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How the "demons" of Los Angeles inspired a Radiohead classic

@SamWKemp

Anyone who’s seen the 1998 Radiohead documentary, Meeting People Is Easy, knows how ironic that title is. The Grant Lee-directed tour doc provides an intimate portrait of one of rock’s most notoriously insular groups. Radiohead, it should be made clear, are not simply “gloomy”. 

It’s a word that has been used countless times about the alt-rock pioneers, but, for me, it is reductive, inaccurate and, frankly, pretty lazy. While Radiohead are frequently typecast as the tortured and melancholic artists of the rock world, much of their work is intensely joyful. Yet, that being said, when Meeting People Is Easy was being made, Thom Yorke was not doing so well. 

In placing surveillance cameras in tactical locations, Lee captured the frontman’s difficulty coping with the pressures of fame. A naturally shy person, it often seems that Yorke simply wasn’t prepared for the sheer magnitude of Radiohead’s success, nor the impact it would have on his personal life. Indeed, Yorke’s struggle with this aspect of his career influenced one of the biggest tracks from their 1997 record Ok Computer.

During the writing of that legendary LP, Yorke found himself in LA, bar-hopping with a group of friends. At this time, Radiohead were one of the most famous bands on the planet. Despite having released just two studio albums, they had managed to break America with their incredibly successful single ‘Creep’. So, usurpingly, when Yorke decided to go out in downtown LA for a celebratory drink, he quickly found himself surrounded by obsessive fans and scene-stalkers to whom could not relate. 

The experience, as Yorke recalled from a New York hotel room, would go on to inspire ‘Paranoid Android’ from Ok Computer. “The people I saw that night were just like demons from another planet,” he began. “Everyone was trying to get something out of me. I felt like my own self was collapsing in the presence of it, but I also felt completely, utterly part of it, like it was all going to come crashing down any minute.”

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The intensity of that night stayed with Yorke for some time. Until that point, he’d not experienced such a visceral reaction from the public or, indeed, noticed his own inability to connect with such people. The attitude with which he’d been treated, as though he was some precious mineral ripe for extraction, left him feeling uneasy and vulnerable. 

However, it did allow him to get over the serious case of writer’s block that had been troubling him for some time. As he remembered: “We’d been rehearsing the song for months, but the lyrics came to me at five o’clock that morning. I was trying to sleep when I literally heard these voices that wouldn’t leave me alone. They were the voices of the people I’d heard in the bar. It turned out to be a notorious, coke-fiend place, but I didn’t know that. Basically, it’s just about chaos, chaos, utter fucking chaos.”

‘Paranoid Android’ is a near-perfect encapsulation of isolation, self-induced or otherwise. In many ways, it is a reaction to the burgeoning disillusionment Yorke was feeling at a time when Radiohead were experiencing levels of notoriety they had never seen coming. 

Yorke said: “The paranoia I felt at the time was much more related to how people related to each other. But I was using the terminology of technology to express it. Everything I was writing was actually a way of trying to reconnect with other human beings when you’re always in transit.

“That’s what I had to write about because that’s what was going on, which in itself instilled a kind of loneliness and disconnection,” he added. 

However, as with so many Radiohead songs, Yorke managed to create something astonishingly beautiful and universal out of something bleak.