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Of all the alt-rock bands of the 90s, Radiohead is the band that doesn’t fit in any category. Art rock might be a label better suited for a band that always felt like the refined outsider of modern rock.
This Radiohead band history contains all your need to know about this innovative quintet, from the early guitar-driven days to pioneering electronic-infused rock.
When I first heard Radiohead “Creep” on the radio, I thought: “oh, that’s some weird-sounding classy grunge.” I couldn’t be more wrong about defining the band by only one song, the one that probably sounds less like Radiohead than every future Radiohead song.
I truly understood and enjoyed Radiohead years after art-rock classics such as Pink Floyd had changed my perspective on music.
It’s no surprise that the long misunderstood and underrated band of young college friends would rise to fame in the most non-commercial route possible and do things their own unique way.
Radiohead Quick Facts
|Band Members||Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, Philip Selway|
|Genres||Art Rock: Alt Rock; Experimental Rock; Electronica|
|Years Active||1985–1987; 1991–present|
|Most Successful Album/Single||The best-selling album is “OK Computer”; The biggest single is “Creep.”|
|Social Media||Facebook, Instagram, Twitter|
|Awards||6 Grammy Awards; 3 Q awards; Inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame; Ranked 40h on VH1’s 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.|
|Last Updated||June 2022|
Radiohead has my utmost respect for having the same lineup for 30+ years. Five college students from the same university stuck together from their college band days to getting inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.
The growth of each member as a musician and individual is palpable when hearing their catalog back to back. With them, the Radiohead sound and lyrical theme evolved over the years.
Thomas Edward Yorke (born 7 October 1968 in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire) is Radiohead’s frontman, lead vocalist, guitarist, and primary songwriter. Yorke is often considered the band’s image, embodying the band’s melancholia, alienation, and non-conformism in both his character and songwriting.
Yorke is one of the most unique singers ever to front a rock band. The way he delivers his haunting falsetto while fiercely strumming his guitar and, at times, dancing, is iconic.
His word phrasing and pronunciation are entirely separate from most other rock singers, often treating his voice as an instrument while exchanging between direct and cryptic deep lyrics.
York writes most of the rough material for the band. His proficiency on guitar and bass and intermediate skill on keys and drums help him develop complete ideas for other members to follow. His signature heartfelt, and often depressing, approach to songwriting, with gloomy chord progression and lyrics, is present in most of his work.
Yorke is famous for his activism and has also released a few solo records and gotten involved in side projects during his career with Radiohead. He has been rated 18th on the list of Greatest singers by Blender and MTV2 and 66th by the Rolling Stones.
Jonathan Richard Guy Greenwood (born 4 November 1971 in Oxford, England) is the band’s multi-instrumentalist, mainly serving as lead guitarist, keyboardist, and arranger.
Greenwood is the youngest member of the band and bassist Colin’s little brother. He is the most musically proficient out of the five, with classical training and a career as a composer and film scorer. After York writes the basic idea of the song, it’s Jonny’s turn to arrange the songs before the others add their part.
His contribution is mostly the electronic sounds, orchestral arrangements, and effect-packed guitar leads in the band’s songs.
Jonny started playing a recorder at age four while also being keen to learn computer code and trying multiple instruments. He scored his first film in 2003 and composed for world-renowned orchestras such as the London Contemporary Orchestra.
Beyond Radiohead, Jonny was part of the band “Smile” with Thom Yorke.
Colin Charles Greenwood (born 26 June 1969 in Oxford, England) is the band’s bass and occasional synth player. His overall musical approach to bass makes his role in the band beyond the low-end of the songs.
Greenwood started playing classical guitar as a teenager and credits his music teacher Terence Gilmore-James as one of his main influences.
Colin is the perfect bassist for Radiohead. He is not the typical root note indie rock bassist but a refined holistic musician that serves the song. As demonstrated in the band’s career, he knows exactly when and what to play. He plays with his fingers and relies on effects to fill the complete sonic spectrum of the song.
He is an avid reader and the only Radiohead member not releasing solo material.
Edward John O’Brien (born 15 April 1968 in Oxford, England) is the band’s guitarist and occasional songwriter, working closely with Thom Yorke to shape Radiohead songs.
O’Brien is what I consider one of the finest “texture” guitar players in rock. He uses the instrument to cover much more sonic ground than the typical rhythm guitarist. The bed of atmospheric sounds he lays with effects and backing vocals is crucial to the band’s airy and gloomy sound.
He was engaged with drummer Selway in the Neil Finn lead band 7 Worlds Collide” and recently released his ambient compositions and first solo album.
Philip James Selway (born 23 May 1967 in Abingdon) is the band’s drummer known for merging acoustic drums with electronic drum machines.
Selway is a one-of-a-kind drummer with the precision of the metronome and the feel of a rock musician. He adapted the conventional approach to drumming perfectly throughout Radiohead’s career, even when the band went electronica. Smoothly flowing grooves in odd time signatures and dynamic half-electronic fast-paced ones are his signature.
He is an avid songwriter who released two solo albums and was part of the band “7 Worlds Collide.”
Radiohead started as schoolmates at Oxfordshire’s Abingdon School, jamming and rehearsing in the school’s rehearsal space. Even their first name, “On a Friday,” was derived from the band only being able to rehearse on Friday afternoons.
In 1985, York, Greenwood, O’Brien, and Selway were the first to team up and would regularly switch instruments. The only trained musician in the band, Jonny Greenwood, Collins’ younger brother, joined the band last, originally as a Keyboard player.
As Jonny says in an interview, he couldn’t play keys at the time and lowered the volume of the keyboard for no one to notice.
In 1987 all the members besides Jonny went to university and would get together during holidays to rehearse. The band even got an offer from a small label before departing for Uni, but they decided it wasn’t time yet. The next four years would only see the band rehearsing and never play shows.
After the band got together again in 1991, less than ten shows later; they got an offer to record a demo with Shoegaze producer Chris Hufford. EMI records liked what they heard, and the band recorded the EP “Drill” that featured the now legendary track, “Creep.”
As it was with most alternative bands, the UK did not accept them at first, and “Creep” didn’t receive airplay as some radio stations considered it “too depressing.” It wasn’t until their first album that the band would gain a following.
Pablo Honey (1993)
The debut album from Radiohead, spearheaded by the single “Creep,” was a slow gainer that eventually became a gold record.
Everyone was skeptical about the album, and none from Capitol Records, including the producer, was convinced until they heard the band perform “Creep.”
The song is now tied to the band’s legacy more than any other track. However, I think that’s mostly because, at the time, it was the only song that had strong songwriting and went along with the grunge wave of the time.
“Pablo Honey” is not Radiohead’s best work, as it lacks the refined touch of the other albums. Jonny Greenwood was not yet the arranger he is now, and overall the three weeks recording session might have been rushed for the inexperienced band.
The other single, “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” is my favorite of the album — a guitar-heavy tune representing a style I’d later miss from Radiohead.
The album and its hit single started to pick up in Israel and the US, where the band would heavily tour to successfully promote it. Eventually, “Creep” reached number 7 on the UK charts bringing the quintet to play big festivals.
The Bends (1995)
The second Radiohead album is a tighter, better sounding and executed album. The songwriting, I feel, is much more refined, with multiple songs becoming minor hits.
Radiohead had more time to record and was much tighter due to the heavy touring. The period though was anything but relaxed. The band was under pressure to release a hit record, and as York describes it, “We had days of painful self-analysis, a total fucking meltdown for two months.”
I think there isn’t a single weak song in this album. It’s much more dynamic, leaving behind the guitar wall of sound for more intricate, sometimes sparse arrangements. This might be the first Britpop album to inspire future bands like Coldplay.
My favorite tracks are “My Iron Lung” and “Fake Plastic Trees.” The acoustic intro on the second song is probably my favorite Yorke vocal performance in a Radiohead song.
The album overall was better received and even nominated for the Best British Album.
OK Computer (1997)
The third Radiohead album is their masterpiece and is widely considered one of the best albums of all time. In some ways, I consider it to be a 90s alternative rock “Dark Side of The Moon.”
The album’s main themes are alienation, consumerism, politics, and how modern society presses down the human soul. The unconventional recording methods used for the album perfectly complement the lyrics in the visions of Radiohead and co-producer Nigel Godrich.
Musically it’s different from the rock-infused previous albums. It features experimental electronic soundscapes more similar at times to a film soundtrack and new instruments they never featured before. York’s haunting vocals leave space for airy instrumentations and modern guitar work.
Overall it’s one of the few “perfect albums” where each song is a small piece of a masterpiece. As with many revolutionary works, labels found it too abstract to market, yet it peaked at number 1 in the UK charts and would sell over 8 million copies.
KID A (2000)
Radiohead was by now the biggest alternative rock band in the world with a cult following. Even though the band was at its peak, the pressures of touring, recording, and further alienation brought them almost to breaking up.
Thom Yorke suffered from depression, and the whole band was on a creative block. Yorke was unsatisfied with the rock musical direction and got burned out from overplaying the Ok Computer songs. All of these led to an album that might be one of the greatest left turns in music history.
KID A is an experimental record where Radiohead drifts from rock to incorporate more electronic, classical, and jazz elements. They scraped all the old songs and started learning electronic instruments. Rock guitars were replaced with synths, and even storytelling lyrics were replaced by random words put together with the only goal of setting a mood.
A listen to the title track is the best introduction to the new Radiohead Sound.
The title “KID A” refers to the first human clone and gives the feeling of emptiness, bareness, and distance from human emotion. Even without the intent of creating a meaningful album, they created another classic album that stretched beyond any genre.
The band was the first major act to release an album only online.
The following album was taken from the leftover recordings of the KID A sessions. Whatever the band released by now would reach number 1, and so did this album.
My favorite Radiohead song, a gloomy, angsty, and uneasy track called “Pyramid Song,” was one of the singles released from the record. I never heard anything similar to it; it’s rhythmically complex with a very odd chord progression.
Radiohead – Pyramid Song
Hail to the Thief (2003)
“Hail To The Thief” is the best Radiohead album to combine electronic sounds with acoustic instruments. The rock guitars return while ambient sounds are slightly more sparse.
It’s both a tightly wound and an easily flowing album with much improvisation on it. If you are a rock fan, it might be the best album to start with “modern” Radiohead. The soul-touching piano and guitar parts are a sonic delight.
The British rock, almost psychedelic track “There, There” is my favorite from the album. Fuzzy tense guitar riffs are the track’s theme, and it’s accompanied by one of the typical “weird” Radiohead music videos with York as the main protagonist.
Radiohead – There, There
The album easily reached No. 1 in the UK and No. 3 in the US.
In Rainbows (2007)
The next album in the Radiohead catalog was another creative leap for the band. The contract with their label was finished, and they had no more deadlines and obligations to make music. The final product would be their most ‘human’ album.
The album was probably the most difficult to record. The tour life had taken all their strength, and they stopped working for a few months and worked on solo albums to break the creative rut. With producer Neil Godrich back and after a short tour, they found confidence and started the recording sessions.
The final album features ten tracks — a more concise album than the previous one. It’s dreamy, both with rock-infused tracks and soft ambient tracks. It feels more sensual and warm with some RnB elements put into the mix.
My favorite track is “House of Cards.” It’s an almost uplifting track with jazzy guitars and a positive vibe, which is rare for a Radiohead song. The atmospheric guitar bits from O’Brien are genius on this one.
Radiohead – House of Cards
Without a label, they could do what they wanted with the record. They choose to give it away for free with a unique “pay what you want” system. It was widely successful and revolutionized the entire industry at the time in ways no one expected.
The King of Limbs (2011)
The next album is another experimental-sounding record. By now, the fans were used to them trying out new elements with each new release.
The basics of the album are loops and electronic sampling of their instruments. What started as a two-week experiment ended up on a six-month work for the album.
I feel like this is not Radiohead’s best work in any way, and many consider it their worst. The funny thing about it is that there are no bad songs, just experimental ones that it’s hard to categorize. The album, compared to “In Rainbows,” apart from York’s vocals, feels cold and robotic.
I don’t think there are any strong tunes in the album either, as no piece is particularly memorable. The album is more hypnotic than it is musical, as there are no surprises, and the songs can get repetitive for the non-electronic music listener. When played live, however, the songs sound much better.
Whatever your opinion of the record is, this music video is undoubtedly special.
Radiohead – Lotus Flower
Commercially, it was successful as everything else from the band at this point. However, it does not have the longevity of previous albums.
A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)
The last album so far from the band is now six years old, the longest gap between Radiohead albums. It’s a melancholic album, different from the gloomy mood of the previous ones; it feels in a way like a conclusion to this chapter of Radiohead.
It’s very different from every other Radiohead song and features many tracks written during the KID A session and even a 1995 song, “True Love Waits.”
I feel like this album is the marriage of the “Ok Computer” era with a classical orchestra.
The orchestration of the record is sublime, with choral voices, soft strings, and an overall cinematic feel. The album is filled with songs of love and regret and even directed to the deteriorating environment. York’s divorce from his wife of 20 years I thought to have brought most of the inspiration for the album.
The band is currently in no rush to record together again. A “Moon Shaped Pool” is for sure the end of this 20-year chapter, and I believe they might get together once they have an idea for the next chapter ready.
Today we can enjoy much of York’s solo work and that the band is still touring together.
What Makes Radiohead Different?
Beyond the music elements I already addressed, getting to why and how the band managed to achieve them is the most important part.
I believe most of Radiohead’s ability to be so different yet successful, beyond the individual members’ talents, is the “beyond-the-instrument” approach to being bandmates. No one in the band plays for themselves or ever highlights their part; all are intertwined and beautifully connected.
It seems the school boys managed to battle the ego demon most bands succumb to and found the perfect balance of how their creative process works.
Radiohead Scandals and Lawsuits
Unlike many famous rock bands, Radiohead members get along well with each other and never escalate any confrontation into break-ups or legal battles. This doesn’t mean the band never had any problems; they almost broke up multiple times.
The most famous legal action the band has taken was against Lana Del Rey, whose track “Get Free” had many similarities to their hit song “Creep.” The song itself has been accused of being inspired by a 1972 song from the band “The Hollies,” which is now credited.
Did Radiohead Create a New Genre?
Radiohead holds a special place in the Alternative Rock scene. No one sounded like them, and none still do. Through the 90s and new century, they always brought something new to the table, falling into categories only because of their early rock roots.
Radiohead pushed each genre to the limits by bringing new, unexpected elements. Yet, their work is so diverse that only the terms that fit it are “art” and ‘alternative.” Some consider them the Pink Floyd of their generation, yet I’d say the only similarity is the experimentation in the sound and anti-conformism.
Art rock in itself is a non-defined genre, as much as prog rock is. Each flagship band in the genre could easily be credited with creating not a genre but a movement and musical path that influenced future artists.
In Radioheads’ case, they were the band to look up to in the late 90s if you were looking for rock’s experimental and innovative side. Today, they are still the same “Weirdos” from whom you don’t know what to expect in their next release.
Radiohead always dared to put up eccentric live shows. They are one of the few bands who dare to play all their new tracks at a festival. The best part about this is that fans don’t mind it and support the quintet in every experiment.
- A 2-hour concert by Radiohead is an emotional roller coaster enhanced by the light show. I get the chills when Greenwood opens the show playing the piano, and York gets in perfectly in his high-pitched, smooth voice.
Radiohead – Live from Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival (April 2017)
- A studio live performance of “In Rainbows” in the band’s favorite habitat.
Radiohead – In Rainbows From the Basement (April 2008)
- When rock was at its highest point in the 90s, Radiohead started to play their first big festivals. This performance of Creep is one of their best.
Radiohead – Live at Reading 1994 (AustinBrock)
Answer: Yorke’s favorite Radiohead song is “How To Disappear Completely” from KID A.
Answer: Yorke’s and Jonny Greenwood’s side project “Smile” is set to start touring in the fall of 2022. You can check the dates on the Radiohead website.
Answer: Radiohead’s full discography features 9 studio albums, 1 studio album, 9 video albums, and 5 compilation albums.
- Radiohead – Wikipedia
- Radiohead Public Library
- Radiohead | Members, Albums, & Facts | Britannica
- Radiohead | Biography, News, Photos and Videos | Contactmusic.com
- Radiohead | Members, Albums, & Facts | Britannica
- Radiohead Songs, Albums, Reviews, Bio & More | AllMusic
- Radiohead – Meeting People is Easy. (1998)
- RADIOHEAD: A Job That Slowly Kills You