It’s common knowledge that Radiohead got its name from a song written by David Byrne called “Radio Head” that appears in the movie True Stories. What’s less well known is that Byrne wrote that song about Stephen Tobolowsky, a familiar character actor and raconteur whose signature role is Ned Ryerson in the classic 1993 movie Groundhog Day.
So what’s going on? Let’s start with the premise that Stephen Tobolowsky claims to be more than a little bit psychic. Add to it the fact that Tobolowsky is credited as one of the co-writers of True Stories, along with the playwright Beth Henley. So if nothing else, Tobolowsky and Byrne were hanging out a bit during the mid-1980s, while they toiled on this movie. (In the Nerdist interview, by the way, Tobolowsky says that Byrne threw out most of Tobolowsky’s contributions as a writer.)
In his college years, Tobolowsky more or less stumbled on psychic powers of considerable potency, if the stories he tells are to be believed at all. As he puts it, he developed the ability to “hear” or “read” people’s “tones,” that is, to intuit a whole lot of private and even situational information about a person just by being in the same room with him or her. One story involves blurting out that a quasi-mentor of his was living under an assumed name and that his initials were actually “M.L.” or “M.K.” (they were “M.K.,” in the event). He tells a couple more stories of that level of mind-boggling ability—stories that, if true, would cause quite a few skeptics to give up the argument entirely. Tobolowsky continues:
So my girlfriend Beth at the time thought, “We have a real money-making thing here! ... You know, we’ll have people pay a quarter or a dollar and have you read their tones.” She would round up people, bring ‘em in to the green room or whatever, and you would think it would be funny, but I would go, like, “Ah, you just got an inheritance and you want to know how you’re going to spend that money,” and they would get up and cry, and everyone would have these creepy, creepy, creepy feelings.
Beth loved me for it, and she thought, “This is so cool, what are my tones?” and I said, “I gotta quit doing this, because this is way creepy, and I don’t really like it.” So—while that nineteen furious days that we were working on True Stories, Beth says, “Tell David. Because David wants to put all these true stories in his movie, Stephen. Tell him the true story about you hearing tones.” And I said, “No, baby, no, I don’t want—” “No, tell him the story about you hearing tones.”
So I sat and told David the story of me hearing tones. And he looked and says, “You’re kidding!” And I said, “No, David, that’s really the story but I don’t do it anymore, I don’t like to do it anymore, it was too creepy, and I don’t like to do it anymore.”
So anyway—sure enough, a year later, David has written into True Stories a character that hears tones, and he wrote the song, that day he came over and played “Wild Wild Life,” he says, “Here is a song that I wrote for you, Stephen.” And we put it in the thing, and it was “Radio Head.”
“I’m pickin’ up somethin’ good…. Radio Head….”
So Radiohead got their name from the song David Byrne wrote based on my psychic experiences when I was in college!
There you have it. Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood and the rest of them named their massively successful band after David Byrne’s song, which was inspired by Stephen Tobolowsky, who once played Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day.
Curiously, Chris Hardwick used to be in a musical comedy duo with Mike Phirman called Hard ‘n’ Phirm, and one of their more successful numbers was a bluegrass parody song called “Rodeohead.”
Talking Heads, “Radio Head”:
Supercut of all of Ned Ryerson’s appearances in Groundhog Day: