For this post I’d like to take a look at a video ‘mystery’ and also a band who I consider to be one of the most important and creative of the last 20 years.
I, like many others, first discovered Radiohead via their first album Pablo Honey and in particular the mega-MTV hit that was ‘Creep’. I remember really loving that song, they way it did the quiet/loud thing (something another band of that time, Nirvana, were also very fond of. In truth, both bands were probably big fans of Pixies…), that guitar ‘crunch’ just before the chorus, and of course Thom Yorke’s voice full of range and power and a wonderful falsetto. And of course, Radiohead were an outsider’s band. Creeps, weirdos, just like us (or at least that’s how I felt at the time being about 19 years old and still full of teen angst and self-pity) and as such it was about more than just the music. They were a band I could relate too, a band that you either ‘got’ or you didn’t and if you did then you were the kind of person I wanted to know, and vice-versa if you didn’t.
Then came The Bends, their second album. Now the first album was one I played a lot, and thought highly of but when this record came along suddenly Pablo Honey seemed a bit pale and weak, as if it had just been a warm-up before they started breaking sweat. The Bends was, is, quite simply one of the most glorious ‘alternative’ albums of the 90’s or any decade. Full of inventive and addictive songs, big smouldering guitars, choruses that burrow their way in to your head, set up camp and refuse to leave, and of course Yorke’s wonderful voice which really show’s it’s strength on the albums slower tracks like ‘Fake Plastic Trees’, Black Star’ and the epic album closer ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’. To say this was an assured album by a band who were getting in to their stride is almost to understate things. This was an almost alarmingly confident record, full of the kind of songs that must have left other bands scratching their heads and wondering how to compete. It’s an album with no filler, no weak spots and it sounds as vital today as it ever has. More than this, it also showed that Radiohead, more than any of their contemporaries, could strike a perfect balance between experimentalism and commercialism. They could write wonderful pop songs but always manage to imbue them with something outside the norm, always keeping it interesting and managing to not sound quite like anyone else. The Bends was in every way an ‘alternative’ record, an Indie album (now that Indie had become a generic term and not simply a statement of autonomy) but at the same time it was a huge hit, a mainstream record and one that cemented Radiohead’s reputation as one of the 90’s premier rock acts.
This of course meant even more exposure on MTV, and to accompany the singles from the album were a series of fantastic videos. The one that really stuck with me though, and also happened to be one of my favourite songs from the album, was that for ‘Just’. Firstly, the song itself is a wonderful piece of power-pop, utilising the same loud/quiet – shade/light thing that ‘Creep’ had. This is a much better song than that though, with great lyrics and some extraordinary playing by guitarist Johnny Greenwood. Apparently he and Thom Yorke tried to fit as many different chords as possible in to one song and this was the result. It’s clever stuff, and yet actually very simple and direct too. The chorus is immediately memorable and one you’ll find yourself randomly singing to yourself whilst in the shower or on the bus, a sure sign of a great song.
But what I really want to discuss is the video. It caused quite a bit of conversation at the time, and is mysterious and enigmatic in a way you can imagine pleased the band themselves greatly. Directed by Jamie Thraves, who would later go on to make the video for Coldplay’s ‘The Scientist’ amongst many other things (more recently he’s been working with the likes of Jake Bugg and Tom Odell) the video is a puzzle worthy of Sherlock Holmes. So let’s play detective and see whether we can solve it…
The video begins with our unnamed protagonist taking a bath (“Can’t get the stink off, it’s been hanging ‘round for days…”), before we cut to him, suited and walking down the street. It is, we assume, morning and he is, we also assume, on his way to work. The suit suggests some kind of mundane office existence although we can not be sure of this. Then, as if some kind of profound realisation has hit him between the eyes, he stops. There’s a pause, his face blank and emotionless, before he lays himself down on the pavement. It’s as if at that moment in time there is no other option available to him, as if this is the only choice he has left.
Seconds later another suited man trips over him. Initially assuming the man on the ground to be ill, he then gets angry having realised this is not the case, before then offering to help the man up. This draws an angry response. He wants to be left alone, he doesn’t want help. As more people gather we are drawn in to a situation which could be taken in a number of ways. Is this a comment on the exercising of free choice in a society which would like us to conform to behavioural expectations? He’s doing no harm to anyone lying on the pavement and yet the crowd seem unable to accept the situation. He’s behaving oddly, therefore he must need help, whether he likes it or not. Yet, like the crowd in the video, we too are drawn in to wondering exactly why it is he has done such a thing? “He must be mad”, says one of the onlookers. “I’m not mad. Just leave me alone” he replies. Yet they want answers, demand them in fact. What’s wrong, there must be something deeply wrong?
At 2.24 he replies “Look I can’t tell you, it wouldn’t be right” as if whatever knowledge is weighing him down is something he feels others need to be protected from. We are sucked deeper and deeper in to the mystery. What does this man know that we don’t? The arrival of a police officer once again seems to set up a confrontation with societal expectations. The man asks to be left alone, before the officer tells him “I’m afraid I can’t let you do that sir”. Yet he would not appear to be breaking any law, meaning that the officer is not acting to enforce anything but a norm. Once again, this could be seen as a comment on the imposition of authority on citizens in supposedly ‘free’ countries (a theme which Thom Yorke would go on to explore in various ways in future songs).
As the inquisition progresses the crowd get increasingly desperate for an answer. The suited man questioning him gets angry again, and clutching at straws says “You don’t think there’s any point right… we’re all going to die… is that why you’re lying here?”. The frustration of the crowd increases before eventually the man gives in. “I’ll tell you, but God forgive me and God help us all, because you don’t know what it is you ask of me”. At this point we have become part of the crowd and are as eager to know as they are. We have been sucked in to the mystery, and need a resolution. Why is he lying there? What does he know? Tell us!!
And then he does, except at this point the subtitles disappear and as the man mouths his answer we are left guessing. Whatever it is he tells them, the effect is immediate. The crowd join him on the pavement and the video draws to a close leaving the viewer in a highly perplexed state.
There was much conversation at the time about this video, and I’m sure many theories have abounded over the years. Has the man imparted some bone-chilling existential truth that has caused them, like him, to simply give up on life? Is it because he makes them realise that lying on the pavement is some necessary form of protest against the roles society expects us to play? Is it simply because Radiohead are playing in a room above and this gives them the best view? I honestly have no idea and maybe there is no mystery to solve? Maybe the video is a deliberate attempt to fox us and simply generate all manner of discussions regarding a potential meaning that doesn’t exist? We would really love to hear your thoughts, and in particular any original and/or entertaining explanations. Silly or serious, daft or deep, we want to know what you think is going on in this video. As a prize for the most entertaining or interesting answer, we here at MVD will analyse a video of your choice, anything you like so get your Sherlock hats on and get sleuthing people!