This week’s post is a bit of fleeting relationship. Like many people (I suspect) I got into Radiohead with The Bends, was wowed by OK Computer, bemused by Kid A, hung around for Amnesiac then figured out the band had moved on somewhere else and I was quite comfortable where I was, so we split up.
When I wrote about Joni Mitchell last week it was one version of one track – Amelia on a free CD – that did it. With Radiohead it was a couple of bars of guitar.
The Bends was released in 1995, but I think my moment of revelation came a little later, probably 1996. Radiohead were much loved by the hip music press that I read at the time (Q Magazine, mainly), but at that time I was listening to other music (can’t remember what, but it wasn’t Radiohead). But as the noise around this band grew, I figured I’d better give them a try. So I got a copy of The Bends and played it a couple of times but without it making any impact.
Just as sometimes you have be “old enough” to hear some things (Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison), you also have to be properly tuned in at the right time. As a teenager and student, I spent time just sitting and listening to music, with nothing more than the album sleeve to distract me. But as the years have gone on, music has become generally an accompaniment to other activity – driving the car, washing up, working, walking the dog. I never sit and just listen to music.
And that means it’s a lot more hit and miss as to whether something’s going to click with me. Those first plays of The Bends were almost certainly in the car on long commutes, and it just didn’t register (which may be a good thing – it suggests I was concentrating on the road).
But one time it did, or more specifically those few bars did. They come in the middle of the title track, at around 02:55 in the version linked to below (it’s around 03:08 on the original version with 13 seconds of “background” at the start). Thom Yorke finishes the chorus, and Jonny Greenwood’s guitar crashes in. It’s nothing flashy or complex, just a handful of notes and chords, but it ripped through all distractions, grabbed me by the ears and shouted “YOU NEED TO LISTEN TO THIS!” It’s only a few seconds, barely even worth the name of “guitar solo” before the final vocals come in and the track dies away, but that was all it needed.
I replayed the track immediately (louder this time) and then started to work my way out from there. Now when I played the album, knowing where that track was (it’s Track 2) I started noticing the tracks before and after. And now I was getting it. I was listening more attentively, taking notice, letting the tunes find settling places in my consciousness (blogger’s note: not sure if that’s a neat phrase or the most pretentious thing I’ve written yet. Probably the latter). And it now became the album I played all the time, and insisted on sharing with anyone else around (my wife didn’t like it, and my sons were too young, though one of them has “borrowed” my CD and it now lives in his car – it just took him a while, he had to be “old enough”).
When Radiohead’s next album, OK Computer, came out in 1997 I got it on the day of release, and it reinforced that this was, for me, a truly great rock band. And both The Bends and OK Computer are regularly and rightly (IMHO) placed high in any “top 100 albums” polls (not that that’s necessarily a ringing endorsement in all cases – yes, Astral Weeks and Trout Mask Replica, I’m looking at you two. All about personal taste, eh?).
I couldn’t get on with Kid A or Amnesiac – “a couple of good tracks”, the ultimate condemnation. But Jonny Greenwood is now an excellent film score composer, working several times for Paul Thomas Anderson. And The Bends and OK Computer are still two of my favourite albums. And all from that brief snatch of guitar.
A couple of links (it was hard to choose just a couple so, if you haven’t already, just go and listen to both these albums in full):
Fake Plastic Trees from The Bends
Exit Music (For A Film) from OK Computer
No Surprises (an iconic video, also from OK Computer)
and (the joys of YouTube) I found this version of Radiohead’s Black Star by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings which is rather beautiful