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The Story Behind the Song: How Radiohead created the classic 'Fake Plastic Trees'

‘Fake Plastic Trees’ on Radiohead’s second album The Bends in 1995, was unlike any other song the band had previously come up with. A stark contrast to their astounding rock sounds, this song followed a slower and more melodic tune.

Thom Yorke, the main composer of the song, recalled how it originated from a melody that he had “no idea what to do with”. Either way, the end product was more soulful than ever with an ensemble of instruments leading the way. The music for the song ranged from the regular sounds of Yorke’s acoustic guitar, Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’ Brien’s electric guitars, Phil Selway’s drums and Colin Greenwood’s bass – to the more unusual accompaniments of Caroline Lavelle on the cello, John Mathias on the violin and Johnny Greenwood playing a ghostly organ tune – easily making it one of Radiohead’s more musically rich songs.

On the surface, ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ talked about a hankering for a real relationship in a world that was becoming increasingly materialistic. The idea was to fake it till one made it or till it drained them out. It showed one’s struggle of desperately trying to believe that what existed between two people who were romantically involved was “real” and putting every last bit of their effort in to make it real – in vain, of course.

The song’s narrator related the story about the girl he loved, who was living with a “broken” man and the pretence that both of them put up to make their love seem genuine. But, being the omniscient narrator that he was, he saw right through façade but found himself stuck between staying and running from his beloved and ended the song on the note of “It wears me out.”

The inception of the song came at a time when Yorke was at one of the lowest points in his life. As Yorke later said, ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ was “a product of a joke that wasn’t really a joke, a very, lonely, drunken evening and, well, a breakdown of sorts.” The creation of the song, as Yorke recalled, “was not forced at all; it was just recording whatever was going on in my head, really. I wrote those words and laughed. I thought they were really funny, especially that bit about polystyrene.” What followed was a torturous recording process.

Initially attempting to record the song at London’s RAK Studios, O’Brien described the sound as “pompous and bombastic”. Back at the Manor Studios, Yorke was convinced by their producer John Leckie to do another take of the song. Due to his low spirits and frustration at having to stay in the studio for long periods, Yorke’s mood was further aggravated. “That was one of the worst days for me”, Yorke said, “I shouted at everyone, and then John Leckie sent everybody else away. He sat me down, and I did a guide vocal on ‘Fake Plastic Trees’”. Greenwood added, “Thom played it in three takes then burst into tears afterwards” After it was released, ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ rightfully earned its place as one of the most unique Radiohead songs out there.

However, their struggles with the song were still not resolved. After the massive hit that ‘Creep’ was in the US, despite the song being banned on the airwaves and the band being thoroughly done with performing and listening to it, Radiohead were faced with another challenge – to come up with an equally powerful song that would uphold the reputation that ‘Creep’ earned them. Little did they know that ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ was going to be it.

Thom Yorke, the frontman for the band and the song’s lyricist, approached with the idea of ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ being the follow-up single after ‘Creep’ in the US was quite surprised that the slow-paced track would even be an option. He realised later that their label had remixed the track without the prior approval of the band. He was told later by Capitol, their record label in the US, that they would be using a Bob Clearmountain mix on the track to which Yorke’s response, much to nobody’s surprise, was, “No way.” He further explained, “All the ghost-like keyboard sounds and weird strings were completely gutted out of his mix, like, he’d gone in with a razor blade and chopped it all up. It was horrible.”

In spite of everything, Thom Yorke’s powerful vocals on ‘Fake Plastic Trees’, along with the extraordinary accompaniment of the instruments, really showcased the versatility of Radiohead as an alternative rock band and established them as being more than just a one-hit-wonder. The ballad went on to become one of the most popular among the plethora of songs that Radiohead released during their time.

Here’s ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ for you to listen to.