Immerse your soul in love

Radiohead - 'Street Spirit (Fade Out).' (The Bends - 1995)

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In early November 1993, Radiohead appeared on Canadian TV and performed an earlier version of the song "Street Spirit (Fade Out)", then called "Three-Headed Street Spirit." Lead singer Thom Yorke spoke of Ben Okri's 1991 Booker Prize-winning novel The Famished Road and its influence on the song.

Hat-tip to CitizenInsane for hosting this video

The book's protagonist, Azaro, is a spirit child stuck between worlds, pushed and pulled between the two and how it imposes an otherworldly sense of anguish upon him.

I think “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” is a song about that feeling and pondering on the inevitability of death and the general pointlessness of living in the grand scheme of things. It's the most depressing song on a reasonably depressing album.

The song is a long time favourite of the band; no song appears more often in their setlists according to setlist.fm and several members of the band speak of it warmly in contemporary interviews. Guitarist Johnny calls it his favourite on the album, and Ed said there's no other song that could end The Bends. At the time, Thom Yorke spoke of releasing the song as a Christmas single, and it eventually came out in January 1996, as he loved Christmas so much. More recently, he's discussed the song as the band's darkest and how, despite the frequency of it in setlists, it sucks so much energy for him to perform it is often left to the end of concerts

…it hurts like hell every time I play it, looking out at thousands of people cheering and smiling, oblivious to the tragedy of its meaning, like when you're going to have your dog put down, and it's wagging its tail on the way there.

This is also probably not something that many of my fellow students at university two decades ago were concerned about when they went to Ultimate Guitar for the tab and took almost every opportunity to play the main riff on their acoustic guitar.

[Intro/Main Riff]
 
   Am
e|---------0--------------0-------------0----------------------|
B|---------------3--------------1---------------0--------------|
G|------------2------2------2-------2-------2-------2--------2-| x4
D|-----2------------------------------------------------2------|
A|-0-----------------------------------------------------------|
E|-------------------------------------------------------------|
 

Yorke has spoken of that riff and how he enjoyed "stuff like Stereolab where they repeat riffs over and over again." I find it interesting that he called the song Radiohead's purest as it "wrote itself." That makes it sound like an ontological paradox where the music has inserted itself into Yorke's brain but from a different part of the timeline. Like Paul McCartney and 'Yesterday', it used Yorke as a vessel. I hope that the song didn't appear in Yorke's head overnight as it did for the Beatle; that doesn't sound like a (nice dream). "All of your fears die with you" as a concept for a UK top-five single is out there as well.

The final line(s), "Immerse your soul in love", is a relatively cheerful ending to the song and the album. You might feel that is the appropriate response to the existential angst the music had conjured up - maybe there’s a hint that even that is all another level of pointlessness to existence but let's not get too glum. I'm also tickled that the song doesn't Fade Out. in fact, not many songs on The Bends do; one even fades in like 'Eight Days A Week'.

Radiohead have spoken of banging their heads against the wall and going around in circles to complete the song. Between that, the riff and the way the piece was channelled through Yorke suggest many circles. Maybe Jas Mann of Babylon Zoo was too late with his ambition to write the first spherical song in 1997.

In the context of their next album OK Computer, what really interests me is the opening line about rows of houses and feeling weighed down by their inhabitants and their blue hands. - Are they cold? Are they near death, or is Yorke making a reference to the Tory Government of the time? This type of imagery would come up repeatedly in their next album as the rows of houses turned into gleaming skyscrapers, motorway junctions and airport departure lounges and it’s one of those tantalising glimpses we get on a final track that sets up well for the next part of the journey.

The other point of note is that it sounds different to the Bendsification of post-Britpop British guitar music. The likes of Travis, Coldplay, Starsailor, Turin Breaks, Keane, Athlete, Snow Patrol and others have all dug from the well of the album but much focus on 'High and Dry' and 'Fake Plastic Trees' and Yorke's other falsetto1 moments than on songs, and subject matter like this song, which is a shame. Muse did at least incorporate the title track and 'Sulk' into their sounds - Maybe that New Acoustic Movement from the very early 2000s would be more fondly remembered, not if they had a 'Just', 'My Iron Lung' or a 'Street Spirit (Fade Out).' in their repertoire.

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Yorke famously gained the confidence to sing in that register after seeing Jeff Buckley perform at The Garage in Islington in later 1994. He returned to the studio that night and recorded 'Fake Plastic Trees' Maybe the most influential second-order gig of all time - one person who went fanned the flames of influence to many of the singers in those bands.

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