At some point in the early 21st century, Radiohead became something more than a band: they became a touchstone for everything that is fearless and adventurous in rock, inheriting the throne from David Bowie, Pink Floyd, and the Talking Heads. The latter group gave the band its name — it’s an album track on 1986′s True Stories — but Radiohead never sounded much like the Heads, nor did they take much from Bowie, apart from their willingness to experiment. Instead, they spliced Floyd’s spaciness with U2′s messianic arena rock heft, bridging the gap with guitar skronk borrowed from the ’80s American underground. Jonny Greenwood’s jagged, brutal interjections on “Creep,” the band’s 1993 breakthrough hit, recalled the ugly noise of the Pixies and Nirvana, a sound that translated over the expanse of an ocean, but in the throes of the alternative rock explosion of the mid-’90s, Radiohead were the odd band out. America remained besotted with their homegrown sensations, so “Creep” was treated as a one-hit wonder, and at home in England, they were seen as dour art-rock students lacking the glamour of neo-glam sensations Suede, and deliberately dodging the beery singalongs of Oasis. During the peak of Brit-pop in 1995, Radiohead released The Bends, a significant leap forward from their 1993 debut, Pablo Honey, and while that gained them some traction, it was 1997′s OK Computer that broke down all the doors for the band and changed alternative rock in the process. Expanding their sound with electronica and unapologetic prog rock suites, Radiohead turned into a different band with OK Computer, and the world followed suit. Soon, whenever rock bands dabbled in electronics, it was derived not from tightly sequenced rhythms, but rather, from glassy textures and introspection, a sensibility pioneered by the quintet. Radiohead doubled down on this aesthetic on 2000′s Kid A, a record that traded concise hooks for minimal arrangements and jazz, providing a dividing line between an audience that once loved the group for their guitars and those listeners attracted to the band’s aspirations. From this point on, Radiohead would occasionally flirt with concise song structures but were drawn toward unusual paths in both their music and business. Once their contract with EMI expired, they remained an independent band, pioneering different avenues of digital releases. They issued 2007′s In Rainbows with little warning, letting listeners pay whatever they liked for the record — cementing Radiohead’s reputation as a band compelled to look forward, not back.
Every member of Radiohead was a pupil at Oxfordshire’s Abingdon School. Ed O'Brien (guitar) and Phil Selway (drums) were the eldest, followed by a year by Thom Yorke (vocals, guitar, piano) and Colin Greenwood (bass). These four musicians began playing in 1985, dubbing themselves On a Friday, and before long they added Colin’s younger brother Jonny, who’d previously played in Illiterate Hands with Yorke’s brother Andy and Nigel Powell. Jonny started on keyboards but moved to guitar, yet this incarnation proved short-lived. By 1987, everyone but Jonny left for university, where many members pursued music, but it wasn’t until 1991 that the quintet regrouped and started gigging regularly in Oxford. Eventually, they came to the attention of Chris Hufford — then best-known as the producer of shoegaze stars Slowdive — who offered the group the chance to record a demo along with his partner Bryce Edge; the two soon became the band’s managers.
EMI bit at the group’s demo, signing them in 1991 and suggesting they change their name. On a Friday became Radiohead and they recorded their debut EP, Drill, with Hufford and Edge, releasing the record in May 1992. Next, the group entered the studio with producers Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade to record their full-length debut. The first fruit from these sessions was “Creep,” a single released in the U.K. in September of 1992. “Creep” didn’t go anywhere at first. The British music weeklies slagged it, radio didn’t play it, and it limped to number 78 on the charts. Pablo Honey, the band’s full-length debut, appeared in February 1993, supported by the single “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” but neither release gained much traction in their native U.K. and that May’s non-LP single, “Pop Is Dead,” didn’t help matters much, either. By that point, however, “Creep” started to gain attention in other territories. First, the song became a hit in Israel, but the bigger waves came from the United States, which was in the throes of the alternative rock revolution. Influential San Francisco radio station KITS added “Creep” to their playlist and it spread along the west coast and onto MTV as it became a genuine hit, nearly topping Billboard’s Modern Rock chart and reaching 34 on the Hot 100, a big achievement for a British guitar band. A re-released “Creep” turned into a British Top Ten hit, peaking at number seven in the autumn of 1993. The band who’d had no success suddenly had more than it could handle.
Radiohead kept touring Pablo Honey into 1994, but no subsequent hits were forthcoming, raising the specter of the band as a possible one-hit wonder — a criticism that weighed heavily on the group, who were anxious to record their new songs. They received the opportunity early in 1994, entering the studio to work with producer John Leckie — then best-known for his work with the Stone Roses — with My Iron Lung, an EP released in late 1994, being the first music released from the sessions. Muscular and ambitious, the EP provided a good indication of what would come on 1995′s The Bends. Released in March 1995, The Bends not only found Radiohead growing musically — it was dense and expansive, without skimping on songs — but also in reputation, as critics in the U.K. embraced the band with the audience eventually following: none of the first three singles (“High and Dry,” “Fake Plastic Trees,” “Just”) rose above 17 on the U.K. charts but the final single, “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” wound up reaching five in early 1996. Radiohead’s rise may have been assisted by the mania cultivated by Brit-pop, a term that didn’t quite suit the band — they were far artier and rock-oriented — but nevertheless stoked interest in indie guitar bands, which the quintet certainly was. Over in the U.S., The Bends stalled out at 88 on the Billboard charts but the record gained a cult following among listeners and the band never stopped touring, taking North American opening slots for R.E.M. in 1995 and Alanis Morissette in 1996.
During 1995 and 1996, the group recorded new material with Nigel Godrich — an engineer on The Bends sessions who was now the band’s producer — with songs slowly creeping out during the course of the year. “Lucky” showed up on War Child’s 1995 charity LP The Help Album, “Talk Show Host” appeared on a B-side, and “Exit Music (For a Film)” showed up on the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet. The latter showed up on OK Computer, the June 1997 album that proved pivotal in Radiohead’s career. “Paranoid Android,” a twitchy suite released as a single in May of that year, suggested the ambition of OK Computer — and by reaching number three, it was the band’s biggest hit to date in the U.K., placing them on the cusp of a breakthrough.
A breakthrough is precisely what OK Computer turned out to be, a record that proved pivotal not just for Radiohead but for the direction of ’90s rock. Greeted with enthusiastic reviews and corresponding strong sales, OK Computer closed the doors on the hedonism of Brit-pop and the dour after-effects of grunge while opening a new path to sober, adventurous art-rock where electronics co-existed with guitars. Over the next few years, the band’s influence would become readily apparent, but the album made a sizable impact upon its release, too, debuting at number one in the U.K. and earning a Grammy for Best Alternative Album. Radiohead supported it with an international tour, documented in Meeting People Is Easy.
By the time Meeting People Is Easy showed up in theaters, the group began work on their fourth album, once again reuniting with producer Godrich. The resulting Kid A doubled down on the experimentalism of OK Computer, embracing electronics and threading in jazz. Appearing in October in 2000, Kid A was one of the first major albums to be pirated through file-sharing services, but this bootlegging had no apparent effect on the sales of the record: it debuted at number one in the U.K. and the U.S., becoming their first American chart-topper. Once again, the album took home the prize for Best Alternative Album at the Grammys and although it didn’t produce any hit singles — indeed, no singles were released from the record — it was certified platinum in several territories. Amnesiac, a collection of new material initiated during the Kid A sessions, appeared in June of 2001, topping the U.K. charts and reaching two in the U.S. Two singles were pulled from the album — “Pyramid Song” and “Knives Out” — a signal that the album was more commercially accessible than its predecessor. At the end of the year, the band issued I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings, and by the summer of 2002, they turned their attention to recording a new album with Godrich. The resulting Hail to the Thief appeared in June of 2003, once again debuting in the upper reaches of the international charts — number one in the U.K. and number three in the U.S. — and the group supported the album with live dates culminating in a headlining appearance at the 2004 Coachella Festival that coincided with the release of the B-sides and remix collection COM LAG, a record that helped close out their contract with EMI.
Over the next couple of years, Radiohead entered a hiatus as individual members pursued solo projects. Yorke released the heavily electronic solo collection The Eraser in 2006, and Jonny Greenwood embarked on a side career as a composer, beginning with 2004′s Bodysong and then striking a fruitful collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson for 2007′s There Will Be Blood; Greenwood would also work on Anderson’s subsequent films The Master and Inherent Vice. During all this, the group tentatively chipped away at their first post-EMI album. Some unsuccessful sessions with Spike Stent led the band back to Godrich by the end of 2006, and the group completed recording in June of 2007. Still without a record label, they decided to release the album digitally through their official website, letting users pay whatever they wanted for a download of the album. This novel strategy acted as the album’s own promotion — most of the articles about the release claimed it was revolutionary — and In Rainbows allegedly moved over a million downloads on the first day of its release in October 2007. In December, the album received a physical release in the U.K., followed by a January 2008 physical release in the U.S.; the record sold well, debuting at number one in the U.K., and it earned Grammys for Best Alternative Music Album and Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package.
Radiohead toured in support of In Rainbows into 2009, during which time EMI released Radiohead: The Best Of in June of 2008. The band took time off in 2010, which allowed Yorke to form a band called Atoms for Peace with producer Godrich and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. During this time, drummer Phil Selway released his debut solo album, Familial. By early 2011, the group finished a new album and, like In Rainbows before it, Radiohead initially released The King of Limbs digitally through their website. The downloads appeared in February, with the physical copies appearing in March; the album reportedly shifted upwards of 400,000 digital copies upon its release. That autumn brought the release of the remix album TKOL RMX 1234567, and the band continued to tour The King of Limbs material into 2012. Once the tour wrapped up, the group took some quiet time as a new round of solo projects appeared. Atoms for Peace released Amok in February 2013 and Yorke put out Tomorrow's Modern Boxes in September 2014, just a month before Selway issued his second album, Weatherhouse. In the autumn of 2014, the band began work on a new album and continued to record throughout 2015, releasing only “Spectre” — a proposed James Bond theme rejected by the filmmakers — that year. The ninth Radiohead album, A Moon Shaped Pool, appeared on May 8, 2016, preceded earlier in the week by the singles “Burn the Witch” and “Daydreaming.” Radiohead supported A Moon Shaped Pool with an international tour, and in June of 2017 they celebrated the 20th anniversary of OK Computer with a double-disc reissue dubbed OKNOTOK. Featuring a host of bonus cuts and previously unreleased material, its number two showing on the U.K. charts was bolstered by a major televised live performance at Glastonbury. Over the next year, Selway, Yorke, and Greenwood each issued film soundtracks with the latter earning an Oscar nomination for his score to Phantom Thread. The band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2019, and in 2021 they issued Kid Amnesiae, a collection of previously unreleased material from the Kid A and Amnesiac sessions. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine