PopMatters takes a deep dive into Radiohead’s first musically important album, The Bends, where the group’s experimental inclinations initially took flight.
In 1993, Radiohead were a jukebox with just one button being pressed night after night. They chased the success of the zombie “Creep” out of Israel, across the United States, and back into Europe over the late summer, helplessly looking on as the intended one-year cycle between albums edged well into its second year. Caught in the skirts of the likes of Belly and James, the band saw little reason to rehearse, to write, or even to communicate with each other.
On the 28th of August 1993, the same week that “Creep” would be re-released in the UK, Radiohead cancelled their performance at the Reading Festival, citing problems with Thom’s voice. This reduction in oxygen did nothing to hamper the progress of the promotional animal, but for one day the embittered Radiohead had the upper hand. On this day, Thom and Jonny sat face-to-face and wrote “My Iron Lung”.
Thom: This little tiny amp that we have here, which is the size of a small shoebox. We take [it] around everywhere, and Jonny plugs it in, and we write stuff.
Jonny: We wrote “My Iron Lung” like this.
Thom: Yeah, we wrote “My Iron Lung” when we bought that, ‘cause it sounded so amazing.
— Israeli TV interview, 1995
Jonny’s contribution to “My Iron Lung” is illustrative of what he brought to the album it found its home on, The Bends, as a whole. First comes the chime of open, broken chords, stepping so carefully around Thom’s vulnerable falsetto in the verse. Next, the delicious crunch of concentrated anger in the chorus. FInally, the twisted, sinister solo, where each note surprises the one that preceded it. Jonny’s writing is no mere garnish; rather, it is a substantial, beautiful and thoroughly weird fruit that comes in the same box as Thom’s poetry. The package would not have been the same without it.
The long break from recording meant that casual fans and critics alike would find the Radiohead of the My Iron Lung EP and The Bends to be almost unrecognizably mutated from the Pablo Honey monster they had come to know. Their music had spiraled in complexity. Famously, Thom had moved away from the straight-edged bombast of songs such as “The Bends” and “Vegetable”, lifting his falsetto out of the dripping sarcasm of “Creep” and into the honest sunlight of “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Bulletproof (I Wish I Was)”. Confoundingly, Jonny was moving the band in another direction, making the plotting much less predictable, and forever preventing Radiohead becoming what Coldplay would become a half decade later.
Ever the junior in the band, Jonny was coming into his own in the recording studio in 1994. “Recording used to be a chore until halfway through The Bends”, he told a fanzine in 1995. Nowhere is that confidence more apparent than in the musical design for the simple, haunting “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, which was sketched out by Ed O’Brien and Jonny. The interlaced guitar parts, artfully suspended, create blurred edges that keep the song tumbling forwards. This blueprint would be played out across fan favourites such as “Let Down” on OK Computer, “In Limbo” on Kid A, “Knives Out” on Amnesiac, and “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” on In Rainbows, and has become one of Radiohead’s signature sounds.
By this time, Jonny was a double threat. Shy and self-conscious, he was obsessed with finding new guitar sounds, and with the acquisition of a number of pedals and custom adaptations to his set up since recording Pablo Honey, he sounded like no-one else in British guitar music. At the same time, he had found fuel for his flamboyant side, crystallizing his freeform freakouts (previously heard in the likes of “Ripcord” and “Blow Out”) into a through-composed, static musical design.
He does not call this “songwriting” per se: “I’m hamstrung by having no singing ability at all — so aside from a few guitar chord sequences I can’t really write songs” (Uncut, 2012). Whether what he did was “songwriting” is something of a moot point, however. The likes of B-side “Maquiladora” (which started out life as tepid swamp song “The Greatest Shindig in the World” before Jonny tightened the screws) and “Just” (“a competition by me [Thom] and Jonny to get as many chords as possible into a song”) would have been uniform and grey without Jonny’s incisive guitar lines cutting them to shreds.
“The Bends” itself, ever present in Radiohead’s live set since before the release of Pablo Honey, hinges on Jonny’s enormous minor third in the second verse (as Thom sings “they brought in the CIA”). This epic counterpoint, along with the double distilled guitar solo (described by Ed as “abusive”), were both refinements made by Jonny to the rather bland version that had been demoed in March of 1993, at the same time as what turned out to be the definitive recording of “High and Dry”.
Another song where Jonny has some documented involvement in the writing of the music is “Planet Telex”, the only song from The Bends to be written in the studio. Returning one night after a night of drinking wine, a drum loop was prepared from the song “Killer Cars”, and the band were left to dig up a bog of pure squelch. It was Jonny that helped Thom find his footing around the swamp. “I remember helping Thom to write the verse”, says Jonny, “but I couldn’t stay up for the debauched recording session”.
Asked what he thought of Jonny’s songwriting, Thom’s comment, “whenever I am tired, he is there and awake”, places Jonny in a secondary role, as someone who can be trusted to finish what he starts, and someone with an eye for detail. This detailing is one of the primary reasons people still return to The Bends to have a look around after two decades. It can be found in the elegant, baroque ornaments that adorn the songs, but it is not just these punctuating guitar marks that Jonny brought to The Bends.
Jonny’s huge range of guitar sounds serve to set the band apart from their contemporaries, and they still sound remarkably fresh. The album’s medical analogy, most strongly expressed in the lyrics to “Bones”, is given musical form in Jonny’s delayed guitar sound on that song, with confused, staccato pangs that grind away to nothing. The guitar on “Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong” from the My Iron Lung EP rings like church bells and tinnitus, sounding both tired and sexy. When clarity and directness is required, as in the chorus of ‘Bulletproof (I Wish I Was)’, Jonny was able to find a sound to reassure Thom’s otherwise lonely voice. When the tone had to be one of repressed anger, as in “The Trickster”, also from the My Iron Lung EP, Jonny was there, channeling the very English sound of John McGeoch from his beloved Magazine.
He describes writing the string parts to “Fake Plastic Trees” as “my studio highlight, in a megalomaniac kinda way”. The simple lift of Jonny’s arrangement pulls the music up to join Thom as he examines the unreal excesses of the ’90s. Within three years, Jonny’s string parts would lose tonality entirely, with 16 stringed instruments playing quarter tones apart in “Climbing Up The Walls”. This idea, borrowed from Polish composer Kryzystof Penderecki, was another step in the path towards Jonny becoming a respected composer of film scores and contemporary music.
Jonny Greenwood’s musicianship brought him into Radiohead as a 14 year old, not a desire to become a rock star. Although his mastery over the guitar was evident by 1994, he would end up saying that he “dislike[s] the totemic worship of the thing”, and prefers to struggle “with instruments I can’t really play” (The Quietus, 2014). His musical achievements on The Bends represent as far as he was ever going to get by limiting himself to channelling his ideas through his guitar.
I thrive on trying to overachieve and get things out of me that I would have never expected or predicted. I would like to ensure that I am surprised by what I see recorded. If I’m not then I know it’s not good enough. […] I usually hear things in my head while I’m playing and try to translate it through a guitar to peoples’ ears. It’s quite an interesting idea of forging the link between your own mind and an audience’s ears and trying to get that gap shorter and shorter, that’s the eventual aim isn’t it?
— Zine, Glamour Guide to Trash, 1995
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Neil Barrett is a Speech and Language Therapist (also known as a Pathologist in the USA) who has written about attention control and play for the Early Years workforce. He used to be a music PR in London, but he wasn’t very good at it. He saw Radiohead for the first time in November 1995.