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On This Day In Music… March 13, 1995: Radiohead Release 'The Bends'

The band's second album would silence the critics – and clear a way for greater glories to come.

radiohead the bends
Source: WENN/Newscom/The Mega Agency / Parlophone/Capitol

'The Bends' saw Thom Yorke's songwriting reach a new level of intimacy and emotion.

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The Bends is arguably the album that made Radiohead a global force. Released on March 13, 1995, it elevated the Oxfordshire band from an interesting single-hit oddity into genuine rock innovators, and one of the most influential bands of the last 30 years.

It seems scarcely believable now, but at the time of its release, Radiohead were regarded essentially as one-hit wonders. First album Pablo Honey was released in 1993 and had produced the single “Creep”; an international hit, it peaked at No. 34 in the Billboard Hot 100, drew comparisons with Nirvana, Beck, the Smiths and the Cure, won Radiohead Best Single at the 1994 NME Awards and prompted Entertainment Weekly to describe it as "the ultimate neurotic teen anthem".

Three decades after its release, that debut remains Radiohead’s best-selling single… but the success of “Creep” would also be an albatross around the band’s neck. With none of the other tracks on Pablo Honey resonating so effectively with either critics or the public, whispers began that it was a peculiar one-off, a freak flash of brilliance from an otherwise pretty ordinary outfit.

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After the worldwide success of 'Creep', Radiohead were dismissed as one-hit wonders.

If the band was feeling frustrated – so much so that they are even said to have renamed the song “Crap” – then so were the record label. EMI wanted more hits, and they dispatched Radiohead to the recording studio to come up with them.

Speaking to The Face in 2020, guitarist Ed O’Brien remembered: “Radiohead in the early days, that first album was pretty sh-t apart from one song! ‘Creep’, right? That’s the standout track. We weren’t that good but we worked hard and became good.

“We weren’t like The Stone Roses. We were crap compared to Blur, all those types. And, after all that touring on Pablo Honey, then the songs that Thom was writing were so much better. Over a period of a year-and-a-half, suddenly, bang.

“That’s one of the things I’ve held onto: you don’t have to have all the answers straight away. People forget that the guy who wrote ‘No Surprises’, which was only a few years after that, maybe three or four years, how he evolved.”

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Yorke's songwriting evolved dramatically between 'Pablo Honey' and 'The Bends'.

Yorke may have been, by his own admission at the time, “Physically… completely f--ked and mentally I've had enough,” but he was also about to lead Radiohead into a whole other level of songwriting.

Speaking to Total Guitar magazine in 2012, The Bends producer John Leckie remembered the first time he heard “Fake Plastic Trees”.

“There was a demo on a cassette,” he said. “There were so many demos that sounded like major songs, but that one was near the top of the list. It sounded instantly like a big track.

“It was originally done with Thom just playing acoustic guitar and singing live. I think he did it to a click in his headphones, but everything else was overdubbed later.

“I won’t say he did it first take, but he did it second or third take. The whole track… was created from Thom’s original performance.”

The band also expanded their internal dynamics: while Pablo Honey was an essentially Thom Yorke product, the demos for The Bends would evolve into a more collaborative effort, with Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood especially given space to add their own (considerable) creative talents.

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The result was a collection of 12 songs that now reads like the first half of a Radiohead Best Of compilation. As well as the title track, “My Iron Lung”, “Fake Plastic Trees”, “Just” and “High and Dry” were all released as singles (the latter as a double-A side with “Planet Telex”)… but it would be The Bends’ final official single release that for many would be album’s masterpiece.

“Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, released in January 1996, would give Radiohead their highest chart placing to date, peaking at No. 5 (two places above “Creep”) – and would also represent a glimpse into the powerful-yet-delicate weaving of melody and experimentation that would define OK Computer the following year.

Speaking to the NME, Thom Yorke was typically uncompromising about the song.

“All of our saddest songs have, somewhere in them, at least a glimmer of resolve,” he said. “’Street Spirit’ has no resolve. Our fans are braver than I to let that song penetrate them – or maybe they don’t realize what they’re listening to. They don’t realize that ‘Street Spirit’ is about staring the f--king devil right in the eyes. And knowing, no matter what the hell you do, he’ll get the last laugh.”

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The Bends would peak at No. 4 in the U.K. album chart – it would notch up a total of 58 weeks in the British top 40 and over 200 in the top 100 – and even secure a nomination for Best British Album at the 1996 BRIT awards (where it was beaten by (What’s the Story) Morning Glory).

And if it was the album that showed the world just what Radiohead was capable of, the years since its release have only strengthened that legacy. In 2006, The Observer named The Bends one of “the 50 albums that changed music”, saying it had popularized an “angst-laden falsetto ... a thoughtful opposite to the chest-beating lad-rock personified by Oasis,” and adding “Without this... Coldplay would not exist.”

“What I remember the most about Radiohead is that when they performed in the studio they would jump around as if they were onstage,” John Leckie later recalled about recording The Bends. “So when Jonny was doing an overdub his hair would be hanging forward and he’d be knocking chairs over. Thom would be the same. As soon as you pressed record, they’d all start jumping up and down. It was really good fun.”


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