Classic Music Review: Pablo Honey by Radiohead

I tend to be a non-linear person, a character trait that has confused many readers who have tried to make sense of my journey through life and still have no idea where the hell I’m coming from. To assist those readers, here’s a recap of the life events that eventually led me to Pablo Honey:

  • 1993-November 2000: Radiohead released four studio albums. My experience of Radiohead during that era was subliminal, limited to those songs (“Creep,” “High and Dry,” “Karma Police”) that frequently appeared on the radio. My exploding libido and growing sense that my sexuality wasn’t in sync with MVE (mainstream vanilla eroticism) led to a craving for loud, defiant music that combined raw power with social consciousness. Once I was old enough for a fake ID (around fifteen or so), I spent every weekend in mosh pits, cruising and bruising my way through the then-great Bay Area punk scene. My tastes were more Rancid than Radiohead. I did fuck pretty frequently for a teenager, I guess, but nowhere near the levels I would achieve in my college and post-college years.
  • November 2000-October 2007: During a home-for-the-holidays visit from college, my mother turned me on to Kid A. I loved every second of that record and still do. However, the love I felt for a great piece of music paled in comparison to my ravenous appetite for penis and pussy. I spent most of the period between 2000-2005 fucking men and women, singly and in groups, covering all ages, races and fetishes. This was not some manic, aimless quest, but a very intentional effort to take my erotic skills to the highest level possible. I spent very little time listening to new music, relying on old favorites and a few friendly suggestions to provide me with music to accompany my sexual experiences. Somewhere in there I graduated from college.
  • October 2007: After spending years exploring various long-term possibilities with men, women and couples, I found my life-partner, who happened to be female. Gender really wasn’t an important consideration: it was all about finding someone who shared my erotic tastes, was unafraid of vulnerability and could be trusted with my life, soul and emotions. Ironically, October 2007 was the month Radiohead released In Rainbows, a coincidence I’ve always found curiously satisfying. Note to Self: Insert “Bodysnatchers” into my biopic soundtrack at the moment Ali and I first made deep eye contact.
  • April 2008-October 2008: My partner moved to Seattle, where I had a little house. After about six months of total erotic immersion, with my needs fulfilled to near-satiation (they’re never fully satisfied), I felt the urge to explore music again, and Radiohead was my #1 priority.

There are TONS of Radiohead fans in Seattle, so I connected with a friend at work who had seen Radiohead at the White River Amphitheatre that summer. I told her about my Kid A experience and that I was interested in learning more but needed some guidance about where to start. I had prepared a list of Radiohead albums released to date and sat in her cubicle on a swivel chair, legs crossed, adopting the posture of an attentive stenographer in a 1930’s romantic comedy.

OK Computer—well, it’s iconic, so you should start there. If you liked Kid A, you’ll probably like Amnesiac, since it was recorded during the same sessions. I really like Hail to the Thief, though some people don’t—and some of the songs are much better live. And their latest—In Rainbows—awesome, just awesome. And if you’re really adventurous, you could check out The Bends—that’s the one that got them noticed. Great videos, too.”

I looked at the list and noticed she had ignored the one on top. “What about Pablo Honey?”

“Oh, yeah. Well, there’s ‘Creep.’ I don’t know. I think I listened to it once, maybe, but it’s not the real Radiohead. You know, they were just starting out and all.”

I took her advice and started with OK Computer, and as I noted in that review, my initial reaction was not favorable. I then skipped ahead to the post-Kid A albums, experiencing a more positive response. Still, I was bothered about the relative blah I felt about the universally acclaimed OK Computer, so I decided to hear it in its proper context—in record release sequence. This time I ignored her advice and started with the allegedly not-Radiohead Pablo Honey.

Goddamn and hallefuckinglujah! Loved every minute of it!

I wholeheartedly agree that Radiohead has done bigger and better things in the years following their maiden voyage. Their trajectory from Pablo Honey to Kid A was a near-vertical line that shot up like a rocket. Nonetheless, they started a lot stronger than many people realize, and I’ve learned over the years that my friend wasn’t the only Radiohead aficionado to ignore Pablo Honey. A surprising number of people I’ve met who got hooked on Radiohead after OK Computer admitted they’d never heard the album. Many probably took the advice of music critics who dismissed Pablo Honey as Nirvana-lite at a time when it seemed every band wanted to emulate Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl. Although I don’t hear much Nirvana influence on Pablo Honey other than heavy distortion, the ghost of Black Francis haunts the album through the frequent use of the soft-LOUD-soft-LOUD Pixies dynamics that Cobain adored. My conclusion is that the critics listened to Pablo Honey on a very superficial level and missed most of what Radiohead accomplished on their first album: they proved without a doubt they were a very talented rock band. I sometimes get frustrated with late-stage Radiohead releases that emphasize slow and slower, finding myself wishing they would kick some ass from time to time. On Pablo Honey, they kick serious ass, with blazing, distorted guitar, attitude-drenched vocals and driving rhythms. Pablo Honey is one of my favorite 90’s rock albums.

Pablo Honey is also one of the few Radiohead albums I would classify as “sexy,” though only in part. There are songs on Pablo Honey I could fuck to all night, and now that I think about it, I have! For those whose sweet spots don’t drip or harden when listening to music, there are several fascinating character studies and a dash of humor. I would also argue that Pablo Honey shows off one of Radiohead’s most enduring traits: commitment. I don’t hear any undertone of “this is our first album and it’s not very good, so sorry about that.” I hear a band strongly focused on delivering the best possible performance of the material they had. While you’re not going to hear something as deep and compelling as “Idioteque” or as mesmerizing as “Reckoner,” you will hear surprisingly lovely melodies and all out bashes played with professional intensity.

The first sound we hear from Radiohead is an arpeggiated guitar duet, a feature they would continue to employ over the years in many memorable passages. Here, though, the arpeggio is merely a set-up for the distorted power guitar and drum crashes that dominate “You.” The verses are soft, the bridges loud, and Thom Yorke’s vocals run the gamut from tender to manic, his voice often melting deliciously into the sustained guitar distortion. The arpeggio returns in the last verse to unify the composition, a verse sweetened by gorgeous harmonies that balance the relentless guitar attack and Phil Selway’s muscular drums. “You” is a terribly sexy song, but also something of a dystopian version of carpe diem—the world’s falling apart, so let’s create our own world and fuck until we drop:

You are the sun and moon and stars, are you?
And I could never run away from you
You try at working on chaotic things
And why should I believe myself not you?
It’s like the world is gonna end so soon
And why should I believe myself?

You, me and everything caught in the fire
I can see me drowning caught in the fire
You, me and everything caught in the fire
I can see me drowning caught in the fire
Why?

Why? Whaddya mean, “Why?” There is no why to fucking! Men! Always ruining the moment with their ingrained tendency to overthink things. Just let it go and drown, baby, drown!

The song that first brought Radiohead into the limelight comes next, the unforgettable exploration of the psyche of a human being who knows he/she is viewed as a misfit and whose mind oscillates between unreal fantasy and poisonous hatred regarding the object of desire. Thom Yorke had written “Creep” years before about a girl who latched onto Radiohead and showed up unexpectedly at concerts. I’ll bet that the majority of listeners assume that the creep who sings the song is a man, since most of our knowledge of creeps comes from news stories about predatory males. Even without access to the backstory, listening to the song from the perspective that the creep is a woman somehow makes it more disturbing and uncomfortably universal. We have to deal with the reality that there are many people of all genders whose looks and personality fail to live up to our standards of excellence or even normality—and some of those people have deep, dark, angry feelings about their status, living like bombs waiting to explode:

When you were here before,
Couldn’t look you in the eye
You’re just like an angel
Your skin makes me cry
You float like a feather
In a beautiful world
I wish I was special
You’re so fucking special

The music is soft and dreamy until “You’re so fucking special,” where the bitterness in the language is brilliantly emphasized by three bursts of distortion, calling up the image of a brain that has been short-circuited by an overload of hatred. The chorus features the creep acknowledging the bitter reality of how he/she has been victimized by a cruel society—a victimization that feeds the hatred and deepens the alienation, supported musically by intense, droning distortion:

But I’m a creep
I’m a weirdo
What the hell am I doing here
I don’t belong here

The second verse finds the creep obsessing about his/her flaws that categorized him/her as one of society’s losers. Surrounded by pictures of models and stars with perfect bodies living an apparently serene existence, the creep feels helpless, out of control and intent on finding a way to exert power over the object of their distorted affection:

I don’t care if it hurts
I wanna have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul
I want you to notice when I’m not around
You’re so fucking special
I wish I was special

After the last chorus, we hear a sort of bridge—a lyrical fragment that could be interpreted in multiple ways, depending on how you perceive the creep’s gender:

She’s running out again
She’s running out
She runs runs runs

As a woman, I automatically call up an image of a woman fleeing to safety; however, if the creep is a heterosexual woman, her running becomes a way to draw attention. The latter makes sense in the context of the song’s last line, “Whatever makes you happy.” Regardless of how you choose to interpret the song, “Creep” deals with a myriad of human problems that human culture has failed to address in any meaningful way: standards of beauty that automatically define the majority as inadequate; norms that create outcasts who become dangerous to self and others; the sick belief held by many otherwise “normal” people that they have the right to invade another person’s space or body if they feel like it.

“Creep” also has deep personal meaning for me because of something my mother told me when we had our first talk about sex, a moment recorded in my erotic biography—a piece that I had to remove from the blog because of . . . creeps:

Ari, the first thing you need to understand is that you are going to be very beautiful someday. That is a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because it will give you many choices and open many doors. It is a curse because some people will hate you for it because they are jealous, or try to have you for their own as if you were their property. Remember two things: first, beauty does not last forever, so enjoy it while you can and accept it when it goes. Second, always remember that you own your body and no one has the right to it unless you give your body of your own free will.

Her words proved to be quite prophetic. I’ve encountered many women who automatically despise me because of my looks (men tend to despise me when they find out I have brains). I’ve had many creeps invade my space and stalk me; on one occasion, I was forcibly abducted by a disturbed young man (an experience I only talk about when I’m volunteering at domestic violence support clinics and one that forced me to take martial arts training very seriously). I find the limitations placed on me by genetic blind luck very frustrating, because my natural urge is to be free and open with everyone. That’s why I posted several nude pictures of me on the blog—I feel good about my sexuality and believe sexuality should be openly celebrated. My mother warned me I was making a mistake, and sure enough, I was inundated with crude propositions, threats and hateful messages. I will fully admit that I was dumb to post the pics, but I remain deeply resentful that I live in a world where I cannot follow my impulses and share the un-Photoshopped version of my body . . . all because we repress sexuality and define beauty so narrowly that we create legions of creeps.

Deep breath, move on.

One of my favorite songs on Pablo Honey is one of the shortest, and damn, I wish they’d extended “How Do You” for one more verse. Thom Yorke’s vocal is an absolute delight—sassy, sneering but almost on the verge of laughter as he sings this tale described on Songfacts in one terse sentence: “This song is about a bully attempting to steamroller his way to success.” Written a quarter of a century before the ascension of Cheeto Jesus to the presidency, I’ve rarely read a more accurate biography of the man than that depicted in “How Do You”:

He’s bitter and twisted
He knows what he wants
He wants to be loved and
He wants to belong
He wants us to listen
He wants us to weep
And he was a stupid baby, turned into a powerful freak . . .

. . . He’s a dangerous bigot
But we always forget
A-and he’s just like his daddy
‘Cause he cheats on his friends
And he steals and he bullies
Anyway that he can

I love Thom Yorke’s hiccup on the “A-and,” demonstrating unusual command for a rookie lead singer. “How Do You” rocks like a bastard, the guitars filling my headphones in stereophonic cohesion, the drums and bass thrilling me to the core. This is one song I would have absolutely loved during my time in the mosh pits, for “How Do You” is as close to punk as Radiohead would ever get. Even with its relative roughness, the fade on “How Do You,” a marvelous mess of dissonance and snippets of a Jerky Boys tape, anticipates a more experimental future.

Thom Yorke would reject vertical melody for a more horizontal approach on Kid A, but his early work is full of lovely melodies that stretch the scale. “Stop Whispering” features such a melody, soaring over outstanding rhythmic support from Phil Selway and Colin Greenwood. The Pixies influence of soft-LOUD is present, but here it’s a more gradual build from relatively gentle to all-out bash. The song is a note to self to buck up when questioning authority and expertise, a reminder that so-called authorities are often threatened by alternative viewpoints that endanger their comfortable existence:

And the wise man say I don’t want to hear your voice
And the thin man say I don’t want to hear your voice
But they’re cursing me, and they won’t let me be
And there’s nothing to say, and there’s nothing to do

Stop whispering
Start shouting
Stop whispering
Start shouting

In contrast, the dynamics of “Thinking About You” are strong and steady, with the rhythmic movement defined by an intense acoustic strum. The song is an anti-paean about lost love, in this case a lover who has abandoned the small potatoes of real life for the glittery world of stardom. In contrast to Stewart Murdoch’s complex psychological treatment of that scenario in “Dress Up in You,” this is a more straightforward expression of bitterness and frustration that gets a bit tiresome after a few spins, though it does serve as a restful moment in a relatively intense musical journey. That intensity is on full display in “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” notable because it’s one of the few Radiohead songs that actually make me laugh. Anticipating the inherent absurdity of the video game series Guitar Hero, Radiohead challenges the ridiculous notion that becoming a rock star will somehow transform you into someone, as if becoming a human being has everything to do with the adoration of others and nothing about self-awareness. The future guitar hero in the song wavers between an extreme sense of entitlement and pathetic ambitions:

Destiny, destiny protect me from the world
Destiny, hold my hand protect me from the world

Here we are with our running and confusion
And I don’t see no confusion anywhere

And if the worm does turn
And if London burns I’ll be standing on the beach with my guitar
I wanna be in a band when i get to heaven
Anyone can play guitar
And they won’t be a nothing anymore

The passage that makes me shake with laughter highlights Thom Yorke’s absolute disgust with the worship of Jim Morrison. His delivery is perfect, alternating between dreamy self-delusion and desperate desire to become the iconic rock star. According to Songfacts, Yorke shouted “Fat-Ugly-Dead” in the Morrison verse when Radiohead played this song on MTV Beach House:

Grow my hair, grow my hair
I am Jim Morrison
Grow my hair
I wanna be wanna be wanna be Jim Morrison

Although Jim Morrison wrote some great stuff early in his career, it fucking blows my mind that he has such elevated status in large part due to an early self-inflicted demise. As I’ve observed elsewhere, elevating any other human being to mythical status because of fame or fortune is the ultimate definition of stupidity. People! Stars are just people who got a lucky break! They deserve no more consideration than you would give to any other human being! Stop being stupid!

One last comment: if the guitars on “Anyone Can Play Guitar” seem overwhelming, give Radiohead credit. Apparently, they allowed everyone in the studio—musicians, hired help, catering staff—to get their licks in. What you may miss in the cacophony are the multiple rhythmic shifts, placing great demands on Phil Selway to hold it all together (mission accomplished).

We move on now to “Ripcord,” one of my favorite pieces on Pablo Honey. The soft-LOUD dynamics are employed as a variant of call-and-response in the verses, where the band explodes after every line. “Ripcord” has fabulous, ass-shaking movement, with Phil Selway sounding like he’s having the time of his life adjusting to the varying sonic and rhythmic demands. The layers of rough guitar come together in heavenly unison, particularly in the final passage where the harmonics really shine. This is the beginning of Thom Yorke’s fascination with life-saving devices, a trope he would bring to full flower on OK Computer. “Ripcord” is solid evidence that Radiohead was already working at a comparatively high level of musicianship at a very early stage, and in retrospect, it should have come as no surprise that these guys would move on to more challenging approaches to music.

“Vegetable” is a deceptively dark song, a dramatic monologue from a batterer who blatantly refuses to exercise self-control. As referenced above, I’ve spent a good amount of time volunteering in domestic violence shelters, from San Francisco to Côte d’Ivoire, and no matter how many women I see with crushed, bruised, bleeding faces or limbs twisted into excruciating, distorted positions, I never get over the feelings of shock and horror. The man in “Vegetable” views his lack of self-control as proof of his humanity—a despicable distortion of the concept of free will:

I never wanted any broken bones
Scarred face, no home
Your words surround me and I asphyxiate
And I burn all hate
Every time you’re running out on me
Every time you’re running I can see

I’m not a vegetable
I will not control myself
I spit on the hand that feeds me
I will not control myself

The waters break, the waters run all over me
The waters break, the waters run and this time you’re gonna pay

Thom Yorke plays the role to perfection, imbuing his performance with the spirit of a man boiling over with inner contradictions. The guitars on this piece are exceptionally strong, combining fragments of blues licks, dissonant bends and screaming distortion. “Vegetable” is as uncomfortable as “Creep,” but I admire the hell out of Radiohead for not avoiding the real shit that goes down in this world every goddamned day.

The lyrics to “Prove Yourself” takes Gen X self-pity a bit too far for my tastes with its sub-chorus of “I’m better off dead.” However, from a musical perspective, this is one of the most interesting pieces on Pablo Honey. The soft-LOUD shift from the first verse to the first chorus is executed with powerful precision, making the repetition of the title phrase in the chorus feel more like a cold demand than an encouragement. Once Jonny Greenwood’s soaring solo fades into another repetition of the sub-chorus, Phil Selway shifts his attack to the toms, expanding the space for Thom Yorke’s deliberately tired, defeatist vocal. Although the message seems pointlessly dreary, the music qualifies the song as a keeper.

“I Can’t” features one of the lovelier melodies on the record, but I pay a lot more attention to Jonny Greenwood’s intro and rising bends in the instrumental passage. Unusual for Pablo Honey, the song’s dynamics are steady LOUD after the intro, with only slight variation on the last lines of the verses. As such, this is the song on the album that sounds the most crowded to me, and I think less intensity and more space in spots could have improved the overall sound. It’s followed by “Lurgee,” a word invented by Radiohead to describe the “illness” that we experience after an important relationship has gone sour. Here we get more of the minimalist lyrical style that would mark many Radiohead songs in the future, a technique that tells the listener that Radiohead is trying to communicate more through mood than word. When you listen to “Lurgee” through that filter, it becomes a much more satisfying listening experience. The steady, relentless beat, the wandering melody and the decisive, restrained guitar riffs remind us how our constant self-assurance of “I’m all right” after a loss is a flimsy container for that stew of emotions brewing inside. While the song lacks the complexity of later Radiohead mood-pieces, “Lurgee” is the seed of a style that Radiohead would master in the years ahead.

Pablo Honey comes to a close with “Blow Out,” another of the more musically complex pieces on the album. The opening chord progression of Em9-G-Asus2 results in a drone baseline on the open B, giving Colin Greenwood lots of room to maneuver in the opening duet with acoustic guitar set to a bossa nova beat. From its relatively quiet opening, “Blow Out” expands to include a range of soundscapes, gradually moving from coffee-house to rock bash to brief moments of stillness emphasizing layered vocals—all building to the rising scream of guitars as they move up the scale in a 90’s version of the crescendo that ends “A Day in the Life.” If there’s one song on the album that tells you where Radiohead is going next, it’s “Blow Out,” and based on the thought, care and collaboration that went into this piece, they absolutely had to go there.

Pablo Honey is a highly enjoyable experience from a group of talented musicians at the beginning of their career. The mastery of common rock formats and styles they displayed on Pablo Honey should have told the critics of the day that this was not a band likely to stand pat and produce formulaic grunge albums to please the fickle masses. Radiohead has never been satisfied with just being “good enough,” and as we have seen in the progression from Pablo Honey to The Bends to OK Computer to Kid A and beyond, they have the rare ability to produce deeply satisfying music and a restlessness that drives them forward to the next challenge.

And it all started here.

3 responses

  1. Fantastic review, as always. I have to check this one out…

    Like

  2. […] my review of Pablo Honey, I introduced one of those introduced one of my not-very-famous sidebars that irritate and delight […]

    Like

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