By Thom Yorke’s reckoning, Britain in 1995 was a mess: culturally crippled and socially “fucked over by the Tories” (his words), it was an era dominated by retro-necrophiliac rock and a jaded generation’s unrealised dreams.
So that March, his bookish Oxford brood put it to rights. ‘The Bends’ is a fraught, compassionate, violently disturbed rock classic that’s since rippled through everyone from Muse to Coldplay, from brass-tooting megastars to every lank-haired teen self-certified as a guitar maestro the moment they learnt to fingerpick ‘Street Spirit’.
Back in the mid-‘90s, the record hit home because it was everything pop needed at once: a flick-off to Britpop’s laddy orthodoxy, a melancholy hymnbook for alienated consumers and a rich, dreamy rebuke to Thatcher’s austerity politics, which patronised with aspirational slogans while obliterating the nanny-state arts funding that gives people a leg up. As a familiar social climate greets the record’s 20th anniversary, we revisited its twelve tracks to see how its antsy anti-anthems stand up.
12. ‘High and Dry’
Speaking about ‘High and Dry’, Jonny Greenwood once laughed that it’s a “really horrible kind of single, but in a nice way… one of those songs that people hopefully would be playing as soon as they learned guitar or something.” If the slight dismissal seems harsh, you at least see where he’s coming from. Recorded in 1993, this is the oldest and safest song on ‘The Bends’, signposting a Britpop back-alley the five-piece might have traipsed in a beige alternative lifetime, seemingly designed to keep tortured singer-songwriters at open mic nights occupied long into the next century.
Slated early doors as a lead single, ‘Sulk’ slid down the pecking order as the record shaped up in mightier proportions. By the record’s release, it was said to be their least favourite track on the record. But while its soaring histrionics and plodding 3/4 rhythms plant it in the dated tradition of stadium-baiting Britpop, it’s still some of the best, tricksiest stadium-baiting around. It’s probably never changed anyone’s life, which is as harsh a criticism as you’ll hear of the band’s post-‘Pablo Honey’ output.
10. ‘Black Star’
What ‘Sulk’ gave in reluctant anthemry, ‘Black Star one-upped in rousing compassion. The first Radiohead tune produced by then-studio engineer Nigel Godrich, its plaintive, R.E.M.-esque riff meanders along as Thom serenades a partner debilitated by depression. If his concern turns inward a little too quickly – “This is killing meeee!” he roars at the climax – it’s still a deeply touching tribute to sufferers of depression’s collateral victims: the people who love them.
9. ‘(Nice Dream)’
Half a decade after ‘The Bends’, Coldplay took Radiohead’s daintiest acoustic numbers and ran with them (or perhaps broke into a leisurely trot). One such number is ‘(Nice Dream)’, a drifting waltz so obscenely lovely you want to slide it under your pillow. But it’s the piercing, jarring jolts to reality, illustrated by clattering percussion, polluted strings and squalling guitars, that lend the woozy platitudes – “If you think that you’re strong enough/If you think you belong enough” – their disarming weight.
8. ‘Fake Plastic Trees’
7. ‘Bullet Proof..I Wish I Was’
One key mood that Radiohead nailed post-‘Pablo Honey’ was the resplendent yet gloomy feel exhibited across ‘The Bends’’ more atmospheric numbers; on ‘Bullet Proof’, Thom’s voice has the dozy wonder of a kid counting stars out the car window, and the foggy whirls and alien tremors gather together to lend a sinister edge to his vulnerability.
(Their inclusion comes thanks to producer John Leckie, who locked guitarists Jonny and Ed O’Brien in separate booths and had them play atmospheric swells without hearing the track.) Thom’s nebulous lyrics come into sharp relief when he sings “I could burst a million bubbles, all surrogate” – a coolly vindictive rebuff to the industry egomaniacs, which suggests his wish to be bulletproof isn’t entirely self-pitying.
As well as socio-political sickness, a defining quality of ‘The Bends’ is its obsession with physical frailty. By 1994, trampled by ‘Pablo Honey’’s international tour regime, the band had succumbed to exhaustion and illness; as Thom memorably told NME, “I’m fucking ill and physically I’m completely fucked and mentally I’ve had enough.” What makes songs like ‘Bones’ connect is their frenzied catharsis of that strain; hurled into the mix are hacked-up bile, half-digested Prozac pills and a fuck-it-all sense that, at least till the end of the song, we belong to something vaster than our perishable body parts.
5. ‘The Bends’
Named after the sickening sensation divers experience when surfacing too fast from the ocean depths, the record’s title track is an alienated and bitterly ironic invective against shallow celebrity and, in Thom’s words, “the bitter neurosis of our generation”, namely Britpop’s simple-minded ‘60s-worship. But the music, which is practically all-chorus, kicks hard against complacent cynicism, its unrelenting power-cascade crested by a soaring outburst of “I wanna be part of the human race”. Singing the line Thom sounds elevated, less interested in ‘Creep’’s grandiose alienation than a celebration of righteous outsiderdom.
Conceived when Thom challenged Jonny to squeeze as many chords as possible into a song, ‘Just’ has become emblematic of Radiohead’s sudden overhaul from greasy students to haywire pop stars. A twisted pileup of grungy guitars and perky John Lennon verses, it’s the best kind of carnage – rhythms shuffle, funk-bass pops and temper-tantrum guitars slash through the middle-eight like someone ruined their birthday. Lyrically it’s a simple perspective switch: what might have been an indulgent, ‘Creep’-aping “I do it to myself, I do” is instead directed outward – but even if it is thinly veiled self-scrutiny, Thom’s sneer is so deliciously vitriolic it’s hard to care who he’s shading.
3. ‘Planet Telex’
A claustrophobic swarm opens ‘Planet Telex’, which in turn kick-starts ‘The Bends’. Recorded in a hungover fug, it sounds less like a morning-after comedown than a new dawn, its seesaw shudders and skies-clearing pulses projecting a frantic, grandiose splendour that recalls ‘Loveless’-era My Bloody Valentine. Arguably the punishingly efficient song would be pretty so-so without Jonny and Ed’s intricate, buildings-collapsing adornments, but they make all the difference. The chorus beams out a new-era Radiohead manifesto that hasn’t really gone away: it’s not us, but everyone and everything else that’s broken – got it?
2. ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’
“It’s cynical and nervous, and it doesn’t make sense,” Thom has said of ‘The Bends’. “And you get the feeling at the end of it that something’s wrong, but you can’t quite work out what it is.” That uneasy intrigue emanates from ‘Street Spirit’, the record’s last single, which improbably wound up in the UK top 5. Full of desolate melancholy and nebulous lyrics, Radiohead’s black hymn is the sound of a surrender to unpindownable grief, the mysterious modern disease of mourning invisible losses – the declining environment, the international victims of Western excess, and the collapse of mainstream spirituality.
1. ‘My Iron Lung’
Listening to ‘My Iron Lung’, the album’s violently unhinged lead single, at once a future-facing statement and barbed kiss-off to their “life support” hit ‘Creep’, I’m reminded of Thom’s bratty riposte, in a 1995 Rolling Stone interview, to the “brighten-up” crowd who make his mood their business. “People sometimes ask me if I’m happy,” he said, “and I tell them to fuck off. If I was happy, I’d be in a fucking car advert.”
Sure, ‘My Iron Lung’ isn’t as pretty as ‘Street Spirit’, or as hummable as ‘Just’, but as a righteous racket to annihilate their misery-guts image, it borders perfection. Sounding both traumatic and traumatised, it tip-toes through effortlessly tense, queasy verses before cracking apart in an indignant squall, as Thom yells into the void: “You can be frightened… it’s okay!” The real message is more satisfying: Radiohead aren’t okay, and you might not be either, but feeling like shit never felt so life-affirming.
This article was originally published in 2015