Popular culture was a mess 20 years ago. Still reeling from the overstylized excess of the ‘80s, we struggled to find an identity as a people, as an audience, and as artists. The cultural powers that be struggled even harder with the question of “who are we now” than we did. Loud synthesized pop, the post-adolescence of rap, and the apathetic rock scene drifted about in the winds of commercialization, waxing poetic the possibility of something as momentous as the movements of the ‘60’s and ‘70s. The result of these efforts was a succession of fads highlighted by trendy clothes and products that guaranteed us a spot in something authentic. While at the same time lining corporate pockets.
It was in this climate that Radiohead released their debut album, Pablo Honey. Initially, the band received favorable reviews and sales. Ultimately, however, they were viewed as just another grungy alternative rock band, one of several groups that would be here today but gone tomorrow. Indeed. that freshman effort was dripping with distorted, feedback riddled, 20-something angst. The hit single of the album, “Creep”, fit the perfect formula of the day with its soft verse and loud self-loathing chorus—something in the vein of Kurt Cobain’s verse/chorus/verse, a “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”.
Radiohead rose into prominence in the shadow of Cobain and Nirvana, as many alternative bands of the day did. In some ways, it could be argued that without the smash Nirvana made in 1991 with Nevermind, Radiohead and many other alternative and punk bands would not have gotten the exposure that they did. However, despite the highlight that the subsequent grunge movement gave to bands like Radiohead, many never moved beyond it. As journalist Andrew Smith put, Radiohead was at the time “Nirvana lite”, reiterating the heavy amount of influence that the early nineties grunge movement had on the music scene (“Sound and Fury”, The Observer [London], 1 October 2000).
Two years later, Radiohead went back into the studio and emerged with The Bends. Whereas Pablo Honey was mainly known for hit single “Creep”, The Bends featured five hit tracks: “Fake Plastic Trees”, “High and Dry”, “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, “The Bends”, and “Just”. The success of The Bends extended much farther than the increased critical and audience response. The album was an important foothold made by the band on their journey towards becoming the art house rock icons that they are today. It propelled them away from the great artificial one-hit wonder trend hunt of the ‘90s music scene. The album also displayed the wide spectrum of Radiohead’s’ abilities, moving past the self-loathing angst of “Creep” and into the wider range of the band’s more melodic and acoustic style.
“Fake Plastic Trees” distinctly highlights the leap that Radiohead made with The Bends. Like “Creep”, it centers on a melancholy romance, just as many others at that time focused on the morose side of love. However, with “Fake Plastic Trees”, frontman Thom Yorke abandoned the diminutive scope of “Creep” to provide commentary on the synthetic consumer culture of the age. The song’s protagonist crafts images of artificiality complete with obsessive physical manipulations of body image and the hollow feelings associated with mass consumerism. All of these images reflect what we as a people were attempting to do in those fledging decades after the failures of the love generation. The Jake Scott music video only further supports this social commentary with its depiction of a homogenous grocery store, complete with identical generic labels and fake plastic people.
With the release of The Bends, Radiohead had begun their journey towards becoming the ultimate outsider group. According to Yorke, this evolution stemmed from the frustrations and pressures of “Creep”’s popularity (Johnny Black, “The Greatest Songs Ever! Fake Plastic Trees”, Blender, 1 June 2003). Many punk and alternative rock groups struggled with that delicate balance of fame and integrity in the age of grunge. It seems that all artists struggle in this way, however; they all must grapple with the purity and drive of their artistic center, and the business machine that helps them to share their work with the world. The byproduct of merging these two diametrically opposed endeavors being that ultimate oxymoron: the music business.
After The Bends, Radiohead’s relationship to this odd dichotomy lead them away from grungy alt-rock as the world became enamored by the Brit-pop movement. From there, Radiohead’s evolution continued on through OK Computer (1997), Kid A (2000), Amnesiac (2001), and Hail to Thief (2003) as the band built itself into the ultimate outsiders of music. All of this culminated in the self-released albums In Rainbows (2007) and The King of Limbs (2008). At each step Radiohead grew, and continues to grow, providing proof that they are more than just a fake plastic band.
The story of Radiohead’s musical evolution cannot be excluded from the broader historical context in which it matured. An examination of these events surrounding the release of Pablo Honey and The Bends offer us an interesting perspective, specifically in relation to an imploding culture. Historically and culturally speaking 1993, the year Pablo Honey was released, was quite significant. The year typified the early ‘90s, a decade defined by the loss of the Cold War and the struggle of the Baby Boomers as they approached middle age. That New Year was heralded in by the inauguration of the first Democrat into the White House since Jimmy Carter left office in 1981, ending the Republican dynasty that followed the conservative revolution of the ‘80s.
The dissolution of former Soviet Czechoslovakia illustrated the changing of the guard that the fall of communism represented. However, the repercussions of its fall were still to be seen as the genocidal war in Bosnia and Kosovo raged on.
Domestically, we were experiencing our own fair share of violence with bombing of the World Trade Center. This was also the year of the ATF’s embarrassing debacle with David Koresh and the Branch Dravidians in Waco, TX. However, it was not before the end of the Unabomber’s killing spree. Women’s issues also held the day following the appointment of first female attorney general, Janet Reno, and the Air Force’s decision to allow women to fly combat aircraft, not to mention the fear that Lorraine Bobbitt’s scissors placed in the hearts of men everywhere.
If 1993 typified the struggle we faced transitioning toward the close of the century then, 1995 proved we had made the leap towards a new age. One of the largest indications of this was the growth of digital culture. In that year, the internet became a completely private venture, leaving behind its government roots. Significant to this development was creation of the internet sensation eBay. Pixar and Disney made history with the first fully computer animated feature, Toy Story. The DVD was first introduced to the world in that year.
The end of those tumultuous transition years was on its way to a close as we came closer to the new millennium, perfectly signified by the UN announcement that Desert Storm was over.
However, the best way to illustrate the change that had occurred is to look at that year’s deaths, which included icons of the post-war world like Mickey Mantle and Rose Kennedy. The deaths of Dean Martin and Jerry Garcia further highlighted the change in culture at the time, especially in relation to the path that music had taken in the last 20 years. The music of the Baby Boomers youth was fading, and bands like Radiohead blazed the trail into a new age as the post-Vietnam culture crumbled away.