You’ve probably seen a lot of essays and think-pieces this week about the 20th anniversary of Radiohead’s 1995 sophomore set The Bends. This is not particularly surprising. Radiohead is probably the most discussed, dissected and analyzed band of the past 20 years and The Bends is a lynchpin moment in their career arc.
It’s important to note that The Bends is the last album Radiohead that was released without breathless anticipation. Pablo Honey, the band’s debut album, was a solid if unremarkable record. “Creep” is a very good song, but because of its not representative of what Radiohead would become (and its status as “the hit single”), it is usually shrugged off as inessential in their grand mythology.
The Bends is often considered to be where Radiohead truly came into their own, but it also contains some of their most conventional guitar rock songs. After the runaway success and critical acclaim of OK Computer, an entire cottage industry of (mostly) British bands popped up that sounded a lot like Radiohead. However, for most of them, the album that they seemed to copy was The Bends and not the experimental noise pop on OK Computer. Little of what Coldplay, Snow Patrol, Travis, et. al became can be found on OKC (maybe “No Surprises”?) but their entire DNA is all over The Bends tracks like “Bullet Proof (Wish I Was)” and “Just.”
One of the turning points in the Radiohead story is their 1993 appearance on MTV Beach House. Yorke looks like he wants be literally anywhere else than playing this deeply miserable song poolside in front of impossibly tan and cheery people (They wouldn’t be the last sullen alternative band to seem uncomfortably out of place at that beach house, as Garbage would demonstrate three years later). The lyrics to “Creep” have never been more apt than they are here: “what the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here” indeed
In October 1994, Radiohead released the My Iron Lung EP. Its title track, which also appears on The Bends, is a thinly veiled attack on “Creep” and those who have dismissed the band as a bandwagon jumping one-hit wonder. The most direct lyrics are near the end of the song:
This, this is our new song
just like the last one
a total waste of time
my iron lung
– Radiohead, “My Iron Lung”
It’s clear that Radiohead felt stifled by the fact that no one was taking them seriously. It also helps that “My Iron Lung” is the first truly incredible song in their discography. Recorded mostly live in concert (in fact, it’s the same concert that was filmed for the band’s 1994 Live at the Astoria videotape) with minimal overdubs and crowd noise removed, “My Iron Lung” catches the band as looser and more venomous than they appeared on Pablo Honey.
Importantly, the My Iron Lung EP is the first time the band worked with Nigel Godrich, who co-produced the EP with John Leckie, who would produce The Bends. Godrich would engineer The Bends and would subsequently produce every recording the band did after that. He would become as important to the band’s sound and overall aesthetic as the actual members. His presence isn’t felt immediately on the EP, but he’s all over the full Bends album, particularly more experimental cuts like “Planet Telex.”
As the opening track to The Bends, “Planet Telex” does a wonderful job at announcing the record as something completely separate from Pablo Honey. The refrain of the song is “everything is broken” and although it’s a bit cliche to claim that people’s preconceptions of what Radiohead could do as a band were broken with The Bends, its certainly apt. The song’s tape loops and airy synthesizers are unlike anything the band had recorded before. It’s the perfect way to introduce Radiohead as a band of significant importance.
For casual Radiohead fans, The Bends is best known for its two ballads, “High & Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees.” These songs showcase Thom Yorke’s often cited admiration for Jeff Buckley and are as grand and sweeping as they are idiosyncratic. “Fake Plastic Trees” has no chorus and takes a while to build to its grand sounding finale. It gets there through several verses of character sketches, such as a “cracked polystyrene man” who used to do plastic surgery in the 1980s. Yorke ends that stanza with “But gravity always wins”, almost as a nonchalant aside to the man’s ultimately irrelevant occupation.
What makes “High & Dry” remarkable is that the recording that appears on The Bends actually dates back to the 1992 Pablo Honey sessions. It’s always been the most Pablo Honey-esque of the Bends singles, but it never once makes you feel like you’re listening to something that would be on par with “Stop Whispering” or “You.” “High & Dry” is carried by Thom Yorke’s soaring falsetto and giant guitar solo from Jonny Greenwood. It’s probably the record’s most famous song, but it doesn’t seem to be one that the band seems keen on revisiting. Yorke doesn’t seem very proud of it, and it hasn’t shown up in the band’s setlists since the late ’90s (even “Creep” has shown up in their setlist once or twice)
The other major ballad on the record is the final track, “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, perhaps the best loved and most critically acclaimed song on The Bends. For me, at least, “Street Spirit” is entirely carried by Yorke, who gives one of the best vocal performances in his entire career. For much of the song, his ghostly vocals make it sound like he is about to fall apart at the seams, and it gives the song an extra air of uncertainty. It’s aged better than anything Radiohead did before Kid A.
The record’s harder songs, “Just” and “The Bends” in particular, haven’t aged as well as “Street Spirit”, but they’re still essential and examples of just how good of a rock band Radiohead were before they gave themselves almost entirely to electronics for the better part of the 2000s . “Just” in particular is best known for Jonny Greenwood’s oddball modal guitar on the verses and it’s eye catching music video.
One of my favorite songs from The Bends era didn’t even wind up on the album; “Killer Cars” is a b-side to the “Planet Telex”/”High & Dry” single. One of many songs about Thom Yorke’s fear of cars – he was involved in a car accident in the early goings of Radiohead, and the theme pops up again on OK Computer’s “Airbag” – the song features a power pop chorus and ends with drum loops that, according to producer John Leckie, inadvertently inspired the loops in “Planet Telex.”
The Bends is one of the best sophomore records of the ’90s. With it, the band was able to escape the shadow of “Creep” as quickly as possible and with a cache of quality songs, it’s much more valuable than merely being the dress rehearsal for OK Computer. It’s an essential record for those that enjoy hooky guitar pop and want to experience Radiohead at their most accessible, as after OK Computer, Radiohead abandoned overtly guitar-centric rock music until 2007’s In Rainbows.
The Bends gives us an idea of where Radiohead was heading with its use of drum loops and experimental guitar tones, and it’s an amazing in its own right and one of the crown jewels of their storied discography.