Radiohead are universally (and justly) lauded as being among the greatest musical artists of our time, but they were never obvious contenders for celebrity status. The one time they produced an international hit (“Creep”), the band shied away from the attention it brought them and all but dropped it from their setlists for years. Even at their peak of stardom, their music is often cold and uninviting to new listeners. Yorke’s vocals are an acquired taste, to say the least – even hardcore fans often find them indecipherable, an issue compounded by the detached, abstract, and thematic nature of his lyrics. As a whole, the band prefers mood and texture over hooks and catchy choruses, and as such, they are remarkably difficult to get into for a group of their stature.
One of Radiohead’s most remarkable qualities is how they never bowed to commercial pressures while rising to their current heights. Kid A (2000), Amnesiac (2001), Hail to the Thief (2003), and The King of Limbs (2011) rarely broke from hardcore experimentalism, offering moments of exquisite beauty within barren, alien soundscapes. To varying extents, The Bends (1995), OK Computer (1997), and In Rainbows (2007) fused their abstract ambitions with more accessible rock music, generating goodwill and placating the remnants of the press that had once crowned them the saviors of rock-and-roll.
But then there is Pablo Honey (1993). Radiohead is hardly the first major band to have started their career with a questionable debut, but they proceeded with remarkable thoroughness to erase most of it from their canon. Looking back, it’s easy to see elements of Gish, Bleach, Boy, and Murmur reflected in their respective artists’ most prominent works, each existing as a logical step in a linear progression and refinement of sound. But Pablo Honey bears only a passing resemblance to The Bends and almost none whatsoever to any of Radiohead’s later material. Perhaps most importantly – and in contrast to those four albums listed earlier – some of it is genuinely bad. Don’t get me wrong – I like Pablo Honey, but it does have some awfully rough bumps in the road that help explain why the band veered so sharply away from the path it suggested.
Pablo Honey is by miles the least-weird thing Radiohead have ever released, but that fact alone makes it a bit of an oddball in their discography. The title is an obscure reference to an act by a comedy/prank group and the cover art is a strange image of a baby inside of a flower. The sound consists of Yorke’s wild voice played over interlocking guitar lines where he is joined by Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood. These instrumental textures are the album’s most consistent highlight: Phil Selway’s drumming and Colin Greenwood’s bass are typically (and tastefully) restrained, while Yorke’s lyrics are unusually direct and awkwardly whiny. The tone shifts between soothing and the roughness of post-grunge noise, often within the same track.
For all the angst and rebellious energy, Pablo Honey is perhaps most interesting as a sign of what Radiohead could have become: just another alt rock group stuck forever in the early nineties. They would never again show their 80’s influences (R.E.M. and Dinosaur Jr. among others) so clearly, which is mostly a good thing. Tracks like “Ripchord” and “Anyone Can Play Guitar” are fine, but indistinguishable from concurrent material from other bands. Radiohead could have easily spent their career mining a simple formula and eventually churning out another “Creep” or a couple catchy singles for a solid “Best Of” release as they faded into obscurity, a forgotten relic of a specific time and place.
A few tracks and guitar flourishes aside, Pablo Honey is the only Radiohead album that could have pretty much been made by any other rock artist. But, as illuminated by the B-sides accompanying Capitol Records 2009 2-disc re-release, Radiohead was beginning to show a self-awareness of where they were heading. Pablo Honey feels like it was put together moments after the band realized that “Inside My Head”, “Nothing Touches Me”, and especially “Pop Is Dead” were all terrible and cut them from the album, but before they figured out that album tracks like “Vegetable” and “I Can’t” were only moderately better. Tellingly, both of those songs haven’t been played since 1992 (before even the album’s U.S. release).
My main goal here is to take a moment to look at how Pablo Honey’s 12 tracks functioned within the album and how they have fared over time. What ever happened to these songs?
Before starting, I will throw out there that while most of the unreleased tracks and B-sides from Capitols re-release are forgettable, a few are quite good. The quiet, lo-fi recording of “Stupid Car” is strangely captivating (and foreshadowing of Thom’s fear of automobiles that manifests itself in “Killer Cars”, “Airbag”, and the video for “Karma Police”). “Coke Babies” is also terrific, boasting smooth vocals and a riveting guitar outro.
Last Played by the Band: August 7, 2002
It’s not surprising that “You” made live appearances (albeit sporadically) for much longer than most Pablo Honey tracks: it kicks the album off with a broad riff and a memorable melody. It’s hard to tell if Yorke is looking outwardly or inwardly with lyrics that address broad issues of faith and apocalyptic impulses (“You try at working out chaotic things/And why should I believe myself?/Not you”) although given the rest of the tracks I’m tempted to say the latter. My take has always been that “You” is the narrator addressing part of himself as a destructive, omnipotent force and perhaps hating himself a bit for it. This would certainly fit with the inner conflict narcissism of many of the later tracks. It’s a good song, if not a little generic and dated in retrospect.
Last Played: August 30, 2009
“Creep” is the ultimate Radiohead song for people who don’t like Radiohead and still one of their best songs for people who do. Despite the slow pace of its two buildups and coda, “Creep” possesses two unforgettable, sludgy guitar riffs (supposedly improvised in an attempt to ruin the song) before each of its memorable peaks when Yorke sings “But I’m a creep/I’m a weirdo”. It’s a fantastic single. Despite its success, Radiohead grew frustrated at the one-hit-wonder status it brought them, the sight of audiences leaving concerts after they performed it, and being pegged as the group famous for writing a song about a guy who chickens out from talking to a girl. “My Iron Lung” would go on to describe Radiohead’s love-hate relationship with their biggest hit.
Ultimately, Radiohead dropped “Creep” from their live sets during the tour for OK Computer, only resurrecting it occasionally starting several years later. But it’s still a fan-favorite and draws a spectacular response whenever they play it.
3. “How Do You?”
Last Played: October 23, 1994
Here is Pablo Honey’s first blunder. While it’s not boring, “How Do You?” is still one of the worst things Radiohead have ever recorded, combining sneering lyrics with derivative guitar fuzz and a lame chorus. The subject could very well be the one-hit, fame-riding rock star Yorke imagined himself becoming after “Creep” took off, but the song is so tacky that it throws off the listening experience and makes the songs around it weaker. Mercifully, it hasn’t been played in 20 years.
4. “Stop Whispering”
Last Played: July 28, 1996
Arguably the album’s centerpiece, “Stop Whispering” works quite well in its context. It’s probably the most dynamic song here, starting playfully before transitioning to an exciting coda. The presence of three guitars here really shines, and the band revels in some clever wordplay: “Dear sir, I have a complaint/Can’t remember what it is/That’s why I’m here”. But the repeated cliché “Stop whisper/Start shouting” sounds simplistic and out-of-place on a Radiohead album, even on this one.
5. “Thinking About You”
Last Played: February 1, 1998
The only entirely acoustic number on Pablo Honey, “Thinking About You” feels like a bit of a rough draft for “High & Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees” from The Bends. The lyrics deal with fame from the perspective of a lover concerned with the hollowness of their partner’s popularity (“I’ve been thinking about you, so how can you sleep?/Those people aren’t your friends, they’re paid to kiss your feet”). The song really feels locked into a specific moment of Radiohead’s career, and as such it understandably has little longevity, but it’s nevertheless another strong track with lovely vocals.
The Itch EP has a very different version that’s more jangly and fast-paced:
6. “Anyone Can Play Guitar”
Last Played: July 28, 1996
This one was a misguided idea from the start. “Anyone Can Play Guitar” was meant to be a hit, with Yorke capitalizing on the alt-rock environment with lines like “And if London burns/I’ll be standing on the beach with my guitar”. It certainly goes down easy, but merely celebrating playing guitar feels hollow and doesn’t really work in a Radiohead song. I’ve heard theories that it’s all a joke (Yorke commenting on the hordes of people thinking they can pick up a guitar and become rock stars), but the message is delivered with such earnestness I suspect the song was more simpleminded. Regardless, it’s another commentary on being a rock star, helped here by a great bass groove near the start. The song just doesn’t amount to much and is ultimately one of the least interesting here.
Last Played: November 28, 1995
“Ripchord” sounds great the first time you hear it – it has a tight chorus and some predictably great guitar work – but it’s ultimately generic-sounding filler.
Last Played: May 8, 1992
Yorke is all rebellious angst in this cut, shouting “I’m not a vegetable/I will not control myself/I spit out on the hand that feeds me”. I’ve always rather liked it, as “Vegetable” demonstrates Pablo Honey’s key strengths as it switches from an easygoing guitar line in the verse sections to two scratchy, rough choruses. It’s very much a Pablo Honey-era cut, so I’m not surprised that Radiohead stopped playing it as quickly as they did, but I also wish they’d held onto it a little longer. “Vegetable” also marks the beginning of the upward drive in quality in Pablo Honey‘s second half.
9. “Prove Yourself”
Last Played: December 12, 1995
“Prove Yourself” opens A cappella with Yorke singing from the perspective of a narrator who feels hated by everyone, including himself. Radiohead apparently stopped performing it because they were uncomfortable with audiences singing along to its suicidal refrain “I’m better off dead”. The unpleasant subject matter aside, this is a short, enjoyable, and energetic listen with an awesome guitar line that emerges at the end.
10. “I Can’t”
Last Played: October 27, 1992
Lyrically, “I Can’t” is probably the most direct and straightforward song Radiohead have ever written. With a chorus that goes “Even though I might, even though I try, I can’t”, it’s a similar song to “Prove Yourself”. Colin Greenwood gets a nice moment to shine when the music dies out for a brief bass solo towards the end. It’s not particularly memorable but still a good song.
Last Played: October 9, 2003
This is one of the album’s three truly Great tracks. Part of the reason it works so well is that Yorke doesn’t sing for the second half of the song, which is driven by one of album’s many knock-out guitar passages. Don’t get me wrong – Yorke’s vocals are terrific throughout Pablo Honey, but his whiny and simplistic lyrics on even the stronger tracks like “Prove Yourself” and “I Can’t” are the main reason Pablo Honey hasn’t aged particularly well. Instead, “Lurgee” settles into an easy pace before rolling into a breezy instrumental conclusion. Unsurprisingly, Lurgee is one of the only songs here to be played by Radiohead post-Kid A.
12. “Blow Out”
Last Played: October 7 & 8, 2008
The band unexpectedly performed “Blow Out” at a concert in Japan in 2008, 11 years after the last time they had played it. The first of these two nights was Thom Yorke’s birthday, and he introduced it by mumbling something like “You might not know this song. We don’t know it either.” The second night was the last show of a massive tour, and “Blow Out” was the concert closer. It’s easy to see why they picked “Blow Out”, of all things, to resurrect for the occasion. It is Pablo Honey’s unsung masterpiece and one of Radiohead’s best songs. Check out Radiohead’s performance of it on the Live at Astoria concert video from 1994 if you want to be wowed – it’s the final track there, too, and the band puts on a ridiculously impressive jam towards the end as the sound becomes enveloped by fuzz and white noise. Phil Selway also gets an unusually extended chance to shine, introducing the instrumental climax with a lengthy drum solo.
Looking back on Pablo Honey reveals that, on a track-by-track basis, it’s a pretty strong debut. It emerged with two classics (“Creep” and “Blow Out”), one really superb song (“Lurgee”), and 5 or 6 very good tracks to more than outweigh its few forgettable moments. It also sold fairly well and charted better in the U.S. than the far superior The Bends would two years later. As I’ve touched up on earlier, its biggest issue lies with the lyrics. It understandably took Radiohead a while to zero in on the abstract lyrical style that put them at just the right distance from the material, with the few (slightly) sub-par moments from The Bends (namely, “Bones” and “Sulk”) suffering from the same bluntness as tracks like “I Can’t”, “Prove Yourself”, and “Stop Whispering”. To clarify, I think that all five of those are good songs, but I do think that they have not held up over time and are weaker than Radiohead’s best material – and that the simplicity and directness of the lyrics are much of the reason. Still, Pablo Honey is a breezy, enjoyable listen that is well worth revisiting, even if its main legacy is teaching the band not to repeat a few of its crucial mistakes.