February 22 signified the 20th anniversary of Radiohead's debut album Pablo Honey. We're always looking back at the past, something we like to do when referring to Radiohead. Words like 'used', 'was' and 'were' have been written countless times about Radiohead, because readers are so obsessed with what they have done, rather than what they can still achieve. For the purpose of this, we'll be looking back at Radiohead's early career, their beginnings, their influences, their sound, their lyrics, their contribution to music and their very important debut album.
Pablo Honey was released in 1993, during the alternative rock years. It's no surprise that Radiohead slipped right by the alternative / britpop audience that shrugged Radiohead off instantly. They would be wrong, look at them now, the biggest British band since Pink Floyd. After signing to EMI in 1991, Radiohead (then labelled On A Friday) went about recording and releasing their debut EP Drill. We've heard the stories and we've read what critics say about Radiohead's early period, but they would be wrong. In fact, Thom York himself would be wrong for disregarding Radiohead's early output, because Pablo Honey is something to be proud of - and this is why.
Never has a song of such dramatic cataclysmic and emotional connections caused a dedicated audience of followers to crumble under the words of Yorke. "Creep" is among the highest quality of Radiohead songs. From Yorke's lyrics to Johnny Greenwood's guitar drones, "Creep" has always stood out as Radiohead's signature song. It's track two on Pablo Honey and acts as the defining moment, so early on, and so early in their career. Johnny plays "Creep" out with a melancholy piano riff which works phenomenally well among his guitar feedback. The Hollies released "The Air That I Breathe" 20 years prior, and if you're unaware, successfully sued Radiohead for plagiarism, correctly. Do they care? No, do we care? No. "Creep" has been used in film during scenes of magnitude; it's been covered for effect and used for creating that one dramatic moment. Yorke's honest approach to lyricism can be heard, scrap that, it can be felt. "Creep" is Radiohead's 'Scott Walker song', and it's still a fan favourite 20 years later.
Pablo Honey opens with "You", a powerful rock track in the style replicated by American singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley on his debut album Grace released later in 1993. Yorke and Buckley have swapped influences on each other and their music can be heard both ways. "You" happens to be one of Yorke's most expressive song's to date. It was written during the time when Yorke had no ego, Radiohead had no fame and nobody’s head was up anyone's arse. Yorke was sad; Pablo Honey is a sad album, arguably a depressing album if we were to play that card. He sings: "It's like the world is gonna end so soon, and why should I believe myself?" Yorke's lyrics are often questioning and metaphorical; in this case he's obsessing over religion and blind faith.
You're not a proper Radiohead fan till you've listened through "Creep" to discover the blinding "How Do You?" that follows. The previous tranquil song of the decade is left lingering in our minds with the hate song of Yorke's career. The lyrics aren’t great, but as a song, it's catchy. Johnny reprises his role on guitar and piano, with his job role as noise maker. This track really comes down to Yorke's vocal delivery which is far more D.I.Y and punk than the previous two tracks. It's followed by another classic Radiohead track, "Stop Whispering". The five and a half minute belter is attributed to the strictures and styles of alternative rock influences Pixies. Quiet and (in the name) whispered vocals are matched with loud and shouted vocals on the chorus and grand outro, one of the highlights of Pablo Honey. As is the acoustic brilliance of "Thinking About You" sitting nicely as track five. An influence to bands such as The Joy Formidable ("Silent Treatment") and Fleet Foxes ("Oliver James"). Of course Yorke and co do the dirty on rock stars, in particular Jim Morrison with "Anyone Can Play Guitar". It's a bold song title, and one York speaks so passionately about: "Grow my hair; I want to be want to be want to be Jim Morrison." He's mocking the rock star status of Morrison and in turn, taking it out on bands that know the basics of guitar and think they're musical gods. Simple really, anyone can play guitar, but can anyone really play it.
The second half of Pablo Honey begins with the Pixies-esque "Ripcord". Analogies are everywhere on Pablo Honey, most prominently on the back half. "Vegetable" is a lovely three minute track with Johnny's trademark dissonant guitar work and Phil Selway's Doolittle-like drumming. The two minute thriller "Prove Yourself" is Radiohead's attempt of making a louder and modern version of Neil Young. They do this successfully creating a racket and a harmony at the same time. Yorke has his vocal influences and wears them on his sleeve, and "Prove Yourself" is just another attempt at distinguishing what Radiohead actually wanted out of Pablo Honey and their six album deal with EMI. "Prove Yourself" is one of the best tracks on Pablo Honey, not for its quickness and loudness, but for its lyricism, delivery by Yorke and how this transformed into what would be The Bends two years later.
"I Can't", like "Prove Yourself" is better than what people imagine. The instrumentation is along the lines of U2, Sonic Youth and The Smiths. Its structure works with the vocal Yorke gives on the chorus, where he sings: "And even though I might, even though I try, I can't." Yorke's self-doubt speaks for itself - another great classic Radiohead song almost hidden by the red cross that is Pablo Honey. Pablo Honey wouldn't be complete without the final two tracks, "Lurgee" and "Blow Out". "Lurgee" still finds its way on Radiohead set lists, while "Blow Out" has become one of the few tracks from Pablo Honey that Radiohead 'accept'. The back half is very much like most alternative rock albums, short and sweet with mellow features.
So 20 years after Pablo Honey's release and still the cynics disregard this classic debut album. They always say Pablo Honey is their worst album, thus ignoring it. Even then, it may be to some their worst recorded album, but it's still a better album than what Beck, Suede, New Order and The Auteurs were doing in 1993. It was 20 years ago, and still we listen to Pablo Honey and pick out the timeless classics. The songs we will never forget, "Creep", "Stop Whispering", "Blow Out" and "Anyone Can Play Guitar". Alternative rock in the 90s moved on, Radiohead moved on but Pablo Honey remains. People like to compare Pablo Honey to their first love, ultimately you will move on. Instead of this, I think Pablo Honey is the one true love, and true love waits... 20 years of waiting and maybe Pablo Honey can finally be recognised for what it is, a classic debut album of alternative rock.