Street Spirit was inspired by the American band R.E.M. and the 1991 novel The Famished Road by Ben Okri. It was one of the first Radiohead songs to prominently feature piano, which became more common in their later music. Thom Yorke said about Street Spirit:
"'Street Spirit' is our purest song, but I didn't write it. It wrote itself. We were just its messengers. It's biological catalysts.
"It's core is a complete mystery to me. I wouldn't ever try to write something that hopeless. All of our saddest songs have somewhere in them at least a glimmer of resolve - 'Street Spirit' has no resolve. It is the dark tunnel without the light at the end.
"I detach my emotional radar from that song, or I couldn't play it. I'd crack. I'd break down on stage. That's why its lyrics are just a bunch of mini-stories or visual images as opposed to a cohesive explanation of its meaning. I used images set to the music that I thought would convey the emotional entirety of the lyric and music working together. That's what's meant by 'all these things are one to swallow whole'. I meant the emotional entirety, because I didn't have it in me to articulate the emotion. I'd crack.
"Our fans are braver than I to let that song penetrate them, or maybe they don't realize what they're listening to. They don't realize that 'Street Spirit' is about staring the f--king devil right in the eyes... and knowing, no matter what the hell you do, he'll get the last laugh.
"The devil really will get the last laugh in all cases without exception, and if I let myself think about that to long, I'd crack.
"It's why we play it towards the end of our sets. It drains me, and it shakes me, and hurts like hell every time I play it, looking out at thousands of people cheering and smiling, oblivious to the tragedy of it's meaning, like when you're going to have your dog put down and it's wagging it's tail on the way there. That's what they all look like, and it breaks my heart."
"I wish that song hadn't picked us as its catalysts, and so I don't claim it. It asks too much... I didn't write that song."
Music VideoThe black-and-white music video for Street Spirit was filmed during two nights in a desert outside Los Angeles. It premiered in February 1996 and was directed by Jonathan Glazer, who later directed the video for Karma Police (1997).
This song has been played live multiple times in every tour the band has played since The Bends was released.