Thursday, December 13, 2007

[018] The Bends

Album: The Bends
Artist: Radiohead
Release Date: March 1995
Label: Parlophone [UK], Capitol [US]
Producers: John Leckie, with Radiohead, Nigel Godrich, & Jim Warren

“We’re too young to fall asleep
Too cynical to speak
We are losing it, can’t you tell?
We scratch our eternal itch
Our twentieth century bitch”
- from “My Iron Lung”

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Radiohead’s recent foray into internet programming, it’s that even your favorite, most guarded, genius musicians are still just music fans at heart; you saw the band and their now sixth-man producer Nigel Godrich spinning their favorites 12”s, smiles across their faces. It there’s a second thing you could take from the broadcasts, it’s that Radiohead are not the basketcase depressives that everyone thinks they are, especially singer Thom Yorke. And it seems to me that their new album, In Rainbows is the first one since…well since ever that felt happy, not to mention they didn’t attempt to ratchet the bar even higher. They’ve been doing that forever and a day, and this time they just wrote some songs, burned them on a CD, and slapped the internet up side the head with them. It’s odd then that I feel a cosmic connection between the new album and The Bends-era Radiohead. The reason I feel the bond is because the new album is a sort of return to Radiohead version of “Pop” songwriting, of which The Bends is a mid-90’s pinnacle. The reason the bond is odd is because where the band needs to prove nothing with their new album, on The Bends, they needed to prove everything.

If you were Radiohead in 1994, and you were getting ready to record your second album, you might feel like the end was near. “Creep” was such an unexpected hit that the fickle public might ignore the band the second time around – the story of the One Hit Wonder is well worn at this point – and I’ve seen first hand how dismissive the music business can be to artists they were trying to pimp out to you just a year earlier; imagine being the artist in question in that equation. In the US, Hip-Hop and Warped Tour Punk were finding their footing, and in the UK, it was the emergence of Oasis and Blur. Where could a band like Radiohead possibly fit in that landscape? The answer was that they were going to carve out their own little niche in the Rock world, even if it was going to drive them absolutely nuts, a place where grungy post-punk guitar distortion could coexist with soaring Queen vocals and ambition. Well before the recording of The Bends was under way, Radiohead let the world have a peak at their new direction when they released the My Iron Lung mini-album, containing a batch of forward-moving acoustic tunes along with the title track. The song “My Iron Lung” lays out their apprehensions with the music biz in one shot: “This is our new song, just like the last one, a total waste of time”. Sonically, they raised their game by performing a brilliantly comic social experiment, taking the skeleton of “Creep” and wrapping a new song over it. “My Iron Lung” laid out their newly focused three-guitar strike, a buzzing alarm clock for the Rock world that was preparing to sleep on them.

The Bends is one of the greatest guitar albums of all time, but not because of post-Van Halen pyrotechnics. Don’t get me wrong, Jonny Greenwood could rip a ferocious solo with the best of them, and he does in more than one instance here, but Radiohead’s trick is their depth of texture. By the time opener “Planet Telex” kicks in, you would’ve thought Jonny and Ed O’Brien had jumped on all their effects pedals at once, sending shards of sound flying in every direction. On stirring ballads like “Bullet Proof” and “Street Spirit”, they spin delicately ringing webs of arpeggios, while on heftier tunes like “Bones”, “Black Star” and the title track they build up walls of six-string beauty, only to have all the fun of swinging a wrecking ball at them. I’ll let you in on a little secret though – they got a lot of their ideas for The Bends guitar sound from R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. No one seems to remember that The Bends was very significantly written and recorded in the aftermath of Radiohead opening for R.E.M. on the Monster tour, and the influence is obvious. Just break it down: young band trying to find a foothold in the business of their art, and they get the chance to open for one of their idols, and not only that, they become fast friends, especially Yorke and Michael Stipe. You don’t think they tried to pick up every bit of advice they could? We all – and in ‘We all’ I mean the music nerds of the internets – put Radiohead up on this pedestal, and deservedly so, because they are the best band of the last decade and change; but their DJ sessions and choice of favorite songs to cover recently reveal a lot about how they treasure their album collections – a way that makes them mortal men. Shit, they probably had their notepads out on the side of the stage every night of the tour; the fact that the much-maligned Monster might have helped to birth the classic Bends is right enough for it to exist.

Now, I admit that R.E.M. was just following My Bloody Valentine’s lead and U2’s turn on Achtung Baby, but there’s nothing wrong with that, and Radiohead had the same ideas anyway, plus the same affection for the Pixies’ quiet-to-loud dynamics as Nirvana – like “My Iron Lung”, at least half the songs on the record have a explosive Rock freak-out section in the middle, but they’re never stale, proving Radiohead to be ahead of their peers even then. The other big influence on the band’s songwriting for The Bends was that their tour bus listening for that R.E.M. tour was Morrissey’s Vauxhall & I, which clearly had a subconscious effect on the more wistful numbers like the accessible “High & Dry” and the towering peak of “Fake Plastic Trees” (one of the best singles of the decade, with Yorke's emotional vocal recorded immediately after seeing Jeff Buckley in concert), even the swooning chorus of the sweltering hot “Black Star” (you know, the song that Muse has based their entire career around rewriting over and over). See, this is why I brought up the fact that Radiohead are just diehard music fans like you and I – I’ve always felt that The Bends was a purposeful tribute to their influences, mostly because they thought they might not get another chance to say thank you, if the music business black hole swallowed them up. The world is very lucky that The Bends is as good as it is and that it took hold by word of mouth, because one wrong move and we’d be suffering the further hits of Seven Mary Three while Radiohead would languish, misplaced on the flannel clearance rack with Toadies and Dishwalla and Dig.

Before I keep spewing overarching theories and opinions, I need to remember to talk about the songs. The Bends is a classic record because it is a perfect collection of songs, tunes so well written and arranged that they decimate the large majority of the guitar-oriented bands from the time period. 12 hits, zero misses, every one of these brilliant slices of Alternative Rock could have been a single, and half of them were, with “Iron Lung”, “High”, “Trees”, “Just”, and “Street Spirit” forming one of the greatest salvos of single releases ever unleashed from one album, with the latter three coming complete with iconic music videos that cemented Radiohead as not only potential stars, but as a band of survivors.

On “Planet Telex”, the rhythm section of Colin Greenwood and Phil Selway hopscotch all over the guitars, predicting the similar stutter-step they would do on Ok Computer’s opener “Airbag”. In the slashing title track, probably their most straight forward Rock & Roll song, Thom Yorke wishes it was the 60’s, but I don’t know why, because in the here and now is where his band accelerates away from the pack. Conversely, the quieter songs informed a decade-plus of British guitar Pop from bands like Travis and especially Coldplay; they can claim allegiance to U2 or whomever they please, but when they emerged, it could have been possible that their record collection consisted only of this album and Jeff Buckey’s Grace. In the movie Clueless, Alicia Silverstone’s reaction to “Fake Plastic Trees” is that Radiohead are “complaint rock”, which is completely unfair considering that would apply to Nirvana and dozens of other massive bands of the era, besides that fact that no matter what Thom Yorke is bleating about, he and the band do everything with such focus of vision, who cares how downbeat it is; their depression is even more glorious and palatable than Robert Smith’s. Even the “lesser” songs – the demolishing “Bones”, the psychedelic “Nice Dream”, the swinging “Sulk” – would be essential highlights in a lesser band’s discography; the notion that I’m referring to them as inferior seems ridiculous even to me. As the album closes, Thom Yorke’s awe-inspiring voice rising with the strings and soaring above the church-tower-bell-guitars of “Street Spirit”, you realize that, if my theory is correct, Radiohead recorded a fitting tribute to all their heroes while proving how much they really learned from them – not only does it rank among those bands’ greatest statements, but in many cases it surpasses them, and in that way Radiohead accomplished their goal, proved what they needed to prove, providing an aural delight for the next generation to one day pay tribute to.

01. “Planet Telex”
02. “The Bends”
03. “High And Dry”
04. “Fake Plastic Trees:
05. “Bones”
06. “[Nice Dream]”
07. “Just”
08. “My Iron Lung”
09. “Bullet Proof..I Wish I Was”
10. “Black Star”
11. “Sulk”
12. “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”

"Fake Plastic Trees" [video]

"Just" [video]

"My Iron Lung" [video/live in London, 05.94]
from the Live At The Astoria DVD

"Street Spirit (Fade Out)" [video]

- BONUS: "Planet Telex" [live at the 1997 Glastonbury Festival]
- BONUS: "Planet Telex" [live at the 2004 Coachella Festival]
From the 2006 documentary, Coachella
- BONUS: "The Bends" [live on Later with Jools Holland, 05.95]
- BONUS: "The Bends" [live in NYC, 1997]
- BONUS: "High And Dry" [video - US version]
- BONUS: "High And Dry" [live on Later with Jools Holland, 05.95]
- BONUS: "Fake Plastic Trees" [live in NYC, 1997]
- BONUS: "Fake Plastic Trees" [live at the 2003 Glastonbury Festival]
- BONUS: "Bones" [live in London, 05.94]
from the Live At The Astoria DVD
- BONUS: "Bones" [live in NYC, 1997]
- BONUS: "[Nice Dream]" [live & acoustic on MuchMusic, 03.95]
- BONUS: "Just" [live at the 2003 Glastonbury Festival]
- BONUS: "My Iron Lung" [live in NYC, 1997]
- BONUS: "Black Star" [live in London, 05.94]
from the Live At The Astoria DVD
- BONUS: "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" [live at the 1997 Glastonbury Festival]
- BONUS: "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" [live in NYC, 1997]

1 comment:

aaron said...

Great post, Radiohead is definitely one of my favorite bands. I wasn't aware of the Monster connection, but it see (er, hear) it now. I'll have to check out the other reviews here.

And hey, Black Star just started playing on my Pandora station... :)