Understanding Radiohead's lyrics is a common complaint for first-time listeners. It almost makes me wonder if "Creep" was such a hit because, in part, you can understand the lyrics so well. Whereas with songs like "The Gloaming" or "The National Anthem," you may only pick up on every other word.
Thankfully we have websites like Genius to clear things up. If you don't know, Genius is a website that publishes official lyrics and then crowd-sources annotations and interpretations. The site also does artist interviews and additional research to verify the stories behind certain lyrics. So Ken Partridge, senior editor at Genius, knows a thing or two about uncovering a song's history and evaluating how that history may influence our understanding of the lyrics.
In this episode, Ken and I will dissect the song "The Bends" — untangling the various meanings of its title and discussing how its past may change your interpretation. And then we'll hear from pianist David Bennett, who analyzes Radiohead's music and lyrics on his YouTube channel David Bennett Piano. He'll offer a fan's perspective on the lyrics of "Subterranean Homesick Alien" from OK Computer. Because some of the greatest lyrical interpretations I've heard have stemmed from fans who simply analyze Radiohead for fun.
[00:00:00] Savannah Wright: [00:00:00] This is Fake Plastic Podcast, a podcast that unlocks the alchemy of Radiohead — one song, music video, or live performance at a time. My name is Savannah Wright.
[00:00:10] The other day I was talking to my sister about Radiohead. I have three older sisters. Two are major fans and introduced me to the band, but this sister never got into them. So listening to this podcast was her first major exposure to their music. She said she enjoyed the music of In Rainbows, but she had one major concern: [00:00:30] 'How do you understand the words? I feel like I can never figure out what he's singing.'
[00:00:35] This is a common complaint for first time listeners. It almost makes me wonder if "Creep" was such a hit because you can understand the lyrics so well, whereas with songs like "The Gloaming" or "The National Anthem", you may only pick up on every other word.
[00:00:48] Thankfully, we have websites like Genius to clear things up.
[00:00:51] Ken Partridge: [00:00:51] You know, I think this is like a really good record for people who don't think they're gonna like Radiohead.
[00:00:56] Savannah Wright: [00:00:56] This is Ken Partridge, Senior Editor at Genius. He's talking about [00:01:00] Radiohead's second album, The Bends.
[00:01:02] Ken Partridge: [00:01:02] Because it's really, it's, it's very, listenable you know, the song. Like there's some great hooks, there's some great guitar parts. It's, it's not all that different than some of the other, like the rock albums that came out in the mid nineties. But, um, you know, it's kind of easy to come in on that level and then once you get into, you know, you know, the words, obviously there's a lot more going on there and it definitely rewards close listening.
[00:01:25] Savannah Wright: [00:01:25] If you don't know, Genius is a website that publishes official lyrics and then crowdsources [00:01:30] annotations and interpretations. The site also does artist interviews and additional research to verify the stories behind certain lyrics. So Ken knows a thing or two about uncovering history and evaluating how that history may influence our understanding of the lyrics.
[00:01:44] In this episode, Ken and I will discuss the song "The Bends," untangling the various meanings of its title and discussing howits past may change your interpretation of the lyrics. And then we'll hear from pianist David Bennett, who analyzes [00:02:00] Radiohead's music and lyrics on his YouTube channel, David Bennett Piano. He'll offer a fan's perspective on the lyrics of "Subterranean Homesick Alien" from OK Computer. Because some of the greatest lyrical interpretations I've heard have stemmed from fans who simply analyze Radiohead for fun. So let's start chronologically with The Bends.
[00:02:20] Ken Partridge: [00:02:20] So it's the title track off of their second album, which, you know, by all accounts was kind of made under duress in a lot of ways. Um, they just had this kind of like [00:02:30] unexpected, you know, a big hit with, with uh "Creep" and all of a sudden they've got to come up with the follow-up and they've been touring a lot. And I think, you know, Thom Yorke was kind of like feeling the pressure of being on the road all the time and kind of breaking down.
[00:02:44] And I think there's some story about like the band being on tour in maybe like Mexico or something. And they were all like, just kind of like at each other's throats in a lot of ways and things were kind of falling apart it sounded like. And then, you know, [00:03:00] somehow like out of all that, they ended up coming out with this like really great record.
[00:03:03] I think that, um, in a lot of ways. I think, I'm I'm kind of drawn to this record, I think, because it's like a bridge between like the, you know, "Creep" Radiohead, uh, Pablo Honey, and then like the weirder stuff that would come later. You know what I mean?
[00:03:16] Savannah Wright: [00:03:16] While Pablo Honey sounded similar to the Seattle grunge prevailing on the radio, The Bends demonstrated the band's evolution towards a more distinct rock sound. It wasn't quite grunge, but it wasn't quite the patriotic pop rock taking over the British [00:03:30] airwaves.
[00:03:31] Ken Partridge: [00:03:31] This was, this came out in March '95. So I guess in Britain, anyway, you were kind of starting to see the beginning of Britpop, um, which would kind of come to a head that year with the battle of Blur and Oasis.
[00:03:44] And, um, I think that's one of the reasons too, that I like this song is because I think in some ways it kind of gets at that a little bit. There's, um, I'm sure we'll get to that later, but there is some indication that this song might be sort of targeted at that, at those bands and at that movement, in some ways.
[00:03:59] Savannah Wright: [00:03:59] We talked a little [00:04:00] about Britpop in our third episode, but in case you need a reminder, the term refers to a UK music and culture movement in the mid nineties that revived the British pop rock of the sixties. It set itself up in opposition to the dark grunge movement of the U.S. — instead favoring a bright pop sound that pleased the masses, those in the UK specifically.
[00:04:21] The two bands leading this movement were Blur and Oasis. Although supportive of each other's music at first, the two became embroiled in a feud when they released [00:04:30] their new album singles on the same day, forcing them to compete for that week's number one spot.
[00:04:35] That happened in 1995, about five months after The Bends hit record stores. All of that history will play a part in this song, but let's start with its title. "The Bends" has a few layers to it. Those familiar with the medical condition, the bends, may picture a diver coming up too quickly for air.
[00:04:54] Ken Partridge: [00:04:54] Yeah, that's the thing that I like about this song too, is because it kind of made me go and look this up [00:05:00] and see what the bends actually is because it's something that, you know, actually I knew the term growing up because I went to the kind of a crappy public school system. And I remember like whenever there was a substitute teacher, they would always make us watch this documentary about the making of the Brooklyn bridge.
[00:05:17] And there was a thing about how, like the guys that worked on that bridge would, uh, they would get the bends because they would go down in these sort of like pressurized compartments to work on the, on the parts of the bridge that were like down below the surface of the water. So [00:05:30] I've always known about the bends as just like a term, but I never actually kind of like knew what the medical thing actually meant.
[00:05:36] So it basically what it is is if you're in a sort of pressurized environment, the nitrogen gets like, that's like in your blood or whatever, it gets like super pressurized and it I guess kind of dissolves into your tissues and stuff. And then, um, as you come back to the surface, it all turns back into gas. So you get these, uh, nitrogen gas, bubbles in your blood, and it's, you know, really bad. Um, which I think [00:06:00] is kind of crucial to understand if you're gonna get the metaphor of this song.
[00:06:04] Um, although I think, I think Thom uses is it in kind of a cool way because. Like the most obvious, um, interpretation. And I think he even said once in some quote, he was like, 'well, I guess we just came up too fast.'
[00:06:16] So like, you can think, okay, there's this band that had this kind of novelty hit, they got really famous and they're coming up too fast and that's the bends. And you know, that would be a great song too, that like, that's a totally good metaphor. But if you actually read the lyrics, he [00:06:30] says, um, 'but who are all my real friends? Have they all got the bends? Am I really sinking this low?'
[00:06:34] So he's actually talking about all of his like friends coming up too fast. It's like to kind of get away from him in his, you know, malaise at the bottom of the ocean. Kind of he's like sinking with this, you know, depression or anxiety or everybody's trying to get away from him. So that's kind of like, that's kind of what the song is about more than it is about the band coming up too fast. Um, which I find really interesting.
[00:06:56] Savannah Wright: [00:06:56] Yeah, I love that. How it's like a reversal of expectation. They're [00:07:00] really good at that. There's even a third layer to the title when you uncover the history of the demo version.
[00:07:06] Ken Partridge: [00:07:06] So, I guess a lot of these songs actually came about towards the end of the Pablo Honey sessions because I found some interview with, um, Paul Kolderie, who, um, you know, co-produced Pablo Honey. And he was saying that towards the end of the sessions for that, you know, Thom Yorke just pulled out all these songs that he had, like finished and. Yeah, I guess it was too late to put them on that first album, but he was kind of surprised to hear all this great stuff, because they had been kind of struggling to actually [00:07:30] fill the first record up and it's like, Oh geez. He was like sitting on these like 12 songs that were, you know, really good or whatever.
[00:07:35] Um, at first it was actually called, called "The Benz," I think. You know, like the, a Mercedes, like it was like a pun on, uh, you know, sort of this idea of, in some ways, the song kind of comments on, you know, becoming famous all of a sudden being a rockstar. So "The Benz" obviously it would be kind of a, kind of a clever pun on that.
[00:07:53] Um, so they didn't, you know, they did not end up keeping that, but I think the song still kind of hits at, at [00:08:00] those same ideas.
[00:08:01] Savannah Wright: [00:08:01] So knowing all of that, how do you interpret the first two verses? Uh, like when he's talking about where do we go from here and kind, kinda just walk me through that.
[00:08:11] Ken Partridge: [00:08:11] Yeah, definitely. Um, so yeah, so the first verse is, you know, he's, he's on a plane. He's by himself, he's falling asleep with his head against the window. Um, it's like your classic like burned out rockstar, right? It's like he's been on a road for too long. He's jaded. He's. You know, by himself on the plane probably because he's pissed off all his [00:08:30] band mates and they're off in some other compartment or they're on their own planes because they can't stand him anymore.
[00:08:35] Um, yeah, it's just that kind of, you know, cliched image. And then I guess it kind of continues in second verse. Kind of like alluding to some of the pain behind the surface and saying he should, you know, wash it off. And, um, you know, he's worried that there's nothing underneath because he's just, he's not a real person anymore. He's just become this like touring machine, which, um, you know, kind of speaks to what I think they were going through going into this record.
[00:09:00] [00:08:59] Although it's kind of interesting to think about the fact that this song might've been on a demo, you know, prior to all of that. So yeah, there's some indication if, um, if you read some quotes from Thom Yorke, he says that the song was kind of meant as like a joke in a lot of ways. And it was their. Yeah, their version of like a Bowie, you know, sixties kind of song. So, I mean, it might just be that they were like, anticipating what things were going to be like, if, if they ever got really famous, you know, more so than it was them speaking about, you know, like their actual experiences.
[00:09:27] But I'm not sure, you know, the timeline is kind of [00:09:30] hard to work out. And that was just from one interview that I, that I found, but it just kind of makes sense that, you know, could we get. Cause you know, there are quite a few quotes where Thom is just like, this song is supposed to be a joke, it's supposed to be funny and nobody got it. And then you kinda look at it as, as it being written, you know, prior to them getting super famous, then like you can see why it's more funny than it is tragic, I guess.
[00:09:50] Savannah Wright: [00:09:50] Yeah. No, I liked that as a whole lot more now because I felt like it was him being like a little bit dramatic about like, Oh, I have to keep up this persona that I've created through "Creep". But if it's [00:10:00] just him making fun of that idea, that's even better.
[00:10:02] Ken Partridge: [00:10:02] Yeah. Yeah. Which is cool too, because I mean, I mean that Thom Yorke has got, you know, many gifts, obviously as, as a songwriter, but I don't think he's often given all that much credit for like having a sense of humor.
[00:10:14] Savannah Wright: [00:10:14] Except for that one episode we did about the humor of OK. Computer, but it's cool to see Tom's signature snark appear even earlier in the band's work.
[00:10:23] I guess going along with the whole idea that this is kind of a sarcastic song, um, when he's singing, lying [00:10:30] in the bar with my drip feed on...
[00:10:40] (clip from "The Bends")
[00:10:40] Do you think that's like a sarcastic reference to the rockstar lifestyle being revived by Britpop?
[00:10:49] Ken Partridge: [00:10:49] Yeah, I think, I think very much that's, that's kinda what he's talking about. Um, you know, I've never heard him say that specifically about this line, but I know that he's talking about this line a lot, [00:11:00] like saying how, you know, journalists would come ask him about it and like, was it true?
[00:11:03] And he like, he gets really pissed off because like, 'no, no, it's a joke. It's a joke. The whole thing was supposed to be funny.' And then there's like lots of other quotes where they're talking about Britpop and how they just hated it. Like there's a quote from Jonny Greenwood where he, he compares it to, um, uh Dixieland jazz, basically. It's like, you're just doing the tired. It's like throwback music that it's like, if you're going to try to make, you know, sixties rock, like you might as well be trying to play like, you know, New Orleans jazz or something.
[00:11:28] So, [00:11:30] yeah, that's kind of cool to think about because, you know, I think one of the things about, uh, Radiohead in this period is, it is kind of hard to figure out where they fit in with all that, because like there's plenty of songs on The Bends that are like super poppy that, you know, like you could almost picture, you know, playing it back to back with like a Blur song or an Oasis song or something, you know? That's obviously not what they were going for at all.
[00:11:53] Savannah Wright: [00:11:53] Yeah, totally. And I think you brought up in our email exchange, the song "Rock 'n' Roll Star" by Oasis and yeah that [00:12:00] totally fits the bill of just like wanting to return to the sixties.
[00:12:03] Ken Partridge: [00:12:03] Yeah, definitely. Like I think if you played these songs back to back, it would be kind of, you know, kind of a curious, uh, you know juxtaposition I think in a lot of ways.
[00:12:12] Savannah Wright: [00:12:12] Shall we?
[00:12:46] (clip from "Rock 'n' Roll Star" by Oasis
clip from "The Bends" by Radiohead)
[00:12:46] [00:12:30] The narrator of "The Bends" seems to hold fame and attention in contempt, but his tone takes a seemingly darker turn in the final verse with images of military gunboats, the CIA, and the Marines and amidst a sea of fear. [00:13:00] Is this just a precursor to Thom the Paranoid Android? Or could this function as a deeper commentary on the havoc fame and attention can bring?
[00:13:08] Ken Partridge: [00:13:08] Yeah. This part's tough. I'm not, I'm not honestly sure what he's going for here, but my interpretation is that just in kind of keeping with this, you know, jaded kind of rockstar character that he's been for this whole song. I feel like this is, this is like the end game of that, where you're like the paranoid guy that's like holed up in his mansion and you think everyone's coming for you, you know, kind of like Elvis in his final days kind of thing.
[00:13:30] [00:13:30] Um, it, it sounds really paranoid, doesn't it? With like, you know, they bring in the CIA and the Marines and it's all kind of, you know, conspiracy theory-esque. Yeah, I dunno. That's, that's kinda, that's kinda my take on it. What do you think he's, he's talking about there?
[00:13:44] Savannah Wright: [00:13:44] Well, I was, yeah, I was kind of looking around at what other people were thinking, and I guess it could be references to like the music industry or I guess how people are getting really intrusive in his life once he's a rockstar. Um, yeah, so that would contribute to the paranoia, but then the .Blow [00:14:00] me away part, some people are thinking, Oh, it couldn't be them talking about, it could be him talking about blowing up in popularity. Like. I guess like blowing the band sky high. So I could see that too.
[00:14:08] But if it's written before that, I don't know.
[00:14:11] Ken Partridge: [00:14:11] Yeah. That's the thing that I think that's kind of a key piece of it, but, um.
[00:14:16] Savannah Wright: [00:14:16] Man, that whole timeline thing really threw me for a loop. I'm going to have to like reinterpret this.
[00:14:22] Ken Partridge: [00:14:22] Yeah. Yeah. I mean, they, they definitely had the demo tape at the end of the Pablo Honey sessions, and it was called "The Bends". Like that was like the actual name of the demo [00:14:30] tape. This song was on here. Um, so it sounds like it was definitely, but you know, like I said, it's a, I'm sure there's uh Radiohead scholars out there who can, uh, you know, set us straight on that.
[00:14:42] Savannah Wright: [00:14:42] I may not be an official Radiohead scholar, but I do know my way around the Radiohead subreddit.
[00:14:47] And I found the 1992 demo, Ken referred to.
[00:15:05] (clip from "The Bends" demo)
[00:15:05] [00:15:00] Apart from the sluggish tempo and the hilarious addition of the recorder, the demo seems pretty similar to the studio version. But more importantly, the lyrics are essentially the same. So if we want to get into Thom's head when he wrote this song, we have to understand that this was pre Pablo Honey. Pre "Creep". Pre stardom for Radiohead.
[00:15:25] So it couldn't have been about Radiohead's jump to superstardom, although I appreciate how [00:15:30] fitting that narrative became once the song was finally released. If we want to understand the authorial narrative about "The Bends," it's probably closer to what Ken said about Thom sarcastically imagining what being a rock star would be like — without the Rose colored glasses of Oasis.
[00:15:46] But overall, what do you think the song reveals? Yeah. About Radiohead's relationship with fame, whether it's him, I guess looking ahead at what fame would be like, or later on after being famous, what do you think?
[00:15:56] Ken Partridge: [00:15:56] Yeah, I think they're not, not super psyched about it.
[00:16:01] [00:16:00] Yeah. They seem like a bad that, you know, didn't really get into it for those reasons, uh, necessarily. Um, there's a story too, from around this time, I guess it was probably just before they, they went to start making The Bends where they had been to Israel, I think they went to like Televiv or something. And they got like mobbed by fans.
[00:16:20] And yeah, this was kind of like before "Creep" had really blown up in the U.S. They were still like a pretty little known group, but for some reason, I guess, that like Israeli radio, like Armed Forces Radio or something, had been [00:16:30] playing "Creep", like, like a ton. So, so um in that country, they were like super famous and they got there and they were like, you know, the Beatles on A Hard Day's Night or something. And it totally scared them. Like they didn't. You know, they didn't like having, you know, paparazzi like chasing them through, you know, the airport terminals or whatever.
[00:16:47] Um, so yeah, I mean, like in that sense, I think. I mean, like, it's kind of easy to look at this song and think that they could have, you know, really written it, like after that happened. I think the song in a lot of ways does kind of feel like it's like a song [00:17:00] that you would write if you were, you know, suddenly famous because of this kind of weird song that you didn't think was ever going to be anything. You know?
[00:17:06] Savannah Wright: [00:17:06] Yeah, but I do feel like even if he is being kind of mocking, which I mean, he did say it was a joke, I feel like he does become a little more, uh, sincere at the end when he says like, 'I want to live, breathe. I want to be part of the human race.'
[00:17:20] This section I'm referencing occurs in the bridge, which was not a part of the original demo, or if it was, it was completely unintelligible. Like, he just doesn't want to be treated like a [00:17:30] celebrity. I think that's something that they have made clear. I mean, they don't even want to go to their own Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
[00:17:38] Ken Partridge: [00:17:38] Right, right. Yeah. That's true. I mean, I think like the end of this, um, you know, I think that if we take him at his word and we say that this whole song is kind of a joke, I feel like this last part is, is sort of where it gets a little straight faced maybe.
[00:17:51] And it's like, okay, well, like, even if we are just, this is just like a big piss take on being famous, like, like, honestly, I don't want to be, like lose my sort of like humanity, [00:18:00] you know uh, because of like being a rock musician. I just wanna, you know, I want to be, I want to be part of the human race. It's, you know, it's as basic as that.
[00:18:08] Savannah Wright: [00:18:08] And these are, I guess, more, um, personal questions for you. Um, how does Radiohead's scorn towards celebrity color your impression of them? Like, do you respect them more because they don't care about fame or?
[00:18:19] Ken Partridge: [00:18:19] Uh, yeah, I would say so. Um, I think all the bands that I've always loved. Um, well, I should say with the exception of of the hair metal bands that I [00:18:30] liked when I was like eight years old, because I didn't, I didn't know any better. I think most of the bands I liked have not been super, like have not sort of been in it for the fame, you know.
[00:18:37] Like, like my favorite band of all time is The Clash. And I think, you know, they're a pretty good example of a band that did things for, you know, quote unquote uh the right reasons. You know, it seemed like they wrote songs because they. Because they meant something to them.
[00:18:50] Um, I know that, like that aspect of uh Radiohead, I think kind of rubs people the wrong way sometimes because it's like, 'Oh, they're like ungrateful for what they've got.' And like, 'I would kill to be [00:19:00] in their shoes' and, you know, 'smile every now and again'. But no, I think ultimately I, I do, I do respect them for not playing the game and, you know.
[00:19:07] Cause it's, I mean, I don't know, uh, I'm not, I'm not a famous rock star, but I imagine it's just like so easy to get caught up in that lifestyle. You know, become a character like in this song "The Bends,", but they kind of, haven't done that and that's cool.
[00:19:21] Savannah Wright: [00:19:21] Yeah, that's an interesting criticism that people think that they're ungrateful because they don't accept, I guess, praise that well, but, [00:19:30] um, I guess the way I see it is they're still very loyal to their fans. Like they will put on really long shows and they will go on tour frequently and go all over the place. And so I think they really are grateful for their fans, but maybe it's just, they're uncomfortable with the press and like all of that game. I mean, that's kind of the impression I get.
[00:19:47] Ken Partridge: [00:19:47] Yeah. Yeah. That seems like, yeah. Yeah, definitely. I mean, Yeah. They're one of those bands that I think definitely they're. Their sort of like interactions with their fans is, you know, it's very intense. They've got a very passionate following obviously. [00:20:00] And. Yeah, I don't get the sense that they don't care about their fans or anything. I think, I think, I think they care very deeply about that. They just don't, it's all the rest of the stuff they could do without probably.
[00:20:09] Savannah Wright: [00:20:09] Though Ken and I have focused on what the song may have meant to Thom, the author, when he wrote it, I don't want to discount the additional layers a song can assume from fan interpretations. Because each fan brings a different set of experiences to a song.
[00:20:24] For that reason we'll also hear from David Bennett, who did a lyrical breakdown of "Subterranean Homesick Alien" for this [00:20:30] episode.
[00:20:31] David Bennett: [00:20:31] Hello, my name is David Bennett. I run a YouTube channel where I analyze popular music and look at the music theory behind it. And one of the most common bands that I look at is Radiohead.
[00:20:40] Now the main topic I'm going to talk to you about today is one of my favorite Radiohead songs, which is " Subterranean Homesick Alien."
[00:20:48] Savannah Wright: [00:20:48] David got into Radiohead when a friend recommended he listen to their music. At that point, David had only heard "Creep" and wasn't particularly interested in hearing more.
[00:20:57] David Bennett: [00:20:57] But on his recommendation, I was in a [00:21:00] supermarket and I saw OK Computer going for five pounds. Um, this is back when CDs were available to buy in supermarkets. And I bought that and that I subsequently got up obsessed with Radiohead. Um, I listened to the album on repeat in my bedroom, and then I slowly got into Radiohead one album at a time.
[00:21:18] So I got into The Bends next and then In Rainbows and then worked myself through all of them. Um, and then since then we've had King of Limbs and we've also had A Moon Shaped Pool. So [00:21:30] I continue to this day to be obsessed with Radiohead.
[00:21:33] Savannah Wright: [00:21:33] "Subterranean Homesick Alien" appears on OK Computer, the same album that gave David a proper introduction to Radiohead. The album was released in 1997, at the height of Radiohead's commercial success.
[00:21:47] David Bennett: [00:21:47] And for me, OK Computer really plays in to the sort of end of the century paranoia that a lot of the media that came out in the nineties had. Things like rave culture and like films, like The Matrix or [00:22:00] this idea of being isolated from society and often because of technology. I think also of Fight Club where you have all of these stories about people who are in this urban environment, where they're sort of losing touch with their humanity and they're surrounded with computers and they can often just exist if they wanted to, for the first time in history, just through computers. They don't actually have to leave their houses. They can just stay in a small apartment in a city and live through a computer.
[00:22:29] And then this [00:22:30] sounds pretty familiar today because we've all grown up with the Internet now, but at the time the Internet was a brand new idea and suddenly challenged what it meant to be a human cooperating in a society.
[00:22:42] So this is what I think that predominant theme of OK Computer is all about. You can feel it in all of the songs in OK Computer. Um, for example, "Paranoid Android" is a brilliant example of it. But "Subterranean Homesick Alien" captures it, not only in its lyrics, but also in the music. It has a very subdued sort of [00:23:00] quiet sound. It has a sense of the middle of the night, and that's what I really love about it. It sounds very haunting and the lyrics sort of play perfectly into it.
[00:23:09] Savannah Wright: [00:23:09] David said that, although he doesn't definitively know the story behind the song, he does know that it was partially inspired by an experience Thom Yorke had when hitting a pheasant on his drive home. After stepping outside his car to assess the damage, he thought about alien abduction.
[00:23:24] David Bennett: [00:23:24] And he got out of the car, and this was the middle of the night, and so the general atmosphere [00:23:30] at the time suddenly inspired the song. And I can imagine what he means. You know when you're driving home three in the morning, you're going through some country road. There's not another person or car in sight. And you suddenly realize how alone you are in that moment and also kind of how vulnerable you are.
[00:23:45] And especially if you stop and get out your car becauseyour car provides a certain sort of barrier to the rest of the world. Once you stop it, turn it off, get out of the car and you're left just with the stars and the silence and the darkness. You can really feel [00:24:00] that sense of isolation kick in. And that sort of primeval animalistic urge to find safety because you suddenly feel quite unsafe. And I think that's the sort of feeling that you get from "Subterranean Homesick Alien"
[00:24:12] And he feels, the protagonists of the song feels isolated from the society that he lives in. He feels like Thom Yorke getting out of his car at three in the morning to look at a dead pheasant he just hit. He feels like that in his own society. So he's actually fantasizing about the idea of being abducted by aliens because there [00:24:30] may be, he would be able to escape from this, this weird existence that he's got.
[00:24:35] So "Subterranean Homesick Alien" is telling a story. It begins with sort of contextualizing his life at that moment and how he's losing contact with the outside world. He's losing contact with society. Things like 'the breath of the morning. I keep forgetting to smell the warm summer air.' Sort of saying that he's losing that connection with nature.
[00:24:56] Savannah Wright: [00:24:56] At this point, David's commentary reminds me of some of the Romantic poets I read in [00:25:00] my English lit classes like Coleridge or Keats, who fled to the countryside to escape the relentless growth of cities and industry.
[00:25:08] Fun fact: before Radiohead Thom studied English at Exeter University. So consciously or not, Thom may have been paying homage to their work in the song.
[00:25:17] David Bennett: [00:25:17] 'I live in a small town where you can't smell a thing. You watch your feet for cracks in the pavement'. So basically he's saying that his town has isolated him. You can't smell anything in this town because of the pollution, because of the smog. So all of that nature, the [00:25:30] nature, which was symbolized in the warm summer air, is unaccessible to him. And without his nature, without his, you know, his tie back to his animal roots, what is he to be a human? He's just this pair of limbs that's operating in a society, completely disconnected from his origins, disconnected from his nature.
[00:25:48] And then he begins to describe the aliens above: 'Up above aliens hover making home movies for the folks back home.'
[00:25:54] Savannah Wright: [00:25:54] While studying at Abington school in Oxfordshire, Thom was assigned an essay prompt that more or less said [00:26:00] 'you are an alien from another planet. You have landed and you are standing in the middle of Oxford. How would you describe what you saw?'
[00:26:07] That perspective comes to life in "Subterranean Homesick Alien" as the narrator imagines what the aliens would say and do if they saw the people in his town.
[00:26:16] David Bennett: [00:26:16] So these aliens have been sent down to earth to secretly film us and to, you know, look at these strange creatures, to lock up their spirits. And take those movies back home to show how absurd these humans are being, how these humans have [00:26:30] such a nature to them and that they are animals.
[00:26:32] At the end of the day, they ha they're full of impulses and natural instincts. And yet they bury that all down. They tie it up, they say it's wrong. And they move into a metal city, but they can't smell a thing. And they live this alienated life, which is ironic, considering it's aliens who are onlooking.
[00:26:48] And yet the humans in the story, they're the aliens. The Subterranean Homesick Alien isn't the onlooker, isn't the person with the film camera who's in the spaceship. The subterranean Homesick Alien is [00:27:00] the protagonist. It's the human living a life sort of buried in society. Hence "subterranean."
[00:27:05] Savannah Wright: [00:27:05] Another classic reversal from Radiohead. A quick note: Thom and Jonny have said that the song title is a nod to Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues", but that doesn't discount the additional meaning david has gleaned.
[00:27:18] David Bennett: [00:27:18] So later in the song, the protagonist begins to fantasize about the aliens sweeping down and taking him away from this world. 'I wish that they'd swoop down in a country lane late at night, when I'm driving, take me on board their beautiful [00:27:30] ship. Show me the world as I'd love to see it.'
[00:27:32] So that's the thing he's saying that, you know, he lives on this world. He knows the world is beautiful and worth seeing. And yet, despite living there his entire life, he doesn't feel like he's seen it. He needs an outsider. He needs these little green men on the spaceship to take him away from here so he can look back at it and see what it really is.
[00:27:50] Savannah Wright: [00:27:50] But as David notes, this escapist fantasy would only further alienate the narrator from the society that he lives in.
[00:27:57] David Bennett: [00:27:57] 'I tell all my friends, but they never believe me. They think that I'd finally [00:28:00] lost it completely. I'd show them the stars and the meaning of life, and they shut me away.'
[00:28:05] So that's slightly reminds me of, um, Plato's story of the cave. So the story of the cave is this classic philosophical tale, where there are these people, these men who have been bound in a cave for their entire life, and they uh they know nothing of the outside world. As far as they're concerned, the cave is the world. They have no reason to question that this world that they've always known is the entire [00:28:30] world.
[00:28:30] And this, by the way is also the story on which The Matrix is based. You, the human born into the system, born into the cave. You have no idea that there's anything beyond the cave, because in the story of the cave one of the men breaks free from the cave and realizes this world outside. And when he returns to the cave, the other men in the cave they think he's absurd, they think he's crazy. They think. It challenges their entire belief system. So instead of engaging with him, [00:29:00] they dismiss him.
[00:29:01] Savannah Wright: [00:29:01] David said that these images of alienation and fractured societies appear throughout OK Computer as Radiohead explores the precarious relationship between technology and humanity.
[00:29:12] David Bennett: [00:29:12] The exciting thing about that is that they were writing about this in 1997 when computers and the internet was a new idea. But now over 20 years on, it's suddenly so much more relevant. Things like social media didn't even exist when OK Computer was written. And yet they perfectly encapsulate the ironic [00:29:30] isolation that can occur from being connected with more people.
[00:29:34] And this idea of humanity not mixing well with technology, isn't just limited to OK Computer. Kid A, for example, the, the song "Kid A" itself, I believe is inspired by an idea of the first ever human clone and how he's born into this world as a piece of technology. Kid A is his name.
[00:29:53] It almost seems to me that in the nineties, all of these people who had grown up without the Internet, [00:30:00] without computers and suddenly had them emerging into their lifestyles, emerging into their environments, those people were quite scared over the technology of what it could do. Of what it could do to the way that we interact as humans, what it could do to society.
[00:30:17] But now, now that a whole generation has passed and now we've grown up with it, we're used to it now. We're not as scared of it. And I think the main thing I want to think about here, Is, is that a good thing or not? [00:30:30] Have we stopped being scared of it because there's no reason to be scared of it? Or have we stopped being scared of it because we've grown used to it?
[00:30:42] Savannah Wright: [00:30:42] Now, imagine if you had listened to OK Computer and never understood a word of that message. Or if you had listened to "The Bends" without knowing its context or history. Sure, you'd still enjoy the music or you'd enjoy your own personal interpretation. But you'd miss the details that enrich these [00:31:00] stories that make them even more brilliant.
[00:31:05] And just because Ken and David have interpreted these songs these ways doesn't mean it's the only way to interpret them. That's why I love Radiohead's lyrics. They never mean only one thing. So it's worth taking a deep dive to uncover just how many meanings they may have. Just make sure you take your time exploring them. Don't come up too fast for air.
[00:31:33] [00:31:30] You've been listening to Fake Plastic Podcast. Fake Plastic Podcast is an Alternate Thursdays production with new episodes every other Wednesday. Share your favorite Radiohead lyric with us on Instagram or Twitter @fakeplasticpod. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. And if you really liked this episode, please leave a review and share with your friends, Radiohead fans or otherwise.
[00:32:00] [00:32:00] I'm Savannah Wright. Thanks for listening.