Under the Influence – The Bends

Radiohead is the greatest band of our generation. When they decide to call it a day, they will reside in the exclusive pantheon of artists that were able to make music on their own terms and still amass a large fan base. Their influence on the future progression of the art can’t be measured, which is to say nothing of their impact on contemporary music. Indeed, the bands that have been accused of mining Radiohead’s sound and approach is a who’s who of the British rock scene, including Muse, Travis, and Coldplay.

Many different writers have written that opening paragraph over the last five years. But how? Where does the influence appear? For all of the discussion of band x sounding like Radiohead, for band that surprises listeners every album, what is the Radiohead sound? A comparative listen to Hail to the Thief, for example, and it would be difficult to make any connections to, say, Coldplay’s X & Y or Muse’s Origin of Symmetry. There is, however, one album that Radiohead released where all of these comparisons are not only apt, but pointedly accurate.

Today, we are going to look at Radiohead’s “forgotten” album. Now, of course, the term forgotten is a relative term when dealing with one of the most important bands in modern music. But between the fleeting success Pablo Honey and the greatest album of the last forty years, OK Computer, Radiohead released an album of compelling pop and emotional ballads that created the blueprint for Brit-pop as we know it. But many people don’t talk about The Bends, and it is unfortunate. Not only did it serve as a bridge between Radiohead “the novelty” and Radiohead “the only band that matters,” but if that album didn’t succeed, Radiohead probably wouldn’t exist today.

“Creep” is the kind of song that could crush any established band, let alone an unknown group from Oxford. Adopted by an entire generation and a massive single all around the world, Radiohead’s introduction to the masses is one that most bands pray for. Many in the music industry had written off Radiohead as one-hit wonders. That isn’t just in the commercial, MTV sense either. Many music critics as well found several flaws on their debut album, and according to many, their “grunge ballad” (as one critic wrote) was the best it was ever going to get for them.

When the Bends was released, it received favorable reviews. It was seen as a marked improvement over their debut, but many felt that it probably wouldn’t get out of “Creep”s shadow. Radiohead persevered, and were able to release single after single, each with modest chart success. While none where near “Creep” proportions, it served notice to those doubters, myself included, that they were indeed, very talented, and where planning on staying.

By 1994, I was completely fed up with “Creep,” which had been completely drained of any emotional impact. I even remembering snickering when watching 120 Minutes, as I did ritualistically every Sunday, they announced the premier of “Fake Plastic Trees.” I liked it, but I wasn’t going to turn to the store. Their next single was “Street Spirit,” which had an addictive hook and an amazing video concept. In fact, all of their videos from that album were original and entertaining, and not to be underrated in terms of their continued exposure during that period. When I heard “Just,” I realized I should get the album. I was not disappointed. While Pablo Honey at times lacked direction, The Bends where a concrete collection of songs that

It became one of my favorite albums of 1996. I, like many fans of a growing army of fans on both sides of the Atlantic, were anticipating their next release. I bought OK Computer on July 1st, 1997, the Tuesday it was released at my local Strawberries. We would have been content, delighted, to have twelve more songs in the vein of the Bends. Maybe that is more a statement about fans that we don’t want our favorite bands to “progress,” for fear that they will no longer be accessible to our ears. But once again, Radiohead defied expectations and released the definitive album of the ’90s.

With that said, I believe that the Bends is actually more influential than OK Computer. OK Computer is on par with The Beach Boys Pet Sounds and The Beatles Revolver. OK Computer is a Stanley Kubrick film put to music; viscerally griping while emotionally distant. No one can make a Stanley Kubrick film. And no one could make OK Computer. That, ironically, is its biggest detriment. Its inspiration is equally matched by its intimidation.

The Bends, on the other hand, is more tangible. It is said that a classic album sounds new and fresh years later. That is especially true of the Bends, with its unique approach to stadium rock that is the sound of modern radio today. “Bulletproof…I wish I was” could have been put on Coldplay’s debut, Parachutes, and no one would have noticed. To listen to “Sunburn” off of Muse’s debut (released only four years after The Bends), a rolling piano melody , is the musical offspring of “Planet Telex” and “Street Spirit.”

That isn’t to say that Coldplay or Muse sounds anything like Radiohead anymore. After Showbiz‘s heavy handed allusions to the Bends (to say nothing of Matt Bellamy‘s vocal similarities to Thom Yorke, which were heavily influenced by Jeff Buckley) Muse reinvented themselves as a 21st century Queen with over the top theatrics and concept album about the end of the world. Though they resented being referred to as the “next Radiohead,” Coldplay has carved out an impressive niche (along with three phenomenal albums), and are seen now as the purveyors of a style of music for which they are being copied. Bands such as Keane and Athlete, along with Snow Patrol‘s new direction, have been accused of cribbing from Coldplay. And so the musical cycle of influence continues.

Whenever I am asked to name my favorite bands, I don’t mention Radiohead. That is because I take it as a given that they are everyone’s favorite band. I don’t understand how someone could love music (as an art form, as a vessel, as a celebration) and not love Radiohead. My love for Radiohead began with The Bends. Their trajectory from one-hit wonders to one of the most influential artists of this or any generation is amazing and unheard of in music, matched only by another early ’90s “novelty” act, Beck (a precursor to anti-folk and definite future column).

What’s Going Around

Antony and the Johnsons
-With my desire for all things Antony growing beyond his sophomore album, I Am A Bird Now (One of my picks for best album of 2005, so far), I went out and bought his group’s self-titled debut. They have also released several e.p’s, one of which, I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy, I just ordered. Antony’s amazing voice, coupled with the conglomeration of musical styles (classical, Broadway, opera, and jazz) makes for some of the most emotional and compelling music in years. For any newfound converts (like myself) that love the new album, the earlier material is just as great.

Jandek’s world tour
– Jandek has announced through his label Corwood Industries that he will be playing three shows in the states (New York, Austin, and New Orleans) to match the three low key, somewhat surprising shows in Scotland in the last six months. That brings his grand total of live appearances, in a career that spans almost 30 years and over 40 albums, to six. Needless to say, they will be a hot ticket. Let go of the myths surrounding him and enjoy the music . For the uninitiated, I recommend One Sunday in Scotland, the live document of his first ever live performance. With an accomplished band behind him, it serves as a nice starting point to what Jandek is about while also maintaining somewhat approachable.

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