Sonic Bloom: The Lackluster Reception Turned Lasting Reputation of 'The Bends'
No matter how many times someone writes that Radiohead and The Bends “changed the face of music” in 1995, the retail and radio numbers tell a different story.
While most present-day discussions surrounding Radiohead’s The Bends emphatically hail their 1995 sophomore album as one of the greatest albums of that year, the entire decade of the '90s, and even of all time (according to some), there is usually an inherent assumption imbedded in the conversation that presumes that the album has continually been held in high regard from the time of its initial release. In fact, many present-day Bends-related stories seem to be written through a rose-colored filter of hindsight history that paints a picture of Radiohead’s immediate and unquestionable cultural and critical dominance over not only the alternative music scene, but also the entire musical spectrum of 1995.
However, a quick survey of the mid-'90s cultural terrain exposes something entirely different. At the time, popular culture wasn’t exactly sure what to do with The Bends. Sure, everyone was still joyfully riding the “Creep” wave that had yet to crest from its 1992 cannonball off the high dive. Yet, because of (or in spite of) all of their unique quirkiness and sonic idiosyncrasies, Radiohead were a cause of much head-scratching, and The Bends did not help them to find a comfortable landing place in the collective cultural consciousness. Before we dive headfirst into the impact of The Bends though, allow me to frame the climate of its creation.
You remember 1995: Bill Clinton was halfway through his first presidential term, America Online started telling us “You’ve Got Mail” for the very first time, the Beatles released a single that included new material for the first time in 25 years, and “must-see court TV” became a wide-spread phenomenon when cameras were allowed into the courtroom for the O.J. Simpson double murder trial to be broadcast live on national television. The disparate disposition of the culture at large was reflected in our entertainment choices. The top three highest-grossing movies of the year were a quasi-historical dramatization (Apollo 13), a CGI-animated buddy comedy (Toy Story), and the third installment of the “how does this keep happening to one man” Die Hard action movie franchise (Die Hard with a Vengeance). Similarly mixed, the top three most-watched television shows of the year were about a catchphrase-friendly family man/tool-themed TV host (Home Improvement), Chicago-based emergency room doctors, (ER) and, well, nothing (Seinfeld).
This was a uniquely dissonant pop culture atmosphere, one that showed as much fervor and excitement for the “will they or won’t they” antics of Ross and Rachael on Friends (which had its first season finale in 1995) as it did for they “did he or didn’t he” actions of a celebrated Pro Football Hall of Famer on trial for murder. It was in this atmosphere that Radiohead recorded and released The Bends, their own agitated reflection and disoriented commentary on the blurred schism between internal fantasy and external reality. However, while retrospection has shown us that Radiohead managed to create an astute musical mirror of the befuddling times, an examination of the musical landscape of 1995 shows that music audiences were interested in just about anything else except that.
Pop Is (Not) Dead: The Mainstream Music Landscape Circa 1995
Although the '90s are often inextricably associated with guitar-led alternative/college rock bands that thumbed their collective nose at conventional mainstream popular music expectations (Radiohead included), one can actually get a more accurate understanding of the popular music milieu of 1995 by looking no further than the #1 best-selling album of the year: Hootie and the Blowfish’s Cracked Rear View. It was current pop-country crooner Darius Rucker and company that dominated the 1995 Billboard 200 charts with five separate runs at number one, eventually selling over ten million copies of their feel-good, frat-rock 16 times platinum major label debut in 1995 alone.
From a singles perspective, the 1995 Billboard Hot 100 shows that the number one single of the year was Coolio’s 2 times platinum “Gangsta’s Paradise” from the Dangerous Minds soundtrack. In fact, of the 12 songs that ended up hitting the number one slot on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart throughout all of 1995, 11 of them were pop-tinged R&B numbers from the likes of Boyz II Men, TLC, Madonna, Montell Jordan, Seal, Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.
The lone guitar-holding holdout, you ask? That would be Bryan Adams, with “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman” from the soundtrack to the Johnny Depp-led rom-com Don Juan Demarco, which camped out at number one for the first five weeks of summer. No matter how many times someone writes that Radiohead and The Bends “changed the face of music” in 1995, the retail and radio numbers tell a different story, one that was filled (as always) with sugary sweet pop hooks, singalong lyrics, and big choruses that could be easily memorized and effortlessly belted out at the drop of a hat.
It wasn’t just the R&B, hip-hop, and pop-fueled mainstream music scene of 1995 that didn’t seem to have a place for Radiohead and The Bends. Their own “home genre” of alternative music didn’t seem to know exactly what to do with them either. The alternative music scene experienced a fracturing after the April 1994 death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. In the post-Cobain wake the following year, the alternative genre was overrun with a thick glut of guitar-led, grunge-lite albums from bands like Everclear, Collective Soul, Silverchair, Better Than Ezra, Soul Asylum, Our Lady Peace, Dishwalla, and more. Nonconformity had become commercialized, and a steady stream of “more of the same” bogged down the creative explosiveness that had defined the genre’s impact just a few years prior. The dyed-in-the-wool guitar-bass-drums format of bands like Radiohead quickly overcrowded the genre and caused a sonic splintering of offshoots that invigorated the alternative scene with new variations on the theme.
This fragmentation allowed the alternative music scene to start playing with a completely different deck in 1995. Instead of just relying on the Seattleite grunge gods and their formulaic follow-afters, alternative radio started spinning a wider variety of sounds from a larger pool of bands. The big stories of the 1995 alternative music scene included the so-called “Battle of Britpop” between Blur and Oasis for UK chart domination, equal opportunity and long overdue respect for women in both solo (Alanis Morrisette, PJ Harvey, Bjork, Natalie Merchant, Jill Sobule, Lisa Loeb) and band settings (Garbage, No Doubt, Elastica, Sleater-Kinney), the emergence of electronica and trip-hop (Massive Attack, Nine Inch Nails, Moby, Tricky, Chemical Brothers), and the huge surge in popularity experienced by punk and third-wave ska bands (Green Day, Rancid, Blink-182, Reel Big Fish). Even the burgeoning alt-rock genre got some press with the debuts of post-Uncle Tupelo descendants Wilco and Son Volt.
Oh yeah, 1995 also featured the self-titled debut release from Foo Fighters, Dave Grohl’s post-Nirvana one-man-band project that attracted (and earned) more than its fair share of attention. However, within all of those stories, Radiohead was merely on the fringes, occasionally mentioned as an also-ran, but rarely the sole focus of their own moment.
So if Radiohead wasn’t a major player in the larger mainstream popular music consciousness, the alternative music scene, or even very many Britpop discussions, where exactly did The Bends fit in when it was released?
(Not) Anyone Can Play Guitar: How The Bends Landed in the 1995 Music Scene
When The Bends was released on 13 March 1995, Boyz II Men’s slow jam-heavy II was sitting at the top of the Billboard 200 albums chart and Madonna’s brooding ballad “Take A Bow” was reigning over the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Expectations were high for Radiohead to follow-up the success of their monster debut single “Creep” from a few years prior, and fears of a sophomore slump were already being whispered as the subsequent singles released from Pablo Honey and their My Iron Lung EP (released in October of 1994) did not come close to achieving the same enthusiastic reception. At the time, Radiohead was seen as nothing more than a buzz bin, one-hit wonder with everything to prove and nothing to lose.
“High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees” were the first two official singles Radiohead put out for The Bends, not counting “My Iron Lung” from the previous year’s titular EP. They both achieved moderate success, returning the band to the singles charts for the first time since “Creep” peaked at number two on the Billboard Modern Rock charts (#34 on the Billboard Hot 100). “High and Dry” reached #18 on the Modern Rock charts (#78 overall) and “Fake Plastic Trees” did a little bit better at #11 (#65 overall). Both music videos played well on MTV and became 120 Minutes mainstays. Radiohead even showed up twice in the movie Clueless, offering an acoustic version of “Fake Plastic Trees” for the film’s soundtrack and being playfully referred to as “complaint rock” by Alicia Silverstone in the film.
Even with those respectable blips on the pop cultural radar, most critics did not initially receive The Bends with open arms. Rolling Stone’s initial review of The Bends focused specifically on lead singer Thom Yorke’s distinct delivery and diction, stating, “[He] is so enamored of singing honeyed melodies that he dilutes the sting of his acid tongue” and his “oblique lyrics… erode the power of [his] decayed emotions.” The Chicago Tribune didn’t see much promise or potential in The Bends, claiming, “There’s little on the British group’s second record to suggest they’ll be more than one-hit wonders.”
The band didn’t fare much better with SPIN, who stingingly wrote that the album “just proves the band is afraid to be pigeonholed into the only style it’s very good at” and that there was “too much nodded-out nonsense mumble, not enough concrete emotion.” SPIN also put the band in the smallest box (and perhaps gave voice to the most fickle of cultural expectations), by bemoaning the fact that “The Bends is never ‘Creep’-like enough.” At the time, The Bends was merely seen as nothing more than the follow-up album to Pablo Honey, and wasn’t given much (if any) elevation over the sea of supposed sound-alikes overpopulating the alternative music scene.
As hard as it may be to believe in light of their present-day musical mythos, at the time, Radiohead was just another band struggling to escape the long shadow of a right-out-of-the-gate hit. They were precariously perched on the edge of being forgotten might-have-beens.
How to (Not) Disappear Completely: What Changed to Alter the Legacy of The Bends
So if The Bends was just another album from just another band in 1995 terms, what exactly caused the shift in its standing from mediocre to masterpiece? In hindsight, the transformation can be traced back to three important factors that coalesced to spark the tide change in popular opinion. Had even one of these ingredients been absent from the mix, The Bends would have surely run the risk of becoming nothing more than nostalgic bargain bin fodder just waiting for some lonely soul with five dollars and a yearning to relive “the good ol’ days” to walk by and take it home.
The first contributing factor was Radiohead’s next two albums, the wildly experimental OK Computer in 1997 and the week-one-platinum-smash Kid A in 2000. With both of these albums, The Bends shifted from being just “the most recent Radiohead album” to being its own volume in a larger body of work. Instead of The Bends being the focal point through which audiences tried to understand Radiohead, the album became a reference point through which audiences tried to wrap their heads around the ever-increasing eccentricities of the new records. In reviews for OK Computer and Kid A, The Bends was heavily used as a talking point, usually a positive one, to sketch the ambitious creative leaps and bounds Radiohead was taking. As baffled music journalists were trying their best to stop just shy of accusing Radiohead of trying to be weird for the sake of weird, they would write off The Bends as the kinder, gentler version of Radiohead. By the time Kid A exploded onto the scene, fans were already splitting off into sub-groups: those loving the newer electronic experimentation side of the band and those loudly self-identifying as “more of a Bends-era Radiohead fan”.
The second contributing factor was the turn-of-the-century musical landscape of the early '00s. Pop music was selling at dizzying speeds with manufactured, made-to-order ensembles in the form of boy bands (The Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, 98 Degrees, et al.), girl groups (Destiny’s Child, Pussycat Dolls, Girls Aloud, et al.), Latin pop solo acts (Ricky Martin, Shakira, Enrique Iglesias), and former Mouseketeer/Kids Incorporated child stars (Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, Wild Orchid, Fergie, Jennifer Love Hewitt).
Even alternative radio, once a safe haven to Radiohead, was experiencing seismic shifts due to the influx of post-grunge bands (Creed, Nickelback, 3 Doors Down) and rap-rock-metal hybrids (Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, and other spellcheck nightmares). In stark contrast to all of these new musical movements, '90s nostalgia set in quickly, possibly before the new millennium even hit. The changeover from the '90s to the '00s was an unquestionable guitar feast to famine, allowing the more substantial albums of the mid-'90s surplus to rise to the surface of retrospective remembrance. Within this pop culture petri dish, The Bends was one of the foremost albums to a get new life under the new millennium’s musical microscope.
The third contributing factor was the combined frequency and fluidity of any and all “best of the '90s” lists. Not only did these lists saturate the '00s due to the excitement of the dual decade/millennium change, but they also have continued to be popular in a digital media world that thrives on nostalgia-based reminiscence, retrospection, and revision. As these lists are trotted out year after year, a symbiotic relationship can be easily identified between bands that are no longer active and those that are.
While most of the one-and-done, flash-in-the-pan bands experience a stagnation or slippage, bands like Radiohead and Foo Fighters -- groups who are not only still active, but releasing some of their very best work -- reap the benefits of this continued reexamination. Also, it’s important to note that the quality of each new release seems to dictate the level of the revision of their prior work as well. The Bends is one of the albums that continues to creep up these “best of” lists with each passing year, and with each new Radiohead release.
Much like Weezer’s Pinkerton, also a sophomore LP (but one without the benefit of another follow-up in the '90s), The Bends became a record that was known, not for what it was in the moment, but for what it has turned into over the years. The record has actually benefited from initially being placed to the side of 1995 because it has allowed for the continual reexamination and reassessment of its contents in light of what Radiohead has done since its release. With each sonic leap forward (or sideways, depending on your tastes) and the fearless experimentation that has taken place on each new Radiohead release, the vision and importance of The Bends becomes clearer in focus and more understandable in scope. We may not have known exactly what to do with The Bends in 1995, but we’re getting a little closer each year as Radiohead continues to evolve, surprise, and test the aural boundaries of whoever will listen.
In the same way that taking a few steps back from a painting helps the picture come into fuller view, the farther we get from the initial release of The Bends, we are afforded the opportunity to get closer to fully experiencing its sheer sonic brilliance, as well as understanding the impact of its enduring ripples. It can be easy to overstate the significance of what The Bends meant to 1995. However, it’s important to remember that for all of the fleeting, ephemeral glories of those that peaked early in high school, it’s the awkward, misjudged ones that usually end up changing the world.
Will Hodge is the Music Editor at NoiseTrade, the proprietor of My So-Called Soundtrack, and a Chicago-based freelance journalist who rambles on about music and pop culture for a variety of online publications. He has also written album liner notes, a master's thesis on Bob Dylan, and the wrong date on many a paper check.