Radiohead’s 1995 album The Bends clocks in at just over 45 minutes. I know that because my cassette tape that featured it would cut-off and flip over to “Crooked Rain Crooked Rain” by Pavement halfway through The Bends’ ultimate track, “Street Spirit (Fade Out.)”
Allegedly inspired by Ben Orki’s novel The Famished Road, “Street Spirit” points towards the intellectual meandering of Thom Yorke, up and away from the initial pop success of “Creep”, from their previous grunge-lite album, Pablo Honey.
Thankfully, those wanderings led Yorke and his band mates to a charmed middle ground between pop-rock simplicity and conceptual angular progressive rock.
The Bends is an almost perfect rock-and-roll record. It features some hits, but more tellingly, it is still frequently featured on best-albums-of-all-time lists. The website besteveralbums.com, rates The Bends as the best album of 1995, the third best of the ‘90s, and the 15th best of all time.
The first, chilling how-the-hell-do-they-do-that guitar moment comes with the intro to the second song, the title track, where two rhythm guitars are seemingly seamlessly stacked on top of each other, then compressed with an audio anvil.
The lyrics that follow stand-up:
Baby’s got the bends/ We don’t have any real friends. On no…. I wish it was the 60s/ I wish we could be happy/ I wish I wish something would happen…
Then come references to explosions and the CIA, and the guitar morphs into some other octave grafted on top of the anvil.
If there is a better guitar album of this era I’d like to know what it is. If The Replacements were “the last, best band of the 80s” (as proclaimed by Musician magazine in February, 1989) then The Bends is the last, best guitar album of its era, if not of all time.
The pristine production of John Leckie (Stone Roses, Grapes of Wrath) allows the super-hero guitar combo of Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien to transcend. The duo stick largely to the post-punk credo, which eschews single notes for jangles and chords at weird angles.
It’s brilliant and it begs other important questions: how did they get a guitar to sound like a helicopter? Why did they not recreate this beautiful cacophony on ensuing albums? Who let Jian Ghomeshi steal the “Planet Telex” intro for the opening soundtrack on CBC Radio’s Q?
And more importantly, can we steal it back?
When the guitar on “Planet Telex” introduces the lyric, You can force it but it will not come, Yorke still seems to be wondering what the hell he’s doing here, but it could refer to many things, from the from the general to the specific.
The third track on The Bends is a perfect pop moment. “High and Dry” starts innocently enough, perhaps mocking Yorke’s suicidal tendencies, I don’t know:
Two jumps in a week/ I bet you think that’s pretty clever don’t ya boy…. Kill yourself for recognition/ Kill yourself to never ever stop….
But the song is so goddamn pretty, and ends with a plea for rescue. It also establishes the signature falsetto Thom Yorke vocal register that he perfects on the cyber-albums that follow.
I might put “Fake Plastic Trees” later on side two, instead of where it sits. But then again, who remembers sides of, or long-playing records, or listens to songs in order anymore?
It is also important to note that Radiohead dedicated this album to deceased dark comic genius, Bill Hicks. For the initiated, search “Bill Hicks on Marketing” or “Bill Hicks banned from Letterman.”
19 years after its release, the menacing cryptic beauty of The Bends still inspires.