Uncool Britannia: Radiohead's 'The Bends' vs. Britpop in a Battle for the Soul of Britain
The successors to Radiohead and The Bends are a generation who liked how the film started, but lost the script halfway through.
In the year of our rockist neoliberalist lord 1994, Britpop poised itself as music's savior, though it was unclear who it was saving us music fans from. Blur and Oasis, declaring modern life and modern music to be rubbish, set out with brash confidence to prognosticate their brand of distinctly British identity politics as the solution to this predicament. It was a familiar narrative seen a hundred times before, one that marketers and politicians would leapfrog onto in the ensuing years: exploit an ambivalently arrived upon sentiment that something has been "lost", and then piggyback victoriously in on the tides of nationalism, populism, and nostalgia that come with its return.
For Britpop, this "something lost" was British music as a cultural force, a sound with both mass appeal and gravitational weight which could ring loudly beyond the isles while bringing dignity and esteem back to its epicenter. British indie music had a long history of appealing to American appetites, even going so far as to adopt American accents to accompany its rock swagger, but here were the cockney rebels armed to the teeth with melodies and power chords, proudly parochial but hellbent on world domination, ready to take back England and take down any sods who dare doubt the intrinsic dominance of glorious rawk 'n' roll. "England is mine," one of the forefathers of Britpop had opined, "It owes me a living". Just as it was with Morrissey, so it went in the book of Gallagher.
The Oxford-bred band Radiohead were ten steps removed from this process. As all this nation-building had been going on in their home country, Radiohead were being catapulted back and forth between two continents by the machinations of a massive hit single. This big hit, "Creep", was the angst-laden Platonic ideal of grunge, an anthem of self-deprecation that sat comfortably on the radio dial alongside similarly themed songs like Stone Temple Pilots's song of the same name, Beck's "Loser", Soul Asylum's "Misery Inc.", and the bulk of Nirvana's output.
Despite this Pixies-indebted single, Radiohead were hardly grunge. A continent removed and art-school educated, they didn't fit the "slacker" profile, but they nevertheless rode the crest of a historical moment only to be swept out with the bathwater in their attempts at a followup single. It's little wonder that when they were calculating their next steps, the band was hesitant to attach themselves to an alternate emerging movement. "I don't belong here…", their megahit told us, and the band seemed destined to feel perpetually out of place.
"If punk was about getting rid of hippies," Damon Albarn of Blur professed to the NME in 1993, "then I'm about getting rid of grunge". Though infinitely quotable on the subject, Britpop's attitude on grunge was a bit two-faced. On the one hand, the stars of the scene were reluctant to brand the American-based scene as villainous (Noel Gallagher even cited Nirvana's dynamics as an influence on Oasis's debut Definitely Maybe), but British bands who copped to the grunge style, including, assumingly, Radiohead, were seen as sellouts to rock and country. Concurrently, grunge's dominance on British shores was chastised as an impediment to a rising new wave, one carefully calculated in the pages of the British music press. The NME, Select, and Melody Maker had been hastening the return to British rock for years via a celebration of inferior earlier incarnations (the scene that celebrates itself, the new wave of new wave, Madchester, et. al.), but now the tunes they promised were actually arriving in the form of big, generation-defining singles by Supergrass, Pulp, Suede, Elastica, the Boo Radleys, and, of course, Blur and Oasis.
Some Might Say We Will Find a Brighter Day
The backlash against grunge was merely the set dressing, the first in a series of oppositional gestures designed to position Britpop and its bedfellows, Cool Britannia and New Labour, as the inheritors of history. Albarn scrapped the original title of Blur's 1993 album, Britain vs. America, for the more universal Modern Life Is Rubbish, but the rivalry with the U.S. remained. Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, not exactly the poster child for American culture (in that he hated almost everything about it), probably would have agreed with Albarn's trash-talking assessment of "modern life" and modern music (which Cobain jibed as "moderate rock" on the intro to In Utero's "Tourette's"). In fact, it was Britpop that had more of an assured outlook.
And the conditions were right for it. The economy in England was on the rise after an early decade recession and there was a general anticipation that John Major and the Tory party were on their way out. Labour had rounded up fresh, young leadership and adopted a new mandate, friendlier to both business and the culture industry. A future free of imminent terrorist threats seemed palpable as the IRA declared a ceasefire in the summer of 1994. Fashion designers and artists from London gained notoriety worldwide. Chic postmodern shops and condos were paving over the functional Brutalist architecture that represented the grand failure of the socialist civic visions of the '70s. Sites of IRA bombings were refurbished into skyscrapers. All of Europe, but particularly young blood -- the coveted well-to-do 20-something demographic -- flocked in for London's nightlife scene, eager to trickle down some of their earnings.
"These may be the best days of our lives", Oasis would sing on "Digsy's Diner". "It really, really, really, really could happen", Blur, always the more pessimistic of the two, would later victoriously affirm. Within a year, Newsweek would declare London the "coolest city on the planet". England was on the cusp of a "Morning in America" moment. Nevertheless, Albarn and the Gallaghers knew they had to create divisions in order to breed a new unity in their corner. Thereby, the battles began: Britain vs. America, (New) Labour vs. Tory, working class vs. middle class, lad culture vs. feminism, past vs. future, grunge vs. Britpop, the Oasis of nostalgia and hope for a brighter day vs. the Nirvana of endless cynical realism and ironic detachment for that brutal reality.
All These Things Into Position
Radiohead were not sure where they fit into this dynamic. Diametrics had never been their thing. What would soon become their signature anxieties grew out of a world of complex relationships rather than Manichean struggles, one that obfuscated more often than it solidified one's position within it. The band didn't feel any kinship with the cool wave of optimism sweeping over Britain, but they didn't identify with America either, particularly as the American empire continued to be the principle outsourcer of global conflict, unfair labor practices, and environmental devastation around the globe.
Although Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke was still largely penning personal lyrics for their second LP, politics crept into the music that would become their 1995 album The Bends. The group was formed largely in the shadow of two of their biggest idols, R.E.M. and U2, independent groups split between two continents who each utilized their mass appeal as a cornerstone to shine lights on various social issues. "I've been trying to write something political," Yorke said following the album's eventual release, "but it's hard not to come up with Live Aid '80s bollocks. I'm going to keep trying because I think it's a shame that music is purely entertainment now… I have a problem with politics being a separate entity anyway. That's how it stays self-sufficient."
Their rising political awareness during this period can perhaps be read best through the rather unexpected route of their references to outsider comedy. Their post-collegiate debut LP was named Pablo Honey after a forgotten skit by the puerile prank-call duo The Jerky Boys. The Bends, on the other hand, was dedicated in the liner notes to the memory of the acerbic and righteous American political comic Bill Hicks, a man who once described himself as "Noam Chomsky with dick jokes", and was a huge success in England, despite never finding an audience in his home country.
Though there's no single concept running through the album as there would be on future releases, Yorke informed the Los Angeles Times that The Bends was "all about suffocation". The conventional skinny on Radiohead has it that this was just their latest miserabalism, the band coming down after an exhausting, depleting tour regimen, evoking a litany of iron lungs, drip feeds, and Prozac painkillers to cure their first world rock star problems. However, the album's lyrics often speak in grand tones on the state of the world. On The Bends, the planet is a "Xerox" (according to the working title of "Planet Telex"), a place where "everything is broken". It's also "a gunboat in a sea fear" and a "fake plastic earth", somewhere where you watch the "ground the beneath you drop" and "gravity always wins". Hints of optimism for such an unwelcoming home can only come in a "nice dream".
These vague intimations of unease would become Radiohead's most pointed critiques in the years to come. The band were early diagnosticians of the specifically middle class malaise of feeling immobile, bewildered, and uncomfortably comfortable in the heart of a system that seemed to be raining down calamity and pestilence just beyond the periphery of its gilded consumer class. To the outsider though, it was just "complaint rock", to borrow a phrase lobbed at Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees" in the 1995 film Clueless. Hometown heroes Oasis had no qualms rendering their working class disdain for those, particularly among the rock establishment, who they perceived to be bitching about such petty problems. "Hey you, wearing the crown / ...I heard you feel down / Well that's too bad / Welcome to my world", the Gallaghers snarked in a bout of negative solidarity on Definitely Maybe's "Up in the Sky".
In My Mind, My Dreams Are Real
Radiohead's sonic gestures, like its lyrics, were profound in scope too. The Bends, even as it is singing about disease, worry, and defeat, sounds triumphant, not a million miles away from Definitely Maybe. Each album had their corresponding towering choruses and majestic crescendos, though it was far less clear on The Bends to whom or what these dramatic arches applied. The "protagonist" in the cryptic "Planet Telex", for instance, seemed to be defeat.
The secret weapon in Radiohead's arsenal was producer John Leckie, a veteran with a serious pedigree in British rock, having worked with three of four Beatles, Pink Floyd, Public Image Limited, Magazine, XTC, the Fall, and the Stone Roses. Some of his more recent work had been on the more psychedelic edge of Britpop, overlooked albums like Ride's post-shoegazing Carnival of Light and the Verve's billowy opus A Storm in Heaven. Leckie would round out his post-Bends year fine-tuning Britpop also-rans Cast and Denim, making him something of a stalwart for the scene. Like these peer LPs, The Bends is an album that flirts timidly with psychedelia and electronics, but is overall still devoutly rock, with none of the sonic risks that would define Radiohead's ensuing albums.
Leckie and his engineering understudy Nigel Godrich made the record's drums crisp and propulsive and its guitars soaring and authoritative, while Yorke's voice sounds perpetually on the cusp of falling off. Yorke had picked up some falsetto intoning after catching a moving performance by American rock singer Jeff Buckley, adding a peculiar elegance that would occasionally caper off into moments of tantrum-fueled sneer when the suffocation threatened to ensnare him. The result is an album that often feels at war with itself, painfully uncomfortable with rock star bravado and confidence but unable to communicate in any other language.
"It's cynical and nervous, and it doesn't make sense," Yorke told Rolling Stone upon The Bends's release. "And you get the feeling at the end of it that something's wrong, but you can't quite work out what it is". Alienated from Britain, alienated from America, alienated from grunge, alienated from Britpop, alienated from the planet, and certainly alienated from any lingering optimism about the impending boom times, Radiohead were strangers in a strange land. "I wanna live / I wanna breathe / I wanna be part of the human race", say the modest ambitions of the album's title track.
The brothers Gallagher suffered from no such existential despair or postmodern ennui. The siblings were infamously unafraid to speak their mind almost to the point of caricature. Their music was about the joys of living free and they seemed to have no reservations about fulfilling that promise. Though they had ambitions to be the biggest group in the entire world, they were unafraid of what anyone, including their fans, thought of them, which only made the screaming acolytes love them more. It's no wonder they became the poster children and demigods of Loaded magazine, the premier institution of lad culture. The magazine derived its name from a line in the '60s biker film The Wild Angels, as quoted in the Primal Scream song that shares its name with the publication. "Just what is it you want to to do?", a minister asks Peter Fonda's rebellious leader, who responded "We want to be free to do what we want to do. We want to get loaded and we want to have a good time!"
Loaded and Oasis saw themselves as the fulfillment of the '60s hippie fantasy of hedonic wish-fulfillment: no ego too big that couldn't be filled with drink, drug, women, football, mod clothes, mates, cool films, cool gadgets, cool toys, cool music, Cool Britannia. As a movement, it demanded nothing the market couldn't fulfill, a mating call to Madison Avenue and its London affiliates. By the summer of 1995, the scene had even found its own version of the Pepsi Challenge, in the form of what would be dubbed "The Battle of Britpop". Blur pushed back their single "Country House" a few weeks to compete directly against Oasis's "Roll With It". Consumers flocked. Noel said he hoped Damon would die of AIDS. Tabloids swooned. An illusion of choice was mustered.
Britpop vs. Britpop: did it matter who won?
This Is Our New Song, Just Like the Old One
Blur must have been Pepsi, because Oasis had Coke dripping through their veins, and not just from the copious amounts of cocaine they consumed. The band knicked "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)", a song made famous for its use in Coca-Cola commercials, for its "Shakermaker" song. As an open book, Noel Gallagher proudly touted the times he'd ripped off other artists, even joking to Matt Pinfield on 120 Minutes that "I don't see the point in writing your own tunes when you can pinch somebody else's".
While the rest of the Britpop scene was less naked about specific lifts for the catalogue of popular music, the musicians in general were pretty straightforward about their antecedents. "You wanted to form a guitar band?" Dom Passantino asked, when looking back on the movement for Stylus in 2005, "You had to be part of the lineage, you had to have followed that line from the Beatles through Slade through the Smiths through the Stone Roses to yourselves". You could add to this list the Jam, the Who, the Kinks, the Buzzcocks, the Sex Pistols, Bowie, XTC, and a few others, but the idea was that Britain itself was embedded into the history of rock, and you could just ignore the rest of whatever came out and model your sound around these principle cohorts. Radiohead, named after a Talking Heads song, enlisting the Leckie sound, with U2's ambitious howl, R.E.M.'s introspection, Jeff Buckley's cooing, and the Pixies's dynamic shifts, were not that far off.
Of course, there's a notable absence in the above list, namely black musicians, who had set the bar for the Beatles and the Stones and continued to expand music's frontier throughout periods Britpop chose to ignore. As attention flowered onto the NME-sponsored Battle of Britpop, the energy locked elsewhere, morphed, expanded, and multiplied. Beyond Britpop, Britain was experiencing a mini-renaissance as sounds less steeped in white traditions and less indebted to history conspired to make sounds that were truly now: jungle, post-rock, trip-hop, rave, IDM, big beat, isolationism, and other genres and subgenres being developed on nearly a weekly basis.
Rather than building a youth culture amenable to capitalism, rave's counterculture openly defied and challenged it. The powers that be responded with the Criminal Justice and Public Order, another in a series of bills designed to make it easier to arrest immigrants and council estate hooligans which had a clause outlawing "music… predominantly characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats". Bi-weekly reports on the scourge of ecstasy and drug culture littered nightly news reports, fueling panic in parents and politicians.
"I get really envious when I hear good jungle or stuff on Warp or the Tricky album. I get this sense that they made it in isolation and that there wasn't this need to be in a bollocks rock band going 'I want my guitar solo'," Yorke told the NME in 1995, following with, "There's none of that in Radiohead", though he sounded a bit like he was trying to convince himself more than anything. The Bends was a counternarrative to the story of bootstraps rock optimism being touted by Oasis and the like, but it shared similar sonic DNA. Yorke even lamented, "I wish it was the 60s" in the title track, but followed it up with, "I wish I could be happy / I wish, I wish, I wish that something would happen".
Britpop and its Cool Britannia brethren tapped into that sense of anticipation for the big event, but didn't think the transformation required anything outside of any already-written rulebook. They also didn't worry too much about being unhappy since the terms of satisfaction had been laid out clearly. "Is it my imagination or have I finally found something worth living for?" Oasis sung in 'Cigarettes and Alcohol". "Step outside, summertime's in bloom" went a notable line of "Don't Look Back in Anger". The idea was that the hard work of revolution didn't need to be so hard, since it was already happening. It was just a revolution of mindset anyway, a realignment of emphasis, no new tools required.
Maybe I Will Never Be All the Things I Want to Be, But Now Is Not the Time to Cry
There was a bit of a Rashomon effect happening betwixt and between Radiohead and Oasis. One sensed they were looking at the same landscape, but where one saw sunshine, the other saw sickness. Nirvana's sardonic number "I Hate Myself and I Want to Die" was mostly written as a goof, but the humor capped off after Cobain killed himself early in 1994. Noel Gallagher responded by penning the anthemic "Live Forever", which was about achieving eternity through music. They were a young band, looking to make a bold statement right out of the gate, to inspire a generation to not just breathe and be part of the human race, but to become immortals, to "fly".
Post-"Creep" Radiohead were unclear if they even had another album in them. They were still a relatively new band but they felt old, their mortality a constant albatross hanging over them: "Too young to fall asleep" but also "Too cynical to speak". Their urge to fly had already passed. "I used to fly like Peter Pan", Yorke sung on "Bones", but now he felt withered, "crippled and cracked", "ground to dust and ash", and "crawling on all fours". But to Yorke, it was this recognition of the body as a deteriorating vessel that gave you sound perspective: "You've got to feel it in your bones".
Oasis were living for the moment, but it was one that was inseparable from the past. Laissez-faire, they seemed determined to ride the wave wherever it took them. "Don't ever stand aside/Don't ever be denied...Don't let anybody get in your way." Radiohead were thinking about the present, but with skepticism of what it meant for the future. "You can force it but it will not come", they sung in cold determinism in one of the Taoist mantras of "Planet Telex". It may have been more accurate to say, "You can force it, and it may come, but it may come in a different form than you were anticipating".
End of a Century
Decompression sickness, which causes the joint pain known as "the bends", is a condition in which an individual has trouble adjusting to return from a pressurized environment. Sure enough, New Labour trounced in the local elections of 1995 and the new face of the party, Tony Blair, was quick to align himself with the hip new cultural complex London and Britain at large had established. Alistair Campbell, Blair's press secretary, proudly announced, "Britain is exporting pop music again. Now all we need is a new government". At the 1996 Brit Awards, which Blair attended, Oasis took home the awards for Best Album, Best Video, and Best Group, beating both Blur and Radiohead in each category. Noel Gallagher used the opportunity to proclaim that "there are seven people in this room giving a little bit of hope", naming Oasis, their management, and Blair, who at that point had announced his run for Prime Minister. He signed off with "Power to the people". Liam used the opportunity to mock Blur. Soon, 18 years of conservative Tory rule had come to a close and British rock was once again on top of the world.
Campaigning for Blair shouldn't have been a surprise. The band had practically worked for the British tourist bureau by regularly incorporating the Union Jack into their imagery and representing the country in nearly every magazine spread, not to mention setting attendance records for a two day performance in the town of Knebworth, giving the country an unofficial musical mascot. When Blair invited a number of cultural contributors to a thank you event at 10 Downing Street, of course Noel Gallagher was invited. Albarn, sensing the stench of co-option, declined, just as Yorke would nine years later when Blair invited him to discuss climate change. Gallagher caught some flak in the press for the visit, but refused to apologize. He wanted to meet the Prime Minister. He wasn't about to be denied.
The response to Oasis and Radiohead's 1995 albums was split between continents, but not in the ways one might have anticipated. Chuck Eddy butchered The Bends in Spin, while Robert Christgau, the self-anointed "Dean of music criticism", also offered a dismissive review. The album did not even place in 1995's Pazz and Jop Poll, an annual round up of hundreds of music critics organized by The Village Voice, though Oasis's (What's The Story) Morning Glory? placed at #10. In the British press, Oasis dominated, but The Bends did shockingly well too, gaining album of the year in Mojo and garnering top ten slots in NME, Melody Maker, Select, and Q.
Both bands and Blur returned in 1997, but by then the landscape had changed. Radiohead's sound had morphed into something closer to post-rock. Unashamed of experimentation and carrying their lyrical themes of alienation into correlative sonic territory, Radiohead's OK Computer sounded like the first big rock album of the new millennium, and was heralded as a critical triumph on both coasts. Oasis's highly anticipated followup Be Here Now was the album that was supposed to be proof of Britpop's staying power, its promise that you and I could live forever, basking in the sunshine of prosperity. It was by all accounts an unmitigated disaster, a turgid non-starter that disappointed fans and critics alike, nearly breaking up the band after a troubled brew of drugs and infighting. Blur, the group who tried to pit England vs. America, turned away from Britpop altogether and returned an album largely influenced by the American band Pavement, Blur.
By 1997, the battles of Britpop had devolved: Blur vs. Oasis, Noel vs. Liam, endless party vs. endless hangover, independence vs. political exploitation, decadence vs. dependence. "Being here now" may have just degenerated into "no future", the nihilistic punk nightmare of hippiedom as a purgatory of perpetual satiations available upon demand by the mechanizations of late capitalism. The backpedaling British music press tried out a new genre that they attempted to fit Radiohead into, but to them Post-Britpop wasn't about groups who were doing noteworthy or interesting things that expanded the definition what British rock could sound like. Like its ancestor, it was primarily a spreadsheet of sales figures.
"Ambition [under Britpop] got redefined purely in terms of making the charts, as opposed to artistic discovery or quest", music writer Simon Reynolds has said. "Those golden ages of Britannia-ruling-the-airwaves and the 45 rpm 7 inch -- the mid-Sixties and New Wave -- were ransacked in order to create a third (putative) golden age for the radio and the single; the truly contemporary resources that the Brit postrockers plugged into -- electronica, jungle, hip hop, etc -- were shunned in favour of an all-white, technophobic canon."
So too did it go with post-Britpop. British bands with downcast guitars and sadsack lyricists == Coldplay, Starsailor, Snow Patrol, Travis, Keane, Elbow, and Muse -- took mope and malaise as their form and crafted complaint rock with neither the cultural lens of Radiohead nor the triumphant vitality of Britpop. Many of these bands not coincidentally had vocalists who sounded more than a touch like Yorke and were as nakedly in debt to The Bends and OK Computer as Oasis had been to the Beatles. This was a generation who liked how the film started, but lost the script halfway through.
Where Do We Go From Here?
It's hardly a cause for celebration to reflect 20 years on how cynicism won over optimism. A brighter day, a longer stretch in the sunshine, one that carried over to everyone, surely would have been a step up from the frightening and frustrating times we got in the new millennium. One could have sat back misanthropically and pictured Tony Blair turning into his predecessor John Major, but few could have pictured the head of what was once a socialist party morphing into George Bush, his war-hungry corporate cannibal ally of the naughts. In Kid A, Radiohead garnered a number one smash hit for one of the most ambitious and difficult albums of its time, but rock radio remained stagnant throughout the first decade and a half of the 21st century, breaking no new ground and forming no major lasting movements. Even those rock groups who generated significant excitement, such as the Strokes or the Arctic Monkeys, were plainly genre-dressing in the styles of the recent past.
Listening from a distance, The Bends may haven been on point, but it's Definitely Maybe and (What's The Story) Morning Glory? that sound sad. The hopeful naiveté of those two albums, backed by the strength of rich, stirring power chords, suggests something more brittle and combustible, whereas the hard shell of Radiohead's skepticism now sounds impenetrable. It's human nature to want to fall into the welcoming arms of that elated confidence, the relentless positivism that sees things at an uptick. No matter what has been lost, music has the power to make us believe that it could one day return, that if we could all connect in the same way that perfect pop song connects -- complaint rock and haters who gonna hate be damned -- a new way is possible.
When we come up for air after that rush of euphoric longing though, will we all be wondering “Where are our real friends?" Will we all have the bends? Will all our insides fall to pieces? When the power runs out, will we just hum? Will we strap ourselves into this cycle again and again, this iron lung dictating our ventilation patterns? Or will we withdraw from the control device, screaming out into the world #ICantBreathe?
We do it to ourselves, we do. And that's what really hurts.
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