Between the Grooves of Radiohead’s ‘The Bends’

PopMatters begins its look back at Radiohead's The Bends today. Here we examine The Bends track by track, examining it from angles spanning the cultural to the theoretical.
The Bends
Parlophone / Capitol

1. “Planet Telex”

The finest musical introductions serve as a welcome party. 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. img-800 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. img-800 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:

Example 1

Top: lead guitar; Bottom, chords


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:

Example 2

Top: vocals; Bottom, chords


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”:

Example 3

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#:

Example 4

Top: vocals; Bottom, chords


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:

Example 5


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? img-800 Ben Morss

“Fake Plastic Trees” to “(Nice Dream)”

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. img-801 Arnold Pan


5. “Bones”

It’s a long march to the payoff of Radiohead’s “Bones”, the payoff being a substantive bassline courtesy of Colin Greenwood and a garbled opening line from Thom Yorke. “Bones” is not the tightest of songs on The Bends and no one is going to claim it as being the standout track on an album built on standout tracks. To begin with, it’s the shortest song on the record, clocking in at a brief three minutes and nine seconds. But it takes a full 30 seconds, a lot of wasted time time for such a short track, before the swell of tremolo guitars coalesce into something usable.

Eventually, the guitars find the lock between the bass and Phil Selway’s supplemental drumming, but it’s not until the chorus—a repeated, perfunctory phrase from Yorke, “When you’ve got to feel it in your bones”—that the guitar dynamics play off Yorke’s higher vocal register as it hops in and out of its falsetto frenzy.

To be forthright about “Bones,” it’s more than a bit maudlin in its overabundance of rock clichés: the guitar swell, the highlighted bassline, followed by the “loud, quiet, loud” formula that works oh-so-well when applied at proper intervals. Yorke’s lyrics are devoid of his later crypticism and tackle the literal concept of bones and their slow deterioration (“I don’t want to be crippled and cracked / shoulders, wrists, knees, and back”). “Bones” also holds the distinct honor of being one of only a few modern rock songs to namecheck Peter Pan and his aerial abilities (“I used to fly like Peter Pan / all the children flew when I touched their hands”). It’s not entirely cringe-inducing, but it’s not far off, either.

Still, “Bones” is deadpan sincerity; if there’s irony to it, it’s an irony hidden in plain view, masquerading as a meditation on fear and numbness via medicine. Yorke growls about “Prozac painkillers” and “pieces missing” from our useless bodies. From here we can glimpse the band’s deeper, more resonant lyrical themes on later albums starting to take shape on “Bones”, a mix-up of the literal and figurative. Our bodies regularly fail us through physical means on The Bends; later, our mental and spiritual capacities begin to erode on OK Computer and nearly fall apart on Kid A. This progression in lyrical content is built around fear of what’s to come. Given that “Bones” plays fast and loose with verb tense so that we’re never quite sure what level of physical pain is real, and what pain is aggregated from the past, present, and future.

“Bones” has a difficult job being the follow-on track after the knockout combination of “High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees”, the two tracks that come before it, respectively. But if the quickness of its runtime is any indication, “Bones”‘s job is a perfunctory one. It’s a palate cleanser, returning the listener back to the rock tempos that came before it after back-to-back balladry. It also serves as a bridge to carry the LP and the listener over the second half of the album, past the sweet, lulling atmosphere of “(Nice Dream)” and into the punishing realm of “Just” — the Side B kickstarter of a single that’s also a fan favorite off of The Bends.

Tracks like “Bones” carry the momentum of the record ever onward, pausing only to call attention to the exquisite pacing of the record. In that respect, “Bones” is crucial to the sequence: removing it might cause the record to collapse in on itself. Having “Bones” hold the space in that vital spot between downtempo numbers demonstrates that Radiohead understood, even a mere two albums into their career, that the concept of “everything in its right place” was more than just clever notion to be extracted at a later date. img-801 Scott Elingburg


6. “(Nice Dream)”

I’ve long felt that true artistic talent is innate, meaning that it resides within people; it might or might not motivate them to take a stance, to go out of their way to create something they believe in. Thom Yorke is a musician who always has struck me as intensely self-driven, who pushes ideas out of his self as much as possible for the sake of creating something new. Maybe it’s truly the way he and his bandmates are; or, maybe, this idea is an illusion maintained by critical hype. Nevertheless, Radiohead have consistently come across as innately talented artists, and much of this surely has to do with the seemingly trivial experiences that went on to inspire some of their most memorable songs.

Enter “(Nice Dream)”, the centerpiece of The Bends, which was written after Yorke took a half-drunk slumber. It is a song about the interactions we experience with people and how our mind reflects upon them after we walk away. All the anxieties and pressures that come with a simple conversation lie underneath “(Nice Dream)”, but they are not spelled out. Rather, they are simply hinted towards as fuel for inspiration. Yorke tells stories in the song, ones about feelings he once experienced in a dream, but they’re all indistinct and blurry, concealed with a kind of fog that only our sleep can spawn. The rest of the group plays to this tune, cultivating atmosphere that is simultaneously stunning and diffident; it is something immediately appreciable, but can only be understood with time.

This kind of songwriting, illusive and muted, is quite unlike the rest of The Bends. The album has a simple and straight-laced sound, one that indicates a band just beginning to find their footing. Most of what is special about the release is exposed, out in the open for listeners to immediately latch onto. “(Nice Dream)” combats this phenomenon by coming across as a spiritual precursor to 1997’s OK Computer, existing as a compilation of layers that gel exceptionally well. This song takes a few listens to sink in because of the mystery it’s cloaked by.

The chords comprising its introduction are confusing at first. They are then subtly shifted into a more emotionally opaque structure, a more familiar one, accompanied by Yorke’s delicate vocal performance. What makes this song so fundamental to Radiohead’s career is that it does so many of the things the group is now known for: it helped create the legacy on the shoulders of the group today. And the only reason this occurred is that Thom Yorke had a dream, one that made him think about those around him and his connections with them. Yet although it was a half-drunken state of mind that brought him to these places, but in no way does this discredit the feelings “(Nice Dream)” provokes, nor its impact on Radiohead as a whole. In this song’s case, a little bit of thinking turned into a whole lot of dreaming, and it hasn’t stopped since. img-801 J.C. Macek

“Just” to “Bullet Proof (I Wish I Was)”

7. “Just”

The first thing that makes “Just” one of Radiohead’s best tunes is the same thing that makes the Pablo Honey essential “Creep” so brilliant: two unassuming palm-muted strums. While the latter tune is perhaps most well known for its grungy and catchy chorus, whose lyrics evoke the kind of alienation that would be fully fleshed out on OK Computer four years later, musically its greatest trick are the two palm-muted strums by guitarist Jonny Greenwood right before the chorus kicks in. The verses to “Creep” are near somnambulatory, with Thom Yorke’s vocals going no higher than an articulate moan and the clean guitar arpeggios keeping themselves from coming too assertive in the mix. Then, out of nowhere, two chunky palm-muted strums jar the listener out of the lugubrious stroll of the verses and into the distortion-driven chorus. That these strums appear without context is crucial to the heaviness of the song’s chorus. After the bleary-eyed verses, the music needs a proper jolt to take off into the chorus that has now become one of Radiohead’s defining moments.

“Just” uses palm-muted strums to similar success; however, it doesn’t wait long before employing them. The track kicks off with an appealing chord progression on acoustic guitar, but before that idea can be explored in full, the doors are kicked off the hinges as Greenwood gives two firm palm-muted strums to kick the song and his guitar into overdrive. “Just” is an adrenaline-filled four minutes, operating on clear instrumental contrasts: distorted guitar riffs juxtaposed with clean tones in the verses, Greenwood’s Mark Knopfler-indebted post-chorus riff in counterpoint to the tremolo-picking of his solo toward the song’s conclusion. There is nothing overly complicated about this brilliant rocker, yet over the years it has stood the test of time, ranking up with even the more complex pieces that make up OK Computer.

When writing about “Just” within the context of Radiohead’s legacy circa 2015, one cannot help but be a little nostalgic. These Oxonians haven’t written a straightforward rock song of this variety since the days of The Bends. Arguably, the In Rainbows cut “Bodysnatchers” is in the legacy of Radiohead’s alt-rock days, but sonically it owes more to the rock revival of the early ’00s than the grungy rock of the early-to-mid-’90s. As the group has pushed more and more into the electronic realm, culminating with the utterly bland 2011 LP The King of Limbs, the strongest songs on The Bends become all the more appealing, “Just” especially. Much can and continues to be said about the intricate songwriting of Radiohead, but while The Bends is less sophisticated in its composition than, for instance, OK Computer, it is nonetheless a perfectly distilled representation of the kind of rock that dominated the ’90s.

At the same time, however, it’s not that “Just” represents Radiohead in some pure, “pre-experimental” form. Much of what makes this song tick also plays a prominent role in the Radiohead that would go on to be exalted by the critical press as the greatest rock band of this still-young century. Yorke’s lyrics, inspired by a self-obsessed friend of his, express the kind of pre-Y2K socio-technological dread that is a predominant feature of OK Computer and Kid A. The inimitable guitar playing on The Bends laid the groundwork that allowed OK Computer, the highest representation of Radiohead’s guitar-centric songwriting, to be made.

That being said, “Just” also does remind us of what has changed in Radiohead’s music. Most notably, after The Bends, guitar solos in the traditional sense became a thing of the past for the group. Certainly, plenty of fascinating riffs and chord progressions populate releases like OK Computer and In Rainbows, but given how consummate a composer Greenwood is, it’s easy to want him to explore his instrument within the framework of a solo, which places the guitar in the forefront in a unique way.

Looking back on “Just” and The Bends as a whole 20 years after their release, it’s easy to see how the song is both a signpost for the achievement Radiohead made at that time and a microcosmic demarcation of where they would move onto after 1995. Indeed, the band hasn’t since written rock “like they did in the old days”. However, one can’t really hold it against the band that they moved on from the alt-rock of The Bends; as “Just” evinces, their savvy grasp of this kind of rock ‘n’ roll is beyond reproach.

Whether or not Radiohead has been successful in its post-guitar rock experiments is up for debate (I’ve made my case elsewhere on this site), but one thing can be said confidently: a career full of clones of The Bends would have been very boring indeed. No matter the various musical explorations these Brits will continue to undergo in their now 30 year career, they will always have the achievement that is The Bends, and no song better represents this classic of rock music than “Just”. Five years before the release of Kid A, everything was in its right place, right here, starting off with two palm-muted strums. img-802 Brice Ezell


8. “My Iron Lung”

“My Iron Lung” is perhaps the most representative song off The Bends. Not its most emotional, or its most lyrically-informed, or its most melodic, perhaps, but it is its most representative. I’m not just saying that because it was the first song to be released from the album, in the form of the October 1994 CD-single packaged with B-sides from The Bends and an acoustic version of “Creep”.

The Bends is widely considered huge step forward from Pablo Honey, a fact best heard on “My Iron Lung”, where Thom Yorke’s lyrics take a turn towards the more abstract and Jonny Greenwood begins to shape his own guitar style. Elsewhere, its arpeggiated guitar, grunge-y crunch of its choruses and loud/soft dynamics that they’ll soon forget all recall “Creep” if Yorke’s self-depreciating line didn’t already all but namecheck that song, “This, this is our new song / Just like the last one / A total waste of time.”

Of course, Yorke does the song a disservice in his self-depreciation. Though “My Iron Lung” didn’t chart at all in the US and only managed to hit #24 in the UK, it wasn’t a matter of quality. Rather, it was simply because “My Iron Lung” wasn’t as radio-friendly as “Creep”. Consider, for example, that the band hold back the choruses as long as they do, building up to them again and again. The first example is at the 0:55 mark, where Yorke holds the word “lung” while Greenwood arpeggiates beside him and Phil Selway comes alive, all thunder and cymbals. You’d think that it would be the logical jump into the song’s chorus; however, they instead merely go back to the opening riff.

The second buildup is at the 1:30 mark, when Jonny Greenwood’s guitar crunch first appears (following Yorke’s “Scratch” command), injecting the song with an unforeseen anger while Yorke sings with more vitriol than anywhere else on the album or their discography: “Scratch our eternal itch / A 20th century bitch.” And when the choruses finally come, they’re not as tuneful as any of their preceding songs. In fact, they’re the complete opposite, with Yorke’s distinct voice metamorphosing into an unrecognizable menacing growl and normally dramatic lyrics being cast aside for what might be the most puzzling Yorkeism of all time: “The headshrinkers, they want everything / My uncle Bill, my Belisha beacon.”

But the verses are immensely detailed, certainly more than they were on “Creep”. Yorke’s soulful vocals are on full display, with flights to falsetto that are tethered to Earth by Colin Greenwood’s thumping bass, Selway’s trusty rhythm, and a shield of distortion. Here also Jonny Greenwood takes a step forward to lay claim to being one of the greatest guitarists from the ’90s. After the opening riff, he shifts to arpeggios, then warm chords that replicate an organ-sound, and then harmonizes with Yorke for the second verse (“…to fall asleep … cynical to speak”). Finally, he takes the aforementioned immortal crunch from “Creep” and extends it from a single second to a longer-lasting climax in both the song’s choruses and its two guitar solos until the song has nothing more to say and the reserved “Bullet Proof… Wish I Was” begins. img-802 Marshall Gu


9. “Bullet Proof (I Wish I Was)”

When In Rainbows came out, it was met with some of the most immediately positive reaction from Radiohead fans since OK Computer. This response was immediate in that while Kid A and Amnesiac are regarded as classics today, the initial response to both albums was a mix of both adoration and skepticism (e.g. “where are the guitars?” “Why is Thom’s voice so buried in some of these tracks?”). A different reaction came with Hail to the Thief: while many applauded the band’s return to a more guitar-centered sound, there were some fans who felt the album sounded like too much of a retreat, an effort aimed more at appeasing fans.

Contract that with the reception for In Rainbows. Putting aside the “pay what you wish” business model, it has the sound of a landmark album. Yes, there are some straightforward arena-ready rockers (see “Bodysnatchers”), but there are also moments where one can hear the band return to pushing the boundaries of what a “rock” album should sound like at the close of the last decade (“Reckoner”).

But some of the largest praise was given to the song “House of Cards”. After almost a decade of songs that were widely open to interpretation, we get one of the most direct and relatable lyrics from the band: “I don’t want to be your friend / I just want to be your lover.”

Lyrically, it feels like a return of the Radiohead of old. If you were looking for the best companion to “House of Cards”, you would most likely venture back to The Bends; specifically, the song “Bullet Proof … I Wish I Was”. If anything can top the universal desire to be something other than a friend to someone you love, it’s the desire to be shielded from pain, be it physical or emotional.

After hearing the jarring push-and-pull of the chorus and verse of “My Iron Lung”, “Bullet Proof” opens with an eerie, ambient calmness. Yorke has already conveyed naked vulnerability in tracks like “Fake Plastic Trees” and “(Nice Dream)”, but in “Bullet Proof”, he sounds absolutely wounded. “Heat the pins and stab them in,” Yorke sings as if he’s resigned to his fate, adding “You have turned me into this / Just wish that it was bullet proof.” There are plenty of open spaces in “Bullet Proof”, courtesy of Phil Selway’s percussion. This moment of quiet prepares the listener for the final quarter of The Bends.

“Bullet Proof” may not have the sweep and grandeur of “Fake Plastic Trees”, but it remains a fan favorite. In a live setting, it’s the closest thing Radiohead have written to a campfire song; its simple guitar-driven melody has an ear worm-like effect. Years, even decades after The Bends was released, I find “Bullet Proof” suddenly playing in my head, regardless of my mood — but usually during a lengthy commute. As you’re hopelessly stuck at the mercy of your environment, “Bullet Proof” offers a brief, daydreamy respite. img-802 Sean McCarthy

“Black Star” to “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”

10. “Black Star”

“‘My favorite thing about this song,” Thom told Vox, “is Jonny’s guitar when it comes in on the chorus. It was completely crazy afterwards because everyone was saying, ‘We’ve got to do the guitar again because it sounds such a mess.’ Me and Jonny were going ‘No no no.'”

Exit Music: The Radiohead Story (Mac Randall, p. 167)

“Black Star” is one hell of a Blur song.

Despite all the moodiness and gravitas that is perpetually associated with Radiohead post-Pablo Honey, it’s easy to forget that even at this stage in their career, the group could still deliver an optimistic, open-air chorus when they needed to. “Black Star”, especially when coupled with the title track from The Bends, exhibits Yorke and company at their most college-rock, a pose that is oft-forgotten in the labored Greatest Band in the World narrative tied to the group: the fade-in intro that displays the band “already in progress”, that divine guitar hook, that pre-chorus melody line that is straight out of the Graham Coxon playbook, etc. In any other hands, this would have been a straight-up pub-rock anthem, but in Radiohead’s, it is filled with romantic alienation and considerable woe, detailing a deteriorating relationship over a chord progression so divine it feels like God himself should get songwriting royalties.

Actually recorded by Nigel Godrich on a day when primary producer John Leckie was out of the studio, “Black Star” opens with lines that may very well be interpreted as the horniest setup that Yorke has ever given us: “I get home from work / And you’re still standing in your dressing gown / Well what am I to do?” Despite the undeniably intriguing setup, things immediately take a turn for the dramatic with what follows: “I know all the things around your head / And what they do to you / What are we coming to? / What are we gonna do?”

The song continues on a rather morose trajectory; at one point, the narrator admits that he’s still awake despite having not slept with his object of desire for a full 58 hours. He peppers his thoughts with doubting phrases like “I just don’t know anymore”, “I’m gonna melt down”, and, of course, “This is killing me.” Yet even when being put through the emotional wringer, the chorus deflects responsibility in a winking fashion, blaming everything on the black star, on the falling sky, on the satellite that beams him home. (How very Bowie of him.) As is often the case with Yorke’s lyrics at this time, there was much left up for interpretation in terms of what it all meant, but that didn’t prevent Melody Maker from running an article in June of 1995 claiming that Yorke was a likely candidate to be another “rock ‘n roll martyr”, despite the fact that in that same article, Yorke scoffed at the notion that the lyrics are overtly self-referential, saying “Oh, for Christ’s sake, I did not write this album for people to slash their fucking wrists to.”

While “Black Star” is by no means the most iconic song the band has ever written, it still maintains a level of accessibility that is removed from the occasional novelty of Pablo Honey but at the same time well-distanced from the self-importance that has hung over the quintet for every release since. “It’s not my fucking day to day,” Yorke ranted in that same Melody Maker article, clarifying things in a rather definitive fashion. “It’s not my life. These lyrics aren’t self-fulfilling. The Bends isn’t my confessional. And I don’t want it used as and aid to stupidity and fucking wittery. It’s not an excuse to wallow. I don’t want to know about your depression; if you write to me, I will write back angrily telling you not to give into all that shit.”

Or, at your very worst, just blame it on a black star. img-803 Evan Sawdey


11. “Sulk”

As The Bends begins to wind down, the listener is hit with the strange electronic sounds that underpin the 11th and penultimate song, “Sulk”. The noise is something akin to the electronic assault beneath the Smiths’ “How Soon is Now”, and judging from the lyrics that follow, the Smiths are a likely influence on the song as a whole.

In truth, The Bends in its entirety has been described as something of a showcase of vocalist Thom Yorke’s most depressive lyrics. “Sulk” is no exception to this rule; Yorke’s sorrowful wail does occasionally approach Morrissey levels.

However, “Sulk” is not your typical relationship and abandonment song of depression. Instead “Sulk” was inspired by a series of random shootings that took place in Hungerford, Berkshire, England in 1987. Collectively known as “The Hungerford Massacre”, this rampage of an unemployed man resulted in the death of 16 people before the murderer killed himself.

Realizing the history of “Sulk”, the listener may expect a dark and even tongue-in-cheek song mirroring the Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays”, a jaunty and oft-misunderstood song written about a school shooting in San Diego, California. However, Yorke and Radiohead avoid any playfulness as they push through this disarmingly entrancing song. In spite of the near-industrial noise in the background, “Sulk” properly begins with calm guitar arpeggios and Yorke’s relaxed (at first) crooning of cryptic lyrics, such as “You bite through the big wall, The big wall bites back.” Within only a couple of lines, Yorke goes from cryptic to depressed to disturbing with the lyrics “You are so pretty when you’re down on your knees.”

The chorus of “Sulk” more “erupts” than “happens”. Without truly changing the tempo of the song, Yorke’s anguished cries move the song in a completely different emotional direction from dejected to passionate. The first time around the chorus merely provides a breaking depth to the song and pulls it back into the noise and arpeggio introduction before the second verse. When the second chorus takes over the true eruption takes place and the words “You’ll never change!” lead directly into the wild and chaotic guitar solo that proves to be the highlight of and the key to the entire song.

All the calmness of the opening and verses is erased during this solo. The guitar work continues under Yorke’s now raucous reprise of the chorus with an almost Johnny Marr-style underpinning of strumming wildness pushing the chaos forward to the fadeout. This fadeout doesn’t truly end the song, as the omnipresent industrial noise that opened the song takes back over for a brief coda before fading out itself. This “false stop” echoes the final track on the album appropriately entitled “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”.

While one can hear influences of other bands and songs that have informed “Sulk”, there is no mistaking it for the composition or sound of any other band besides Radiohead. As the discography of Radiohead has evolved and changed, there has remained one solid (though diverse) Radiohead sound, from Yorke’s voice to Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien’s guitars to the rhythm section of Colin Greenwood (bass) with Phil Selway (drums).

Many bands have taken tragic events and told their story in song. “Sulk” is a case of a band pulling off that very feat with rich, multilayered sonic textures, complex lyrics and building, soaring vocals combining to create a song that is 100% pure Radiohead. img-803 J.C. Macek


12. “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”

“‘Street Spirit’ is our purest song, but I didn’t write it. It wrote itself. We were just its messengers; its biological catalysts. Its core is a complete mystery to me, and, you know, I wouldn’t ever try to write something that hopeless.”

— Thom Yorke

Ignore, for a moment, 95 percent of Radiohead’s recorded output. Consider only the album closers. What do you get? Still a band worthy of tremendous praise if not adulation?

Since 1995, Radiohead has made a habit of crafting astounding, frequently breathtaking final tracks. “Motion Picture Soundtrack” is the most understated of the bunch, “Videotape” the most haunting, “Wolf at the Door (It Girl. Rag Doll.)” the most gleefully strange. Part of what made 2011’s The King of Limbs underwhelming, in retrospect, was that “Separator” made for such an uncharacteristically meh-level set closer. Fans even speculated that it was merely a “separator” to a still-to-come second disc (it wasn’t).

The streak began with “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, a song so lilting and gorgeous it threatens to disappear under its own weight, were it not for Phil Selway’s uptempo side-snare taps and Thom Yorke’s brutal lyrics. Appearing at the end of The Bends, “Street Spirit” functions as a sort of final comedown following the last hurrah of noisiness at the end of “Sulk”. Among the band’s finest songs to date, “Street Spirit” set a standard for every Radiohead album closer to come while also serving as a transition piece between the band’s early period and the more overtly atmospheric OK Computer era.

The first thing you hear is the guitar arpeggio. Steady and sparse, it’s a deceptively simple A-minor chord with a descending root note. It’s tough to think of a more memorable arpeggiated guitar intro this side of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah”; it’s a gift unto itself, the sort of riff a guitarist carries around for years before finding the right song to place it with. Yorke (who’s been known to play the guitar part live) found that song. His vocals begin in a low, haunting murmur, while the clipped, disembodied imagery (“Rows of houses, all bearing down on me / I can feel their blue hands touching me”) hint at the favored lyrical approach on Kid A and Hail to the Thief.

Though often hesitant to attach influences to specific tracks, Yorke has admitted this one was musically “a straight rip-off” of R.E.M. That’s an exaggeration, though with its ringing guitar tone, a faster and more mumbly incarnation of the track would fit in fine on Reckoning or Fables of the Reconstruction. The Athens band was already a prime influence on Radiohead, and for a brief moment in the mid-’90s — while Radiohead’s profile rose and R.E.M. approached a commercial and critical descent — the bands’ careers merged. Radiohead supported R.E.M. on tour in 1994–95, and returned the favor influence-wise: inspired by the former band’s tendency to record while on the road, R.E.M. took the technique to an extreme and made liberal use of live recordings on 1996’s sprawling, largely underappreciated New Adventures in Hi-Fi. (A decade and a half later, I caught a Radiohead show in New York days after R.E.M.’s 2011 break-up. Yorke sang a brief snippet of “The One I Love” in tribute to his Georgia forebears.)

But lyrically, “Street Spirit” is too dour even for Automatic for the People. Tension builds; the sudden shot of urgency in the chorus (“Faaaaaade out / Ah-gaaaain!”) recedes into a trembling sigh, and then the last verse tells of eggs and dead birds “screaming as they fight for life.” The speaker “can feel death / Can see its beady eyes,” and then: “All these things we’ll one day swallow whole.”

The words were inspired by 1991 novel The Famished Road. Although acts ranging from Peter Gabriel to the Darkness have performed the track, only Thom Yorke quite captures the steady, chilling dread of it. It’s more brutal than fans realize, the singer once said; it’s “about staring the fucking devil right in the eyes, and knowing, no matter what the hell you do, he’ll get the last laugh.” Regarding live performances, he added, “It’s why we play it towards the end of our sets. It drains me, and it shakes me, and hurts like hell every time I play it, looking out at thousands of people cheering and smiling, oblivious to the tragedy of it’s meaning, like when you’re going to have your dog put down and it’s wagging it’s tail on the way there.”

But I suspect fans take more comfort than Yorke apparently does in the song’s final refrain, a slow, almost guttural wail set to the track’s emotional apex: “Immerse your soul in love.” It’s a rare if stunning sliver of hope in the song, and was absent from early versions. Today, Radiohead steers away from such direct lyrical sentiment; perhaps it’s why the band often seems embarrassed by “Creep” and hasn’t played “Electioneering” since the ‘90s. But tellingly, as of the last tour, “Street Spirit” is one of the only Bends tracks that still materializes semi-regularly in the band’s setlists — including at the aforementioned Manhattan show in 2011. Radiohead eventually topped that record, in this writer’s view, but they’ve never quite topped the quiet, chilling majesty of “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”. img-803 Zach Schonfeld