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  • Pablo Honey Turns 20
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Radiohead 1993

Every once in a while, you’ll still meet people who claim that Pablo Honey is Radiohead’s best album. Musical taste is an entirely subjective thing, and we’re all special unique flowers, but these people are obviously attention-hungry psychopaths looking for ways to dominate conversations and shit on everything you hold dear. Even if you prefer Radiohead’s relatively brief straightforward rock-band phase to their endless stressed-out computer-programmer era — an entirely understandable position — the album that you’re looking for is The Bends, the one where they figured out how to push that side of their sound to its logical conclusion, confidently translating grand festival-stage gestures into open-hearted personal pleas for help. You can hear distant echoes of The Bends in Pablo Honey the same way The Bends gives vague premonitions of OK Computer. But if Radiohead had ceased to exist after Pablo Honey, they wouldn’t get a whole lot of love outside the odd nostalgic alt-rock radio spin. Still, it’s pretty staggering to consider Pablo Honey in the wake of everything the band has done. Next week, Thom Yorke’s Atoms For Peace band will release AMOK, a minor album for Yorke but still a difficult and fascinating piece of work. And in a more just world, Jonny Greenwood would be accepting a Best Score Oscar for The Master on Sunday night; for the second time, some weird bullshit Academy rule froze him out. The journey to that sort of mystical kingliness started with Pablo Honey, an album that turns 20 today.

Before I got ready to write this piece, I’d had Pablo Honey pegged as something of a minor Britpop album, but that’s not quite right. For one thing, it came out a couple of months before Suede’s self-titled debut, effectively Britpop’s big bang. For another, it’s light on the blazing, fashionable cockiness that the label denotes, though you do hear flashes of it in “How Do You?” and a couple of other songs. Instead, it fits into a brief window where guitar bands absorbed bits and pieces of grunge and shoegaze without ever quite giving themselves over to either genre. That makes them a slightly crunchier and more tuneful Catherine Wheel, say, or a more British Buffalo Tom. At their first Canadian show, they were opening up for Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. Their second American tour — in September, after Pablo Honey had been out for months and “Creep” was already a hit — they were the support act for Belly. Their first American network TV performance wasn’t on Letterman or even Conan; it was on Arsenio. They named their first album after a line from a fucking Jerky Boys routine. These are not the moves of a band set to take over the world or change music forever.

So we didn’t know what Radiohead had in store back then, and listening to Pablo Honey, I get the feeling that they didn’t know either. It’s an album very much of its time — pure alt-pop, full of fuzzy but memorable-enough melodies and extremely early-’90s production choices. It’s a perfectly solid album and at times a very good one. A song like “Stop Whispering” shows that they had festival-ready grandeur in them, though they weren’t ready to show it very consistently. Greenwood’s raggedly melodic, Mascis-indebted guitar solos were some of the best of the era. Yorke’s high notes could raise shiver-bumps. But the whole affair feels slight — and this was in a moment when classic albums seemed to be dropping every month.

But Pablo Honey did go platinum, and the reason for that, as well as the reason Radiohead got enough time and major-label money to get good enough to make The Bends, was “Creep.” “Creep” remains a near-perfect alt-rock song — instantly recognizable from the opening bass tones, calmly assured in its build, utterly unencumbered in its expression of open-hearted emotional dorkisms. At least in terms of the cartoonish Gen-X cultural representations you were seeing around then, Beck’s “Loser” was probably its closest radio cousin, but that song was surreal and sardonic and self-mocking, and of course Beck’s extreme lack of seriousness immediately pegged him as the more important voice-of-a-generation career-artist type. But “Creep,” in its utter lack of affect and its adherence to a deeply satisfying big-rock blueprint, has aged way better. A few years ago, thanks to Rock Band and Prince’s Coachella cover, it had another little cultural moment, and that might’ve marked the moment it became a new standard. Or maybe it already was one. Maybe it always was one.

The first time I saw Radiohead live was at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1998, when they’d already forsaken their Pablo Honey material and started to build a cloud of mystique around themselves. Their performance was a big deal. The night before, they’d played a secret show at the 9:30 Club, with Pulp opening and Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston standing in the balcony, singing along with every song. Michael Stipe sang backup on “Lucky,” and Radiohead’s set, on an extremely packed day of amazing sets, left my head spinning. But one moment stood out: They played “Creep.” This was already understood as something they didn’t do anymore, so even in a stadium, there was a general holy-shit-is-this-really-happening murmur when the song started up. And honestly? “Creep” sounded better than any of the other songs they played that day. And if you, today, wanted to make the argument that “Creep” was Radiohead’s best song, you would not necessarily be marking yourself as an attention-hungry psychopath. You could probably make a pretty good case.

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Comments (155)
  1. Bring back the bleach blonde hair!

  2. Anyone can play guitar…

  3. jesus, it’s been 20 years? so there are people who were born the year this came out driving and going to college? I WANT TO BLOW MY BRAINS OUT.

  4. creep will always be creep, but i feel like blow out was the moment that hinted toward future greatness.

  5. Creep isn’t a bad song it’s true, its just the production is so gross like the rest of the album it really murders it. If you ask me the acoustic version is way better.

  6. Happy Birthday, sweetheart. I’ll always love you.

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  8. Pablo Honey is kinda great for a couple reasons: 1, it’s production is still great. It’s big, full of reverb and searing guitars, although they wisely switched producers for subsequent albums; and 2. you can hear a lot of their influences in the songs – R.E.M. in “Anyone Can Play Guitar”, U2 in “You”, and Big Star in “Stop Whispering” (stay with me on this, I’m stretching for these), and happened to be good at emulating these bands, just with a big more attack and distortion. I’m sure there’s some Pixies in there too, but I can’t think of any examples as the moment.

  9. If “Creep” had been put out by just about any other band, you could be considered sane and still consider “Creep” their best song. But you’re talking about a band that has put out “Paranoid Android”, “Fake Plastic Trees”, “There, There”, “Knives Out”, “Bloom”, “The National Anthem”, etc., etc. The line in front of “Creep” is absurdly long.

    • Indeed. Although I agree with the quip that you could make an argument for “Creep” these days. You may not sound like an attention hungry psychopath as much anymore, but then again you would sound pretty ignorant.

  10. of course the article is all about creep and already lots of creep comments. yea i know, it’s creep. but cmon, it’s been 20 years let’s talk about another song off the record (besides stop whispering). it is after all, the 20th anniversary of pablo honey, not creep. and i like creep!

    anyway, this article is one gigantic missed opportunity. no mention of Blow Out, the best song on the record, is one gigantic analogy for their career. the eardrum rupturing, ascending, absolutely rapturous airplane noise at the end of that song is the perfect metaphor of what’s to come. damnit.

    • whole album’s pretty solid, really. the only semi-dud, for me, would be thinking about you… and possibly lurgee, because as i’m looking at the album on my itunes right now, i can’t remember what the hell it sounds like at all. but i’m with you on blow out (as noted above); definitely one of my top 10 radiohead songs.

      • Aw really? “Thinking About You” is one of my favs on here. I think “You” is right there behind “Creep” as my favorite off the album though.

        It’s not a terrible album, in reality. It’s just not really “Radiohead” to me. Probably because it’s the only one of all of them that contains at least a few songs I don’t care for.

        • i don’t know why, thinking about you just never really stuck with me. but to be fair, it’s been quite a while since i’ve heard the pablo songs, and tastes do change, so maybe i should give the album another spin this weekend. i do remember always being a fan of 1-2-3 punch of anyone can play guitar, ripcord, and vegetable. i wore that part of the tape out pretty hard as a 9 year old.

          and yeah, i kinda look at it the same way – as a non-radiohead album, save for blow out. just a good collection of early 90s jams.

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  14. also Tom, i’m insanely jealous you were at that legendary secret 9:30 club show.

  15. Run. Run. Run. Ruuuuuuuuuuuahahaooooooooouuuuuuuuunnnnnnnnnnnnnn. Ruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuaaaaaaaa3.14uuuuuuuuuuuun.

  16. So it has been 20 whole years since Radiohead has released its worst album. Creep does not belong in the discussion of their best songs. The album is pretty funny to listen to. I can only really listen to “Anyone Can Play Guitar” becuase that line about Jim Morrison is so good. Usually debuts are the best if not in the top echelon of a bands discography. Funny how this all worked out. They got better… much better.

  17. Anyone check out the “Live at the Astoria” live DVD? It helped me get into some of the Pablo Honey tracks plus they have some funny outfits.

  18. best radiohead album by far

  19. “Creep” sounded better than any of the other songs they played that day. And if you, today, wanted to make the argument that “Creep” was Radiohead’s best song, you would not necessarily be marking yourself as an attention-hungry psychopath. You could probably make a pretty good case.

    I love Radiohead and I like Creep, but the above statements are completely ridiculous. I’m beginning to doubt that Tom even believes these provocative things he always seems to type on a Friday. I think Tom the critic is getting lost in Tom the businessman, and he says this sort of thing on Fridays to make sure there is enough site traffic on the weekend. Obviously, this has been a concern, or he wouldn’t have appointed someone to write posts on the weekend as well.

      • What part don’t you understand? Saying Creep is Radiohead’s best song is silly and something no music critic really believes but is sure to generate some comments that would not be there otherwise. It’s trolling under the guise of informed opinion. You honestly believe Tom thinks Exit Music (!) is not as good as Creep or that the highlight of a performance from the OK Computer era would be Creep? He’s trying to mess with people. Comments mean site traffic; site traffic means bucks. It’s just like the Mumford & Sons article. That wasn’t sincere either. That was a deliberate attempt to provoke people into visiting the site over and over until Monday. If you read enough of a critic’s writing, you get a feel for what they like and don’t like. Lately he has really been stretching the bounds of believability, and it’s kind of insulting our intelligence.

        • He never said Creep is the best Radiohead song. And seriously, what’s so wrong with facilitating discussion?

          • Oh, I was just waiting for this guy to show up at the party. Okay, he didn’t say it outright, but he suggested that was a reasonable view; he stopped just short of explicitly saying it. Tom always plays it safe. He’ll basically say something crazy but then appear to temper the craziness a bit. He’s really fine-tuned it. You’re right, man. There’s nothing wrong with facilitating discussion if it’s a discussion worth having and if one is not being contrary for the sake of being contrary. Oooh, I think I’ll facilitate a discussion right now! It would be perfectly reasonable to argue that Love Me Do is the Beatles’ greatest song.

          • An upvote? What’s going on? Maybe I should have put my “if”s in capital letters.

          • Top ten Beatles songs: GO!

          • I am actually incapable of doing this. I could only settle on a top 4: Hey Jude, Revolution, Across the Universe, and Hello Goodbye. Those will never change, but anything beyond that always seems wrong no matter what I do.

  20. a lot of gems lurking on side 2, the greatest of which is “lurgee.” it’s the only tune that could MAYBE work on the bends. i love “i can’t” too. cool intro, nice melody throughout.

    it’s actually a pretty strong album. weakest songs for me are “you” and “how do you.”

  21. Prove Yourself.

    • I had (still have) the cassette single for Creep. I always had a fondness for the b-side, “Faithless, the Wonder Boy”, although that might be more nostalgic than anything else. As a whole, I would still take this over TKOL.

      • I believe I love Radiohead as much as any other average Radiohead fan (but maybe not as much as those crazy fanatical Radiohead fans), so it always makes me happy to see somebody else not accept TKOL as a great album. Because it’s not. It’s good, but nowhere near great. Most of the songs come off much better live, though.

      • I’ll probably be lynched for saying this, but at this moment I would take TKOL over The Bends. I will forever hold on to the fact that TKOL is one of the most underrated albums in years.

  22. Ok so I can’t stand it. I am Corky Anderson and the bear family. I shall troll no more. Trolling is not fun. It wastes my ( obviously too much) time and insults the integrity of this board. Expect a full troll dishonorable discharge from Corky as well. The bears, well leave them out of this. Particularly Recipe Bear. He just wants to give the board recipes on killer egg salad sandwiches.

    • i’ll believe it when i see it

      • I, Corky S. Anderson, being of sound ( somewhat) mind and body ( albeit feeble) do officially retire my obnoxious and much maligned trolling persona that I may leave these boards solely for the purpose of watching hipsters contend over which posturing band delivers more flaccid kicks in the over-hyped indie universe. I retire, but I didn’t say I’d be nice about it. And RubberJohnny, you’re a changed man. Don’t be the troll everyone hates. Be the emo troll facade everyone loves.

        • Dude. This is not about posturing, it’s about genuine love for music old and new. It’s not a pissing contest or a who’s-the-most-right, it’s about getting excited when something comes along that you like and talking shit when something comes along that you don’t.

          I’ve been on the top and bottom comments plenty of times, but never as a troll. And I think the reason we all reacted so strongly against you is that you’re not really bringing anything to the table. If you let on a bit what your actual musical inclinations are and tried to have conversations rather than blindly pissing people off, well, then we wouldn’t be so inclined to think your just being a jerk.

        • When I leave a declarative statement with my full fledged intentions to resign from the board, and are instantly downvoted, something tells me my work here is not done.

  23. Holy shit. I’m old.

  24. The thing I love about ‘Creep’ is that it’s amoebic Radiohead. Everything they were going to do in the future is there, they just haven’t sussed out exactly how they want to do it yet. Yes, for better or worse, the way the decided upon back then does lock the song tightly in the quiet-loud-quiet alt-rock time capsule. But the feelings of loneliness and alienation are already there, as is the type of atmospheric grooves (the quiet parts) that would come to be the foundation for much of their future work. It’s a great song, it’s just that it was done before Radiohead fully figured out who they wanted to be.

  25. I’ve never listened to Pablo Honey. There, I said it.

  26. True enough. I should just be thankful that all that bear nonsense went down in this thread instead of the Bjork one.

  27. I love that Stereogum has a troll mascot

  28. Here’s an 8-bit version of Blow Out that I just found: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_NTpO8ZWtpE

  29. i don’t know if i will get down voted for this but heres my view i like the album its a good album its just not a good Radiohead album i like it i spin it more than king of limbs and hail to the theif

  30. it’s not a bad album but they would’ve been a minor British 90′s band ie Sude and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin if ‘The Bends’ hadn’t come out. i remember seeing them open for PJ Harvey on this tour and even then they were great live. 20 years, damn!!

    • In the US at least, The Bends was not a big album when it was released. Pablo Honey was a hit. The Bends really didn’t get iattention until sometime around Kid A’s release. I think may have been a one hit wonder had OK Computer not gotten released..

      Suede and NAB were deftinatly minor here, but Creep was a hit and a staple of alt./modern rock an even top 40 stations…

  31. For me “You” would’ve fit right in with some of the tracks on The Bends.

  32. Blow Out is a good song.

  33. I started listening to Radiohead after Kid A/Amnesiac had come out. I hadn’t heard anything by them and I was in a massive grunge phase at the time. “Creep” played on MTV and actually became the first Radiohead song I ever heard…and convinced me to start with Pablo Honey. After listening to that I had absolutely no clue why Radiohead was such a big deal. It was…alright. I definitely wasn’t inspired to pick up anything else by them. It wasn’t until HTTT came out and I heard “There There” that I decided maybe Pablo Honey wasn’t very representative of the sound that made them huge. So that became my second Radiohead album and is maybe why I have a much more favorable opinion of it than most people.

    In retrospect, Pablo Honey is an interesting album. I just find it interesting that I started with that despite listening to them well after their careers had taken off. I feel like I was almost able to see Radiohead’s progression in my own personal way.

  34. You could make an argument that it’s better than The King of Limbs. Matthew Perpetua from Fluxblog would agree. (http://www.fluxblog.org/2011/02/falling-out-of-bed/)

  35. If Pablo Honey had been released by most other popular bands around during that time I’d think it’d get more praise than it does now.

    Although at the same time if it had been by a relatively insignificant band (think Spacehog-level) then it probably wouldn’t get any attention at all.

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