Radiohead was one of the few alternative bands of the early ’90s to draw heavily from the grandiose arena rock that characterized U2‘s early albums. But the band internalized that epic sweep, turning it inside out to tell tortured, twisted tales of angst and alienation.
Vocalist Thom Yorke’s pained lyrics were brought to life by the group’s three-guitar attack, which relied on texture — borrowing as much from My Bloody Valentine and Pink Floyd as R.E.M. and Pixies — instead of virtuosity. It took Radiohead awhile to formulate their signature sound. Their 1993 debut, Pablo Honey, only suggested their potential, and one of its songs, “Creep,” became an unexpected international hit, its angst-ridden lyrics making it an alternative rock anthem. Many observers pigeonholed Radiohead as a one-hit wonder, but the group’s second album, The Bends, was released to terrific reviews in the band’s native Britain in early 1995, helping build a more stable fan base. Having demonstrated unexpected staying power, as well as increasing ambition, Radiohead next released OK Computer, a progressive, electronic-tinged masterpiece that became one of the most acclaimed albums of the ’90s.
Thom Yorke (vocals, guitar), Ed O’Brien (guitar, vocals), Jonny Greenwood (guitar), Colin Greenwood (bass), and Phil Selway (drums) formed Radiohead as students at Oxford University in 1988. Initially called On a Friday, the band began pursuing a musical career in earnest in the early ’90s, releasing the Drill EP in 1992. Shortly afterward, the group signed to EMI/Capitol and released the single “Creep,” a fusion of R.E.M. and Nirvana highlighted by a noisy burst of feedback prior to the chorus. “Creep” was a moderate hit, and their next two singles, “Anyone Can Play Guitar” and “Pop Is Dead,” built a small following, even as the British music press ignored the group.
Pablo Honey, Radiohead’s debut album, was released to mixed reviews in the spring of 1993. As the band launched a European supporting tour, “Creep” became a sudden smash hit in America, earning heavy airplay on modern rock radio and MTV. On the back of the single’s success, Radiohead toured the U.S. extensively, opening for Belly and Tears for Fears. All the exposure helped Pablo Honey go gold, and “Creep” was re-released in the U.K. at the end of 1993. This time, the single became a Top Ten hit, and the band spent the following summer touring the world.
Although “Creep” made Radiohead a success, it also led many observers to peg the band as a one-hit wonder. Conscious of such thinking, the group entered the studio with producer John Leckie to record their second album, The Bends. Upon its spring 1995 release, The Bends was greeted with overwhelmingly enthusiastic reviews, all of which praised the group’s deeper, more mature sound. However, positive reviews didn’t sell albums, as Radiohead struggled to be heard during the U.K.’s summer of Britpop and as American radio programmers and MTV ignored the record. The band continued to tour as the opening act on R.E.M.‘s prestigious Monster tour. By the end of the year, The Bends began to catch on, thanks not only to the band’s constant touring but also to the stark, startling video for “Just.” The album made many year-end best-of lists in the U.K., and early in 1996 the record re-entered the British Top Ten and climbed to gold status in the U.S., helped in the latter by the video for “Fake Plastic Trees.”
During the first half of 1996, Radiohead continued to tour before re-entering the studio that fall to record their third album, OK Computer, which was released in the summer of 1997. A devoted following of fans and a handful of enthusiastic critical supporters immediately embraced the album’s majestic blend of unfettered prog rock, post-punk angst, eerie electronic textures, and assured songwriting. Since it skillfully teetered between rock classicism and futurism, it earned near-unanimous critical and popular support over the course of the year, which turned into unrestrained adoration in the final two years of the decade, even though its sales still hadn’t climbed above gold status.
Expectations for Radiohead’s fourth album were stratospheric, which placed additional pressure on the already perfectionist band, and led to several stumbling blocks along the way. An intense buzz of excitement among the band’s still-growing following greeted the prerelease appearance of most of the album’s tracks on the Internet in MP3 form; they displayed an all-out fascination with challenging, often minimalist electronica. Titled Kid A, the album was finally released in October 2000 and astonished many observers by debuting at number one on the U.S. album charts. While the band didn’t release any singles or embark on a formal tour, the album met with a mixed critical response as the group was accused of creating a distant and radio-unfriendly record; however, it did remain a fan favorite.
In June of 2001, Radiohead quickly released an album under the name Amnesiac that consisted of material that was recorded during the Kid A sessions. The band made it very clear, though, that it was not to be considered an outtakes album; rather, they insisted that the two albums were of clear and separate concept. Regardless, Amnesiac debuted at number one in the U.K. and number two on the U.S. chart (behind then-stronghold Staind), while outselling Kid A in week one by 25,000 copies. The singles Pyramid Song and Knives Out were culled from Amnesiac with a subsequent world tour. While planning “I Might Be Wrong” for a third single, the idea expanded into a live “mini-album,” titled after the track, that was released in November of 2001. Hail to the Thief, the proper follow-up to Amnesiac, was relatively direct in structure and peaked at number three on the U.S. chart. Sporadic recording sessions resumed in early 2005, but a projected release date for the band’s seventh studio album remained 2007 as Yorke prepared a solo album, The Eraser, which was issued in July 2006.
On October 1, 2007, the band announced that they had finished their seventh album, In Rainbows, and that it would be “out” in a matter of ten days. Giving fans the option to pay whatever they’d like for the album as a zip file of MP3s, Radiohead also devised a pre-order system for the physical version of the album — a “discbox” containing a double-vinyl version, a CD copy with an enhanced six-track bonus disc, a lyric book, and photos — which they planned on shipping by early December. This was done without the involvement of a record label. – Stephen Thomas Erlewine & Andy Kellman