“Fake Plastic Trees” marks a turning point in Radiohead’s early career, moving away from the grunge sound of their earlier hit single “Creep”. The song charted but did not make a substantial commercial impact. 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.”
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 resumed at Manor Studios, 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 featuring only guitar and vocals. Yorke performed three takes of the song and 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 realised the label had remixed the track without the band’s approval: “Last night I was called by the American record company insisting, well almost insisting, that we use a Bob Clearmountain mix of it. I said ‘No way’. All the ghost-like keyboard 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”.
The song’s music video, 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, art director Stanley Donwood 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.” Actor Norman Reedus, who was then a model, appears briefly as the young man playing with a trolley.
Many critics didn’t like the song, writing for NME, John Mulvey opined that the song lacked substance, and drew comparisons with the stadium rock of U2. It is one of my favourite Radiohead songs and how anyone can compare it to U2 is beyond. Critics do write shit sometimes…
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