With their dynamic second LP, Yorke, Selway, O’Brien and the Greenwood boys carve their own path to iconoclasm
Radiohead is often considered the last truly great and significant rock band; while that may be a bit hyperbolic and unfair to say, they’re inarguably among the most important, audacious, characteristic, enduring, and generally pleasing groups of the last thirty-plus years.
Formed in Oxfordshire, England in 1985, the quintet—who, atypically, have never had a line-up change—has displayed relatively unparalleled evolution and experimentation with virtually every sequential album, invaluably influencing subsequent artists both internationally renowned (Coldplay, Muse) and relatively niche (Anathema, Porcupine Tree, Mew, Sigur Rós).
In fact, it’s fair to say that the last rock ensemble to possess such an amazingly fast synthesis of chameleonic growth, self-assured direction, and superstar success was The Beatles. Looking through that lens, it’s clear that if 1997’s landmark OK Computer was Radiohead’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (a daring test of concept and sequence), then 1995’s The Bends—which turns twenty-five this month—was their Revolver: a more traditionally structured collection that arguably contains a stronger set of songs. Although they’d continue challenging themselves and their audience with ensuing statements like the electronic/post-rock persona of 2000’s Kid A and the ambient art rock leanings of 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool (their last new studio release), The Bends may still be their greatest triumph.
The Bends undoubtedly capitalizes on all of the potential and promise shown with 1993’s highly enjoyable (if somewhat generically grungy) debut effort, Pablo Honey. Having found moderate critical and commercial success with that initial record (due in large part to the popularity of its first single, “Creep,” in Israel), they entered the studio in February 1994 with extensive pressure to match those feats. Behind the scenes, producer John Leckie (XTC, Pink Floyd, Roy Harper) oversaw things while engineer Nigel Godrich and visual artist Stanley Donwood—both of whom worked on every consequent album—began their tenures with Radiohead.
Reportedly, vocalist/instrumentalist Thom Yorke felt cynical about the perceived commercialization and chicness of their newfound fame (including being known mostly for “Creep”). Thus, they ensured that The Bends—whose working title was The Benz—would be a more thought-provoking and wide-ranging declaration, with a greater emphasis on socially and politically dark lyricism and diverse instrumentation, such as more keyboards and sound effects. (Along the way, 1994’s My Iron Lung EP would represent the transition between the LPs that bookend it.) It was also a more collaboratively written project, with many of Yorke’s blueprints being fleshed out by drummer Phil Selway, guitarist Ed O’Brien, bassist Colin Greenwood, and multiinstrumentalist Johnny Greenwood.
Pressured by their label, EMI, to work quickly and issue a lead single ASAP, they became stagnant and frustrated trying to pick the perfect tune for the job (among other difficulties with the writing and recording processes). After taking a break and changing studios (from RAK in London to The Manor in Oxfordshire), they quickly resumed and worked quickly, finishing The Bends at Abbey Road Studios in November 1994. Obviously, “My Iron Lung” was the first song put out, respectively followed by “High and Dry” / “Planet Telex,” “Fake Plastic Trees,” “Just,” and “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” between February 1995 and January 1996.
Sales-wise, The Bends did respectably, to say the least. It reached #4 on the UK charts (compared to #22 for Pablo Honey), where it remained at varying positions for over 150 weeks. As a result, it was eventually certified Triple Platinum. Sadly, it initially only managed to peak at #147 on the Billboard 200 before dropping off after less than a dozen weeks. Thanks to some successful music videos and a tour alongside R.E.M. and Alanis Morrissette, however, it reentered the charts in February 1996, eventually getting to #88 and being certified Gold by the RIAA.
Press reviews were mostly positive, too, with praise coming from The Guardian, Q, Select, NME, and the Los Angeles Times. Many listeners commended Radiohead for setting itself apart from the burgeoning Britpop scene. In the years that followed, The Bends would become even more esteemed. For instance, 2006 saw The Observer list it as one of “the 50 albums that changed music” and Q ranked it at #2 in their readers poll for the best album of all time. (Oddly enough, OK Computer took the top spot.) Unsurprisingly, many other publications—such as Pitchfork, Paste, NME, and Rolling Stone—held it in similar regard with their comparable retrospective polls and rankings.
VIDEO: Radiohead plays Late Night With Conan O’Brien June 12, 1995
In the twenty-five years that’ve passed, The Bends has lost none of its powerful variety, investigation, and ambition. True, a few tracks—“The Bends,” “Bones,” “Just,” “Black Star,” “Sulk,” and “My Iron Lung”—would’ve fit well within the alluring DIY scruffiness of Pablo Honey, but even they demonstrate vast development in terms of melodies, production, and arrangements. (Plus, they show heightened poetic tact in tackling topics like narcissism, skepticism, and commodification.) Yet, The Bends’ greatest strengths are surely its perpetual dynamic shifts and sonic exploration. For instance, opener “Planet Telex”—originally called “Planet Xerox” and recorded while Yorke was laying drunk on the floor—is fairly straightforward and gritty, but it’s also more atmospheric and unpredictable than virtually anything on Pablo Honey. (Its wavering cosmic tones even foreshadow parts of OK Computer.) Beyond that, the album features several softer tunes—“High and Dry,” “Fake Plastic Trees,” “(Nice Dream),” and “Bullet Proof . . . I Wish I Was”—whose advanced songwriting and timbres (including strings and otherworldly effects) make them feel markedly different from the heavier parts of The Bends. Hence, Radiohead reveal far more eclecticism and maturity than they did on their debut LP.
Of course, there’s also closer “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”—formerly known as “Three-Headed Street Spirit”—which remains one of their greatest compositions ever. Inspired by R.E.M. and The Famished Road by Ben Okri, its complex interlocking guitar arpeggios alone are fascinating, forward-thinking, and gorgeously haunting. Alongside that comes both Selway’s cleverly patient percussion and Yorke’s devastatingly beautiful performance, melodies, and lyrics (“Cracked eggs, dead birds / Scream as they fight for life / I can feel death, can see its beady eyes”). The final chants, as well as Yorke’s final please (“Immerse your soul in love”), only increase its angelic weight, allowing it to also serve as a precursor to even more piercing and unconventional gems like “True Love Waits,” “How to Disappear Completely,” “Pyramid Song,” and the downright ingenious tragedy of “Videotape.”
Radiohead definitely grew more as songwriters, arrangers, performers, and overarching visionaries over the course of subsequent releases; nevertheless, The Bends remains wonderfully timeless, adventurous, and consistent, making it a clear contender for the quintet’s finest hour yet. After all, there’s something for everyone on it (which can’t be said to the same extent about a couple of later offerings); it continuously surprises and intrigues; and it prioritizes songwriting above everything else. Arguably none of their peers (or successors) ever reached such idiosyncratic poise and quality (especially so early on); although it was only their second turn at bat, The Bends illustrated why Radiohead were immensely singular.