Radiohead No Surprises
Splash image from the music video of "No Surprises"

The Annotated Guide to the Music Videos of Radiohead’s ‘The Bends’

With The Bends Radiohead left an impressive music video legacy, one that would extend to later masterpieces such as OK Computer.

7 Television Commercials (1998)

There is more than a touch of irony in the title 7 Television Commercials. Yes, they used some video directors who were also well known for their television commercials, but in collaborating with such directors, were they lending themselves to commercialization or sending it up? The best way to tell is to look at the videos individually. That might tell us what Radiohead felt they were selling to us. I think it is simply their artistic vision.

“Street Spirit (Fade Out)” (directed by Jonathan Glazer)

This is a monochrome video; the black and white seem ageless and surreal. The sky is black; darkness hangs over the entire video. The wind blows. A few streaks of lightning flash through this darkness. Ominously Yorke stands looking over his shoulder, deciding whether to jump, arms stretched out he does jump off the top of a trailer caravan. He falls in slow motion and seems to strike the ground below, which quickly switches to a prone Yorke lying on top of a car. He is perhaps dead or contemplating death and the hopelessness of his predicament. The rest of the band play supporting roles as characters around him, appearing out of sync and time with him, freeze and unfreeze in their movements.

The pulsing minor arpeggios are relentless, and Yorke’s vocals are frighteningly emotional. The video mimics the sense of the song, a meditation on the hopelessness of life, which will inevitably end in death. “Street Spirit” is a song that finds its singer in an existential crisis. It speaks of “rows of houses”; the video gives us a trailer park of caravans. All those that live here may well end here.

Yorke has talked of this song as being his darkest. When the band plays the song live, it is kept near the end of the performance, down the setlist because the singer finds the performance draining. He looks out across the crowd and he is chilled when he considers their fate.

Music video scholar Carol Vernallis suggests, “Videos mimic the concerns of pop music, which are usually a consideration of a topic rather than an enactment of it.” In this case, director Jonathan Glazer provides us with a set of images that match the emotion of the song. Glazer is well known for his TV commercials and his use of monochrome, most notably in the famous Guinness commercial of the surfer waiting for the perfect wave and the horses emerging from the surf.

“Street Spirit” is full of similarly dark symbols: the dragonfly descending, the dog held by a chain, the dark tree, and the feathers blown on the wind. Perhaps the most striking image is of levitation, with the final image being of Yorke hanging in the air. Levitation in mysticism is a sign of enlightenment, of rising above nature and not being constrained by it.

The key line of the song is its final line, which repeats: “Immerse your soul in love”. Despite the overwhelming feeling of dread, there is hope — or at least a glimpse of it. Between the video and the song, Radiohead and Glazer capture the overlap between religion and art, as well as the insight that both of those disciplines provide in terms of man’s predicament. If this is a commercial, there is nothing to sell, apart from the insight itself.

“Just” (directed by Jamie Thraves)

Music video making is rather like filmmaking in reverse: the soundtrack is created first and then a film is made to go with the track. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case with the music video for Radiohead’s “Just”, where the band is tangential to the main narrative of the video. In this case, Radiohead are playing in an apartment above the street where the main action of the video takes place. “Just” is a music video where you can say that the musical peaks and troughs match with the visuals on the screen.

Saul Austerlitz, in his history of the music video, describes “Just” as the best example of a mystery video. A man lies down in the middle of the street for no obvious reason and refuses to budge. Members of the public and the police ask him to move along, but he tells them he won’t get up and that if he knew what he knew, they wouldn’t ask him. Eventually, the crowd persuades him to tell them what he knows. The closing shot is a tracking shot across the crowd who have all decided to lie down on the street.

Whilst most of the story is told through subtitles, the subtitles are not included when the secret message is revealed. This narrative has perplexed Radiohead fans and many others. This can be read as a metaphor wherein the band is the purveyor of hidden truths, which suggests that Radiohead’s music requires a special understanding. Yet the group remains deliberately evasive about the deeper, layered meaning of their music. As Phil Selway suggested in an interview with the New Yorker‘s famous music writer Alex Ross in 2001, “Really, we don’t want people twiddling their goatees over our stuff. What we do is pure escapism”.

Musically “Just” is quite short on lyrics (it was allegedly written about a narcissistic friend) and sharply written, particularly in its series of quite novel guitar parts, which build up and scream at the listener. This is particularly effective at the end of the video when the camera passes over in disbelief. The “do it to yourself” lyric sounds like self-abuse of some sort; you can’t blame your situation on anyone else.

Put simply, this video is a cryptic one. It hints at a deeper meaning, but it all might just be a joke. Is this Radiohead’s sense of fun?