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.

The Bends
Parlophone / Capitol
13 March 1995

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 for such a short track before the swell of tremolo guitars coalesces 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 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. – 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 himself 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 an 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. – J.C. Macek

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. – Brice Ezell

8. “My Iron Lung”

“My Iron Lung” is perhaps the most representative song of The Bends. Not its most emotional, or its most lyrically informed, or its most melodic, perhaps, but 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 an October 1994 CD single packaged with B-sides from The Bends and an acoustic version of “Creep”.

The Bends is widely considered a 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-deprecating 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 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. – Marshall Gu