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EXIT MUSIC_RADIOHEAD STORY

R A D I O H E A D R E _ V I S I O N


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Exit Music: Radiohead Story

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Written by Mac Randall

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Edited by Guilherme de Abreu

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284 p. ISBN-10 0385333935 ISBN-13 978-0385333931

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R a d i o h e a d R e _ V i s i o n

Exit Music

Radiohead Story Mac Randall 2013


Ta b l e of Contents

ONE19 1997 • Radiohead performs at the Tibetan Freedom Rock Concert. • OK Computer is awarded album of the year and wins two Grammys, rasing to be their most awarded album and some of the most awarded albuns in the history of rock bands.

• Foreword for the revised edition

INTRO13

TWO27

name Radiohead. • The band’s has its first commercial release with Drill EP. • Creep is awarded as a single and becomes the band’s then most known song. • In February 1993 Pablo

Early years - 1988

is released.

FIVE93

• Childhood and background from Radiohead members.

• Song by song analysis of the album Pablo Honey with

for the first time at the Abingdon

commentary from the band on

School and form the band under

its production.

the name On A Friday

SIX105 THREE51 1989 - 1991 • On A Friday atracts attention from manager Chris Hufford.

• Why write about Radiohead?

1992 - 1993 • On A Friday takes on the

Honey, the band’s first album,

• The Radiohead members meet

PREFACE7

FOUR73

• The band signs in with EMI

1993 - 1995 • Radiohead goes to the U.S. for the first time. • Back in London, recording at the RAK studio, Radiohead releases their second album, The Bends.


SEVEN135 • Song by song analysis of

TEN205 1997 - 1998

TWELVE243 • Song by song analysis of the

the album The Bends with

• The OK Computer tour ensues.

albums Kid A and Amnesiac with

commentary from the band on

• Director Grant Gee accompanies

commentary from the band on

its production.

the band on tour, shooting its

their production.

numerous meetings, interviews,

EIGHT155

shows and recordings. The shootings would later occur

THIRTEEN255

as the 1999’ motion picture 1995 - 1997

Meeting People Is Easy

Radiohead gets to know R.E.M., their personal music idols and

ELEVEN227

their next album in a new,

1998 - 2000 process thus far, Radiohead

at the 15 - century manor

releases in the same year

St. Catherine’s Court.

the albums Kid A followed by Amnesiac. • Kid A has no singles or

NINE181

• Radiohead releases its sixth in 2003.

• After its lenghtiest recording

makeshift recording studio

• OK Computer is released.

Recordings is launched in 2001. album, Hail To The Thief,

they become close friends. • Radiohead starts recording

2001-2003 • The EP I Might Be Wrong: Live

• At The Bends internacional tour,

FOURTEEN265 • Song by song analysis of the album Hail To The Thief with

videos produced for any of

commentary from the band on

its songs, and is advertised

its production.

using uncoventional web• Song by song analysis of the album OK Computer with

based strategies. • The band does a sigle live

commentary from the band on

appearence in the US for

its production.

a full year, and promotes advertisement-free spaces in its venues at the European tour. • Kid A is awarded the Grammy for Best Alternative Album.

EPILOGUE277


PREFACE


It has been 12 years since Exit Music was first published.

D

uring those years, what had already been a popular, well-respected rock band became a stadium-filling art music phenomenon. Radiohead’s audience grew massive; their albums regularly debuted at the top of sales charts across the

globe. The music industry began looking to them for artistic hints, awaiting their next move to see whether it might yield the key to that always-elusive new direction. And indulging in the sincerest form of flattery, countless bands copied their style. The success of acts like Travis, Coldplay, Doves, Muse and many others, who took their inspiration from different phases of Radiohead’s career and made a more-than-decent living out of it, is testament to the impact Yorke, the Greenwoods, O’Brien and Selway have had on those who play, listen to, profit from and argue about music. I’ve watched this development with a certain amount of purely egotistical pride. I

wrote a book about Radiohead because I thought they were important, and I suspect they’d become more so; subsequent events have proven my suspicions correct. But there’s more to it than that. Over the last decade, I’ve also gained an even deeper respect for the band, and for their audience. For both have accomplished great things.

8


Radiohead reacted to the stardom that OK

You could argue that this was just a passing

Computer brought in 1997 the same way they

wave, that the Kid A hype dragged everyone along

reacted to the stardom that ‘Creep’ had brought

with it, that Radiohead was only the trendy thing

in 1993: by jettisoning the sound that made them

to be into that month. How then to explain the

famous and trying on another one. With no guide

performance of the band’s next album, Amnesiac,

but their instincts, this proved difficult. It almost

in June 2001? Despite being even more thorny

killed the group. But for them, there was no oth-

than Kid A, it sold nearly as well, hitting No. 2 in

er choice; they had to keep moving. Suddenly

Billboards and No. 1 in the NME. It seemed that

the music they made was obscure, abstract, all

millions of people were listening to Radiohead

ominous atmosphere and sharp angles. On first

not because it was hip to do so, but because they

listen, it didn’t make much sense. And yet people

actually liked the music.

kept listening to it – more people than had ever

True art never stays static. It continually

listened to the band before – and as they listened,

evolves, as do our lives and thoughts. And while

they found sense.

there’s plenty of joy to be found in the comfort of

For me, this is the most inspiring part of the

the familiar, whether that be the plot of a mystery

Radiohead story. Kid A, the band’s fourth album,

novel or the chorus of a pop song, too much pre-

released in October 2000, was a calculated risk,

dictability in an artistic endeavor palls over time,

a conscious departure from pop norms that chal-

precisely because it doesn’t match the bewildering

lenged the rest of the world: This is what we do

unpredictability of our own experiences. Listening

now, take it or leave it. It sneered at commercial-

to the music that Radiohead have made over the

ity. And then it went and debuted at No. 1 on the

last two decades, from the Drill EP to The King Of

American and British charts.

Limbs, it’s clear that this band has a capacity for

By making the music they wanted, and con-

evolution matched by few, if any, of its contempo-

ceding nothing to the forces of the marketplace,

raries. Each album, each single sounds different

Radiohead rocketed from star to superstar

from its predecessor. In that way, Radiohead’s

status. The capacity of the general consumer

work feels closer to life than most pop music.

to comprehend a work of art had, once again, been underestimated.

Yet a few stylistic elements continue to be consistent in the Radiohead canon: chord 9


progressions built around a single note or pivot

make creative use of them, but at the same time –

point, a fondness for odd meters, Thom Yorke’s

at least on certain levels – they remain believers in

plaintive vocals, a general air of thoughtful melan-

the tried and true. Like most of us, they’ve got one

choly. And the emotional power of these elements

foot in the past and one in the future as they try

has only grown with the passing years. Indeed, the

to find a way of working that makes sense in the

band’s seventh album, 2007’s In Rainbows, was

21st century; it just so happens that their efforts,

hailed by many as its finest work yet, even as the

unlike most of ours, generally yield great tunes.

circumstances surrounding the album’s release –

Not only in their music but in all other aspects

the orchestrated internet “leak” of the songs, the

of their career, Radiohead have been admirable

thought-provoking way in which the band forced

in their insistence on going their own way and

listeners to consider the music’s true value, the

proving that it was the right way. For the “no logo”

example they provided for other creative people

tent tour of 2000, the band performed in a self-de-

looking to make an independent statement in a

signed environment free of advertising; in doing so,

fast-changing digital world – kept them at the

they both made a political and cultural statement

forefront of popular culture.

and, consciously or unconsciously, conveyed to

You could, with some justification, call

their fans something akin to the ancient notion

Radiohead innovators. What you can’t call them

that playing and listening to music occurs in a

is truly avant-garde. In Rainbows ant its 2011

sacred place, set apart from the rest of the world.

follow-up, The King Of Limbs, may have been re-

Radiohead’s early realization of the internet’s

leased as albums with a specific song order (rather

significance is also noteworthy; it’s a medium

a quaint notion in the iTunes age). The idea that

they’ve exploited (if that’s the right word) with real

these albums might not have a true physical re-

smarts. In many ways, it’s become as important a

lease at all was briefly toyed with, but then it was

means of communication as the songs themselves,

tossed aside. Yes, Radiohead do promote their

and it’s certainly brought the band closer to its

music by means of live webcasts and unusual

audience, a situation that both parties appreciate.

videos, but they still travel around the world and

To say that a musician cares about his fans is

perform their music in front of people. They’re

one of the hoariest showbiz clichés in existence.

excited by new possibilities and try their best to

But a close observation of Radiohead’s career, and

10


the intelligence and respect with which they’ve

deal of that time now more than a decade in the

gone about all their public dealings, makes it hard

past – and it should be approached as such. No

to come to any other conclusion than that they do

one can say what Radiohead will do next. That

care about their fans very much. Maybe there’s

(and the music, of course) is what makes them

some connection here with the reason why the

such an exciting band to listen to and write about.

band has stuck together so long and why they’ve

It’s been a pleasure for me to delve into their art

remained so close to their hometown of Oxford.

again, not least because it whets my appetite –

One gets the feeling that in the Radiohead camp,

and, I hope, yours – for the many surprises that

loyalty is a virtue second to none.

are undoubtedly still to come.

Successful organizations, of course, tend to grow larger over time, and these days it’s tougher for journalists to reach the members of Radiohead through the various protective layers of management and representation. Once again, I was not able to convince them to cooperate with me for the updated edition of this book. In 200, I had the advantage of a backlog of interview material collected over three years. Now I don’t. But it’s a different era, and so I take a different more critically oriented approach, which I hope will still do justice to the band. Looking back at the original 2000 edition of Exit Music, I was surprised to find how little needed changing. Certain passages were no longer factually accurate, and I’ve made sure to correct them, but I’ve also tried to keep revisions to a minimum. The simple truth is that this book is both a record and a product of its time – a great 11


INTRO


My first exposure to Radiohead, like that of most Americans, was the hit single “Creep”, first released in the band’s native England in September 1992 but not heard widely on U.S. airwaves till early the following year.

N

o doubt about it, the song attracted attention, but at the time I felt that most of its distinguishing features – the miserable, self-torturing lyrics, the mock-athemic quality of the music, the dynamic shifts between the quiet,

brooding verses and the loud choruses splattered with grungy guitars – had been used earlier, and better, by bands like Nirvana and the Pixies. I was aware that Radiohead

had an album in the stores (their debut, Pablo Honey) but wasn’t interested enough to investigate the matter any further. The reaction I had to “Creep” was not an uncommon one. It was shared by most of the rock critical establishment, who wrote Radiohead off early and often as a shallow flash-in-the-pan sensation. In all honesty, they had good reason for doing so. “Creep” was the kind of song that practically cries out “one-off”, and the band had nothing similar to back it up with. Given the fickle nature of pop music buyers, it seemed quite likely that Radiohead would never be able to match their early success and would quickly fade from view. That the Oxford quintet would instead evolve into arguably the most accomplished and forward-looking British rock group of the ’90s was a prediction that few sane people would have made. 14


About two years later, in April 1995, I was on

effects. Then the statickly drum groove and om-

vacation in England when, by chance, I happened

inously echoing piano chords that open “Planet

to see the same band, whose name I only vaguely

Telex”. A few seconds later, the drums cut out

remembered from the “Creep” era, playing a

to reveal a lone forcefully strummed electric

new song, “Just”, live on MTV Europe. It was

guitar. Yorke began the first line of the song; his

an eye-opening three minutes and fifty-five sec-

voice, electronically distorted, sounded like he

onds. The Nirvana and Pixies influences were

was singing through clenched teeth: “You can

still there but weren’t as obvious. More to the

force it but it will not come…” And then the rest

point were the kaleidoscopic complexity of the

of the band came crashing back in, with even

song’s structure, the devilish intricacy of the

greater power and volume this time. Yes, there

three-guitar arrangement, and the incredible

was still some life left in the aging corpus of rock

energy of the performance, especially on the

music. Radiohead, the new heroes of the genre,

part of the lead singer Thom Yorke, who wrig-

had proved it.

gled and shook as if a combustion engine were perpetually backfiring inside him.

Now intrigued, I made it my business to go back and catch up on what I’d missed. I gave

To pique my interest even further, flying

Pablo Honey the listening time I hadn’t giv-

Virgin Atlantic back to the States a couple of days

en it back in ’93 and hunted down the earlier

later I caught a video for another new Radiohead

Radiohead singles. Through I didn’t fin’ anything

song, “High and Dry” (the English rain-in-the-

as exciting as what I’d heard on The Bends, I was

desert version, not the American Pulp Fiction

pleased to hear some of the previous pieces of

pastiche). A bit more traditional sounding, per-

the puzzle, the promising hints of what was to

haps, but still damn catchy. I made a mental

come. The first time I saw the band perform live

note to look into the band a bit more when I got

– a surprise club show at New York’s Mercury

home, and it wasn’t long before I’d picked up a

Lounge in the fall of ’95, following their tour

copy of their latest album, The Bends.

with R.E.M. – was a revelation, and subsequent

What I heard when I slipped that CD into the

shows have been nearly as stellar.

player captivated me immediately. First, setting

Within a few months, I turned from

the tone, a brief collage of howling wind-tunnel

Radiohead detractor to an ardent proponent. 15


In my capacity as senior editor at Musician mag-

they diverge strongly from the rock norm. Well

azine, I did what I could to gain the band more

educated, almost unfailingly polite but unmis-

recognition, interviewing various members in

takably reserved, they don’t often engage in silly

late ’95 and early ’96. And I was privileged to be

booze-and-drug-fueled antics or spend much

one of the two American journalists attending

time schmoozing at industry affairs, preferring

the festivities that accompanied the European

to head for the comforts of home whenever pos-

release of their 1997 album OK Computer in

sible. Instead of celebrating the end of a tour

Barcelona, Spain. By this time, the great ma-

by getting zonked at a strip club, they’ll host a

jority of rock critics had come around just as I

book party. Far from smashing up hotel rooms,

had, hailing Radiohead as groundbreakers. OK

they’ve actually have been known to clean up

Computer would not only cement the band’s

after their more destructive minded opening acts.

critical reputation, but it would also foster the

And although they’re as aware as only rock stars

type of commercial success that had been lacking

can be of the public nature of their profession,

for them since “Creep”.

they guard their privacy all the more zealously

Finally, in June 1999, I traveled to Oxford to

for it. For all hundreds of thousands of words

see for myself where the band had gotten its start.

that have been written about their lives, which,

I visited the school where they had all first met,

I’m sure, is just the way they like it.

searched out the places where they’d played their

To some degree, Radiohead have always been

earliest shows, and talked to several people who

outsiders. It was their outsider status at the pri-

had known them before they were superstars.

vate boys’ school they all attended in the ’80s that

The observations and insights I picked up along

brought them together in the first place, and it is

the way have done much to shape the content

their need to stand apart from the music-busi-

of the book you are now reading.

ness machine that has distinguished them in the

Why write a book about Radiohead? For

years since. One could argue that at the begin-

me, the answer lies mainly in the excitement I

ning the band was less a musical endeavor than a

felt on that first hearing of “Planet Telex”. But

support group, reinforcing mutual interests and

there are other reasons. Both as musicians and

talents in the face of widespread nonrecognition

as people, Radiohead are fascinating because

from parents, teachers, and classmates. That it

16


remains together after nearly 15 years shows

into the South vs. North ideological battle that

that it has succeeded not merely as a creative

periodically sweeps the English music world

outlet for its members but also as a means of

(exemplified by the largely press-manufactures

insulation from a hostile world.

Blur/Oasis showdown of 1995). They even keep

Of course, there are still many people who

distance from the burgeoning crowd of excellent

think of rock music as essentially an outsider’s

bands that have emerged from their hometown.

game, the product of an unruly gang of mis-

The message is clear: Whatever you scene may

creants There is just enough truth in this view

be, we’re not part of it.1

to keep it popular, but only barely enough. In

This sense of not belonging, of being some-

reality, rock at the end of the twentieth century is

how separate and apart, is strong in all five mem-

less an art than a business, with its own code of

bers of the band. It affects the way they live their

conformity, its own rules of behavior that must

lives and it affects the music they make, lending

be adopted in order to get ahead. The five mem-

their songs an emotional power that connects

bers of Radiohead have never fit into this system

to listeners on an intense, visceral level. The

very comfortably. Not that they ever wanted to;

music of Radiohead, like so much great rock

they’re proud of their misfit stance, and at times

music before it, appeals to the outsider and the

they’ve consciously cultivated it. For example,

misfit in all of us, the part of us that is constantly

they never moved to London, which is where

adrift, unsure, questioning what out existence

most aspiring English musicians go when they

means. At its best, rock has always provided not

want to show they’re serious about their career.

only feelings of hope and strength in the face of

Instead, all five remain in the Oxford area, close

uncertainty but also glimpses beyond the surface

to their families, a situation that seems unlikely

drudgery of the world. These visions are at the

to change any time soon.

core of Radiohead’s art too.

Geographically, Radiohead is a British band,

This book’s title, Exit Music, is taken from

but musically, they bear few obvious allegiances

the name of a song on OK Computer, “Exit Music

to their native land. Like their early idols U2 and R.E.M., they are international, or perhaps more accurately, supranational. They’ve never figured

1  This does not mean that the band has no loyalty to the Oxford scene or hasn’t put anything back to it. Quite the contrary, as later chapters will prove.

17


(For a Film)”. In the lyrics to the song, the “exit”

besides my own interviews, the opinions and

is a literal one; a young couple prepares to leave

conclusions presented here are my own.

their homes and their parents behind, with the

“You should never assume that people are

shady implication of a possible suicide pact.

paying attention to you because of who you

Yet one can also apply the term “exit” to all of

are”, Radiohead’s bassist Colin Greenwood once

Radiohead’s music in a figurative sense. For

said. “If you think that, you’re dammed, you’re

Radiohead themselves, making music presents

doomed… Nobody knows who we are, and I

a way out, a means of avoiding “normal” lives

hope they never do, on one level, obviously”.

that might be comfortable but would inevitably

Though this book does not propose to do an-

prove dissatisfying. And for Radiohead’s the

ything so bold as to reveal the true identities

landscape is depressing or morbid, but in the

of Radiohead, I hope it will bring the curious

end we are uplifted. The exit that Radiohead

reader to a better understanding of what lies

offers is not a negative exit, an escape from life,

behind some of the most captivating rock music

but a positive one, a means toward more fully

produced in the 1990s.

appreciating life in all its aspects. Exit Music is not an authorized biography. Though the band has in the past been gracious in granting me interviews, they respectfully declined my request to take part in this project. Lack of further access to the band has made my task more difficult in some ways but easier in others. Nailing down the accuracy of certain facts, especially those pertaining to the band’s early years, has occasionally been frustrating, but I have also been spared the necessity of procuring the group’s approval of my every word. For better or worse, although the raw material for this book has come from a variety of sources 18


ONE


The day was Monday

June 9, 1997 A

nd a concert was about to begin near New York City’s Union Square. Over the weekend that had just ended, thousands of music fans had made pilgrimages much further uptown, to Downing Stadium on Randalls Island in the East

River between Man­hattan, the Bronx and Queens, to witness the second annual two-day

Tibetan Freedom Concert. An all-star event organized by New York’s own hip-hop kings the Beastie Boys to focus world attention on Tibet’s plight under harsh Chinese rule and to raise money for the cause of Tibetan independence, the concert had featured such rock luminaries as U2, Patti Smith, Michael Stipe and Mike Mills from R.E.M., Alanis Morissette, and the Beastie Boys themselves. Another band in that distinguished line-up was set to play again on this evening, in the far cozier confines of Irving Plaza (capacity approximately 1000 people). Their Tibetan Freedom performance had been one of the festival’s highlights. Their name was being mentioned more and more in the same breath as those of rock’s most lauded superstars. And whereas over the weekend they had played a short set, sharing the stage with several other artists, tonight would be theirs alone, without even an opening act. They were a quintet from Oxford, England, and they were called Radiohead.

20


Earlier in the year, the band — made up of

crowd. Blur’s Damon Albarn sat sulkily by the

singer and guitarist Thom Yorke, guitarist and

bar, at a distance from his bandmate Alex James.

keyboardist Jonny Greenwood, guitarist Ed

Most of these artists, like Radiohead, had

O’Brien, bassist Colin Greenwood, and drummer

performed at the Tibetan Freedom Concert and

Phil Selway — had put the finish­ing touches on its

had stayed over into the following week. But

third album, OK Computer. The album wouldn’t

many other celebrities who hadn’t played during

be released in the United States until July, almost

the weekend had caught wind of this particular

a month after the Irving Plaza show, but many

evening’s mega-event and had got their names

of the music-industry types in the audience had

on the guest list too. Madonna showed up; so did

heard advance copies; some were already using

Courtney Love. Lenny Kravitz made it, along with

words like ‘masterpiece’ to describe it. And nearly

Marilyn Manson. Sheryl Crow was supposed to

everyone in attendance had either heard the

have been on the VIP list, but wasn’t for some

album’s leadoff single, a six-and-a-half-minute,

reason or other, and when she got to the club she

three-part epic called ‘Paranoid Android’, or seen

was nearly turned away at the door before some-

the quirky animated video accompanying it on

body recognized her and let her pass. Ben Folds,

MTV. That June night, Radiohead planned to air

all four members of Teenage Fanclub... it seemed

several songs from the new album. They may not

everyone who was anyone wanted in on this party.

have been fully conscious of it, but they were also

Of the less distinguished crowd standing on the

preparing to join the ranks of the rock aristocracy.

floor downstairs, quite a few spent more time

The VIP section of Irving Plaza, on the right

during the show ogling the celebs in the balcony

side of the balcony above the stage and roped off

than watching the band onstage. As Ed O’Brien

to prevent anyone without a special pass from

later cracked: “If a bomb had been let off in that

entering, was overflowing with some of the most

building, we’d have seen the resurrection of Jim

respected and successful people in popular music.

Kerr from Simple Minds”.

Michael Stipe and Mike Mills hobnobbed with

Of course, the five members of Radiohead had

Bono, the Edge and Adam Clayton from U2. Oasis’

known in advance about all the special people

Noel Gallagher quietly sipped his beer while his

who’d be watching them that night. And the most

brother Liam pranced goonishly through the

special of them all was Ed O’Brien’s mother. “It 21


was the first time she’d seen us in four years, — Ed

knew beforehand that if we were able to get into

says. — Before the doors opened, I went round

it, relax a little bit and do a good gig, we could

looking at the VIP section, as it were. Madonna

give everyone a good run for their money”.

had the best table in the house and my mum’s

As the lights in the house darkened, a com-

table was way in the back. I thought, ‘I’m not hav-

puter voice boomed through the P.A. speakers,

ing this,’ so I swapped my mum’s and Madonna’s

dispassionately intoning what seemed to be ran-

tables around. So, — he con­tinues with a giggle,

dom phrases and observations, by turns ambigu-

— Madonna was at the back, and my mum had the

ous, ironic and disturbed: “Fitter, happier, more

best table in the house, sandwiched in between

productive... getting on better with your associate

U2 and R.E.M. And that’s exactly how it should

employee contemporaries... no longer afraid of

be — I’m sure Madonna would have done exact-

the dark or midday shadows... at a better pace...

ly the same. You know, it’s great that all those

no chance of escape...”. Tall, lanky Ed O’Brien

people are there, but if your mum is there, your

took his place on the left side of the stage and

mum is the most important thing”.

began scraping the strings above the nut of his

Now that the real priorities had been straight-

Fender Stratocaster, summoning the ghostly son-

ened out, it was time for Radiohead to take the

ic atmosphere that opens ‘Lucky’, the first song

stage. Although the prospect of playing in front

recorded for OK Com­puter. On the opposite side

of such a group of people (including at least two

of the stage, Jonny Greenwood hunched over his

bands — U2 and R.E.M. — that the fivesome

Telecaster, his chiselled cheekbones hidden by a

had idolized in younger days) was incredibly

curtain of jet-black hair. Behind those two, Phil

intimidat­ing, the band weren’t about to let on

Selway, head newly shaven, manned the drumkit

anything of the sort. “We were nervous, — O’Brien

with consummate cool, while Colin Greenwood,

admits. — But there was also a sense of, like,

Jonny’s older brother, held down a subdued yet

we’re still the underdogs. There was this kind

warm bassline, bobbing slowly back and forth but

of rock ‘n’ roll hierarchy there — U2 and R.E.M.

never moving out of the drummer’s sight for long.

and Lenny Kravitz and Madonna, et cetera, et

In the centre stood Thom Yorke, diminu-

cetera — and there were Oasis as well, our peers,

tive, spiky-haired, intense, a Fender Jazzmaster

but they’re obviously bigger than us. And we

loosely slung around his shoulders. Eyes nearly

22


closed, he sang, quietly at first, words that seemed

it was nice after that, ‘cause we were able to relax

beyond optimism, hinting at a mysterious change

and get a little... not cocky, but like, ‘Yeah, we can

of luck and at the same time conjuring up images

cut the mustard as well.’ In front of that kind of

of aircrashes and bodies at the bottom of lakes.

audience, it was really nice to be able to know that.

When the band paused between the chorus and

Normally as a band, we freak ourselves out a bit

the verse, Yorke raised his right hand and waved

and put on some rubbish show, but we actu­ally

it three times. The gesture kept the rhythmic

controlled ourselves, we didn’t let the tempos get

count steady in the absence of drums, but it also

too quick, fly off and then become this express

resembled the last hopeless wave of a drowning

train. We were able to sit back and enjoy it”.

victim. As the song progressed, Yorke’s singing

Indeed, Radiohead appeared to be absolutely

gradually gained momen­tum. On the climactic

in control of both them­selves and the illustrious

line: “It’s gonna be a glorious day”, — his voice

crowd. As far as tempos were concerned, even

swelled up and out before spiralling gracefully

when the band seemed to rush (on the explosive

down, achieving an almost operatic grandeur. The

mid-section of ‘My Iron Lung’) or slow down

band’s playing matched the mood perfectly, their

(the thudding transition parts on ‘The Bends’),

deep minor chords echoing across vast spaces.

they did it together, with all five members mov-

The set continued with energetic runs through

ing seamlessly in tandem. While Thom held the

‘My Iron Lung’ and ‘Nice Dream’, from the band’s

audience’s attention front and centre, Ed and

previous album, The Bends, released in 1995.

Jonny went about their work like old-fashioned

Another new song, ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’, fol-

alchemists. Ed bounded restlessly around his

lowed. Yorke started it off, strumming an acous-

corner of the stage, as if jockeying for position

tic guitar by himself. The crowd yelled over his

against an invisi­ble opponent. During ‘Bones’ (off

strumming; Thom ordered them to shut up. But

The Bends), Jonny squatted over his homemade

the aggravation in his voice wasn’t completely

tremolo pedal, turning the rate knob manually to

serious. He was smiling too broadly for that.

speed up and slow down the pulsating effect. The

“It was kind of heads down for the first three

act seemed invested with magical sig­nificance.

songs, — Ed recalls, — but we were really, really

On several songs, particularly the new ones, the

on the money. We were playing really well. And

younger Greenwood would shift from guitar to 23


keyboard or more unusual instru­ments — xy-

prefaced it with a brief announcement: “We’re

lophone on ‘No Surprises’, transistor radio on

going to do this next song ‘cause we still like it,

‘Climbing Up The Walls’. When he did step out

and we don’t have a problem with it. Sing along

on six-string, he snapped his picking arm back

if you feel like it”. The song was ‘Creep’.

violently after every gutsy stroke; no wonder he

‘Creep’, Radiohead’s second single, had been

was wearing an arm brace for repetitive stress

their first hit, and the song that brought them

syndrome. Without exception, when all three

their notoriety. Like Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen

guitarists played at one time, their parts meshed

Spirit’ before it and Beck’s ‘Loser’ soon after, it

beautifully, as Ed, Thom, and Jhonny stayed out

had encapsulated the atti­tude of a generation un-

of each other’s way and each other’s frequencies.

comfortable in its own skin. “I wish I was special,

A clear sign that something was up, that the

— Thom crooned, — you’re so fucking special/

band was on top of its game and knew it, was the

But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo/What the hell am

big goofy grin that kept reappearing on Thom’s

I doing here?/I don’t belong here”. Attached to

face. Several songs in, Ed picked up on his band-

a classic, Hollies-worthy chord progression and

mate’s obvious high spirits and made a com-

one of the indisputably great non-melodic hooks

ment that couldn’t be heard offstage. “Thanks,

in rock history — Jonny attacking the muted

Ed, — Thom said into the microphone. — Yeah,

strings of his Tele three times to make a sound

I’m having fun. I don’t know about anybody

(chu-chunk, chu-chunk, chu-chunk) as ominous

else”. To which the crowd whooped en masse.

as the loading of a rifle — Yorke’s socially mal­

Thom’s beaming response: “That’s good. This

adjusted ditty had touched a general nerve. It also

is a song called ‘Paranoid Android’”. As Bono,

put his band into the worldwide charts, made

Stipe, Madonna and company looked on from

his sleepy-eyed, Johnny Rotten-meets-Martin

the balcony, Radiohead dug into the tricky new

Short visage an MTV staple, and helped sell sev-

mini-suite with relish. The audience’s roar at the

eral millions’ worth of Radiohead’s debut album,

end left no doubt in anyone’s mind that they’d

1993’s Pablo Honey.

nailed it.

Unfortunately, this type of notoriety wasn’t

But the biggest response of all was saved for

what Radiohead wanted. ‘Creep’ hadn’t been

a song played towards the end of the set. Thom

written to establish them as anthem makers or

24


genera­tional spokesmen. In fact, it hadn’t even

a combination of sly wit and brute force. And

been one of their favourite songs. Overwhelmed

as Yorke’s singing reached a crescendo, the

to the point of disturbance by the tremendous

others stopped playing, leaving him to sustain

response it had received, the band felt the need

one pained, tremulous, fervent note. The crowd

to move in a different musical direc­tion following

erupted in hollers and applause.

Pablo Honey’s release. But as they tried to branch

Several months later, when asked by the

out, they found that their big hit had already

British music magazine Mojo to submit a year-

pigeonholed them. Subsequent singles failed

end best-of list, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills sent them a

to catch on commercially. Attention-deficient

photo­graph of himself holding a large cardboard

casual listeners recog­nized Yorke only as “the

sign that read: “Radiohead, June 9, Irving Plaza,

‘Creep’ guy”. A hostile press readied itself to label

NYC: Best Show of the Year”. By this time, OK

them one-hit wonders. The result was a crisis

Computer had been nominated as the album of

of confidence that nearly destroyed this tightly

the year by a host of world­wide publications, was

knit band of old school chums. Only by clos-

in the running for several international music

ing ranks, ignoring the expectations of others

industry awards, including two Grammys, and

and responding solely to their own muse did

was set to become Radiohead’s biggest-selling

Radiohead finally prevail, undergoing a creative

album so far. Radiohead had won the support

breakthrough that would eventually be heard on

of the public, the critics and their peers, and at

The Bends and OK Computer.

Irving Plaza that night, they’d made believers

‘Creep’ had been both Radiohead’s salvation

out of their own heroes as well.

and their albatross. But now, tonight on this

But most importantly, what did Ed O’Brien’s

darkened stage in New York City, at the begin-

mum think of her first Radiohead show in four

ning of a bold new phase in the band’s career, it

years? “She loved it, — Ed reports. — She thought

was just another part of the rep­ertoire, though

the gig was fantastic. And she had Madonna’s

still an important part. Jonny’s overamped shot-

table, which is lovely”.

gun guitar hook rocked the hall, and the white stage lights flashed on and off in time with it. The band burst into the distorted chorus with 25


TWO


Ask just about anyone to list the most prestigious institutions on our planet, and chances are Oxford will figure prominently.

A

ll around the world, the name of Britain’s oldest university is recognized as a symbol of the highest academic achievement. But Oxford is not just a university. It’s also a city in its own right. And as is the case with so many university towns,

the relationship between the university and the town is not always close or easy. The five

members of Radiohead, who have lived in or around Oxford for most of their lives and who fall squarely on the ‘town’ side of the town and gown dichotomy, can attest to that. “Too many people, not enough space,” Thom Yorke once said of his hometown. “It’s very oppressive because the university owns 90 per cent of the land and the public haven’t got access to it.” The large transitory student population, mainly privileged youth from parts elsewhere, has never endeared itself to Yorke, who has in the past described Oxford students as “these fuckers walking around in their ball gowns, throwing up on the streets, being obnoxious to the population. The little guys in the bowler hats will clean up their puke and make their beds for them every night. They don’t know they’re born and they’re going to run the country. It’s scary. Of all the towns in the country it’s one of the most obvious examples of a class divide.” The countless waves of tourists that throng the city’s streets can be a considerable nuisance as well.

28


Yet even after achieving great success, none

offers them a good example of how to conduct

of Radiohead have chosen to make their home

yourself, knowing that guy who you saw in the

anywhere other than Oxford. The reasons for this

supermarket the other day picking out the best

are varied — family ties, an affection for familiar

cauliflower might be on the cover of the NME

comforts, a healthy disregard of city congestion

next week.”

and pollution, maybe even plain old inertia — but

These days, there are a lot more young Oxford

the effects that the band’s surroundings have on

bands to benefit from that example. Ten years

their music can’t be discounted. Yorke, for one,

ago, when Radiohead were still in their infancy,

has frequently claimed that living in Oxford

the local music scene was tiny, oriented around a

influences his writing, although the degree of

handful of clubs and a few dozen groups. Now, at

that influence is unclear. Perhaps the mere expe-

least 200 bands are based in the area. Why this

rience of having been long time observers of an

dramatic upsurge? Geographic location is part

intellectual community from the outside, close to

of it. An hour’s train ride from London, Oxford

it geographically but never a part of it, has helped

is conveniently close to England’s acknowledged

inform the character of the band’s art: intelligent

music industry capital, but not close enough to

but not elitist, sensitive but guarded, emotional

be ruled by its dictates. The remarkable cama-

but too perceptive to avoid a certain scepticism.

raderie of the Oxford scene is another reason.

“They obviously like living here,” says Dave

Bands openly support one another here, a far

Newton, former manager of Ride — another

cry from the divisiveness so common in mu-

local band made good — and current head of

sic circles of other British cities — Manchester,

Oxford based independent label Shifty Disco. “In

for instance.

fact, they all live closer to the centre of the city

But more than anything else, the growth of

now than they did when they were coming up.

Oxford’s pop music community can be attributed

You’ll still see them at the local clubs sometimes,

to the widespread influence of the many local

or in the record shops. Nobody hassles them,

bands who’ve made names for themselves in the

except for a few tourists, and they appreciate

past decade. The list is sizeable, including Ride,

that. I think that the fact they’ve stayed here is

Swerve driver, the Candyskins, Supergrass, and

great for the younger Oxford bands as well — it

the trio led by Thom Yorke’s younger brother 29


Andy, Unbelievable Truth. And out of these, the

The members of Radiohead don’t like to talk

band to achieve the largest amount of global

much about their childhoods, at least not to

recognition is Radiohead. “Their success has

interviewers. When pressed on the issue, they’ll

definitely had a ripple effect,” says Dai Griffiths,

usually say something along the lines of this

head of the music department at Oxford Brookes

quotation from a 1997 interview with Thom:

University. “People not only love their music

“It’s fairly flat. I didn’t get kicked around as a

but are also very aware of where the band came

kid. Sorry to disappoint.” Wary of turning their

from. It’s a source of pride, and it’s also been

lives into press fodder, the band shy away from

encouraging to a lot of young musicians here.”

deep analysis of their early years. They prefer to

The influence they’ve had on their home-

maintain that the households in which they grew

town has been substantial, but it’s not some-

up were unremarkable and that it isn’t necessary

thing Radiohead tend to acknowledge. That’s

to know what they were all like as kids to properly

not much of a surprise. Private and reserved

appreciate the music they make. Fair points, to

as they are, the band have never been keen on

be sure. But in fact, at least one member of the

drawing attention to themselves, even for acts

band’s childhood experiences were decidedly

of generosity. While the visibility of Oxford as

unusual, perhaps traumatic, and arguably had

a source of creative contemporary music con-

a great deal of bearing on what was to come.

tinues to grow, the five people that have done

Thomas Edward Yorke was born on October

more than anyone to put that city on the rock

7, 1968, in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire

map remain what they have essentially always

with his left eye fixed shut. The doctors quick-

been: interested observers.

ly determined that the eye was paralysed, and

As Thom Yorke says, “Oxford is a place where

that the condition appeared to be permanent.

you have a plan and then you go out and nev-

Searching for solutions to this unfortunate turn

er achieve it. You just walk around in circles.

of events, the Yorkes took their son to an eye spe-

I’ve always been able to walk round and round

cialist, who suggested that a muscle graft might

Oxford for days and watch people and be per-

be of assistance. The course of treatment agreed

fectly happy. I used to have favourite places to

to by Thom’s parents resulted in his undergoing

sit and watch. I still do.”

five operations before his sixth birthday. “The

30


first operation I had,” he later remembered, “I

patch on my eye... Saying, ‘Oh well, it’s just got

was just learning to speak, and apparently I

lazy through all the operations,’ which was crap

asked, ‘What have I got?’ I didn’t know. I woke

because they’d just damaged it.”

up and I had this huge thing on my eye, and

The patch, and his understandable self-con-

according to my parents, I just doubled up and

sciousness about it, were reportedly the two

started crying.” These operations did eventu-

features that distinguished him most at the first

ally change matters for the better — the left lid

schools he attended. The situation was worsened

opened successfully (though it still droops lower

by the fact that in 1976, the year the Sex Pistols

than the right one to this day) and Thom was

roared onto the British charts with ‘Anarchy

able to see through two eyes for the first time in

in the U.K.’, the Yorkes moved back south to

his life — but the physical and, more importantly,

England, again following Thom’s father’s work.

the emotional difficulties they caused would

Within six months, they moved a second time.

leave a lasting mark of their own.

For young Thom, this meant a rapid succession

Shortly after Thom’s birth, his father Graham,

of new schools, new classmates, and new insecu-

a supplier of equipment to the chemical engi-

rities. (Leaving Scotland also meant saying good-

neering industry, was hired by a firm in Scotland,

bye to his first girlfriend, Katie Ganson, whom

and so the family moved north, where they were

the seven yearold had romantically pledged to

to remain until Thom was seven. They lived

marry. The two were never to see each other

near the beach, close to an abandoned World

again.) Though he later claimed that “the only

War II sea defence fortification surrounded by

thing that affected me really badly was… every-

barbed wire barricades, a bleak scene that Yorke

one taking the piss out of me” because of his

has occasionally recalled in interviews. During

eye problems, that was bad enough. In the face

this period, Thom spent an entire year wearing

of the other boys’ taunts and jeers, Thom soon

a patch over his damaged eye. “They fucked

learned to withdraw into himself and his own

up the last [eye operation],” he once explained,

creative projects.

“and I went half blind. I can kind of see. I can

“My mother has always said that I was a very

judge if I’m going to hit something, but that’s

quiet, happy kid who just worked all the time,”

just about it. They made me go around with a

Yorke told Q in October 1997. “Using my hands. 31


Building stuff out of Lego, taking care of my

the close family connections, Thom was again

bike — I was obsessed with my bike — designing

teased relentlessly by his classmates due to his

and drawing cars... I never got bored as a kid.”

ocular irregularity. The constant schoolyard

He may not have been bored, but he was never

jibing, instead of thickening his skin, made him

perfectly contented either: “There’s a pervading

even more sensitive. He began getting into fights

sense of loneliness I’ve had since the day I was

regularly, most of which he lost. (“I was into the

born. Maybe a lot of other people feel the same

_idea_ of fighting,” he once said.)’” No longer

way, but I’m not about to run up and down the

merely wary of others, he now expected people

street asking everybody if they’re as lonely as

to give him trouble — sometimes to the point

I am. I’d probably get locked up.” Though it’s

where he could be accused of actively looking

arguable that the emotional effects of Thom’s

for an argument — and he became unwilling to

childhood have had a deep influence on the tenor

back down, the first signs of a stubbornness and

of Radiohead’s songs, it’s also worth noting that

suspicion of outsiders that would be increasingly

he has never dealt explicitly with the events of

apparent as the years went on.

his early life in his music. “I wish I was actually

“I’m like my dad,” is how he explains it. “I

able to write more about how I felt when I grew

have the sort of face that people want to punch

up,” he once said. “I don’t find I can that well.

me. That means I get into fights easily.” Indeed,

That would probably be a really good way of

Thom’s father, a prizewinning boxer when he

dealing with it.”

was in college, took it upon himself to teach his

By 1978, the Yorke family had finally settled

son the pugilistic art — for purposes of self-de-

down for good in Oxfordshire. From September

fence, of course. His attempts were not incred-

of that year to July 1980, Thom attended the

ibly successful. “One of the first things he ever

Standlake Church of England Primary School in

bought me was a pair of boxing gloves,” Thom

Witney, a few miles west of Oxford. His equally

remembered in Rolling Stone. “He used to try

artistic younger brother Andy would also even-

to teach me to box, but whenever he hit me, I’d

tually become a Standlake student; perhaps not

fall flat on my ass.”

coincidentally, their mother Barbara taught at

Offsetting all this everyday unpleasantness,

the school (as she does to this day). Despite

though, was a new interest, in which the young

32


Yorke found both consolation and a creative

particularly more ambitious songs like ‘The

outlet. For his eighth birthday, Thom’s mother

Bends’ and ‘Paranoid Android’.

and father had given him a cheap Spanish guitar

Legend has it that Thom was convinced early

as a present. He’d discovered rock music not

on that he would be a rock star, perhaps not ex-

long before, and his parents, encouraging the

actly like Brian May but close enough, and that

enthusiasm, no doubt hoped that learning to

he advised his parents to this effect. His father

play an instrument could help boost his overall

duly passed the information on to his friends,

confidence. (Four years earlier, Yorke had a steel

who no doubt got a chuckle or two out of it. At

string guitar, but his initial musical experimen-

this point, the only song the youngster could

tations were short-lived; the strings hurt his

play on the guitar was ‘Kumbaya’.

fingers, and so he impatiently threw the guitar against the wall, breaking it to bits.)

Wasting little time, Yorke formed his first band at age ten. (Actually, it wasn’t a band but

Tellingly, it wasn’t the raw three chord punk

what might be more aptly described as an ex-

sweeping the English scene at the time, but the

perimental duo, consisting of Thom on guitar

far more ornate, theatrical and conspicuously

and another Standlake student whose primary

accomplished stylings of Queen, that first ig-

duty apparently consisted of miswiring TV sets

nited Thom’s passion. In particular, he idolized

so that they’d explode.) By age eleven, he’d writ-

the perfect mix of melody, bombast and campy

ten his first song, a cheery little number about

humour in the playing of their guitarist Brian

the atomic bomb called ‘Mushroom Cloud’. The

May, which he first heard on a friend’s copy of

composer has since explained that the song was

the band’s 1975 album A Night At The Opera.

“more about how [the mushroom cloud] looked

“I wanted to be Brian May,” he later recalled. “I

than how terrible it was.” Still, it stands as evi-

went into a guitar lesson when I was eight and

dence that the morbid world view so commonly

said, ‘I want to be Brian May.’ I’d never wanted

found in the songs of Radiohead was already

to be anything else. Before that, it was Lego.” “

well in place at a tender age.

Though certainly diluted by exposure to other

At the dawn of the 1980s, Thom Yorke en-

music over the years, that early influence of

tered Abingdon School, a ‘public’ single-sex

Queen can still be heard in Radiohead’s work,

institution located, as the name indicates, in 33


the smallish (population approximately 32,000)

‘Salamander’. The brawl that ensued between

suburb of Abingdon, just a few miles down the

the two boys didn’t stop the name from spread-

Thames from the city of Oxford. One of the

ing. “I didn’t like it,” Thom would later vouch-

oldest public schools in England, Abingdon has

safe, adding that “it was a very malicious school

been in existence since at least 1256. In 1563,

and everyone had very malicious nicknames, so

the school was re-endowed by John Roysse, a

‘Salamander’ was par for the course.”

London mercer or dealer of fine fabrics; in 1870,

Much of Thom’s personal malice was saved

it moved to its present beautiful 37acre site

specifically for Abingdon’s headmaster, one

on Park Road in the heart of the market town,

Michael St. John Parker, who also had a student

which until 1980 was also the headquarters of

devised nickname, ‘the Beak’, a reference to his

the MG automobile company. Thom joined a

unusually long nose. A historian by training,

student body of about 750 boys between the

Parker is the co-author of the splendidly written

ages of 11 and 19, of whom one fifth were either

and highly informative The Martlet And The

full or weekly boarders. Pupils were expected to

Griffen: An Illustrated History Of Abingdon

put in a gruelling class schedule by American

School (London: James & James Publishers,

standards — six days a week, 8:35 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Ltd., 1997). Yet it isn’t his scholarship that

weekdays, 8:35 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays — but

most of his students seem to remember, but

the school prided itself on the results. Nearly

rather his allegedly peculiar mannerisms and

every Abingdon pupil goes on to university

dress sense. Another former Abingdonian, Rick

(which is still a far less automatic career path

Clark, interviewed by author Jonathan Hale

in Britain than in the U.S.), with an average

for his book Radiohead: From A Great Height,

of 15 to 25 per year winning places at Oxford

remembered that Parker “constantly prowled

or Cambridge.

the school grounds in his Dracula robes, trying

Though the people and surroundings of Abingdon were different from Standlake, the

to look like a slice of early 19thcentury English school folklore.”

teasing — both about Thom’s looks and his

Parker also presided over the twice weekly

attitude — wasn’t about to let up. A particularly

morning chapel services that were, along with

caring classmate gave him a new nickname,

school uniforms, mandatory for all students.

34


(One of the principal aims in the official

the few times Radiohead has played it live, in

Abingdon School mission statement is to “give

Stockholm in 1995: “This is about an old head-

boys an understanding of the Christian herit-

master that we had... He suddenly decided he

age”.) According to Thom, Parker’s sermons

was close to God ‘cause he was a useless head-

to the boys were sabotaged by the fact that

master. The guy was a fascist idiot, and this is

he wasn’t an ordained minister; in the young

about him.”

Yorke’s eyes, the headmaster was simply im-

Clearly, there was no love lost between the

personating a man of the cloth. “I really grew

teenage Thom Yorke and his alma mater, but the

up with hatred for [Parker] because he was

reasons for this, at least during Thom’s first cou-

one fucked up guy,” Thom later said. “He was a

ple of years at the school, remain unclear. (His

power crazy, lunatic, evil, petty little man with

academic performance, though not exceptional,

ridiculous sideburns who used to flick his hair

was far from miserable.) Abingdon’s teachers

across his head to hide his bald patch.”

were no doubt overly concerned with discipline,

This deeply held loathing has lasted long

but it also seems likely that Yorke had already

enough to come through in the lyrics to sev-

developed an inherent mistrust of authority

eral Radiohead songs, the most obvious being

figures that went beyond any actual loathsome

‘Bishop’s Robes’, released as a B side in 1996.

behaviour on the part of his headmaster. In

In themselves, the words leave little to the im-

any event, Thom went through what he later

agination. Yorke curses a ‘bastard headmaster’,

characterized as “a really bad period... My par-

confesses that he’s still terrified by his mental

ents worked themselves into this state and were

image of the man (wearing the titular robes;

convinced I was going to get expelled. They got

no mention of sideburns, though) and bewails

things slightly out of proportion.”

the British system of cultural indoctrination

It would seem so, if Abingdon geography

(“Children taught to kill/To tear themselves to

and athletics instructor Jeff Drummond Hay’s

bits/On playing fields”) in which the headmaster

testimony is to be believed. Interviewed by the

is a major participant. But just in case you still

Mail On Sunday in 1997 about his experience

have any questions about the meaning of the

teaching the future members of Radiohead,

song, here’s how Thom introduced it on one of

Drummond Hay painted a rosy picture. “They 35


kept their heads down and worked hard. They

his father Raymond, a major in the Royal Army

were quite popular, but they weren’t the rowdiest

Ordnance Corps, when Colin was seven years

bunch that we’ve had here.” Indeed, the ways in

old. Encouraged at the beginning by his mother

which Thom chose to rebel against his school’s

Brenda, who wasn’t a musician but had some

rigid strictures were far more constructive than

appreciation for light classical and show tunes,

those of some other classmates. During his time

Colin started taking guitar lessons at about nine,

at Abingdon, a few contemporaries of his gained

but he was by now more interested in playing

notoriety by allegedly hijacking a local bus and

bass, inspired by the late’70s and early’80s post-

attempting to set off a homemade bomb in the

punk that he found in his older sister Susan’s

park adjoining the school. Jonny Greenwood

record collection. Bassists like Magazine’s Barry

recalled that the students had built the bomb

Adamson and Joy Division’s Peter Hook had

“by collecting chemicals every week from [chem-

an aggressive style, simple yet melodic, that

istry] lessons over a whole term until they had a

appealed to Colin and had the added benefit of

whole bottle full, and then they laid it next to a

being relatively easy to duplicate. (The work of

statue... [It’s] bizarre for this sleepy town in the

more experienced bassists like Motown’s great

middle of Oxfordshire, very hard to imagine.”

James Jamerson and Stax’s Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn

Still, there were good points to Thom’s at-

was also a formative influence on young Colin.)

tending Abingdon, for it was there that he would

Another trait Thom and Colin had in com-

meet the other four boys with whom he’d forge

mon was a love of casually outrageous dress.

a future in rock ‘n’ roll. The first to join the gang

Thom once explained that he started a band with

was Colin Charles Greenwood. Born several

Colin because “we always ended up at the same

months after Thom, on June 26, 1969, he had

parties. He’d be wearing a beret and a catsuit,

lived in the Oxford area nearly all his life. Like

or something pretty fucking weird, and I’d be

Thom, he had suffered from teasing and self-con-

in a frilly blouse and crushed velvet dinner suit

sciousness about his appearance (in Colin’s case,

and we’d pass ‘round the Joy Division records.”

an oddly shaped head and somewhat sunken

Lest we forget, this was the early ‘80s, heyday

facial features). Also like Thom, he’d been drawn

of the New Romantics, and dressing foppishly

to music as a youngster, following the death of

was a big pop trend. Of course, the music of

36


Joy Division would have been far too raw and

he first became interested in pop music around

despairing to make it onto the turntables of most

the time of Elvis Presley’s death in 1977, Ed’s

New Romantic enthusiasts, but these Oxford

greater passion was for outdoor sports: cricket,

kids, none of whom could be mistaken for strict

football, and field hockey. Of all the future mem-

purists, were already mixing and matching their

bers of Radiohead, he was the most athletically

favourites with little regard for genre lines.

inclined, and because of this he was by far the

The first band these two disaffected Abingdon

most frequently mentioned in Abingdon School’s

students both played in, at approximately age

yearly magazine, The Abingdonian. (In the 1984

14, was the school’s resident punk outfit, TNT.

issue, Jeff Drummond Hay, who coached the

Thom became the singer because, as he put it,

Abingdon cricket team, praises O’Brien for

“no one else would”. In possession of a cheap mi-

“chancing [his] arm to good effect”.)

crophone but no stand, Yorke made do by tying

Another major interest of Ed’s was the the-

the mike to a broomstick: “Everyone just started

atre, and it was his frequent acting in school

falling about laughing, and that was that. That

dramatic productions that led him to meet both

was my introduction to singing.” By all accounts,

Greenwood and Yorke, who were in the year

the band made a horrible racket, which was the

below him. First he met Colin, who co-starred

whole point, of course. But although TNT was

with him in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Trial

an exciting proposition at first, by 1984 it had

By Jury, and then Thom, who helped provide

become a drag for Thom and Colin, who decided

background music for an experimental, in the

to leave the band’s ranks and investigate other

round, modern-dress version of A Midsummer

musical avenues.

Night’s Dream. In an interview many years later,

Soon joining Thom and Colin in this new

Ed recalled the first time Thom came across his

enterprise was another lifelong Oxfordite and

radar. “There was this tense dress rehearsal,

would be musician, Edward John O’Brien (born

and Thom and this other fella were jamming

April 15, 1968). Son of John O’Brien, a local os-

free form cod jazz throughout it. The director

teopath, Ed lived with his mother Eve after his

stopped the play and shouted up to this scaffold

parents split up in the late ‘70s, but he stayed on

tower thing they were playing on, trying to find

good terms with both sides of the family. Though

out what the hell was going on. Thom started 37


shouting down, ‘I don’t know what the fuck we’re

didn’t take Ed into their inner circle for his guitar

supposed to be playing.’ And this was to a teach-

picking abilities, which Ed claims were just about

er.” Already towering over his classmates — he

non-existent. “I wasn’t trained on the guitar at

would eventually reach a more than respectable

all,” he says. “I could barely play a chord when

height of six foot four — O’Brien was recruited,

I was first in the band.” But in those early days,

Thom said, because “I thought he was cool and

looks counted for a lot.

1

looked like [then Smiths vocalist] Morrissey.” Ed

This is not to say that the future members

was flattered by this comparison to the singer of

of Radiohead lacked musical training. On the

one of his all time favourite bands (he has since

contrary, all of them received formal instruction

called the Smiths, and especially the playing of

on at least one instrument in their youth. Thom

guitarist Johnny Marr, “an enormous influence

took both guitar and voice lessons, but though

— I realized recently that I’d been subconscious-

he was an eager student at first, he was far less

ly ripping off their stuff for ages”), and a fast

interested in learning to read and write music,

friendship was formed. Thom and Colin certainly

a discipline he has yet to acquire: “My [singing] teacher... Would give me things to practise and

1  The ‘other fella’ playing with Thom was a gifted keyboardist

I’d come back and say, ‘You have to sing this to

named Donald Gawthorne. Another Abingdon classmate, James

me, ‘cause I can’t read it.’... I could never get the

Lister-Cheese, claims that Gawthorne’s musical influence on Thom was considerable, and that for a time, the two musicians

hang of [reading] at all.” Colin was classically

had a band together. The adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s

trained on guitar. Ed studied trumpet for several

Dream for which they provided the music was performed at

years, but when he joined one of Abingdon’s

the school’s Amey Hall on November 15 and 16, 1984. In a

school orchestras, he was moved from his cho-

review that ran in the following year’s edition of The Abingdonian, classmate Tom Hollander reported that Yorke and Gawthorne’s

sen instrument to the trombone. He claims that

music “seemed to be largely a matter of improvisation, providing

he was moved “because there weren’t enough

pace and generally contributing to the atmospheric nature of

trombone players in the orchestra, but he [the

the production,” before concluding sourly, “It can’t be very

orchestra leader] said my lips were too big for

gratifying for the people involved in such a production when so few members of the school community can be bothered to

the trumpet.” (To which Colin responds: “He

go and see their work.” [The Abingdonian, Vol. 18, No. 3, July

was telling you porkies. He just wanted to throw

1985, p. 26]

you the ‘bone, didn’t he?”)

38


Many of Thom, Colin and Ed’s early group

among the longest lasting — but had difficulty

activities took place in Abingdon’s music de-

finding a drummer, and so timekeeping duties

partment, which was one of the few parts of

were held down at first by a Boss Dr. Rhythm

the school that Thom would later describe une-

drum machine. Unfortunately, at one of the

quivocally as “great — no one came down there,

group’s earliest performances, a birthday party

and there were these tiny rooms with sound-

for a fellow classmate, the machine broke down

proofed cubicles.” Music is an important part of

in the middle of their first song. After a great

the Abingdon curriculum, though not generally

deal of cursing, especially from Thorn, the band

music of the pop variety. Over half the school’s

decided that they had to get a real drummer right

pupils receive instruction on an instrument, and

away.2 Someone mentioned trying out a boy that

there are three school orchestras, plus sever-

everyone vaguely knew from one of Abingdon’s

al brass and wind ensembles. The school also

upper forms, and the next day Ed was sent to

boasts a state-of-the-art concert hall, built in

the local pub to recruit him. He was currently

1980 for amateur and professional recitals. Colin

playing in a band called Jungle Telegraph, and

remembered Abingdon’s music school as a place

his name was Philip James Selway.

“where we would all run and hide away from the

The only member of Radiohead besides

tedious conformity of timetables and uniforms.”

Thorn to have been born outside Oxford’s en-

It wasn’t long before this retreat from obli-

virons (in Hemingford Gray, Cambridgeshire),

gations took on a more constructive tone, and a

Phil Selway is also the oldest member of the

more or less permanent band was soon formed

group, born May 23, 1967. Drumming had long

with Yorke, Greenwood and O’Brien at its core,

been an interest of Phil’s. “I found my first drum

along with a rotating cast of other members. For a while, that cast included three saxophone

2  Another part of that early birthday party show remembered

players, two of them sisters from the nearby girls’

ruefully by the band happened after the music ended. A boy

school of St. Helen’s and St. Katherine’s; a horn

came up to Colin and complimented him on his bass playing, a

section would be a regular group feature until

compliment that Colin, who was still a relative beginner on the instrument, took with a great deal of satisfaction. It was only

well into the late ‘80s. The band had a variety of

later that he discovered the fellow who’d praised his playing

names — Shindig, Dearest, and Gravitate were

was completely tone-deaf.

39


at three o’clock in the morning of my third

ugly temper. “Phil is the antithesis of your nor-

Christmas,” he reminisced in 1993. “My parents

mal drummer,” Ed once put it. “He’s very cer-

[Michael and Dorothea] never really encouraged

ebral, he’s very thoughtful... And he’s not one

me to play after that.” Nevertheless, Phil stuck

to go smashing TV sets through windows. As

with his original choice of instrument, except for

none of us are. You know, that’s all a bit old hat.”

a brief dalliance with the tuba. During his time

Eventually, the fledgling band settled on a per-

at Abingdon, he studied classical percussion but

manent name, On A Friday. There was no hidden

stopped after two years of tympani instruction.

meaning in the moniker — Friday was simply

(Colin comments, “If we ever head on into the

the day the band usually rehearsed — and not a

progressive direction, we’ve got the guy who

tremendous amount of inspiration either, but it

can play the tymps already.” In response, Phil

worked for the moment. The music they played,

quips: “I was kind of thinking of transferring

written principally by Thom, was the product

those skills to the gong, though.”) Although

of a melange of influences: the aforementioned

several of Phil’s friends had beaten Thorn up

Joy Division, Magazine, and the Smiths, but

in the past, this was overlooked when the time

also the Fall, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, U2,

came to evaluate his drumming abilities, which

R.E.M., Japan (whose lead singer David Sylvian

were acceptable to all concerned. According to

first inspired Thom to dye his hair blond), and

some reports, Thorn’s only comment to Selway

many others. ‘Schizophrenic’ is the description

at their first meeting was “Can’t you play any

the other members of the band use most often to

fucking faster?” The answer was evidently in

describe those early songs, which bore titles like

the affirmative; many years later, Phil would

‘Fragile Friend’, ‘Lock The Doors’, and ‘Girl In

remember those words with a chuckle and say,

A Purple Dress’. A distinctive sound was slowly

“I soon learned.” In future years, the non-drumming members of the band would display their sense of irony by

beginning to take shape, but one further addition to the lineup would be necessary before all the pieces fell into place.

giving their unusually mild mannered percus-

Colin’s younger brother, Jonathan Richard

sionist the nickname Mad Dog, and warn their

Gordon Greenwood (born November 5, 1971

new acquaintances to watch out for Selway’s

in Oxford), was spending more and more

40


time hanging around On A Friday’s rehearsals.

later claim retarded his development.) By this

Originally, Colin had invited him along. He later

time, Jonny had been turned on to pop music

claimed it was a way of keeping an eye on his

— the first record he personally owned, at age

sibling: “He was only 13, it was a difficult age.”

six, was Squeeze’s ‘Cool For Cats’ on pink vinyl.

Though Jonny (as he is generally known) was

Later, vintage jazz and modern classical music

quiet by nature — Ed once joked that he didn’t

would become his main passions.

speak a word to anyone in the group for a year

From guitar, Jonny progressed to piano and

— his interest in joining the band had become

a number of other instruments, eventually man-

clear. His age and his relation to Colin didn’t

ning one of the viola chairs in the Thames Valley

weigh in his favour, but his obvious talent on a

Youth Orchestra. He was, without a doubt, the

wide variety of instruments did.

most versatile, knowledgeable, and musically

Jonny showed signs of musical adeptness

literate member of the group. Except that he still

early on; he once claimed in print that his

wasn’t really in the group. On A Friday already

grandfather, the only previous member of the

had two guitar players; they didn’t need a third.

Greenwood family within living memory who’d

What to do? The boys vacillated on the mat-

exhibited any instrumental skill, had taught him

ter for nearly a year, during which time Jonny

show tunes on the banjo at the tender age of

would frequently show up at band rehearsals

three. In their youth, Colin and Jonny shared a

toting a portable keyboard, ready to be called

bedroom, and Colin remembers that around the

on when needed. On those times when he was

same time he began playing the guitar, Jonny

allowed to join in, unbeknownst to the rest of the

picked up the recorder. “I suppose that he was

band, he’d play with the volume turned to zero.

about age seven,” the elder Greenwood says.

“They’d had a previous keyboard player

(Jonny says he was five.) “And he learned to

[probably Thom’s friend and collaborator on

play the recorder a lot quicker than I learned

the Midsummer Night’s Dream music Donald

to play the guitar. Then he went on to learn to

Gawthorne] who was into quite loud keyboards

play my guitar.” (Colin had his revenge on his

in a Genesis kind of way,” Jonny said. “So I

younger sibling by mixing up his crayons, a

thought, ‘The way to stay in this band would

tactic which Jonny, who is colour-blind, would

be to be very quiet.’ I’d be sat there, playing 41


the right chords, but no one could hear a note

peer group thought. Yet at least some of their

I played... The euphemism they kept coming up

contemporaries at school held them in high

with was, ‘Well, these keyboards sound like you

regard. Rick Clark and Simon Cranshaw, two

can’t hear them but if you took them away, then

fellow Abingdonians interviewed by Jonathan

you’d notice they were missing.” This minimalist

Hale, claimed that Thom’s musical proficiency

tactic had positive effects. Finally, grudgingly,

impressed many students, and that he got a lot

Jonny was allowed a guest spot in the band —

of attention on campus because of it.

on harmonica.

James Lister Cheese, who came to Abingdon

With their final lineup nearly complete, On A

in the same year as Thom and Colin, told me

Friday began making occasional live appearanc-

much the same. Lister Cheese’s name is forever

es around town at parties and the like. Fearing

linked to Thom’s in the pages of The Abingdonian

parental disapproval of his activities, Thom

due to a joint interview they conducted with

would make up stories for his mum and dad

master Charles Parker in 1986 on the fascinating

whenever the band played anywhere, telling

subject of rewriting maths textbooks. Now an

them he was staying at a friend’s house. Colin

investment consultant in London, he confesses

later recalled one of those early gigs with much

that both he and all the Abingdon friends he’s

good humour: “We all wore black and played

kept in touch with over the years are ardent

very loud, because we thought that’s what you

Radiohead fans, owning all the band’s albums

had to do.”

and following their career with pride. “Thom

The band has always maintained that at

Yorke was always very much a part of the music

this time they were making music primarily

scene at the school,” he says. “Whether it was

for themselves and no one else. “It’s not like

mainstream or less so I don’t think really mat-

we wanted to go play in London and be noticed

tered. Everybody was aware of his talent, and

straight away,” Colin said. “We’ve never done

the fact that it was, and is, a very unique talent.

the music as paving the way to recognition or

Although it’s fair to say that most of the guys

fame.” Even though their audience consisted

in Radiohead were not part of the main school

mainly of Abingdon classmates, they professed

framework, there was no sense in which their

not to be incredibly concerned with what their

obvious talent was subjugated to fit in with the

42


mainstream view. I think everybody who’s been

new rehearsal facilities were soon found. A

at Abingdon has come away with the impression

nearby church hall looked like it would suit the

that no matter what their skills are, they’re al-

purpose, and after the vicar had been assured

ways there to be supported by the school.”

that these youngsters were a serious jazz band,

Given that Abingdon School, despite its con-

On A Friday were permitted to use the space.

servatism, offered plenty of opportunities for

(It’s uncertain whether the vicar ever realized

artistically inclined students to express them-

the extent to which he had been duped by Yorke

selves, and that the talents of the five future

and Co., but the group’s inclusion of three sax-

members of Radiohead seem to have been appre-

ophonists must have furthered the deception.)

ciated there to at least some degree, it may strike

By now, it was becoming clear that Thom,

some observers as odd that in most of their later

Colin, Ed, Phil and Jonny had found something

interviews, the band have spoken about their

special in each other, something that they all

Abingdon days dismissively, sometimes even

wanted to contribute to and help develop. In

disparagingly. Yet there’s an easy explanation

Jonny’s words, “I knew Thom was writing great

for this pronounced lack of fond reminiscence:

songs and I knew what I wanted to do.” Yet On

Abingdon’s beloved Headmaster Parker had a low

A Friday was fast approaching the crucial time

tolerance for rock bands. In fact, he took it upon

that all bands of high school friends eventually

himself to ban electrically powered music from

reach, the time when high school ends and future

the school premises after another student band,

directions are charted. Passing up college in fa-

one of TNT’s punk descendants, had become a

vour of pursuing a career as a rock band simply

bit too raucous at a function. All of a sudden, On

wasn’t an option for any of these five teenagers;

A Friday needed a new place to play.

they were all too talented academically and be-

If Thom hadn’t cared for Headmaster Parker

sides, their families wouldn’t have allowed it.

before, this new affront added fuel to his fury:

(None of the Radiohead parents were incredibly

“It was when he banned music that I really knew

supportive of the band in the early days, except

I hated him... I still hate him, and if I see or hear

for Ed O’Brien’s father, whose interest in pop

of him I get this deep sinking feeling.” Though

music reportedly borders on the maniacal: “His

Thom’s anger may have been slow to subside,

dad will come in waving the music papers and 43


want to discuss the new Primal Scream single,”

the age range in the band isn’t huge, but at the

Colin once quipped.)

time it made quite a difference. So when, say, I’d

In the face of such post graduation difficulties,

finished at school, everybody was still there. You

most high school bands splinter forever, but this

know, I wanted to actually have something else

one would prove to be a remarkable exception.

to do at the same time, so I went on to university

Phil, the first to leave the confines of Abingdon,

and then carried on through.”3

had moved on in 1986 to Liverpool Polytechnic

To some observers, the members of On

College, where he would study English and

A Friday may have seemed to be going their

history (in his spare time, he played drums in

own separate ways, but in reality, they were

the pit bands of several musical productions).

continuing to grow together as a band. By ear-

The following year, Ed enrolled at Manchester

ly 1987, they had begun to circulate their first

University, concentrating on economics, and

demo tape, a limited edition collection of six

Colin was accepted at Cambridge University’s

four track recordings containing among others

Peterhouse College, where he would read English

the now forgotten numbers ‘Lemming Trail’,

literature. But all three left no doubt of their firm

‘Fat Girl’, and ‘Mountains (On The Move)’. A

allegiance to the band, continuing to rehearse

copy of this tape made it into the hands of Dave

and occasionally perform with the others when

Newton, who at the time ran a newspaper called

they returned to Oxford on weekends and hol-

Local Support. Started in the mid’80s, the paper

iday breaks. “The level of commitment, even

was Oxford’s first to be devoted solely to the

when we were 18 and 19, was pretty amazing,” Ed recalls. For his part, Phil puts his decision to attend university down to the need to keep himself oc-

1  Another, more amusing effect of the band’s age range was the sometimes vast appearance differential between its members. As Colin put it in 1997, “We’re still in our same classes and years, really. The thing about having been

cupied while the rest of the band finished their

together for such a long period is that there are some heinously

academic obligations, downplaying the role of

embarrassing group shots from ten years ago when we were

parental pressure or any inner need to pursue a ‘straight’ career path in case music didn’t work out: “There was less design there, really. I mean, 44

in adolescence with varying styles of haircut and demeanour which would now be openly laughed at in the street… You’d literally take a photograph of Morrissey to the barber and say, ‘I want it like that.’”


local music scene. Based on his stewardship of

After taking his A level exams, though, Yorke

Local Support, Newton was asked at the begin-

elected to postpone college and take the next year

ning of 1987 to head the music section of a new

off. He worked for a while in the menswear section

college publication called the Oxford Enquirer.

at a local department store, but quickly earned

The venture lasted for less than a month before

disfavour for being argumentative; he also served

the funding dried up and Newton went back to

a stint as a bartender, during which time he made

his previous job, but it was in the pages of the

the acquaintance of a woman whose comments

Enquirers February 24 issue that he gave On A

on his appearance he’d repeat several years later

Friday their first press notice, in the form of a

in a Rolling Stone interview: “You have beautiful

brief demo tape review. “From the band’s name

eyes, but they’re completely wrong.”

and song titles I expected some dour bedroom

Like many teenage boys, Thom was interested

Goth music,” Newton wrote, “but happily I en-

in cars, and now that he was old enough to drive,

joyed the experience.” Citing R.E.M., Green On

he took full advantage of the opportunity. But his

Red and the Prisoners as audible influences, he

youthful auto infatuation would come to an abrupt

concluded, “Certainly a band worth hearing, and

halt following a nasty accident that took place

from what I hear a band worth seeing.”

during his time between Abingdon and college.

Not long after this encouraging review was

Details on the accident are fuzzy, but we do know

published, Thom Yorke began his final term at

that Thom wrecked his car and that his girlfriend

Abingdon School. Even though he had been in

at the time, who was riding with him, suffered

frequent trouble in previous years, he’d never

whiplash. Luckily, no one was seriously injured.

given up completely on his school work, and in

Still, the crash coloured Thom’s outlook from

his last year, he concentrated enough on it to

that day forward. He became very wary on the

excel in several subjects, winning class prizes in

road, and nursed a growing fear, not just of cars

art and music. “I became a good boy and start-

but of any mechanized form of transport, a fear

ed working,” he later commented sarcastically,

that would find its way into several future songs.

adding that even during the earlier, more fraught

Mainly, Thom continued to work on music,

times at Abingdon, “I didn’t mind getting told off because I probably deserved it.” “

and to evade his father’s bigger plans for him. “He felt I had talent for advertising,” Thom said. 45


“It was very embarrassing. He was always calling

principal landmarks are the Radcliffe Infirmary

up advertising agencies for me, saying, ‘Do you

and the headquarters of the Oxford University

need anybody to wipe the floor for three months?’

Press. On the whole, Jericho is a quiet residential

But Dad, I want to rehearse! Or, Dad, I want to

neighbourhood, its commercial outlets confined

sit at home and feel miserable!” At the same

largely to Walton Street, the meandering avenue

time, Phil and Ed were busy with their classes

that forms its spine.

up north. Colin was ensconced in his first year

On the north corner of Walton and Jericho

at Cambridge, and his brother was still more

Streets stands an unassuming two storey

than three years away from leaving Abingdon,

stone building that houses a pub, now called

where he would eventually be cited in the school

the Philanderer and Firkin. One of a chain of

magazine as one of several students who “have

pubs owned by the Firkin brewery, it’s nota-

given untold service to school music throughout

ble mainly for its fake Edwardian decor and

their time here.”

the cutesy placards on the walls that boast an

It was at this point of relative dispersal, iron-

array of groan-inducing puns: MIND YOUR

ically, that On A Friday played their first official

FIRKIN HEAD, HAVE A FIRKIN BEER, and so

club show, at Oxford’s Jericho Tavern in the

on. Behind the bar on the ground floor, at the

summer of 1987.

back of the building, a narrow flight of stairs

From the nominal centre of Oxford at Carfax,

leads up to the second floor, which contains

the medieval tower that marks the spot where

a smaller bar and a mid sized stage. The large

High Street (or the High, in city parlance)

windows facing the street help make the place

meets Corn market, it’s approximately a fifteen

look bigger than it actually is; capacity is ap-

minute walk northwest, past the Ashmolean

proximately 120 people. Though this room is

Museum and the splendid Georgian houses that

still referred to as the Jericho, and local bands

line Beaumont Street, to the section of the city

play here to this day, the Jericho Tavern as On

that’s long been known — though why, no one

A Friday knew it is long gone.

can say — as Jericho. Immortalized by author

For nearly a decade, up until the middle of

Colin Dexter in the pages of his Inspector Morse

the 1990s, the Jericho Tavern was a central part

mystery The Death of Jericho, the area’s two

of the Oxford scene, one of a handful of area

46


venues that regularly offered live rock music. Its

by friends of Woods as a safety precaution. On

proprietor, Bob Woods, was friendly with many

those frequent nights when a band would pack in

of Oxford’s up and coming bands (including the

over 200 people upstairs (well beyond official ca-

members of On A Friday), and during his tenure,

pacity), the movement of the crowd’s feet made

he transformed the place from a dingy, infre-

the floor shake. Downstairs, the undulations of

quently visited dive into a still dingy but well-

the ceiling were clearly visible, and patrons of the

loved musicians’ hangout. But in 1995, Woods’

main bar were justifiably nervous that the whole

run of luck came to an end when the Firkin chain

thing might come crashing down at any time.

took over the Jericho and promptly got rid of the

It’s unlikely that the Jericho’s floor was shak-

manager, claiming that they wanted their pub

ing too much on the night that On A Friday made

to have a ‘younger image’. Their plan backfired.

their debut there. Since this was the first show

What once was an admittedly rough and ready

they’d played to an audience not composed com-

but always crowded neighbourhood linchpin is

pletely of Abingdon classmates, the turnout was

now a plastic pub, bright and clean but soullessly

sparse. Fifteen year old Jonny, still not regarded

garish, and one that the youth of Oxford have

as a full time member of the band, sat onstage,

not flocked to in anywhere near the numbers for

harmonica in hand, “waiting for his big moment

which the new owners must have hoped.

to arrive”, as Phil later recalled. Jonny and his

Besides the outside shell of the building itself,

older colleagues may have been excited about

little of Bob Woods’ Jericho can be seen in the

their bow as professionals, but at least one lo-

present day Philanderer and Firkin. The stage is

cal musician who saw On A Friday around this

significantly smaller, and the dressing room that

time wasn’t too impressed. Known only as Mac,

used to be behind the stage has been replaced by

he would in a few years provide an invaluable

an unbecoming set of emergency doors. Yet on

service to the band as the talent booker for the

the ground floor, one architectural element from

Jericho, but in 1987 he saw little talent there.

the Jericho’s glory days remains: a beam stretch-

“They were terrible,” Mac remembers. “They ob-

ing across the length of the ceiling to the left of

viously didn’t know what they were doing. They

the main bar, running directly underneath the

had the three sax players, and they sounded like

floor of the music room. This beam was installed

a bad version of Haircut One Hundred.” 47


Mac wasn’t alone in his lack of enthusiasm.

An Old Fire Station packed to the hilt with

Even Dave Newton of Local Support, who’d had

boatloads of baby-cham/cider-drinking 14 year

positive things to say about the band’s first demo

old schoolgirls/boys left me feeling quite geriatric:

tape, couldn’t find much to recommend on their

especially as the bar shut at 9:30 and the evening

second. (It didn’t help that the tape contained a

faded before 10 — so that they didn’t miss the last

whopping 14 songs.) “The horns certainly help

bus back to Abingdon, I guess.

to keep the attention,” he wrote, “but the tape

Not long after 8, on came the Illiterate Hands:

has very few outstanding tracks and those that

the six of them looking like those nauseating kids

did grab me were ruined by [Thom’s] American

from that Xmas Casio ad, and their accents and

accent... It was hard work listening to this lot,”

equipment perhaps showed that their parents

Newton added with a trace of exasperation.

had indeed been filling their Christmas stockings

Despite such reactions, the group continued

with the said Casio gear (from £200 to £2000).

to hone its live act over the next year, whenever

But still, the sound was anything but immature or

its members’ class schedules allowed. Their most

pampered, walking a straight line through rock’s

notable engagements included a date opening

past (and future?). The best thing this lot have got

for the Icicle Works at Exeter College, Oxford,

going for them is their songs — punchy, poppy,

a gig at the London School of Economics, and a

memorable tunes, neatly touched up by the lyrics.

February 1988 show at the Old Fire Station on

If they last past the sixth form, then the Illiterate

George Street in the centre of Oxford, supported

Hands may well find a niche in pop’s future.

by a band called the Illiterate Hands, whose

Following this bunch, just after 9, were On A

members included Jonny Greenwood and Andy

Friday, playing a rare gig in town. R.E.M. vocals

Yorke. (As he had at Standlake Primary, Andy

(highlighted by the west coast Jumpin’ Jack

followed his older brother to Abingdon, where he

Flash’), neat pace, a touch of Stax and a touch

and Jonny, both aspiring guitarists, had formed

of sax (three saxophones, to be precise!). Tight,

a fast friendship.) Dave Newton attended this

entertaining, powerful, melodic, driving pop and

show and wrote an amusing review of it in Local

most certainly foot tapping (at least)...

Support that’s worth quoting at length:

Soon after this gig, Jonny was finally rewarded for his perseverance by being accepted into

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the fold at long last as On A Friday’s permanent keyboardist. (Following the demise of the Illiterate Hands, Andy Yorke would eventually put the lessons he’d learned with Jonny to good use in his own band Unbelievable Truth, whose other members, Jason Moulster and Nigel Powell, had previously served time in a group called the Purple Rhinos.) However, this change in personnel dynamics would not be noticed for some time by anyone outside the band’s inner circle, for the simple reason that the band was about to enter a long period of near-invisibility. After much deliberation, Thom had decided to sign up for the coming academic year as an undergraduate in English and art at Exeter University, a decision that reportedly startled his parents. (“They were really shocked that I actually wanted to go to college”, — he remembered in Option.) When he left Oxford for Exeter in the autumn of 1988, any plans that On A Friday might have had for world domination were put on indefinite hold. Although they would continue to rehearse during holiday breaks, they would remain strangers to the stage for most of the next three years.

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