When I was a sophomore in high school, I suddenly had the existence of Radiohead thrust upon me in the space of a week. My friend Mitchell brought “Idioteque” in to one of our music classes for analysis. I was already enraptured, when a day or two later, I saw the music video for “There, There” on FuseTV. Later that week, I approached my friend Nate, who I knew was a Radiohead fan, and asked if he could burn me some CDs (oh, the pre-streaming days). He returned the next day with CD-R copies of The Bends, OK Computer, and Kid A (I’m not sure why Amnesiac was omitted, and I didn’t know it existed until five years later).
I devoured them, and those discs (along with Hail to the Thief, which I purchased shortly after) lived up to every expectation I could have set for them. I went back to Nate and asked if they had anything else.
“Well…” he hesitated, “there’s their debut, Pablo Honey…” He paused for a moment. “It’s best to just ignore that one.”
And for years, I did, occasionally being exposed to the megahit “Creep” still playing on rock radio. Only when I listened to their entire discography upon the release of King of Limbs in 2011 did I listen to Pablo Honey in completion, and I didn’t find much reason to change my initial opinion.
Nate and I aren’t alone in that evaluation. Pablo Honey has long been regarded as the worst debut a great band has ever had, often dismissed as an unremarkable footnote in one of the most ambitious, rewarding, and diverse careers in pop music history.
But is it really? Or is there more to this oft-maligned record than it gets credit for? I can think of no better question on this, the thirtieth anniversary of its release.
The most jarring thing about the record though is the attitude of the band. For most of their career, the members of Radiohead have been reluctant rock stars—none more than frontman Thom Yorke, whose reaction to applause often seems like he’d be somewhere else. Entire albums have been written about his desire for privacy and the paranoia that comes from constantly being in the spotlight. But here, there’s no reluctance. They desperately want to be rock stars (the panic attacks that insulated Thom would come during the tour for OK Computer). And that comes through the record, both in the brash panache of the spectacle from guitar solos and huge switches between softness and noise and in Thom’s lyrics, especially in “Anyone Can Play Guitar” where he sneers that he wants to be Jim Morrison, perhaps the most singular emblem of rock star eccentricity ever. That image is even further shattered by the MTV Beach House performance, where Thom hams up every moment of the chaotic set (and nearly drowns—Doc Martins aren’t good swimming shoes it turns out).
Also jarring is just how straightforward most of it is. At this point, Radiohead was aiming for the noisy alt-rock of the day. Those that dismiss it say they were ripping off Nirvana, but that’s not quite it (besides, who wasn’t in 1993?). There’s certainly plenty of the loud/soft dynamic switching that Nirvana brought to the mainstream, but those loud parts were filled with noisy guitar squalls closer to Sonic Youth, and the soft moments often bounced with a jangle pop sophistication similar to the Smiths. Several of their other heroes are emulated as well, with moments that reflect Pink Floyd, The Pixies, and Dinosaur Jr.
Which isn’t to say they were wholly without their own voice. In 1993 when the record was released, the quintet had been playing music together for eight years, having formed as On a Friday in 1985 when they were in school together (“Creep” was notably written during this period). Even as young as they were, eight years is plenty of time to get to know each other as collaborators. And while they aren’t as experimental as Kid A or as heartfelt as OK Computer, many of the seeds of their later career are germinating here. The Britpop of The Bends isn’t too far away from songs like “Vegetable,” “Lurgee,” or “Stop Whispering,” which is a surprisingly affirming anthem. The whiplash mood shifts of “Anyone Can Play Guitar” even has a few shades of “Paranoid Android,” especially with that guitar riff from Jonny Greenwood. In its opening moments, “Blow Out” even feels prescient of In Rainbows tracks like “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” or “House of Cards” before ending with an extended section of screeching guitars.
Of course, not every track is notable. Much of the tracklist is comprised of largely forgettable pop rock that’s pleasant enough but leaves little impression. Even “Creep” seems a little dim in the shadow of massive opener “You,” which towers over the following single with a proggy, Middle Eastern scale and maybe the biggest riffs Radiohead has ever released.
It’s worth mentioning that “Creep” wasn’t even intended for the sessions. Thom had written the song years earlier and the band considered it a throwaway. But when producer Paul Kolderie heard the band playing it as a warm-up, he insisted they put it to tape. The now-characteristic guitar chunks from Jonny Greenwood were likewise an accident that the producers encouraged them to lean into. The label then insisted that the band use it as the lead single, and though its success was delayed, it launched Radiohead to superstardom.
And they’ve never forgiven it for that. By 1993, Yorke said playing “Creep” live felt like a cover song. The band quickly grew resentful of Pablo Honey’s sudden success, naming its successor The Bends as a metaphor, likening their struggles to cope with getting too famous too quickly to decompression sickness.
In retrospect, it feels like the fans’ dismissal of Pablo Honey is more a result of the band’s own feelings about the record than the record itself. In recent years, I’ve even felt my own vicarious resentment of “Creep” melt away to enjoyment, and as I listened to the record for this piece, I found myself enjoying it far more than I expected to. Certainly, it pales in comparison to the rest of their catalog. Even The Bends, released just two years later, is leaps and bounds above their debut.
But among the rest of the noisy alt-rockers of the 90s, it holds its own better than you might expect. Sure, it’s no Siamese Dream or Loveless, but I’ll take it over most of the albums in the Seattle grunge boom any day of the week. It’s certainly the worst Radiohead record, and probably one of the worst examples of where the band that made it would later go, but does that make it the worst debut record ever?
Well, maybe that’s still true. But it’s hardly a bad record. If nothing else, it certainly deserves more respect than it’s gotten. And now that it’s thirty years old, maybe it’ll start to get it.