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Turns Out He's Not Really Tormented

Pop Beat: Radiohead's Thom Yorke uses his dark side to make beautiful music.

July 26, 1997|SARA SCRIBNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Radiohead singer Thom Yorke has been pegged as a tormented soul, a man so demonized by self-loathing that fans readily accepted it as confessional when he wrote the lines, "I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo," in the 1993 hit "Creep."

After that song vaulted the British band into the international pop spotlight, Radiohead was branded, in the U.S. at least, a one-hit wonder while singer-songwriter Yorke was painted as a talented, but frighteningly self-absorbed artist.

It's reappraisal time.

As Yorke now basks in glowing reviews of the band's third album, "OK Computer," the part about one-hit wonder seems obsolete. The album recently entered the U.S. charts at No. 21 and the quintet's show tonight at the Wiltern Theatre is sold out.

And the tormented Yorke?

The 28-year-old Englishman patiently volleys questions during an interview, with no signs of the tantrum-throwing, sarcastic image. Later, in a photo shoot on the patio of a Sunset Strip area hotel, Yorke obligingly lifts a baby in a carriage down a flight of stairs for its mother.

Asked about the frequently unflattering profiles, Yorke shrugs.

"I'm just addressing whatever I'm feeling [in those interviews]," he says. "I'm being sarcastic [sometimes] because the interviewer has a certain attitude, and that's my way of dealing with it."

Mood aside, Yorke doesn't have to dig into his psyche for an outsider to suspect that there are deep--sometimes sinister--issues twisting around in his head.

"OK Computer," an album of the year candidate, feels like a painfully beautiful cyberpunk novel set to music, pulsating with futuristic anxiety. Rolling Stone describes Radiohead as "one rock band still willing to look the devil square in the eyes."

Asked about all the praise, Yorke seems pleased yet wary. "I think it's a bit over-the-top, but I really like the album," he says. "It was pretty difficult to make. It was a big risk for us."

In fact, "OK Computer" is such an ambitious and demanding album that even the band's record company, Capitol, had misgivings at first hearing it.

"I listened to the album with my 'radio ears' and I had great concern that there was no obvious radio song," Perry Watts-Russell, vice president of A&R at the label, said in a separate interview.

"Then I listened to it on an airplane with headphones and I had an epiphany. I went from fear to absolute pride. . . . I haven't observed this kind of [creative] progression from a band in three albums since the '60s."

Yorke says that inspiration for the album came from such diverse reading as Buddhist texts, leftist philosopher Noam Chomsky and contemporary British poetry.

But he also got encouragement from the rock world, specifically Michael Stipe, who has become a fan and a friend. Yorke says that Stipe gave the singer "advice and love and it was all very necessary at the time . . . because one week I'd love the album and the next week I'd hate it.

"Up and down, up and down. I kept having dreams about huge tidal waves. I was dreading what might happen . . . afraid of not being true to ourselves. It's an English thing, probably, English guilt."

Yorke hails from Oxford, but the group met in a boarding school in Abingdon, England, naming themselves Radiohead after the title of a Talking Heads song. Thanks to "Creep," the debut, 1993's "Pablo Honey," reached No. 32, while the follow-up, 1995's "The Bends," stalled at No. 88.

Over the years, the singer has seemed plagued by the success of "Creep," but Yorke says that he really doesn't mind the attention his self-deprecating song received.

"Sometimes I just enjoy hamming it up, like Frank Sinatra or something," he says. "If you take the sentiment of the lyric in a different way, it's sort of a 'My Way' thing. It's over-dramatic and you have to have a sense of humor about that. You can't take it seriously."

A far cry from the personal angst of "Creep," Yorke's new songs--particularly "Paranoid Android" and "Subterranean Homesick Alien"--focus on the current obsession with outer space and extraterrestrial abduction, which he thinks is an escape from social responsibility.

"People deal with that as a spiritual thing now," he says, between sips of his milk-laced tea. "It's the answer to all these sort of problems in a really unhealthy way. . . . You've got everybody under the sun seeing flying saucers.

"It's like for the last century it was statues of the Holy Mary weeping or Jesus statues bleeding--same thing. . . . A lot of it is misplaced spirituality."

* Radiohead plays tonight at the Wiltern Theatre, 3790 Wilshire Blvd. Sold out. (213) 380-5005.

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