Fake Plastic Trees :: Radiohead
from the album, The Bends
directed by Jake Scott

Fake Plastic Trees is a song by the British alternative rock band Radiohead, from their second album The Bends (1995). It was the third single to be released from that album in the UK, but in the US, it was released as the band’s first single from the album. Fake Plastic Trees marked a turning point in the band’s early career, moving away from the grunge sound of their earlier hit single Creep.

This is a song about an area in east London called Canary Wharf which was landscaped with a lot of artificial plants.

Radiohead singer Thom Yorke said Fake Plastic Trees was “the product of a joke that wasn’t really a joke, a very lonely, drunken evening and, well, a breakdown of sorts“. He said the song arose from a melody he had “no idea what to do with“. Unlike his usual approach of either keeping note “of whatever my head’s singing at the particular moment” or forcing “some nifty phrases” he devised onto the melody, Yorke said that creating Fake Plastic Trees was the opposite. He said, “That was not forced at all, it was just recording whatever was going on in my head, really. I mean, I wrote those words and laughed. I thought they were really funny, especially that bit about polystyrene“.

The song incorporates the melodic leap heard on the word ‘high‘ in Rocket Man by Elton John.

The band were finding it difficult to nail this song and decided to take a break and catch a Jeff Buckley gig at Highbury. When they returned to the studio mesmerized by Buckley’s set, Yorke sang the song twice before breaking down into tears.

Guitarist Ed O’Brien described early attempts to record Fake Plastic Trees at London’s RAK Studios as sounding “like Guns N’ Roses’ ‘November Rain’. It was so pompous and bombastic“. When recording sessions for The Bends resumed at Manor Studios in July 1994, producer John Leckie convinced Yorke to record a take of the song. Frustrated at being at the studio for a prolonged period that day, Yorke “threw a wobbly” in his own description, after which Leckie sent the rest of the band away while Yorke recorded a guide track for Fake Plastic Trees featuring only guitar and the singer’s vocals. Yorke performed three takes of the song and then cried afterwards, according to guitarist Jonny Greenwood.

One source of frustration for the band at the time was their US record label, Capitol, which wanted a strong track for American radio to follow the success of their previous hit single, Creep. Surprised that the slow-paced Fake Plastic Trees was seen as a potential single to follow up Creep, Yorke ultimately realized the label had remixed the track without his approval: “Last night I was called by the American record company insisting, well almost insisting, that we used a Bob Clearmountain mix of it. I said ‘No way’. All the ghost-like keyboards sounds and weird strings were completely gutted out of his mix, like he’d gone in with a razor blade and chopped it all up. It was horrible“.

Despite the song’s popularity, not all critics were complimentary upon release. Writing for NME in May 1995, John Mulvey surmised that the song lacked substance, and drew comparisons with the stadium rock of U2.

The song placed at # 376 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and at # 28 on Triple JRadio’s Hottest 100 of All Time countdown.

The music video (see above) is set inside a supermarket, where the band are pushed around in shopping carts among several other characters, including clerks, children, an old man with a large beard who plays with toy guns, a woman in a large black hat, a bald man in basketball jersey who shaves his head with an electric razor, a young man playing with a trolley, etc. The director has said about the video: “The film is actually an allegory for death and reincarnation but if you can read that into it you must be as weird as the people who made it“. Norman Reedus, star of Boondock Saints and The Walking Dead, makes a cameo appearance as ‘the young man playing with a trolley‘.

Editor’s Note: This is yet another song that will always, without exception, make me cry. It happens at the end of the song, in the midst of those last heartbreaking lines of “all the time” that fade into what feels like desolate oblivion. It hits at something raw and real and heartbreaking in me, every single time.


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