Wednesday, May 8, 2013
Herein lies the conundrum of Thom Yorke. He's one of the most beloved rock stars in the world but he despises celebrity culture. "I'm surrounded by a world of grinning idiots and I don't want to be another one."
Thom Yorke was born in 1968 in Wellingborough, England. At birth, his left eye was fixed shut after doctors determined the eye was paralyzed. Yorke endured five eye operations by age six. He wore an eyepatch through much of his childhood and today he has a permanent droopy eyelid.
Yorke's father was a nuclear physicist and chemical equipment salesman. The family moved often causing Yorke to attend multiple schools. At age 7, Yorke received his first guitar. He mimicked the guitar sounds of his childhood hero, Brian May of Queen. Yorke wrote his first song at age 11. The song was called "Mushroom Cloud".
Yorke met his future Radiohead bandmates at an all-boys public school. They formed a band called On A Friday (they could only rehearse on Fridays). Yorke sang, wrote the songs, played guitar, bass, piano and drums. Despite his talents, he never learned to read music.
After college, Yorke briefly worked as an orderly in a mental hospital. In 1987, Yorke and his girlfriend were involved in a serious car accident. The experience instilled a lifelong car phobia in Yorke which later inspired the songs "Airbag," "Killer Cars" and "Drunkk Machine."
In 1991, Yorke and his bandmates were signed to EMI. They changed their name to Radiohead taken from a Talking Heads song. (Yorke's early musical heroes were David Byrne, The Pixies and Joy Division.) In 1992, Radiohead's first album "Pablo Honey" brought them immediate success. Yorke confessed that his ego got out of control bolstered by an excess of drinking. "I was unbearable. As soon as you get any success you disappear up your own arse."
Yorke disliked his own singing voice. His vocal range stretched from tenor to falsetto. "It annoys me how pretty my voice is, how polite it can sound when what I'm singing is deeply acidic." Only after seeing Jeff Buckley play live in 1994 did Yorke realize "you could sing in a falsetto without sounding drippy."
After their second album "The Bends" in 1995, R.E.M. chose Radiohead as the opening act for their European tour. Michael Stipe gave Yorke advice on dealing with fame and the demands of being in a rock band. The two became lifelong friends.
In 1997, Radiohead rented a mansion in Bath once owned by actress Jayne Seymour to record their new album. The band immersed themselves in the music of DJ Shadow, Underworld, Ennio Morricone and Pink Floyd. The result, "OK Computer," did not conform to standard verse-chorus structure. The music is fragmented and pieced together with hooks buried beneath layers of atmosphere and melodic dissonance. Though some critics claimed the album was "commercial suicide," today "OK Computer" is considered one of the greatest albums ever made.
Radiohead were not afraid of experimenting and reinventing themselves. Yorke fell in love with sampling and programmed beats and the band's post "OK Computer" music relied heavily on looping and processed vocals. In 2007, Radiohead revolutionized the music industry with the digital release of their album "In Rainbows." Fans were allowed to choose the amount they wanted to pay for the album download. The average price paid was 2.90 pounds.
When he's not playing music, Thom Yorke is spokesman for Friends of the Earth, a group advocating the perils of climate change and carbon emissions. Yorke also plays in the band Atoms For Peace with Flea (from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Joey Waronker (from R.E.M.). (6" x 7", black ink print)