WHAT can be said about Radiohead’s presence in the music world which hasn’t already been said? Let’s be honest, as one of many radical Radiohead-ites who swoon over every environmental message Thom Yorke seems to fart out on the internet, this article would simply be a list of all of my favourite Radiohead B-Sides, and which of the bands eight released LP’s I prefer in order. Surprise surprise Pablo Honey was bottom of the list of favourite albums, and I can bet many would agree with me. Firstly, it is an incredibly difficult album to talk about, mainly due to how far away from the usual conventional Radiohead sound it was. It was so un-Radiohead-y(inventing words is a common trait for any Radiohead fan, obviously) that many believed their true roots came from their sophomore album, The Bends.
However, I don’t want to let my biased opinion affect the review of Pablo Honey, I want to treat this album like any other, a fresh perspective without acknowledging the impact Radiohead made after their rise in popularity. As difficult as this may be, perhaps a new insight into the bands past can be assessed.
On release in February 1992, Pablo Honey received mixed reviews, most of them rating it in the middle. It’s no surprise, Radiohead did not receive a lot of attention when they were formed and they didn’t gain anything up till the release of the album. They were not known, they were not listened to. The overall verdict came down to a simple ‘good’ from most of the popular review articles of the time such as NME and Q Magazine, some even comparing the band to a British Nirvana. With a positive comparison to the kings or Grunge at the time, why then did it fail to live up to bigger things?
The short answer is due to Pablo Honey’s blandness. The long answer comes in the form of the absurd concussion of its songs, the overall confusion to audience reaction, and the popularity of its stand out single, ‘Creep’.
Pablo Honey is a decent attempt at a debut album, many critics even claiming it to be one of the best debut albums at that time, but this was all after the initial release of their breakthrough single ‘Creep’, which only got noticed after an Israeli radio station began playing it. ‘Creep’ was the big step in launching Radiohead’s career, and it nearly didn’t happen after many European radio stations deemed it ‘too depressing for radio’. If it wasn’t for the realistic, monotonous, rebellious tones of ‘Creep’, Radiohead would not be unique, especially as the album’s other singles; ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’ and ‘Stop Whispering’ were so strangely formed.
Every song on Pablo Honey is a different blend of post-grunge boredom, and noise hollering screams; the album as a whole does not mix well. Even ‘Creep’ doesn’t seem to fit with the soft melancholy tones of ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’, nor do the nostalgic lyrics of ‘Thinking About You’ co-exist with the explosive ‘Blow Out’. With every positive angle you find on a track, a brick wall suddenly stops you in your way, ending the progression of the guitars and rich harmonies into a very messy mix of some of the bands influences, as if half the song was a classic Pixies track and suddenly it shifted gear into a Sonic Youth feel. Each song seems to represent each member’s different, yet personal, life experiences in a very youthful, dark, and, at times, playful tone. The main problem is the albums core. It feels like all five members of the band were told to draw a picture of a certain human body part which contributes to an accurate image of a human being; only each member drew their own version of a sad face which can only ultimately result in a strange mutated, ugly hybrid of five sad faces stitched together.
Another major problem is the time of release. The music world can be a harsh and difficult place for new bands to advance as debut artists, as well as develop that new sound into something consistent and fresh for a following album. I feel that if Pablo Honey was released five years earlier, it would have had many critics drooling over it. Radiohead was caught between the grunge beginnings of 1989 and the Brit Pop stage of 1995, which meant that their debut could not have been less anticipated. Their sound was too boring to be a grunge album or a new wave alternative rock debut; Radiohead were in a state of Limbo.
That is not to say that all of Pablo Honey was awful. As individual tracks, as shown by the success of ‘Creep’, they do hold up well. ‘Blow Out’ showcases the raw power of Thom Yorke’s voice, really showing his vocal range in a song which could have clearly benefited on The Bends. One sound credit I will give to the album is that it did let listeners hear a freedom which future Radiohead albums were unfortunate not to get. Pablo Honey really does show the pure desire and dedication of each of the five members to succeed. With every experimental guitar strum, every shout of Yorke’s voice, every slap of the bass, it does picture a youthful and innocent side of Radiohead which would not be seen till 2007’s In Rainbows. Aside from that, the listener can definitely hear the strong build-up of Johnny Greenwood and Ed O’Brian’s guitars in most of the faster tracks, really fixing on the techniques both guitarists took with them on future albums. As you can see, trying to review Pablo Honey without mentioning future Radiohead projects is like trying to ignore the free biscuit given to you with your cup of tea/coffee, you just can’t. You either eat it or you play with it. It’s difficult!
Considering what Radiohead followed up with The Bends it is obvious that their sound needed some personal inspiration in the form of an Iron Lung. The success of ‘Creep’ left the band exhausted from the fame and tired of playing a single song which defined their musical style, so they began making music which clearly captivated their personal struggles and inner demons with strong, relatable lyrics, and breathtakingly powerful musical accompaniment which is still admired to this day. Radiohead’s debut album is clunky, messy, and has strange list of tracks which can only be described as youthful experimentation. It was ambitious, it was at times electrifying, but its time of release was unfortunate, and it’s tracks felt rushed. However, as mediocre as Pablo Honey as a debut album was there is no denying that without its faults, Radiohead would never have existed.