All the time
One of the more frequent arguments that I used to get into involved with Radiohead was the argument of whether or not they were a Britpop band. The conventional wisdom mostly says no–no one’s gonna be confusing OK Computer with Parklife or Different Class anytime soon, mostly because they were too artsy, they were too intellectual and too unconcerned with concepts like image and capturing the zeitgeist to ever truly be part of such a NOW movement like Britpop. If nothing else, they just weren’t British enough–true Britpop should’ve been inextricable from its nation of origin, and knocking out reference after reference that non-UKers couldn’t possibly understand.
But for the longest time, I still refused to accept that Radiohead were never a Britpop band. And that’s because aside from the cleverness, the accessibility, the sheer UKness, there was still a quailty to certain Radiohead songs that stuck with me as Britpop. And that was the truly epic, generational feel that all the best Britpop songs had–from Blur’s “End of a Century” to Pulp’s “Common People” to Oasis’s “Live Forever,” all the best Britpop songs had this feeling that made you, as Noel Gallagher might say it, “put your arm around your best mate and sing along”–and that’s absolutely the way I felt about “Fake Plastic Trees”. It’s too epic to be anything else.
You get the feeling that if Radiohead had had a few more years, or even a few more minutes, to think about “Fake Plastic Trees,” that they might never have recorded it at all. The main influence that the band lists for the song in the first place is Jeff Buckley, that doomed American singer/songwriter that really only the lamest of dudes still list as influences. But Radiohead caught him in that rare moment in between his cult status and his actual cult status, and consequently, they were able to actually be influenced by him without realizing that eventually, by doing so, they would be in company with some of the weakest dudes ever.
Consequently, “Fake Plastic Trees” has that distinct “I Want to Be a Doomed Rock and Roll Star with This Song as My Last Testament” feel, and that’s pretty much the feel that all the best rock songs have. You wouldn’t think of it from a song that starts with the lyric “A green plastic watering can / from a fake Chinese rubber plant”. Indeed, even to this day, I have no idea what that lyric means, or really what the whole song means. But it just has that feel, y’know? That kind of feel where even though you don’t really know where the lyrics are talking about, you just understand that they’re talking about the most important thing in the world. Accoustic guitar can do that to you at its best, really.
So the song builds and builds and builds, until the climax of the third verse. “SHE LOOKS LIKE THE REAAAAAAAAAALLLL THING / SHE TASTES LIKE THE REEEAAAAALLLLLL THING / MY FAKE PLAH-AAAAAAAAASTIC LOVE” By this time, the song is in full on rock-out mode, in a way so conventional and pleasure-center-appeasing that you can’t believe this band could ever go on to do “Everything in Its Right Place”. “But I can’t help but FEEEEEEELIIIIIING / I COULD BLOW THROUGH THE CEEEEEIIIIIILING / IF I JUST TUUUURRRRRNED and ran……”
Then comes my favorite Radiohead moment in any song ever. After Thom admits, like has so many times in this song before, “It wears me out,” he comes to the song’s point of ultimate confession. “And if I could…beeeee….who you wanted…” That pause before the “be” makes all the difference. Without it, it’s still a Britpop song, but just another Britpop song, but with it, it’s one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever heard–far more emotionally involving than “End of a Century,” “Common People,” or even “Live Forever”. Supposedly, Yorke did the song in two takes, and broke down in tears after doing so. That makes sense, since I’ve heard about a half-dozen live versions of it since, and every other time, he delivers the “If I could be” line without that hesitation. And it’s just not half the song that it is with the pause before the “be”. It’s that pause that makes the difference between being just another Radiohead anthem of pre-millenial alienation and being a legit Britpop anthem, which I still firmly believe FPT is.
The fact that Radiohead would probably be hugely insulted if they heard me referring to “Fake Plastic Trees” as a Britpop song demonstrates what an important song in the band’s catalogue it is. Like I said, if they recorded it today, it’d probably be all sorts of different–it’s doubtful anyone in the band is listening to Jeff Buckley that much these days, or breaking into tears about anything–but the fact that they were able to record something so unrestrainedly emotional before their intellectualism got the better of them is so unbelievably crucial, because it proves, despite the band’s best efforts, that they aren’t all brain and no heart. And it’d be hard to love the band like I do if I didn’t know that potential for unabashed flag-waving and anthem-writing wasn’t in them somewhere.