We explore the album that proved there was plenty more to Oxford’s finest than ‘Creep’…
With their status as one of the world’s premier rock bands long since established (and reaffirmed by the excitement surrounding plans for a new tour and album) it seems strange to think back to a time when Radiohead were seen as one-song wonders. And yet for a year or two at the beginning of their career that was pretty much the case.
In 1992 they had announced themselves to the world with their mega-hit ‘Creep’ which with it’s quiet/loud dynamic and introspective lyrics had come along at just the right time, cashing in on an aesthetic which had done very well for Nirvana and many other grunge acts when they broke through the year before.
And whilst ‘Creep’ had recieved heavy rotation on MTV on both sides of the Atlantic reviews for their first album Pablo Honey hadn’t been great, filled as it was with some fairly neat songs but nothing that suggested Radiohead had the potential to go to the next level. And the truth is that many indie bands have come and gone on the strength of less. There was little at the time to suggest Radiohead were going to be any different.
Fast-forward to 1994 and you find a band exhausted from 2 years of constant touring and undoubtedly tired of being seen as one-song wonders. Critically they had become a band writers were fond of making fun of describing them as “Nirvana-lite” and “a lily-livered excuse for a band”. For their second album they had plenty to prove, and prove it they would.
In October 1994 ‘My Iron Lung’ was released as an E.P. and the first taster from the new album. The song itself, which contains the lyrics “this is our new song, just like the last one, a total waste of time” was directly dealing with the double-edged sword of ‘Creep’ which had. like the iron lung of the title, given them life whilst almost completely constraining them.
When the album itself was released it suddenly became obvious in so many ways that they had left ‘Creep’ behind. From the opening judder of ‘Planet Telex’ to the closing strains of ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ this is an altogether more confident, muscular, and skillfully delivered record. Pablo Honey had the feel of a gawky teenager about it; The Bends is Radiohead striving towards adulthood (the would reach full maturity on OK Computer) full of self-assurance and no small amount of swagger.
Much of this was down to Thom Yorke really finding his stride as a songwriter. Tracks like ‘High & Dry’, ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ (the 2nd and 3rd singles) and ‘Nice Dream’ are noticeably better in quality than anything on the first album, products of a man starting to master his craft. Elsewhere the title track, ‘Bones’ and ‘Just’ are big, multi-layered rock songs with the latter, which was released as the 4th single, seeing Radiohead’s 3-guitar attack sounding like twice that many and more as they burn through the song’s climbing chords.
With no lulls, no filler, 12 songs over some 48 minutes, this was Radiohead arriving with a statement of intent that drew praise from critics, fans, and fellow musicians (Michael Stipe was a noteable and vocal fan). They were still a couple of years ago from the truly global fame they would discover with OK Computer (the album stalled in the US, reaching no.88) but Radiohead were no longer figures of fun or one-hit wonders, but a band who deserved to be taken very seriously.