IMAGE CREDIT: Stanley Donwood
Radiohead – The Bends
THIS might not seem like it is directly related to...
IMAGE CREDIT: Icon/Lisa Bunny Jones
Scott Walker but, when paying tribute to him yesterday, I saw a tweet from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke - the Radiohead frontman expressed his sadness and stated how important Scott Walker was to him. It is clear that Walker influenced the band and, especially, Yorke. In some ways, when Thom Yorke belts out a tune and has that operatic tone, I often think of Scott Walker. In any case, that got me to thinking of Radiohead and an album I have not featured for a while. The Bends is my second—favourite album ever – behind Kate Bush’s The Kick Inside – and one that changed Indie-Rock in the 1990s. It was released on 13th March, 1995 and, in terms of progression, it was a huge leap for the band. Their debut, Pablo Honey, was met with muted applause and, aside from the epic Creep, there was not that much on the album that turned heads. Few expected something as rounded, confident and consistent as The Bends only a couple of years after their debut. There was a sense that Radiohead would not really survive that long and appeal much. They had some commercial successful but a lot of critics were writing them off after their first album. Produced by John Leckie and engineered by Nigel Godrich (who would go on to produce their albums hereafter, including The Bends’ follow-up, OK Computer), The Bends moved from the Grunge-sounding debut and incorporated greater range. There were more abrasive guitar sounds but greater melody, experimentation and stronger lyrics – perhaps more cryptic and developed than what we heard on Pablo Honey.
IN THIS PHOTO: Radiohead (circa 1994)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images/Press
Look back at the sort of T.V. focus Creep was receiving in 1993 and, since its release the year before, Radiohead were synonymous with this one hit. Many wrote off Radiohead because of the Grunge tones and felt that, in many ways, they were a British version of Nirvana. It is easy to compare Creep with Nirvana but, in many ways, Pablo Honey was ignored because many lazily linked Radiohead and Nirvana. The sudden rise and success got to the band and there were occasions when the pressure almost broke them up. Creep became this all-conquering monster and there were tensions in the band. Maybe it was the attention Creep was getting but there was this feeling that, unless changes were made and the band moved somewhere new, they would not survive at all. Armed with a batch of new songs and keen to follow up their debut, Radiohead began recording at RAK Studio and had a deadline of October 1994 to get the album recorded and released. The fact that it was only a year since Pablo Honey, it felt rushed and there was this pressure for Radiohead to follow up their debut with something superior. EMI were eager for the band to release their next step and they wanted a lead single out. Not sure which one that was going to be, Sulk, The Bends; Just and (Nice Dream) were all worked on.
The band was determined to make something different to Pablo Honey but the early stages were frustrating and tense. They were not sure which single to focus on and, in terms of getting a new sound, they were not sure what that would be. Their lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood grabbed some rented guitars and amps and tried out something a bit different. The band were trying all this different stuff but, when it came to progress, there was a bit of a stall. Yorke especially was getting tense and frustrated by the lack of development. John Leckie urged Yorke to record some songs on his own, on guitar, and see what came about. Throw into the mix the band had a tour scheduled for the summer of 1994 and it was clear that The Bends would not hit the shelf that October as planned. Whereas there was tension and uncertainty at RAK, the band then moved to the Oxfordshire studio complex The Manor and were making more progress. Recording ended at Abbey Road Studios and, after a long time of getting things together and making that next step, it looked like Radiohead were heading in the right direction. The Bends, again, has an American-influenced sound but it is not a Grunge-heavy album. Beautiful acoustic numbers like Fake Plastic Trees and haunting tracks such as Street Spirit (Fade Out) represent the leaps the band took whilst the more experimental and unique guitar sounds heard on The Bends and Just signalled they had entered a new phase.
There was a bit of Britpop flavour – tracks like High and Dry, I guess – but, away from the heavy celebration of Britpop, Radiohead were sort of outsiders. Their sound owed more to what was happening in America and, at a time when there was nothing quite like The Bends out there, Radiohead helped inspire bands with their mature and instantly affecting tracks. Yorke’s lyrics had a bit of the personal but there were more cryptic numbers and a wider look at the world. Interested in more than matters of the heart, Fake Plastic Trees addressed commercial developments and high-rises whilst Sulk tackled the Hungerford massacre – hardly the cheery jubilance of their Britpop peers! It was impressive to see a band, only on their second album, writing about non-commercial sides of life and producing this more mature, challenging and nuanced album. On My Iron Lung, there were signs that Thom Yorke’s depression – which would become more public – was starting to affect his songwriting. He still felt the pressure on the band and the fatigue of the last couple of years. That sense of weight would continue for a while – as the band became huge and there was pressure to tour – but, in terms of songwriting, The Bends represented a seismic leap! When it was released on 13th March, 1995 there were some who were very unkind and unimpressed! Some saw Radiohead these game-changers who created an identity after their debut; a band who were whipping something rawer and original into a Britpop-heavy scene.
IN THIS PHOTO: Radiohead (circa 1994)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images/Press
Others felt the album lacked depth and (The Bends) was overblown – most of the negative press arrived from America. Maybe, here in Britain, there was a need for something more American or harder: a sound that created a bit of excitement and changed the Indie-Rock scene. The different sound in the U.S. meant that, when The Bends arrived there, some were more tepid. This is how SPIN documented The Bends upon its release:
“The Bends is never “Creep”-like enough, but “My Iron Lung” (a late Beatles pastiche with surprise noise) and “Just” (which seems to swipe powerchords from “Smells Like Nirvana” by “Weird Al” Yankovic)come close. There’s more nice guitar gush (e.g. the sub-Tom-Scholz anthemic stairclimb of “Black Star”), but the rest of the album mostly reminds me of Suede trying to rock like Sparks but coming out like U2, or (more often) that hissy little pissant in Smashing Pumpkins passive-aggressively inspiring me to clobber him with my copy of The Grand Illusion by Styx. Too much nodded-out nonsense mumble, not enough concrete emotion”.
The Oxford-based band could have felt discouraged by some mixed reviews and, tucked away where they were, there was not an awareness of the true popularity of The Bends. Radiohead rose in popularity and, soon enough, The Bends began inspiring other bands. Against the more bombastic Rock of Oasis, the sweeping falsetto of Yorke – partly inspired by Jeff Buckley and Grace – changed minds and, with his Scott Walker-like beauty, this new idol was born.
Bands and artists were experimenting more with high-pitched vocals and more emotive songwriting – one can trace the birth and popularity of Coldplay to The Bends. It is remarkable to me that The Bends received anything of less than impassioned praise when it came out in 1995. It appeared there was this divide between the U.S. and U.K. and how Radiohead’s second album fitted in. A tonne of retrospective acclaim has helped push the album to more people. AllMusic, writing in 2011, gave their thoughts on The Bends:
“Pablo Honey in no way was adequate preparation for its epic, sprawling follow-up, The Bends. Building from the sweeping, three-guitar attack that punctuated the best moments of Pablo Honey, Radioheadcreate a grand and forceful sound that nevertheless resonates with anguish and despair -- it's cerebral anthemic rock. Occasionally, the album displays its influences, whether it's U2, Pink Floyd, R.E.M., or the Pixies, but Radiohead turn clichés inside out, making each song sound bracingly fresh. Thom Yorke's tortured lyrics give the album a melancholy undercurrent, as does the surging, textured music. But what makes The Bends so remarkable is that it marries such ambitious, and often challenging, instrumental soundscapes to songs that are at their cores hauntingly melodic and accessible. It makes the record compelling upon first listen, but it reveals new details with each listen, and soon it becomes apparent that with The Bends, Radiohead have reinvented anthemic rock”.
IMAGE CREDIT: Stanley Donwood
Whilst many prefer what Radiohead would create with OK Computer (1997) and Kid A (2000), I prefer The Bends because of the leaps from Pablo Honey and the fact that it hits me harder. OK Computer would bring more electronics and darker tones in but I love the fact that, in 1995, there was nothing like this in British music! Critics were fully on board by 1995 (in this country at least) and Radiohead gained fresh confidence. As this article from Popmatters shows, The Bends was the start of this immense and always-evolving rise:
“During the 20 years that followed the 1995 release of the Oxfordshire group's sophomore album, Radiohead didn't just become a highly acclaimed and popular band. Both of those descriptions are accurate, but they're also huge understatements for a band of this stature. With LPs like 1997's OK Computer and particularly 2000's Kid A, Radiohead became icons, rock gods to whom a sea of groups would aspire to. Kid A is often called the definitive record of the '00s; OK Computer regularly dukes it out with works like My Bloody Valentine's Loveless for the same title in the '90s.
This 1995 gem, while representative of Radiohead in a more nascent stage, is still chock full of the things we have come to love about this British quintet: clever guitar riffs, Thom Yorke's high tenor, and lyrics that capture the social isolation so common in a modern technological society”.
Part of the charm of The Bends is the mystery and the cryptic edges. There are so many subjects addressed but is there an overriding truth and theme? Diffuser asked the same questions:
“Peel away the levels and layers of ‘The Bends,’ and you’d still have a hard time uncovering the heart of the record. Its elusiveness is part of its appeal. ‘Creep’ was easily digestible within the post-‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ / ‘Loser’ landscape; the songs on ‘The Bends’ less so. They take some work and determination to penetrate their purpose and meaning. Even if you’re not sure what ‘Fake Plastic Trees,’ ‘Just’ and ‘My Iron Lung’ are about, their gorgeously rendered surroundings will pull you in. It’s challenging music but undeniably perceptive”.
The leaps and progression between Pablo Honey and The Bends was immense. Many did not expect such strength from the band. As Consequence of Sound said back in 2015 there was this sense of immense progression and self-discovery:
“So what do Radiohead’s undisputed craftsmanship and self-projection add up to here? After all, the one great theme of this work is that it’s thrilling because it’s just so unassuming. An acoustic-sounding guitar, bass, drums, and striking synth harmonically open up lyricism that creates new possibilities for improv. At the time, no one would have dreamed there was anything lyrical or lean coming from a band who two years prior wrote a song called “Anyone Can Play Guitar”. Yorke’s best lines sound less like they’ve been written with force and more like they’ve just seeped from a conversation or personal thought. “You can force it, but it will not come/ You can taste it, but it will not form,” he murmurs on “Planet Telex”. And later, “Everything is broken/ Everyone is broken” finds him flippant without apology, cerebral without warning. “All your insides fall to pieces,” goes the line from “High and Dry”; returning seconds later with a hurt soaked in passive bitterness, he sings: “You will be the one screaming out”.
Radiohead would create grander and more ambitious works but, considering they were on the verge of splitting after their debut album, it is amazing that they managed to produce something as complete and game-changing as The Bends! Aside from the opener, Planet Telex – which I maintain is a poor opener -, the programming is perfect. The Bends is neither top nor bottom-heavy and, instead, you get a great mix. From the title cut coming in second, through to the gentler and more emotive High and Dry and Fake Plastic Trees. Bones arrives and then, almost in the centre, comes another move back to the more tender and soft with (Nice Dream). In the opening half, there are those switches between raucous and intense to the gentler. Two huge hits are covered in the top half – The Bends and Fake Plastic Trees – and (Nice Dream) is kicked away by the mighty Just. My Iron Lung, keeping the quality razor-sharp then follows and, after two intense tracks, Bullet Proof ... I Wish I Was offers something introspective, sobering and heartbreaking. Before that can fully settle in, Black Star and Sulk crank the volume back up and, as we started with something uplifting and electric, there is a more spectral and devastating end: the gorgeous and brilliant Street Spirit (Fade Out). A brilliant album should start with one of the strongest tracks and, logically, end on the strongest.
Radiohead would have achieved that if they put The Bends as the opening number but one cannot deny it is impossible to follow Street Spirit (Fade Out)! It is a song that takes the breath and sort of drains you – in a very good way. So much ground is covered in eleven tracks and all of them are sequenced so that we get this nice balance of moods and textures. I bet Radiohead never thought, back in 1994, they would be able to create something as enduring and spectacular as The Bends. If you can grab a vinyl copy then do so. It is a wonderful album and, just over twenty-four years after its release, I do wonder whether another band has taken such a leap and, indeed, whether an album as good as it has been released. Many argue Radiohead themselves bettered The Bends but, away from them, I cannot think of anyone who can make such a claim. Listen now and it sounds fresh and inspiring. The beauty and range of Thom Yorke’s voice amazes whilst the band’s huge sonic variety and experimentation adds a huge amount of weight and story to each song. The guitars are unlike anything I had heard at that point and The Bends as a whole was a revelation in British music. It continues to influence musicians and that will be the case for decades to come. If you are new or familiar with 1995’s The Bends, go grab a copy of the album on vinyl, then you can hear the blood, sweat and fears…
IN THIS PHOTO: Radiohead in New York in 1995/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images/Press
IN a perfect, eye-opening way.