The enigmatic frontman for the U.K. rock group Radiohead, Thom Yorke set the bar by which much of 21st century alternative music was measured through a series of highly acclaimed and popular albums with his group, including Kid A (2000), Hail to the Thief (2003) and In Rainbows (2007). A reclusive figure in his personal life, Yorke opened his soul into his music, which bridged the gap between traditional rock-n-roll and electronic music with intricate, often politically inspired songs. The freshness of the band's sound, driven largely by Yorke's lyrics and soaring vocals made Radiohead one of the biggest rock acts of the late-1990s, due in large part to releasing two of the most beloved rock albums of all time: The Bends (1995) and OK Computer. Yorke himself appeared to shy away from the media attention generated by his band, focusing instead on his work both as a solo artist and with his group. His commitment to producing memorable music and the intensity with which he delivered it made Thom Yorke one of the most noted figures in 21st century popular music.
Born Thomas Edward Yorke on Oct. 7, 1968 in the town of Wellingborough, in Northamptonshire, England, Thom Yorke underwent numerous surgeries during the first five years of his life to repair his left eye, which had been paralyzed at birth. He eventually regained partial sight, but was left with a drooping eyelid. The condition left Yorke open for teasing by classmates who had already marked him as an outside due to his status as a newcomer at various schools; Yorke's father was a chemical equipment salesman, which required the family to relocate numerous times during his early years. Music became a solace for him during this period, most notably acts like The Beatles and Elvis Costello. He received his first guitar at the age of seven after responding strongly to a television performance by Brian May of Queen.
Within a few years, Yorke's family had settled in Oxfordshire, where he attended the prestigious Abingdon School for boys. There, he met future Radiohead bandmates Colin Greenwood and Ed O'Brien, who shared his growing interest in early alternative groups like The Smiths and R.E.M. The trio formed a band, On a Friday, which also featured Greenwood's younger brother, Jonny Greenwood, and Phil Selway. The band was put on hiatus in 1988 while Yorke studied at the University of Exeter. After completing his courses, the band reconvened in 1991, when, after adopting the new name of Radiohead (taken from a Talking Heads song), they signed to Parlophone in the U.K. and Capitol in the United States.
Radiohead released its first recording, the Drill EP, in 1992 to little fanfare. They soon enlisted the help of veteran indie producers Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade (Pixies, Dinosaur Jr.) to add heft to their full-length debut, Pablo Honey (1993), but it too failed to generated much interest beyond the British club scene. However, the record's first single, "Creep," a mournful paean to unrequited love anchored by backbreaking guitar crunch and Yorke's powerful falsetto, built a cult following on both sides of the Atlantic. Their sophomore album, The Bends (1995), boosted their status on the rock scene thanks to high-profile opening slots for R.E.M. and Alanis Morrissette tours, but it was their third album, OK Computer (1997) that truly minted Radiohead as bona fide rock stars.
Voted the greatest album of all time by the typically hyperbolic British magazine Q, OK Computer embraced a more avant-garde sound than its rock-driven forebears, with elements of ambient and electronica carrying hit singles like "Paranoid Android" and "Karma Police." It reached No. 1 on the U.K. albums chart and generated the first Grammy for Best Alternative Album. But the success was hard-fought: all five members of the band had divergent ideas about the record's direction, with Yorke winning most arguments by sheer volume. A Grammy-nominated documentary, "Meeting People is Easy" (1998) also underscored the toll of non-stop media attention upon the band, which came close to breaking up during the period, while Yorke himself appeared to approach a nervous collapse.
Yorke struggled with writer's block during the early phases of the band's fourth album, Kid A (2000). To alleviate the problem, he adopted a more abstract style of songwriting, while the band diverged even further from traditional rock music by favoring electronic beats, eclectic instruments, and jazz and classical song structures over guitar-based rock. Despite the deliberate lack of a single or accompanying music video, Kid A was a worldwide success, providing Radiohead with their first chart-topping album in America, as well as a second Grammy for Best Alternative Album. However, not every listener was swayed by the band's new direction, which generated an equal amount of condemnation from fans. A follow-up, Amnesiac (2001), comprised of additional tracks from the Kid A sessions, spurred similar reactions.
The band would continue to merge rock and electronica, with varied results, on their next three records: the politically charged Hail to the Thief (2003), which earned a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album; In Rainbows (2007), which was initially sold in a "pay what you want" format through the band's website, and later won the 2009 Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album; and The King of Limbs (2011), which became Radiohead's first to debut below the top spot on the U.K. charts since The Bends. Between releases for his band, Yorke worked on a variety of solo projects, both under his own name and in collaboration with other top musicians. His first solo effort, Eraser (2006), received near-universal acclaim, as well as nominations for both the Grammy and the Mercury Prize. Three years later, he teamed with Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and R.E.M. drummer Joey Waronker to form Atoms for Peace, which toured briefly through the United States in 2010 before beginning work on an album.
By Paul Gaita