"harmony in radiohead's the bends reveals a band whose musical flights go far beyond "creep" - and, as j.d. considine discovers, rely on none of the usual britpop poses.
oxford university may be celebrated for its grassy quads, ancient architecture, and lush, well-ordered gardens, but what a visitor experiences is mostly walls, some of them elegant and artful, some menacingly medieval. gates are few and far between, and are inevitably graced with a sign announcing that thus-and-such college is closed to visitors.
"have you read jude the obscure?" asks radiohead singer thom yorke. he's drinking coffee in the very proper lounge of oxford's very proper forte grande randolph hotel, looking for all the world like martin short doing johnny rotten. "the whole book is aboutjude trying to get into the university, and then not being able to do it. and in the end driving himself crazy."
"you know, for one very pretentious moment, we nearly called the band 'jude,' among many other hundreds of names," says jonny greenwood, who with his gangly limbs, rucksack, and anorak, looks like a student rather than the band's lead guitarist and keyboard whiz.
"the other one was 'music,' " adds yorke with a cackle. "phew, eh?"
phew, indeed. yet as wincingly precious as those names are, they do speak to two important points: first, that the members of radiohead, like jude, are perennial outsiders, never quite gaining entry to the hallowed halls of britpop; and second, that music really is the most important thing the band has to offer. because as every other band in britain was out last year flogging its image, agenda, look or theory, radiohead merely delivered an album of exceptional power and beauty called the bends.
packed with soaring melodies and dramatic bursts of instrumental color, it fitted no particular trend, instead wrapping each song in just the right combination of guitar crunch, keyboard hush, and rhythm-section push. not the most obvious way to make music, but give it time and you're soon smitten. just ask the british music press, which ranked the bends right up with the far more fashionable work of blur, elastica, and oasis. not bad for a band that refuses to trade oxford for london. initially part of the thames valley movement__a loose confederation of oxford-area bands such as ride, slowdive, and chapterhouse, whose specialty was a swirling, guitar-heavy sound and a total lack of stage presence__radiohead made the leap from local to international in 1993 with the release of pablo honey, an album mainly known for giving the world "creep."
a classic of the miserable-male genre, what put "creep" over wasn't yorke's well-phrased self-deprecation but the way greenwood's hyperdistorted guitar bludgeoned the chorus into submission. no matter how many times you hear it, there's something about the car-trying-to-start hesitation of that power chord that leaves even well-adjusted listeners raving like beavis and butt-head. "beavis nearly comes, doesn't he?" laughs greenwood, recalling the "creep" segment of beavis and butt-head.
"creep" became so big, in fact, that it threatened to dwarf the band. did they ever consider refusing to play the tune?
"well, we had this chat with michael stipe," says bassist colin greenwood. radiohead was opening for r.e.m., and r.e.m. had gone through a similar problem with "losing my religion." "stipe always gives this little speech before they start to do the song, saying 'this isn't our song anymore. this is your song.' the fact that we were still doing 'creep,' he thought, was really cool."
that's not to say the band wasn't tempted to ditch their "creep." "the beach party," snorts yorke. "we swore that would be the last time we'd do that fucking thing. an mtv beach party. standing by a pool, because the sun didn't come out."
"at least we played well," offers jonny greenwood. "but i don't think the irony was lost on people. all these gorgeous, bikini-ed girls shaking their mammary glands, and we're playing 'creep' and looking terrible."
"in the rain," adds yorke.
it didn't help that the members of radiohead hardly come across as party animals. as a group, they seem happy to converse quietly or sit nose-in-book while the world goes on around them. this has made rock stardom a shock. "a couple girls turned up yesterday, asking if this was the street where the guy from radiohead lived," recounts colin greenwood with an ironic chuckle. "having a stalker is such a '90s thing."
the success of the bends has kept radiohead from being known only as the creep band. getting there wasn't easy. when radiohead began work on their second album, in february 1994, the british music press was once again arguing that what england needed most was bands with an easily pigeonholed attitude. so as oasis, blur, and others rose to the challenge, yorke began to worry. "i was completely paranoid," he says. "blur decided to be mods, so we had to decide to be something else. but i couldn't work out what it was. all of the things we like and were thinking of modeling ourselves on are fairly image-free."
"i remember when we first signed, someone said, 'what agenda do you have?' " says guitarist ed o'brien. "with british bands, there was this whole thing about having something to say. but, maybe naively, we said, 'it's about music.' and that's what it's about."
radiohead's sound set the bends apart from everything else the british rock scene produced last year. lush with aural detail and arresting arrangements, the album never settles into a specific genre, making it easy to get lost in the depth and drama of the songs. and while other britpoppers lyrically opt for the cutting or clever, what yorke goes for is resonance. it can be as simple as the artificiality implicit in the title "fake plastic trees," or as deeply layered as the way "my iron lung" becomes a metaphor for a relationship as confining as it is sustaining.
but musical and verbal atmospherics often don't translate easily to mtv. unlike "creep," the bends took a long while to climb the charts. "it's taken people a year to figure [the album] out, and now they're going 'fucking 'ell!' " gloats yorke. ironically, the idea for the pulp fictionish buzz clip breakout hit "high and dry," came entirely from director paul cunningham. "i like the idea of it being someone else's song completely," says the singer. otherwise, radiohead's experience with video has been less than positive. "there was that american video woman," recalls jonny greenwood, as yorke rolls his eyes. "she came over with us on a video shoot and said, 'can't you make the little chap jump up and down a bit?'
"that kind of says it all."