Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 160
Mon. July 8, 2013
“Fake Plastic Trees”
Last night, in the midst of a tired cloudy haze I actually pondered the meaning of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees? Maybe the theme goes back to drummer Phil Selway’s assessment of the best line, from this 1995 song from The Bends, when he said, “Some of my favorite lyrics on the album—‘gravity always wins’—what a line.” What a line indeed! Besides the obvious allusion to cosmetic surgery, could the “gravity” line reflect the nameless speaker from Thom’s “Fake Plastic Trees” as accepting her/his mortality? James Doheny author of Radiohead: The Stories Behind Every Songs suggested the theme of “Plastic Trees” as— “inauthenticity vs. positivity vs. plaintiveness.” Later adding, “In the final analysis I think the song is an anthem of acknowledgment and reconciliation—a testament, as they say in gospel circles.”
Far from a testament, Thom Yorke remembers the recording of “Fake Plastic Trees” as anything but memorable when he told The Denver Post, “It was very much a breakthrough on the album. The day we recorded that song was a complete nightmare. I had a complete meltdown, so everyone left the studio. It was just me and my acoustic guitar, but there was something chilling hanging around in the air. We’d been there for a month, and that was the first time I felt any connection with what Radiohead’s about. The funny thing is it took bloody months to get everything else on top of it to sound natural. All the bizarre keyboard noises were done at Abbey Road using an old Hammond organ Paul McCartney used on ‘Magical Mystery Tour.’ We had it plugged into all the guitar amplifiers, every single effect, all the knobs and switches going. It was deafeningly loud, filling up the whole studio. [“Fake Plastic Trees”] could have easily sounded like Guns N’ Roses. We wanted it to sound like Phil Spector.”
It’s that uplifting rhythms that contrast the emotional intensity of Thom’s lyric that mirror the constant internal battle we fight daily between the negative doubts and the hopeful dreams yearning for creative breath comes to life within the dynamics of “Fake Plastic Trees.” Depending on what mood, “Fake Plastic Trees” could be about a flickering love affair, death of contentment and the accepting of mortality. Still there’s a sense of uplifting hope hidden within the confines of this Thom Yorke treasure. Originally composed on acoustic guitar, Yorke wanted “Trees” to be more than acoustic lament. It wasn’t until Johnny Greenwood added his unusually brilliant string arrangement did “Fake Plastic Trees” sound come into focus.
The song that Thom Yorke claimed , depending on his mood, “I almost killed myself writing it,” or “The product of a joke that wasn’t really a joke and a very lonely drunken evening and well, a breakdown of sorts.” Probably both but when I hear “Fake Plastic Trees” I recall that it was a Jeff Buckley concert that inspired the band to finishing recording “Fake Plastic Trees.” Specifically, Thom was so moved by Jeff’s emotional honesty that immediately after watching Buckley’s performance he went back to the studio and after recording the final vocal in two takes, so exhausted emotionally, Yorke broke down in tears. And you can feel the intensity in Thom’s vocal, that’s a real breakdown Yorke is having recording the album’s final vocal take. Any song that’s inspired by Jeff Buckley is an instant classic to me.
One of Thom Yorke’s finest lyrics ever on a Radiohead record, yes he admitted it, was “Fake Plastic Trees.” One of the most moving and emotional tracks on The Bends, a precursor to OK Computer’s “Exit Music” and I Might Be Wrong’s “True Love Waits,” “Fake Plastic Trees” is the song that proved that “Creep” wasn’t a happy accident. Pablo Honey’s biggest hit may have put Radiohead on the map but “Trees” guaranteed Yorke’s band would have a career longer than the lifespan of their first chart topping single. If it wasn’t for “Fake Plastic Trees” Radiohead wouldn’t have the creative confidence to birth experimental song canvases like Kid A and Amnesiac.
Jonny Greenwood once described the uncompromising nature of the band’s seminal 1995 album as, “We recorded forty minutes of accidents and we put it out and called it The Bends.” Radiohead could have tried to emulate their biggest song “Creep” instead, after an inspirational performance by Jeff Buckley, Radiohead decided to go immortal and craft a song reflecting the emotional intensity rarely experienced in a modern day pop song. If “Gravity always wins,” why not revel in “Fake Plastic Trees” as the imperfect anthem for the spirited pragmatist in your life. Grab some tissues, your cigarette lighters and let the tearful joy of “Fake Plastic Trees” take you over again.
Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 160