Produced by John Leckie
Label – Parlophone
Broadly speaking, most fans, listeners and critics who heard “Creep” in 1993 would have naturally believed that Radiohead were a grunge act, worse still, a “Nirvana lite” novelty band. Understandably, Thom Yorke and fellow band members were horrified that they were being categorized into a movement they had no intention of being part of. Having returned, exhausted from cross continental tours, and with little motivation to play anything from “Pablo Honey” ever again, they ensconced to RAK studios awaiting the arrival of chosen producer John Leckie who was making the finishing touches for fellow Oxford band Ride, and their album “Carnival Of Light”. When Leckie arrived in February 1994, the band had a number of songs compiled for recording. Yorke cited that a major influence for the new record was the lyrics from John Lennon’s “Plastic Ono Band” because in his words “it makes you feel really uncomfortable.” For the singer and creator in chief, he felt that the consistency of his writing had to improve, be more complex, and musically more challenging than ever before. Given that Blur, Oasis and the burgeoning Britpop scene was ruling the charts it would have been understandable if the band had followed in the slip stream, however, their steadfast dedication to produce an album that neither reflected U.K. or U.S. trends makes “The Bends” a wholly unique experience. The resultant collection is a seismic sonic leap from its predecessor, a recording of crunching arena rock highs, tempered by sparsely acoustic intimacy.
1 – Planet Telex: (9)
An incredible introduction, that emphasizes the new ambition. The echoed piano and metronomic drum loop introduction shows the determined move away from “Pablo Honey”. Yorke recorded the vocal drunk, at 4 AM in the morning, which actually helps to support the dysfunctional story he’s telling. “You can force it but it will not come, you can taste it but it will not form”, he sings, over arty psychedelia and layers of effects for an exhilarating opener.
2 – The Bends: (8)
The title track was written before the release of the band’s debut and it’s the single moment where there’s a musical reflection of their cumulative past. It’s a rare moment where the band’s three guitar attack fully embark in a riff kicking noisefest that briefly recalls their unhappy grunge moniker.
3 – High And Dry: (8)
A song recorded in early 1993, “High And Dry” had been in existence since Yorke’s Exeter college days, and he had played the song live with his band Headless. It’s a simple acoustic ballad, supported by a pitch perfect falsetto from the singer, a sweet melody, and Jonny Greenwood’s inventive lead.
4 – Fake Plastic Trees: (9)
Another ballad, that initially bemoans the artificial sterility of rebuilt towns, particularly London’s Canary Wharf. In addition, Yorke humorously addresses the desperation by some for surface beauty, all played over a spacious arrangement and subtle violin and cello accompaniment. For all its restraint, it’s still both stirring and poignant.
5 – Bones: (9)
One of the unsung highlights of “The Bends”, “Bones” raucously pumps a crunching dirge to Yorke’s tale of exhaustion and a wish to “fly like Peter Pan”. The Jonny Greenwood rippling effect that comes from his homemade tremolo pedal makes for a fascinating sound.
6 – (Nice Dream): (8)
The parenthesis of the title reminds the listener that there’s a level of irony relating to one of Thom’s particularly dark dreams. Jonny’s arpeggio intro and aggressive middle section spread the necessary air of foreboding that threatens the hushed strings and gentle melody.
7 – Just: (10)
Radiohead have been masters of transition between downbeat verse and powerfully over driven chorus, and the silent pause before Yorke angrily sneers to an annoying acquaintance “You do it to yourself, you do”, is just perfect. Add to that Jonny’s ability to seemingly add another octave to the fretboard of his Telecaster for the frantic climax of the song. A classic rocker that made one realize that the band were capable of way more than “Creep”.
8 – My Iron Lung: (9)
Speaking of “Creep”, and Yorke’s continuing resentment to it, “My Iron Lung” is the middle finger salute to the song and those that categorized it. Recorded live, with crowd noise removed and Thom’s vocal rerecorded, drummer Phil Selway and bass player Colin Greenwood provide an ultra tight rhythm for a guitar attack that feels as contemptuous as the subject matter.
9 – Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was: (8)
Jonny and Ed O’Brien employed “the old Floyd trick” by running their guitars through a multitude of effects, to create ambient sounds over the song’s heartfelt fragility.
10 – Black Star: (8)
Radiohead pay significant attention to intro’s and outro’s, and “Black Star” is a fine example, with a grandiosity that highlights Thom’s poignant break up tale (although he often tells a different story during live performances).
11 – Sulk: (8)
“Sulk” is Thom Yorke’s response to the 1987 Hungerford massacre, where a shooting spree by 27 year old Michael Ryan left 17 people dead. Colin’s intricately descending bass line stands out, as Jonny plays matching guitar harmonies.
12 – Street Spirit (Fade Out): (9)
Many commentators consider “Street Spirit (Fade Out) to be the prequel for 1997s “OK Computer”. The song is built around an unmistakable guitar pattern that was put together by Thom and Ed, with Jonny providing harmonies again. Its haunting minor keyed arrangement with immersing strings, add a dreamy perspective as the record closes out.
In many respects, “The Bends” is a miraculous record. Not only did the band cast off their reputation as grunge wannabe’s; they laid the foundation for a magnificent career, and for better or worse, this record influenced Coldplay, Travis, Keane and many acts that would dominate the charts for the next two decades.
It’s a near perfect statement of intent; an artistic creation that satisfies both emotional and intellectual desires. Its place in British popular music is deservedly guaranteed amongst the best.