they played 177 shows, part of a near-suicidal run of touring and recording between 1993 and 1998, with only one month off. For most of the band, those were glorious years. “Some of my greatest memories of the band were on that bus going through America,” says O’Brien. “We’d play cards or watch movies. I remember going through the Rocky Mountains and listening to Glen Campbell.”

At one point in 1996, the band was killing time in the bus by listening to an audio version of Douglas Adams’ classic 1979 sci-fi-comedy novel, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Midway through the book, a spaceship computer says it’s incapable of fending off incoming missiles. “OK, computer,” responds galactic president Zaphod Beeblebrox, “I want full manual control now.”

Yorke scribbled down the phrase – which marked the point in the narrative when humans saved themselves by reclaiming control from machines – in his bulging notebook of lyrics. Much would be made about the references to the dehumanising effects of technology sprinkled throughout his new songs, but Yorke insists it was the nonstop travel that was really on his mind: If anything, the dislocation he was feeling from “living in orbit” helped him tap into the smartphone-addled ethos of a future age.

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Yorke in the Netherlands, 1995.

“The paranoia I felt at the time was much more related to how people related to each other,” he says. “But I was using the terminology of technology to express it. Everything I was writing was actually a way of trying to reconnect with other human beings when you’re always in transit. That’s what I had to write about because that’s what was going on, which in itself instilled a kind of loneliness and disconnection.”

Some of the tech-y lyrics, Yorke concedes, were just signs of his inner nerd emerging. “The whole album is really fucking geeky,” he says. “I was kind of a geek when I was a kid, unashamedly so. Then I’m in this rock band famous for drinking tea and never socialising, where the truth is somewhat different.” Yorke doesn’t elaborate, though he certainly was doing some drinking in those days. But Selway argues that their reputation was well-earned. “The image of Radiohead on the road is a monastery on wheels,” he says. “For the most part, it was.” 

As tours started blurring into one another, Yorke struggled with phobias – he once spoke of picturing Radiohead’s tour bus plunging off a cliff. “Our family almost had a terrible [car] accident,” he says. “My dad used to talk to me a lot about it. I think he was trying to instil the idea that anything could happen at any moment and you’re not in control of it, which led to a slight paranoia, maybe justified.” His hatred of cars was tied into his general disdain for a society where, he once said, “people get up too early to leave houses where they don’t want to live, to drive to jobs where they don’t want to be, in one of the most dangerous forms of transport on Earth. I’ve never gotten used to that.”

Yorke came by his alienation naturally. He was born with his left eye shut, and he endured five surgeries before his sixth birthday to open it up. Doctors botched one of the later ones, forcing him to wear an eye patch for a year and leaving him with a permanent droop. His father’s spotty employment as a supplier of chemical-engineering equipment caused the family to move around a lot, and the new kid with an unusual eye was an easy target for bullies. “There’s a pervading sense of loneliness I’ve had since the day I was born,” he said in 1995. “Maybe a lot of other people feel the same way, but I’m not about to run up and down the street asking everybody if they’re as lonely as I am.”

Left: Yorke’s ‘OK Computer’ sketchbook. Right: Meeting fans in Barcelona

St. Catherine’s court sits on 10 acres of land about 180 kilometres west of London in the sleepy town of Bath, England. The nine-bedroom Elizabethan manor house was built by a monk in 950 A.D. and expanded over the next thousand years until it was one of the U.K.’s most architecturally stunning private residences. “I still dream about it at night,” says a former owner, actress Jane Seymour (a.k.a. Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman), who rented it to bands like the Cure, who recorded their 1996 LP Wild Mood Swings in the enormous ballroom at the centre of the house. “It has four-second reverberation,” says Seymour. “When John Barry, the composer, was there, he said, ‘Don’t furnish that room. You have no idea how precious it is as an empty space.’ ”

It was an appropriately grand location for Radiohead to record OK Computer. The pre-Napster record business was still swimming in money, and the steady sales of The Bends in England, coupled with growing critical buzz in America, persuaded EMI to give Radiohead a big budget. “They were like, ‘Do what you want and we’ll totally back you’,” says Yorke. “It was exciting.”

Radiohead spent a total of six weeks living and working at St. Catherine’s Court, where they quickly became acquainted with a key bit of lore about the property: It may be haunted. King Henry VIII’s illegitimate daughter Ethelreda Malte supposedly died in one of the bedrooms in 1599, and never left. Jonny wound up sleeping in the nursery, “surrounded by creepy broken dolls and rocking horses”, he says. “People were always hearing sounds.”

Yorke had it the worst. “Ghosts would talk to me while I was asleep,” he says, with a curious hint of amusement. “There was one point where I got up in the morning after a night of hearing voices and decided I had to cut my hair.” He attempted to give himself a spontaneous crew cut with “the little scissors on a penknife”. It didn’t go well. “I cut myself a few times. It got messy. I came downstairs and everyone was like, ‘Uh, are you all right?’ I was like, ‘What’s wrong?’ Phil very gently took me downstairs and shaved it all off.”

But the more lasting supernatural phenomenon was the music the band was making. “It was a time of magic,” says O’Brien. “I really believe the stars were in alignment. It all sort of just came into focus.” They were drawing inspiration from a disparate list of some of the greatest albums ever made: the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and especially Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, a tour-bus favourite. “In some ways we were really conceited,” says Jonny, “and we would listen to a record like Bitches Brew and be so heavily influenced that we wanted to do it. And it didn’t bother us that none of us had or played or even wanted to have any trumpet. And yet we had the kind of arrogance to go, ‘Yeah, we can kind of go for that.’ ” 

They were entirely dismissive of the prevailing guitar-rock trend back home – even before Oasis’ Gallagher brothers started disparaging the well-educated Radiohead as “students”. “To us, Brit pop was just a 1960s revival,” says Jonny. “It just leads to pastiche. It’s you wishing it was another era. But as soon as you go down that route, you might as well be a Dixieland jazz band, really.” Yorke is more direct. “The whole Brit pop thing made me fucking angry,” he says. “I hated it. It was backwards-looking, and I didn’t want any part of it.”

Nigel Godrich, a young engineer who had recorded The Bends, was, for the first time, on board as producer in all but name (he would take that title on every subsequent Radiohead album, as well as with artists from Beck to Paul McCartney), and as the sole engineer. Godrich was at least as fearless and ambitious as the band, and he saw greatness in Radiohead. “They were the band of my dreams,” he says. “There were no constraints. This was not Neanderthal rock & roll. It was very high-level thinking, conceptual, moving forwards in terms of sonics, and beautiful songs. It was a perfect thing. Lots of people, lots of ideas, and we all could pull in the same direction.” 

Radiohead were collectively hostile to Seventies progressive rock (“I didn’t even like Pink Floyd,” says O’Brien), but that didn’t stop them from reinventing prog from scratch on OK Computer, particularly on the six-and-a-half-minute “Paranoid Android” – which Yorke famously described as a cross between “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”. “The problem with prog stuff,” says Jonny, “is it sounds like it really has been thought about. And it’s exhausting as a result. All those records were very pastoral, and they’re preaching about unicorns and dinosaurs.”

On other tracks, Radiohead began to move away from live playing altogether – they based album opener “Airbag” around a distorted loop of Selway’s drums. Yorke ended up pushing the boundaries even further on the haunting “Karma Police”. One night he and Godrich were having a pint when the singer confessed he didn’t like the second half of the song. Without any other members of the band present, they took samples and loops and created a new bed of music with Yorke’s vocals on top, climaxing in a swirl of noise that was almost the electronic equivalent of “A Day in the Life”. 

“It was the first time we did anything like that,” says Godrich. “Just us in the studio, and a forerunner of a lot of things to come, good and bad.” It was a new way of working that would lead directly to the electronic excursions of Kid A and beyond – as well as to solo albums and intraband conflicts. 

On “Fitter Happier”, Yorke yielded lead vocals to a Macintosh LC II that read text in a flat, emotionless tone, replete with mispronunciations. He fed a string of advice both practical (“No more microwave dinners and saturated fats”) and disturbing (“No killing moths or putting boiling water on the ants”) into it and found the result nicely underscored the album’s themes. 

The LP ends with the mournful “The Tourist”, with its repeated line “Hey, man, slow down”. “Everything was about speed when I wrote those songs,” Yorke says. “I had a sense of looking out a window at things moving so fast I could barely see. One morning in Germany I was feeling particularly paranoid because I hadn’t slept well. I walked out to find something to eat, but I couldn’t find anything, and this fucking dog was barking at me. I’m staring at this dog, and everyone else is carrying on. That’s where ‘hey, man, slow down’ comes from. It sounds like it’s all about technology and stuff, but it’s not.”

In the end, their record label’s investment didn’t quite yield the follow-up to The Bends that the corporation expected. “They thought the album was going to be chockablock with radio-tastic singles,” said their manager Chris Hufford, who recalled hearing the word “disappointed”. “I said, ‘Forget the bloody singles, just listen. . . . You’ll realise what an amazing piece of work it is.’ ” 

Critics and fans did, instantly, and the album went on to go double-platinum in the U.S. Radiohead had reached a level that most bands never approach – but their members weren’t sure what to make of the acclaim. “You don’t quite believe it,” says O’Brien. “But I felt like we’d made a really great record.” Adds Selway, “There was an element of sitting there with your fingers in your ears, trying to block some of it out. Maybe we were slightly wary of it after the response that ‘Creep’ had. It all comes a bit double-edged, really.”

“In some ways we were really conceited,” says Jonny Greenwood. “We would listen to ‘Bitches Brew’ and go, ‘Yeah, we can kind of go for that.'”

As the “OK Computer” tour began, Radiohead allowed filmmaker Grant Gee to start capturing their world, armed only with a Sony PC-100 handheld camera. In May 1997, he began shooting a film that he would eventually give the ironic title Meeting People Is Easy, as the bandmates gathered at a hotel in Barcelona to subject themselves to promotional interviews for three straight days. “It might not have bothered people with thick skin,” says Gee, “but I got the sense they were thin-skinned.”

Yorke, especially. “I did have fun sometimes,” the singer insists. “But the public side of it, and the way people talked to me, even on the street, I could not fucking handle it. David Bowie was able to use these personas that would fuck with his relationship with the fans. He did it all in a very finessed, elegant way. I did not.”

Yorke’s exhaustion finally got the best of him in November 1997, as the tour hit an arena in Birmingham, England. “I walked out of soundcheck, disappeared, lost the security and then was trying to get out of the building,” says Yorke. After wandering for a while, he ended up on a train filled with Radiohead fans on their way to the show. “There was nowhere to go, so I hid on the train. And that was the nearest I came to trying to escape.”

Yorke may have been starting to lose it, but his bandmates kept him from the edge. “Personally speaking,” says O’Brien, “and to my own suffering, I spent a lot of time looking out for Thom. It was all about making sure he was able to get through the gig. I had to be there for him like a brother.” And other friends forced Yorke to do normal stuff like hitting the pub, even as Stipe eased him into the world of celebrity by tricking him into dinners with the likes of U2. 

Somewhere along the line, Yorke developed perspective – the time off that the band finally took between OK Computer and 2000’s Kid A didn’t hurt. “ ‘It’s OK to be anxious about stuff’,” he says, again addressing younger Thom. “ ‘If you’re choosing to do something as amazing as this, then at some point, right then, mate, you’re gonna have to choose to just let things happen. Choose to get time for yourself, walk the fuck away when you can. This internal monologue going on is completely debilitating and completely unhealthy. You’re not going crazy. You’ve just been doing this too long and you need to step away and learn to love why you love it and remember why you did it.’ It took me a long time.”

Radiohead at the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival last August.

A few days before the second weekend of Coachella in April, Radiohead are backstage at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley preparing to go on for one of the last shows of their tour. Yorke is waiting for his teenage kids to arrive, Colin is making arrangements with a road manager to visit an art museum in San Francisco the next morning, and Jonny is sitting alone in his dressing room thumbing through a paperback copy of the 1942 Evelyn Waugh novel Put Out More Flags.

Twenty years after OK Computer, Radiohead are still together, with their original lineup intact. Which doesn’t mean there hasn’t been serious turmoil. Yorke acknowledges he made it tough for the band when he shifted directions for Kid A. “The others didn’t know what to contribute,” he says. “When you’re working with a synthesiser, it’s like there’s no connection. You’re not in a room with other people. I made everyone’s life almost impossible.”

But the endless evolution that began with OK Computer has secured Radiohead’s cross-generational place as one of the 21st century’s most forward-looking bands. Their journey has taken them to the point that Jonny, for one, objects not only to the descriptor “rock” but also the word “band” – and, for that matter, the idea that he’s a “guitarist”. Jonny sees Radiohead as “just kind of an arrangement to form songs using whatever technology suits the song. And that technology can be a cello or it can be a laptop. It’s all sort of machinery when looked at in the right way. That’s how I think of it.”

Right now, they’re on tour in support of their ninth album, 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool, which they surprise-released in May last year, without any press and with little promotion. “We weren’t in a position to really talk about it when it came out,” says O’Brien, picking his words carefully. “We didn’t want to talk about it being quite hard to make. We were quite fragile, and we needed to find our feet.” He pauses. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore, if that’s all right. I feel like the dust hasn’t settled. It was a hard time.”

He’s delicately referring to the fact that Yorke has been enduring a tragedy that makes everything he went through in the Nineties seem trivial. His ex-wife, Rachel Owen, the mother of his two teenage children, passed away in December after a long battle with cancer. They had separated the prior year, but they’d been together for 23 years. Nobody outside of a tight circle of confidants even knew she was sick, but Yorke’s sorrow seeps through nearly every song on A Moon Shaped Pool.

“There was a lot of difficult stuff going on at the time, and it was a tough time for us as people,” says Yorke. “It was a miracle that that record got made at all.”

Unlike for OK Computer, the band came into the sessions with few fresh Yorke demos to flesh out. “There was no rehearsal,” says O’Brien. “We just went straight into recording. A lot of the songs had been around a bit. The sound emerged as we recorded.”

Somehow, though, the tour behind Radiohead’s saddest album became a joyous experience. “I’m really enjoying myself,” says Yorke. “It feels really liberating, which I don’t often say.” 

Still, their plans after the tour ends in Tel Aviv in mid-July are up in the air. “I do wish we did more shows,” says Colin. “And I wish that we spent more time in a room playing, working on stuff together. But this is how we’ve worked for a long time.”

Colin might be surprised to hear that Yorke says he’s willing to consider the idea of recording live as a band – for the first time since 1997. “I’ve always been extreme about resisting us being a drum-guitar-bass band,” says Yorke. “But if that’s what people want to try, I’m too old to be standing there with a hammer and saying, ‘We must do this, we must do that!’ I would like everyone to feel free.” He smiles. “But, you know, it’s not easy.” 

From issue #789 (August 2017), available now.