The Bends: A Masterpiece Turns 20

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It was only a matter of time before this day arrived. Finally, 9 months after I started this blog, it is here – a post about Radiohead. As Friday 13th March 2015 marked 20 years since the release of their first masterpiece, The Bends, now is the perfect time.

Radiohead’s first album, 1993’s Pablo Honey, is by no means a bad record. It has some good pop songs, but it is largely indistinguishable from other releases of the time. Radiohead were seen as Nirvana-lite, and after the success of Creep, were already being written off as a one hit wonder. Then, in 1995, came the unanticipated, unheralded release of their follow-up.

I cannot recount the reaction of the time first hand. When The Bends was released, I was still 2 months shy of my 4th birthday. When you listen to the record now, it is astonishing that such time has passed. Despite all its fans, all its imitators, nothing since has been able to replicate its sound. If it was released today, it would be a ground-breaking guitar album. I first heard it 10 years ago, at the age of 14. It was one of many unorthodox Christmas presents; the 25th December 2005 a date indelibly marked on my brain as The Bends came alongside, amongst other things, Doolittle by Pixies. It was arguably the single most important day in shaping my current tastes.

Listening to The Bends now, with 10 years’ distance from the initial impact (20 years for others), what stands out is the relentless quality of songs. Unlike some of Radiohead’s other work, which is reliant on atmosphere and innovation as much as anything, The Bends works so well because of the unyielding brilliance of the individual tracks. Radiohead are a visionary, pioneering group, and The Bends, despite being a guitar album, is really unlike anything that came before (or indeed since). However, it is as close as Radiohead have come to writing an album of great accessible songs. High and Dry, Fake Plastic Trees, Bones, Just, My Iron Lung, Street Spirit. Song writing of the absolute highest order.

While it is seen as Radiohead’s most accessible, and possibly least genre-bending, album since their debut, The Bends is not easy to pin down. The album opens with a swirling, disorientating sound, before guitars, drums, organs, pianos and synthesizers coalesce to create the hypnotic, entrancing Planet Telex. Thom Yorke’s muffled vocals glaze the layers, straining “You can crush it but it’s always near, chasing you home saying everything is broken, everyone is broken”. The track sets the tone – intangible, ominous, foreboding – for the album and, arguably, for the next 20 years of Radiohead. It is the starting point for Radiohead MK II; the near/post-millennial anguish and uncertainty that litters their work.

From that point, the album flows perfectly, no let-up in genius, no time to lose focus, no opportunity to ease off. The guitars crash in for the title track, Radiohead’s more reflective sound engrosses the listener for High and Dry and the sprawling, majestic Fake Plastic Trees, before the bass driven, criminally underrated Bones, with Yorke’s soaring “I used to fly like Peter Pan” one of the album’s many spine-tingling moments. Everybody knows that Radiohead do reflective, beautiful tracks (or as some tritely say – “depressing”), and they are in abundance here with High and Dry, Fake Plastic Trees, Bullet Proof et al, but it is often overlooked that Radiohead can truly “rock”. The Bends, Bones, Just, My Iron Lung – there are guitar heavy songs here that align themselves closer to Nirvana, Pixies and Smashing Pumpkins.

The album closes with one of the greatest tracks ever recorded; the extraordinary Street Spirit (Fade Out). It acts as a signal towards what was to come for the band, a track like no other not just by Radiohead, but by anyone. Largely through the guitar sound, it concocts an ambience of anxiety, of imperceptible unease in the best way imaginable. Harking back to my previous blog, it almost has the atmosphere of a David Lynch film; an indescribable, disquieting surrealism, a dreamy quality, the song floating along, unnoticeably submerging you as it flows. As the final note sounds, you know that you have just heard something truly unique, and staggeringly wonderful.

The biggest compliment I can pay to Radiohead as a band is that The Bends is probably in my top 10-15 albums ever, and yet is in a fight to make Radiohead’s top 3. With The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A and In Rainbows, they have made 4 genuine stone-cold classics, able to go toe to toe with all of the Revolvers, Blonde on Blondes, Pet Sounds’s and Neverminds that you could care to mention. Add that to their other fantastic works (Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief and The King of Limbs), and it is truly staggering.

I will just go out and say it, at the risk of complete chastisement. 20 years after it started, that 7 album run – The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief, In Rainbows and The King of Limbs – means that, in my humble opinion of course, Radiohead have a body of work that matches and indeed exceeds that of any band ever. Yes, even coming from Liverpool, that includes EVERY other band ever. *Ducks*

Enjoy the masterpiece in full:

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