There was once a song entitled “Creep”. A band from Oxfordshire, England wrote it in 1992. Its style can best be described as derivative of the grunge that ruled the alternative radio waves at the time. The song was nothing novel, hardly important, and pretty much just more of the same. However, this did not stop it from becoming one of the most popular rock songs of the 1990s. When reissued in 1993, after its initially poor reception, the band that we all know as Radiohead became popular for no reason at all.
Why Radiohead became one of the biggest bands in the world is difficult to explain. There is nothing about their music that would appeal to the masses. They are far from mainstream. Yet, for some reason, their fanbase is immense. They are a cult band that has taken over modern music. Everybody loves Radiohead, but it’s hard to find a Radiohead fan. It’s one of the biggest music paradoxes I can think of, and I guess we can owe it all to that one song, from the early 90’s, that no Radiohead fan likes to believe was written by their five favorite musicians.
But what “Creep” did for the band extended far past notoriety. Their follow up to 1993’s Pablo Honey, 1995’s The Bends, would be filled with the paranoid and claustrophobic anthems that we would grow to know and love as the bulk of Radiohead’s catalogue. And what better inspiration for these feelings than the group’s reaction to what they had just gone through? The reflections of a band being shot to the top, for one song, that they themselves weren’t even proud of, and not knowing what to do with themselves when it was all over.
When a diver surfaces too quickly, rushing up from the depths of the ocean, the effects can often be fatal. The differential in pressure of water inside and out of the body causes what is inside to explode, like opening a shaken soda bottle, bursting veins and often killing the diver. This is commonly referred to as “The Bends”. Like the metaphor suggests, Radiohead surfaced too quickly with the unexpected popularity of “Creep”, and the pressure was almost too much. But thankfully the action was not fatal. In fact, it was far from it, inspiring some of the most important music in modern rock and forming a foundation for the five consecutively mind blowing albums that would follow.
“Where do we go from here/The words are coming out all weird/Where are you now/When I need you?” Thom Yorke sings from the album’s title track, addressing the boredom and lack of recognition that the band once faced. A popular rock group rarely discusses the down side of being famous, like not knowing who to trust (“Who are my real friends?”), but Radiohead did just that. The Bends is filled with dark imagery, often found in references to the human circulatory system (“My Iron Lung”), all set against 90’s alternative pop rock music with a twist.
But, the radio waves weren’t ready for Jonny Greenwood’s backbreaking solos, the band’s triple threat of atmospheric guitar work, or Thom Yorke’s self-alienating lyrics and unique vocal delivery. Where the band could have stayed the course of the common throwaway 90’s alt band, they rewrote the rules, taking the music that was popular at the time and tearing it apart, making something of their own out of it in the process. Radiohead looked at themselves, looked at the world, and wrote about how the two things fit together.
Fame and lust were ridiculed in “High and Dry”, which pinned down egocentricity and greed for fame by depicting an Evil Knieval-esque stuntman in poor light. Consumerism was pitied with “Fake Plastic Trees”, which discussed the ambivalence of materialism through the eyes of a plastic surgeon and his Barbie-doll wife, both dissatisfied with the lives they have made for themselves. Images like these fill the album, personal issues shown metaphorically through the stories and scenarios created in the songs.
Furthermore, the album retains a great deal of variety in song styles. It begins with the effects laden-guitar heavy rocker “Planet Telex,” and ends with the slow building, finger picked ballad “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, but not before lapsing into numerous versions and combinations of the two styles, in between. It has it all. Loud, soft, loud-soft, and everything else, showcasing a band that takes just as much pleasure in rocking out as they do in slowing it down.
Radiohead didn’t reinvent rock music with The Bends, they just reinvented themselves, something they would do again, and again, and again throughout the next decade and a half. They bent the rock and roll success story, transforming themselves from how South Park would later describe them: “They’re the band that sings that song “I’m a Creeeeeep, I’m a Weirdoooooo” (Eric Cartman), to one of rock’s most important and influential bands, a conundrum that can go without explanation. Though The Bends is not their strongest album, (*cough Ok Computer *cough) it is what any Radiohead newcomer should start with, because it’s where the band began to mold themselves into what they would later become, a shapeshifting monster of a rock band.
“Fake Plastic Trees”