Twenty years on, ‘The Bends’ is remembered as Radiohead’s first great album: a nuanced, searing indictment of capitalism and cynicism. But as Jazz Monroe discovers, a toxic fug of label pressure, frustrating sessions and their conflicting relationship with fame made its release some kind of miracle…
March 1993, Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv. Rolling onto the warm tarmac is a studious posse of musical oddballs, most of whom have never left the UK, let alone Europe. A month after the low-key release of their debut album, ‘Pablo Honey’, instead of the ripple of curiosity they’d anticipated, Israel goes nuts. At customs, officials request an a capella rendition of ‘Creep’ – their debut single, released to absolutely zero fanfare in the UK the previous September. As label reps shuttle the shell-shocked Brits between commitments, fans mob the EMI convoy and attempt to rip clumps from Thom Yorke’s blonde hair.
A week later, Radiohead readjust to stuffy Oxfordshire, wondering what just happened. It transpires that ‘Creep’ had a supernova effect on Israeli army radio station, Galei Tzahal. DJ Yoav Kutner, Israel’s answer to John Peel, would blast it three times an hour, sparking a Middle Eastern rivalry between the Oxford five-piece and Britpop fops Suede. “In England it was Oasis vs Blur,” remembers Uzi Preuss, then head of EMI Israel. “In Israel, it was Radiohead vs Suede.” The press earned Radiohead three headline shows, plus a primetime spot on the country’s only TV channel, miming ‘Creep’ on Israel’s version of Blue Peter. Flying home seemed a grim prospect. “It was like Cinderella, you know?” says Uzi. “The clock reaches midnight and they’re back to being anonymous.”
These days, with Radiohead recording their ninth album in total secrecy and shunning all press, it’s hard to imagine anonymity bugging them. But early on, the 20-somethings craved validation. So it was all the more galling when, even after ‘Creep’ dented pop culture when it was reissued at the behest of EMI in September 1993 (hitting the Top 10, becoming an international hit and being awarded Best Single at the 1994 NME Awards), the public dismissed them as one-hit wonders. Frustrated, the band conjured a new nickname for their world-slaying tune – ‘Crap’ – and they began to plot an urgent, meteoric reawakening. That meteor would be ‘The Bends’.
Nobody knows quite where it came from. Part of the record’s legend is its suddenness, the sheer moon-at-your-window size of it. But unlike their Britpop peers, Radiohead didn’t see hugeness as its own end. Where ‘Pablo Honey’ wallowed in grandeur, ‘The Bends’ weaponised alienation with personal-is-political conviction. After 16 years of Tory austerity, the record summoned a generation’s unarticulated despair. And yet ‘The Bends’ just wouldn’t be Radiohead without a mass of contradictions and an unfathomable mystery at its centre.
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In 1993, before they earned the privilege of despising fame, Radiohead despised the anticipation. Israel had flashed them their future, but back home, a punishing tour regime (including supports with PJ Harvey) threatened to demolish the band. “I’m fucking ill and physically I’m completely fucked and mentally I’ve had enough,” Thom informed NME upon cancelling a high profile set at Reading that year. Reportedly, EMI proposed a six-month ultimatum: get sorted or get dropped. But head of A&R Keith Wozencroft, who signed and developed the band, remembers otherwise.
“Experimental rock music was getting played and had commercial potential,” he says. “People voice different paranoias, but for the label they were developing brilliantly from ‘Pablo Honey’.” This became plainly obvious to Paul Kolderie, who had produced ‘Pablo Honey’ with Sean Slade. As those sessions wrapped, Thom played him a new demo led by ‘The Benz’ (they later dropped the car pun), a fame-weary anthem that fired shots at ‘60s-worshipping Britpop. “We’d been struggling to come up with material,” Paul says, “so I was a little shocked when suddenly he pops out a batch of songs that are all better than anything on ‘Pablo Honey’.”
Early in 1994, Radiohead moved in to RAK studios in St John’s Wood in north London to start developing arrangements for the songs that had appeared on ‘The Benz’. Every morning, Thom would brew some tea and start a four-hour solo piano workout. “New songs were pouring out of him,” recalls album producer John Leckie. “He’s an early riser, and at the time he had a lot of energy. You’d avoid interrupting him.” Over time, as tensions pinballed and sessions dragged, these private moments kept Thom sane.
Leckie was then most famous for producing The Stone Roses’ first album, but Thom had chosen him for his work on ‘Real Life’, Magazine’s anxious 1978 art-rock classic. EMI gave Radiohead nine weeks to record; panicking, they crammed in everything they knew. Jonny Greenwood paraded increasingly exotic instruments through the studio before settling on his regular Telecaster. Meanwhile, morale spiralled: manager Chris Hufford, tiring of Thom’s “mistrust of everybody”, considered sacking himself.
Thom described the process as “a total fucking meltdown for two fucking months”. As the deadline approached, Leckie remembers, the album was nearer being scrapped than finished: “After those first nine weeks, every song was on the line. ‘Creep’ was getting less radio play and they didn’t have a follow-up.” The turnaround came during a Jeff Buckley gig in Highbury. Inspired, Thom dashed to the studio and finally nailed ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ before bursting into tears. After a break to tour the Far East, the band returned to Richard Branson’s Manor studio in Oxfordshire. A week later, the record was finished.
Well, almost. EMI’s lead single pick was ‘My Iron Lung’, a lightning strike of a tune that poked fun at ‘Creep’’s success, with Thom sneering with sarcastic gratitude for its “life support”. But after six days at Abbey Road, Leckie still hadn’t nailed its radio mix. “Out of nowhere, we got a call, I think from Ed [O’Brien, guitarist],” remembers Sean Slade, half of the ‘Pablo Honey’ dream team. “And it was characterised as a completely back-channel communication. He said, ‘Listen, Leckie’s great but he’s taking a whole week to mix a song…’”
“Deadlines were approaching and people were freaking out,” adds Paul Kolderie. “So we did it in a couple of hours.” Sean insists there was no agreement to mix the full record; instead, as each Slade-Kolderie mix met rave approval, the label sent more. When management heard the finished product – featuring just three of Leckie’s mixes – they started jumping around the office. And what of the snubbed producer? “Oh, the final mixes are a bit brash,” he grumbles. “They’re kind of, ‘Zing! Look at me!’ Which I didn’t think the band wanted. I went through a bit of trauma at the time, but maybe they chose the best thing. It was just unfortunate that they didn’t tell me.”
For all the studio magic – the cushy ambience of ‘(Nice Dream)’, the buzzsaw shudders in ‘Planet Telex’ – what resonates is the songwriting, from satanic space-medley ‘My Iron Lung’ to one-listen-classic ‘Just’, with its haywire chorus and crafty Lennon-esque verses. As closer ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ unspools like a hymn, its last words echo the sensation of the music: “Immerse your soul in love.”
It’s late ’94, and Thom, with shoot-me-now eyes, is sitting for an interview with Deadeye Video. “I have a real problem with pop stars who work for charity, and say, ‘We’re gonna change the world,’” he says, dwelling on Live Aid-type fundraisers. “And places like Rwanda, where there’s a military government wiping out millions of people, where did they get the arms from? They got them from the West. We sell these poor little countries armaments, we make shitloads of money from them, they blow each other away, then we send them little bits of money to feed the starving. And I’ve never heard a pop star say, ‘Hang on, surely that’s what I should be writing about.’”
The interview is vintage Thom – he’s bright, passionate and just tortured enough. It’s easy to mock Radiohead as navel-gazing sad sacks, but critics who cried ‘misery guts’ upon ‘The Bends’’ release a few months later missed the point. If Thom’s outlook skewed apocalyptic, it also slammed the self-satisfied cynicism of so many weekend intellectuals. “I want to live and breathe/I want to be part of the human race”, he sings on ‘The Bends’, the flipside to songs like the broodier ‘Fake Plastic Trees’. The record endures because it doesn’t just reject fame, commodification and “fake plastic love” but also cynicism itself.
To fully catch the band’s drift, you need to wade into the murky world of capitalism. As the Israeli prophecy of all-consuming fame came true, Radiohead knew their huge success funded one runaway beneficiary: EMI. Getting heard by millions, the band grumbled, meant joining a dirty system, in which every record sale fuels and funds further exploitation – of the manufacturer, the environment and the invisible victims of corporate greed. It’s an impossible reality, and it complicates and deepens songs like ‘Fake Plastic Trees’, which tackle superficial consumerism – the way we mindlessly buy stuff to cheer ourselves up, blanking out the consequences. ‘My Iron Lung’ even conceded that Radiohead itself is a similar kind of commodity.
Problem is, even if Radiohead did manage to smuggle some healthy scepticism into the nation’s living rooms, corporate interests were way ahead. In the postwar era, capitalists cleverly reinvented modern protest using alternative lifestyle marketing. Keep eating meat, they’d reason, but go free range; keep consuming but recycle; keep visiting supermarkets but go organic. EMI’s mantra would be: keep buying music but go Radiohead. These minor acts of rebellion actually hindered real structural change, because it made us feel like we’d already done our bit.
It’s perhaps these conflicts that springboard Thom’s most illuminating quote about ‘The Bends’, a haunting peek into the darkness of ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’. “All of our saddest songs have, somewhere in them, at least a glimmer of resolve,” he explains. “’Street Spirit’ has no resolve. Our fans are braver than I to let that song penetrate them – or maybe they don’t realise what they’re listening to. They don’t realise that ‘Street Spirit’ is about staring the fucking devil right in the eyes. And knowing, no matter what the hell you do, he’ll get the last laugh.”
Shortly after ‘The Bends’ charted at Number Four, Thom told NME he’d be noting down “happy thoughts” to prepare for LP3, an as-yet-untitled juggernaut that promised to annihilate their rep as sulky outcasts, he claimed. Quizzed months later on his progress, however, he playfully conceded something of a lapse. “Nearest I got was writing about the colour of the sky in LA,” he grinned. “That particular day, it had rained the night before, and you could actually see the sky.” Disappointed, the interviewer asked if that was all. “Yeah,” Thom responded, chuckling. “That’s as happy as it’s got, so far.”