Although the title Hail to the Thief refers to the stolen 2000 U. S. presidential election and the subsequent madness known as the War on Terror, Thom Yorke has strenuously denied that the album is in any way a political statement.
Hmm. Let’s check the veracity of that bold assertion, she said, admiring her facility with pompous synonyms.
If you compare the songs on Hail to the Thief to the protest songs in Phil Ochs’ catalog, Yorke has a point. Phil’s anti-establishment songs fall into three categories: those dealing with current affairs (murders of civil rights activists in Mississippi, the Chicago convention riots, the Vietnam War); those celebrating the people who “fought the good fight” against the moneychangers and warmongers; and those calling for systemic upheaval. If you use those three qualities to define the protest song genre, none of the songs on Hail to the Thief qualify as protest songs. “I Will” and “Sit Down. Stand Up” come closest, but the lyrics make no mention of the specific events motivating the lyrics—you have to research the backstory to figure it out. There are no references anywhere to heroes of the Resistance, and unlike Phil Ochs and his fellow travelers, Radiohead doesn’t spend a second arguing for massive socio-political change.
Score one for Thom!
Stronger support for the argument that Hail to the Thief is apolitical can be found in the songs themselves. If there is an underlying theme to Hail to the Thief, it’s helplessness. Many of the songs capture the common human reaction to the nightmare of modern politics and governance—WHAT THE FUCK?—and the natural consequence of that reaction: LEAVE ME THE FUCK OUT OF IT. Screw trying to make things better with these clowns in charge; I can’t do a damn thing about it so I’m just going to blow a big protective bubble around me and the people I love and wait this shit out. Ah, but there’s a catch! As we’ll see when we explore the individual tracks, there are unpleasant consequences to crawling into the cave and sealing the exits. If there’s a dominant mood on Hail to the Thief, it’s angst, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a feeling of anxiety, apprehension, or insecurity.”
For the last year, I have existed in a constant state of helplessness and angst because I chose to become politically active, something I never thought possible. Check my bio—my life priorities are sex, music and baseball, not fucking politics! The appalling rise of xenophobic, homophobic hatred in the form of Donald Trump led me to actively support Hillary Clinton, and we all know how that turned out: the day after the election, I renounced my American citizenship. I hardly had time to catch my breath when xenophobic hatred reared its ugly head in France through the fear-mongering fascist Marine LePen, so for the last three months I’ve spent most of my spare time supporting En Marche to secure the election of Emmanuel Macron as French president. Now that Macron has won and I don’t have to sell the house and find another EU country where I can hang my whips, chains and extensive collection of leather lingerie, I am completely done with fucking politics . . . at least for the next five years.
Here’s the thing—I know that my efforts didn’t make one fucking bit of difference: Macron still would have won had I slept through the whole campaign. My activity was simply a psychological reaction to a perceived threat, and I chose the fight response instead of the flight response. Like Prozac, it probably helped ease the anxiety, apprehension and insecurity a bit, but guess what? In the end, I still feel anxious, apprehensive and insecure about the state of our world today, as do most people. We live in a world of systems where individuals don’t matter; the only way to deal with it is to create tiny worlds where individuals do matter and relationships are the center of our universe. The risk is that by disengaging from the real world and all its cacophony, we may wind up making things worse.
Score another for Thom and a bonus point for presenting us with an unresolvable paradox!
The album opens with a chilling argument for staying engaged in the real world, no matter how fucked up and unchangeable it appears to be. “2 + 2 =5” uses the dramatic monologue form to demonstrate the negative consequences of mass exodus into escape pods: you wind up with stupid people who pride themselves in their ignorance, drench themselves in paranoia and believe ludicrous conspiracy theories like Pizzagate that wouldn’t make the cut for a B-grade film. In other words, you get Trump voters. The speaker considers any effort to make the world a better place a lost cause, and consistent with his denial of reality, grounds his belief in the superstitions of Christian mythology:
Are you such a dreamer
To put the world to rights?
I’ll sit home forever
Where two and two always makes a five
I’ll lay down the tracks
Sandbag and hide
January has April showers
And two and two always makes a five
It’s the devil’s way now
There is no way out
You can scream and you can shout
It is too late now
The music supporting the opening passage creates the necessary tension through half-step chord oscillation and harmonic intervals that defy classic harmonic rules by drifting away from the chord. The eerie falsetto in the third verse, floating over lower, indistinct voices and a mandolin-like riff, underscores the sense of the unreal and its inherent fragility. Radiohead breaks the tension with a sudden shift to all-out bash as the character explodes with a defensive response to those who question his sanity—“You have not been paying attention!” As he never reveals exactly what we should be paying attention to, we can classify this and the lyrics that follow as the ramblings of a very frightened human being who lacks confidence in both generally-accepted reality and the alternative reality he has created (hence the subtitle, “The Lukewarm”):
Oh go and tell the king that the sky is falling in
When it’s not
But it’s not
But it’s not
The most disturbing thing about this Orwellian message is that the source of the alternative fact 2 + 2 = 5 is not the state in the form of Big Brother, but most likely the bullshit you find on Fox News, Wikileaks or InfoWars.
“Sit Down. Stand Up. (Snakes & Ladders.)” is indeed a protest song but you’d have to consult Songfacts to understand why: Thom Yorke wrote the song in response to stories about the Rwandan genocide. When you know that, the song becomes quite moving, but there aren’t any crumbs in the song that form a trail to get you to Rwanda, Burundi or anywhere in the vicinity. The African-influenced beats and what sounds like an electronic version of a mbira do give the song an African flavor, particularly in the more intense “raindrops” passage where the bass feels like it’s going to burst your eardrums. Like “2 + 2 = 5,” the song is split into a quiet and loud sections, but unlike the Pixiesque use quiet-loud in their earlier works, the quiet sections are extended builds (extended to three minutes on “Sit Down. Stand Up.”) that set up the full power display. In both songs, the meaning is intensified by this building technique—in “2 + 2 = 5,” the shift to power dramatizes the character’s self-generated instability; here the power shift reflects the overwhelming, unbearable fear of those waiting in line to meet a horrible death.
Obviously we could use something a bit more soothing right about now, and despite valid arguments concerning the track order in Hail to the Thief, the boys nailed this transition. “Sail to the Moon” is a gorgeous piece of music, featuring a guitar-piano-ondes Martenot trio that is lush and lovely, winding itself beautifully around Thom Yorke’s high-register vocal. The song is in part a search for clarity (the subtitle is “Brush the Cobwebs from the Sky”), partly a father’s wish for his son and partly an updated take on the mythology of Noah’s Ark where instead of a god sending a deluge to destroy all the sodomizers and moneyfuckers, we have a human being longing for escape from the man-made catastrophe of modern existence. The present is never far from Thom Yorke’s mind, though, as expressed in the passage where he defies citizenship barriers and reflects on his recently-born son’s future:
But know right from wrong
I can’t believe we live in a world where we are forced to feel nostalgia for leaders with a moral compass.
“Backdrafts (Honeymoon is Over.)” is a fascinating piece where Yorke uses the imagery of being stuck in a snowstorm to reveal the psyche of a group of conspirators whose political hanky-panky is about to be exposed. The lyrics could have been borrowed from Wikileaks’ unpublished hack of the Republican National Committee:
We’re rotten fruit
We’re damaged goods
What the hell, we’ve got nothing more to lose
One gust and we will probably crumble
We’re backdrifting . . .
All evidence has been buried
All tapes have been erased
But your footsteps give you away
So you’re backtracking
Oh oh oh
I love the muffled electronic beats and throbs in this song and how the cottony sound contrasts with the largely unfiltered voice of Thom Yorke, forcing the listener to absorb the lyrics. The piano solo is also placed in the background, underscoring the sense of nefarious things going on behind the scenes. And—not that I have anyone particular in mind—how I wish that one gust could be enough to get rid of all the crooks who use public service for personal gain, but I think it’s going to take multiple gusts and some kind of revolution in human consciousness.
It’s time for that dominant female matriarchy, boys! We won’t let you get away with shit . . . and you’ll love it!
And if I were fortunate enough to earn the exalted position of Almighty Mistress of the Earth, I would immediately order a review of all music videos on YouTube and ban any and all that failed to contribute to greater understanding of the fucking song! That would eliminate 99% of the music videos in existence, restoring the basic truth that music is primarily an aural experience, and is not to be used as a soundtrack for incoherent stories filled with random shots of fake lips, fake tits, fake orgasms and BAD ACTING! I bring this up because one of the videos I intend to preserve is the video for “Go to Sleep (Little Man being Erased.),” the second single released from Hail to the Thief. I was immediately intrigued by this song the first time I heard it because of the 10/4 time signature in the passages driven by acoustic guitar, but the lyrics seemed impenetrable—a strange ramble with references to Gulliver and a classic lullaby. Once I saw the video, everything clicked into place. The scene opens with an overlay of a full red rose over the background of a city marked by classical architecture. A CGI rendition of Thom Yorke enters the scene, sits on a park bench and begins rambling and waving his arms while all the busy, busy people completely ignore his existence. Suddenly the buildings begin to collapse in what looks like a series of controlled demolitions (progress!); neither CGI Tom nor the busy, busy people pay any attention. Once the city is leveled, restoration begins with the construction of replacement buildings in characterless modern architecture. The video ends with the rose returning to foreground, its flower now closed tightly against the cold environment.
Having grown up in San Francisco, a city where busy, busy people on their way to work routinely step over the homeless sleeping on the streets and in the doorways as if they were piles of dogshit, where progress in the form of the digital age capitalism and the invasion of the nouveau riche have transformed the city into another characterless financial center, the video really hit home with me. The blind indifference we show to other human beings who have either had a bad break or suffer from treatable mental illness is something I find deeply appalling. When you combine that blind indifference to suffering with blindness to the destructive effects of progress—a condition facilitated by cultural norms that encourage greed—you create stratified communities where dehumanization is just part of the social fabric. “Go To Sleep” is a title dripping with sarcasm—the song is a wake-up call to face our self-destructive tendencies before it’s too late.
The Greenwood brothers knock it out of the park in “Where I End and You Begin,” where Jonny demonstrates his skill with the ondes Martenot to create an irresistibly eerie soundscape while Colin’s sinuous bass line gives the piece its forward movement. The dominant image of the song is the ouroboros, the serpent swallowing its own tail, a symbol found in Egyptian and Greek mythology, in the worlds of alchemy and gnosticism, in the practice of Kundalini and in the mythological analyses of Carl Jung. The image symbolizes the cyclical nature of growth and the re-creation of self; the act of becoming involves “swallowing” (accepting) the old self and integrating it with the new. Jung linked the symbol to the process of individuation, where the integration involves acceptance of the shadow—all those dark features of our personality we do not want to accept. Given the themes explored so far, I don’t think Jung was what Thom Yorke had in mind. My take is the “gap in between” in this song is the gap between self and other. In a society in denial about the consequences of its actions, relationships—both casual and intimate—are likely to be contaminated by denial and garden-variety bullshit. The repeated fade lines—“I will eat you alive (4)/There will be no more lies” is a cry for intimacy, for unconditional love without barriers. Music and lyrics reflect the mysterious, paradoxical nature of human relationships, making “Where I End and You Begin” one of the richest pieces on the album.
Up to this point, I would argue that Hail to the Thief is worthy of inclusion in the best Radiohead album debate—and we haven’t even covered my two favorite songs! Alas and alack, before we get there we have to deal with the album’s fundamental flaws. The original approach Radiohead adopted in recording Hail to the Thief was a good one for a band who needed to balance the use of digital manipulation that dominated their two previous releases with more human spontaneity: lay down the tracks as quickly as possible and do more “live” recording in the studio to create a sense of immediacy. What tripped them up more than anything else was song selection: Hail to the Thief contains a few really bad ideas that they should have saved for that time in the distant future when Radiohead no longer releases new material and fans suffering from Radiohead withdrawal will ingest anything to relieve the jonesing. Hail to the Thief consists of fourteen tracks, and both listeners and band members have complained about the length of the album. Well, the only reason that length is the problem is that some of the songs flat out suck! Really, would you have complained about the length of a Radiohead album if all fourteen tracks were outstanding?
I’ve seen some argue that the right length would have been ten tracks; I’m going to argue for eleven. The first of the three I would cut is the song I consider the worst thing Radiohead has ever done: “We Suck Young Blood (Your Time is up.).” I’d rather have a double root canal than listen to this fucking song again. Radiohead’s fascination with slow tempos is taken to absurd extremes here—the song slithers like a slug on a cold winter’s day, in large part due to handclaps that make the song seem even slower than it is. We’re talking frozen fucking molasses here, folks! The subject matter—Hollywood exploitation—seems completely out-of-place and trivializes the more significant universal messages on the album. “We Suck Young Blood” . . . well, it just sucks.
The second track I’d wipe from the tape is definitely a thematic fit but is as boring as a guy who only knows the in-and-out move. “The Gloaming” deserves inclusion only for its symbolism, which is a piss-poor excuse if there ever was one. The slow, tape-loop only track destroys the sense of immediacy Radiohead wanted to create, and its placement after the dreariness of “We Suck Young Blood” was unconscionable. Colin Greenwood would have cut this track as well, arguing that it was one of those songs that worked live but collapsed in the studio. Having created playlists where these two tracks are eliminated, I guarantee you will have a better listening experience without them.
And since you can’t get a better listening experience than “There, There (The Boney King of Nowhere.),” eliminating the two draggy songs gets you there a helluva lot faster! The image of the sirens calling you to your death on the cold, hard rock cliffs of the treacherous passage tells us this song is about not falling prey to illusion (“Just ’cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there). However, even the presence of mythological horror figures fails to dampen the underlying gestalt of the song: this is one of the sexiest pieces of music ever created. Those pounding jungle drums, that rough, ripping guitar, the deep groove of the bass, Ed O’Brien’s background vocals adding a touch of 21st century Fleetwoods, Thom Yorke’s flowing lead vocal peppered with underlying tension ready to explode—shit, I’m ready to explode every time I hear this song! Let me check—where’s my fucking iPhone? Got it. Clock app. Got it. Now all I have to do is hit the stopwatch and the play button at the same time. Shit, I can’t do this—Ali! Come here! Okay, now—on the count of three, hit the start button. One, two, three! Okay, stop. Got it!
It takes 2.3 seconds for my hips to grind and my sweet spot to start glistening once “There, There” begins. Please excuse me for a few minutes—my partner’s right here, half-naked, and I never miss an opportunity. Watch the nice video from Glastonbury and I’ll be back in about six orgasms.
Uh, I’m not done. Can you please watch the official video while I finish? It’s quite good, and the song has enormous replay value. See ya in a few!
Whew! That hit the fucking spot! I’m having a great time with this review! Let me have a cigarette and change into a mood that’s less comfortable in preparation for the next track. Back in ten.
Ten minutes would have meant a lot of wasted vinyl, but Radiohead would have been well-advised to insert thirty seconds of silence between “There, There” and “I Will,” as I can’t think of two songs more fundamentally different. The first makes you want to get down and dirty while the second brings you to tears. Thom Yorke describes “I Will (No man’s Land.)” as “the angriest song I’ve ever written,” and his feelings of shock and outrage are more than justified. “I Will” is in some ways a companion piece to “Idioteque” on Kid A, answering the opening question of that song: “Who’s in the bunker?” The answer is families with children trying to protect themselves from American bombs, not realizing that the Americans can deploy “bunker busters” at the drop of a dollar. Having seen footage of such an attack from the First Gulf War (the one people refer to as “the good fight”), Yorke’s outrage focuses on the images of “little babies’ eyes” in an attempt to inspire a similar sense of outrage among listeners. The horrifying aspect of the song isn’t so much the imagery as it is the standard response to such barbarity: label it “collateral damage” and move on. “Were any Americans killed? No? Then who cares?”
There are things I miss about the U. S. A., but there are many more things that make me proud to say that I am not an American citizen.
“I Will” fades seamlessly into “A Punch Up at a Wedding,” where Yorke uses the ultimate social faux pas as a way to describe a world where all sense of civility and honor have collapsed into a pointless series of brawls. Sounds like a typical day at the office for the U. S. Congress! Hey! Maybe if they opened their sessions with Radiohead instead of a prayer . . . nah.
Musically, the song is pretty straightforward with a slight funk tinge, executed with precision and professionalism. The connection to the Bush-Cheney regime and their fawning supporters on Fox News can be found in the final passage—if you have access to Fox News, tune in, turn down the sound, watch the talking heads and listen to this verse—you’ll get it.
Don’t infect me with your poison
A bully in a china shop
When I turn ’round you stay frozen to the spot
The pointless snide remarks
Of hammer-headed sharks
The pot will call the kettle black
It’s a drunken punch-up at a wedding, yeah
My second favorite song on Hail to the Thief is “Myxomatosis,” and it’s not just because I’m a bass whore. Thom Yorke has demonstrated a long-standing affinity for strange characters dating back to “Creep,” and the character in this song is one seriously confused individual. Among his many ramblings is the claim that he suffers from myxomatosis, a disease that only affects rabbits. The claim is fanciful and while he may indeed believe that it’s true, the rabbit metaphor effectively describes his mental state:
I don’t know why I feel so tongue-tied
Don’t know why I feel so skinned alive
As to how he arrived at such a state, he seems to have engaged in some grandstanding designed to garner fame and fortune—an effort that failed miserably:
I sat in the cupboard
And wrote it down in neat
They were cheering and waving
Cheering and waving
Twitching and salivating like with myxomatosis
But it got edited, fucked up
Strangled, beaten up
Used as a photo in Time magazine
Buried in a burning black hole in Devon
He admits in the first line of the last verse that “My thoughts are misguided and a little naïve” (no shit), but goes on to confirm his unsuccessful attempt to make a name for himself:
Yeah no one likes a smart ass but we all like stars
That wasn’t my intention, I did it for a reason
It must have got mixed up
Strangled beaten up
Although there isn’t enough information to make a definitive interpretation, I read “Myxomatosis” as a powerful exposé of the modern obsession with gaining Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. Consider the idiots who voluntarily humiliate themselves publicly on Jerry Springer’s show or various “reality shows” where the narrative is twisted by selective camera work to induce the maximum amount of embarrassment. This guy is such a loser he couldn’t even make Jerry Springer! That is a L-O-S-E-R par excellence!
The quirky story seeks extremely well with the fuzz bass-dominated arrangement, and Thom Yorke’s vocal is picture-perfect, especially in the stop-time segments where he goes monosyllabic. I may not know exactly what “Myxomatosis” is all about, but I love the feel of the song and the strange quirkiness of the incompetent hero.
Hail to the Thief should have ended with “Scatterbrain (As Dead as Leaves),” a perfectly lovely melody that describes the scattered state of nearly everyone living in the world today as we struggle to find ourselves amidst an information deluge coming at us at hyper speed. Unfortunately, the album ends with the odd waltz, “Wolf at the Door (It Girl. Rag Doll.),” which fits the album’s main themes from a lyrical standpoint, but feels musically disconnected from the rest of the album. Perhaps it’s the waltz tempo combined with rap, or the feeling that the more melodic chorus is incompatible with the monologue, or the violent scenes described in the lyrics. There’s also something about this song that makes me suspect that it belongs in a musical—and I hate fucking musicals.
Hail to the Thief may not be perfect, but I still think it’s a pretty damned good album, and even more relevant today than it was at the time of its release in 2003. If Thom Yorke thought the Bush-Cheney tag team was a WHAT THE FUCK moment to end all WHAT THE FUCK moments, I can’t imagine what he’s thinking now after another stolen election gave the American presidency to a perfectly horrid little man with one-twentieth the intelligence of GW.
But please, spare me the follow-up album. When Trump goes down, I never want to hear, read or watch anything having to do with that sad excuse for a human being.
Hey! Maybe he’s got myxomatosis! That would explain a lot!
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? 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
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.