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Music

Why Radiohead turned down their first record deal

@TylerGolsen

These days, Radiohead are one of the most critically adored and commercially successful rock bands in the entire world. But back in 1987, they were just school kids who were performing shoegaze-adjacent alternative rock as On A Friday. The members were students at the rigid Abingdon School in Oxfordshire, where the strict nature of the school provided little outlet for their creative ambitions.

According to Thom Yorke, it was through the school’s arts programmes that he and the other band members truly found their direction. “The music school and the art school was my sanctuary,” Yorke said on the Desert Island Disks radio show. “I guess I was really lucky. Two of these teachers – the head of the art department and the head of the music department – saw something in me and were incredibly supportive. You don’t realise until afterwards how important that is. I am absolutely convinced that if both those kind men, if they had not done that, I wouldn’t be here today doing this.”

On A Friday were playing gigs anywhere they could, but their ambitions were still mostly restricted to local pubs or small parties. All the while, the young members were recording demo tapes and preparing to move on to the new stage of their lives by attending university. But it was on the strength of one of the band’s demos that led Yorke and Ed O’Brien in to the halls of Island Records in 1987.

The two were presented with a potential deal from Island, but Yorke and O’Brien decided it wasn’t the right time. “It was cool, but neither of us felt mentally ready for what was going on,” Yorke explained. “I felt like I really wanted to go and study art, especially, and I didn’t feel like I was mentally ready to go and spend my life on tour.”

Yorke later cited the declined contract with Island as “the best decision I made.” He explains that “the art college thing just blew my mind and without those three years I wouldn’t have been creatively prepared for what happened after.”

Even through their college years, the members of On A Friday continued to rehearse and play shows, even if another record contract proved elusive. It was only when Colin Greenwood befriended an A&R representative at the record shop he worked in that On A Friday were offered another record deal. One of the stipulations EMI had was that the band had to change their name, and a quick scan of the tracklisting to Talking Heads’ True Stories provided a solution: Radiohead.

Listen to one of On A Friday’s earliest demos down below.