Today was rather intense for me, which I typically don’t like out of days off. There’s not a lot about it that I want to divulge too far into; the merciful killing of one dream and the onset of another, much more beautiful dream, the future painted into an unclear picture, but at least in color this time, and the revelation of being not all there yet still knowing which in which way you’re headed, and on top of all that, I’m having to reformat my Zune.
So while I spend hours and hours moving 120 gigabytes of data around from player to computer, and making both items unavailable for music listening, let’s wax nostalgic about Radiohead’s breakthrough album, The Bends:
When I look back at the albums I wrote about that Radiohead had recorded after this one (since, you know, I went backwards in talking about them), I can’t help but notice a pattern in how they go about their business:
1. Record a ground-breaking, stunning album of absolute genius that changes the way music is made.
2. Tour in support of said album, play hundreds of shows to millions of people.
3. Get completely sick of the attention, regret ever having recorded an album.
4. Go off on vacation somewhere grand in order to “prepare” for next album or career suicide or real suicide.
The interesting thing about this business model is that it was implemented right after the first album, Pablo Honey. The best part is that, as I’m sure we’ll get into when I write the thing up, it wasn’t even the album Pablo Honey that sickened the band this time, it was just the one song that caused people to tag them “one-hit wonders” and “Nirvana ripoffs” (yes the band that everyone has been saying everyone has been ripping off for the past 10 years used to be accused of ripping off Nirvana). Yeah, “Creep” almost killed the band before they would have a chance to become the legit band they are today. Indeed, something had to change, and The Bends would be the band’s chance at artistic salvation.
Of course, such change would come slowly, as Radiohead were not quite used to this whole “changing the rules to the game” every time they played. They recorded a bunch of songs that wound up sounding a lot like the mature versions of songs off the previous album, and ultimately they arrived at the sound that they were ok with, and instead of scrapping said songs, they turned them into the My Iron Lung EP, which I may write up at some point too because it’s pretty interesting.
The final product is really a sight to behold (except that it’s music so you should be hearing it). The Bends was and remains some people’s favorite album by Radiohead, and I can’t really fault them for that. The album was my favorite for quite a while, even if I came late to the Radiohead party, hot on the heels of OK Computer. Still, certain publications rank it just behind The Beatles’ Revolver as the 2nd best album of all time, and that’s not too shabby for an album wrought with uncertainty and chaos.
Indeed, even the opening track, “Planet Telex”, with its thunderous drums and amazing multi-layered guitars and keyboards that would put Phil Spector to (somehow) even more shame, seems a really together song, but it was entirely written in the studio and performed after a “night on the town”. Thom Yorke’s voice on this particular one is really powerful and disturbed at the same time, pushed to the background but piercing through the mix with those amazing high notes; not too bad for the fact that he was completely wasted and singing the words while laying on the floor. I haven’t been able to sing that well in 10 years of trying, which is why I kind of hate Thom Yorke in that way that only musicians can.
Though “Planet Telex” is a great opening number, really the album kind of starts with the title track. Less ambient and more to the point, “The Bends” is tonally the perfect subversion to the previous album’s overly clean and chugging sound. It seems rare, nowadays, to hear all 3 of Radiohead’s guitarists on guitar, but that first chord reminds us all of just how powerful the band can sound when not tinkering with laptops or the Ondes Martenot. The song is performed with this certain edginess, as if the whole song could fall apart were it not for the rhythm section’s perfect timing. You can even tell (with good headphones) that Thom sings part of it while entirely too close to the microphone, and the lyrics gloriously make no sense:
Just lyin’ in a bar with the drip-feed on
Talkin’ to my girlfriend, waiting for something to happen
I wish it was the 60′s, I wish we could be happy
I wish, I wish, I wish that something would happen
Where do we go from here?
The planet is a gunboat in a sea of fear, and where are you?
They brought in the CIA, the tanks and the whole marines
To blow me away, to blow me sky high
My baby’s got the bends, we don’t have any real friends
Of course, these lyrics are par for the course nowadays for Radiohead, but back when they were known for “Creep”, which has really straightforward lyrics, it was probably confusing to hear and read these words.
Mind you, the vagueness of the lyrics have never brought Radiohead down before, and you may find yourself relating all too well to the next couple of songs if you’re having a down moment. The first is “High & Dry”, and it has this wonderful acoustic guitar riff that opens it, as Thom sings lyrics about some kind of motorcyle rider who is leaving him high and dry, I suppose. The point is, this song is the formal introduction to the Thom Yorke yodel. Some musical types may call it a “perfect fifth” when the singer goes from a note to a high fifth note by switching his voice to falsetto mid-note, but guess what: that’s how yodelling works. So yes, the chorus to “High & Dry” introduces an element to Thom’s voice (also seen in singers like Jeff Buckley and early Coldplay) that would define singing for a lot of other British and American acts.
Still, no greater example of this element to Thom’s singing exists than in the legendary “Fake Plastic Trees”. Starting with a simple chord progression, Thom sings those words that would be heard in every open mic night for the next 15 years:
A green plastic watering can
For a fake Chinese rubber plant
And fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself
It wears her out, it wears her out
Again, no true sense is made, but by the time the song gets to some ideas that Earthlings recognize (“She looks like the real thing, she tastes like the real thing, my fake plastic love”), any heart that’s ever been rended asunder by a sadness will suddenly find itself weeping in some capacity over lost love, only to be carried joyfully into the Heavens by the crescendo of instruments and Thom’s majestic voice (coincidentally stating “I could blow through the ceiling”), until the whole thing comes back down into a slow fade as Thom sings “If I could be who you wanted, all the time, all the time”. Yeah, there aren’t a lot of songs quite as powerful as “Fake Plastic Trees”, but please, budding musicians, learn how to do the Thom Yorke Yodel properly before attempting this at any open mic or party that you attend, lest you get the eye-roll from your unwilling audience.
The album kind of lulls for a bit with a bit of a forgettable track called “Bones”. Honestly, I don’t dislike the song, it demonstrates Thom’s ability to sing in low register, but you know they can’t all be zingers, is all I’m saying.
“(Nice Dream)” is one of the best implied songs I’ve ever heard. I’m not sure if you’re supposed to actually say the title out loud or just nod with the look on your face that you’re referring to this song, but then the mysteries of life abound. This song is mostly noteworthy for its use of strings, and for the minor key change rockout toward the end.
One of the stand-out rock tracks of the album and, well, Radiohead’s entire career is “Just”. It’s hard to use words to describe just how great this song is, so I’ll just tell you the true story of how the band wrote the song. Basically, “Just” is a competition between Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke to see who could fit the most chords into the song, and that’s just awesome. The lyrics convey a very simplified angst in a vague story line (the chorus is simply “You do it to yourself, just you, and that’s why it really hurts, you do it to yourself, just you, you and no-one else, you do it to yourself”), but the lyrics are not what you should be listening to. There’s so much going on in this song musically that it still blows my mind to hear this song. For goodness’ sakes, toward the end of the song Jonny Greenwood plays a solo entirely by scratching his pick across the strings and applying effects. What a song.
Radiohead doesn’t lash out at popular music very often, typically their approach is to ignore it and instead write music that helps change it, whether directly or vicariously through changing the “counter cultural” music scene (and if you don’t think the two are inextricably tied, well, you’re obviously not as paranoid as I am). One of the few examples of writing out some real issues with the mainstream media in song is “My Iron Lung”, which was one of the first songs reportedly written for this album. The song, of course, doesn’t actually make any sense, but you can tell with imagery like “Suck your teenage thumb, toilet-trained and dumb” that they’re attacking someone. The song has a guitar riff that will either annoy you by it being annoying to listen to or to learn how to play on the guitar yourself. I’ve had a little of both in my overall Radiohead experience (I used to hate this song, you see).
After a few more attempts at writing singles (I believe all 3 of the next tracks were considered for “lead single”), we finally arrive at the end of the album with “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, which is one of the only examples I can think of where a single, definite guitar arpeggio is the core of the entire song. At least, I’m sure songs like this exist, but the extent to which the song is built upon that guitar line is rather unique amongst anything that can be said to sound like it. Either way, the song is brilliant and is a wonderful way to end the album as it started: with an ambient, crazy sounding song, and Thom Yorke lying on the floor drunk.
So, there you have it. Radiohead’s best album, at least according to people who are either old or don’t follow Radiohead much. Still, even looking at album in totally different genres of the time, I constantly see The Bends as a source of inspiration for music at large, which is not bad for the band whose claim to fame thus far was writing “Creep”. Way to dodge the one-hit-wonder bullet, Radiohead.