Radiohead: The Anatomy of isolation and loneliness 

  Rock music was what rap music is now.  The big thing.  From the 60s to the early 2000s, rock 

bands ruled the world.  From bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Jimi Hendrix 

Experience, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith to Guns and Roses, Metallica, Red Hot Chili 

Peppers, Nirvana and Green Days, these bands were as big as anyone. 

 

  Today, rock music has gone by the wayside.  There hasn’t been a huge rock act in years.  Rap 

and pop music rule the charts with country close behind.  The only bands that do extremely well 

are bands like Metallica and Green Day who have loyal fanbases and understand normal 

conditions can tour across the world. 

 

  There is another band that still has a huge following.  A band that has in a lot of ways 

transcended rock music.  A band that could perhaps be the best rock band of all time.  A group of 

musicians who bucked any trend that they could have been trapped in and have shown 

themselves to be artists. 

 

  That band would be Radiohead. 

 

  Radiohead formed in 1985 when singer and guitarist Thom Yorke met bassist Colin 

Greenwood, guitarist Ed O’Brien, and drummer Phillip Selway who were all in the same year at 

Abingdon School, a private school for boys.  Multi-instrumentalist Johnny Greenwood was two 

years below the four.  The band’s original name was On a Friday which was the day of their 

rehearsal.  Johnny at first played the harmonica and keyboards, but quickly was promoted to the 

lead guitarist.  According to Colin, the band members picked their instruments because they 

wanted to play together over any particular interest.  On a Friday even had a saxophone section 

at one point. 

 

  Despite not vibing with the school’s strictness such as being charged for rehearsing on a 

Sunday, there was a music teacher that the band really clicked with.  It was this teacher who 

introduced them to Jazz, Film Scores, Postwar Avant-Garde, and 20th century classical music, all 

types of music that would play a big part in Radiohead’s sound.  After creating a strong Demo,  

The band was band was offered a record contract by Island Records, but felt that they were not 

ready and instead went to University. 

 

  Even with everyone except for Johnny leaving Abingdon the band continued to practice.  Thom 

Yorke went to the university of Exeter where he played in a band called Headless Chicken.  He 

performed songs that would morph into Radiohead’s material.  This was also around the time 

that he met Stanley Donwood who would later create artwork for Radiohead.  It was not until 

1991 that On a Friday full came back together, sharing a home together.

 

  On a Friday played the club circuit in Oxford, gathering more attention from Record labels and 

producers.  The producer of Showdive and the co-owner of Oxford courtyard studios saw 

Radiohead play at the Jericho Tavern.  Not surprisingly he was impressed by the band and 

produced a demo for On a Friday with his partner, Bryce Edge and became their managers.  

They are by the way still Radiohead’s managers. 

 

  In 1991 Colin met A&R rep Keith Wozencroft at a record store called Our Price where Colin 

worked.  This proved to be a stroke of luck for the band as they signed a six record contract with 

EMI.  The first big thing that EMI did for the band was request that they change their names to 

Radiohead.  The name played homage to the sing Radio Head by the Talking Heads. 

  In 1991 Radiohead released their debut release, an EP called Drill.  The EP was six songs of 

demos and was released in May 1992.  It did not chart well.  Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade, 

famous for producing music for the Pixies, came on to work with Radiohead.  This is when their 

first hit single, Creep was made. 

 

  The story behind Creep is an interesting one.  Creep is about how Thom Yorke was pining over 

a woman that was going to his college, while he was in headless chickens.  A beautiful woman 

who he clearly desired to get to know, but was far too anxious to do anything about.  Apparently 

he would somewhat stalk her like a Creep.  One night he got enough liquid courage to go up and 

talk to her, which did not go well.  One day she came to one of Radiohead’s early shows.  

Johnny said that he was mortified to see her as they had never really talked outside of his failed 

pick-up attempt. 

 

  Creep is a self loathing song about a man who is desperate for a woman that he believes that he 

cannot have.  The song was at first an after thought until Paul and Sean felt that it should be a 

single and it sure enough became one.  At first the song did not do well in the UK with BBC1 

radio blacklisting it for being too depressing. 

 

  This did not stop the song from playing elsewhere as it became popular in Israel of all places.  It 

then began to get play on American college radio.  It eventually went to number 34 on the U.S 

Billboard hot 100, second on the U.S Alternative airplay Billboard, 20th on the U.S Mainstream 

Rock Billboards charts, and 39th on the U.S top 40 Billboard chart.  It even went to number seven 

on the on the UK Singles chart. 

 

  For the first time the world saw the power of Radiohead.  This was a single that their home 

country initially for the most part rejected.  They were told that their music was not good 

enough.  They were told that their music was far too depressing.  Yet, once it was released 

outside of the U.K, other people from different walks of life saw value in it and connected to it 

immediately. 

 

  Grunge rock was big, particularly in the U.S in 1993 when Creep became a hit.  The song and 

its vibe fit into well with Grunge music.  With Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots and 

others making names for themselves, Radiohead not only felt familiar enough to be accepted to 

American rock fans, but it felt different enough from the norm to stand out and become its own 

thing. 

 

  Once it did, it became a bit of a burden on the band, particularly Thom Yorke.  For years the 

band would not play the song as it became their anthem.  A song that in all fairness would not 

represent what Radiohead has to offer.  That just goes to show how much the song has resonated 

with listeners over the years.  At its core it displays what Radiohead is all about: isolation and 

loneliness. 

 

  Isolation and loneliness can be traced back to Radiohead’s chord progressions.  Their chord 

progressions down up, down up.  If music is an expression of emotions, then Radiohead are the 

masters of being able to convey complex emotions through the sound that they have, especially 

during their earlier years. 

 

  You have Creep here that has a 90ish sound.  But with a twist.  The song has a simple chord 

progression that is constant throughout the song.  Then of course the power chords in the chorus.  

The chord progression has this upbeat tempo that is brought down quickly at every turn.  The 

intro alone already is emoting in a way that prepares the listener. 

 

  Then you have Thom Yorke’s singing.  The lyrics in seem are so honest that it hurts.  In the 

song the lyrics are talking about how he finds her so beautiful, so graceful.  She is so special that 

he wishes he were special.  Because if he were special then he could be with her.  And then he 

sings in the chorus on how he is a creep.  How he is weirdo.  How he doesn’t understand why he 

is here.  How he does not belong here. 

 

  When you break it down, it is not that hard to see why this song is still one of Radiohead’s most 

famous, if not their most famous song.  While it may have looked like they had came out of 

nowhere to the vast majority of people, really they had been preparing for this for years.  

Working on their sound, lyrics and overall craft.  And Creep was the culmination of it. 

 

  With that being said, Creep was of course on Pablo Honey which was their debut album.  When 

Pablo Honey came out it was seen as a good start for a promising band.  No other song on the 

album made quite the same splash, however the album was still a good success.  Radiohead had 

arrived and they were only at the precipice of what they could achieve. 

 

  Their next album was of course The Bends.  Coming out in 1995, The Bends is a solid 

sophomore record.  After Pablo Honey, Radiohead was under immense pressure.  They knew 

that they needed to produce an album that would be a strong follow up to the their debut.  With 

Creep being such a massive success, they knew that they needed to produce more songs that 

would stick. There are two songs that stand out this time.  The first being High and Dry.   

 

  High and Dry is a song that Thom Yorke performed while he was with Headless Chickens ad 

going to the University of Exeter.  When asked about the lyrics, Yorke said that they were about 

"some loony girl I was going out with", but became "mixed up with ideas about success and 

failure”.  After the demo was deemed to sound too much like Rod Stewart, Yorke put the song 

aside.  Once is it was rediscovered; it was included in the album.  Yorke said that the record label 

pressured him to put it on the album even though he felt that it was a “very bad” song. 

 

  Evidently, a lot of people did not agree with Yorke’s assertion of the song.  The song went to 

17th on the UK Singles chart.  The song was 78 on the U.S Billboard Hot 100 and 18th on the U.S 

Alternative Airplay.  While not as huge as Creep, the song resonated with people and made a 

good impact. 

 

  High and Dry once again shows how Yorke and the band is able to lay it all on the line and 

create a wonderful combination of sound.  Yorke once again takes from his personal life and 

crafts a song that he feels is far too personal for the radio waves, yet that is precisely why people 

can get into the song.  High and Dry, similar to Creep, feels as though we are entering the journal 

of someone.  The emotional depth is overwhelming. 

 

  The other song that was big that came from The Bends if fake plastic trees.  Yorke attributes the 

song to be the product of " was "the product of a joke that wasn't really a joke, a very lonely, 

drunken evening and, well, a breakdown of sorts".  Yorke said that the song first came from a 

melody that he had :no idea what to do with". This differs from what he normally does of either 

keeping note "of whatever my head's singing at the particular moment" or forcing "some nifty 

phrases" he created on top of the melody, Yorke said that creating "Fake Plastic Trees" was the 

opposite. He said, "That was not forced at all, it was just recording whatever was going on in my 

head, really. I mean, I wrote those words and laughed. I thought they were really funny, 

especially that bit about polystyrene". 

 

  Perhaps there is a method to his madness.  The throw away songs are their biggest hits.  Fake 

Plastic Trees was 20th on the UK Singles chart and 11th on the U.S alternative airways Billboard 

chart.  Not bad for a song where the creation was not taken seriously.  While Yorke likes to 

down play the song’s meaning, the lyrics tell a different tale. 

  Let us just take a look at some of these lyrics: 

Her green plastic watering can 

For her fake Chinese rubber plant 

In the fake plastic earth 

That she bought from a rubber man 

In a town full of rubber plans 

To get rid of itself 

It wears her out 

It wears her out 

It wears her out 

It wears her out 

 

  These lyrics, while they do sound funny, have so much depth to them.  It is telling the story of a 

woman who is living a fake life.  She is surrounded by all her possessions in her life.  She got a 

man in her life and lives in what sounds like a bustling town.  Yet, it wears her out.  Meaning, it 

does not fulfill her. 

 

  Then, you have this: 

She lives with a broken man 

A cracked polystyrene man 

Who just crumbles and burns 

He used to do surgery 

For girls in the eighties 

But gravity always wins 

And it wears him out 

It wears him out 

It wears him out 

It wears 

 

  If Thom Yorke truly does find these lyrics funny then he has a dark sense of humor.  Here what 

we see is a woman whose man is broken on the inside.  He hates his late.  He tried to change 

himself for women when he was young.  But time has caught up to him and like his woman, it 

wears him out.  He hates his life. 

 

  Then, you have the last part of the song:  

She looks like the real thing 

She tastes like the real thing 

My fake plastic love 

But I can't help the feeling 

I could blow through the ceiling 

If I just turn and run 

And it wears me out 

It wears me out 

It wears me out 

It wears me out 

And if I could be who you wanted 

If I could be who you wanted 

All the time 

All the time 

 

  This last part goes into how she looks like a real human being.  When he says she tastes like the 

real thing, he is saying that she kisses like the real thing.  But their love is not real.  Their love is 

fake plastic love.  And it wears him out.  Him of course being Thom Yorke.  He wishes that he 

could be who she wanted him to be.  But alas, it is not within him to conform like that. 

 

  It is a beautiful song that once again demonstrated how Radiohead could pierce through the veil 

of everyday life and cut to the feelings that a great deal of the population has.  All the while 

being quite clever and delivering melodies that strike a nerve.  It is a delicate balance that has 

served the band. 

 

  So, The Bends was seen as a good follow up to Pablo Honey and Radiohead was already 

getting a lot of respect in the music industry and from fans.  If they had never made another great 

album again, they would be seen today as a great 90s band.  And there would be nothing wrong 

with that.  Only they did not stop there. 

 

  Ok Computer is what separated Radiohead from their peers and is what casual fans and people 

who do not typically listen to Radiohead think of when they hear the name Radiohead.  For this 

one they band decided to self-produce the album with Nigel Godrich, something that they would 

do for years to come.  

 

  Yet again, Radiohead decided to evolve their sounds, not having guitar centered music with 

personal lyrics.  The lyrics are more artistic and abstract.  The sound is more dense and layered.  

Overall, more experimental.  This record signaled a change for Radiohead that they would only 

delve in deeper in future albums. 

 

  With songs like Karma Police, Paranoid Android and No Surprises, Ok Computer has some of 

the best songs that band created.  While Karma Police is the only song on the album to chart in 

the United States, the songs on this album are perhaps the most timeless songs that Radiohead 

has to offer. 

 

  You just have to take a look at Paranoid Android.  The first version of the song was 14 minutes 

long.  Guitarist Ed O’Brien said this: "We'd be pissing ourselves while we played. We'd bring 

out the glockenspiel and it would be really, really funny”.  And there is a levity to the song that is 

there.  A fun vibe to it. 

 

  The origins of the song come from Yorke being in a bar in Los Angles and feeling 

uncomfortable around these people.  You have the opening lyrics which are: 

Please could you stop the noise? 

I'm trying to get some rest 

From all the unborn chicken 

Voices in my head 

What's there? 

(I may be paranoid, but not an android) 

What's there? 

(I may be paranoid, but not an android) 

 

  Here is a man feeling trapped in an environment that he feels as though he does not belong in.  

He wants to go somewhere else.  He knows that he is probably paranoid, but he is not some 

android like everyone else.  So, in essence, he is an outsider to the madness that is going on 

around him. 

 

  Then you have these lyrics: 

When I am king 

You will be first against the wall 

With your opinion 

Which is of no consequence at all 

 

  I love these lyrics.  They sound funny, yet they are insightful.  He feels as though that the 

people around him do not care about him.  He is pretty much a wall flower in the environment 

where he is.  But once he gets bigger (in this case, once his band gets bigger) then they better 

watch out.  No in the sense that they will fight.  But in the sense that there will be a shock to the 

system. 

 

  This song also showcases two amazing guitar solos by Jonny Greenwood.  I have played this 

song on the electric guitar many times, and that solo never gets old.  You can tell that they were 

all having so much fun when they made this song.  It is simply the culmination of all their 

influences and who they have become. 

 

  No surprises in a way also fits that bill.  Yorke came up with the song while on tour with REM 

in 1995.  He then presented the song to the band in a dressing room while they were in Norway.  

After working on the song, a glockenspiel was added.  Yorke said the "childlike guitar sound set 

the mood for the whole album" and that the band was aiming for a mood similar to the 1966 

Beach Boys album Pet Sounds. 

 

  Despite recording the song multiple times, they ended up using the first take of the song.  Yorke 

said: "We did endless versions afterwards (...) and they were all just covers of the first version. 

So, we gave up and went back to (the original).  Producer Nigel Godrich had the band play the 

song at a fast tempo, then slowed the playback and had Yorke sing over it, giving the song an 

“ethereal effect”. 

 

  Diving into the lyrics, you have this as the opening: 

A heart that's full up like a landfill 

A job that slowly kills you 

Bruises that won't heal 

You look so tired, unhappy 

Bring down the government 

They don't, they don't speak for us 

I'll take a quiet life 

A handshake of carbon monoxide 

No alarms and no surprises 

No alarms and no surprises 

No alarms and no surprises 

Silent 

Silent 

 

  You are stuck in your mundane life.  You have a mundane job.  You are stuck in the past.  You 

feel as though you cannot heal.  It is hard to be happy.  You are tired with your life.  So you try 

to make a change, but the government is just ruining everything.  Which makes you want to kill 

yourself.  Because, if you did that, then at least there will be no surprises. 

 

  If this song were on The Bends, the lyrics would have been more obvert and the song would 

have been more driven by an acoustic guitar.  Here we have Radiohead flexing the skills that 

they have built over the years.  On Ok Computer they are able to free themselves and allow for 

themselves to try something that is so different than what everyone else was making at the time. 

 

  And of course, we have Karma Police.  This is perhaps Radiohead’s most famous song.  Only 

Creep can compare with its longevity.  It helps that unlike Creep Radiohead will still perform the 

song to this day.  The title lyrics originated from a joke that they band had.  They would tell 

someone that they were going to call the “karma police” if someone did something bad.  Yorke 

explained that the song was about stress and "having people looking at you in that certain 

(malicious) way".  Yorke went on to say that "It's for someone who has to work for a large 

company. This is a song against bosses. Fuck the middle management!" 

 

  Once again diving into the lyrics, we have this: 

Karma police 

Arrest this man 

He talks in maths 

He buzzes like a fridge 

He's like a detuned radio 

Karma police 

Arrest this girl 

Her Hitler hairdo 

Is making me feel ill 

And we have crashed her party 

This is what you'll get 

This is what you'll get 

This is what you'll get 

When you mess with us    

 

  You have Yorke here calling out people for how they speak and how their hair is made up.  It is 

interesting to look at this through the lenses of what Yorke said.  Human beings are very 

judgmental.  We look at people and come to conclusions about them for even giving them a 

chance to show who they are. 

 

Then you have these lyrics: 

Karma police 

I've given all I can 

It's not enough 

I've given all I can 

But we're still on the payroll 

This is what you'll get 

This is what you'll get 

This is what you'll get 

When you mess with us 

For a minute there 

I lost myself, I lost myself 

Phew, for a minute there 

I lost myself, I lost myself 

For a minute there 

I lost myself, I lost myself 

Phew, for a minute there 

I lost myself, I lost myself 

 

 You have someone here who is at their wit’s end.  Feeling that they have done all that they can 

do.  And the fear of losing themselves in the process.  A common theme in Radiohead’s songs 

are how people are done with their everyday lives.  Dread is a good way to put it.  I believe this 

is one of the many reasons why Karma Police has resonated with so many people.    '

 

  With the success of Ok Computer, Radiohead made the shift from simply being a rock band to 

solely creating art.  What I mean by this is that they let go of the expectations of the public and 

only focused on creating music that they felt like creating at the time.  The first of this would be 

Kid A. 

 

  The band was burnout out after Ok Computer.  Yorke had ill, describing himself as "a complete 

fucking mess ... completely unhinged".  Colin Greenwood said: "We felt we had to change 

everything. There were other guitar bands out there trying to do similar things. We had to move 

on."  Guitarist Ed O'Brien had hoped Radiohead's fourth album would comprise "snappy", 

melodic guitar songs, but Yorke stated: "There was no chance of the album sounding like that. 

I'd completely had it with melody. I just wanted rhythm. All melodies to me were pure 

embarrassment.” 

 

  With new bands and solo artists coming on the scene who were clearly influenced by 

Radiohead, Yorke believed his music had become part of a constant background noise he 

described as "fridge buzz", and he became hostile to the music media.  When speaking to The 

Guardian he said: "I always used to use music as a way of moving on and dealing with things, 

and I sort of felt like that the thing that helped me deal with things had been sold to the highest 

bidder and I was simply doing its bidding. And I couldn't handle that."  Yorke suffered from 

writer's block and could not finish writing songs on guitar. 

 

  Being disillusioned with rock music and reminiscing about his days as a D.J in College, Yorke 

began to listen more and more to electronic music.  "It was refreshing because the music was all 

structures and had no human voices in it. But I felt just as emotional about it as I'd ever felt about 

guitar music." 

 

  Buying a house in Cornwall, Yorke spent his time walking the cliffs and drawing, restricting his 

musical activity to playing the grand piano he had recently bought.  "Everything in Its Right 

Place" was the first song he wrote.  He described himself as a "shit piano player", with little 

knowledge of electronic instruments: "I remember this Tom Waits quote from years ago, that 

what keeps him going as a songwriter is his complete ignorance of the instruments he's using. 

So, everything's a novelty. That's one of the reasons I wanted to get into computers and synths, 

because I didn't understand how the fuck they worked. I had no idea what ADSR meant." 

 

  Kid A was Radiohead’s first album that truly challenged their audience.  It took people by 

surprise as like Ed O’Brien they were expecting something more in the lines of a traditional rock 

and roll album.  This made the reviews mixed at first, but as the years went on, more and more 

people came to appreciate Kid A and it is considered one of Radiohead’s best albums. 

 

  Since Kid A Radiohead has released five more albums, all going deeper into being more 

experimental with their sound.  While this has certainly decreased their pop chart popularity, 

Radiohead is still one of the most well respected bands in the world.  Their last album, A Moon 

Shaped Pool, showcased some of the best songs that Radiohead has to offer like the official 

recording of True Love Waits, a song that had been one of the band’s most famous popular 

songs. 

 

  Radiohead is a miracle.  They never sold out.  They never pandered.  They always did what 

they felt like doing.  They left it up to the audience to be able to understand what they were 

doing.  They may have gone away from traditional rock music.  But hey, the way they go about 

things stills feels like rock and roll to me.

 

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