Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, a portrait of an unlikely superstar
On October 7th, 1968, in the market town of Wellingborough in Northamptonshire, Thom Yorke was born with a paralysed eye and, as a child, the future Radiohead leader had undergone five eye operations before he was six-years-old. This experience, in no uncertain terms, gave Yorke a feeling of unique separation from an early age, one which he has since worn like a coat of armour.
The last surgery he had as a child, Yorke labelled as being “botched”, left him with a drooping eyelid, however, fitting in was never at the top of his list of worries. “I decided I liked the fact that it wasn’t the same, and I’ve liked it ever since. And when people say stuff I kind of thought it was a badge of pride, and still do,” he once said on his signature feature.
As a child, his family moved around frequently. Shortly after Yorke’s birth, his father, a nuclear physicist and later a chemical equipment salesman, was hired by a firm in Scotland which is where the family lived there until Yorke was seven. This nomadic lifestyle that he had become accustomed to in his early years before settling in Oxfordshire in 1978 set him in good sted for the career he would have, one largely spent living on the road. It was during these formative years, when he was just seven, that Yorke received his first guitar and, inspired by Queen guitarist Brian May, he got to work. At 10, he made his own guitar, inspired by May’s homemade Red Special and a year later he formed his first band.
Yorke was born into a successful, wealthy family and attended Abingdon School, an upper-tier private school and which costs over £40,000 a year to fully-board at. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this environment was one that Yorke didn’t enjoy and it later saw him return to feeling like the odd one out. School was one part of his life that the musician doesn’t hold the fondest of memories towards but music provided him with a sense of escape. One thing that he will be forever grateful for during his school experience for is, however, the fact that it led him to meet his Radiohead bandmates.
After he met kindred spirits in Ed O’Brien, Philip Selway, and brothers Colin and Jonny Greenwood they formed ‘On a Friday’, a group named for the only day they were allowed to rehearse. Terence Gilmore-James, the Abingdon director of music, recalled Yorke as “forlorn and a little isolated” thanks to his unusual appearance, but talkative and opinionated. He said Yorke was “not a great musician”, unlike his future bandmate Jonny Greenwood, but a “thinker and experimenter”.
Following his schooling, Yorke decided that he needed to have a gap-year and see if he could make it as a musician but, during this period, he nearly lost his life in a horrific car accident which seemed to have altered his world-view. He was no longer in a rush to make it as a professional and, instead, just wanted to enjoy life.
Around this time, On A Friday decided to turn down a deal with Island Records, one which they were offered off the back of just one demo. It shows unbridled confidence in a band, one that foresaw the brilliance from an early age. In late 1988, Yorke left Oxford to study English and Fine Arts at the University of Exeter, which put On a Friday on hiatus aside from rehearsals during breaks until they came back reinvigorated in 1991 following their graduations. These three years he spent in Exeter, he would later credit for “creatively preparing” him for his later work and more importantly he met his future wife Rachel Owen.
A mere few months after graduating from University, On A Friday were snapped up by Parlophone Records but on the condition that they changed their name and alas, Radiohead was born. A year later after incessant touring, they released their debut record Pablo Honey to modest fanfare, it charted at 25 in the UK but the idea that they would go on to become one of the defining acts of their era and beyond even Radiohead would have been seen as farcical.
During this period, Yorke was struggling mentally and was drinking heavily, to the point where he was often becoming too inebriated to perform which saw him become a burden on his bandmates. This was coupled with ‘Creep’ becoming bigger than the band after it emerged as an underground hit in the United States, one which can be traced back to one Californian college who added the song to a radio playlist in San Francisco. A censored version of the number was then released to radio stations and, gradually, it became an American alt-rock anthem.
This success was hard for Yorke to deal with and, by his own admission, “When I got back to Oxford I was unbearable. As soon as you get any success you disappear up your own arse,” he once honestly stated. He put on a carefree, rockstar persona but underneath the facade, he was struggling with the label’s pressure on him to create another ‘Creep’ for their second album.
The Bends would turn out to be a masterpiece that eclipsed Pablo Honey and opened up yet more doors for Radiohead as they quickly became one of the biggest bands on both sides of the Atlantic. 1997’s OK Computer would achieve even more critical acclaim and stronger sales but Yorke was still uneasy about the success, which he never once pined for.
Shortly after, Radiohead then dramatically switched up their sound for their next albums, Kid A, which was released in 2000 and 2001’s Amnesiac which saw them tear up the rulebook, leaving guitar music at the door and instead opt for processed vocals, obscure lyrics, and using electronic instruments such as synthesisers, drum machines, and samplers. This ability to constantly change up their sound is something that Radiohead have continued to do throughout the 21st century, a contributing factor as to why they have cemented their status as one of the most dynamic groups that Britain has ever produced and they sit firmly in their own lane.
Yorke, it must be noted, has prolifically worked on solo projects as well as side projects, most notably Atoms For Peace which haven’t quite captured the same brilliance that he has done with Radiohead. These projects seem to rejuvenate Yorke, providing him with escape away from stadium-filling shows. It’s in these moments of creative downtime that he can go into these records without pressure, with absolute freedom.
The one thing that is most striking from Yorke’s career, is the number of times that he has shied away from successes, a move which ranges all the way back to On A Friday rejecting a record deal in 1988 with Island. To be as commercially successful as Radiohead have been without making any artistic sacrifices on the way is seemingly impossible, they even gave away their 2007 record In Rainbows away for free — which seemed like career suicide at the time but only confirmed their status as visionaries.
It is in that world alone that Thom Yorke remains, a visionary. A deeply passionate creative, an innovator, a pioneer and a genius artist.