Radiohead is one of the most accomplished alt-rock bands of the 90s to the early 21st century. This quintet made some of the most majestic music of the post-modern era. They brought experimental music to the world that incorporated adventurous electronics in intellectual rock. Radiohead became something more than a band – a touchstone for everything fearless and bold when it comes to rock music.
Formation and Early History
The members of Radiohead met while attending Abingdon School in Oxfordshire, England. Guitarist Ed O’Brien and drummer Philip Selwey were the eldest, followed by a year by vocalist and guitarist Thom York and bassist Colin Greenwood. These four musicians began playing together in 1985, calling their band On A Friday, and eventually, they added Colin’s younger brother Jonny Greenwood as a multi-instrumentalist.
By 1987, everyone but Jonny has left for university, where most of them pursued music. The quintet reunited in 1991 and started doing gigs regularly in Oxford. As they performed in gigs, record labels and producers became interested. The band ended up signing a six-album recording contract with EMI and granted the label’s request to change their name to Radiohead.
The band got the name “Radiohead” from a song titled “Radio Head,” which was released by the American rock band Talking Heads in 1986. Besides Radiohead, there were also other bands that got their names from popular songs. Check out our article titled Popular Bands with Names Taken from Famous Songs to know more.
Radiohead released their debut EP Drill in 1992. Chart performance was pour, but with the release of “Creep” single, the band began to receive the British music press’s attention. Not all critics favored the song, saying “Creep” was too depressing.
When Radiohead released their debut album Pablo Honey in 1993, it peaked at #22 in the UK charts. “Creep” and its follow-up singles failed to become hits. However, the band began to attract listeners elsewhere. “Creep” has been played frequently on Israeli radio, and it became a hit in Israel. Radiohead was invited to perform in Tel Aviv for their first overseas gig. The song also became a hit on the west coast of the United States. By the time Radiohead went to their first North American tour in 1993, the song’s music video was already in heavy rotation on MTV.
’90s Critical Acclaim and Growing Success
Troubled by fame and overwhelmed by expectations to match the success of “Creep,” Radiohead’s members felt that they were helping to sell to the world. Radiohead released My Iron Lung EP and single in 1994, marking a transition to a greater depth they were aiming for. The EP’s sale was better than expected, suggesting that the band isn’t a one-hit-wonder, and they are actually building a loyal fanbase.
After introducing more songs on tour, the band released the album The Bends in 1995. The album featured dense riffs from three guitarists with more use of the keyboards than their debut. It received better reviews for its songwriting and performances. With The Bends, the band was finally successful in their home country. The Bends appeared in different publications’ lists of the best albums of all time, including Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2012.
In May 1997, Radiohead released their third album, OK Computer. The album experimented with song structures and featured ambient, electronic influences. It was the band’s first #1 UK chart debut, bringing them to commercial success worldwide. In the United States, Radiohead earned their first Grammy Awards recognition by bagging the Best Alternative Album and a nomination for Album of the Year. “Karma Police” was a single from the album that became the most successful internationally. “No Surprises” and “Paranoid Android” were also big hits. OK Computer became a staple of best-of British album lists.
A year-long world tour followed the album release, wherein the band’s performance was acclaimed, cementing their status as a major live act.
2000s Career, Change in Sound and Website Release
The success of OK Computer meant that there was no longer pressure from their record label, but tensions in the band became high when they began working on their next album. Yorke suffered from writer’s block, so the band only finished recording after 18 months. In October 2000, the band’s fourth album Kid A was released. It features a minimalist and textured style with more diverse instrumentation, trading concise hooks for jazz, and minimal arrangements.
Kid A got a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Album in 2001. The audience was divided about the album – some longed for the return of their earlier style, while some saw it as their best work.
Radiohead’s fifth album, Amnesiac, was released in 2001. It comes with additional tracks from the Kid A sessions. It topped the UK Albums Chart. It also reached #2 in the US and was nominated for a Grammy Award.
In 2001, Radiohead launched their sixth album, Hail to the Thief. The lyrics of the songs were influenced by the general sense of ignorance, intolerance, stupidity, and panic after the 2000 election of US President George Bush. It debuted #1 in the UK and #3 on the Billboard charts. It was also certified platinum in the UK and gold in the United States. Again, the band received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Alternative Album and won the Grammy Award for Best Engineered Album. After the Hail to the Thief tour, the group went on hiatus to work on solo projects and spend time with their loved ones.
Hail to the Thief was the band’s final album with EMI, and they began working on the next material with no record deal.
In 2007, Radiohead released their seventh album In Rainbows through their website as a download for any amount, including £0. This pay-what-you-want form of album release was the first for any significant act, making headlines around the world and sparking debates about its implications for the music industry. On the day of the album launch, In Rainbows was downloaded for about 1.2 million times. They explained that this new way of release avoids the regulated playlists and straitened formats of radio and TV, ensuring that fans all over the world can experience their music simultaneously. It sold fewer records but made more money for Radiohead since there was no middleman. Later on, the band launched a special “discbox” edition of the album, containing the record on vinyl, CD of extra songs, and a book of the original artwork. In Rainbows became Radiohead’s highest chart placement in the US since Kid A. It won Grammy Awards for Best Alternative Music Album and Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package in 2009.
As social media expanded, Radiohead gradually withdrew their public presence around the turn of the decade. Their popularity became untethered from the usual forms of record promotion, putting the band on the same level as Kanye West and Beyonce.
In 2011, the band released their eighth album, The King of Limbs, as a download from their website. While it debuted using the same online distribution system as In Rainbows, this time, they adhered to the standard pricing model instead of a “pay what you wish” system. The album featured more conventional rock instrumentation. It was followed by a retail release and a special newspaper album edition. The King of Limbs was sold for about 400,000 copies through the website, and a retail edition debuted at #6 on the US Billboard 200, and #7 on the UK Albums Chart. After The King of Limbs tour, the band went on hiatus again to work on their side projects.
By 2016, the band released their ninth studio album A Moon Shaped Pool, which was under construction since 2014. The album, which was emotive and densely textured, was released on Radiohead’s website and online music stores, followed by retail versions. It promoted singles, including “Daydreaming,” and “Burn the Witch.” The album became Radiohead’s sixth UK #1 album and peaked at #3 in the US. From 2016 to 2018, Radiohead toured Europe, North America, South America, and Japan.
In 2017, they released a 20th-anniversary reissue of OK Computer, entitled OKNOTOK 1997 2017. It’s a remastered version of the original album and features some B-sides and three previously unreleased tracks. It debuted at #2 on the UK Album Chart and reached #23 on the US Billboard 200. That same year, Radiohead was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the first time and was nominated and inducted by 2018.
Radiohead is one of the most famous British rock bands in history, and among one of the most influential ones. Here are some of the tracks that inspired and moved a lot of fans:
- Creep (1992)
- Fake Plastic Trees (1995)
- High and Dry (1995)
- Just (1995)
- Let Down (1997)
- Just (1995)
- Street Spirit (Fade Out) (1995)
- Karma Police (1997)
- There There (2003)
- Go to Sleep (2003)
- No Surprises (1997)
- My Iron Lung (1994)
- Lucky (1995)
- 2 + 2 = 5 (2003)
- Nude (2007)
- Jigsaw Falling into Place (2007)