Few albums in my collection are as comprehensive a rock album as The Bends. Though it represents the second and final true “rock” album Radiohead produced and that its structure and nature resemble that of Pablo Honey, it still marks a huge step forward for the band. True, this leap was not as big as the ones they would take later on in their career, but with a true and honest listen, one can hear a band that was clearly going above and beyond the traditional alternative rock sounds of the mid-90’s. And unlike many of those types of bands and albums, The Bends does not sound dated.
I don’t remember exactly when I bought this album, but I do remember where I was. I was with my family on a visit to my uncle’s house in Long Island and I made a trip to the nearby Tower Records which for me at the time was truly an amazing sprawl of a record store. I do not recall why I bought the album to begin with. I wasn’t a huge fan by any means and as I mentioned in my previous post, I only really liked the first half of their debut album. I do remember hearing the single “High and Dry” on the radio and like many of my friends at the time; I was just interested in keeping up with the new songs and bands that were popular on MTV. Radiohead was getting more radio play and I liked them well-enough to buy this album.
I also don’t remember being all that impressed with the album the first few times I heard it. In fact, my memory of those times is fairly non-descript and the only song I really remember listening to that first time was the opener “Planet Telex” and my reaction was lukewarm at best. As the years went by, I learned to love different parts of the album that probably took a full five years to come to fruition. I don’t think I can say that about many albums but The Bends is certainly unique in regards to how it came to the forefront of my musical obsessions.
The first song that I can remember really getting my attention was their seminal power ballad, “Fake Plastic Trees”. In my latter years in high school, my friends and I decided to start our own DJing business which essentially meant that we were hired to play a few junior high dances. My brother and his friends did this many times over while they were in high school and it was actually very easy for them to do so since one of the guys had a ton of equipment that was more than adequate for these types of dances. So all they had to do was make sure they had a collection of some of the worst popular music at the time (C&C Music Factory, Vanilla Ice, Snap, etc) and keep it in regular rotation. Our career didn’t last as long as it was difficult for us to regularly secure equipment (we seemed to split it between borrowing school equipment and my friend Trevor’s parents’ equipment from their church) and also since my buddy Bryan explicitly went against school protocol and played Dr. Dre’s “Nothin' But a G-Thang” uncensored because, according to him, some 8th grade girl asked for it and she “wanted” him.
But before we were banned for life from all jr. high dances, I remember a different gig that wasn’t that populated. And I remember my buddy Josh putting on “Fake Plastic Trees” which just blew me away. Sometimes music hits us at strange moments and songs and albums you first hear don’t make much sense. But then, at some point down the road, you hear a song again, but for some reason it really starts to resonate with you. And the first time “Fake Plastic Trees” really struck a chord with me was at that dance where if my memory serves me correctly I danced to it with Josh’s girlfriend. And no, there’s no story of any infidelity or anything here. Far from it. I just remember thinking how great that song was and wondered why I had never heard it like that before. To this day it stands out as one of their greatest accomplishments and lucky for us fans, is a song they still play at live shows. I’m all for differing opinions with musical taste and everything, but if you don’t like this song (not necessarily the bizarre Clockwork Orange-ish video, but the song) something is seriously wrong with you.
I also remember seeing the video for “Just” later on and still feel to this day that it’s one of the greatest videos I’ve ever seen. It’s one of the few songs I can recall that I liked so much more after seeing the video. I can’t describe why this is, other than the fact that I was nearly speechless after seeing it for the first time. The song resonated and seemed so much more powerful than I had originally given it credit for and my opinion of it turned around rapidly. Words cannot describe how cool (and amazingly creepy) the video is, so you’ll just have to see for yourself.
Time went by and though I did like the album, I don’t I think I really started seeing how brilliant it was until my junior/senior year in college. By that time I had really gotten into OK Computer and was hanging out with more Radiohead fans. My buddy Pat was someone I particularly remember having some bootlegs and I credit him with getting me into Radiohead so much more than I had before. I particularly remember him playing “Killer Cars” over and over again which was a song that was never released on any of their albums. For the life of me I can’t understand why this was so since it’s such a great song and it would have fit perfectly on The Bends. I think that’s one of the great paradoxes of being a music fan; you like a song so much and find it particularly cool that it has not been released on an album but you somehow have access to it. Then on the other hand, you can’t understand how a band could let such an amazing song fall by the wayside as the majority of the masses never hear it. I suppose the most important thing is that you as the real fan somehow find a way to add it to your collection and the fact that most other people never hear it is somewhat sad, but ultimately irrelevant. Plus, it also allows you to be the one to expose your friends to it when you make a dope mix.
The three other songs that really stand out for me on this album are “Black Star”, “Bullet Proof (I Wish I Was)”, and “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”. They provide a nice representation of the variety of rock songs heard on this album: the pop/rock song with a crazy good hook, a beautiful and somber acoustical track, and an eerie and haunting finale that lingers in your mind long after the album ends. Which brings me back to my original statement that this album represents one of the most comprehensive rock albums in my collection. I find everything that I’m looking for in a great rock record. It’s all together heavy (“Bones”, “Just”, “My Iron Lung”), somber (“High and Dry”, “Fake Plastic Trees”, “Nice Dream”), and poppy (“The Bends”, “Black Star”, “Sulk”). It reminds me of how a particular genre can be simple while at the same time being unique, interesting, and timeless. This album also represents the beginning of the band's onslaught of videos that would soon be rendered non-existent. They made more videos when OK Computer was released, but they pretty much stopped after that. Which is really a shame because while they are an incredibly talented band in terms of the music they produce, but they also thrive in regards to the artistic nature of their videos, which really puts the icing on the cake.
My sister is not a big Radiohead fan at all. Somehow she managed to get a copy of The Bends into her CD collection through no influence of my own. Despite the number of times I’ve told her how amazing the album is and how it’s the best album she has that she doesn’t listen to, I never got around to asking her how she ended up with a copy. Maybe I'll never know. Whenever we talk about the album (which isn’t often) she usually says one of two things: 1) Thom Yorke only sings in vowels (which is true, but then again, doesn’t everyone? Who holds out a note with a consonant sound?). Or 2) it makes her want to kill herself. I really hope this last statement is true. Besides the obvious reason (‘cause ya’ know, I love my sister and all) I feel saddened by this statement. For while it would make sense with just about any of their other records, The Bends is the one album that I would recommend to any non-Radiohead fan. To me, it is their most palatable effort and the one I would suggest any newcomer to start off with. Yes, I agree that their crowing achievement is OK Computer, but for most people, I could see that as being too complex, too artsy, and would require too much patience to fully appreciate. The Bends is their only album that I think the masses could get down to almost immediately. It has enough familiar sounds and variety to appease just about any lover of rock or pop music, including my sister. Why she doesn’t get it is beyond me. Maybe it’s just out of spite or some sort of sibling rivalry thing because she feels that her admitting she likes it means that she'll also have to admit I’m right or something. Or maybe I just think too much about what is ultimately a rather trivial subject. But I honestly don't see how most rock/pop fans can't like this album.
In the end, The Bends ranks towards the top of my favorite Radiohead recordings. While their subsequent efforts would prove to be much more expansive, experimental, and ground-breaking, The Bends remains a testament that this band has what it takes to create a seminal rock-based album that can be basic and simple while maintaining artistic integrity and creativity. It is with this latter idea that Radiohead was able to take about ten steps forward with their third and greatest album. For me, it's just extraordinarily special that they gave us access to the thoughts and ideas that would eventually make that album a reality.