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Many teenagers form bands whilst at school, playing local gigs for friends and family but few of them last longer than the end of the high school. Even fewer go on to attract the attention of the music industry and only a small percentage makes it to the top and establish a career. Radiohead are one of the few bands that went from school music-room to selling millions of records in a career spanning over 25 years.
The group was formed in 1985 by school friends Thom Yorke, Ed O’Brien, Phil Selway and brothers, Colin and Jonny Greenwood. They all attended Abingdon School, a British public school for boys based near Oxford. The group originally called “On a Friday”, a reference to the day they rehearsed in the school’s music room. After playing a few gigs locally, the boys left to go to university. Unusually, the band continued with rehearsals taking place at weekends and holidays when the boys could all meet up.
In 1991, the boys began to step things up a notch by recording demos and performing concerts in the Thames Valley area. Along the way, “On a Friday” picked up a couple of managers: Chris Hufford and Bryce Edge. Both worked within the music industry and were impressed with the sound the band made, so much so, that they have remained the group’s managers to this day. When Colin Greenwood bumped into Keith Wozencroft, an EMI A&R manager at a local record shop, he persuaded him to listen to a demo of the band. The group were offered a six-album recording deal in 1991 and, at the urging of the EMI changed their name, taking inspiration from a Talking Heads song, Radiohead was born.
The band’s debut album, “Pablo Honey” was released in February 1993 but it did not set the music charts alight, peaking at number 22 in the UK. The first single from the album, “Creep”, had been released the previous year and had mixed reviews with the music press stalwart, NME, calling Radiohead a “lily-livered excused for a rock band”. The single itself did badly, partly because it was banned from the influential BBC Radio 1 play list for being “depressing.” However, when the song was re-released later in 1993, it fared much better, reaching number two on the US Billboard Modern Rock chart and number seven on the UK charts.
Radiohead released two further singles from the album – “Anyone Can Play Guitar” and “Stop Whispering” – but they fared no better than “Creep” and failed to make an impression on the charts. The band went on the road to publicise the album but due to lack of interest, found themselves playing to university audiences and in small clubs over larger venues. The future was not looking good and then Radiohead found success abroad.
“Creep” had taken the Israeli music scene by storm and had become a huge hit in the country. The band was invited to play in Tel Aviv, their first international concert. Almost simultaneously, a radio station in San Francisco, picked up on the song and soon it was played up and down the West Coast and on an almost continuous loop on MTV. Commercial success followed and the band flew to the US to begin a tour of the country.
The band’s success led them to tour, almost continually throughout 1993, playing over 150 concerts that year. The pressure of constant touring and sudden success almost broke up the band, particularly as they were keen to get back into the studio to record new material, rather than repeatedly play songs they had written and recorded over two years beforehand.
Rather than rush to release a second album, the band instead released an EP. “My Iron Lung” in late 1994 and promoted it via alternative radio stations. They followed in the spring of 1995 with “The Bends,” songs f performed live the previous year whilst touring the Far East and Australia. With this album, the band began to find their musical feet, emphasizing the use of keyboards and guitar riffs. The change in direction worked as singles from the album, including “High and Dry” and “Just” became hits on the UK chart. However, the success was not global as the album only reached number 88 on the US Billboard album charts.
“OK Computer”, their third album, came out in June 1997 and was praised by the music critics for its experimental song structures and observational lyrics. The album topped the UK charts, made it into the top 25 on the US charts and saw the band nominated for and win a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Album. Radiohead went straight out onto the road to publicise “OK Computer” via their “Against Demons” world tour, which lasted through until mid-1998.
Fans had to wait until October 2000 for new material from the band. Their fourth album, “Kid A” was less guitar focussed, relying more on instruments such as strings, horns and programmed electronic beats. It became their best-selling album to date, reaching number one on the influential US Billboard charts, although, unusually the band did not release any singles from the album. Despite its success, it divided fans between those who loved the new style and those who hated what the group had produced. The music industry, however, awarded the group with their second Grammy for Best Alternative Album in early 2001.
Nine months later, the band released “Amnesiac” which included tracks from the recording sessions for their previous album. Like its predecessor, the album topped the charts in the UK, was a commercial success in the US and saw the group nominated for another Grammy award.
Radiohead have since admitted that the atmosphere whilst recording these two albums was tense and full of disagreement. By comparison, the recording of their next album, “Hail to the Thief” was a more relaxed experience. The album came out in June 2003 and was a more guitar-based rock affair than their previous records. It was yet again a commercial success for the group and generated a number of singles, including “There There” and “Go to Sleep”.
Although Radiohead began writing their next album in February 2005, it was not available until October 2007, when the band released it as a digital download on their website. Fans were encouraged to pay what they thought was appropriate for downloading “In Rainbows”. The final figure of those who downloaded the album was never released although the number 1.2 million downloads has been reported in the music press. The album was available to purchase physically at the end of the year and rose to number one on both the US and the UK charts. The reviews for the album were among the best the group had seen and went on to win them another Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album, their third in a decade. To top off their success, the album produced the group’s first single to make the top 40 on the Billboard charts since “Creep” in 1993.
Radiohead went back into the studio in early 2009 and in August, released two singles from those recordings. One of them, “Harry Patch (In Memory Of)” was a tribute to the longest surviving British solder to have fought in World War 1. Proceeds from the song were donated to the UK charity, the British Legion. Their second song, “These Are My Twisted Words” was given away free to fans as a download on their website.
The band released their latest album in February 2011. With the market expecting the release of “The King of Limbs” on a Saturday, the band suddenly announced it was available for purchase and download via their website a day early. Using the power of the Internet, the album was “marketed” by word of mouth on social networking sites reaching millions of people within a short period of time. As well as also releasing a CD of the album, the band also produced a vinyl version.
Unlike many bands, the line-up of Radiohead has not changed over the years. The same five school-friends from 25 years ago are still making music together. It is just that now, the audiences they play to are a lot larger and a lot more appreciative of their sound.