The Bends

Uncut, 2014

WHAT happens when you get what you always wanted, then discover that you don’t want it? “Creep” and “Pablo Honey” had done for Radiohead everything any rock group dreams that their debut single and first album might do for them. Radiohead were on television screens, on the front of magazines, on everybody’s playlist. They were suddenly famous all over the world, hearing their words sung back to them every night in a bewildering array of accents as they toured, and toured, and toured. They were presumably – this was still the mid-90s – making a few quid. And to judge by the eponymous track of their second album, they were hating more or less every second of the whole glorious joyride.

There was no mistaking the significance of that title. “The Bends” is nautical slang for decompression sickness, a condition brought on by ascending too quickly from the depths, symptoms of which include psychological disconnection and physical hallucination. Throughout the album of the same name, Radiohead appear to be describing similar afflictions brought on by their own vertiginous hurtle from minor cult following to incipient global rock stardom. “Alone on an aeroplane,” splutters Thom Yorke on the title track, over an appropriately claustrophobic backdrop, a seething squall of diseased riffs sounding like My Bloody Valentine trying to teach themselves Lynyrd Skynyrd. “Falling asleep beside the window pane/My blood will thicken.”

A few months after the release of “The Bends”, this correspondent put that interpretation of the song in particular, and the album in general, to Thom Yorke in a Manhattan cafe. The previous night, Radiohead had completed their 18-date stint opening for R.E.M. on their “Monster” tour, in the immense Meadows Ampitheatre in Hartford, Connecticut. They were now a few hours away from an unannounced show at New York’s rather smaller Mercury Lounge – the sort of descent to reality liable to engender whatever the opposite of the bends might be. Yorke, as always, was reluctant to agree too readily with any hack’s analysis of his lyrics.

“That song,” he said, “was really just a collection of phrases going round in my head one day. The crazy thing about that song is that there was no calculation or thought involved – it was just whatever sounded good after the previous line. It was written way before we’d ever been to America, even, but yeah, it’s always interpreted as this strong reaction against the place and everything that went with it for us.”

This seemed even more telling: it turned out that the “The Bends” – the song – wasn’t Yorke describing the deracinated loneliness of fame, but bracing himself for it. Whether premeditated or not, “The Bends” – the album – gripped then, and grips now, as a compelling statement of righteous disgust, a coruscating howl of self-loathing vis-a-vis one’s circumstances and one’s inability to do anything to change them, and a thunderingly great rock’n’roll album. Musically and lyrically, it’s almost possible to hear “The Bends” as some supercharged hybrid of Elvis Costello & The Attractions’ “This Year’s Model” and The Byrds’ “Younger Than Yesterday”: the sound of fame being forced to choke on itself. Dedicated to the memory of another tireless exorciser of modern cultural chimerae – the late comedian Bill Hicks, who died in 1994, aged 32 – “The Bends” is as fine a record as the 1990s produced.

The tone is set by the bait-and-switch which opens the album. The first 38 seconds of “Planet Telex” give every indication of being a gentle fanfare, a slowly swelling riff borne by a shufflling drum pattern and a lolloping bass. This, you could be forgiven for thinking, is the decorous throat-clearing of a group confidently preparing for their serene ascent to the bigtime. Any such ponderings are interrupted, like “Planet Telex” itself, by what seems, in the circumstances, a jarringly violent insertion of jagged electric guitar, and then there’s Yorke, so high in the mix you can hear him gulping a first, desperate lungful of oxygen, before expectorating “You can force it but it will not come/You can taste it but it will not form/You can crush it but it’s always here.” Key lines as the melody finally erupts from beneath a dense arrangement of squabbling guitars and keyboards: “Everything is broken/Everyone is broken.”

Yorke would later sigh at Melody Maker to the effect that he “didn’t make ‘The Bends’ for people to slash their wrists to.” He could also have pointed out that it’s not like anyone could say they weren’t warned. A few months before the release of “The Bends”, “My Iron Lung” had appeared as the lead track on a mini-album of the same name. It was as cheerless a report from the heights of notoriety as has ever been dispatched, borrowing heavily – especially in the demented breakdowns at the middle and end of the song – from “Heart-Shaped Box”, from Nirvana’s similarly inclined “In Utero” album of the previous year. The titular metaphor was not subtle – the iron lung, a contraption which permits its occupant to live, even as it confines them. Radiohead sounded like they were already beginning to feel like this about their own band: “This is our new song/Just like the last one/A total waste of time/My iron lung.” When one considers the unorthodox course Radiohead have largely charted since “The Bends”, “My Iron Lung” now reads akin to their declaration of independence.

At no stage, however, does “The Bends” become oppressively woebegone. While it does spend much of its running order describing a swift and bracing disillusionment with the reality of rock’n’roll, “The Bends” is still a record made by five young men yet to lose interest in the sound of rock’n’roll – that was a process which, for Radiohead, would occur more gradually. While “The Bends” is arguably burdened by a surfeit of lyrical self-consciousness, there is none of that about the actual playing on the record, which is unreconstructed to a degree that, in other circumstances, could be almost be described as gleeful. “Just” is another track in heavy hock to Nirvana – it says much about Radiohead that while most of their contemporaries reacted to grunge by donning Union Jack-spangled bowler hats and doing the Lambeth Walk, Radiohead embraced aspects of it, thereby out-contrarying the contrary. “Black Star”, which opens with a motif not light years from Boston’s “More Than A Feeling”, is a positively stately lighters-aloft rock ballad, the kind of thing which, at the time, prompted much speculation that Radiohead’s rise to the rarefied orbit inhabited by U2 et al was theirs for the asking.

While it would turn out that this wasn’t a prospect that much interested Radiohead, the thought had – at the very least – clearly occurred to them. If one is entirely uninterested in creating a rock album which will excite massive popular appeal, one doesn’t enlist as producer John Leckie, whose previous credits, notwithstanding a certain quantity of apposite indie experimentation (The Fall, PiL), included Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and The Stone Roses’ “The Stone Roses”. It would transpire that a more significant arrival in the Radiohead camp for “The Bends” was one of Leckie’s engineers – Nigel Godrich, producer of every subsequent Radiohead and Thom Yorke solo album – but despite their evidently mixed feelings, Radiohead at this point were still clearly willing to flirt with monstrous success, if not quite go so far as to fondly embrace it.

It’s another (probably) unconcious echo of Nirvana discernible on “The Bends”. Kurt Cobain’s sulky resenment of the jackpot hit by “Nevermind” was always rather undermined by the fact that he’d knowingly signed to a major label, then made a perfectly listenable album of some very pretty tunes. Radiohead were obviously (and quite astutely) afraid of the cretinising effects of success. But at no point on “The Bends” do they go out of their way to avoid it. “High & Dry” is another pleading rejection of fame’s face-eating mask: “You’d kill yourself for recognition/Kill yourself to never ever stop/You broke another mirror/You’re turning into something you are not.” It’s also a sweet, exquisitely plaintive ballad, and a reminder of the degree to which Yorke’s brittle whimper of this period became the default for a subsequent generation of (almost invariably inferior, very often incredibly annoying) male rock vocalists (Yorke’s own subsequent assessments of what remains one of Radiohead’s most popular songs have run the gamut from “It’s alright,” to “It’s not bad – it’s very bad.”)

Similarly, “Fake Plastic Trees” is a seething, righteous jeremiad against myriad manifestations of inauthenticity, nonetheless expansive for its terseness (“He used to do surgery/For girls in the eighties/But gravity always wins,” is one of Yorke’s deftest character assassinations, up there with the subject/victim of “Karma Police”.) And it’s also an unapologetic, gradually building rafter-raiser, a post-punk “Stairway To Heaven” beginning with Yorke sighing over a gently strummed acoustic guitar, introducing strings, electric guitar, keyboards and drums verse by verse, before climaxing in a sumptuous tumult, and finally returning to Yorke, alone and lonely, pleading “If I could be who you wanted/All the time.” “Fake Plastic Trees” may be the key track on “The Bends”, at once a throwback to the quiet-loud-quiet of “Creep”, and the foundation stone for the unbound, multi-movement ambition of “Paranoid Android.”

Even the less obvious and aggressive cuts of “The Bends” sound so diseased and queasy that it can feel more like they’re being contracted or ingested than listened to. “Bones” is a(nother) sketch of disconnect, the hypochondriac gibberings of someone who has been too far from home, too long, ie a touring rock musician (“Now I can’t climb the stairs/Pieces missing everywhere/Prozac painkillers”); its chorus sounds not so much sung as vomited. “Just” and “Sulk” both capture Radiohead perched assuredly between their punkish roots and their stadium rock possibilities: the former sounds like Pixies playing U2, the latter more or less vice versa (“Sometimes you sulk, sometimes you burn,” keens Yorke over another cacophonous symphony of guitars, a concise summary of Radiohead’s emotional palette up to this point). “Bullet Proof. . . I Wish I Was” is a wistful plea for a thicker skin, while the gentle, half-whispered, inexplicably bracketed “(Nice Dream)” briefly seeks a retreat into some prelapsarian pastoral refuge (“Gave me sunshine/Made me happy”). In a debasement nonetheless crushing for its inevatibility, this fantasy gets obliterated beneath an instrumental break which all but sounds like bulldozers demolishing this briefly flourishing Eden.

A less confident – or less comprehensively disenchanted – group might have been tempted to supply a redemptive flicker of light at the end of this tunnel. Radiohead finish “The Bends” with what might be the bleakest song in their canon. “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” is as pretty and chilling as a blizzard, its guitar arpeggios drifting across a lyric which appears to describe a long stare into the darkness beneath the Reaper’s cowl (“Cracked eggs/Dead birds/Scream as they fight for life/I can feel death/Can see its beady eyes”). So utterly, wrenchingly cheerless is “Street Spirit” that even the ostensibly redemptive coda, imploring “Immerse your soul in love,” sounds freighted with an unspoken coda to the effect of “For all the good it’ll do you.”

Back in that New York cafe in October 1995, Yorke was already thinking ahead, already unkeen on being cast, as some had gracelessly sought to do, as Kurt Cobain’s successor as rock’n’roll’s laureate of doom.

“I just think Radiohead are in a really dangerous position at the moment,” he said, “where we could end up supplying that pathos and angst all the fucking time, and I think there’s a bit more to it than that.”

From that day to this, Radiohead have busied themselves showing just how much more – but “The Bends” endures not only as a great and powerful album on its own merits, but as a still-tantalising signpost down the better-trodden, more straightforwardly rock’n’roll road that Radiohead eventually elected not to take.