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By Tom Murphy
Radiohead's last Denver date--October 4, 1995, at the Ogden Theatre, opening for Soul Asylum--was a show no one in the band will soon forget. Shortly after the arrival in town of the musicians (lead vocalist/guitarist Thom E. Yorke, background vocalist/guitarist Ed O'Brien, drummer Phil Selway and brothers Colin and Jonny Greenwood, on bass and guitar, respectively), a person or persons unknown stole a truck filled with their equipment. In the weeks following this theft, now-defunct radio station 92X ran a series of announcements featuring Yorke that sought clues about the perpetrators and the whereabouts of the missing gear. Unfortunately, no usable information was gleaned. To this date, police haven't charged anyone in the incident, and Radiohead's assorted axes and gizmos have not been recovered. Instrumentally speaking, the five-piece has had to start from scratch.
An incident like this would embitter most people, but not those in Radiohead. Instead of canceling their October gig and spending the rest of the evening brooding, they borrowed some guitars and put on an impromptu acoustic set--call it Radiohead Unplugged. And O'Brien insists that the combo's April Fool's Day return to the scene of the crime, to promote its second album, The Bends, hasn't inspired any plans for revenge.
"We're not quite as vindictive as that," he states cheerfully. "We were definitely very upset at the time, but it's going to be nice to do a proper show in Denver."
There are at least a couple of reasons why this response comes as a surprise. First off, Radiohead hails from England, where the latest generation of pop stars has earned a reputation for snottiness above and beyond the call of duty. Second, the act continues to be best known in this country for "Creep," a hit single first heard on the 1992 album Pablo Honey. Yorke's crooning of the tune's key lines--"I'm a creep/I'm a weirdo"--convinced untold thousands of listeners that he was the personification of every mopey jerk certain he will never get a date. But in conversation, O'Brien and Selway, at least, don't seem creepy in the slightest. Rather, they come across as almost too polite to be true.
Perhaps the explanation for this seeming contradiction is that there are two sides to Radiohead, just as there are two versions of "Creep" on Pablo Honey--one that features a line most radio stations couldn't air ("You're so fucking special"), the other with a benign adjective in place of the offending descriptor ("You're so very special"). Because the cleaner "Creep" was tacked onto the end of the album and wasn't listed on its cover, numerous disc jockeys across the country received an unpleasant shock when they inadvertently played its nastier twin. "It has been suddenly hurried off the airwaves more than once," Selway confirms. To counter possible charges of selling out for making a more radio-friendly rendition, he adds, "We've always worked from the basis that we wanted as many people to hear our music as possible. To fit into certain formats, the swear words needed to be taken out or substituted. It was very realistic, very pragmatic."
Radiohead has taken this tack since its earliest days. The principals met and put together the group at Abingdon School in Oxford, but when the time came to decide between attending college or taking a shot at rock superstardom, they initially chose college. They remained musically involved, however: Yorke, who attended Exeter University, became a popular DJ at a local club, Lemon Grove, and reunited with his Radiohead mates in Oxford each summer. Finally, in 1991, the quintet got around to cutting several demos. After a typical record-company feeding frenzy ran its course, the band signed with the Parlophone imprint. Drill, a four-song EP, saw the light of day the following May. A follow-up EP included "Creep," a lark Jonny Greenwood disliked so much that he tried to ruin the one take it took to record it. The cut made a modest noise in Britain, receiving plaudits from Melody Maker and New Musical Express, but it didn't really take off until Los Angeles's KROQ-FM flogged it into the station's most popular song. Other outlets soon jumped on board, and before long, "Creep" was creeping onto the Billboard Top 40 and into the popular consciousness.
In its wake came an onslaught of self-deprecating tracks, including "Weirdo," by the Charlatans UK, and Beck's one and only hit, "Loser." But Selway doesn't believe Radiohead should be credited, or blamed, for their appearance. "We've never been trendsetters," he concedes. "Looking back at 1993, it was when suddenly the alternative moved into the mainstream and so many of these songs came through. I don't think we started a movement there."
That didn't stop the press from hyping Radiohead as one of the leaders of the latest British invasion--a process that O'Brien found particularly annoying. "People are finally realizing how much we are different, rather than placing the usual band template upon us and asking us about our favorite foods, our favorite drink," he says. "Thom's the one who was the main recipient of that. Up until maybe six months ago, he was bombarded with the 'Creep' question. But we've never flirted with the media, particularly in our own country. We've never manipulated the media like a lot of bands do very successfully."
That remark could be taken as a slap at Oasis, an outfit that has numerous elements in common with Radiohead: For example, each is a British pop quintet featuring a pair of brothers. But unlike his countrymen in Blur, who seem to regard Oasis-bashing as their favorite sport, Selway deals tactfully with such comparisons. "We met Oasis at Christmas when we were doing some radio shows, and we really like them," he remarks. "They are a very good band. But," he goes on, "I think the Greenwoods are the antithesis of the Gallaghers."
There's a disparity sales-wise, too. While Oasis's (What's the Story) Morning Glory? is among America's ten best-selling albums, The Bends is stuck at number 107 after fifteen weeks in release. But from a quality standpoint, Radiohead's latest is an impressive return to form, thanks in large part to the disc's production. The sound wasn't easy to attain: It was mixed at Fort Apache studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade, who collaborated with Radiohead via transcontinental mail.
For O'Brien, the result was worth the hassle. He describes the Fort Apache staff, who've also worked with Dinosaur Jr, Cold Water Flat, Billy Bragg, Throwing Muses and Belly, as "real music enthusiasts. They're all collectors of amps and guitars and stuff. There isn't a studio like it in the UK that's recognizable as being integral to part of the music scene as obviously as Fort Apache was with the Boston bands in the Eighties and Nineties."
The act's repertoire gains extra power live. On stage, the skinny, mainly mop-headed musicians resemble a handful of blown-out birthday candles, caught in the blast of a mood-swinging style that finds tumultuous guitars smashing against ever-changing bass and drum rhythms. In the center of this maelstrom is Yorke, whose manner wavers between introversion and an all-out rock-star fit. His middle-of-the-scale vocals are diverse not in range but in character. On the new single "Just," he could pass for John Lennon, while "Planet Telex" finds him channeling Chrissie Hynde. He hits the high notes on "High and Dry" and oozes angst throughout "Creep," with which his comrades have come to terms.
"When we were touring off of the first album, most definitely 'Creep' would be the one song that people knew," Selway allows. "But this time around we haven't had that impact of a big single. So people have been coming on like genuine Radiohead fans, and they know the range of our material. The Bends has definitely put 'Creep' in its place."
"We still enjoy playing it," O'Brien claims, "but for a while the song was this albatross around our neck. It's fine now."
Will Radiohead present a rendition of the song in Denver? All you'll have to do is ask. As O'Brien says, "I just look forward to making up for all those poor people who paid exorbitant prices when we were opening for Soul Asylum."
So long as no one swipes their stuff again, that is.
Radiohead, with David Gray. 8 p.m. Monday, April 1, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, 830-2525 or 1-800-444-