Tuesday, May 17, 2011

This Is Really Happening: Vol. 2- THE BENDS

For those in the nosebleed seats, Radiohead announced they are performing The King of Limbs live on the BBC July 1. This will be the first time we have seen any of the songs from their eighth album performed by the entire band (Thom played several solo while on his Atoms for Peace tour last year). As Limbs itself is quite the abstract album- this is exciting news to see how Radiohead will breathe life into these eight tracks. One of the most enjoyable things about the band can be the way in which their live shows transcend a studio recording which usually is already transcendent on it’s own. I’ll never forget the first time I heard the driving bass line for the live version of Hail to the Thief’s “The Gloaming”- they actually had the audacity to open several shows with this in 2003. For myself, the song instantly went from being an experimental bridge piece to an album favorite.

In honor of the live unveiling of The King of Limbs, I will be running a weekly (hopefully) column breaking down the seven previous LP’s and the quintessential live band performance of each song followed by a brief explanatory write-up. The rules I have given myself are pretty lenient- every album can only have 2 songs from the same live show (if this weren’t the case- the Astoria concert would dominate Pablo Honey and a large portion of The Bends). Bear in mind- when I say “quintessential”, I am shooting for the best rendition, but a meaningful performance sometimes will reign paramount. If it comes to pass that some rarer songs cannot be found, a favorable B-side live version will take it's place. This is obviously opinionated so comments are readily encouraged. So are you ready? Here we go.

We have already completed TIRH: Vol 1- Pablo Honey. The next stop on our journey is 1995's The Bends.

1. Planet Telex- 1997, Belfort

"You can force it but it will not come..."

“Planet Telex” begins the Radiohead tradition of what I call “suggestive openings”- when a song begins with a (usually slow) strategically placed musical progression of any kind which inevitably hypes up the actual body of music within the song itself. “Planet Telex” has arguably the second-best suggestive opening of any track on The Bends- not exactly something to be ashamed of. I have a theory that “Planet Telex” gets unfairly ignored- if you could even call it ignored- simply because of the sheer awesomeness that relentlessly follows it. And I’m not just talking of the awesomeness that is The Bends. For myself, the “Telex” suggestive opening signals a shift in musical paradigm for the band. With all due respect to Pablo Honey (you were and always will be a lot of fun)- but The Bends breaks down some walls and this tune is the wrecking ball.

2. The Bends- 2003, V Festival

"Where do we go from here?"

There are two camps for the live version of “The Bends" - the pre-2000 fans who are passionately devoted to an edgier, angstier sound- or the post-2000 fans who find enjoyment in the band’s messier, sonic approach and Thom’s purposefully slurred lyrics. I fall in the latter category. Why? Because I think “The Bends” is ultimately meant to be a slightly ironic take on the meaninglessness of social interaction. And what’s a better way to take that seriously than by not taking it seriously at all?

3. High and Dry- 1995, 2Meter

"Two jumps in a week... I'll bet you think that's pretty clever..."

Widely known as being responsible for the sound Coldplay decided to recycle for roughly 80% of their career, “High and Dry” gets a lot of flak from both Radiohead and their fans. As for myself, I enjoy it in a feathery, time capsule kind of way. But I insist that the whole experience is best when stripped down as shown above. Wet music works the most when devoid of pomp and bombast.

4. Fake Plastic Trees- 2008, Saitama

"A green plastic watering can for a fake, Chinese rubber plant..."

An undeniable classic and live favorite, “Fake Plastic Trees” is in the upper-echelon of Radiohead accomplishments. So of course- finding the ultimate live cut of the song was a particularly arduous task. In the end, Saitama did the trick because I felt it perfectly encapsulated a wiser artist approaching a signature creation with the same reverence as the day it was conceived. Plus, you get to see Jonny punch the hell out his guitar.

5. Bones- 1994, Astoria

"I don't want to be crippled and cracked..."

Ahhh- another suggestive opening- though not the best on the album. It’s not “Bones”’ fault that it is brief and sandwiched between various Radiohead uber-classics. This song rocks and rocks hard for exactly three minutes. It might be one of their most efficient, utilitarian tunes. It exists to literally thrust you into track six.

6. Nice Dream- 2008, Prague

"They love me like I was a brother..."

This one is always a surprise when dusted off live- and for good reason. “Nice Dream” is one of the best examples of a Radiohead song that you have probably forgotten how much you loved. Finding some solid audience footage can be a real crapshoot. This one is a treasure. Listen for the guy saying “Whoaaaaaa” when Thom strums those familiar, forgotten opening chords.

7. Just- 2008, Saitama

"Can't get the stink off... it's been hangin' round for days..."

I remember watching this concert a year or so ago and saying aloud, “That was the best version of ‘Just’ I’ve ever seen.” From the stage production to Thom’s bursts of screaming across the bridge, this is a flawless powerhouse. Additionally, Thom inadvertently gives a suggestive opening a suggestive opening of it’s own.

7. My Iron Lung- 2003, Eurockeennes

"Faith, you're driving me away..."

Speaking of suggestive openings, here is the best one from The Bends- a prolonged, air raid-type drone slyly ushering in that signature riff followed by a heavy percussive beat. All the pieces fall into place- for about two minutes, it’s like listening to musical Tetris. Then the chorus kicks in and the Nintendo gets ripped from the wall and thrown through a window. Only Radiohead can craft something so hypnotic, then systematically destroy it- and still somehow make it work.

8. Bulletproof... I Wish I Was- 1995, Milan

"Limb by limb and tooth by tooth..."

“Bulletproof… I Wish I Was” may be the most essential track on The Bends. After the riproaring midsection, it forms the delicate bridge to the album’s coda. For most Radiohead fans, “Bulletproof” can be equated to that defining moment in one’s life that is now forgotten. A masterpiece of songwriting with a gorgeous bridge, the band very rarely plays it live. But when they do- it always garners an immediately positive response from the crowd.

10. Black Star- 1994, Astoria

"I get home from work and you're still standing in your dressing gown..."

Boasting some of Thom’s more playful and romantic lyrics, “Black Star” is an engagingly mopey ballad that gets unfairly buried when it comes to the Radiohead live catalogue. If anything, the structure of the song lends itself to a crowd singalong.

11. Sulk

"You bite through the big wall, the big walls bites back..."

Widely regarded as one of the more inferior tracks from The Bends, I was not exactly stunned when a live video of “Sulk” proved difficult to locate. I did, however, find a live cut of a pre-release version and- to my surprise- it sounds really, really good.

12. Street Spirit (Fade Out)- 1996, PinkPop

"Rows of houses... all bearing down on me..."

And here we have the mesmerizing beast known as “Street Spirit”. The PinkPop performance of Radiohead’s classic song of grim inevitability gets my vote simply because it is obvious how focused and invested Thom and the band are with their execution. During the Bends/OK Computer era, “Street Spirit” was notoriously difficult for Thom to play because he did not want to risk casually addressing such a weighty subject. While that may sound like typical rock star pretense, the PinkPop version perfectly illustrates the rigorous strain the song demands from the band. Also, it’s pretty cool that- almost halfway past the three minute mark- Jonny plays the guitar and keyboard at the same time.

B-side Substitutes: So it was brought to my attention that "Killer Cars" is actually a B-side from The Bends and not Pablo Honey. Sorry about that. To make up for this error, I have included an extra B-side this time.

Talk Show Host

"I want to... I want to be someone else or I'll explode..."

Before it turned up on Baz Luhrman’s massively popular soundtrack to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, “Talk Show Host” was just another discarded B-side that didn’t quite fit. This of course is hard to believe- because in the years since, the song has taken on a life of it’s own to become arguably one of the most popular songs recorded during the Bends sessions. Always a live favorite- the 2003 Glastonbury version, with its funky interplay and eventual complete sonic disarray, really does it justice.

The Trickster

"Lost in the mountains... rust in my brain..."

One of the more frustrating things about being a Radiohead fan is how they seemingly ignore excellent songs in their catalogue when it comes to live shows- that said, this is usually in favor of more excellent songs, but whatever. This live cut of “The Trickster” is a classic example of “Why don’t they play that live more often?”

That's all for now. Stay tuned for the cosmic juggernaut known as OK Computer. Until then.

Long see, no time.

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