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Radiohead’s The Bends 25th anniversary: gateway to the summit

Simon Kirk takes a look at the album which paved the way for Radiohead’s rise to the top, arriving during the hysteria of Britpop.

After their debut album, Pablo Honey, Radiohead found it hard to shake off the grunge tag.

Widely considered as middle-class Nirvana rip-offs, sonically, the argument was, well… plausible.

Attacking each individual members’ upbringing seemed slightly harsh, though – Radiohead have never hidden behind their advantaged youth or pretended to be something they weren’t. Unlike certain others of that era…

In terms of the British cultural landscape in 1995, even after their first tour of the United States in 1993 where Creep blew up and beyond, Radiohead were still on their own.

The sleepy-eyed bantam weight Thom Yorke looked like an anti-rock star and not in a partisan punk kind of way, either.

Ed O’Brien probably should’ve been following in the footsteps of his father as a doctor and if that failed, perhaps as a catalogue model for some backwater London agency.

The only shred of rock stardom was Jonny Greenwood, who – to this day – still looks immune to ageing. With that infamous striking mane of jet-black hair, he inherited the finest aspects from the Greenwood gene pool. The endearing nickname of his brother Colin, who is often referred to as “pumpkin head” says it all.

Philip Selway still had hair, too…

Yes, despite the attention of Creep and the endless touring around the world, there was still an air of ‘last kid to be picked for the kick about’ with Radiohead.

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While 1995 was a hotbed for hedonism in the United Kingdom, Radiohead didn’t get the memo. Their scepticism for a world verging on mass change held sharp prescience, with globalisation playing a big role in their landmark follow-up two years later in OK Computer.

Radiohead quite rightly harboured necessary concern that outweighed getting on the lash with “the lads” and subscribing to the Blair-era cultural zeitgeist.

The early 90s Madchester scene cultivated a golden furrow for the phenomenon that was Britpop.

Blur were well on the way to shaping a generation with 1994’s Parklife which followed their acclaimed sophomore album, Modern Life Is Rubbish. Blur were architects of ultra-life anthems that dripped with humour and irony. Music that talked to people.

And this was before Oasis broke onto the scene enhancing a new dawn Soccer AM culture.

Radiohead didn’t capture the imagination of the mass hedonistic yob customers that lived and breathed Oasis. Same could be said for Oasis‘ bitter rivals – the slightly more artistic yet still with an air of chest-baring arrogance in Blur.

Furthermore, Radiohead didn’t unleash blistering polemic outrage like the Manic Street Preachers and certainly didn’t touch on the glam sensibilities that Suede brought back to life during this period.

Even shoegaze was many worlds away by this point. In fact, shoegaze barely registered a pulse in 1995.

While the aforementioned 90s touchstones were immersed in the likes of The Beatles, The Clash and Roxy Music, Radiohead set their sights across the ocean to their transatlantic cousins, arguably having more of an affinity with Sub Pop artists like Mudhoney and of course Nirvana, alongside Jeff Buckley as opposed to anything conceived from their own backyard.

No, even when The Bends was released on March 13 1995, Radiohead were standing on their own. Merely an act for the socially gauche. You’ve seen the Charlie Brown meme. The notion still stands.

After all, Thom Yorke didn’t really stand a chance. When your modus operandi to the masses was defined as being king miserablist in a political climate where Labour were making big strides to topple 16 years of Tory government, then you’re kind of on a hiding to nothing.

In 1995, only the criminally insane could have predicted that Radiohead would outlast the above mentioned artists both with the volume of output and generation-affirming artistic expression.

And The Bends was a gateway for this.

The snarly anxious grunge coupled with the moody meanderings inspired by Buckley.

The Bends brimmed with saccharine pop melodies that collided with bone-raw vitriol.

Radiohead experimented with loud and quiet a lot through The Bends – a method that has served them well in all of their future recordings.

It was halfway between bombastic arena rock, breaking free from sweaty mid-range venues they found themselves years before. While the likes of Blur, Oasis, Suede and the Manics were very much plying their trade in these larger venues, Radiohead tentatively crawled their way to the summit via the back roads.

Textually, there is far more artistic depth at play during The Bends than its predecessor. Gone are the overt adolescent self-loathing trudges of Creep, replaced with articulate song-writing which saw Radiohead make their first giant leap in a career that has since seen many.

To be blunt, Radiohead couldn’t afford to make another Pablo Honey. From album to album, most artists’ barometer of maturity would have resulted in a severe reduction of significance. Or rendered most bands as obsolete. After Pablo Honey, Radiohead couldn’t afford to be most bands and The Bends profoundly illustrates that.

“The problem was, when we starting working on The Bends after all the touring we’d done, it was evident that we’d become a different band from the one we were two years before,” said O’Brien, and he was very much on the money.

After rehearsing in a discarded farm barn in Oxfordshire in January 1994, recording for The Bends commenced at London’s RAK Studios the following month.

The Bends marked a first and last for Radiohead – both largely significant slices of history for the well-read charlatans from Abingdon.

Firstly, it was the last record to be produced by anyone other than Nigel Godrich.

Godrich was the engineer on hand for The Bends, and indeed produced one song from it – the underrated melody riding splendour that is Black Star. However, John Leckie got the nod from Yorke to perform the main task from behind the studio glass.

It was also the first Radiohead album to feature Stanley Donwood’s artwork. Like The Bends, the cover art isn’t Donwood’s finest moment but it was the start of what has become a very rich history for both Donwood and Radiohead and in particularly, Yorke.

With the benefit of hindsight, like The Bends‘ overall sound (we’ll come to that later), the artwork doesn’t appear very Donwood.

After hiring a cassette camera, Both Donwood and Yorke went in pursuit of an iron lung, arriving at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital.

Ideas changed and instead, Donwood used footage of a CPR mannequin then digitally blended it with a photograph of Yorke. The end result? Well, it looks more like a sub-human specimen receiving oral sex. A very un-Donwood piece by future standards, but distinctive none the less.

John Leckie boasted one of the strongest resumes in rock music at the time and it’s said that Yorke took a shining to the The Fall producer, in particularly Leckie‘s soundboard twiddling on Magazine‘s Real Life plus work from XTC.

Leckie also drizzled the good oil on fellow Oxford band Ride‘s third album, Carnival of Light.

To describe Radiohead‘s three-pronged guitar line-up as siblings, Ed O’Brien was like the youngest where butter-wouldn’t-melt. A boy scout. Jonny Greenwood, the eldest, holding an unhinged debauched streak. Then there was Yorke – the nondescript middle-aged brother. The plodder who barely rocked the boat.

Behind the soundboards, Leckie captured the perfect synergy between the three, dovetailing their strengths and weaknesses to help shape the ultimate combat guitar record.

Yorke‘s less-is-more acoustic also breathed a new vitality into Philip Selway‘s drumming, which went from strength-to-strength and continues to be one of the most underrated facets of the Radiohead story.

What Leckie also brought to the table during The Bends were the guitar tunings which are a unique feature in the Radiohead discography.

For all the claims that The Bends’ sound is outdated, the fact remains that no other Radiohead album sounds like it. And that’s largely down to the tunings meticulously plotted by O’Brien and Greenwood with guidance from Leckie. You can just imagine Ed O’Brien spending hours and days on end to get that tone for Street Spirit. The circumstances most probably played out that way.

Having been in the studio for two months, tensions rose by April between band and record label while that friction began to seep into the studio between band members. Stepping in, Leckie decided to give everyone in the band some time off.

All except for Yorke.

This was the time where Leckie focused on Yorke‘s acoustic deliveries and this was an unspoken turning point in the band’s history on how to layer their meticulously plotted instrumentation.

Months later, the band occupied Richard Branson‘s Oxfordshire studio complex, The Manor, before completing The Bends at London’s Abbey Road Studios.

Planet Telex starts off the journey and instantly there is a noticeable contrast in landscape.

Written under the influence of copious bottles of wine – something the band seldom did and went on to discard – it’s the first time we hear Jonny Greenwood’s audible excursions beyond the conventional five strings and amp.

It’s a whirring ditty filled with juddering reverb and haunting atmospherics that tentatively dance with the dark underbelly of a distorted world. Ironically, it’s the only track from this era that could still see its way onto any future Radiohead record.

Said to be inspired by Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel Generation X, The Bends is everything you want from a title track. There’s anxious drama, shrouded with Jonny Greenwood’s swooping riff that descends on you like never before, even superseding his infamous guitar crack that illuminated Creep.

Yorke ends the track singing “Where do we go from here?/The words are coming out all weird,where are you now?/When I need you.”

It’s the start of Yorke’s journey as one of the finest song-writers of our time. Ambiguity crept into his lyrics, which later blossomed and has since been the catalyst for Radiohead being one of the best bands in the world.

High and Dry and Fake Plastic Trees, both singles, were a pair of big time balladeering reach-for-the-sky acoustic refrains swirling with razor-wire emotion and anxious energy.

Very much against the grain in the climate of 1995, however slow enough burners to influence a slew of early 00s British acts like Coldplay and the Manchester new acoustic movement acts such as Doves and Elbow.

Ironically, both tracks don’t look out of place on a late night jukebox that’s being hijacked by bevved-up boomers.

Fake Plastic Trees is the most emotionally fraught moment on The Bends. According to Colin Greenwood, the track was done in three takes where Yorke burst into tears afterwards.

The lyrics, ambiguous at best with Yorke singing, “Crack polystyrenenan who just crumbles and burns.”

It’s hard to imagine a track like Fake Plastic Trees and Just arriving on the same record, but somehow Leckie and Radiohead made it work.

Bones follows and is perhaps the most underrated track on The Bends. A song that Leckie couldn’t get right on tape, the track was mixed by Pablo Honey producers Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade who captured a resounding energy which made the final cut.

Colin Greenwood‘s druggy bassline gives Bones the required dirge-like framework. It becomes somewhat of a family affair, as his brother’s naked guitar freak-out hastily shakes off the remnants of grunge in favour for a full-on alt-rock assault.

Rogue brackets and all, (Nice Dream) continues the alt-rock traipse albeit with the welcomed introduction of meandering textures. Yorke‘s falsetto clearly inspired by the band’s new found love of Jeff Buckley, it has tinges of a Byrds-like chime with Leckie‘s atmospheric fairy dust sprinkled throughout for added finesse.

It’s a delicate lead-up to the guitar binge that is Just – a full on Jonny Greenwood blitzkrieg with his well-documented RSI getting tested to its limits. While most people will fondly use Just’s video (directed by Jamie Thraves) as a gleaming reference point, the song itself is a rampant riff frenzy.

Speaking about the track, Yorke claimed that it was “the most exciting thing I’ve heard us come up with on tape.”

Just is the true rebellious bastard child from all its other siblings on The Bends. A track that simply makes you feel alive and if ever there were a Radiohead cult tune then Just is very much that.

Lead single, the rasping rocker that is My Iron Lung, continues to be entrenched in the band’s pantheon as a firm fan favourite. In many ways, it’s the centre piece to The Bends.

Written on the day of the band’s cancelled Reading Festival appearance in 1993 due to Yorke‘s eviscerated vocal chords, along with Just, there’s a subconscious correlation with a particular future travail that would arrive two years later, Paranoid Android.

The seeds are sown of the artistic acrobatics of Paranoid Android and the two tracks bleed into each other as turbulent alt-rock wig outs.

Then there’s Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was. Like Bones, Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was is a sleeper track that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Where (Nice Dream) is a ditty that comes as advertised, Bullet Proof …I Wish I Was is a fragile lament through the mind of Yorke.

“Wax me/mould me/heat the pins and stab them in/you have turned me into this/just wish that it/was bulletproof/ was bulletproof.”

Radiohead did their best to self-sabotage success during the Pablo Honey era and Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was feels like a track conceived from these notions. It’s a close cutting experience and one of the most jarring encounters on The Bends and beyond that, from the entire Radiohead cannon.

Along with Fake Plastic Trees and (Nice Dream), Bulletproof…I Wish I Was confirmed one thing. Thom Yorke was indeed the new master of melancholia.

Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was fades into the beguiling Black Star. In fact, there may not be a better fade in from one track to another.

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Cloaked in 90s reverence, Yorke‘s vocal performance soars like never before. Its positioning on The Bends is interesting, a band reaching the glass ceiling and on the verge of breaking through it.

Penultimate track Sulk is one that many Radiohead fans see as a throwaway. Marginally harsh, but it could have easily slipped in through the back door on to Pablo Honey.

Still, there have been worse melodies and choruses committed to tape than Yorke singing “sometime you suuuulk” with his trademark falsetto on show for all to hear during a song inspired by the 1987 Hungeford massacre where Michael Ryan shot sixteen people, including his own mother, before turning the gun on himself.

It has to be said, though, Black Star, it’s not.

Street Spirit rounds off the album. Where the track is concerned, it’s all been said before, hasn’t it? Ed O’Brien‘s distinctive tuning and plucky arpeggios– a meditative riff which snakes through a medieval melody.

Street Spirit is the song that the bloke at the back of a Radiohead gig wants from the get-go and loses his mind when it’s presented. The very same bloke who probably hasn’t liked anything since The fucking Bends. Music fandom’s equivalent to a flat-earther.

Not a regular staple in Radiohead gig history and more of sporadically welcomed number, Street Spirit is an earworm that has occupied the consciousness of Radiohead fans since its conception from the vaults.

It’s moments like this where Michael Stipe quite rightly proclaimed that Radiohead are so good, they scare me.”

The Bends felt like a beginning where those who didn’t capture the flag of Britpop stepped back and realised that art in Britain during the 90s could be presented in different guises. Following The Bends’ release, this proved even more decisive with post-rock titans Mogwai bastardising the likes of Slint with a new brand of instrumental chaos with five strings and howling feedback.

Thom Yorke’s so-called tape committed misery was stretched even more by Jason Spaceman’s Spiritualized project and most notably, the era-defining Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space.

Even Primal Scream stopped trying to sound like The Rolling Stones and frazzled minds with Vanishing Point which was a utopia towards their most fruitful creative period.

There are countless other examples of music breaking the bulwark of Britpop, too, of course, and most of them weren’t spearheaded by the blithe debauched attitude which swept across a nation.

The Bends was arguably the last flawless guitar album. An album that provided angst-laden misery coiled around charming sonic interplay.

It paved that way for many British bands in the early 00s who arrived, had their fifteen minutes of fame and scarped shortly after. While Coldplay drew great inspiration from The Bends, particularly with their first two albums, Chris Martin has always lived in the shadows of Thom Yorke. Given their respective creative endeavours over the years, it’s feels quite remiss to mention the two in the same sentence. But there you go – art has a funny way of digging up the past.

Yorke’s delivery is his finest up until this point and while the world didn’t see what was coming next, Radiohead probably didn’t either.

It wouldn’t have happened had it not been for The Bends.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

One reply on “Radiohead’s The Bends 25th anniversary: gateway to the summit”

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