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.

There are three more videos on the 7 Television Commercials DVD, which were produced in support of songs from OK Computer. Despite the differences between that LP and its predecessor, there are clear linkages with the videos produced for The Bends.

“No Surprises” (directed by Grant Gee)

This is a simple but memorable video, in which Yorke is submerged in water for an uncomfortably long time. The song is about the predictability of life from cradle to grave with, as the title suggests, little surprise. You work to service the capitalist labor machine, to provide for your family, to slavishly adhere to the social norms, and to live a happy and relatively uneventful life with minimal risk. As Yorke drowns in his plastic bubble, it becomes again another symbol of hopes and aspirations having to be managed and curtailed.

Life kills you a little bit everyday. Yet in “No Surprises”, Yorke survives to work and preach another day.

“Paranoid Android” (directed by Magnus Carlsson)

The music video for “Paranoid Android” shows Radiohead’s willingness to collaborate with other artists including visual artists. The “Paranoid Android” video is based on an animated series called Robin, created by director Magnus Carlsson. Although Radiohead did collaborate with this video, it was, as usual, on their own terms, as the band sent Carlsson the music but did not include the lyrics. Carlsson was left to create images that would match the four different parts that make up the song.

The resulting story is primarily about Robin and his friend Benjamin encountering a number of different characters including UN representatives, some violent bar occupants, a prostitute who falls out of some trees, a mad businessman, a drug addict, and some mermaids. “Paranoid Android” is the only video on 7 Television Commercials that has a hint of sexiness about it and it’s a cartoon.

The band’s only appearance is in heavy disguise and only briefly during the bar scene. In the end, it is a satisfying collaboration. This is an appropriately colorful, bizarre video for a bizarrely constructed song.

“Karma Police” (directed by Jonathan Glazer)

This is the other video by the director of “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” on this compilation. Only Yorke appears in this video. He seems to be acting in revenge, but the narrative is about a reversal of fortune.

The style is reminiscent of David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. Just like “Fake Plastic Trees”, the viewer is something of a participant in the action. Yorke appears angry in the video; the car he is traveling in pursues a running man who is hobbling awkwardly and eventually falls. But as the car reverses to run him over, he is able to light a line of dripping oil which sets the car on fire as the camera turns around, Yorke has disappeared. The potential victim having the last laugh is really the whole point.

I need to mention one other thing about 7 Television Commercials, namely the presentation box. Stanley Donwood has been Radiohead’s art designer since the cover of The Bends. Stylistically, The Bends cover is a little different from the later works. It was Donwood’s first attempt to define Radiohead’s art design. The result, the CPR mannequin filmed on an old video camera, hints at the anxiety and insecurity in modern society, particularly in relation to technology. This became an even clearer theme in OK Computer.

In both cases, the artwork seems sketchy and unfinished. Donwood uses the visual language of wayfinding icons, the sort of graphics found in subways and shopping malls. They are types of warning signs to some degree, guiding us or providing warnings to make us think, rather like the music they are meant to support. With The Bends, these are scrawls of birds with their heads in the ground or a sketchy human figure with his head in a bubble. Later they are the suggestions that what lies beneath is dangerous and so there are icons of “Thin Ice”, “Lost Child”, and “Against Demons”. Donwood has gone on to develop these graphics into a deeper aesthetic, but at this stage, before Kid A and In Rainbows, we have a complimentary iconography that hints at a deeper meaning to the music and the art of Radiohead in the ’90s.

Meeting People Is Easy (directed by Grant Gee) (1998)

This is a music documentary unlike any other. The film is a video record which uses Radiohead’s 1998 tour in support of the OK Computer album as context rather than content. This music documentary perfectly complements Radiohead’s philosophy in almost every way: its narrative or anti-narrative functions in exactly the same way as Yorke’s lyrics. Meeting People is Easy is the (almost) perfect Radiohead music video.

The title shows the same sense of irony as 7 Television Commercials. Meeting people is one of the things that Radiohead and in particular do not find easy. The theme of Meeting People is alienation from the business in which Radiohead must exist. The bands find endless TV and radio interviews tiresome, a fact the film is honest about. The tedium of performing the same music again and again is clear, and it does not always excite a bunch of guys as intense as Radiohead.

The film starts with a satellite docking which then becomes an airport transport train arriving. The film slips behind black and white. There are interviews but these are interviews that are being overheard rather than conducted by the documentary maker. The comments are fragmented, you are not sure what the question was. The film has no voiceover; the images work for themselves. Reviews and travel plans scroll over the screen as the band perform, throughout which keywords appear, like “photo session” and “babble”. The success of the album and tour is told through news clippings.

The film is a proper multimedia experience. There is a telling image of Yorke holding up the microphone letting the crowd sing “Creep”. So much of this is really the backstage tedium of touring and giving interviews. There are some live performances and great glimpses of appreciative audiences. There is humor as well, with the inclusion of a Sky News clip where the presenter Kay Burley comments on the video for the band’s song “No Surprises”, saying, “Music to cut your wrists to. […] It’s the most miserable-sounding tune I’ve ever heard.” While watching the video, the program’s music reviewer quips “You’ll probably quite enjoy it because he actually drowns at the end”. The making of the video is then shown, where Yorke is lip-synching while trapped in a tank of rising water.

Not all of the fans like this approach; there are many things that divide the audience right down the middle with regard to Meeting People is Easy. For some, Radiohead may seem ungrateful for their success. You can’t exist within rock music without fans and perhaps not all fans fully grasp the music and art of the band. When watching the documentary, you may sometimes feel that even the band doesn’t fully grasp how significant they are.

Radiohead have set a multifaceted template for alternative rock music, with an artistic sensibility quite unlike any other. There are influences in their music like the Pixies, Pink Floyd, and Scott Walker, but they are different from them all. Without Radiohead, there would be no Muse, Keane, Coldplay, or Snow Patrol.

As mentioned already, Radiohead have been relentless and courageous in creating music without compromising principles of authenticity and originality. They have provided insights into the original experiences of life, with real emotions exposed and unmediated in their music. How these ideas have translated to the visual has not always been perfect, but their work with visual artists has been meaningfully collaborative. The results complement the music with film, video, and images.

Radiohead have attempted to work to an agenda on their own terms. They have shown resistance to commercialism in the pursuit of creativity. Because of this headstrong belief in their own music, they have set a standard for other bands providing a particular model for alternative music. They are also responsible for some of the best music videos ever made.

* * *

Marcus Smith holds an MA in Pop Culture from the Open University (2006), where he specialized in visual culture and film. He has written scholarly reviews for SCOPE, an online film magazine of Nottingham University.

+ + +

This article was originally published on 23 March 2015.