radiohead the bends

Between the Grooves of Radiohead’s ‘The Bends’

PopMatters takes a deep dive into Radiohead’s first musically important album, The Bends, where the group’s experimental inclinations initially took flight.

Radiohead
The Bends
Parlophone / Capitol
13 March 1995

1. “Planet Telex”

The finest musical introductions serve as a welcome party. Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady”, Queens of the Stone Age’s “Feel Good Hit of the Summer”, and TV on the Radio’s “Halfway Home” all proclaim, “You’ve arrived!” to whatever otherworldly realm the band in question has discovered. “Planet Telex” is, undoubtedly, a grand welcome party, but it was also a departure for Radiohead at the time: “Welcome to The Bends, this ain’t Pablo Honey.”

Pablo Honey is harshly judged by the Radiohead fanbase, but by itself, it’s a completely serviceable ’90s alt-rock record. If any other band had made it, perhaps it would be remembered more fondly. But, in the wake of “Planet Telex”, Pablo Honey became an anemic and pale forerunner of what Radiohead could do.

“Planet Telex” is, first and foremost, unashamedly massive. In the ’90s, rock bands that were reaching for radio charts amped up mammoth-sized guitars and vocal lines, the sort of sound that defined U2 and Oasis’ biggest hits. That gorgeous, trembling organ that opened “Planet Telex” did, indeed, seem planet-sized. Even in the face of, say, “Don’t Look Back in Anger”, the swooning guitars that dominate the chorus engulfed all senses and felt large enough to swallow entire cities with plenty of room to spare.

According to the Radiohead mythos, the group recorded “Planet Telex” while piss drunk, with Thom Yorke delivering his coy vocals lying down on the studio floor. It certainly has a drunken swagger to it; this is where Yorke proved the sad boy persona that controlled “Creep” wouldn’t take hold on every note he sang. Instead, “Planet Telex” (along with “Bones”) is brilliant evidence that Yorke could be a bonafide rock star. His smug coo in the verses playfully taunts an unseen presence (“You can force it, but it will not come”), but the chorus erupts with rapturous confusion. Yorke nearly screams “everything is” before muttering “broken” under his breath, like a sarcastic send-off to a more optimistic lyricist.

All of Yorke’s soaring work is propelled by the immaculate background that holds “Planet Telex” together. Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, and Ed O’Brien’s guitars all collided together with palpable electricity; Phil Selway and Colin Greenwood deliver an understated, but vital, rhythm performance that keeps the buoyant chorus afloat. Jonny not only defines “Planet Telex” with his Johnny Marr-esque chops but also with his organ and synthesizer work. This is the first hint of Radiohead’s electronic experiments that would produce the eeriest tracks on Ok Computer and come to define Kid A. But it wasn’t thorny or terrifying on “Planet Telex”; no, this is a pop masterstroke covered in guitar licks and a swirling piano maelstrom. No other Radiohead album lead track has the warmth or instantaneous pleasure of “Planet Telex”; 20 years on, it still serves as the phenomenal gatekeeper to The Bends. – Nathan Stevens


2. “The Bends”

On the surface, “The Bends” is just another brick in the wall of Thom Yorke’s struggles with early success. Themes ebb and flow: uncertainty about his future, distrust of those around him, longing for the time when he could live comfortably under the radar. Yorke uses the metaphor of “the bends”, a colloquialism for the decompression sickness that affects divers ascending through water too quickly, to frame his sudden rise to stardom, but also the impact his depression has on those around him. What results is a sobering look into what happens when an already left-of-center psyche gets pushed into the strange spiral of fame. The title track of The Bends also serves as a time capsule of the ’90s, when MTV was at its height and the paparazzi were at their most ruthless.

The song begins with an odd cacophony which, if the Radiohead Reddit is to be believed, is a recording Yorke made of a parade passing by his hotel window. There’s an incredible juxtaposition in these 11 seconds that informs the rest of the song. Yorke, a rockstar who longs to “be part of the human race” again, can only watch from his ivory tower as people with less extraordinary lives break from their humdrum day-to-day to partake in a loud and joyful celebration. For these people, real-life will begrudgingly begin again when the final trumpeter returns home. Yorke, however, is a constant participant in a parade much larger in scope. There are no breaks, no retiring to normalcy. The irony here is that both parties are likely jealous of the other, choosing to see only the sour grapes of their own lives.

This field recording also places the listener in a circus-like atmosphere at the top of the song. When their debut single became an international hit, Radiohead was dropped into the epicenter of the media frenzy that typified the ’90s. For a band that had been together for eight years, creating in a vacuum of anonymity, the chances of their first output making any waves were unfathomably against their favor — especially since they had released “Creep” once already, in 1992. It was the re-release in 1993 that caught on, placing undue pressure on the band to either embrace the ominous forecast of being one-hit wonders or to retreat back into obscurity.

Yorke’s “Where do we go from here?” is hardly rhetorical; the circumstances he’d found himself and his band in were truly stupefying, compounded by his depressive tendencies: “Who are my real friends? / Have they all got the bends? / Am I really sinking this low? / My baby’s got the bends, oh no / We don’t have any real friends, no no no”.

Then there are the people around Yorke and the band. Throughout the album, there’s a thread of a relationship; in “The Bends”, Yorke specifically references his girlfriend and later on “Black Star”, a breakup. Here, he wonders what her experience is, being close to him in this state of mind. Does she feel the same kind of sickness, having to follow him through the changes in his career? How do his lows affect her, or others close to him? Are they having similar experiences trying to synthesize the fame, or are they victims of their proximity to him? Most importantly, are they abandoning him? “The Bends” presents the questions that Yorke spends the entire album attempting to answer or apologize for asking.

At the song’s end, Yorke repeats his opening query: “Where are you now when I need you?”. Rather than imbue it with accusation, as he does in the first lines, he is sincere and scared. He is clearly capable of pushing forward, having voiced most of his discontent in abstract wishes – but he is also lonely. While railing against his status can seem privileged, Yorke concludes with a simple question that cuts through the earlier din of clunky lines like “They brought the CIA / The tanks and the whole marines / To blow me away, to blow me sky high”. In the last seconds of his thesis, in this moment of tenderness, Yorke wins us over. – Dan Derks


3. “High and Dry”

“High and Dry” is not the most musically sophisticated of Radiohead’s songs. Since Thom Yorke wrote it in college, and it was recorded during the sessions for Pablo Honey, this should not be surprising. But there is much to be said for a simple song that simply works, where everything just fits and nothing is out of place, letting Thom’s voice shine through. Let us look at what makes this unassuming song so peaceful and satisfying.

The song starts small. First, there is a beat. Then we meet our one and only chord progression: F#m -- A -- E. Over that occurs a guitar riff that uses just three notes: G#-F#, then G#-E, then, simply E:

A melody that descends tends to imply a sense of peace and relaxation. The riff descends, and the verse, too, is simply a set of two descending phrases that repeats:

Each phrase of the verse kicks off with a burst of energy on a dramatic high E that’s gently dissonant over the F# minor chord, but that energy quickly melts as the melody descends into relative consonance. In the second bar, that E is repeated over an A chord, where it is now consonant. That doesn’t fully release the tension, but by the third bar, the tune resolves from A to G# over the E chord. This is what theorists call a 4-3 resolution, the same highly peaceful formula often used for the word “Amen”:

The second phrase repeats the first phrase before ending on a new note, a low E. The low E creates an even more complete sense of resolution; it completes the octave with the high E that started the verse, and it’s a descent to the first scale degree on the tonic chord of the song. The song could end right there.

Note, though, that on the way down, Thom artfully skips F#, and we won’t feel full resolution until we’ve heard that note. In fact, F# never does occur in the tune, but each time it’s skipped during the riff, verse, or chorus, we hear it in the root of the following chord. Thus each resolution also creates momentum that propels us onward.

The chorus provides the song’s highest point of drama, as a chorus should. On the words “Don’t leave me high,” it swiftly ascends G#-A-B before leaping to the high G#:

That G# sits a ninth above the F#m chord, an interval more dissonant than the seventh that began the verse. And while the verse touched on and immediately left its dissonant high E, the chorus’ G# is sustained. The dissonance doesn’t resolve for two bars until the G# recurs on the word “dry” over an E chord where it can be consonant. So much energy has been built up by this dramatic leap that we need a second resolution, a very classical 3-2-1 on G#-F#-E. Finally, the end of the chorus resolves with the same low A-G#-E that ended the verse. (The dissonant G# also conveniently fills in a gap left by the F#m-A-E chord progression.)

The chorus complements the verse and riff in several ways. The verse goes down; the chorus goes up. The verse spans the octave from E to E, and the chorus spans the octave from G# to G#, ultimately dropping down to and ending on the same low E that ends the verse. Now we see how the song is built on E and G#. The same notes happen to begin and end the opening riff. In fact, the riff contains the same notes (G#-F#-E) that the chorus employs at the top of its range. In an extra bit of symmetry, the chorus balances its three consecutive high notes with three consecutive low notes (G#-A-B); the low E that connects it to the verse completes it.

No melody so far has used the pitch D#, and every phrase of the verse has skipped D# as it descends E-C#-B. These repeated skips create a need for D#, an opportunity for a pleasing moment in which the long-withheld pitch is meaningfully deployed. Now look at the guitar solo:

It pounds home the D# by repeating it and repeatedly resolving it to E — note that the solo also includes the F# that the voice also skipped. Thus, the guitar complements the voice.

There is enough tension here to give the song some energy, but the overall context is a relaxing one, in which every tension gets released and every expectation is ultimately gently fulfilled. Coupled with the lyrics, this creates a satisfying sense of introversion and resignation.

Thom Yorke has said this song is “fucking dreadful”. Might we urge him to reconsider? – Ben Morss


4. “Fake Plastic Trees”

“Fake Plastic Trees” signaled a big shift in approach for Radiohead, one that, with the benefit of hindsight, turned out to be more significant than anyone would’ve thought possible in 1995. Back in the day, what your average modern-rock listener noticed about the first single released from The Bends in the U.S. was that it didn’t really remind you of the soft-loud-soft post-grunge of Radiohead’s claim-to-fame, “Creep”. In contrast to the overwrought romanticism and angst that made “Creep” so period appropriate when it came out, “Fake Plastic Trees” came off more refined, almost elegant in the way it steadily built up a sense of drama to get across a profound sort of millennial existentialism. In that sense, Radiohead wasn’t so much trying to prove that it wasn’t just another one-hit-wonder by coming up with its next alt-rock chart-topper with “Fake Plastic Trees”. Instead, the song suggested that the band had bigger, better artistic ambitions than that.

So beyond being arguably the signature track from The Bends, “Fake Plastic Trees” has an even more vaunted place in Radiohead’s discography as a pivot point for the group’s transition to the art-minded, high-concept rock that it would become synonymous with not too much later. Thematically, “Fake Plastic Trees” gives a sneak peek into the dystopian postmodernism that Radiohead albums after The Bends have explored. Thom Yorke’s jaundiced eye offers a detached perspective of a world where nothing seems authentic or even real, the kind of place where green plastic watering cans are used for “fake Chinese rubber plants in the fake plastic earth”.

But there’s still something about this “town full of rubber plans” that’s not as bleak and alienating as the scenes on OK Computer and Kid A, which has a lot to do with how Yorke delivers his lines. That’s felt the most strongly when Yorke’s falsetto climbs on the third verse, imploring, “She looks like the real thing / She tastes like the real thing”, with a sense of yearning that doesn’t succumb to either an air of resignation or nihilistic ranting into which the song could have easily lapsed. Here, Yorke’s voice articulates the hope for transcendence, even when his words aren’t as sure of that possibility.

In step with the vocals, the music overcomes a cold and distant quality to the production when the guitar lines crescendo as Yorke’s voice does as if both are reaching out for something of substance and meaning whether or not it ultimately slips from their grasp. Aesthetically, “Fake Plastic Trees” encapsulates what Radiohead did so well on The Bends while also gesturing at what the group would later become, combining a classic song structure, complete with a pop-song payoff as good as any they’ve given, and the still, otherworldly tone the band has been identified by ever since. At once a discrete piece, as well as a composition with a soaring sense of scale that feels more expansive than just a song, “Fake Plastic Trees”, has to be in the running as one of Radiohead’s most complete and satisfying moments. – Arnold Pan


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