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.

“High and Dry” (directed by Paul Cunningham)

This video appears to have a clear narrative. The band arrives at a diner (Dick’s Restaurant and Cocktails in San Leandro, California) where there are other patrons. Just as you might find in any diner, those patrons all have a backstory of their own. In this case, we get an insight into a number of them. The stories are revealed in the standard cinematic way through the use of flashbacks.

A young couple and the diner’s main cook seem to be involved in some criminal activity which requires the couple to place a key in the butter. In another story, the camera tracks across the diner and focuses on a briefcase belonging to a businessman who is hiding something, which is hinted at in flashback. In the end, the two dramas are resolved when the guilty parties are betrayed, the cook gives the couple a time bomb, and the businessman is ambushed and seemingly murdered.

As Vernallis suggests, it is often the case that the positioning the artist at the center of music video narrative or non-narrative pulls at or distorts the meaning of the video, a good example being Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”. That doesn’t happen here, however. The musicians play small parts in this video, which completes the narrative without concentrating it on themselves. Yorke plays the biggest part, encountering the man with the briefcase and a young kid in the men’s room. On paper that sounds awkward, but in the video, this is the most innocent part of the story. Ultimately, all the action seems to have been manipulated by the man in a grey suit, who bears some resemblance to Charles Bronson.

What does the video mean, then? Radiohead had two videos made for this song. The first is a British version in black and white, directed by David Mould, which has the band out in the desert with tanker and film equipment. At the end of the video, it rains on the band but they go on playing. That setup might have suggested some risk-taking when it was conceived, but the obvious link to the lyrics would not be challenging enough for a band looking for originality in their videos. The band asked for another video, the result of which is the Cunningham version, which was released only on 7 Television Commercials.

The song is not one of Yorke’s favourites but it is one of Radiohead’s most accessible, and has been performed on reality TV talent shows the world over. It’s a great pop song.

In the video, Yorke and the band effectively disassociate from the song. Yorke appears with badly dyed and cut hair. He doesn’t mouth any of the words, but he does briefly smile. The band doesn’t play any of the music. “High and Dry” has a video that the group is only tangential to. Communication between the band members is minimal, and the video ends in explosions and violence with only the man in the grey suit looking any way happy.

Does that represent how they feel about this music? This is really not us. This is someone else’s story.

“Fake Plastic Trees” (directed Jake Scott)

“Fake Plastic Trees” is perhaps the closest song to “Creep” on The Bends. Musically, it follows a similar quiet-loud-quiet paradigm. This is not really reflected in the video at all, however. The video actually places the band (or at least Yorke) in a more central position in the video. This is perhaps the song and video which suggests the “7 Television Commercial” title of the video.

Yorke and the band members are sitting inside large metal shopping trolleys and are propelled up and down a long shopping line bathed in bright lights and lined with garish-colored bottles and boxes. It’s also not clear who is doing the pushing, although it is implied that it is the viewer that means we are effectively doing the shopping here.

The shopping aisle is an extended metaphor for life itself and the shallowness of consumerism. There is real anger from Yorke in this song, which is matched in the video by his arms being outstretched in his shopping trolley, rather like the reverse of “Street Spirit”.

I am reminded of the Verve’s later video for “Bittersweet Symphony”, with a purposeful Richard Ashcroft brushing aside all of those he encounters on his metaphorical walk through life. The “Fake Plastic Trees” video is more concerned with what is authentic and real — not fake. Without being overly academic, the video is an example of Jean Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality, a state in which people are unable to distinguish the fake from the real. In “Fake Plastic Trees” we have a bizarre set of characters walking up and down the aisle, in search of meaning in life. This is a genuinely existential video, as poignant as the music which it supports.