Nope, Not a 1-Hit Wonder: Radiohead
Probably one of the most famous songs to barely make it into Billboard’s Top40 singles chart, Radiohead’s mopey generation X anthem “Creep” whined and wailed itself into just the #34 spot in 1993. At the time of its ascendence, the song seemed exactly like the kind of attention-grabbing recording that was designed to make a splash and then leave the band stranded in a particular place and time as a 1-hit wonder. Then something a little unexpected happened. Radiohead became one of the most adored and lauded bands of its generation. But could a group showered with praise and given the “genius” label manage to escape the 1-hit wonder stigma? For a while that was a real question…but you’ve noticed the title of the article, right?
Although Radiohead had some pretty fantastic chart success with our friends across the pond, as with my previous article on Madness, I will be writing this from the point of view of an American (which I am) and will only really be considering the American Billboard singles chart in deciding whether a band or artist is indeed a 1-hit wonder or not.
Radiohead began as a band called On a Friday, which referred to their typical rehearsal schedule. Singer Thom Yorke, guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien, Bassist Colin Greenwood, and drummer Philip Selway met while they were in school in Oxfordshire and maintained occasional local gigs throughout the mid to late 80s. Once most of their members had graduated from university they were able to focus more fully on making a go as a real band. Managers Chris Hufford and Bryce Edge noticed On a Friday at a gig and got them signed for a 6-record deal to EMI. At the request of the label, the band changed its name, choosing Radiohead based on a Talking Heads song from the album True Stories.
At first, Radiohead experienced poor sales and bad reviews in their home country, with notoriously prickly New Musical Express giving a written smack-down and BBC1 excluding them from their playlist, calling their music “too depressing.” It wasn’t until radio stations on the West coast of the United States started playing “Creep” that Radiohead started gaining some positive attention and momentum.
I first heard “Creep” shortly after moving to Chicago in March of 1993 and immediately identified the band as something that might be interesting. I bought their first album Pablo Honey in the record store across the street from my first Chicago apartment despite some trepidation caused by its patently silly and very 1993 album cover. The decision turned out to be a good one and I ended up enjoying the album, including songs like “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” “Thinking About You,” and “I Can’t.” Following the ubiquitous presence of “Creep” throughout the summer of 1993, Radiohead had the opportunity to build on that success.
The single cut of “Stop Whispering” you hear in the video here is a mix done with the specific hope of landing the band a follow-up hit to “Creep.” This version has always sounded like it wanted to be like The Cranberries to me. Despite its decent performance on alternative radio and video programs, “Stop Whispering” never grabbed a ranking on the singles charts. When my Brother came to Chicago in 1995 to help me move back east, he spent a few days seeing the city before we left, which included a live Radiohead show at the Metro. At a spot like that in a large city, sometimes the facilities don’t allow for great privacy for the band. I’m not sure if that’s what was going on at the Metro in Chicago in 1995, but I do know that we saw both guitarist Jonny Greenwood and lead singer Thom Yorke standing out front talking casually to people before the show. From the remove of 20 years that seems exceedingly strange. “Stop Whispering” was Radiohead’s closing song that night and was indeed a highlight of the show, with Yorke spitting and yowling impressively throughout the excellent 18-song setlist.
By that time, the band had released its sophomore effort The Bends, to very strong reviews. As soon as I pressed “play” on the CD player and heard the opening moments of The Bends it became apparent that Radiohead had upped the ante, creating a cohesive album with a dramatic through-line rather than just a series of songs that happened to be collected on the same disc.
Recording of The Bends had been difficult, with a mid-sessions tour helping to reboot the band’s mindset and a pair of American producers brought in to remix some of the material after its completion. Some of the initial stress in the studio had been due to the label’s request that they record the expected first single before anything else. Unfortunately they couldn’t agree about what the first single should be and set about working on four different possibilities at the same time. As it turned out, none of those initial candidates was chosen, with “Fake Plastic Trees” being selected as the lead single for The Bends in the United States.
The bright visuals and theme of dissatisfaction with consumerist culture won “Fake Plastic Trees” acclaim and regular rotation on MTV, images from the video being included in advertisements on the video music channel. This was enough to push the song up to #11 on the alternative chart, but it fell short of the mainstream Top40, going only as high as #65.
A follow-up with the very U2 sounding “High and Dry” was selected and given two different promotional videos, one for its release in Britain and a different, Tarantino-esque bit set in a diner. You’re seeing the British video here.
That’s a pretty decent melody with nicely layered pop instrumentation, isn’t it? It sounds like the sort of song that should have garnered the band their next American hit. Well, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke begs to differ. He has been quoted as saying that “High and Dry” was “very bad” and apparently it reminded some of the band members of a Rod Stewart song. In case you were wondering, that wasn’t intended as a compliment. “High and Dry” didn’t catch on in the U.S. at all and stalled at just #78 on the Billboard singles charts. Was it because of a split presence on video or the band’s bad attitude towards it? There’s no telling, but at this point it could easily be assumed that the band would break through again, and soon.
A more buzz-worthy video was created for “Just,” also from The Bends, showed up for the group’s next single, released in August of 1995. Check out the story included as part of the video below, which strikes me as a four minute long Twilight Zone episode.
Widespread speculation popped up among the band’s fans about what the man finally says, but it seems to me that one way or another we’re all probably better off if we don’t know. Again, the video got good airplay and attracted attention, but as far as the charts were concerned, The Bends had underperformed compared to expectations for it. “Just” barely touched the Alternative rankings, and the album only hit #88 on the U.S. album chart. In contrast, The Bends was named to several end of the year “best of” lists and received very strong critical praise overall. In later years The Bends would be repeatedly named as a great all-time album and as intensely influential. Artists such as Coldplay, Keane, Travis, and James Blunt have been identified as pulling styles from Yorke and Radiohead.
Enthusiasm for the band was so strong amongst critics and its fans that production of their follow-up album was followed closely in the more serious rock music press. Radiohead had managed to avoid the completion deadline which had contributed to the stress of recording The Bends, but decided to produce the new album themselves, making purposeful attempts to record something different from both their previous albums and the sounds which were fashionable in Britain at the time. Groups like Blur, Oasis, and Pulp loudly announced their claims to the country’s hearts and pounds, competing head-to-head by releasing albums on the same dates and producing records with unapologetically British dramatics. Radiohead was determined to go the other way, buying their own recording equipment and including an increased use of electronic sounds and unconventional song structures. Yorke credited artists as diverse as Miles Davis, Elvis Costello, P J Harvey, and Ennio Morricone as influences on the sessions’ recordings.
When Radiohead delivered the completed album, called OK Computer, to their American label, Capitol, its experimental qualities were seen as commercial suicide and sales predictions were lowered from 2 million to just half a million. The label had hoped to build on the strong word of mouth The Bends had won Radiohead, but feared that the new album was so different that it was completely relinquishing that advantage. Although Capitol’s attitude toward the album appeared to rebound, they can’t have been enthusiastic about the band’s choice for its first single, “Paranoid Android.”
With no discernible chorus or repeating hook,”Paranoid Android” was not the sort of song that was typically found at the top of the pop charts, and although it did perform well in Britain it did not chart at all in the United States. Yet again, the band had produced a memorable video which attracted attention and this time critical reaction was so strong that OK Computer debuted on the album chart at #21 and maintained a strong presence throughout the year.
It was on the strength of their ironclad reputation and strong album sales that their next single managed to out-perform the first.
The simple dramatic video for “Karma Police” helped maintain Radiohead’s image as daring artists and the stark, cynically humorous lyrics to the song landed at #14 on the alternative charts and #69 on the mainstream U.S. singles chart. It was an improvement and led to hopes that the band’s next single might be the one that could break through into the top40.
They certainly had a strong candidate in the lovely “No Surprises,” which possessed a more melodic sound and a more traditional song structure, while still offering the dramatic and nervy build from beginning to end. It seemed like the perfect pop representative for the wildly lauded album. The version released on OK Computer was actually the first take from the band’s first day in the studio on the album, with subsequent attempts derided by the group as “cover versions” of the original. The mildly alarming video, which featured Yorke gradually being submerged in water at the song’s apex was also sure to focus attention on the song.
Maybe the video was a bit too alarming, as Yorke is visibly uncomfortable despite efforts during filming to speed up the song while he was fully submerged. For whatever reason, “No Surprises” failed to chart at all in the U.S. At this point I had to come to the conclusion that it had more to do with the American public’s mind-numbingly pedestrian tastes. A quick look at the list of the top singles of the year seems to beat this out, but this was a state of affairs I had gotten used to over the preceding decade and was no surprise.
OK Computer had taken up residence in my car stereo shortly after I’d purchased it and I was showing no signs of tiring of it any time soon. I would tell anyone who would listen that it was the best album of the year, and probably the most important rock recording since Nirvana’s Nevermind. It is not an opinion I feel like retracting in any way eighteen years later. If critical consensus is any indication, I am standing on pretty firm ground. OK Computer continues to claim high praise every time lists are made of the best albums of the 1990s and even of all time. In 2005 Spin Magazine names OK Computer as the best album of the previous 20 years and in 2012 stodgy traditionalist Rolling Stone included it on its list of the top 500 albums of all time. In 2010 the readers of the Telegraph voted OK Computer the greatest album of the previous 25 years.
The band did not react well to all the praise. It is natural and healthy for an artist to be suspicious of compliments and to stretch for something better or different the next time out, holding themselves to higher standard than those around them.
Their next album, Kid A, was released more than 3 years after OK Computer and was an even more significant step away from traditional drums and guitars instrumentation. When I heard that Radiohead had basically recorded an electronica album I was skeptical. I’d heard these sorts of overreactions to recordings by favorite artists in the past only to find that the music in question fit comfortably within my expectations based on their overall career and trajectory. Besides, Radiohead had been such a favorite of mine, with each of the band’s albums getting successively better from Pablo Honey to The Bends to OK Computer. I was pretty sure whatever Yorke, Greenwood, and company had in store for me, I’d probably like it pretty well. So I went straight out and bought it. I was wrong.
Kid A was a staggeringly divisive album which drew a line between fans who were willing to follow Radiohead anywhere they wanted to go and those who believe melody and structure are bigger and more important than any individual artist or band. I guess you can tell on which side of that line I found myself. To this day, even with the benefit of hindsight and successive recordings expanding on the sounds in Kid A, the album seems to me to have a couple of decent album tracks and then a lot of filler material. Without the delicious balancing act between structure and chaos the band had achieved on OK Computer and with a large increase in electronic sounds the album was a huge disappointment for me. All the while they insisted they were writing pop music and not creating art. Yeah, right.
Little did I know that some of my fellow Radiohead fans were secretly electronica aficionados. Either that, or they were simply so far in the bag for the band that they could no longer tell whether they were good or not.
I was shocked to see Kid A hit #1 on the Billboard albums chart on its release, but I guess I shouldn’t have been. After all, I had bought the album myself, contributing to the stunning development. Surely as fans started digesting this acrid mush esteem for it would level off. Again I was wrong. Many of Radiohead’s fans dug their heels in and proclaimed Kid A a masterpiece. Radiohead thumbed their noses at the singles charts by not releasing any from Kid A.
My personal reaction to Kid A was to completely ignore the following year’s Amnesiac after hearing just a couple of snippets from it. Nothing I heard sounded to me like a return to form. Again, enough people disagreed with me to make the album a big seller, hitting #2 on the Billboard album chart.
For better or worse, this was the new Radiohead. “I Might be Wrong” hit #27 on the Alternative chart, but was all moody atmosphere that happened to be hung on a catchy hook. With no real melody to speak of and mostly unintelligible lyrics it was best listened to while you were doing something else. Yawn. I sadly came to the conclusion that one of my favorite bands had decided to stop making music I liked.
They did manage to participate in one of the most classic episodes of South Park ever made in 2001. In the episode “Scott Tenorman Must Die,” resident terrible jerk Cartman gets involved in a feud with an older boy who happens to be a Radiohead fan. After suffering repeated humiliations at Scott Tenorman’s hands, Cartman manages to pull a Titus Andronicus on the ninth grader. That is, he chops up his dead parents and feeds them to him as part of a meal, in this case at a chili cook-off. Just after Scott Tenorman finds out about what has happened, his favorite band, Radiohead, wanders by.
Hey, if one of your favorite bands starts to suck, the least they can do is show up on a cartoon and make fun of a crying boy who just ate his parents, right? I laughed my ass off.
And then I was pleasantly surprised to hear 2003’s Hail to the Thief, on which they appeared to come back from the brink of the abyss.
Now this was more like it! On Hail to the Thief Radiohead had managed to include their newer, more experimental instrumentation without sacrificing so much of what had been great about them to begin with. “There There” contains the nervy cynicism and big layered sounds while giving the listener a dramatic arc with an actual melody and an indelible hook. Combine that with its genuinely creepy video that seemed to be saying something about the group’s identity and its detractors and I was hooked again. I went straight out and bought “Hail to the Thief” on its release date in June of 2003 and it spent quite a lot of time flowing out of my speakers into my ears over the next couple of years. As much as I liked it, there was really no question anymore in my mind of Radiohead having another hit single. That appeared to be out of the question unless they made an even more jarring musical about-face.
In June of 2006 I attended that year’s star-studded version of Bonnaroo, a music festival held in Tennessee that had started out as mostly a “Jam Band” event. You wouldn’t usually find me within miles of such an animal, but 2006’s Bonnaroo featured artists like Elvis Costello, Tom Petty, Ben Folds, World Party, The Neville Brothers (who were fantastic, by the way), Beck, Death Cab for Cutie, Buddy Guy, Dr John, Sonic Youth, and yes…Radiohead. Needless to say, I was pretty excited about getting to see this fantastic set of artists live. Unfortunately I found out at Bonnaroo 2006 that I had somehow managed to get old. Camping in the heat of summer in Tennessee was grueling and unpleasant. Even more importantly, the meandering hordes of festival guests fifteen years younger than myself who did not appear to be able to stand in one place and pay attention to the artists they had ostensibly come to see made doing that almost impossible for anyone else. Our feet were constantly stepped on. Loud conversations on cell phones were incessant. Nobody at this music festival seemed to be a fan of music. They annoyed us to the point that we decided to listen to several MainStage acts from the relative comfort of our tent, where the music was like a stereo playing in the next room. That was how I enjoyed Radiohead’s 28-song set, and I can’t say I was that unhappy about it. That is how much I disliked the other people at Bonnaroo. Keep in mind that I came up slam dancing at punk shows.
Anyway, none of that can be blamed on Radiohead, who had delivered another of my favorite albums after making me so nervous for a few years.
Check out this crazy animation somebody did for “A Wolf at the Door.”
I was so satisfied with Hail to the Thief, that I hardly noticed that it took the band more than four years to release another proper album. When their next studio album, In Rainbows, arrived in the autumn of 2007, the expected freak out accolades occurred and I decided to wait for cooler heads to prevail before I invested in it. Once I did go ahead and purchase it I liked it well enough, but I can’t claim that it has found its share of time on my music consuming schedule. When the album’s first single, “Jigsaw Falling in Place,” failed to chart it was no big surprise. What was far less expected was the fate of the next single from In Rainbows.
Does that sound like a hit single? Well, guess what? That’s exactly what it turned into: Radiohead’s second hit record after their early 90s debut “Creep,” hitting #37 on the Billboard singles chart. “Nude” had first been recorded as a part of the 1997 sessions for their universally praised album OK Computer, and the band had included it in their stage performances since then but had never released it. In part due to its appearance in the Radiohead film Meeting People is Easy the band’s fans were very aware of its existence and “Nude” (or “Big Ideas (Don’t Get Any)” as fans had taken to calling it) became highly sought after as a bootleg. Several different attempts were made by the band to record the song, including one with a strings arrangement, but it continued to languish in development.
When “Nude” was finally released on In Rainbows and was announced as its second single, a promotional contest was initiated in which fans themselves would download the individual drum, guitar, vocals, bass, and strings tracks from iTunes and create their own mix of the song. Each of the submitted versions was then posted on a website run by Radiohead. It appears to have been this genius bit of marketing which led to the unexpected chart performance of “Nude,” as the track downloads for the contest were counted towards its Billboard ranking. But hey, top40 is top40, right?
Next up from In Rainbows was the far more tuneful and catchy “House of Cards,” with its spacey bossa nova.
The song performed well on the alternative chart, landing at #8 there, but once again found Radiohead outside looking in at the mainstream Billboard singles chart. It’s really too bad, because this is the sort of pixilated ear honey that really should help to sell Radiohead’s challenging records to the public.
Since In Rainbows, Radiohead has released a few singles independent of full albums and the 2011 release titled The King of Limbs. No songs were made singles from this album, but Radiohead did create a video for “Lotus Flower.”
I’m not sure if this means that Radiohead can just do any old thing and its fans will nod along or that dancing like an idiot really is the core of pop music to begin with. I’m seriously undecided on this. Such is the life of a Radiohead fan with critical thinking skills.
Some helpful person on the internet worked up this very useful chart explaining how a person who has never heard the band before might go about figuring out where they stand in its confusing and contentious world.
Clearly I’m more into twangs, but I don’t mind some bleeps mixed in for variety.
Posted on July 25, 2015, in Music, Nope, Not a 1-Hit Wonder and tagged Bonnaroo, Creep, Fake Plastic Trees, Hail to the Thief, High and Dry, House of Cards, In Rainbows, Just, Karma Police, Kid A, No Surprises, Nude, OK Computer, Paranoid Android, Radiohead, South Park, Stop Whispering, Thom Yorke. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.