Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Radiohead Week, Day 2: “And God Have Mercy On Us All…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 12, 2007

Suckered you but not your friends

Choosing a favorite Radiohead video is like choosing a favorite Scorsese movie–it probably should be hard, but it’s actually ridiculously easy. Though I love all of Radiohead’s videos in their own weird ways (with the exception of only their three most cringeworthy clips, “Stop Whispering,” “Knives Out” and the stunningly terrible “There, There”), its the Jamie Thraves-directed video for The Bends‘ “Just” remains their all-time classic, one of my favorite music videos of ever. And, of course, by far the most frustrating.

It’s entirely probably that I won’t remember my own wedding day as vividly as I remember the first time I ever saw “Just.” Back in 1997, MTV briefly had this weekly two-hour video program (Saturday late-nights, I think–naturally, I had to tape it)) simply called, I believe, “The Greatest Music Videos of All-Time.” What exactly the qualifications were for a video appearing on tis show were predictably sketchy, but it tended to show some pretty cool sutff–in fact, the first time I ever saw or heard Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” was on this show.

I probably wouldn’t even remember the program today, though, if it hadn’t been where I first saw “Just.” Seeing that I had snared the vid while checking my tape one fateful Sunday morning, I was ecstatic–even as a 5th grader, Radiohead were one of my favorite bands, and “Just” was my 2nd favorite song of theirs, behind “Street SPirit (Fade Out),” which remains the source of my go-to internet user name to this very day. What’s more, the short clip of “Just” that I had seen at the VMAs when it was nominated for Best Breakthrough Video looked amazing. I watched with baited breath. Or maybe I didn’t breathe at all, hard to tell.

If you’ve never seen the video before, lemme sum up (though for the love of God, watch it before I do). Man takes a bath, get dressed, goes and lies down in the middle of a busy city sidewalk. An unsuspecting pedestrian trips over his body, and after apologizing and expressing concern (through subtitles at the bottom of the screen), demands to know why the man is lying there, which he refuses to explain. A crowd quickly gathers, and a police officer is called over, but the lying man still refuses to justify his actions. Eventually, he relents, but warns the crowd forebodingly that making him do so probably isn’t the best idea. Even Radiohead themselves, playing in a nearby building, assemble by the window to hear his explanation. The lying man looks upwards and begins his explanation, but as he does, the subtitles drop out, and we never see what it is he says. Seconds later, the entire crowd is lying on the pavement, and the video ends.

The final thirty seconds of this video mark what surely must be closest thing to the Zapruder film in 90s alt-rock. Personally, I watched the thing at least a dozen times in the next few hours trying to figure out the mystery. In retrospect, I have no idea what I was looking for, but I guess that I figured Radiohead must’ve left some clue hidden somewhere in the video, anything to put my mind at ease. I think I even tried a couple to read the lying man’s lips at that pivotal moment, eventually coming to the conclusion that espionage probably wasn’t the smartest career path for me. It was like watching The Usual Suspects for the first time, if the movie had suddenly and inexplicably cut out at Kujan dropping his coffee mug. The Lady and the Tiger ain’t got shit on “Just.”

Of course, it wouldn’t have meant anything if the first three and a half minutes of the video hadn’t been so fucking cool. The whole thing is shot and structured like a classic Hitchcock flick–an almost unbearable level of suspense generated by ordinary people reacting to an unlikely, inexplicable, and near-maddening situation. It even looks like it could’ve taken place in Hitchcock’s era–the dated-looking suits, the somewhat stinted dialogue (“He must be mad!”) and the muted color palatte give it a disorienting, out-of-time feel, one which contributes brilliantly to the video’s general feeling of unease.

Really, though, this one’s all about the editing. Few if any videos could bost a song-to-image synchronization as fluid as this one (well, OK, “Star Guitar” probably has it beat, but I dunno if that should count). Watch the way Johnny’s screeeeeeching guitar squall intensifies the slow pan-in on lying man warning the people of the dangers of his confession, or the way the slow-roll of Colin’s bass line makes lying man’s climactic eye-shift pretty much the creepiest thing ever. And you can’t forget maybe the video’s most iconic moment–when the song goes silent for just a moment, and there’s a cut to a close-up of Thom up in the apartment, his face covered with a drape, which blows out of the way for just long enough to get a glimpse of ol’ Lazy Eye doing what looks like a Lon Chaney impersonation. Then the song kicks back in, and we’re back to the main plot. Phew.

“Just” would have leave such a profound impression on me, that when I got an assignment in my HS Junior Year photography class to create a sort of silent short through a slide show of photographs I had taken, my immediate instinct was to do a remake of “Just.” I got a bunch of my friends to act it out, and over the course of two painstaking days of shooting, I crafted my first (and to date, last) music video cover. The highlight had to be when some bystander actually came by to ask if my friend playing the lying man role was all right–Thom and Jamie would’ve been proud. Somewhat remarkably, when I actually presented the slide show, someone in the audience pointed out that a student in the class the year before had done the very same thing for his project. I was bummed that I had been beaten to the punch, but was glad that I wasn’t the only one with the video’s imagery permanently ingrained into my psyche.

“Just” ended up losing the Best Breakthrough Video VMA to Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight.” Harumph.

*Underrated Radiohead & Radiohead-Related Songs of the Day*:

Kinetic B-side to “Pyramid Song.” Hypnotic, rumbling death crawl, featuring Yorke’s best autophobic lyrics since “Airbag.” Would’ve sounded great on Kid A, if that album wasn’t perfect already.

Nobody Does it Better Hilarious, and oddly touching live cover of the Carly Simon theme to The Spy Who Loved Me. No one can make a line like “Why’d ya have to be SO GOOD??!!!?!” sound as unsettling as Thom.

How I Made My Millions Sob-worthy “No Surprises” b-side, just Thom, a piano, and for some reason, a dishwasher.

Lurgee The first half of the one-two knockout punch to end the super-underrated Pablo Honey, even the biggest haterz of Radiohead’s debut gotta give it up for this beaut.

El Presidente By forgotten 90s UK outfit Drugstore, who likely would’ve been completely forgotten to time if not for this Yorke-guesting gem.

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