It’s February 1993. The indie chart holds itself in an awkward position, between new takes on punk by American start-ups and characteristically wry British bands without a single umbrella term to hang over them. The top ten indie chart for February 1993 runs from Sugar and Tad and Huggy Bear – all unknowns even outside the few remaining true “record shops” by the winter of that year, never mind today – to Suede and Cornershop and Belly. Also in that month, Oxford’s Radiohead released their début “Pablo Honey”. For British music, for them, for the charts, corners were turned. Things never quite sounded the same again.
What is “Pablo Honey” today? For whom was Thom Yorke positing “What the hell m’a doin’ here?” Foreshadowing Beck and Weezer, both of whom could have passed ‘Creep’ off as their own, the first album from Radiohead could easily challenge or be challenged by the teenage angst it seemed initially to encapsulate. There are modern day fans of the Manic Street Preachers for whom “Generation Terrorists” is a youthful joke, a throwaway compilation of decent songs with too much naivety, too much eagerness for the title of the next enfants terribles. Who were Radiohead at the time? What label was attached by contemporary critics: indie, grunge, alt.rock, was any of that created yet? Was this the start of shoegazing or the continuation of something else, something older?
“Pablo Honey” begins with “You”, a sarcastic, sardonic love song, with a sneer in vocals and thwacka-thwacka guitars which could have come across the Atlantic. At the time, both US and UK teens had their own brand of educated anti-establishment soundtracks, both of whom documented the end of their own respective worlds. “You” sounds like the linear successor to Morrisey’s forlorn hope from the middle of the previous decade, an update, an extension. Of course, “Creep” would be too mawkish even for The Smiths; as Kurt Cobain would find, such cryptic self-referential anthems would be both albatross and accolade. “Creep”, like “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, both celebrates and derides teenage listlessness, balances the delight and despair of introspection. Did Michael Stipe feel the same, hearing “Losing My Religion” adopted as soundtrack? This unholy triptych, this unlikely period piece of youthful diary-writing, hailed as something so fucking special…
This week, Radiohead released “King of Limbs”. That is, in the language of the 90s, they “released” their new album, for in the 21st Century, they did nothing more than allow fans to pre-book for downloading. Nobody in 1993 could have foreseen the advances in technology, nor could anyone have assumed the indie boys with a sneer and complex lyrics turn away from melody and rhymes and instruments to the Wonderland world of “Kid A”, “Amnesiac”. Listen to “Ripcoard”, the highlight nobody remembers today, and you might as well be comparing Catatonia with Katatonia.
Is “Pablo Honey” any good? Yes. The NME of the time said “…flawed…but satisfying”. Rolling Stone considered it “grungy” before that term was coined. (Well, okay, the Oxford English Dictionary has Vanity Fair using it in 1991 and the Guardian in 1992, but only referring to Nirvana and Hole. I can only suspect that Britain held out against using the term for home-grown bands.)
There are more highs than (artistic) lows on “Pablo Honey”. There is muddle, there is clear teenage shoe-scuffing, there is nothing exactly original (“Prove Yourself” could well be There Might Be Giants.) By “The Bends”, their career advancing classic, Radiohead had moved on as quickly and assuredly as a train moves from station to station. In the context of the new, obscure, unusual release, its dubstep and ambient elements utterly unknown in the early 90s, “Pablo Honey” is the postcard from a past we cannot bring ourselves to entirely forget. It sounds honest even if the content was not entirely true to themselves.
From our vantage point, older and wiser and more knowledgeable, we can understand the exuberance of youthful excitement, of expression and of intent. “Pablo Honey” is not the record of where Radiohead wanted to be; it’s a vital piece of evidence of how much further they were than their peers even then.