Radiohead were a group of self-declared social outcasts who met at Abingdon School, where there was allegedly a hostile Dickensian atmosphere. The group found a common interest in music and spent much of their spare time at school sheltering from the strict and oppressive teachers in the sanctum of the music room.
In 1985, the core group formed under the name On a Friday, which referred to the day they would meet for their main rehearsal each week. As a particularly bright bunch, they were seemingly on the fence about whether they should pursue further education at university or follow their passion for music in a gamble for sustainable success.
Finally, taking the safer route, the group dispersed from Oxford to attend university; however, they made a concerted effort to ensure they met up to practice back in Oxford as frequently as possible. Managing to maintain their connection through university, the group returned to Oxford and continued to play together as On a Friday. In 1991, they signed with EMI and were asked to change their name. They finally agreed that they would rebrand as Radiohead, named after the Talking Heads song ‘Radio Head’ from their 1986 album True Stories.
Radiohead’s first album Pablo Honey is seen by many as a bit of a throwaway. But it’s important to remember that they were still only in their early-to-mid-20s when recording the album. It naturally shows signs of their lack of experience and immaturity while revealing a smorgasbord of ideas that can be seen as a launchpad from which they grew impressively. Pablo Honey also contained ‘Creep’, Radiohead’s first big hit single, which boosted them into global recognition, but they had a task up ahead to break themselves away from being branded as a one-hit-wonder while maintaining mainstream success.
On March 13th 1995, Radiohead released their second studio album, The Bends. The album came as the group’s first refined and balanced album that offered a bounty of hit singles. The record achieved what it set out to do in helping Radiohead migrate from their status as a one-hit-wonder to being recognised as one of the most important British bands of the time alongside the might of Oasis and Blur during their Britpop battle.
On The Bends, Radiohead offered a moodier and grungier answer to the sound Britpop. They had begun to master the art of painting a picture of youthful anxiety and consternation through their music. The album was named after the sickening sensation, and in some cases, serious illness divers experience when surfacing too fast from the ocean depths. The name could perhaps convey the group’s anxieties about their rise to fame and the troubles that might be in store.
Ranking the songs on the Radiohead album ‘The Bends’
12. ‘(Nice Dream)’
‘(Nice Dream)’ paints a picture of Yorke’s anxiety as he depicts his dream that people can be trusted. It seems that this nice dream sadly doesn’t reflect his reality: “I call up my friend the good angel /But she’s out with /Her answer-phone /She says she’d love to come help but /The sea would /Electrocute us all”.
The song gives us a sobering thought that perhaps all love and friendship is just an illusion. The final lines, “If you think that you’re strong enough /If you think you belong enough”, seem to hammer this home as you wake from the dream; the illusion is perhaps broken if you believe that you belong enough.
‘Sulk’ was initially intended to be the record’s lead single but eventually slid all the way to the bottom of the ladder as the group’s least favourite on the album. The track is by no means a poor song, but it just doesn’t appear to offer much to spark intrigue.
The song was a very early idea of Yorke’s that he first drafted in the late 1980s, inspired by the Hungerford murders. When recording it for The Bends in 1994, they omitted the original concluding lyric, “just shoot your gun.” This was because Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain had recently committed suicide, and they didn’t want people to think the song was alluding to that.
10. ‘Bullet Proof … I Wish I Was’
From a particularly gloomy era for a particularly gloomy rock group came one of their gloomiest tracks. ‘Bullet Proof … I Wish I Was’ came as a self-pitying ballad that builds up a dour musical atmosphere of space-like transcendence that perfectly frames the theme of the lyrics. “Wax me /Mould me /Heat the pins and stab them in /You have turned me into this /Just wish that it was bulletproof”.
The song – while highlighting the fragility of life and how life will often have different plans despite our best intentions and dreams – could perhaps encourage people to live in the moment if they were looking for a diamond of positivity within the rough.
9. ‘Black Star’
The raw and rough around the edges sound heard in ‘Black Star’ resulted from the absence of John Leckie in the studio. On the day Radiohead had been recording the track, Leckie, who produced most of The Bends, had been away.
The lyrics, as Yorke described, are “This is about sex in the morning. It’s the best time to have it. Especially if you have brushed your teeth before.” However, just because the song is about sex, it doesn’t escape Radiohead’s signature ominous wrath of anxiety and doubt. The lyrics appear to be about a struggling relationship drought with confusion and depression.
8. ‘Planet Telex’
As the band had returned to the studio from a boozy dinner one evening, Yorke recorded the vocals drunk, slumped in a corner. According to producer John Leckie, “We had the whole thing down within a couple of hours, which was really refreshing and fun to do.”
The original title for this shimmering introduction to the album was ‘Planet Xerox’, but Radiohead were denied permission to use the Xerox trademark and so renamed it Telex. The heavy delay effects in the track make it a perfect marriage of shoegaze and Britpop influences.
7. ‘The Bends’
The album’s eponymous single came as the sixth and final, released in July 1996. The track was originally named ‘The Benz’ and had been an idea knocking around as early as 1992 during the recording sessions for Pablo Honey. The refrain of “I want to be part of the human race” makes the song sound like a sequel to the group’s breakout single ‘Creep’, continuing the familiar theme of social isolation.
Yorke said in a 1995 interview: “[‘The Bends’] is one of those songs, I was rambling around and just poured all this rubbish out into the song. Then it all started happening, which was a bit odd. I was completely taking the piss when I wrote it. Then the joke started wearing a bit thin.”
6. ‘High and Dry’
‘High and Dry’ was released as a single along with ‘Planet Telex’. It was originally recorded in 1993 during the sessions for Radiohead’s debut album Pablo Honey. The original version didn’t make the cut in 1993 but was later remastered in 1995 for The Bends.
The catchy guitar tracks and soaring chorus vocals have made ‘High and Dry’ one of Radiohead’s most well known and publicly acclaimed songs. Yorke once recalled that the lyrics were about “some loony girl I was going out with,” but became “mixed up with ideas about success and failure”.
‘Bones’ is a classy track that has perhaps been unfairly overshadowed by the might of some of the other upbeat hits on The Bends over the years. The composition appears reminiscent of R.E.M. and fits in perfectly with other Britpop releases of the era.
In 2007, comedy writer and actor Ricky Gervais was interviewed on BBC 2’s Desert Island Disks feature. Gervais explained that Radiohead were one of his favourite groups, and he picked out ‘Bones’ as his favourite. He explained, “there’s a lyric that goes ‘I used to fly like Peter Pan’, and the way [Yorke] sings it the way the music soars—it brings a lump to my throat.” He concludes, “Anything to do with regrets, I’m a sucker for that. It just does something to my soul. It makes me well up.”
‘Just’ was materialised mainly from the efforts of Jonny Greenwood, who was deadset, as Yorke recalled, on “trying to get as many chords as he could into a song”. The heavy guitar riff thrashing throughout the track was inspired by John McGeoch’s riff on Magazine’s ‘Shot By Both Sides’ as Jonny recalled, “pretty much the same kind of idea”.
The track also seems to channel some of the heavier grunge influences from the likes of Nirvana or Pixies. We are still unclear who Yorke is reprimanding in the lyrics, but I can say with a great deal of conviction, I’m glad it’s not me.
3. ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’
This track is indisputably an early Radiohead classic. It will always trigger memories from my childhood as it had been a regular feature on the radio in the late 1990s. ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ was released as a single in January 1996 and reached number five on the UK Singles Chart, Radiohead’s highest position up to that point.
Yorke once said the slow brooding ballad was inspired by R.E.M. and the 1991 novel The Famished Road by Ben Okri. The lyrics depict a decidedly bleak image of the dread and anxiety rife in modern society.
2. ‘My Iron Lung’
‘My Iron Lung’ came as the album’s lead single; it doesn’t linger in mind as much as some of the other catchier hits on The Bends, but it has a candour in the lyrics that draws me in every time I hear it that makes me wonder how I had forgotten this brilliant track.
Few lyrics seem to embody Radiohead in the ’90s so well as “We’re too young to fall asleep /Too cynical to speak /We are losing it, can’t you tell?” ‘My Iron Lung’ was released initially on the 1994 EP of the same name. The record sleeve art for the EP marked the first collaboration with graphic designer Stanley Donwood who would create the artwork for all of Radiohead’s subsequent releases to date.
1. ‘Fake Plastic Trees’
The group who embodied themselves as the angsty ’90s answer to the’ 80s’ Smiths seemed to reach a new high with the release of this perfectly moody anthem. The track came as the album’s third single and remained one of the group’s most cherished and most-streamed tracks.
‘Fake Plastic Trees’ makes several bold statements about modern materialism and the futile limits of life, “Gravity always wins.” It was, as Yorke recalled, “the product of a joke that wasn’t really a joke, a very lonely, drunken evening and, well, a breakdown of sorts.”