Oxford five-piece Radiohead are one of the most celebrated musical outfits of all time. Formed as teenagers in 1985, it wouldn’t be until the early ’90s that the band would find their formula and make what can now only be described as their indelible mark on the realms of music and culture. Pioneers at cultivating cerebral and dense compositions, the band’s style is an audio-visual wonder that many have tried and failed to imitate. It is this artistic spirit that has endeared them to fans for the past three decades; they are always committed to progression, forgoing industry and social norms to achieve the artistic ideal that they aspire to.
In many ways, Radiohead can be regarded as the band who dragged alternative music out of the last millennium and catapulted it, via sheer brilliance, into the future. The majority of their music following the second album, 1995’s The Bends, has become an increasingly apparent and fitting soundtrack to the fluidity and speed of modern life. It is a sometimes chilling appropriation of technology, reminding us just how far away from the rudimentary days of society we have come, conveying both the beauty and the danger of technological advancement.
However, Radiohead weren’t always the iconoclastic outfit that we see today. Once, back in the early ’90s, they were regarded as just another alt-rock band that came off the back of Nirvana’s 1991 breakthrough album, Nevermind. Utilising the loud and quiet dynamics that Kurt Cobain and Co. had weaponised, Radiohead’s breakthrough single, 1992’s ‘Creep‘ became a curse for the band, stifling their creativity, and quickly, after the single’s 1993 re-release and the smash-hit status it was afforded, Radiohead came to hate the song with a passion, perceiving it as blocking their other material.
A brilliant piece in its own right, it is understandable that Radiohead came to quickly hate the song, as they played it every night over a mammoth two years of touring supporting Belly and PJ Harvey. Ironically, due to the economic benefits of having a smash-hit single, the manacles of EMI were cast off, and the band felt that for their second album, The Bends, they had almost complete creative control, as they owed literally nothing to their label.
This brings us to our story today, the strange, debut studio outing by Radiohead — 1993’s Pablo Honey. Just like its successor, it often gets overlooked by fans and critics alike, as there are almost no flecks of the sonic majesty that the band would go on to cultivate throughout their career. However, this is our point exactly. Every artist has to start somewhere. The Beatles didn’t start their career with Sgt. Pepper‘s or Pink Floyd with The Dark Side of the Moon, instead, it was a steady build-up to a period of brilliance (regardless of what Beatles fans may tell you).
Whilst Pablo Honey is certainly dated in retrospect, and it features Radiohead’s most contentious song for both fans and the band as the lead single, it also has moments of sheer brilliance and is a reflection of Radiohead at their rawest, like an ore needing to be refined. For the Hegelian types out there, in the timeline of Radiohead’s existence, it is also important.
Although few and far between, there exist within it sonic indicators of the direction in which the band were travelling and the audio sensibilities that they intended to follow. As if by a smokescreen provided by ‘Creep’, and although unaware of it at the time, the band were able to brilliantly carve out their next massive step towards greatness, The Bends.
Pablo Honey opener ‘You’ is an atmospheric piece of guitar work that was the first example of guitarist Jonny Greenwood‘s virtuosity and penchant for a meaty riff. The song is a meandering piece of music that is highly underrated within the group’s extensive back catalogue. Furthermore, about halfway through when frontman Thom Yorke wails “My”, drenched in melisma, we are provided with the first indication of his incredible vocal range.
‘How Do You?’ is two minutes of ’90s guitar music, there’s not much else to be said about it, apart from the fact that it also contains some of Greenwood’s earworm guitar work. The next track, ‘Stop Whispering’ can be taken as a rudimentary indicator of the ’90s rock balladry that the band would perfect on The Bends with the likes of ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ and ‘High and Dry’. A melodic piece, it could quite easily have fit on the soundtrack for any coming of age movie of the era. ‘Thinking About You’ is more of the same, a take on R.E.M.’s style that is perhaps one of the album’s more forgettable moments.
Then halfway through the album, track six, we get the second single and one of its standouts, ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’. Whilst unbelievably dated, it is a ’90s alt-rock classic, with one of the most catchy choruses Radiohead have ever penned. The chorus line: “I want to be in a band when I get to heaven” couldn’t be more ’90s if it tried. Additionally, Greenwood and Ed O’Brien brilliantly dovetail on their six-strings, providing another taste of what was in store in the not too distant future.
We then get the pretty forgettable ‘Ripcord’ and ‘Vegetable’, two tracks that are indicative of the era. Whilst not terrible, they’re just not anything special, particularly given that many bands were doing the same thing at the time, apart from Jonny Greenwood‘s strong and unmistakable string bends. Musically track ten, ‘Prove Yourself’ is one of the highlights, featuring songwriting hallmarks that we would see on The Bends, the chorus line of “Prove Yourself” where all the band link up in vocal unison is angsty and excellent. Greenwood’s solo on the track can also be taken as a short progenitor to that of ‘Just’.
‘I Can’t’ is more of the typically ’90s alt-rock, as is the grower ‘Lurgee’, and both of these contain similar sonic characteristics to Oxford peers, Ride. These again slightly marked Radiohead out from their contemporaries at the time. Particularly on ‘Lurgee’, the band build up to a lo-fi, reverb-drenched crescendo, as we hear at many points across Ride’s debut album, 1990’s masterpiece, Nowhere.
Then we arrive at the final track, and the album’s highlight, ‘Blow Out‘. A slow-burner, atmospheric and moody, featuring Greenwood’s jazz-inspired licks intertwined with O’Brien’s hazy arpeggios in the verses, this was the biggest musical indicator of where Radiohead were heading. Fittingly closing the curtain on Pablo Honey, across its nearly five-minute duration, ‘Blow Out’ was a statement of intent by the band.
The build-up featuring Phil Selway’s drum fills has you on the edge of your seat. It then descends into the final part where Greenwood lets rip on the guitar, as he slides further and further down the neck, with the delay and reverb turned up to full it brings the song and album to a visceral climax, leaving you wanting more. Not only was this the best indicator that the band were about to embark on their first proper foray into the more experimental realm, but it was also a clear reflection that Radiohead had much more up their sleeve than their average alt-rock contemporaries.
A mixed bag, Pablo Honey is always worth a revisit, only if just for the highlights. If you want to hear the band at their rawest, this is the album for you. Often overlooked, the highlights are brilliant when taken in the context of the era. It is not a groundbreaking album by any stretch of the imagination, but actually, when you compare it to the work of a lot of the guitar bands today, it contains way more forward-thinking ideas and compositional techniques than we get from the majority of the guitar bands who make it on to the main stage at the likes of the Reading and Leeds Festivals.
Listen to Pablo Honey in full below.