Counterbalance No. 86: Radiohead – ‘The Bends’

The Bends

Mendelsohn: Ready for more Radiohead, Klinger? In case you weren’t keeping track, this is the third Radiohead LP to make it into the Top 100 of the Great List (if you want to get super-technical, Radiohead has a fourth album, In Rainbows, lurking just outside the Top 100 at number 127). To put that into perspective, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan each have four records in the Top 100, David Bowie and Led Zeppelin have three, and everyone else has fewer. That puts Radiohead in some heady company. Do you feel comfortable placing Radiohead on a list like that? You can put them at the end if it makes you feel better: the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Radiohead. Looks weird, doesn’t it?

But there it is. The list doesn’t lie. At number 86 is Radiohead’s The Bends, the bands sophomore effort and response to the rising fame that engulfed them after the success of Pablo Honey, fueled by the single “Creep”. I can’t talk rationally about this record. This disc was the soundtrack to my freshman year of college and, as you know, that can be a terrific and terrifying time. The stories I could tell.

Mostly though, I’m curious to find out how this disc strikes you. You have expressed some reservations about Radiohead in the past but I think The Bends might offer an easier listening experience than what you might get from the sad sackery of OK Computer or the electronic glitch of Kid A. Thoughts?

Klinger: No, the list doesn’t lie, although it does use cold mathematics and robotic algorithms to speak to us in what sound like baffling, inscrutable codes. Just like Radiohead.

I kid. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Radiohead is a top choice among the critics. Radiohead is the group that consistently garners great reviews from the gamut of music media outlets, from Pitchfork (as a sop to the mainstream?) to Entertainment Weekly (their way of bolstering their cred among music nerds?). They seem to be among the few bands over the last 15 years or so to consistently challenge their audience while still achieving some degree of commercial success.

As for The Bends, I have to say this is a far different experience than our last two run-ins with those lovable Oxonian lads. Compared to the sweeping epic of alienation that is OK Computer and Kid A‘s vocoder experimentalism, The Bends is pretty gosh-darn conventional. It sounds so conventional, in fact, that I’m a little surprised it’s garnered as much acclaim as it has. There are places all through it that betray a distinct whiff of—and I’m fully prepared to duck as I say this—classic rock. I’m quite sure that the riff on the title track is more or less a reworking of a Bad Company song (“Shooting Star”? I’m certainly not going to go look it up.) I know rationality is failing you, but can you address this for me, Mendelsohn?

Mendelsohn: Pppppfffhhhh. No. I told you, rational isn’t going to happen. Although I did look it up and much to my surprise, there is a passing resemblance to Radiohead’s “The Bends” and Bad Company’s “Shooting Star”. But that only serves to push me further down the memory hole because every time I listen to The Bends, I feel like I’m 19, buzzed up on Goldschlåger, and singing along to this record in my dorm room. For the longest time I thought there was a lyric in “Planet Telex” where Thom Yorke says, “Jason, your home.” Turns out I was wrong.

I was thinking about this record’s placement on the list this week and I think it could probably be contributed to two things. First, we are finally getting down the list a little bit and starting to see more repeat artists who released most of their material during a certain time span. For Radiohead, I think part of the reason The Bends is on the list is due to the success of OK Computer and the sort of gravitational pull that album exerted in bringing the band’s earlier work into the End of Decade lists for the 1990s. I think this is especially true in the United States, where The Bends didn’t have an immediate impact on the popular music scene. It wasn’t until after Radiohead really hit the big time with OK Computer that The Bends received its due for being that bridge, the changing space, between a young band with a fluke hit to a mature working group pushing the boundaries of rock music.

For the second reason we will have to take a trip across the pond where The Bends had a much bigger impact. After Pablo Honey and “Creep”, Radiohead was still viewed as a viable act and the leader of the indie rock scene in England, sort of the antithesis to the popular lad rock lead by the likes of Oasis that was dominating the charts. Oasis’ dominance eventually resulted in yet another (unfortunate) British Invasion of the American airwaves, but we’ll get further into that next week. For right now, Radiohead was the other side of the coin, a band pushing more abstract themes and working the thoughtful side of rock and roll, giving balance to the Britpop movement that seemed to focus more on mindless enjoyment rather than dour introspection. Eventually the nihilism of the early ’90s seeped into every aspect of our modern lives and Radiohead rose up and crushed the competition, leading to a decade of bands who sounded like Radiohead but weren’t nearly as smart or talented.

Klinger: Interesting. The Bends, you’re saying, is essentially Radiohead’s way of creating a bridge between that initial wave of ’90s angstery (I hesitate to call it grunge, although there are some overt Nirvana-isms on “My Iron Lung”) and what we’ve come to call indie rock. But at the same time we can really only make a statement like that because the group made OK Computer, effectively securing its place in the pantheon once and for all. Is it possible that we only fully appreciate The Bends in light of what came afterward? And is that fair? I mean, The Bends is a pretty exciting — albeit typically dour — album, but if they hadn’t sailed into uncharted waters, if they had continued to drift around in the same lagoon, I question whether this album would be rated as highly as we do.

But I suspect that’s me. My inability to bond with the wire monkey mommy that is Radiohead is well-documented (as is my tendency to refer to them in those Skinnerian terms), and that’s largely due to the fact that I just wasn’t paying all that close of attention to them during those formative years. In listening to The Bends, though, I can see where I might almost regret that oversight. Had I listened to OK Computer with one ear toward the classicist tendencies that they exhibit here, I might have found that album to be less of an academic exercise. One good blast of “Just” could have been the key for me. Alas . . .

Mendelsohn: That is the slippery slope of the Great List. We can look forward and backward at the same time and can only hope to extrapolate the “what could have beens” from the cold, hard numbers. The Bends was the most critically acclaimed album of 1995, and number 11 for the decade. Sitting just behind Radiohead on both lists is Oasis’ (What The Story) Morning Glory?, an album that spawned five hits, three of which were played so much that they still make me throw up in my mouth each time I hear them. The Bends had four singles, but none reached the critical popular mass achieved by Oasis. The numbers suggest this album would be here regardless.

My heart, however, has its doubts. I didn’t find The Bends until after I bonded with OK Computer (my real monkey mommy). Had I not loved OK Computer the way I do, I don’t think I would have found The Bends to be all that special. The Bends provided a snapshot into a band that was growing into its own (Pablo Honey was the awkward middle school photo we all try to hide) and helped cement my bond with the band by showing me how they got to where they were going. As for your inability to find that connection, maybe if you listen to “Just” a couple more times . . .

Klinger: Yeah, I’ll do that, but I think it’s interesting to note that, based on my own cursory glance at the numbers behind the placement of The Bends, it seems that the album is here in the top 100 because it did exceedingly well on the Best of the Decade lists that publications are always so diligent about compiling. In fact, it only ranked album of the year in two places—Mojo (no surprise there) and a publication in Mexico (somewhat more surprising).

But that’s part of the appeal of the Great List, and really the list-making tendency of rock geeks everywhere. It’s pretty common for people to get touchy about these lists (especially when their favorite album is too low, or Oasis is too high), but exercises like these force us to occasionally reassess our understanding of this music. It keeps us asking questions, and sometimes even challenging the conventional wisdoms that might otherwise be taken for granted. Younger generations might discover something new, and oldsters can consider reconsidering their past prejudices. And it seems to me that might even help keep the heritage of pop music a little bit more alive.