Having originally formed in 1985, and calling themselves On A Friday, they eventually signed with Parlophone/EMI, who suggested that the group change their name to something more memorable. Thus On A Friday became Radiohead, taken from the title of a Talking Heads song no less. After issuing debut EP Drill in early 1992, which failed to garner much attention, the band pressed on, beginning sessions for what would become their first LP, the eclectic Pablo Honey, a mixed bag of quintessential English angst along with plenty of internal enquiry. Recorded at a time when dysfunction in rock was at its most popular, a style pioneered by the likes of Nirvana, who had so successfully turned self-loathing into an art form, one might have thought that such a gloomy group as Radiohead had arrived at just the right moment. But upon release, few took notice. That is until “Creep” hit the airwaves, eventually transforming these self confessed “ugly ducklings” into glorious musical swans.
The first song on Pablo Honey offers the listener few signs of the band’s later brilliance. However one can still hear something powerful lurking underneath, whether that be Thom Yorke’s impressive vocal skills, or Johnny Greenwood’s guitars burning just below the surface. Next is the song that soon became something of an anthem for every “weird” teenage loner and ultimately an albatross around Radiohead’s neck, the demented “Creep”. The mix of quiet-loud clearly owed itself to Nirvana, but Yorke’s lyrics and vocal delivery are definitely all his own. This is the tune that would transform them into worldwide rock stars (it even became an unexpected hit in Spain), the sort of thing Yorke and Co. were completely unprepared for.
The punkish “How Do You?” shows another side to early Radiohead, one which often preferred to sneer instead of cheer at the world. It’s not exactly their best, but the next two tracks “Stop Whispering” and “Thinking About You” are worth repeated listens, the former with its moody undulating rhythms, and the latter an acoustic ode to love gone wrong. The grungy “Anyone Can Play Guitar” is a cynical manifesto of sorts focused around Yorke’s disdains for the music industry and shallow pop idols in general (“Destiny, destiny protect me from the world… I wanna be in a band… Grow my hair like Jim Morrison”).
Though like a lot of albums the second side isn’t quite as engaging, however no less important, in that some of the songs provide a clue as to Radiohead’s future direction. Whether it’s the nervy “Ripchord”, the tender rage of “Vegetable”, or the Seattle-meets-Oxford rock of “Prove Yourself”, on each of these songs Yorke is either “Soul destroyed”, running away from “domestic bliss” or “Better off dead”. Sound familiar?
The pre-millennial ennui continues on “I Can’t”, the atmospherically melancholic “Lurgee”, and final track “Blow Out”, a kind of Smiths/Pink Floyd hybrid, on which Greenwood established himself as being far more than just your average garden gnome variety rock guitarist.
While by no means a classic, what Pablo Honey proves was that many of the raw elements that would make Radiohead so “fucking special” in the coming years were already firmly in place. All they required was a little tweaking here and there, plus some overseas tours to sharpen them up. Because unbeknownst to critics, and their ever growing horde of followers, some of the band’s best work was yet to come.