Consistency, work ethic, teamwork, innovation and the ability to evolve musically by defying trends have made Radiohead an international success story. After all, how many bands that found their footing in the early nineties still have their original lineup? John Aizlewood takes the reader on a chronological adventure from when Radiohead were a school band called On A Friday to the modern day, where band members’ side projects, including Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood’s The Smile, are discussed.
Aizlewood details a lot of interesting, and to a mainstream audience, lesser-known facts, including how Yorke was born in Wellingborough and how he grew up in a home with no music except for the cassette player in his father’s Volvo. Despite this, Yorke wrote his first song about a nuclear bomb aged eleven and went on to win school music prizes. The musical influences of all the band members are discussed. Aizlewood tells how Greenwood was in a band with Yorke’s younger brother Andy before becoming a full member of On A Friday. Shortly afterwards, all five members would study at separate universities, return to their hometown and carry on where On A Friday left off. Things moved quickly; by the end of 1991, On A Friday were signed to Parlaphone, and the following year had changed their name to Radiohead and released their first EP, “Drill”, which received BBC Radio One airplay.
We then see a band that has moderate success and little control when they release their debut LP Pablo Honey in 1993. For example, Pablo Honey was mixed without them. Aizlewood pinpoints the turning points, such as Israeli DJ Yoav Kutnov giving “Creep” airtime which resulted in the song topping the Israeli charts. America then started to dig Pablo Honey, and “Creep” was reissued in the UK and entered the top ten. We then learn how band cohesion grew and how Radiohead became increasingly unhappy, especially when touring.
Naturally, Radiohead’s mainstream success is discussed, from Yorke wearing a Bukowski t-shirt when the band performed “High and Dry” on Top of the Pops to John Leckie producing The Bends with the assistance of Nigel Godrich, who would go on to produce every subsequent Radiohead LP. The visual arts collaborations between Yorke and Dan Rickwood (aka Stanley Donowood) are discussed, as are song name changes, including “Planet Telex”, which was originally called “Planet Xerox”. Other key turning points such as “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” reaching the top five gave the quintet confidence to make more “slow-burning” tracks.
OK Computer, originally called “Ones & Zeros”, naturally receives much attention. The different versions recorded of individual songs and inspiration for song titles is an interesting read. While investment was made in new equipment, the band actually underspent their allotted allowances. The OK Computer songs which feature in TV and film, those that didn’t make the cut and the 20th-anniversary reissue are analysed.
The challenges of dealing with success, writer’s block and overcoming writer’s block are detailed. Their musical development, reaching out to fans in an increasing digital age, activism, side projects, and to a lesser extent, their private lives are also examined. Aizlewood includes fun trivia such as how Kid A was initially titled “No Logo” and how track three “, The National Anthem”, was originally called “Everyone”. Aizlewood is democratic by going through all post-OK Computer albums, analysing how they were written, recorded, produced and received. The author also critiques them and lists standout tracks. Interestingly, many songs which eventually make an album cut had been around for some time. For example, “True Love Waits” was first performed by Yorke and Greenwood in 1995 before appearing on A Moon Shaped Pool in 2016.
While new Radiohead material and live shows are sparse, band quality and wholeness has seldom been doubted. Radiohead has continued to take risks musically and followed through amidst adversity. Aizlewood devotes much time to the reaction to Radiohead’s decision to play in Israel in 2017 (the first time since 2000), the band’s reaction to criticism and a critique of the Tel Aviv performance.
While Radiohead: Life in a Glasshouse doesn’t produce new revelations, it offers an interesting, accessible, comprehensive guide to Radiohead, the individual band members, their writing and recording processes, side projects and the causes they actively champion. Aizlewood will undoubtedly please both devotees and those who want to know more about Radiohead beyond their music.
Buy Radiohead: Life in a Glasshouse by John Aizlewood