The Untold Truth Of Radiohead

In 2019, Radiohead was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by David Byrne, the former frontman of the rock band Talking Heads. Byrne was a significant choice for this because a song from the 1986 album "True Stories" by Talking Heads is where the name Radiohead originally came from (via NME). The band's place in music history is well earned after playing together since 1985, making it among the longest-running bands in the world, second only to U2. In 2014, NME named Radiohead the most influential act in music. As Entertainment Weekly explains, this was to celebrate their impact on the music scene, laying the groundwork for 21st-century music to be experimental and cross genre boundaries rather than remaining in restrictive boxes. Other notable names on this list included the flamboyant and funky Prince and beloved Seattle Grunge rockers Nirvana. 

What's interesting is that all of this is a far cry from the initially lukewarm reception Radiohead got as a newly signed band in the early 1990s. As an old Guardian Unlimited article explains, critics at the time derided the group as nothing more than a "corporate-funded Nirvana-lite." In the 35 years since the band first started making music together, Radiohead has come a long way.

Radiohead got together in high school

Being in a band like Radiohead is the dream of many high school musicians who yearn to find like-minded band members and play together after school in music department practice rooms. Radiohead themselves are the perfect inspiration for aspiring musicians like these, having first gotten together as a high school band. As The Sydney Morning Herald mentions, Radiohead all attended a boys' school named Abingdon in Oxford, England. Lead vocalist Thom Yorke was something of an outcast at the time, being bullied over problems with his eye. But in 1985, he got together with bandmates Ed O'Brien, Philip Selway, and Colin Greenwood, and they started playing music.

Back in the 1980s, the group wasn't yet Radiohead, going instead by the name of On A Friday. According to an old Guitar World article, the name was chosen purely because this was when the members got together to rehearse in the school music rooms. Two years after first getting together, On A Friday had its first-ever live performance, playing a gig at Oxford's Jericho Tavern. Alongside the others onstage was Colin Greenwood's younger brother, Jonny, playing the harmonica — though he was not yet officially a member of the band.

Jonny Greenwood was in Thom Yorke's brother's band before joining Radiohead

Jonny Greenwood was the last of Radiohead's five members to join up. In fact, he was a member of a different band first. As BuzzFeed explains, Jonny was originally in a band called Illiterate Hands, fronted by Thom Yorke's younger brother Andy Yorke. As it turns out, Andy is an accomplished singer-songwriter in his own right. Even though Jonny would eventually leave Illiterate Hands to join his brother, Colin, Andy Yorke went on to have a fairly successful music career too. Notably, an MTV article from 1998 talks about Andy Yorke's band Unbelievable Truth. Both Andy and his music, however, are vastly different from the sound that would eventually lead Radiohead to stardom.

Jonny's first stage performance with Thom Yorke's band may have been with a harmonica, but he eventually joined the others as a keyboard player. In an interview for NPR, he mentions how he got the opportunity because the others had been playing together with a keyboardist who they didn't get along with. Eventually, Jonny managed to take his place as a full member of the band. There was just one small problem: At the time, Jonny Greenwood couldn't actually play the keyboard. In a classic example of fake-it-till-you-make-it, Jonny would go to rehearsals with his keyboard switched off for months while secretly learning to play in the evenings.

A lot of people hated Creep – including Radiohead

"Creep" was Radiohead's breakout hit song, first released back in 1992. However, an article from Mojo (via Citizen Insane) says the band wasn't especially fond of it, sharing a rumor that Jonny's famous guitar crunches before the chorus were an attempt to ruin a song that he didn't like (though other sources contradict this). The single version of "Creep" was recorded in just one take and only reached No. 78 in the U.K. charts.

Far Out magazine explains that "Creep" was blacklisted by the BBC's Radio 1 — one of the main showcases for new music at the time — for being "too depressing." The BBC itself also mentions that all the swear words were also considered unacceptable. The song was re-released in 1993, with lyrics changed from "so f***ing special" to "so very special," after which it managed to reach No. 7 on the U.K. charts. According to Rolling Stone, Thom Yorke has he "wasn't very happy with the lyrics," which he called "pretty crap."

"Creep" eventually launched Radiohead's success in America, with a San Francisco radio station naming the song its favorite of the year. It eventually became a source of much disdain for Radiohead, as the group started to grow sick of it. Yorke began to noticeably freeze up in interviews when "Creep" was mentioned, and Radiohead even started refusing to play it in concerts. One audience in Montreal was told (per Uncut), "F*** off, we're tired of it!"

Some Radiohead songs are older than Radiohead

Radiohead's second album, "The Bends," contains some of the band's most iconic tracks, including the song "High and Dry." This song, however, was not written for Radiohead but for another band. In 1989, Thom Yorke played with a punk band named Headless Chickens while at university. A YouTube video shows a recording of a Headless Chickens gig in which Yorke plays the song "High and Dry," albeit in a very different style to the laid-back drums and guitars of the track that Radiohead would later record.

The thing is, at the time, Radiohead didn't really exist yet. While the band had gotten together a few years before, it was still known by its old name, On A Friday. As an archived 2008 article from Q Magazine explains, the band didn't choose the name Radiohead until they signed a record deal with EMI in 1991. "High and Dry" isn't the only song that's technically older than Radiohead this way, either — Rolling Stone mentions that Thom Yorke also wrote "Creep" while he was in college.

They signed a record deal with EMI after only 8 gigs

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Oxford's Jericho Tavern was a vibrant part of the U.K.'s music scene. It was here, as Q Magazine mentions, that Radiohead signed a record deal with EMI and truly launched the members' careers as musicians. The day was December 21, 1991, and this must have been quite a Christmas present. The interesting part is, while they were playing together as a band for five years, they had only played eight gigs.

Part of the reason for this is that the members all put music on hold for four years to go to college. According to Guitar World, they didn't give a single live performance for the entire time they were studying. This is not to say, however, that they didn't spend any time playing music. As an old article for The New Yorker explains, Radiohead members continued to get together on weekends to practice and try to figure out what style of music best suited them.

Radiohead were one of the first bands with an internet fandom

The late 1990s to early 2000s was when the internet was still newly created and saw its first wave of popularity. As Pitchfork explains, Radiohead connected with the chaotic early web users as it was one of the first bands to have a website. All the same, it wasn't used much at first. Instead, the band's online presence relied heavily on fan-made websites like "At Ease," "Follow Me Around," and "Green Plastic." Back when most of the internet was made on free homepage sites like Angelfire and early blog sites like Livejournal, Radiohead found a lot of popularity among people who liked to spend their free time online.

The group's expansive online fanbase was a factor in its decision to give its fourth album, "Kid A," an online livestream before its release in 2000. In the 2020s, prerelease livestreams are nothing unusual, but according to Grantland, Radiohead's livestream was the first one ever. The stream used a player that any website could embed — also an unusual thing in 2000 — and fans loved it. Over 1000 sites posted "Kid A," which received over 400,000 streams. An impressive feat, considering only 413 million people were using the internet at the time. The prerelease stream was probably part of what helped "Kid A" go on to reach No. 1 on U.S. album charts.

In Rainbows was a huge success – even though most people got it for free

After Radiohead's contract with EMI ended, the group made another record industry first with the release of its seventh studio album — In Rainbows, which was self-released online using a pay-what-you-want model, even for those who wanted to pay nothing. NME talks about some of the reactions to In Rainbows, from the deep derision of Kiss' Gene Simmons to Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, who criticized Radiohead for not going far enough and providing "MySpace quality" music.

Only 38% of people who downloaded In Rainbows paid anything at all. It was also shared widely on BitTorrent, being downloaded 2.3 million times in the first 24 days after its release. The most remarkable thing about all of this is that it was still a resounding success. In an interview with Wired just two months after the release of In Rainbows, Thom Yorke said that, in terms of digital income, In Rainbows made more than all of Radiohead's previous albums put together. With a contract signed before the internet had become popular, EMI hadn't been paying them at all for digital sales.

It's hard to ignore the coincidence that, a few months after In Rainbows, Bandcamp was founded to give artists a way to self-release their music and set their own prices. Per Rolling Stone, Thom Yorke has remained deeply skeptical of major music industry labels ever since, describing them as a "sinking ship."

Ed O'Brien has a signature guitar

In 2010, Ed O'Brien was named the 59th best guitarist in the world by Rolling Stone. He now has a signature guitar made by Fender. This makes O'Brien one of a select few people to have a signature Stratocaster, alongside names like Mark Knopfler, Tom Morello, and Jimi Hendrix (and also Hello Kitty). The Fender EOB Stratocaster is fitted with a mid-neck sustainer pickup "for creating lush, layered soundscapes." Its built-in sustain unit drew praise from Guitar World — which says it can give "thick, textured sounds" — and from Premier Guitar, which enjoyed how the instrument prompts creativity. Definitely in keeping with the kind of music Radiohead is known for.

Despite all the accolades, however, O'Brien remains extremely humble. In an interview with Premier Guitar, he talks about how he learned to play the guitar within the band, saying, "I started off very limited — and I'm still very limited." With Radiohead making active efforts to take the road less traveled with its music, O'Brien has often had to adapt his playing style, explaining that while Jonny Greenwood might try to find the right sound using a keyboard or synthesizer, he would look for a guitar, "or a different-sounding guitar." Unsurprising, then, that his signature instrument is so unusual.

Philip Selway was an ambassador for Samaritans

Philip Selway, the drummer of Radiohead, is deeply humanitarian. An article in The Independent explains how he volunteered with the charity Samaritans for 20 years. For the first 17 years, Selway worked as a listening volunteer — receiving phone calls from people in need — and for the final three years, he was appointed an ambassador and acted as a champion for mental health and wellbeing. Most astonishingly, he did all of this while also raising a family and drumming for Radiohead. His reasoning was, simply, that it was for his own wellbeing. Helping people was Selway's means of avoiding the narcissism that can come with being in a band by putting others first.

Even now, Selway is an active supporter of charities. He announced on Twitter that he would present the 2022 awards for the charity St. Martin's Challenge, which provides grants to society's most vulnerable people. Organized by a charity, it's a non-profit event, and all proceeds go toward supporting Samaritans.

Colin Greenwood is a voracious reader

An interviewer at SPIN once described spending time with Radiohead as being "kind of like getting high with a bunch of librarians." Of all of them, though, Colin Greenwood is notable as the literary one, having studied post-war American writers like Raymond Carver while at university, according to an article in Mojo (via Follow Me Around). As Time mentions, Thom Yorke once quipped that Greenwood had probably downloaded a library. In fact, Greenwood is such an enthusiastic reader that the same SPIN magazine article mentions that he talked about 15 different books during the course of a single interview before giving one to the interviewer as a gift.

Colin Greenwood clearly enjoys reading poetry as well as prose. In 2004, he was on the panel of judges for a poetry competition, Next Generation Poets, organized by the Poetry Book Society and funded by Arts Council England (via NME). The Guide magazine (via a fan page) reported that he brought the poems he was judging with him on tour to look over during his downtime. Clearly, he enjoyed this enough that he was on a panel again for a different poetry competition in 2007.

Thom Yorke has mild synesthesia

Radiohead's music is very distinctive, even across a variety of different styles, which may be partly due to the fact that Thom Yorke has a mild form of synesthesia. This is a neurological condition that causes sensory perceptions to become mixed. Synesthetes may be able to taste colors, hear shapes, and so on. In a 2019 radio interview, he stresses that while it isn't full synesthesia, when music is particularly powerful, he gets an "almost visual" sensation.

In an older interview for MTV Japan in 1997, Yorke mentions being able to smell tunes before talking about seeing music as colors. He describes the Radiohead album OK Computer as being a "mucky white," like Tipp-Ex (a European brand of correction fluid). This whited-out look is reflected in the album's cover artwork.

Relatedly, according to The Guardian, Radiohead's album Kid A was influenced by music from Aphex Twin, an artist well known for also having synesthesia. Radiohead, in turn, has gone on to influence other synesthete artists like Melissa McCracken, who makes paintings based on the colors and shapes she sees when listening to music. Several of her paintings show Radiohead songs, including "Karma Police," "Spinning Plates," and "Weird Fishes."

Radiohead wrote a James Bond theme

In 2015, Radiohead was commissioned to write a theme song for the James Bond movie "Spectre." As Rolling Stone writes, this had the unfortunate effect of messing up their momentum while trying to record their most recent album, "A Moon Shaped Pool." Radiohead's producer, Nigel Godrich, describes it as a waste of energy that dragged everything to a stop in the middle of the recording schedule. In his own words, "That f***ing James Bond movie threw us a massive curveball."

In the end, as BBC News reports, the band's song was rejected, and Sam Smith's song "Writing's on the Wall" was chosen in its place. So Radiohead uploaded its song, Spectre, to Soundcloud on December 25, 2015. Despite the disruption the song caused, there were evidently no hard feelings, as the upload was accompanied by a caption reading, "It didn't work out, but became something of our own, which we love very much."

Radiohead will 'definitely' make another album

Long-time fans of Radiohead are used to the group taking extended pauses between albums, so it was no great surprise in 2020 when NME reported that its members were taking some time apart. The band's hiatus was announced in the midst of several solo projects, including solo albums, a horror movie soundtrack, and even classical compositions. The band members are determined, however, that they aren't done working together as Radiohead.

Ed O'Brien spoke with NME, saying that they were definitely going to make another album, with the caveat that he was unsure when. At the time, Radiohead's musicians were all preoccupied with their own things. They had actually planned to go on tour in 2021 but were forced to cancel because of the coronavirus pandemic. Thom Yorke, in particular, was rather more blunt about his intention to make another Radiohead album. According to Rolling Stone, when he was asked if "A Moon Shaped Pool" would be Radiohead's final album, he replied, "I f***ing hope not." When Radiohead might return to the recording studio is currently anyone's guess, but fans can rest assured that they haven't heard the last of the group. In O'Brien's words, "When it feels right to plug back into Radiohead, then we will."