Noted by Yorke as 'one of the band's saddest songs' and describing it as 'the dark tunnel without the light at the end', 'Street Spirit' was released as the band's ninth single and reached number five on the UK Singles Chart, the highest chart position the band achieved until 'Paranoid Android' from OK Computer, which reached number three in 1997.
Yorke has suggested that the song was inspired by the 1991 novel The Famished Road, written by Ben Okri, and that its music was inspired by R.E.M.
Lead singer Thom Yorke said:
'Street Spirit is our purest song, but I didn't write it. It wrote itself. We were just its messengers; its biological catalysts. Its core is a complete mystery to me, and, you know, 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. It represents all tragic emotion that is so hurtful that the sound of that melody is its only definition. We all have a way of dealing with that song. Its called detachment. Especially me; 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 you'll one day 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 realise what they're listening to. They don't realise that 'Street Spirit' is about staring the fucking devil right in the eyes, and knowing, no matter what the hell you do, he'll get the last laugh. And its real, and true. The devil really will get the last laugh in all cases without exception, and if I let myself think about that too long, I'd crack.
I can't believe we have fans that can deal emotionally with that song. That's why I'm convinced that they don't know what its about. Its 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 its meaning, like when you're going to have your dog put down and its wagging its 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'.