Pablo Honey

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.

Sleeper

Back when NME used to leave newspaper print on your fingers, and “Melody Maker” wasn’t the name of an iPhone app, Britain rocked to the sound of one of the last genuine musical movements.

Jealous of being locked out of the older scene – where a single £15 pill would last all weekend – the kids of the 90s picked up their guitars and generated years of a very British music revolution. Call it ‘Britpop’ or ‘indie’, it was the coming together of northern lads borrowing from Merseybeat and southerners taking on the Mod sound, in a gear-shift in cultural attitudes and behaviour. It wasn’t without its low points (ahem, cough, Kula Shaker, aichooo), nor did it end when it should have done (go away, Silver Sun), but don’t we all want to compartmentalise our youth into little packages? Course we do.

And here’s the thing: most retrospectives will stuff their pages chocka with the Union Flag plus Gallagher combo, plastering the memories with posters of blokes and their outgrown fringes. Despite the best efforts of many female-fronted and all female-bands (from Sneaker Pimps through to Lush), the majority male bias to the scene remains the more profitable to recall.

This is a shame, not least because any broadbrush overview ignores the very specific reasons why Britpop was unlike any other modern musical moment. (Why are all contemporary females in pop soloists, whilst men make up the groups? Wasn’t always ever thus…)

Louise Wener’s Sleeper (as they were always called, especially in Select), did not use femininity as a leitmotiv, though female twists to the narrative did appear throughout their time bothering in the charts. It was Wener, to be fair, who sold the band for what they were. Her voice – with the fragile break of Tracy Thorn about it – and indie-chic look (dividing schoolboys between her and fellow pop Louise Nerding from Eternal) were vital pieces in the Sleeper jigsaw. Yes, they had more radio-friendly melodies than many of the other girl-led bands (Elastica, for example, tended to stay away from mainstream radio stations), but that is by no means a crime. Heck, it got Garbage through two albums before the scene finally ended its final come down.

Sleeper stand up today to much critical scrutiny. This is uncommon – Lush turned out too many middling fillers for my liking, and Echobelly had a firework-like career (though check out “Djinn”, if you can, cracking late-late-late-career single). Sleeper have a constituency and maturity which belies the mainstream, readily available nature of their output.

There’s plenty of songs I could highlight, but I’ll go for the couple to which I return the most. “Inbetweener” – the name living on in cult Channel 4 sitcom-land, though not the same meaning – and “She’s a Good Girl”. I hope the unitiated enjoy.

Oasis – Time Flies

And time certainly does fly, this compilation spanning the band’s entire career and my youth/teenage years/early middle age in one complete, 130+ minutes album. It’s like regression therapy for northerners.

In a fingerclick of time-travel, I’m back listening to Mark Goodyear running down the chart show in 1994, when “Some Might Stay” was at number one, and the world seemed to change a little bit. We’d all bought into “Wonderwall” and picked up “Live Forever” on the two or three cable music channels available at the time, but now the band were at number one, and back then, such things meant a lot. Now they let James Corden into the charts, fordaluvofgod.

A compilation like “Time Flies” is the soundtrack of all our years, all our friendships, and those milestones we use to measure the distance from childhood dreams to adult reality. The lads piss ups in provincial indie clubs, chanting “Wonderwall” inbetween its usual Charlatans/Stone Roses segue; we’ve all been there, and Oasis soundtracked every step of the way.

Theirs is not a career without problems, of course, in and out the recording studio. If we sidestep the headlines for now (as difficult a task as that is, and notably rare among the British bands today), the back-catalogue this compilation celebrates is the very definition of flawed genius. At their peak, Oasis – and at most points “Oasis” is euphemism for “Noel” – were the stellar songwriters and live act of their day; “Wonderwall”, “Roll With It”, “Shakermaker”, “D’You Know What I Mean”, “Masterplan”, “Champagne Supernova”…This is the soundtrack of Britain that the helped influence almost every other indie/rock band from the 90s onwards, and is the pension plan the Arctic Monkeys would die for.

Flawed points on the Oasis journey tie up with internal pressures, sibling (wibbling?) rivalry, and the shifting sands of taste among the British single buyer. “Go Let It Out”, “The Hindu Times” – how hard we try to lift these as high, to enjoy them as much, and yet time has not been kind. The struggle up hill by the time of “Importance of Being Idle” is the same result of artistic exhaustion that runs through the output from the Monty Python team to Ricky Gervais. All genius is exhausted, all careers grind to a puttered engine eventually.

“Time Flies” is not the first – I dare say it won’t be the last – compilation of Oasis singles (anyone buy the cigarette-packet special editions, or is my memory tricking me?). This is one of the most important compilations in the potted history of British music, the vanguard of northern souls which copied and was copied in equal measure. Liam’s voice grew weary, Noel’s lyrics more maudlin, the band ground out too much in the end; but through the window of nostalgia and memory everything this album awakens remains inexorably linked to our social, political and musical history.