Radiohead’s Thom Yorke names his three formative heroes

Radiohead was formed by frontman Thom Yorke and four of his music-obsessed friends at Oxfordshire’s Abingdon School in the mid-1980s. In their earliest incarnation, the band, initially named On A Friday, sought refuge from belligerent teachers and fellow students in the calm sanctum of the school’s music room. Like most other haughty British private schools, Abingdon has been described as having a distinctly Dickensian atmosphere by its notable alums, comedian David Mitchell included.

As expected from a group of nerdy misfits in a Dickensian setting, the members of Radiohead are particularly fond of their literature. From their 1993 debut album, Pablo Honey, Radiohead were never short of inspired lyrics thanks to frontman Thom Yorke’s affinity for wordsmithery.

Among Yorke’s notable literary influences are the Beat writer William S. Burroughs, whose famous cut-up technique aided the Radiohead frontman when grappling with writer’s block; Dante, whose poem Inferno inspired ‘Pyramid Song’, and William Blake. Yorke’s old copy of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, in which he wrote some of the lyrics to ‘Airbag’ was found in a charity shop in 2016.

It would seem logical to expect one of these giants to surface if Yorke were pressed to name a literary hero. Alas, when, during a 2004 conversation with The Observer, the Radiohead frontman was asked to name his biggest heroes, the name Thomas Pynchon surfaced.

“All my heroes were people that didn’t really care how they looked and didn’t care about getting all the glory or whatever – they just got on with their thing,” Yorke said. “Like [the novelist] Thomas Pynchon. And Michael Stipe as well, because he enjoys it but he never smiles at all. [Noam] Chomsky is a hero of mine, just because I can’t believe that anyone has a brain that size and can lift his head up.”

The American novelist Thomas Pynchon has led an illustrious career writing fictional and non-fictional books that often hold a mirror to society and its myriad afflictions . Much like Radiohead’s conceptual masterpiece OK Computer, Pynchon is at home in a setting of dark, poignant humour.

Yorke also mentioned Michael Stipe, his R.E.M. counterpart, as his ultimate musical hero. The Radiohead frontman has long maintained that R.E.M. were one of the crucial influences on his early interest in music. Following Radiohead’s rise to prominence in the 1990s, he formed an important friendship with Stipe, who helped him through the initial stress of fame.

“When I was a kid, they were the link for me between the art student part of me and the musician part of me,” Yorke said during his 2019 appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. “Michael Stipe, the singer of REM, was my hero, and now I’m friends with him, you know? It’s an odd thing! He helped me through the end of that period when things just went crazy, and people started talking to me like I was Jesus in the street. I would call him and say, ‘I just can’t handle it.’”

Later in his 2004 interview with The Observer, Yorke added: “I feel extremely accountable to the people that I’ve been influenced by, in the sense of making a point of saying that they have influenced me. I don’t know, it just feels like the right thing to do. If people have been really affected by something, I think they need to know the source you got it from, because otherwise, you’re pretending that it came from nowhere when it didn’t, sort of thing.”

At the time of the interview, Yorke had enjoyed more than ten years of success with Radiohead. When asked what the ‘S’-word meant to him, Yorke answered: “Success is jumping around the room when you’ve done maybe 15 bars you absolutely totally know for certain works, and it’s what you’ve been looking for for six months, and you’ve only just found it. That’s success; that’s why you carry on writing stuff. Everything else is like, ‘OK, well, whatever.’”

When prompted to define what success means to him on a more personal level, Yorke admitted a notably sensitive side, which Stipe helped him to fortify. “Oh, just staying sane, really,” Yorke asserted. “Staying sane. I mean, I’m quite an absorbent person – I have quite a low shield, or force field or whatever, so I can get very affected by things around me. I just absorb things, and sometimes, it will make me go to a weird space for a week. But that’s part of being creative, I think.”

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