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Music

Radiohead's 'Pablo Honey' is more interesting than you think

When the assemblage of Oxford geeks released their first album, Pablo Honey, on February 22nd, 1993, it launched them into the eye-line of the public with its buoying single ‘Creep’. The group’s explosive rise to global superstardom over the mid-’90s, with The Bends (1995) and OK Computer (1997), has ostensibly put a shadow over Pablo Honey, obscuring most of the work within, apart from ‘Creep’, of course.

Radiohead have since mastered the art of creative exploration, beginning with Kid A in 2000 when they decided to ditch their tried and tested formula of guitar-driven indie-rock and make a masterpiece of electro-rock oddity. This impressive and eclectic career has shuffled Pablo Honey to the very bottom of the pile as far as most Radiohead fans are concerned, but this doesn’t mean that the album should be forgotten; it still has some very enjoyable, if a little unrefined, music on it. 

While containing some great highlights, including ‘Creep’, ‘Blow Out’, ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’ and ‘You’, there are also some fascinating trivial facts about the album that make it even more worthy of a revisit on its birthday. For instance, haven’t you ever wondered why the album is called “Pablo Honey”? Well, grab some popcorn, and I’ll continue. 

In the early 1990s, fellow Thames Valley indie-rock group Chapterhouse passed Radiohead a bootleg recording of prank phone calls that had been circulating in the New York comedy scene. The calls were the creation of Johnny Brennan and Kamal Ahmed, two childhood friends from Queens who called themselves the Jerky Boys. The pair would make sketches in which they terrorise their New York neighbours with outrageous prank calls. “Some of it’s really sick,” Thom Yorke told Select in May 1993. “Some of it I can’t cope with. But the notion of phoning up people cold is so ’90s. It’s just the ultimate sacrilege – turn up in someone’s life, and they can’t do anything about it.” One of the sketches that Radiohead found particularly amusing was when one of the Jerky Boys posed as a confused victim’s mother, who opened with a worried utterance, “Pablo, honey? Please come to Florida.” The group decided to use the line for their first album name. “Pablo Honey was appropriate for us, being all mothers’ boys,” Yorke later joked. They also sampled the sketch for the instrumental section in ‘How Do You’ alongside the guitar solo. 

The lead single from the album, ‘Creep’, has remained one of the group’s most beloved and well-played songs – as much as the group dislike hearing or playing it these days. The track was also somewhat controversial upon its release. The well-known anthem for losers, was labelled as “too depressing” for radio by the BBC, and so was kept from its well-deserved air-time on the major radio stations in the early ’90s. Despite this, the song was a major hit and fell under the noses of the ’60s rock group The Hollies. While Radiohead were in the studio creating ‘Creep’, the group had been recording the guitar sequence when “Ed O’Brien stopped and said, ‘This is the same chord sequence as that Hollies song,’” as Jonny Greenwood once recalled. He then explained that Thom wrote the lyrics from there. “So Thom copied it. It was funny to us in a way, sort of feeding something like that into [it]. It’s a bit of a change.” However, as it transpired, the publishers of The Hollies’ song ‘The Air That I Breathe’ couldn’t find the humour in the connection and filed a suit for copyright infringement against the group, which was subsequently settled out of court for an undisclosed agreement.

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Part of the success of ‘Creep’ came from its dramatic energy changes driven by Jonny’s aggressive thrashing of the strings on the entry to the chorus. As the band revealed following the single’s release, the memorable guitar hook came by a fortunate mistake. Jonny was messing around on his guitar when setting up in the Chipping Norton studio and had no idea the tape was rolling. “It was recorded while we were actually in the studio to record two other songs,” Jonny told St Louis Post-dispatch in 1993. “We were asked to play some things to check the levels of the tape, and we just did one that we liked best from rehearsing it the day before. We’d only written it the week before, and we were just kind of very keen to play it for each other, and they happened to record it.” As drummer Philip Selway recalled, the element of surprise was the winning formula. “When it was recorded, we didn’t even know it was being taped – we were just warming up for another track by it. The reason it sounds so powerful is because it’s completely unselfconscious.”

For a new band in the studio, it seems that some unorthodox methods can really get the creative juices flowing. During the recording of ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’, the group wanted to prove the theory set out in the title of the track in a very literal sense. “We rounded up everyone in the studio,” Producer Paul Kolderie remembered. “All five band members, Sean and I, the studio owner, the cook – and gave each person a guitar. Everyone got assigned their own track, and they could do whatever they wanted. The idea was to live up to the title: anyone can play guitar. So they did, and we made it into a little sound collage at the beginning.” For added effect, Jonny grabbed a paintbrush to whack the strings of his Telecaster.

Favouring innovation over convention would become an integral aspect of Jonny’s playing throughout the band’s career and was a key element of their success through creative evolution. “I don’t know any guitar scales,” Jonny revealed in a 1993 issue of Guitar. “Well, I know one major one – that’s it – and l just move up and down the neck depending on what modes I want. But you can get by with just chords. Rather than being able to play two thousand notes a minute, I can play an E chord anywhere on the neck, and that’s more interesting, I think.”

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Pablo Honey presents an important stage of Radiohead’s development; the group were still only in their early-to-mid-20s when recording the album and so it shows signs of their lack of experience and immaturity while revealing a smorgasbord of ideas that can be seen as a launchpad from which they grew impressively. Like any youngsters, they enjoyed their share of remnant adolescent humour and innuendo. Many of the ideas had come from work they had written when they were at school nearly ten years before, a time when the group was known as ‘On A Friday’. The earliest work that appeared on Pablo Honey was ‘Stop Whispering’. However, despite being the earliest, ‘Stop Whispering’ wasn’t the least mature of the group’s songs. 

When the group of “mothers’ boys” recorded the music for their debut album, their families were, for the most part, immensely proud of their sons. The lucky mother of both Jonny and Colin Greenwood was always happy to hear about how her sons were getting on in their band. Unfortunately for her, the brothers were particularly cheeky and would take great pleasure in teasing their staid mother by playing up their supposed rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. “Jonathan often teases her about all the drug benders he goes on,” Colin said in a 1995 interview with Select. “And she sits there saying, ‘Oh yes? How nice, dear.’ It was funny, when we first got signed, she wouldn’t tell our grandfather what we were doing because she thought it’d finish him off.” Despite her doubts about their lifestyles, she was proud of them and gave their debut album a spin from time to time. “She is quite proud of us, I suppose,” Jonny said. “Her favourite song on the first LP was ‘Thinking About You’, which has the line ‘I’m playing with myself’. She had no idea it was about wanking.”

So if you’re thinking of giving this uneven debut LP a spin today, hopefully, some of these little facts will help you enjoy it that little bit more. The album should be remembered as the bright beginning for one of the best bands the world has seen in recent years; the album that stuck in the craw of The Hollies and the BBC; contains a song about wanking and teaches us that even paintbrushes can play guitar.