When Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood stepped into New York’s tiny Mercury Lounge in November 1994 to play an acoustic duo show, their band was known for a single song that they’d already grown weary of playing: “Creep.” They’d been on tour for two solid years in support of their debut LP, Pablo Honey, and by this point they had a handful of new tunes they planned to include on their next record.
“It was the first time that Thom and Jonny had played our songs to a live audience in this way: Thom thrashing an acoustic, and Jonny playing furiously on his electric,” the band wrote in a fan club newsletter. “The new songs were brilliantly received, with one lone request for ‘Creep’ being shouted down by the rest of the crowd.”
That lone voice spoke to an overwhelming fear within the band that they’d go down in history as nothing more than the “Creep” guys. “It was a complete crisis situation,” Yorke told Billboard in 1996. “No matter what we came up with, we were thinking, ‘My God, people are going to hate us.’ After ‘Creep’ and the fatigue from all the touring, we were scared shitless, really, and people were interfering. We had to claim our creative freedom.”
Released 25 years ago today, The Bends marks the band’s first truly great album, a cohesive set of songs built around washy, U2-style guitars and disquieting lyrics that foreshadowed the themes they’d explore two years later on OK Computer. They’d also get widespread exposure when Bends songs “Fake Plastic Trees” and “My Iron Lung” appeared on the Clueless soundtrack — with protagonist Cher Horowitz labeling the band “the maudlin music of the university station” — forever erasing the chances of Radiohead becoming one-hit wonders. Here are 10 things you might not know about the 1995 alt-rock classic.
1. With the band under immense pressure to follow up Pablo Honey, recording sessions were tense.
Yorke chose producer John Leckie based on his work on post-punk band Magazine’s 1978 record Real Life. During the first two months of recording, the singer began each morning with tea and a four-hour solo piano exercise. “New songs were pouring out of him,” Leckie told NME last year. “He’s an early riser, and at the time he had a lot of energy. You’d avoid interrupting him.”
However, after the mega-success of “Creep,” the band experienced a tough time in the studio. “The initial sessions for The Bends were quite stilted,” drummer Phil Selway told Rolling Stone in 2017. “Some good stuff came out of it. Like ‘Just,’ ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ and ‘Planet Telex.’ So it wasn’t all bad, but there wasn’t an ease to it.” “Bless John Leckie,” added bassist Colin Greenwood. “He was very patient with us. We were aware that what we were going to release would have scrutiny after the first record.”
Their label, EMI, envisioned a fall 1994 release date — which proved unrealistic. “I think that maybe they didn’t want to become this sort of pop band that the label would have them be,” engineer Nigel Godrich said. “People from the label would visit and it got very uncomfortable.” The band went on tour to diffuse tension, exposing fans to Bends material. They finished the album upon returning to England.
2. “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” was inspired by R.E.M. and an eerie novel Yorke read.
For “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” — originally titled “Three-Headed Spirit” — Yorke claims he drew inspiration from The Famished Road, a 1991 book by Nigerian author Ben Okri, which Yorke read while on tour in North America. Released in 1991, the novel tells the story of Azaro, a child who communicates with the spirit world. “He’s haunted by people who try to kill him off and send him back to where he came from so he can’t affect the human race,” Yorke said in a 1993 interview. “It’s a very weird book, and I liked it so much that I wrote a song about it.”
Talking to Third Way in 2004, Yorke also mentioned that the song was inspired by R.E.M., whom they’d open for in 1995 on the Monster tour. “It was just a straight rip-off,” he said. “I’ve ripped them off left, right and center for years and years and years and years.”
3. The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus appears in the video for “Fake Plastic Trees.”
The video for the album’s greatest song is a strange one: Yorke sits inside a shopping cart and glides down a grocery-store aisle, passing by neon-colored products and unique customers, including The Walking Dead‘s Norman Reedus. The actor was 26 years old at the time, having just followed his then-girlfriend to Los Angeles by way of Spain. He found himself appearing in music videos for extra money, including Björk’s “Violently Happy” and Keith Richards’ “Wicked as It Seems.” “They literally pay you $150 and you’re there all day long,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I was happy to get it at the time.”
“I remember it well, actually,” he says of appearing in the video, directed by Jake Scott. “They were like, ‘Can you push this cart down this aisle?’ I goofed around, kind of went a little overboard. I’m playing with ribbon on a string, I think. They liked it and kept it. I remember talking to the band and thinking they were all just super cool. I was already a Radiohead fan, like everybody else in the world. They were all just normal dudes.”
“It’s one of the great albums of all time,” Reedus says of The Bends. “That song in particular is one of those songs that reminds me of that era. I remember those days. It was back when you lived in an apartment the size of a closet and you were, like, loving life.”
4. The album marked the first time the band collaborated with their longtime cover designer.
Artist Stanley Donwood has designed every Radiohead album cover for the past 25 years, starting with The Bends. He began by designing the artwork for the “My Iron Lung” single. “We probably made something like 50 attempts at the single and they were all terrible,” Donwood told Rolling Stone. “We hired a VHS and went out and filmed stuff on the video camera. We would then take out the cassette and play it on a VCR and take photographs of the television and then go to the photo-developing shop in town and get our photos developed and scan the photos and use that. We wanted the degradation you get from that process. At the time, it seemed like the modern world. It was quite something.”
For the album artwork, Donwood first thought of shooting a real iron lung. “We were up against a deadline for the cover,” he recalled. “Somehow, I don’t know how we did that, but we snuck a video camera into a hospital, which I’m sure you’re not supposed to do. I think at the time I’d heard that they actually had an old iron lung. It’s a very boring object. It’s just a big metal box. You pressurize someone that can’t breathe properly. It must have been horrible. I didn’t film the iron lung because it was just this grey box in a dark room. They don’t use them anymore.”
Instead, Donwood captured a photograph of a TV screen showing a video of a resuscitation dummy. “It’s got those metal nipples,” he said. “I’ve never had direct contact with them. I’ve seen them on the telly when someone’s heart has stopped and you give them an electric shock to restart it. It’s to practice mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The expression on the dummy and the angle we filmed it from, it looked somewhere between agony and ecstasy. It’s an ambiguous expression.”
5. The Bends was also the first time they worked with longtime producer Nigel Godrich.
Godrich, a young engineer at the time, produced “Black Star” while John Leckie was at a wedding. He’d go on to become the band’s producer on the rest of their albums to date. “‘Black Star’ is a beautiful song and that went really well,” Colin Greenwood recalled. “We used to hang out with Nigel and he was amazing. We love him so much.”
“Thom called me a few months after I thought the album was done and asked if I could record them in their rehearsal space,” Godrich remembered. “We did three or four songs, including ‘Black Star.’ It felt like the adults were away and we could work without any restrictions. It also became very, very clear that Thom is a very, very gifted writer. I remember he’d just written ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien‘ [which would appear on OK Computer] while we were doing The Bends. He’d sit there with his little book on his knees turning the pages. This wasn’t ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar.’ It was much more on-point.”
6. “My Iron Lung” was recorded live.
After attempting to record the song in a studio, the band used a live recording from a performance at the London Astoria. The crowd noise was taken out, and they re-recorded Yorke’s vocals. “We just happened to record it onto a 24-track tape and having not done a very good version in the studio, we thought that it sounded much better from this concert,” guitarist Jonny Greenwood told Glamour Guide for Trash. “So we just used that.”
The album’s lead single, “My Iron Lung” is also the band’s response to the success they achieved with “Creep,” and the bitterness they felt about it. Over its signature guitar riff, Yorke quips: “This is our new song/Just like the last one/A total waste of time.” “‘Iron Lung’ was supposed to be just another nail in the coffin, the final nail in the coffin of the previously song that shall remain nameless,” he told B-side Magazine. “But it just wasn’t that at all … we released it because we found it very exciting when we listened to it.”
7. “High and Dry” is the oldest song on the record.
Yorke wrote the somber “High and Dry” at the University of Exeter in the late 1980s, with his short-lived former band Headless Chickens. “As far as I can remember, the words were originally about some loony girl I was going out with, but after a while, they got mixed up with ideas about success and failure,” he told Billboard in 1996. “It was an old demo we thought was rubbish, you know, too Rod Stewart or something. But when we came back to the track one day, it seemed like a mirror showing us all the things we had been through.”
8. The concept of the “Just” video was originally intended for a short film.
Jamie Thraves was approached by Radiohead’s creative director, Dilly Gent, to direct the video for “Just.” He had written a 10-page script with dialogue for an upcoming short film, but plans changed when he heard the Bends track. “My story and the song suddenly exploded in my head and collided, like they were meant to be together,” Thraves told Rolling Stone. “There was literally an explosion in my brain and I went blind for a split second, dazzled. I also felt an absolute chill race up my spine when I realized the ending of the story would work perfectly to the ascending guitar solo.”
The ending Thraves is referring to is the moment when the man in the video tells the assembled crowd why he’s lying on the sidewalk — he mouths his words but there’s no sound. So what’s the reason? “I haven’t told anyone in 25 years,” Thraves said. “I had no idea the video was going to cause so many people to ask what the man said. At the time I simply felt I had no choice but to subtract what was said, it created the magic. To reveal the answer would kill the video. I will probably take the answer to my grave unless a rich billionaire Radiohead fan wants to buy the secret from me. Please don’t make me tell you. You don’t want to know.”
9. The B side “India Rubber” features Jonny Greenwood’s laugh on loop.
There are some incredible Bends B sides, particularly “How Can You Be Sure?” and “India Rubber,” both from the Fake Plastic Trees EP — two songs that, sonically, would have fit perfectly on the record. “How Can You Be Sure?” is a dreamy acoustic track that features the background vocals of the Julie Dolphin’s Dianne Swann. “India Rubber” relies on fuzzed-out guitar and synthesizers, but two minutes in, things get weird with a maniacal laugh on loop. On the band’s message board, Colin Greenwood revealed it was actually the voice of his brother. “It’s Jonny laughing at one of his own jokes as usual that he’s nicked from Stephen Fry,” he said.
10. The band hasn’t played “Sulk” live since 1995.
The album’s penultimate track has long been overshadowed by the greatness of the “Street Spirit” finale and the simple fact that the band hasn’t played it live a single time in the past 25 years. Similarly, “High and Dry” hasn’t been performed since 1998. All other Bends tracks have been performed at some point in the 2000s — even “Bones,” a lesser-known song that was last played in 2006. The band performed the Pablo Honey song “Blow Out” on their A Moon Shaped Pool tour in 2018, so one can only hope they’ll bring back “Sulk” at some point in the future.