Fake Plastic Trees (1995) :: Radiohead

“If I could be who you wanted,
If I could be who you wanted,
all the time.”

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About the song:

Fake Plastic Trees is a song by 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.

In 2008, the song was featured on Radiohead: The Best Of, a compilation album.

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 went on to say that the song arose from a melody he had “no idea what to do with“.

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

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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 Johnny Greenwood (see account above).

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The music video (see above), directed by Jake Scott, 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“.

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Norman Reedus, star of Boondock Saints and The Walking Dead, makes a cameo appearance(see above).

My thoughts:

Bends is by far, without a doubt, my favorite Radiohead album, and songs like this one are the reason why. Though I will admit to not understanding every lyrical refrain, the feeling of the song, and the ending lines, hit so deeply that I always end up in tears. There is something in that plea, in that wish, in that wanting to be what someone else wants that feels so desperate and raw and heartbreaking – and yes, relatable – because haven’t we all felt that way before? Wanting to be the right person for someone, but never making the cut?

What a lonely feeling that is.

In 1995, when this song, and album, came out, I certainly was feeling those sentiments in an overwhelming way. I recall wanting someone so badly, but feeling so less than what they would ever want, so instead of pushing through I ran fast in the opposite direction. The unfortunate reality was I was wrong. I was what that person wanted, just as much as I wanted him, and because I ran I never got to know how we would be together. Self-esteem, what a fucking mess it can make when we lean too far into that low end of self worth. Instead of heartbreak I was left with the weight of regret to carry around with me.

What a lonely feeling that is.

Regardless the painful memory this song evokes, I still love it. Sometimes I need to feel it.

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Fake Plastic Trees (live, 1995) :: Radiohead

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