Pablo Honey

Pablo Honey

No matter how sardonic he was, there’s still something shocking about hearing Thom Yorke sneer “Grow my hair/I wanna be, wanna be, wanna be Jim Morrison” halfway through Radiohead’s second single, “Anyone Can Play Guitar.” The Lizard King was Yorke’s proxy for all the preening and puffery of conventional rock ’n’ roll—of what it took for the record industry to take you seriously. Yorke was in his mid-20s when Radiohead cut its debut album, 1993’s Pablo Honey, over the course of three weeks in Oxfordshire. He was an angry young man, teeming with ire for the state of rock and pop. “I don’t like to be cynical, but if that really is the best that pop music can do in the space of a year or two,” he said of the band Suede in a 1993 interview, “then there’s no hope for the world.” Thing was, though, for all the potshots, Radiohead started out as a rather conventional—but still very good—guitar-rock band, suspended between the emerging Britpop of their island brethren like Suede and the stateside churn of bands like Dinosaur Jr. But the band members didn’t lack ambition. They wanted to get big—they just didn’t want to get bloated. “The idea was to cut straight through all that paying-your-dues [stuff],” Yorke said in the same interview, “and get the whole world to see us… I like that breadth of vision.” Pablo Honey did get the world’s attention—even if now, decades later, it’s clearly the sound of a band still trying to define itself. Borrowing melodically from Neil Young, “Prove Yourself” rises from weepy struggles with self-esteem to a mantric march about doing exactly what the title suggests. “Stop Whispering,” meanwhile, is a protest song against the aging social order, one that builds into a mighty crescendo, with Yorke screaming wordlessly into his mighty band’s clatter. These songs and others—“You,” “Ripcord,” and even the acoustic lament “Thinking About You”—would fit squarely in an international survey of early-1990s alternative rock. There are, however, whiffs of what Radiohead would soon become. A surprise worldwide hit, “Creep” proved the band could not only confront brutal truths, but that Yorke and his bandmates could sculpt abrasion while making it magnetic. Then there’s the delicacy of “Lurgee,” where shimmering guitars reflect off Philip Selway’s smart cymbal work, as Yorke turns to face the future without someone he once thought he needed. It appropriately arrives near Pablo Honey’s end, just as Radiohead launched one of rock music’s most revolutionary run of records ever.

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