Radiohead, “Fake Plastic Trees”

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How did Radiohead go from that “Creep” band to the group often hailed as the saviors of rock and roll? If you’re looking for one key song, it just might be “Fake Plastic Trees,” a majestic, yearning ballad found on their second LP, 1995’s The Bends. The song, which was chosen for the first US single, proved that this band were far more than one-hit wonders.

It took a torturous recording session to bring the song to life. As lead singer Thom Yorke told Blender magazine in 2003, “Fake Plastic Trees” was a combination of a “joke that wasn’t really a joke, a very lonely, drunken evening, and, well, a breakdown of sorts.” The recording was at a standstill until Yorke, inspired by seeing Jeff Buckley perform, laid down a stunningly powerful vocal.

“Fake Plastic Trees” is, on its surface, a song about the difficulty of forging an authentic human connection in a world of artifice. In the first two verses, the narrator tells the story of a couple living in stultifying domesticity, the woman surrounded by nothing that is real, the man so frustrated he just “crumbles and burns.”

As a ghostly organ swoon around Yorke’s acoustic guitars, he lets a bit of humor into the gloom with the hilarious description of the man’s occupation: “He used to do surgery/On girls in the eighties/But gravity always wins.” Too bad he missed out on the Botox craze.

In the final verse, which is initiated by Yorke holding a note for what seems like an eternity as the band crashes in all around him, the narrator enters the picture, showing that he’s not just an impartial observer and that he’s smitten himself: “She looks like the real thing/She tastes like the real thing/My fake plastic love.” Notice that he has to use advertising-jingle terms to describe his beloved.

Flustered by his situation, the narrator wants to do something, anything to break out of the plasticity he sees all around him: “But I can’t help the feeling/I can blow through the ceiling/If I just turn and run.” In the final scene, the song reveals its broken heart with Yorke’s lonely parting hypothetical: “If I could be who you wanted/All the time.”

Radiohead has become known for the fearless spirit of experimentation, so it’s sometimes easy to forget their ability to craft memorable songs. “Fake Plastic Trees” is a prime example of that talent, a song depicting the dehumanizing effects of modernity even as it tells a very human story of unrequited love.

“Fake Plastic Trees”

Her green plastic watering can
For her fake Chinese rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself

It wears her out, it wears her out
It wears her out, it wears her out

She lives with a broken man
A cracked polystyrene man
Who just crumbles and burns
He used to do surgery
For girls in the eighties
But gravity always wins

It wears him out, it wears him out
It wears him out, it wears him out

She looks like the real thing
She tastes like the real thing
My fake plastic love
But I can’t help the feeling
I could blow through the ceiling
If I just turn and run

It wears me out, it wears me out
It wears me out, it wears me out

If I could be who you wanted
If I could be who you wanted all the time

All the time…
All the time…

– Written by Thom Yorke, Phil Selway, Ed O’Brien, Jonny Greenwood and Colin Greenwood

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