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

9. “Bullet Proof (I Wish I Was)”

When In Rainbows came out, it was met with some of the most immediate positive reactions 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.

Contrast 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 wide 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 bulletproof.” 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. – Sean McCarthy

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 are 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 an 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 in to all that shit.”

Or, at your very worst, just blame it on a black star. — 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. – 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 1994–1995 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 its meaning, like when you’re going to have your dog put down and it’s wagging its 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)”. –Zach Schonfeld

This article was originally published on 9 March 2015.