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Operating on His Own Frequency

Radiohead's Thom Yorke didn't take a detour into electronica. He headed down a new path in the name of self-preservation.

June 03, 2001|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn, the Times' pop music critic, can be reached

OXFORD, England — There's something exhilarating about walking in the footsteps of history, which is why the streets of this historic university town are usually crowded with tourists. Oscar Wilde, Graham Greene, Lewis Carroll, Roger Bacon and Shelley are among the hundreds of famous figures who studied here.

As a teen, Radiohead's Thom Yorke was fascinated by the class differences he observed--the students who came here to prepare for positions of power and wealth, and the ordinary residents who most likely would never have a chance at either.

"There was a massive gap between those inside the high walls and those outside," Yorke, 32, says now. "I knew some people who went to university and it was an incredible life of privilege. If they drank too much, someone would come behind them and wipe their vomit from the floor.

"To the tourists, it looks like an idyllic little town, but there is so much resentment that students are always getting beaten up. The class thing has always been a bit of an agonizing point for me, and it is something that has come out quite a lot on the last two records. The disheartening thing is the gap seems to be growing."

Don't, however, expect political diatribes on Radiohead's albums. Yorke's concerns are presented in lonely, haunting soundscapes that depend more on delicate mood than words to express disillusionment and helplessness. At its most fragile, the music approximates the beeps and squeaks of an intensive care unit's monitoring devices.

The quintet's 1997 album, "OK Computer," was such a strikingly original work that taste-makers began talking of Radiohead as the group that would finally wrest the title of best rock band in the world away from U2.

But since "OK Computer," the only thing this stylish and demanding group has generated more than acclaim is confusion.

Most commonly, bands are willing to do anything for maximum sales--from sticking with a successful musical formula to putting so much pressure on themselves by constant touring and promotional activities that they self-destruct. That's the story shown night after night on VH1's "Behind the Music."

But Radiohead's story is one of self-preservation. By focusing on the music rather than sales, Radiohead not only has won respect, but Yorke--the band's de facto leader--has also come out of the process with a renewed optimism about the band's future. Yorke summarizes his position of power in the group colorfully--and accurately--when he says, "We operate like the U.N. and I'm America."

Rather than continue in the accessible path of "OK Computer," which sold nearly 5 million copies worldwide, Radiohead shifted direction dramatically on its follow-up album, last year's "Kid A."

Gone were traditional verse-chorus-verse song structures and the band's guitar-dominated sound. Lyrics were mostly disjointed references. The album relied chiefly on esoteric sounds from computers and other devices employed by the electronica movement.

When the band didn't tour extensively or release videos in support of the album, the assumption in the rock world was that "Kid A" was a deliberate career sidestep, part of a cooling-off process to bring things back to normal after the pressures and expectations generated by "OK Computer."

That's what Bruce Springsteen did in the '80s by releasing the stark, brooding "Nebraska" after the commercial explosion of "The River," and it's what U2 did to a lesser degree with "Achtung Baby!" in the '90s after the superstardom of "The Joshua Tree."

Respect for Radiohead was so great that "Kid A" entered the U.S. chart at No. 1, but the word of mouth (and lack of radio airplay) soon slowed sales. Its U.S. total was about 840,000, compared with 1.4 million for "OK Computer." Critics, however, mostly continued to talk about Radiohead in glowing terms. Spin named "Kid A" album of the year, declaring it "the most emotive down tempo electronica ever."

Those Radiohead fans who found "Kid A" too distant turned their thoughts to the group's next album, hoping for a return to a more commercial and accessible path--just as Springsteen followed "Nebraska" with "Born in the U.S.A" and U2 returned to its familiar sound with last year's "All That You Can't Leave Behind."

The surprise in the new Radio-head album, "Amnesiac," which arrives in stores Tuesday, is that it's as esoteric and electronica-driven as "Kid A." (See review, this page.)

To outsiders ready to anoint Radiohead, the question is: Don't they want to be No. 1?

The answer is no--at least, not at any cost.

"The big fright after 'OK Computer' was that I didn't feel love for what we were doing anymore musically," he finally says. "If we had kept on the path of 'OK Computer,' it would have just been to satisfy others. I was totally burned out. I couldn't have done it. I went around for over a year with this creative block that was so bad I felt like I was dead.

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