I’ve never listened to Pablo Honey in its entirety. What’s the point? It’s decidedly not considered a classic album. In fact, it’s one of the very few Radiohead albums which isn’t. Whether on internet message boards – “Pablo Honey just isn’t worth the listen… it’s like eating the crumbs out of a chip bag when you have 7 other unopened bags of chips, which happen to be flavours that you like better than the first bag” – or from professional musicians – Alt-J describing it as “really fucking bad” – Radiohead’s debut effort receives stick from almost every angle possible.
These insults can get quite personal. One NME live reviewer in 1992 described Radiohead as “a lily-livered excuse for a rock band.” Occasionally, the criticism is not even strictly musical – our own hallowed alumni Thom Yorke is described as having “a haircut like a troll-doll” and the band as being a “bunch of public schoolboys.” They themselves don’t like the album either, poking fun at their own debut on the back of the Amnesiac vinyl.
Radiohead’s debut effort receives stick from almost every angle possible
No, the songs aren’t in 10/4 time signatures. The chord progressions aren’t exactly unorthodox. Radiohead didn’t literally write their own computer programmes to help create their music (see 2011’s The King of Limbs.) Pablo Honey is “just” a run-of-the-mill three guitars, bass and drums effort. Rather than more typical Radiohead themes, such as the anti-consumerism and political discontent voiced on OK Computer, its lyrical content is… well, pretty much just standard, hormonal, teenage-angsty, insecurity-voicing stuff. But does this make Pablo Honey a “bad” album?
After actually giving the record a couple of listens, I believe a fairly convincing defence of it can in fact be constructed. Firstly, Pablo Honey is essentially Radiohead’s only “fun” album. Having such an album in their discography is important for the band as it shows those who see them as perennial doom-and-gloomers that they are capable of writing songs which are, essentially, a bit of a laugh: look at “Vegetable” or “Lurgee,” for instance. “Pop is Dead” has a lot of catchy, comedic charm as well, in all its two-minute-seventeen glory, and even the drearier efforts on the record aren’t anywhere near the level reached in later Radiohead works.
it completes the narrative within Radiohead’s catalogue
Secondly, Pablo Honey and The Bends are certainly not as mutually exclusive as they are made out to be. It doesn’t seem to me as if some sort of quantum leap was made between records one and two: just a general tightening up of songwriting and sequencing, and Yorke maximising the use of his falsetto instead of using it sparingly. You could swap a few of the better cuts on Radiohead’s debut with a few of the worse on their sophomore effort and still end up with two albums of practically the same quality (“Bones” and “Sulk,” I’m looking at you.) For this reason, it completes the narrative within Radiohead’s catalogue, as well as acting as a reference point with which to measure the rest of their efforts by. By listening to it, you’re able to track the band’s progress with your very own ears.
Thirdly, there are in fact a few snatches of brilliance. The introduction to “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” in particular, is great: equal parts grunge, shoegaze and menacing guitars (before launching into an admittedly slightly lacklustre chorus.) You also can’t mention Pablo Honey without mentioning “Creep,” a song which Yorke himself nicknamed himself, quite simply, “Crap.” But “Creep” is not a bad song – just overplayed. As much as it may be denied, there is certainly a reason why it is so iconic, with Yorke at his most deeply introspective and those guitar scratches from Jonny Greenwood. Pablo Honey does not, also, for that matter, ruin the great Radiohead trend of brilliant album closers: “Blow Out” rounds off the effort very nicely.
Poor Pablo. Obviously the album doesn’t stand up to the rest of Radiohead’s discography, nor to classics released in the same year, but it’s not as bad as the stick it gets suggests. Just as this year’s A Moon Shaped Pool, oozing sophistication and maturity, is the kind of record you’d expect a band of 50-year-old men to write, Pablo Honey is the kind of record you’d expect a bunch of 20-something-year-olds to write. On the whole, it’s a pretty solid pop/rock effort which just suffers when it gets compared to, you know, literally some of the greatest albums of all time.