20 years: Why Radiohead’s ‘The Bends’ won’t fade out anytime soon

Why Radiohead’s ‘The Bends’ won’t fade out anytime soon

Technology and the information age have raced ahead of a 1995 classic, but everything’s still broken, argues Jamie Milton.

From BitTorrent releases to impromptu shows on fashion show catwalks, every aspect of Radiohead in 2015 barely relates to the pent-up aggression and uncertainty defining 1995 classic ‘The Bends’. Twenty years on, the ‘information age’ Thom Yorke’s and co.’s second record wrestled with is long established. Today we’re presented with notifications, minute-by-minute updates, all options open to embracing every corner of the planet. And yet there’s still a sense that we’re running away from our problems, history’s limbo stage anything but a blip. Yorke declares on album opener that “everything is broken / everyone is broken” - and if there’s one direct thread to draw from 1995 to the present day, it’s this observation. 

Depressing? Radiohead are the go-to targets for the anti-sad brigade, accused of penning songs with no silver linings. That’s sometimes true, but ‘The Bends’’ brilliance comes in its ability to draw energy and life out of uncertainty. Technology’s wild, breakneck speed transformation was in its baby stages back in 1995, and Radiohead oversaw unease by writing some of their greatest songs. 

Scour Radiohead’s recent setlists and the album - regarded by many as their absolute best - barely makes an impact. ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ sneaks in occasionally, and post-‘In Rainbows’, ‘Just’ and the record’s title-track made appearances. But that was a time when festival headline sets would open ‘Creep’, something that looks unlikely to be replicated. ‘The Bends’ might appear forgotten, but in the grand scheme of what followed, it’s the band’s most important marker.

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“Released fresh today, its impact wouldn’t shift”

‘The Bends’ was a series of firsts. Stanley Donwood’s now customary art was in its primitive stages. Nigel Godrich - then an in-house engineer - formed the beginning of a key relationship by helping with ‘Black Star’’s making, when he stayed behind after-hours. It also saw the introduction of some of Radiohead’s key motifs. Gone with the false but purposeful bravado of the ‘Pablo Honey’-era, Yorke began tying abstractions into his sharp statements. Sarcy refrains (“I wish it was the sixties / I wish I could be happy”) diced with death alongside ‘Fake Plastic Trees’, a song about Canary Wharf’s phoney, natural decor (delivered with wit and just the right amount of voice tremble). The frontman broke down in tears after recording his vocal on that track, and ‘The Bends’ arrived just at the point when every aspect of Radiohead became all-consuming. Barely off the road from their debut, pressure from EMI and their US label Capitol began to overwhelm. Their only rebellion was to write the best record possible. 

Yorke’s obsessive personality didn’t shift from there onwards. Nor did Radiohead’s ability to merge dark emotions with the outside world. ‘OK Computer’ was their outward-thinking response to technology, ‘Kid A’ more an application of the new tools at hand. Even in the band’s most recent ‘The King of Limbs’ LP, you can draw lines between ‘Lotus Flower’’s eerie shifts and ‘Airbag’’s sense of turbulence. ‘The Bends’ is nowhere to be seen, meanwhile. The closest they’ve come to matching any of its moments, sonically, is the twisted ‘A Wolf At The Door’ from 2003. Around then, Radiohead’s music was still defined by fear (this time the mid-Bush era of deranged politics and what would follow), but the rest of their 1995 LP’s trails had long been submerged in other ideas.

Although Thom Yorke might find himself more attuned to post-Autechre glitch and Godrich’s wall of beats, all around him emerges a bunch of bands lifting from ‘The Bends’’ balancing act.  Gengahr, in particular, have something about them. Barely through the door, everything they’ve released up to now carries a sinister, wicked edge. Comparisons are sweeping in, filing them next to a band like Unknown Mortal Orchestra and their ether-effect wash, but in guitarist John Victor they have someone channelling Jonny Greenwood’s anxious, piercing style. Wolf Alice, too, manage to balance restless energy and all out triumph with similar success. Both bands push things forward, but their heroes’ apparently long gone early phase lives on. 

Today, Radiohead have more chance of knuckling down and putting out a “smooth vibes” compilation than they do of repeating ‘The Bends’’ motifs. But that doesn’t mean they’ve left it behind entirely. Released fresh today, its impact wouldn’t shift. A direct jolt to awaken the puzzled generation, apathy would have to wait. Back in 1995, Radiohead were at their most direct - and their most effective. They turned heads and defined future generations through sheer force. It left no questions unanswered, with one exception - what’s next?