The Bends Turns 20
More than a year after they released The Bends, Radiohead spent their summer touring North America’s finer outdoor shed venues, opening for Alanis Morrisette. Considering the lordly spot Radiohead now occupy, that seems like a gross indignity. But they were lucky to be there. At least in the U.S., The Bends was not an anticipated album. It had no advance critical buzz, no earth-conquering first single. If people thought about it at all, they probably thought about it in the same way they might think about the second Primitive Radio Gods album: An “Oh yeah, they’re still around?” kind of thing. “Creep” was a double-edged sword. It established the band, and it also stamped them, with harsh clarity, as one-hit wonders. “Creep” may be a great song, but it also had the whiff of novelty to it, especially coming in the era when people were willfully calling themselves slackers and losers and such. And anyway, “Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand” was a great song, too, and that didn’t exactly make the world hungry for more Primitive Radio Gods. To the extent that Radiohead had a public image in 1995, it was as preening miserabalists, as moaners who needed to snap out of it. That’s reflected in some vicious reviews of The Bends from critics ranging from Chuck Eddy in SPIN (“Too much nodded-out nonsense mumble, not enough concrete emotion”) to Cher in Clueless (“Yuck! What is it about college and crybaby music?”). It took time for most of us to figure out that Radiohead were capable of making a classic. But Radiohead seemed to know it all along.
Stylistically, there’s no vast difference between Pablo Honey, Radiohead’s 1993 debut, and The Bends. In those two years, Radiohead got a little more florid with their guitar parts, a little less dependent on melodic Catherine Wheel guitar-churn. They became a little more comfortable messing around with keyboards, though nowhere near as comfortable as they’d soon become. Thom Yorke’s lyrics grew more abstract. Still, they were still recognizably the same band when they made The Bends. They were still drawing on grand British traditions of mope-rock and prog-rock and mid-period Bowie. They still deployed Thom Yorke’s unearthly falsetto as their deadliest weapon, saving it for the biggest and saddest moments. They were still a few years away from becoming out-rock titans, stars who stood astride the world and looked at it from an outsiders’ eye, using digital tools to express discomfort with digital culture. They were still a British rock band with big fuzzy guitars and festival-stage melodies. They could still, not inaccurately, be described as “crybaby music.” But something had changed, and that thing, I think, was their collective confidence level.
The Bends is an album from a band fully in command of its gifts, one who understands exactly what it wants to do. The album has a sense of scope, moving from tremulous ballads to holding-on-to-a-tree-branch-in-a-hurricane guitar-storms. It has a sense of pacing, with those peaks and valleys coming at the right moments. Even its sense of restlessness — “I wish it was the ’60s, I wish that something could happen” — feels perfectly planned-out. A lesser band would’ve used a line like that as a chorus; a less shameless band would’ve thrown it away for being too portentous. But the Radiohead of 1995 handled it just right, as a muttered-through-gritted-teeth aside, the sort of line you’d stumble across on the fifth or tenth listen. And it’s got one of the all-time great album closers in “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” a perfectly rendered slice of doomy, incantory psychedelia that made it sound like Radiohead could do anything. They’d go on to do everything after that, but “Street Spirit” remains probably my favorite Radiohead song to this day, its tension just barely contained in its beauty.
The Bends also finds Radiohead more or less in conversation with the other big rock bands of the day. As Phil Selway pointed out in our interview, they’d shared the Glastonbury second stage the year before with Pulp and Blur and Oasis, and they probably had more in common with Oasis, at this point, than any of the others. (The Bends is Noel Gallagher’s favorite Radiohead album, anyway.) Both bands were striving for transcendence through big, chunky guitar melodies, and both were clearly gunning for that bigger stage across the field. The Bends was Radiohead at their most commercially, as well as artistically, ambitious. They weren’t making music for the radio, exactly, but they weren’t pointedly not making music for the radio, either. Selway makes the point that the band, up in Oxford, were pretty removed from the entire Britpop phenomenon, but a song like “Just,” with its driving glammy grandeur, wasn’t that far removed from what, say, Suede were doing. As with some of those Britpop records, there’s a searching quality to The Bends, a what-do-we-do-now thing. Yorke had played a baby Cobain, more or less, in most of Radiohead’s Pablo Honey videos, and he and his band seem to explore the idea of how a big, adventurous rock band could and should sound after Nirvana left the world. And while the band had started picking up influences from rock’s outer edges — Selway mentions that Thom Yorke recorded his “Fake Plastic Trees” vocal immediately after going to see Jeff Buckley — it’s not like they were finding ways to incorporate Aphex Twin textures yet.
But if The Bends finds Radiohead in full-on rock-band mode, there are indications of what the band would become. It’s an album of firsts for Radiohead. It’s their first time working with Nigel Godrich, who would engineer the album and then go on to produce every other Radiohead album. It’s their first time working with artist Stanley Donwood, who would go on to establish the band’s visual aesthetic. And the moments where they mess around with strings and keyboards and guitar-tangles would foreshadow the adventurous things they’d do on OK Computer a couple of years later. But those are only hints and echoes. And so it’s more important to note that The Bends is the first Radiohead album you need to hear. Pablo Honey has a handful of great non-“Creep” songs, but it’s more a humble-beginnings curio. The Bends is the moment that Radiohead stepped up and willed themselves to become great. The fact that they were able to shake off one-hit wonder status by making an album like this is maybe the first real indicator of what they would become.
There are plenty of fans who wish that Radiohead had never moved on from that clear, grand, driven guitar-rock sound, or that they’d return to it one of these days. Maybe they still will; you can’t say anything for certain with this band. But even if The Bends is your favorite Radiohead album — some days, it’s mine — it works better as a crucial chapter in one band’s sprawling story. Radiohead’s restlessness — their drive to constantly find new sounds and ideas — is what defines them and what makes them probably the single most important rock band to emerge since Nirvana. In any case, as soon as Radiohead moved on to stranger sounds, a whole cottage industry of soundalikes popped up, striving to capture the same majesty as Radiohead had on The Bends. In a way, it might be Radiohead’s most directly influential album; there is, after all, no way Coldplay exist without that album. So there’s another first for The Bends: It’s the first time Radiohead moved on from a sound and left it for the rest of the world to process and adapt and devour. It wouldn’t be the last.
Now, some videos:
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