Release date: March 1995
The Bends is the second studio album by English alternative rock band Radiohead, released on 13 March 1995. The Bends was produced by John Leckie at EMI's studios in London, and engineered by Nigel Godrich, who would go on to produce all future albums by the band. Featuring five charting singles, the album also marked the beginning of a shift in aesthetics and themes for the band, with greater use of keyboards, and more abrasive guitar tracks balancing subtler ones. The introspective grunge-influenced style of Pablo Honey evolved toward more multilayered rock with cryptic lyrics and larger ideas, as the band and singer Thom Yorke reacted against the rigours of near-constant world tours. "Street Spirit (Fade Out)", the final single and last song on the album, became their first top five UK hit.
The album was subject to greater critical acclaim than their debut Pablo Honey (1993), receiving an enthusiastic critical reaction, and it reached number four in the UK Albums Chart. However, it failed to build on the commercial success of their single "Creep" outside the United Kingdom, and it peaked on the American charts at number 88. Although it lacked the instant success of later Radiohead albums, The Bends achieved triple platinum sales certifications in the UK and Canada and platinum sales in the US and the EU. In the years following its release, the album has frequently appeared in listener polls and critics' lists of best contemporary rock albums.
By the time Radiohead began their first United States tour in early 1993, their single "Creep" (1992) was in heavy rotation on MTV and had achieved top ten chart positions in the UK and the US when reissued in 1993. The grunge sound of their debut album Pablo Honey (1993) had led to the band being described as "Nirvana-lite", and neither the album nor the singles "Stop Whispering" and "Anyone Can Play Guitar" matched the chart success of "Creep".
Radiohead nearly broke up due to the pressure of sudden success as the tour extended into its second year. The band described the tour as a miserable experience, as towards its end they were "still playing the same songs that [they had] recorded two years previously... almost like being held in a time warp." Tensions were high, as the band felt smothered by both the success of "Creep" and the mounting expectations for a superior follow-up. The band sought a change of scenery, touring Australasia and the Far East in an attempt to reduce the pressure. However, confronted again by their popularity, Yorke became disenchanted at being "right at the sharp end of the sexy, sassy, MTV eye-candy lifestyle" he felt he was helping to sell to the world. The 1994 EP My Iron Lung, featuring the single of the same title, was Radiohead's reaction, marking a transition towards the greater depth they aimed for on their second album.
At the start of 1994, Radiohead began working on song arrangements for The Bends. They were encouraged by both the material and their producer of choice, John Leckie, who had agreed to work with them on the album. Sessions were due to begin at London's RAK Studio in January; however, fellow Oxford band Ride asked Leckie to perform some last-minute emergency work on their forthcoming album Carnival of Light. Radiohead agreed to postpone the start of the album's sessions to 24 February to accommodate Leckie. The band used the extra time to practise their songs, but this later proved unsatisfactory to them – Yorke said, "We had all of these songs and we really liked them, but we knew them almost too well . . . so we had to sort of learn to like them again before we could record them, which is odd."
The band found the first two months of work on the album difficult. While they were pleased with Leckie and engineer Nigel Godrich, they felt pressured to follow up the success of Pablo Honey. The band's record label, EMI, had set an October 1994 release date for the record, which later proved unrealistic. EMI also suggested Radiohead should record the album's lead single first. No one could agree on what the lead single should be, so the band worked on four tracks they considered candidates: "Sulk", "The Bends", "Just", and "Nice Dream". The approach proved counter-productive; Leckie recalled, "Everyone was pulling their hair out saying, 'It's not good enough!' [. . .] We were trying too hard". The recording process slowed down further as guitarist Jonny Greenwood experimented with several rented guitars and amplifiers in order to discover "a really special sound" for his instrument, despite Leckie's belief that Greenwood already had one. According to Leckie, whenever a record company representative or the group's management came to check on the album's progress, all the band would have to show them was "a drum sound or something".
In an attempt to defuse tensions between Yorke and the rest of the band, which had begun over whether or not they should take a break from the sessions that April, Leckie suggested to Yorke that he record some songs by himself on guitar. The group had a tour lined up for May until mid-June, which meant that the album would not be completed by October as planned. By the end of the sessions at RAK, Radiohead had recorded several songs that would appear on the album, as well as most of the tracks that would appear on My Iron Lung extended play (EP). They resumed recording on 16 June at businessman Richard Branson's rural studio complex the Manor. Unlike the sessions at RAK, the group recorded material quickly; Leckie felt the break for the tour gave the group "confidence' in the songs again. The band completed recording the album at Abbey Road Studios in London, where Leckie also mixed some of the songs.
Due to the poor commercial performance of the My Iron Lung EP, EMI decided Pablo Honey producers Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie would remix the album tracks in the United States. Leckie did not realise what was happening until EMI asked him for copies of the multi-track tapes. Leckie said EMI "had been going on about trying to get an American sound for the record from the minute I got involved". Kolderie insisted he and Slade did not lobby to remix the album, but EMI made the decision and the band supported it after hearing Pablo Honey play over a sound system during an in-store appearance. Leckie did not always like what Slade and Kolderie produced, but he has since stated that it was a sound decision to have others approach the music with a fresh approach.
In the United States, the album eventually reached number 88 on the Billboard 200 in 1996, while the single "High and Dry" reached number 78 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the UK, The Bends reached number 4 and remains a bestseller. In mid-1995 Radiohead toured as an opening act for R.E.M., playing songs from The Bends and extending their popularity with a mass audience.
The Bends had an influence on the subsequent generation of British pop bands. In 2006, The Observer listed it as one of "the 50 albums that changed music". Singing in a higher octave-range and falsetto voice to a backdrop of churning guitars became a much-copied idea, however, one that eventually coalesced into an entire decade of sound. Without this, Coldplay would not exist, nor Keane, nor James Blunt." Radiohead members said they later distanced themselves from their mid '90s sound partly because they felt little affinity for those that adopted the sound. In 2003, the album was ranked number 111 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. The Bends was the highest entry of three Radiohead albums to make the list (OK Computer and Kid A being the others). In 2000, Virgin's "Top 1000 Albums of All Time" ranked The Bends at number two, second only to Revolver by The Beatles. In 2006, British Hit Singles & Albums and NME organised a poll of which, 40,000 people worldwide voted for the 100 best albums ever and The Bends was placed at number 10 on the list.