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Back to “The Bends”: A Look at Radiohead’s Roots

Observer Scene | Thursday, October 2, 2008

Time Magazine lists “OK Computer” as one of the Top 100 Albums of all time, but Radiohead’s 1995 sophomore CD “The Bends” is truly an all-killer no-filler attempt on the band’s part.

As with most of the British alternative band’s other CDs, the enigmatic lyrics and intense energy in the first few distorted guitar chords of opener “Planet Telex” draw the listener in for the long haul, ready and eager to listen to the remaining tracks.

The title track follows with its classic rock guitar riffs and symbolic lyrics about decompression sickness. Though it never made it as a single, “The Bends” expertly captures some of the band’s sentiments about its catapult into fame.

According to Mac Randall’s “Exit Music: The Radiohead Story:”

“For their second album, Radiohead chose an extremely symbolic title… Radiohead rose too soon (due to the success of ‘Creep,’ which they were hardly prepared for) and had to suffer the unpleasant consequences (critical backlash, record company pressure, general confusion and dismay about how to continue meaningfully).” 

The Oxford-based band, originally named On A Friday simply because they held band practices on Friday evenings, was certainly unprepared for the fame they received from “Creep.” Yet with “The Bends,” they managed to produce one of the most influential alternative albums of the 1990s. The intense build-up to the chorus of “Here is Gone” from The Goo Goo Dolls’ 2002 album “Gutterflower” has often been compared to “High and Dry,” “The Bends'” third track, for the ingenious guitar chord progressions.

“Fake Plastic Trees” is a beautiful 90s ballad and its ghost-like keyboard sounds and soft guitar chords in the beginning build up to an emotional chorus toward the end with intense percussion, loud distorted guitar chords, and passionate vocals. According to Green Plastic, a Radiohead fan site, Thom Yorke claimed that he recorded the vocals about mass marketing and mass consumption in just two takes, immediately after seeing Jeff Buckley perform at Long Wong’s in Tempe, Ariz.

“The Bends” continues to excel with such killer tracks as “Just,” a song chock full of guitar chords and lyrics about an argument between Yorke and a narcissistic friend.  “My Iron Lung” immediately follows; a track about the band’s reaction to the unexpected success of “Creep.” Here, the iron lung serves as a metaphor for both the sustaining and constraint of the band’s musical career. 

The album concludes with “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” a soft peaceful melody contrasted with dark and mysterious lyrics.

Despite the immense success of “Creep” in 1993, many people were ready to write Radiohead off as simply a flash in the pan and place the song in with Beck’s “Loser” and a slew of other self-deprecating anthems of the post-grunge generation.  In spite of poor expectations, “The Bends” marked a clear shift in musical style for the British alternative band from the traditional, introspective, upbeat rock heard in 1993’s “Pablo Honey” to more experimental art rock with an inventive sound and global themes.  The trend of shifting musical styles continued with each successive album, which allowed Radiohead to mature and develop not only a more adult sound, but also innovative music that no one had previously conceived.

Contact Alexandra Kilpatrick at [email protected]