Radiohead Biography and Profile

radiohead thom yorke
Thom Yorke of Radiohead. Photo: Jo Hale/Getty Images.

Radiohead Overview:

Radiohead are one of the most celebrated alternative rock groups of the last two decades, wowing critics while maintaining a sizable following across the globe despite their insistence on producing challenging, forward-thinking music. When the British band began in the '90s, they resembled a traditional modern-rock group, but in subsequent years the quintet have slowly moved away from conventional guitar-and-drum-based music to explore experimental structures and tones. They may not be the most popular group in rock, but they're certainly one of the most respected.

Radiohead's Origins:

Radiohead came together when the band members were all attending the same school in Abingdon in England in the mid-'80s. The individual members went off to university but remained in contact, eventually getting back together near the beginning of the '90s to concentrate on music. 1991 proved to be the critical early year in their nascent career -- within the span of 12 months, Radiohead found management and then signed to EMI Records.

Full of Angst on Their Debut:

Radiohead released their debut, Pablo Honey, in 1993. Very much a product of its era, Pablo Honey reflected the snarled guitar energy of Nirvana, and the album's hit single, "Creep," was a dynamic, albeit familiar soft-then-loud blast of adolescent angst. At the same time, Pablo Honey showed the band's interest in moody modern rock and highlighted frontman Thom Yorke's gorgeous falsetto. But because so much attention was focused on the success of "Creep," there were suspicions that Radiohead were going to be just another one-hit-wonder grunge group.

An Ambitious Follow-Up:

Radiohead responded to those concerns with 1995's The Bends, a far more challenging, galvanic record. Though hardly ignoring mainstream songwriting conventions -- after all, the album did contain the hit ballads "Fake Plastic Trees" and "High and Dry" -- The Bends was an ambitious, guitar-driven collection that built on the epic scope of U2's '80s records while introducing an element of unshakable dread to the music. Though embraced by modern-rock radio, The Bends didn't feel part of any particular scene, suggesting that Radiohead wanted to go their own way rather than following trends.

Making a Masterpiece:

If there was any question about Radiohead's legitimacy as a formidable creative entity, 1997's OK Computer removed those doubts. Now rightfully acknowledged as one of the '90s' essential albums, OK Computer was a masterpiece of provocative record-making that perfectly balanced experimentation and emotional connection, fitting for an album concerned with the loss of humanity in a technological age. With their third album, Radiohead cemented their reputation as critical darlings, although they had hardly alienated audiences in the process - OK Computer remains the group's bestselling record.

Giving Birth to 'Kid A':

Three years passed before Radiohead's next record. Looking to push themselves after OK Computer's breakout success, the band returned with Kid A, a keyboard-heavy, willfully distant album that nevertheless retained the group's key thematic concern: how to keep your soul intact in a hostile, destructive world. The tension between the album's often-frosty music and Yorke's warm, urgent vocals became a recurring motif for the band's albums in the '00s, which continued to attract a large, loyal following.

Biding Their Time:

Radiohead released Amnesiac in 2001, about six months after Kid A. Amnesiac represented leftover tracks from the Kid A sessions, and although it did have its sterling moments, the new album couldn't help but feel a little inconsequential and unfocused. Later that same year, Radiohead put out I Might Be Wrong, a live album that focused on songs from Kid A and Amnesiac. As with Amnesiac, I Might Be Wrong was more footnote than major statement, although the new track "True Love Waits" was one of the band's most romantic to date.

Radiohead Return to the Guitar:

Radiohead refocused with 2003's Hail to the Thief. While the band hadn't abandoned their interest in experimental textures, Hail to the Thief was notable for its return to guitar-focused rock, although Radiohead still made room for moony piano ballads and unsettling minimalist numbers. The band's longest album, Hail to the Thief did have its weaker moments, but on the whole the record found Radiohead reengaging with the world after two very insular studio efforts.

Releasing 'In Rainbows' on Their Own:

In 2007, Radiohead were no longer signed to EMI and decided to release their next record, In Rainbows, on their own terms. That meant making the album available on their website for whatever price consumers wished to pay. The unusual release strategy generated so much commentary and controversy that it threatened to overshadow the actual record. Once the hype died down, though, In Rainbows emerged as the group's warmest and softest album, filled with hushed, intimate songs about romantic relationships falling apart.

'The King of Limbs':

Radiohead self-released their eighth studio album The King of Limbs in February 2011. The album, produced by longtime producer Nigel Goodrich, was first released through their website with physical CD and vinyl formats released in March. Unlike In Rainbows which was recorded using converntional instrumentation, The King of Limbs was recorded combining real instruments, programming, and sampling and looping the band's recordings. Radiohead released no singles from the album, but after releasing a music video for the song "Lotus Flower" charted in the U.S. and UK and was nominated for Best Rock Performance, Best Rock Song, and Best Short Form Music Video at the 54th Grammy Awards.

Radiohead Lineup:

Colin Greenwood - bass
Jonny Greenwood - guitar, keyboard
Ed O'Brien - guitar
Phil Selway - drums
Thom Yorke - vocals, guitar, piano

Essential Radiohead Songs:

"Fake Plastic Trees" 
"Karma Police" 
"There There"
"House of Cards"

Radiohead Discography:

Pablo Honey (1993)
The Bends (1995)
OK Computer (1997)
Kid A (2000)
Amnesiac (2001)
I Might Be Wrong (live album) (2001)
Hail to the Thief (2003)
In Rainbows (2007)
The Best of Radiohead (2008)
The King of Limbs (2011)

Radiohead Quotes:

Thom Yorke, on his reputation for writing about dark subject matter.
"Loads of the music on OK Computer is extremely uplifting. It's only when you read the words that you'd think otherwise. That's just kind of the way it is. The whole point of creating music for me is to give voice to things that aren't normally given voice to, and a lot of those things are extremely negative." (Pitchfork, August 16, 2006)

Thom Yorke, on younger bands copying Radiohead's style.
"We've ripped off R.E.M. blind for years, you know -- amongst other people. Everybody does. It's how you rip them off, as John Lennon said." (Pitchfork, August 16, 2006)

Colin Greenwood, on Radiohead's relationship with their longtime producer Nigel Godrich.
"The thing about working with Nigel is that he's brilliant with psychology ... He's got that ability to be generous and patient when he's making a record and then he can be objective as well. To have the ability to be utterly supporting in the studio and then make a call later is a real skill." (Pitchfork, March 28, 2008)

Radiohead Trivia:

  • The band's original name was On a Friday. They changed it to Radiohead, which was inspired by the Talking Heads song "Radio Head."
  • Jonny Greenwood composed the score for the 2007 film .

(Edited by Bob Schallau)