Playing God
Radiohead: Pablo Honey

it’s easy to forget that in 1993 Radiohead didn’t have much of a future. A more menacing Fine Young Cannibals, the band had just released Pablo Honey, a record with one smash single (“Creep”), a spattering of mediocre Pixies-aping album tracks, and wretched baby/candy/flower cover art. They were one name-change removed from presenting themselves to the world as On a Friday, and Thom Yorke sneered hilariously in press photos. Pablo Honey failed to produce even the semblance of a second US hit.

Could God have made this a better album? Maybe. Even in the early 90’s, the band was prone to burying decent tracks on little-heard singles or rare EP’s. Those weren’t all gold in 1993 either, but some of them—“Banana Co.,” “Coke Babies”—were marked improvements over Pablo Honey’s album tracks. Even substituting some of these lesser-heard sides in, the album’s 12 songs and 43 minutes seems a too-generous helping of this young band. “Prove Yourself” and “Ripcord” were difficult cuts, but let’s face it – Radiohead probably didn’t have 43 album-worthy minutes in 1993.

Trying to come up with a theme is even more troublesome. Cut all of the too-cute lyrical cuts—“Anyone Can Play Guitar,” “Thinking About You”—and you’re left with an album of strong but aimless mid-tempo rock. Cutting all of the straightforward tracks— “Vegetable,” “How Do You”—in favor of idiosyncratic tunes like “Pop is Dead” or “Faitheless the Wonder Boy” leaves plenty of character but sacrifices too much tunefulness.

I decided to split the difference, trimming some length, replacing the bottom-feeders, and installing a more fulfilling running order. The selections below shake out in 37 minutes, a succinct set that still doesn’t provide any insight into the band’s later work but casts the band’s rookie album in a gentler light.

01. Coke Babies (“Anyone Can Play Guitar” B-side)
Pablo Honey’s weakest moment is its first. “You” not only starts things on a sour note, but 12 years later remains one of the band’s worst songs, musically and lyrically. “Coke Babies” is the rare early track on which Yorke doesn’t over-emote. Instead, he coaxes a lullaby out of a simple lyric (“Easy living / Easy hold / Easy teething / Easy fold”) between some of guitarists Ed O’Brien and Johnny Greenwood’s most adventurous early slinging.

02. How Do You? (Album track 3)
“How Do You?”’s sugar-punk verses always sounded lightweight following the megalomaniacal guitar blasts of “Creep.” But it serves as a fine transition here, energetic and brief enough to build momentum, buoyant and melodic enough to feel worthwhile. The honky-tonk drizzle on the coda is one of the band’s underrated moments.

03. Vegetable (Album track 8)
Perhaps Pablo Honey’s strongest melody, “Vegetable” is nevertheless easily forgotten, pushed aside due to its straightforward arrangement and “I’m not a vegetable!” chorus. Fair. But the hooks here are real, and when Yorke sings “The waters break / The waters run / Over me / And this / Time / You’re / Gonna pay!” to introduce a Greenwood attack, it’s a legitimately exciting moment. “Ripcord,” “Vegetable,” and “Prove Yourself” bled into one long, mid-tempo trek on the second half of Pablo Honey. “Vegetable” is the strongest of the three, and benefits greatly from the separation.

04. Creep (Album track 2)
And batting cleanup…Leaving “Creep” on is a little like having Barry Bonds on your team: You’re not thrilled about the stigmas associated with his presence, but it’s impossible to deny what he brings to the middle of your lineup. Pablo Honey blew its load way too early slotting this in the two-spot, but you can’t bury the single, either. No amount of B-side gerrymandering will change the fact that “Creep” is Pablo Honey’s grandest achievement, something its prominent placement here should highlight.

05. Thinking About You (Album track 5)
This track always seemed to arrive at the right time. Five tracks in a change-up in texture and tempo is necessary.

06. Anyone Can Play Guitar (Album track 6)
“Anyone” survived the cut (barely) for two reasons: It’s the only song that sounds right following “Thinking About You,” and I feared that a cut here would rob the album too substantially of its flavor. The band would produce dozens of tracks that approximated the fear of “Stupid Car” or the melodic drive of “Ripcord.” “Anyone” is valuable for both its daft lyrics and joyous naivety.

07. Banana Co. (“Pop is Dead” B-side and Itch EP)
A very early song whose definitive version was released on the back of the “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” single, we’ll assume that had the band included it on Pablo Honey, they would’ve mustered up more than just the acoustic arrangement that was floating around in 1993. Paranoid, hellish art-rock, “Banana Co.” previews The Bends, but is refreshing here, providing a reprieve from major-key guitar rock.

08. Stop Whispering (Album track 4)
“Stop Whispering” is my least convincing choice, clocking in at over five minutes and offering little sonic variance from “Vegetable” and “How Do You?” It gets the nod here simply because it’s a stronger tune than “Yes I Am” or “Faithless the Wonder Boy,” and because the thick, heady leads that O’Brien and Greenwood carve out of the bridge are sheer alt-rock bliss.

09. Million Dollar Question (“Creep” B-side)
A four-on-the-floor blast, “Million Dollar Question” threatens to interrupt the flow of the second half of this album, but the hooks are too strong to exclude. Staccato lead lines, driving power-chords, and an in-control Yorke combine to make this a stronger track than its pedestrian setup should allow. A half-time bridge unearths a rare early Yorke jewel: “If it’s alright / I’ll tell you / Cause you’ll never understand / If it’s alright / I’ll beg you / Cause I’m a beggin’ kind of man.”

10. I Can’t (Album track 10)
A melodic tour de force, “I Can’t” sets up the closer brilliantly, as it should’ve on the original album. The major-key guitar chime contrasts heartily with Yorke’s insistent self-dismissal, and we’re reminded of a time when Yorke could convincingly sing a line as simple as “Even though I might / Even though I try / I can’t.” A low-tension freak-out melts the song’s easygoing doubt into wailing guitar, a trick the band would employ too often early in their career, but one that’s strangely affecting here.

11. Lurgee (Album track 11)
Radiohead’s great closer that never was, “Lurgee”’s destiny was ruined by the ill-fitting jazz-slop of “Blow Out.” A simple, redemptive melody carries the song’s first half, with Yorke casting his lot optimistically, to the point of delusion: “I got strong / I feel better / I feel better now you’ve gone…I feel better now there’s nothing wrong.” The childish testaments of strength have resonated throughout Yorke’s career; he repeated the lines on the criminally overlooked OK Computer B-Side “How I Made my Millions.” Yorke’s simplest lyrics have always been his best (“Motion Picture Soundtrack,” “Airbag”) – only when he rambles does he start talking about dead rabbits and sardines. The guitar flares the bury the song are some of the band’s most emotive, never trespassing into formless slush. “Lurgee” is a stately hymn and a born closer, a fine send-off for the band’s charmingly straightforward debut.

By: Andrew Gaerig
Published on: 2005-12-05
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