'The Bends' and the Blazing of a Trail Into the New Millennium

Vance Martin

Amidst a transformational time in the post-Vietnam and post-Reagan eras, The Bends represented a transition between the tumultuous latter half of the 20th century and the new millennium ahead.


The Bends

US Release: 1995-04-04
UK Release: 1995-03-13
Label: Parlophone / Capitol

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.

Vance Martin is an eclectic historian, with many interests. When not writing he prepares for the impending zombie apocalypse with his wife and three small children in South Carolina.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less

"Hold on to the Night" is a club-ready indie rock tune outfitted with polished musicianship and contemporary swagger.

If one thing is true so far about recent alternative upstarts THRILLCHASER, it's that they certainly live up to their band's name. Originally known as American Wolves, Rod Pires, Nikki Zell, and Rob Lundy built a considerable following under the moniker before deciding to renovate a little. Rebranding their sound into the THRILLCHASER that we know today, the trio, with their new name in tow, invokes a pop-rock sentiment similar to the slick, modern vibes of bands like the 1975.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.