The Bends is Radiohead's second studio album. It was released on 13 March 1995 in the United Kingdom by Parlophone and in the United States by Capitol Records. Produced by John Leckie and engineered by Nigel Godrich, who would go on to co-produce all future albums by the band, The Bends marked the beginning of a shift in aesthetics and themes, with greater use of keyboards and more abrasive and subtle guitar tracks. With this album, the introspective grunge-influenced style of the band's 1993 debut Pablo Honey evolved into more multi-layered rock with cryptic lyrics and larger ideas, as they reacted against the rigours of their near-constant world tours.
The Bends received greater critical acclaim than Pablo Honey, and peaked at number 4 on the UK Albums Chart. However, it failed to build on the commercial success of Creep outside of the UK, and ultimately peaked at number 88 on the US Billboard 200. Although it lacked the instant success of Radiohead's subsequent albums, The Bends achieved 3x platinum status in the UK and Canada, as well as platinum status in the United States and Europe.
The album spawned five charting singles; My Iron Lung was first released as an EP in 1994, and High And Dry was later released as the album's proper lead single, with album opener Planet Telex as its B-side. Fake Plastic Trees was released as the album's second single, and was followed by Just. Street Spirit (Fade Out) was the final single from the album, and became their first top 5 hit in the UK. In the years since its release, The Bends has frequently appeared on various polls and lists of the greatest albums of all time.
By the time Radiohead had begun their first US tour in early 1993, their first single Creep was in heavy rotation on MTV and had achieved top ten chart positions in the UK and the US when re-released in 1993. The grunge sound of their first album Pablo Honey led to the band being described as "Nirvana-lite", and neither the album nor the singles Stop Whispering and Anyone Can Play Guitar had ever come close to the chart success of Creep.
Radiohead almost broke up because of the pressure of sudden success as the tour had extended into its second year. The band described the tour as a terrible experience, as towards its end they felt 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 large expectations for an even better follow-up. The band had looked for a change of scenery, touring Australasia and the Far East in an attempt to reduce the pressure. However, confronted again by their sudden popularity, the band's lead singer Thom Yorke became disenchanted with certain aspects of the way musical culture worked. He wrote on his LiveJournal page:
"We're screaming hypocrites. No, we are! It was a weird feeling, because you are right at the sharp end of the sexy, sassy, MTV eye-candy lifestyle thing that they're trying to sell to the rest of the world, make them aspire to. It's fair enough to question it. Unfortunately, if you're interested in actually being heard, you have to work within the system. Zey haff Kontrol! ".
The 1994 EP My Iron Lung, featuring the single of the same title, was Radiohead's reaction, marking a transition towards the larger depth they aimed for on their follow-up.
At the beginning of 1994, Radiohead began working on song arrangements for The Bends. They were encouraged by both the new material and John Leckie, their producer of choice who had agreed to work with them on their new album. Sessions were scheduled to begin at London's RAK Studio in January; however, fellow Oxford band Ride asked Leckie to perform some last-minute work on their latest album Carnival of Light. Radiohead agreed to postpone the start of the album's sessions to 24 February to help Leckie. The band used the advantage of having extra time to practice 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 very difficult; while they were pleased with Leckie and engineer Nigel Godrich, they felt too pressured to follow up the success of their debut album Pablo Honey (1993). Their record company EMI had set an October 1994 release date for the album, which later proved impossible, and had also suggested the band 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 had considered candidates: Sulk, The Bends, Just, and (Nice Dream). The newer approach proved counter-productive, as 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 find "a really special sound" for his instrument, despite Leckie's belief that he already had a good one. According to Leckie, whenever a record company representative or the group's management came to check in on the record's progress, all of the band would have to show them "a drum sound or something".
In an attempt to stop 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 of the new songs by himself on guitar. The group had a tour planned for May until mid-June, which meant that the album would not be finished by October as planned. By the end of the sessions at RAK, Radiohead had recorded a handful of songs that would appear on the record, as well as most of the tracks that would appear on the My iron lung EP. They continued recording on 16 June at businessman Richard Branson's rural studio complex the Manor. Unlike the sessions at RAK, the group recorded material very fast; Leckie felt the break for the tour gave the band "confidence" in the songs again. The band finished recording the album at Abbey Road Studios in London, where Leckie also mixed some of the new songs.
Because of the poor commercial performance of the My Iron Lung EP, EMI decided that Pablo Honey producers Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie would remix the album in the United States. Leckie did not realize this was happening until EMI asked him for copies of the multi-track tapes. He stated that 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 also supported it after hearing Pablo Honey being played over a sound system during an in-store appearance. Leckie did not always appreciate what Slade and Kolderie produced, but he has stated that it was a sound decision to have others approach the music with a new approach.