When divers come up from the depths of the ocean too quickly, they risk getting the bends, a painful and potentially fatal condition caused by having too much nitrogen in the blood. The Bends is also the title of the second album by the English quintet Radiohead, and it serves as the perfect metaphor for their painfully rapid rise to fame following the release of "Creep," their 1993 megamonster hit. After sustaining some minor aches and pains in the three years between the release of their platinum debut, Pablo Honey (which included "Creep"), and this year's The Bends, Radiohead has taken time to decompress and now is set to jump back into the water headfirst, starting over in their quest for lasting success while trying to get away from the song that broke them in more ways than one. And they aren't diving into the shallow end, either: Tomorrow night at the Miami Arena, the band begins the U.S. leg of its tour with R.E.M.
So far on the current tour, Radiohead has performed six European dates with R.E.M., as well as a show in Denmark with Neil Young and the Miracle Band (Pearl Jam sans Eddie Vedder). The band took a break in late August to rehearse and record some B-sides and now joins R.E.M. for seventeen U.S. dates in September. (Next month they'll move on to a stint opening for Soul Asylum.)
"R.E.M. obviously only takes out bands that they like, and they seem to be genuine fans of this [new] record," says Radiohead guitarist Ed O'Brien, speaking over the phone from England. "And when we played with Neil Young, [guitarist] Stone Gossard from Pearl Jam came up and said, 'Why didn't you play "Planet Telex," that's such a great song?'"
O'Brien goes on to explain that after touring for two and a half years to support an album that they had outgrown, the band A vocalist-songwriter Thom E. Yorke, guitarists O'Brien and Jonny Greenwood, bassist Colin Greenwood, and drummer Phil Selway A are finally proving what they are capable of to their audiences. "In a way, it feels as if we're starting again," he notes. "With Pablo Honey and 'Creep,' we had a really pop album and a pop hit, but what we have now is a hard-core base of fans, people who are really into what we're doing. You've got to lay down foundations, and we weren't really able to do that with Pablo Honey; we didn't really know how many of those fans were there to see Radiohead as opposed to some of the people who came along just to hear 'Creep.'" (Among the fans the band has discovered are legions of Japanese kids, a group of whom have started a "Phil Is Great" club for the band's low-key drummer.)
Radiohead's songs communicate with sparkling clarity what would seem impossible to say simply, expressing feelings of inadequacy, shame, rage, cynicism, and sadness. While such sentiments were encapsulated especially succinctly on "Creep" ("I wish I was special . . . but I'm a creep/I'm a weirdo"), they also come through on The Bends, a collection of intricately arranged pop songs that incorporate a whimsical, Sixties-rock sensibility into a moody, modern-rock structure. For example, on the title track Yorke wonders: "Where do we go from here? Who are all my real friends? I wish it was the Sixties/I wish I could be happy....I want to be part of the human race."
Both lyrically and musically, The Bends is a much darker album than Pablo Honey, and O'Brien contends that the second album genuinely reflects what the band experienced after two and a half straight years of touring. "It's very weird to go and immediately record another album, with everyone wanting 'Creep, Part Two' or whatever," he says. "There's an immense amount of pressure on you, and for a while we did lose it because there were so many people involved and pushing us around."
Around the time the band ended their tour last year, the British press published several reports that Radiohead was on the verge of splitting up. But the band actually was going through more of a breakdown than a breakup. The relationships between Radiohead's members were beginning to strain, Yorke's health was failing, and the group had fallen into a songwriting slump. By the time they stepped into the studio with producer John Leckie to record The Bends, the band was spent, but decided to recharge by, of all things, playing live.
"We had 22 amazing songs, but the first batch of recordings was dreadful, so we had to abandon it and go out on tour, which allowed us to reaffirm our faith in the songs and our faith as a band," O'Brien asserts. "We always had this great conviction but we lost it for a while last year. We were questioning everything, and I think that's reflected in the album."
The Bends swims in an erratic ebb and flow of intense feelings, with the steady hum of longing and isolation lurking on the murky bottom. The songs soar and dip with Yorke's wide-ranging and often ethereal vocals, while Jonny Greenwood's and O'Brien's guitars carry the melodies all over the place in terms of styles and arrangements. The two tinker with Sixties psychedelia on the windswept "Planet Telex" and the "Dear Prudence"-like "My Iron Lung," which explodes in a torrent of Hendrix-ian sonics at the end. On the other hand, softly strummed acoustic guitars drive delicate melodies in "High and Dry," "Bullet Proof . . . I Wish I Was," and the bittersweet "Nice Dream." All of it is held together by bassist Greenwood's and drummer Selway's ultratight rhythm section.
Many of the songs on The Bends ended up on the album somewhat accidentally, starting out as old demos or live tracks the band had forgotten about when they first went into the studio. Several were recorded on the first take. Whereas some of the songs on Pablo Honey used Yorke's voice to carry the melody line, the new songs blend guitar sounds with his voice, creating a layered effect.
"I think think that with Pablo Honey -- which was recorded in three weeks -- we were a very young band and it reflects that. The tempos tended to get faster as it goes along and there's this frenetic energy, whereas on this album we actually had to speed some songs up because we were laying back on things," O'Brien explains. "I think that after two years of touring Pablo Honey and playing those songs, we got a bit sick of playing songs that go a million miles an hour."
Another concern for the band on this album was expanding the boundaries of instrumentation. "On Pablo Honey, there was a tendency to put down maybe eight or nine guitar tracks, while here we put down two or three and brought in some other instruments [piano, violin, and cello] to give it depth," O'Brien points out. "I think a lot of people were surprised by The Bends, and I hope we continue to surprise people. I think they thought this was going to be more guitar frenzy, but it's not."
While Radiohead previously has performed extensively in the U.S., this is the first tour that puts them before such large audiences. "We're in this precarious situation where we've learned our trade in the clubs and are totally comfortable with that," says O'Brien. "But the arena shows are going to be totally new for us. The dates in Europe were mostly outdoors, festival shows. But it's sort of like when we started gigging three and a half years ago; it's something that we're totally enthusiastic about."
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The band -- named after a song on Talking Heads' True Stories album -- formed in the late Eighties when Yorke met O'Brien and Colin Greenwood at a boys' boarding school; Colin's brother, Jonny, and Selway joined soon thereafter. The five continued to play throughout college, and in 1991 they recorded some demos. That summer they were signed to the English label Parlophone, and almost two years later they released Pablo Honey, which spun off two singles, "Creep" and a remixed version of "Stop Whispering." This past November, the band's U.S.label, Capitol, put out a four-track EP that previewed the cut "My Iron Lung" and also contained three new non-LP tracks; the EP was meant more as an item for fans than as a proper single. Then in March the record company released the heavily poetic and lightly orchestrated "Fake Plastic Trees" as the new album's first single. Radiohead hoped the song would counterbalance their "Creep"-y reputation.
"We've had problems being played on commercial alternative radio because we don't fit into the format," complains O'Brien. "But 'Creep' did, and it sort of defined a sound. It's been hard on this album because the commercial stations are quite narrow in their vision, whereas the college stations have been amazing, playing tracks that aren't singles."
Despite the reluctance by radio stations and pop kids to support this record so far, Radiohead is proud of The Bends and determined to move ahead. "We see ourselves as a band that's developing," O'Brien notes. "We want to go on to make many different kinds of records. Some other alternative bands, it seems, will crank out the same record over and over. But then take a band like Pearl Jam A the growth from Ten to Vitalogy is tremendous. And look at what Bjrk and PJ Harvey are doing. We just hope to carry on making better and better records and becoming a better live act. We hope we get to the point that Radiohead fans trust us, knowing we're only going to release music we are passionate about."
Radiohead performs with R.E.M. tomorrow night (Friday) at 7:30 at the Miami Arena, 721 NW 1st Ave; 530-4444. Tickets cost $29 and $39.