Publication date: January 2016
Radiohead occupy a unique position in modern music. I can’t think of any other band in the last 20 years whose every release is so anticipated, both by fans and the critical establishment. With their new album due ‘soon’ (because of course, Radiohead don’t do advance release dates anymore), the question remains, what will they do next?
It’s an enviable, almost unprecedented, situation for a band of their vintage to be in, to have the world still focused on your future rather than your past, especially when you have at least two albums in your back catalogue that are regularly referred to as being among the greatest ever made. For many people, Radiohead have not only captured both the musical and cultural zeitgeist of the past two decades, but their combination of melodic nous, sonic experimentation and cryptic lyricism also continues to be relevant today.
But how do you go about creating one of the best albums of all time? It’s obviously not something you can pre-plan (though many have tried), but I think a common factor is the urgent desire to do something different, for the band/artist to challenge and surprise themselves (and perhaps their audience). Good song craft remains vital, and it doesn’t have to be wildly avant-garde, but it involves a new way of looking at things, of making connections that haven’t been made before. And often, this desire for change arises from the circumstances the band finds itself in.
At the start of 1994, Radiohead were not in a good place. From the outside, it looked like they had already achieved what many bands spend their entire careers pursuing: a debut album with a global hit single attached and a headlining tour around the world. That single was “Creep”, a canny if uncalculated appropriation of grunge’s angst and The Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe”. But despite catapulting them to success, it would prove to be a millstone around their collective necks. Not only did they feel under pressure to match its success, but constant touring had burnt them out. It’s a situation that other bands have been in, and have invariably crumbled with the strain.
Yet Radiohead were different, and their response to the circus that had grown up around them is indicative of the reasons why they ultimately prospered. Other bands might have relished the attention and milked it for all it was worth, but Radiohead were demoralised by the promotional process because it forced them into a creative time warp where they had to play the same songs over and over again. This was anathema to five intelligent, privately-educated young men from Oxford who weren’t that interested in the rock’n’roll lifestyle, but were desperate to make new music.
This attitude would also help Radiohead to ride out the backlash against them in their home country. Having had the temerity to hit big overseas first, particularly in the US, they were treated with some suspicion by the UK media, especially defensive after the ‘grunge invasion’ of the early 90s. First Suede, and then Blur and Oasis were talked up as leaders of an incipient Britpop movement that would somehow restore honour to the indigenous music scene – already ‘tainted’ by international success, Radiohead didn’t fit into this box as far as the press were concerned.
Of course, it was exactly their status as an ‘international’ band unconstrained by borders that would lift them above the short-lived hubris of Britpop, and eventually see Radiohead go on to dominate the global rock scene by the end of the 90s and beyond. But even when they finally made it back into the studio to begin work on their second album, their progress was dogged by (the first of many) creative crises, with various recording sessions producing frustrating and inconclusive results. The template they had originally build upon was defiantly indie rock, but going forward, they were trying to capture a vibe that was both more universal and more personal, mining the past for inspiration while reaching out towards the future – it wasn’t easy.
The first release from the sessions that would eventually deliver ‘The Bends’ wrong-footed everybody. Their label had wanted the new album out by autumn 1994, but running behind schedule, Radiohead instead delivered the ‘My Iron Lung’ EP. If the ancillary songs suggested they had perfected the spiky but tuneful indie of their debut, the lead track was something else altogether, a thrilling yet uncomfortable slice of barbed wire tension and barely-suppressed hysteria. “My Iron Lung” grudgingly charted in the UK top 30, and I remember watching them perform it on Top Of The Pops, the queasy discord of its chiming intro and sudden bursts of angular skronk putting it completely at odds with the shiny happy dance pop on the rest of the show. It was also a stinging rebuke to “Creep” itself and the mindless promotional roundabout they had been forced to get on: “this is our new song / just like the last one / a total waste of time”.
Many saw Radiohead as being an unnecessary downer in the midst of Cool Britannia’s brightly-lit party, but when ‘The Bends’ was finally released in 1995, it channelled the spirit of the age more effectively than the celebratory but backwards-looking sounds of Britpop. The UK may have been in the temporary grip of a New Labour-inspired fever of hope, but Radiohead captured the underlying fears and uncertainties of modern life once the party was over. It’s the quintessential pre-millennial record, posing the question of its title track’s refrain “where do we go from here?” in a variety of different ways. It seems to anticipate the way in which our emotional lives are increasingly mediated by technology, and how this reinforces the artificiality of consumer society.
This sense of painting on a much bigger canvas than before is immediately apparent on opening track “Planet Telex”. A swirling intro solidifies into an echoing electronic throb, and it feels like we’re looking down on the earth from space, the fibre-optic veins of communication networks pulsating in the dark. Its slow bass groove and main riff have a world-weary swagger, but as with all of their pre-‘Kid A’ material, it’s Thom Yorke who’s at the centre of the song. A powerful and inventive vocalist from the very beginning, his voice now has a feeling of both authority and disorientation as he sings, “everything is broken”. He’s half-resigned, half-amused by the wreckage of late 20th century life below him (and perhaps fittingly, he recorded the vocal while lying drunk on the floor).
But it’s “The Bends” itself that shows how much Radiohead have come on from their indie roots. Its big, meaty opening riff embraces the rock motherlode, a two-fingered salute to the parochialism of most UK bands at the time. In fact, it reminds me of Queen, another British group who brassily flew in the face of perceived good taste (Yorke has cited Brian May as his first musical hero). But from this optimistic start, it drops down into a verse fuelled by paranoia and anxiety, Yorke curled in a foetal position and voicing the terror of Britpop’s inner child: “I wish it was the sixties / I wish I could be happy / I wish that something would happen”. The song careers through a series of peaks and troughs, both nailing nostalgia as the enemy of progress and finding another metaphor for coming up too quickly and being destroyed by the pressure.
If the first two tracks on ‘The Bends’ were a statement of intent about where Radiohead were heading, the next two were the twin Trojan horses that started to assert the band’s presence in the mainstream once again. “High and Dry” was released as a single in the UK just prior to the album’s release and presented a distinctly friendlier face to the public than “My Iron Lung” – it broke into the top 20, while in the US, it was the single that re-ignited interest in the album after it was initially met with little fanfare. It’s a deceptively simple, mid-tempo acoustic number, but some great drumming keeps the rhythm sharp throughout, and there’s an uncomfortable tension between the words, dissecting the pitfalls of fame, and the pretty melody. “Fake Plastic Trees” is slower and prettier, and even bleaker, but it also sounds timeless, and the way that its most intimate moments are haunted by a spectral shimmer of organ is just beautiful. There are big builds along the way, but it’s a curious form of uplift because there’s no resolution, just the achingly sad plea “if I could be who you wanted…” Both of these songs cemented an image of Radiohead in people’s minds as sensitive, existential troubadours, but the truth was rawer and less easily co-optable than that.
“Bones” starts like it might be cribbing from Nirvana at their most radio-friendly, but its explosive chorus is pure glam rock, a bludgeoning two-chord riff that’s both joyful and slightly unhinged. Short and to the point, it showed that Radiohead could go toe-to-toe with Oasis if they so desired. Side one (as was) comes to a close with “(Nice Dream)” and repeats the trick of lulling the listener into a false sense of security, the folky melody of its verses bolstered by strings in the chorus. But those parentheses tell us there’s something sinister in this reverie, and sure enough, a sudden cry of hawkish guitar becomes ever more shrill, urging us to wake up.
While many felt that ‘The Bends’ consolidated Radiohead’s reputation as a serious and somewhat dour band, there’s a streak of jet black humour running through their work that side two’s opener “Just” illustrates perfectly. Even the main riff is funny, a ludicrously ascending guitar run that Yorke claimed was the result of a competition between himself and Jonny Greenwood to get the most chords into one song. Its punky, funky groove and super-supple bassline show that Radiohead could cut loose in a way that eluded their peers. The much-feted video made to support the song’s release as a single also gives a good indication of Radiohead’s aesthetic at this point – Yorke shudders and twists like the bastard offspring of John Lydon, David Bowie and Ian Curtis, while outside a man lies down on the pavement and refuses to get up.
“My Iron Lung” follows next, the sickly ghost of psychedelia past, and then we get “Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was”, the album’s most tender and vulnerable moment, the violence of its language in contrast to the sweet sadness of its melody. Once again, it shows how Radiohead had learnt to distil a song down to its essence, making it all the more powerful and evocative. “Black Star” fades up like an approaching train, with Yorke finding himself in transit once again. His alienated stream-of-consciousness vocal builds towards a thundering chorus, apocalyptic portents invading personal relationships. It’s a muscular and relatively straight-forward track, but also one of Radiohead’s unsung gems.
However, if there’s a weak link in the album, then it’s the penultimate song “Sulk”. Initially inspired by the Hungerford massacre of 1987 that left 17 people dead, it harks back to the band’s indie rock roots with its arms-swaying singalong chorus, but even its turbo-charged middle eight can’t stop it from feeling a little anomalous in the company of the other tracks here. The fact that it was originally considered as a single shows how much Radiohead had changed course even during the making of ‘The Bends’.
It’s perhaps the album’s final song that really established Radiohead as a force to be reckoned with, its taut, pensive atmosphere and the way it seems to become more luminous as it progresses making “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” an instant classic. Based on a flickering guitar arpeggio and the insistent tapping of percussion, the song gradually builds in intensity. Yorke sounds like he’s channelling voices at a séance, a conduit for the spirit of the title, haunted by his own mortality: “I can feel death, can see its beady eyes”. Its spiralling, weightless chorus seems to offer some kind of consolation, but the overall effect is ambivalent and disquieting. It seems odd that this was a single, even more so that it went to number five in the UK charts, but the artful video (from future film director Jonathan Glazer) made to promote “Street Spirit” reinforces its supernatural charge, a strange aerial ballet in a trailer park, like some holding bay in limbo.
Despite strong reviews, ‘The Bends’ didn’t take off overnight, and still remains the band’s lowest charting album in the US. But as 1995 turned into 1996, and the fake war between Blur and Oasis receded into the background, an overwhelmingly positive groundswell of both public and critical opinion grew up around it. By the time that ‘OK Computer’ was ready to go, expectations were so high of Radiohead that they could release the six minute plus prog rock epic of “Paranoid Android” as its lead single, and still score a top three hit in the UK.
Is ‘The Bends’ one of the greatest albums ever made? It’s certainly one of the most pivotal, creating the blueprint for an entire generation of bands to follow, many of whom interpreted it in different ways. For the likes of Coldplay, Travis and Snow Patrol, it paved the way for the new sensitivity and a plethora of big alternative ballads, all falsetto vocals against acoustic guitars and strings. For Muse and a whole host of nu-prog bands, it signalled a return to operatic levels of bombast, but with a more savvy, alternative spin. Its influence also stretched beyond the rock scene, with groups such as Massive Attack using it as a spur for more guitar-based experimentation in their own music. And for singer-songwriters everywhere – from David Gray to Rufus Wainwright – it provided a new context for the type of impassioned, confessional songs they wrote, with Thom Yorke anointed against his will as the modern patron saint of soulful suffering.
But if we’re to judge ‘The Bends’ purely on the criterion I set out earlier, then yes, it clearly does qualify as one of the great albums. That’s not to say it’s perfect, but through a combination of circumstances, personalities and talent, Radiohead challenged themselves and came up with something that was different enough to effect radical changes on the musical landscape. And most importantly, ‘The Bends’ isn’t marooned in a specific moment in time – the songs still sound great today and retain their power to touch and intrigue us.
‘The Bends’ marked the start of a remarkable creative growth spurt for Radiohead, where for a while it seemed as though all possibilities were on the table. They may have slowed down a little in recent years, but the momentum they picked up from its emotional and intellectual breakthrough is what still drives them on today.