“Why Don’t You Try Writing Your Own Songs?”: ‘The Bends’ and Its Cover Songs

Three unique takes on tracks from The Bends, spanning the stripped-down acoustic to the full-fledged orchestral, represent how these songs still have the power to stun two decades later.
The Bends

Radiohead’s songs beckon musicians to take them on. They taunt them, asking implausible questions of merit and musicianship, standing tall as of trophies of recognition, a way to uncover an artist’s influences, or simply to pay homage to one of the most popular working bands in the world. A cover song is a statement of appreciation, even of identity. For a song to be covered, certain criteria must be met, and those criteria swing wildly from artist to artist and their host in the most unlikely of places.

In indie rock, more than any other genre of music, original compositions always run simultaneously alongside the cover song, especially when tracks as ubiquitous as Radiohead’s enter the mainframe. in our minds and ears, the act of comparison to the original is ever-present. For instance, the strictures of indie rock, as compared to that of, say, jazz or classical, make it difficult for us to accept a new “version” of a familiar tune. There is hardly a way to place the requisite distance between the two tracks, the original and the cover of the original, and artists can (and do) lose their footing traveling down the slippery slope of originality. If an artist strives to outdo the original song, especially when the original song is beloved, then the song can come off as frail; a tune struck dumb by the hubris of an artist’s whims. Weezer’s take on “Paranoid Android” comes to mind. Despite its efficiency, it lacks visceral originality.

If an artist strives to merely pay homage to the song by covering it in an identical fashion, the reaction can be, at worst, a shrugged off “meh,” and, at best, an excited reaction. (Again, Weezer’s “Paranoid Android” fits this description pretty well.) When nothing new is unearthed and an artist simply establishes recognition with their audience (i.e., “Hey, we both like this band and we both like this song, so let’s collate our appreciation for it together.”), it’s a bit of a letdown. As cover songs go, I’ve always opted for uniqueness over proficiency.

As unofficial polls go, “Creep” far outweighs the remainder of Radiohead tunes. It’s the song that won’t die, even after the band has disarmed, disowned, and disavowed it from their catalog. Still, artists can’t help but remain drawn to the song and, in an ironic twist of fate, numerous bands and artists have managed to keep the song alive and well in the public consciousness, effectively reminding us all that Radiohead were not always the intellectual rockers that they’ve turned into. Once, they were just as concerned with popularity and acceptance as the rest of us poor schlubs. “Creep”, from its opening line to it’s pre-chorus build-up, can’t help but send a shock of recognition through the listener every time those emotive first lines come across the airwaves: “When you were here before / couldn’t look you in the eye / you’re just like an angel / your skin makes me cry.”

Radiohead cover songs abound; the number is too plentiful to distill down to a unique list. (Rest assured, however, there are plenty available online). Instead, I’ve selected three songs that exemplify like-mindedness with Radiohead’s artful musicianship, all taken from 1995’s The Bends. Where songs like “Creep” and “No Surprises” will somehow manage to remain in our collective consciousness, songs from The Bends fade quickly from our mind. It’s only once we begin to hear them again, from a new and unique perspective, that the shock of recognition is reinstated and The Bends comes roaring back to life. How could we ever have shelved that record for so long? It’s testament to the sticking power of the album, more so than an overly dissected and adored record like OK Computer or Kid A. While those records never exit our musical consciousness, or, at the very least, never stray far from it, The Bends remains hidden in plain view, the figure in the foreground we are most likely to ignore.

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, “Black Star”

There’s no initial shock of recognition once Gillian Welch and David Rawlings begin their slow march through Radiohead’s “Black Star”. A staple of their live shows since the mid-’00s, Welch and Rawlings released the Black Star EP in 2006, a sparse three-song EP of cover songs: “Black Star,” “Pocahontas” by Neil Young, and “White Freightliner Blues” by Townes Van Zandt. If one of these doesn’t look like the others, it’s because Welch and Rawlings’ folk roots run deep. Minimalist to the bone, the duo rely on no more than two guitars and two voices to get their songs across, a haunting prospect in an era of electric guitars and electronic instruments, one that Radiohead arguably made their living exploiting. Radiohead have rarely unplugged for any recording; if nothing else, they’ve grown increasingly reliant on production values and electronic gadgetry to push their themes across. But The Bends still found them locked into pure five-piece rock mode, with two to three guitars roaring over the swell of Yorke’s vocal fire.

Artist: Gillian Welch

Album: Black Star EP

Label: Acony

US Release Date: 2006-01-10

UK Release Date: 2006-01-10

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/b/blackstarep_albumart200.png

“Black Star,” as interpreted by Welch and Rawlings, operates on two levels: the first, a level of minimalism; the second, a level of heightened personal brutality. Welch and Rawlings are accomplished musicians that rely on minimalism to achieve their musical visions. Much of their albums operate on a bare-bones mentality when it comes to songwriting. On “Black Star,” the minimalism acts as a way to heighten and affect the lyrics of the song. On a bootleg live concert of Radiohead in 1995, Yorke introduces “Black Star” by saying, “This one’s personal.” He might as well have said, “Pizza is a popular food.” The rawness of Yorke’s lyrics from the opening lines, “I get home from work / and you’re still standing in your dressing gown / oh what am I to do?”, all the way to the chorus, “blame it on the black star/ blame it on the falling sky”, couldn’t achieve a more intimate level if they were taken direct from a diary. In short, it’s a sound about a relationship falling apart, perhaps due to mental illness or old-fashioned malaise, but it’s a foregone conclusion from the start. There’s no going up from here; the situation is destined to fall apart tragically, despite the best efforts of the relevant parties.

Tragedy and imagery are what folk music operates on. So when Welch and Rawlings unplug every amplified sound from the song, sharpen up the vocal lines, and slow the tempo to near-dirge status, “Black Star” becomes less of a confused lament and more of a Shakespearean tragedy. The insight comes primarily from Welch’s vocals and Rawlings’ locked harmonies, which obliterate the vocal range Yorke reaches for.

Listening to Welch take a turn on a song that was clearly sung from a male perspective is unnerving. Welch doesn’t alter any lyrics, instead opting to inhabit the realm that Yorke sings about. Her take on the song gives it an eerie, androgynous quality, a quality I doubt even Yorke had in mind when he penned the lyrics. Even so, Welch brings a clarity to the song that was heretofore missing. The line, “what are we going to do?” lands with an especially powerful blow. As true desperation sinks in, the kind of desperation that only comes from being awake for “58 hours” and longing for bigger problems to somehow magically correct themselves in your absence, we all happily find the bottom with her. No uplifting spirit is to be found here. Life is fickle, relationships even more. When you’re exhausted and at the end of your rope, someone has to take the blame, be it medicine, fortune, or an unseen symbol in the galaxy.

Welch and Rawlings haven’t recorded a proper studio version of “Black Star.” The version that appears on the Black Star EP is a live version. The fact that the duo haven’t allowed the cover to show up on any proper album is telling. Listening to the track on the EP, it’s clear that the crowd’s recognition doesn’t come until the first chorus hits. As the song starts, there’s a slow rumble through the crowd of people — Welch and Rawlings have given no formal announcement of the song — but slowly the whispers shift to yelps, then eventually to a dull cheer that is quickly quieted down for fear of missing out. This recognition, or lack thereof, speaks to the song’s presence as a “deep track” on The Bends, and also to the inversion of the song through Welch and Rawlings’ remaking.

“Black Star” isn’t being performed as a crowd pleaser; it’s being dropped in mid-set out of true admiration. Welch and Rawlings have found something immeasurably attractive in “Black Star”, some deep connection, either musically, lyrically, or emotionally, and opted for its selection over a more readily recognizable number such as “High and Dry” or “Fake Plastic Trees”, both of which could have easily fit into their repertoire. The cover song, it seems, isn’t necessarily chosen by the artist; the song seeks out its own audience and finds its own place inside our own heads.

Peter Gabriel, “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”

The shock of recognition is also profoundly missing from Peter Gabriel’s take on “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” but for different reasons. Found on his 2010 LP, Scratch My Back, it’s an entire album of covers from diverse artists such as David Bowie, Arcade Fire, and Bon Iver. In lieu of new music, Gabriel, has opted to spend his later career mining his influences and appropriations for new material. To find “Street Spirit” on the album is no surprise, as it has all of the qualities of a Gabriel tune: bleakness, grandeur, and a melody that borders on finality. Given that Gabriel tacked it on as the last track on the LP, which could well be one his last, “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” has a terrible finality to it that is punctuated by its parenthetical title.

Album: Scratch My Back

Artist: Peter Gabriel

Label: Real World

US Release Date: 2010-03-02

UK Release Date: 2010-02-15

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/s/scratchmyback_albumart200.jpg

Tellingly, the track is placed in the exact same spot on both The Bends and Scratch My Back, a move that suggests that Gabriel not only feels a kinship with the placement of the song, but also understands the song’s bravado as a way to punctuate the ending of a proper album. But where Radiohead’s version is built upon layers and layers of solemn guitars that eventually build and drawn down to a close, Gabriel supplants the use of such crude instruments and replaces them with a much more high-minded, stringed orchestral instruments. It’s a move that fits Gabriel’s stature as a visionary pop artist. His long career is built upon concept records with Genesis, avant-pop from the ’80s, and orchestral explorations in the aughts. But Gabriel’s “Street Spirit”, despite its musical high-mindedness, doesn’t come across as insincere or pandering — quite the opposite, in fact. His affinity for the track is evident by his selection of it for the album, but also in the way he painstakingly tries to dig at the soul of the song by stripping pieces away.

Gabriel empties out the base rhythm of the song, drops the tempo dramatically, replaces a guitar intro with an arpeggiated piano chord, drawing out every syllable with a clarity that Yorke can’t quite commit to. Lyrically, “Street Spirit” begins to foretell the story of OK Computer and also sounds remarkably like pieces of “Paranoid Android” in places: “this machine will / will not communicate,” “cracked eggs / dead birds / scream as they fight for life,” “rows of houses / all bearing down on me”. Then, as if to offer a childlike solution to the mechanized march of lost humanity, we’re given only five words to follow: “Immerse your soul in love”. Listening closely to Gabriel’s version, it sounds as if he’s altered one word on the outro; instead of “immerse your soul in love”, Gabriel sings, “immerse your self in love”, Whether intentional or not, the change is magnified by its simplicity. Radiohead might be concerned with the soul of the world, the larger, higher power that drives the afterlife and what’s to come; Gabriel turns our focus to the present, the physical “self” that is more tangible and immediate. There may not be another chance for change, so work within the now and worry about the future as it comes.

For both albums, it’s a solemn note to end on, a note that explicates the degree of humanity to a finite point. When Gabriel drops his voice deeply to sing, “All these things into position / all these things we’ll one day swallow whole”, it’s not so much a suggestion as it is a command. Gabriel maneuvers through the song like General Patton moving through the ranks of his troops. His only concern is the message, and its reception is not optional, it’s mandatory. We will swallow these things, we will fade out again, and we will immerse ourselves in love. The orchestra swells to match Gabriel’s quivering vibrato, a lone piano note pops with no sustain, and Gabriel ascends upward on the final note, moving assuredly to the end. There’s no fade out here, no need for it.

With Welch and Rawlings’ and Gabriel’s covers, both songs seek to remove almost all of the elements of the original Radiohead songs. Their path has been via negativa — by way of the negative — and their renditions pull apart the excess noise of a Britpop guitar band and leave the pieces on the cutting room floor. Not that the noise that Radiohead were making on The Bends wasn’t satisfactory or enduring, but with 20 years in the rearview, finding new interpretations of these songs is a challenging exercise that only top-tier artists are up to the challenge to meet. Anyone can learn the chords and replicate songs from The Bends, but it takes a different mindset to deconstruct the song’s in a postmodern era of irony and insincerity. This task requires more than simply musical knowledge: it requires equal parts head and heart to push it through our bodies and into a new realm of possibility.

Mark Ronson featuring Phantom Planet, “Just”

English DJ and Producer Mark Ronson’s cover of “Just”, featuring two members of Phantom Planet, Alex Greewald on vocals and Sam Farrar on bass, taken from his 2007 album Version, opts for the opposite route of Gabriel’s “Street Spirit”, but is no less exquisite for its grandiosity. Instead of stripping pieces of the original away, Ronson applies more instrumentation than the original to elevate it past a simple rock song and into a new realm of stature.

Artist: Mark Ronson

Album: Version

Label: RCA

US Release Date: 2007-06-12

UK Release Date: 2007-04-16

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/m/markronson_version_albumart200.jpg

Ronson and company keep the original chord progression in place, albeit with a slightly sped up tempo that suits the funk/R&B textures Ronson gives the song. Included, most notably, are the addition of horns, a syncopated guitar rhythm, and a bassline cribbed from something out of a Parliment/Funkadelic track. The intro fires off a clear intention, a clear shot of recognition: you know this song, you know this version, but it won’t be the same. Listening to Radiohead’s “Just” after listening to Ronson’s “Just,” highlights the tempo shifts dramatically. “Just” isn’t nearly as uptempo and fast as it seems to be in our memories.

Ronson has made his career out of embedding funk horns into his songs long before Radiohead dropped them into “The National Anthem.” His most recent collaboration with Bruno Mars, “Uptown Funk”, is the purest example of this, but his take on Coldplay’s “God Put a Smile On Your Face” is notable because he lets the horns carry the entire melody from start to finish with nary a vocal take in site. Indeed, the horns lock perfectly with the syncopated guitar rhythm, punctuated by the snare breaks and cymbal slaps. Greenwald’s vocal take isn’t as menacing as the vile the Yorke spits out. It’s a bit smoother, though no less visceral as he cleanly snarls, “One day I’ll get to you / and teach you how to get to purest hell”.

The distinct guitar soloing that Johnny Greenwood is so adept at providing to Radiohead’s songs is missing, replaced by a breakdown and a crescendo of gameshow variety horns. But there’s no doubt that Ronson and company inherit the song and invert it into a dancehall massacre. Whereas Radiohead keep the same vein that The Bends trades in — derelict rock with a newfound artistry rounding out the corners — Ronson isn’t averse to making the song sound fun. Despite the stampede of guitars doused with distortion, “Just” has new life pushed into it by Ronson using virutally the same song structure as Radiohead. The right chords are in the right place, and the vocal take is near-identical; only the bass and drums wander their own course, dipping around the rhythm but never straying from the original path set forth by the band.

In one area, Ronson, however, takes the song one step further. By itself, the song is a track of enjoyable dirt and grime funk rock, but Ronson adds an extra dimension by one-upping the band in his own video for “Just”.

Radiohead’s original video for “Just” is cryptic, artistic, and solemn — much like the band’s identity. A middle-aged man lies down on the ground in front of an apartment building where the band plays several floors above him. In subtitles, others gather around to ask why he won’t move until finally he relents his secret, a secret so terrible (and never revealed) that everyone around him crashes to the ground around him in defeat. As the song winds down, Radiohead look on like a group of demigods, keeping watch over the action below, refusing to intervene.

In a smart, satirical take, Ronson picks up immediately where Radiohead’s original video dropped the audience. Once again, the band — this time comprised of multiple Mark Ronsons and Alex Greenwald at the microphone — looks on while a crowd of people lie prostrate on the ground below. A sanitation worker shows up and proceeds to make fun of the crowd (in subtitles, of course), asking questions like, “Who are we all today?” and “And this is symbolic is it?” But the crowning moment in the sanitation worker’s queries comes when he casts his question upward, towards the room where the Ronsons look down on the mess. “And why,” he gestures, “don’t you try writing your own songs?” His comment is greeted with a wry smile, and the song continues unabated.

When I first watched the original Radiohead video, the immediate reference I thought of was Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener”. Melville explores deep and resonant themes in the story, all that revolve around Bartleby, who has decided to greet every question and command with a simple phrase: “I would prefer not to.” One can imagine this being Ronson’s smirking response to the sanitation worker’s question. Why don’t you work on something original, some other song that you wrote? Because, simply, “I would prefer not to.”

Preference, it seems, is what it comes down to for artists who cover Radiohead’s songs. They prefer not to mimic; they prefer to tread lightly on the band’s originals, but also prefer to make them their own. But The Bends seems to get overlooked in the canon of Radiohead’s older material. True, Pablo Honey, the black sheep of the Radiohead discography, isn’t full of tunes that have artists chomping at the bit to cover them. (“Creep” is the notable exception, a song that still hasn’t lost its luster as cover material. But I can find nary a cover of “You”, “Vegetable”, or “Ripcord”, in my searches, save for Christopher O’Riley’s multiple LPs of only Radiohead songs performed on classical piano.)

The Bends is rife with “coverable” songs, although the coverability of a track clearly isn’t a mandate for most artist’s decisions to cover a track. But the ones that get picked and the ones that get left behind are telling when it comes to the selection of songs that artists choose to include. The same three songs get picked from The Bends repeatedly: “High and Dry”, “Fake Plastic Trees”, and “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”. “Just” and “Black Star” crop up occasionally, but they end up on the lower register of chosen songs. Where are the covers of “Planet Telex”, “Bones”, or “Sulk?” Or even “My Iron Lung” or “Bulletproof (I Wish I Was)?” They exist, I’m certain, in the cadre of artists that are unsigned, unpopular, or unheard of. (Again, I’m limited by the unfathomable reaches of the internet.) They also likely exist on certain nights at a local dive somewhere in America, played by musicians who have just unlocked the key to a fitful cover of “(Nice Dream)” or “The Bends”,

But rather than examine what hasn’t been covered, what has been covered has already afforded us a tremendous amount of insight into The Bends. For most of the aforementioned tracks, the artists are moving beyond the template of the original song into new territory, into a uniqueness that we still discover in The Bends. That album, for all its stamina after 20 years, still clings stubbornly to the Britpop/indie rock formulas that were so prominent in the ’90s.

As it turned out, many of us grew tired of that formula. Not because it wasn’t good or enjoyable — it managed to turn out some of the biggest bands in the world — but the limits of the genre were already beginning to contract by the time The Bends came around. Fortunately for us, Radiohead recognized these constrictions and morphed into something new by jettisoning their rock formula for intellectual adornment and electronic moods on OK Computer. These covering artists have followed suit, jettisoning the established formula for their own brand of uniqueness and proficiency.

What we can discover by listening to these artists’ perspectives on songs from The Bends is that Radiohead were already adding layers to their music by their sophomore album, layers that they might not have thought to extract on their debut. Whether conscious or unconscious (thought I’m betting on consciousness given their continued restlessness), the shift from Pablo Honey to The Bends to OK Computer sounds like a band becoming more self-aware, more introspective, and, simultaneously, more expressive and aggressive. Looking back on it now, the aforementioned album progression sounds a lot like Yorke’s “two jumps in a week” from “High and Dry”. Clever? Yes, pretty clever, boy. But not just clever — clever sometimes implies an irony or sarcasm — but also smart, smarter than even we might have realized at the time.

For being 20 years old, The Bends has held up remarkable well. It’s still an album that’s easy to take in, easy to enjoy, and also easy to situate in the band’s legacy. Other artists have also digested its legacy remarkably well, too. By searching and dissecting the songs again and again, artists that have chosen songs from The Bends to cover chose to do so because of the song’s permanence, resonance, and all-around gut appeal. This is not to mention their connection, whether emotional or spiritual, with the messages the song’s possess.

Artists who include Radiohead in their catalog of cover songs are those most likely to cast off the shock of recognition; that is, they subvert listener expectations by shaping the tune into something they themselves could have written under the right circumstances. Even though The Bends hasn’t achieved the level of coverage that OK Computer or even Kid A has, the shock of recognition is ever-present whenever and wherever they are played. The shock shows no signs of wearing off whoever is lucky enough to hear them