Radiohead – The Bends; and my litany of grievances against Thom Yorke

Brit lists his complaints about his long-standing enemy Thom Yorke, composer of the greatest album by any British rock group…

Objectively speaking, Radiohead are the second best rock group that Britain has produced, after the Beatles. This doesn’t mean that the Beatles and Radiohead ought to be your favourite bands. God knows Radiohead aren’t my favourite band, and I speak as someone who owns more or less every piece of music they’ve ever released including B-sides and C-sides and has paid to see them perform live on three separate occasions.

Radiohead have an unusual contempt for their fans. The first time I watched them in concert in the mid-1990s they bailed out of their big hit Creep mid-song because they were bored of the paying customers who liked it. This, I felt, was really a bit early in their career for such Dylan-esque disdain. The second time I saw them they made me go to a stupid big blue tent in a cold field in Wales. It rained. And on the third occasion they forced me to endure the worst support act in the world: something called Asian Dub Foundation which shouted political slogans of mind-numbing inanity over a tuneless, seemingly unending dirge.

This does not complete my litany of grievances against Radiohead. In 2001, knowing full well that I would buy any CD they put out, they inflicted upon me a collection of boring electronica called Amnesiac, just when I needed it least. Then in 2007 they made a sublimely brilliant record called In Rainbows but decided to release it not on a CD available from the ring road Asda for a tenner, but as a download via an online ‘honesty box’ which ‘allowed’ to you pay whatever you thought was the ‘right’ amount. This irritating conceit was presumably meant to be some sort of moral experiment, but, thankfully and consolingly, the majority of downloaders paid the millionaire musicians the princely sum of zero pounds and zero pence, which was the correct answer.

They’ve been plaguing me for years, then. By ‘they’, of course, I really mean the band’s frontman and songwriter Thom Yorke. Yorke is one of those anti-everything Greens who is quite open about his misanthropic loathings. When the Occupy movement finally takes over and enacts the Population Matters manifesto, with Julian Assange as President, Billy Bragg as Minister for Truth and Stephen Fry as Queen, they’ll definitely put Yorke in charge of the torture chambers to which all we small ‘c’ conservatives, climate change sceptics and ring road Asda-shoppers will be hastened. You can see him cackling over his levers and knobs, can’t you? On Paranoid Android Yorke sneers “When I am King you will be first against the wall,” and by God he sneers it like he means it.

I first encountered him when we were both horrible teenagers. I was a greasy Trot sixth-former, Yorke an unloveable Oxford moptop with a song that said everything there was to say about being a horrible teenager and did so with an exciting gimmick: the chorus of Creep was preceded by a single, unexpected guitar thrash – apparently a studio accident – that knocked the socks off every spotty git with access to MTV and, weirdly, remained thrilling and unexpected no matter how many times you heard it.

The rest of Pablo Honey – Radiohead’s debut album, built around that unexpected thrash – was, alas, whiny juvenilia and I had them pegged as one-hit wonders, until one fateful day when I was halted in my tracks outside the study-bedroom of a lad called Dominic by an extraordinary sound emanating thence. The sound turned out to be Planet Telex, opening number of The Bends. I stole the CD from Dominic, played it repeatedly with the excitement of some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken, then bought my own copy rather than taping it (at that time a statement of serious intent and wild financial extravagance). In the Barnstaple branch of Our Price I insisted that my lifelong beloved pal and political foe Martpol expose himself to Planet Telex via the giant earmuffs of the listening post. After a few seconds he declared that it wasn’t his thing, an incident which – being now a Radiohead nut so nutty he actually paid for In Rainbows – he hotly denies to this day.

Why, then, does The Bends need record rehab when it is obviously not only Radiohead’s best album, but the best album any British rock group has ever made? The reason is that this isn’t obvious enough, or perhaps is too obvious. Its successor OK Computer loomed larger for most of the following decade, primarily because a slew of very successful but inferior bands such as Coldplay, Keane and Snow Patrol ripped off its sound. Then the chin-strokers went doo-lally for the ‘experimental’ Kid A (which is good) and Amnesiac (which isn’t). The Bends has lost ground, perhaps for being too melodic and emotionally direct, though the selection of Street Spirit as one of the Desert Island Discs that make Nick Clegg cry can’t have helped.

But very few acts have made an album which is truly ‘all killer, no filler’ from first track to last. The Beatles never managed it and even Bob Dylan only did it once (Blood on the Tracks). But Radiohead did it, triumphantly, with The Bends. It begins by complaining that everything is broken and ends with an instruction to immerse your soul in love, both perfectly valid sentiments. It is and will remain the ultimate artistic union of melody, screaming guitars and male hormonal self-pity. It has quiet bits and shouty bits in ideal proportion. It is a work of misanthropic musical genius and it must never, ever die.

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21 thoughts on “Radiohead – The Bends; and my litany of grievances against Thom Yorke

  1. Worm
    November 30, 2011 at 13:22

    I can identify very strongly with this, due to being the same age and having similar epiphanies in Our Price in Taunton. The Bends blew me away. Still unsure as to which is better though – The Bends contains fake plastic trees which is my favourite ever Radiohead song, but I love the way that OK Computer fits together and flows so perfectly as a whole…hmmm

  2. Frank Key
    November 30, 2011 at 14:51

    “My Long List Of Grievances Against… (someone whose work I recognise as genius)” ought to become a series.

    • Worm
      November 30, 2011 at 15:34

      we could call it ‘I hate to love…’

        November 30, 2011 at 19:56

        I can never understand why people think that whether or not they like something says anything about that thing. All it says is something about them. Which can be interesting in itself, but it’s separate.

        I find most Shakespeare plays a pain to sit through. So what? It don’t signify.

    john halliwell
    November 30, 2011 at 15:18

    ‘But very few acts have made an album which is truly ‘all killer, no filler’ from first track to last. The Beatles never managed it and even Bob Dylan only did it once (Blood on the Tracks). But Radiohead did it, triumphantly, with The Bends.’

    On reading that I felt the sap rising – well its been dormant for a while now. The first word that came to mind that adequately captured my sense of outrage was ‘bollocks!’ Of course the Beatles produced at least one album which was ‘all killer, no filler’ and I’ll prove it. Well, I’ve got every Beatles’ album and I’ve been through the lot. And every single one has what could be termed a filler. Sap receding leaves a dispiriting sense of anti-climax only relieved in this case by a growing anxiety that the presence outside my window of three British Gas vans suggests a silent killer may be on the loose……..

      November 30, 2011 at 18:46

      I am a confirmed Beatlemaniac, John, but yes. It’s usually the Ringo song, but not always.

    jonathan law
    November 30, 2011 at 15:51

    “Objectively speaking, Radiohead are the second best rock group that Britain has produced, after the Beatles.”

    What was it the great Noseybonk said — something like “the more preposterous the statement, the more effective the ‘objectively'”?

    Speaking quite subjectively, I’d put almost every band on Levin’s list ahead of this shower of moping milksops. I mean, come on — the joy, the sex, the humour, the fun — where?

    It only goes to show, I think, that there’s a certain type of band you’ll never really get if you weren’t 16 or so at the time of the first album – Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Smiths, even.

    But if you want an objective statement that all fair-minded people can surely agree on: hasn’t Thom Yorke got the most annoying face ever seen on a human being?

      November 30, 2011 at 17:37

      I thought that honour went to Jamie Oliver?

    • Gaw
      November 30, 2011 at 18:12

      I would add that he also has an irritatingly whiny voice and a name with an irritating spelling (he should surely be Tom York, and is showing off by adding a letter to each).

      I find the idea of my knowingly liking Radiohead unimaginable.

        November 30, 2011 at 18:35

        Yes that ‘Thom’ is highly irritating.

      November 30, 2011 at 18:44

      I believe it was the “the more effective the ‘of course'”, JL – basic ofcourseplay.

      Re bands where you had to be 16, Radiohead aren’t one of those – they were more broadsheet than NME quite early on, and the audience demographic was spread across youth and middle age by the time I saw them in the big blue tent.

      As to the wider point, no new pop music will ever grab you like it did when you were a teen, and those are the records to which you’ll return. But after your early 20s you can take one of two paths. Either you can only listen to the same music, read Mojo mag and keep buying ever more contrived and expensive box set versions of the same few albums as each deade anniversary comes round. Or you approach pop music as any other cultural form, buy increasingly less but not zero new stuff, read Q magazine and watch Jools Holland.

      (Incidentally, I wonder what Levin would make of the respective column inches that broadsheet newspapers devote to pop and classical music nowadays).

    November 30, 2011 at 18:16

    There is, from time to time, a whimsical quality to my reading The Dabbler, usually occassioned by the fact that Bristol is where ESPN is headquartered in Connecticut, but this time by the fact that Barnstable and Taunton are in Massachusetts.

    November 30, 2011 at 19:38

    When I see that video of Yowling Yorke in a diving helmet filling with water I hope someone is plugging up the holes. His voice is horrible and his angsty music a pain in the backside.

    November 30, 2011 at 20:46

    I remember Ringo saying that his biggest regret in life was that he had never seen The Beatles….

    December 2, 2011 at 09:16

    I’m a bit too late here, but I must of course staunchly deny Brit’s Our Price story. He is right to say that The Bends is better than OK Computer (though I think In Rainbows outdoes them both), but the jotion that he got there first is pure poppycock.

    Re. Rosie’s “his voice is horrible and his angsty music a pain in the backside”, I’ve never understood this “teenage angst” complaint about Radiohead. Pablo Honey fits that bill, as do a couple of their plot-losing moments later (We Suck Young Blood) but making sad music isn’t the same as making whiny music. Pyramid Song, The Tourist, Morning Bell, Arpeggi/Weird Fishes – these are all sad and beautiful songs, not miserable ones. (And I think Yorke is one of our all-time greatest vocalists, by the way – but as Brit says, that probably don’t signify.)

    • Gaw
      December 2, 2011 at 10:02

      You have a wonderful serendipitous typo there, Martpol: ‘jotion’ a notion that’s no more than a joke.

      • Brit
        December 2, 2011 at 11:00

        I can assure you that the Our Price story is perfectly true: it is a trotion.

        • Worm
          December 2, 2011 at 12:05

          …and a straight up lie would be a lotion

    December 2, 2011 at 11:27

    And there was me thinking that they were just a shit shoegazing version of REM (having failed, with Pablo Honey, to being a shit shoegazing version of the Pixies)

    Also I had also never spotted that Dark Side of the Moon, Led Zepellin 1-4 Screamadellica, Heroes, Hunky Dory, Never Mind the Bollocks, Hounds of Love, Music for a jilted Generation etc were mostly “filler”, but now that you’ve pointed it out I can see that you are completely right.

    Only a genius could gain the adoration of the music press, by releasing a totally shite album, followed by one and a half good albums, then 3 albums entirely comprised of filler and the king of limbs (im not sure if thats an album or some kind of device for testing faulty stereos?). All while mumbling depressing shite like an alcoholic at the back of a night bus. Thom Yorke I salute you!

      December 2, 2011 at 13:05

      I refer the Rt Hon Gentleman to the text of my original statement: “But very few acts have made an album which is truly ‘all killer, no filler’ from first track to last.”

      This does not preclude any of his fave records.

    December 12, 2011 at 04:44

    I must be the only human alive who like Pablo Honey better than The Bends.

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