Which city in England boasts the largest number of signed bands per capita? Well, according to the members of Radiohead, it's their hometown of Oxford (also home to Ride and Supergrass). All five are natives of Oxford, where they met at Abingdon School. Singer-guitarist Thom Yorke and bassist Colin Greenwood were the first to hit it off at Abingdon, sharing an affinity for Joy Division, Magazine, and cross-dressing. Ed O'Brien, another singer-guitarist, was added because Thom thought he was "cool and looked like Morrissey." Phil Selway replaced the trio's drum machine, and the foursome formed On a Friday, named after — what else? — the day they practiced. Soon, Colin's younger brother, Jonny, joined their ranks on harmonica, but the quintet soon put their budding career on hold as various members shuttled off to universities. Thom went to Exeter to study fine art and literature; Ed traveled to Manchester for politics; and Colin and Phil went on to study English at Cambridge and Liverpool, respectively.
During vacations from school, On a Friday was revived; live shows featured a brass section and, as a closer, a rousing rendition of Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up." In the summer of 1991, after the members had all completed school, they regrouped in Oxford (Jonny was now a full-fledged guitarist and keyboard player), and eventually changed their band's name to Radiohead ("Radio Head" is a Talking Heads song on the album True Stories). With other commitments out of the way, they began to take their work seriously, and it didn't take long for the powers-that-be to take notice: After its first official gig, Radiohead received more than 20 offers from record companies.
Radiohead's first release was a 1992 U.K.-only EP, Drill, which sparked enough interest to land it opening slots on tours with PJ Harvey, Tears for Fears, and James, just to name a few. But this was only the beginning, as a song called "Creep" was about to change its career forever. "Creep" hit U.K. airwaves in the second half of 1992 and was eventually named one of the top British singles of both that year and the next. The song, which was perceived as an anthem for the alienated, had little in common with the rest of its first album, Pablo Honey, released in 1993. In fact, some fans of "Creep" were disappointed by the comparative mellowness of the rest of the album, though plenty were fascinated by the band's distinct and varied sound. At last, here was a new British band that owed more to Pink Floyd than to usual suspects The Beatles or the Sex Pistols (in 1995, the band even tipped its hat to Pink Floyd by mounting a most Floydian quadraphonic surround-sound tour of the United Kingdom). And "Creep" certainly helped Radiohead sell tickets, even though subsequent radio singles failed to garner much airplay in America.
In 1994, the band next released an EP called My Iron Lung, which provided a taste of what was to come on 1995's The Bends. American radio jumped on the single "Fake Plastic Trees," which also appeared on the oh-so-hip soundtrack to the film Clueless in 1995. At last, the band began to escape from their "Creep" pigeonhole. "Fake Plastic Trees," a slow and almost mournful tune, was a far cry from the grinding plaint of the earlier hit, as was "High And Dry," which also received significant airplay.
By this time, the band had plenty of fans in the music world as well as the population at large. R.E.M. liked Radiohead so much that it asked them to be an opening act on its 1995 European and American tours. Meanwhile, other bands paid their respects by doing covers of Radiohead songs. Tears for Fears recorded a live version of "Creep" and released it as a B-side. The Pretenders also recorded their own rendition of "Creep," which appears on the Isle of View video (but not on the CD). It was Alanis Morissette, however, who may have been the biggest Radiohead fan: She often performed "Fake Plastic Trees" during her live shows in 1995 and 1996, and she invited the band to tour with her in August of 1996.
Radiohead started working on material for its third album in early 1996, but it wasn't until after the Morissette tour that it headed into the studio to get down to some serious business. And what a studio it was — the band recorded the album in a 14th century manor house owned by actress Jane Seymour (of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman fame). Located outside of Bath, England, the isolated mansion was also used by The Cure to record its album Wild Mood Swings. The working title of the new record was Ones and Zeroes, but that binary-code reference evolved into OK Computer by the time the set was released in 1997. Songs were recorded all over the Seymour mansion, everywhere from the grand ballroom to the hallway. Bassist Colin Greenwood, in an interview with New Musical Express, described the resulting sound as being "like a stoned Radiohead." The first single, a six-and-a-half-minute track in three parts titled "Paranoid Android," was released in May and entered the U.K. charts at No. 3. OK Computer, released the following month, debuted at No. 1 in the United Kingdom.
— Karen Manning