Radiohead are a group of self-declared social misfits who met while at Abingdon high school in Oxford, where an allegedly hostile Dickensian atmosphere reigned supreme. The group found a common interest in music and spent much of their spare time at school sheltering from the strict and oppressive teachers in the safety of the music room. They began learning to play their respective instruments and eventually formed the band under the initial name of ‘On A Friday’.
The group showed very early on that their sound was derived from an eclectic taste in music. One obvious influence was, of course, Talking Heads. After signing to EMI in 1991, On A Friday were asked to change their name to something a little catchier and more stylish. The band finally agreed to rebrand as Radiohead, naming themselves after the Talking Heads song ‘Radio Head’ from the 1986 album True Stories.
Radiohead’s first album, Pablo Honey, is seen by most fans and critics as a bit of a throwaway. But it’s important to remember that the group were still only in their early-to-mid-20s when recording the album. It naturally shows signs of their lack of experience and immaturity but reveals a mood board of ideas that can be seen as a launchpad from which they grew impressively into their subsequent album.
Radiohead took the raw alt-rock sound of Pablo Honey to new heights in 1995 with the release of their second album, The Bends. The album came as the group’s first refined and balanced studio release that offered a bounty of hit singles. The record achieved what it set out to do in helping Radiohead migrate from their status as a one-hit-wonder, with ‘Creep’ to being recognised as one of the most important British bands of the time alongside the might of Oasis and Blur during their Britpop battle.
Radiohead also drew a fair portion of their inspiration from the American grunge scene in their early albums. Some of the heavier tracks in The Bends appear strikingly derivative of Nirvana’s sound, especially that exhibited in their 1991 masterpiece Nevermind. But the most direct influence Nirvana had on the album actually came in the form of the edited lyrics.
‘Sulk’, appearing as the penultimate track on The Bends, was a very early idea of frontman Thom Yorke’s that he first drafted in the late 1980s. The lyrics were originally inspired by the Hungerford murders which took place in a town not far from Radiohead’s hometown of Oxford. When recording the song for The Bends in 1994, they omitted the original concluding lyric, “just shoot your gun”. This was because Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain had very recently committed suicide using his shotgun, and Yorke didn’t want people to think the song was alluding to the sensitive subject of the singer’s death.
Listen to the classic 1995 Radiohead track, ‘Sulk’, below.