In Defense Of | Radiohead – Pablo Honey
In Defense Of is a column where Eject writers re-evaluate widely-hated albums or artists, and argue the case for a better reputation. This time, Danny Kilmartin stands up for Radiohead's 1993 debut album Pablo Honey - an album culturally overshadowed by the band's successive albums The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A, and various other critically-adored efforts.
In March 1993, Radiohead played three shows in Tel Aviv, Israel – their first overseas gigs – off the back of their new single, “Creep”. The song had become a smash hit in that country thanks to being played regularly by influential radio DJ Yoav Kutner, himself introduced to the song by an EMI representative, so in an effort to keep the fire burning, the band were rushed to Israel to perform, where they received a hero’s welcome. The last night of their three-night residency at Roxane saw their longest performance to date and included two versions of “Creep” and a toast to Kutner.
It was a formative experience for Radiohead as guitarist Jonny Greenwood would tell Q Magazine in 2001 “While we were all down in the dumps we heard from Israel that [“Creep”] was high in their charts, so we went there and proved it could be successful as long as people heard it.” Greenwood also met his future wife, visual artist Sharona Katan, during this brief excursion so all things considered, it’s easy to understand why the band’s love affair with Israel could withstand the moral outcry against their decision to return in 2017 – their first performance there since the foundation of the BDS movement.
The band’s despondency as described by Greenwood was not unfounded. Having signed a six-album recording contract with EMI in 1991, the response to their output on their own home soil was poor. Their debut release, the Drill EP, did not fare well in the charts upon release in 1992. “Creep”, released later the same year, drew the ire of the British music press. NME called the band a “lily-livered excuse for a rock band”, while BBC Radio 1 blacklisted the song, deeming it “too depressing”.
The release of its parent album, the band’s debut full-length Pablo Honey, was itself all but ignored. It stalled at number 22 in the UK album charts, while “Creep” and subsequent singles “Anyone Can Play Guitar” and “Stop Whispering” failed to become hits. Reviews the world over were good, but hardly glowing. Critics pointed to the album’s patchiness and the presence of lacklustre tracks that stall its momentum, but also to the similarities between the band’s overall sound to that of prominent figures within the alternative rock scene at the time. US-based publications would refer to the band as the British Nirvana or, dismissively, Nirvana-lite. The album’s derivative sound comes as no surprise in retrospect – Radiohead have been outspoken in their admiration for bands like Dinosaur Jr and Pixies, and went as far as to hire producers Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie to work on Pablo Honey.
Despite its relatively positive critical reception amongst music critics upon release, Radiohead devotees to this day continue to single the album out as the band’s worst. “Creep”, for its part, is a running joke amongst hardcore fans for its popularity and accessibility. Later albums OK Computer and Kid A are placed upon unreasonable pedestals, while Pablo Honey is dismissed for being too vanilla. The worst crime the album commits, realistically, is its similarity to its peers. While often lost in the shuffle in retrospective examinations of the early ‘90s alternative rock scene, Pablo Honey is a respectable – if dated – album in its own right.
Though flawed and underachieving, particularly with regards to its originality or lack thereof; if viewed for what it is, it’s actually a pretty solid ‘90s alt-rock album. For all its imperfections, it’s got some infectious hooks – “Creep” remains the band’s signature song, whether they like it or not, and “Anyone Can Play Guitar” is just as catchy with its psychotic, flippant chorus (“And if the world does turn/ And if London burns I’ll be standing on the beach with my guitar”). Its opener, “You”, is as hard as Radiohead have ever come, driven by thick, distorted guitars which play cat and mouse with Thom Yorke’s already distinctive warble, displaying an appreciation for and mastering of the soft-loud dynamic already adopted (and perhaps perfected) by their peers. Meanwhile, closing track “Blowout” succeeds in shedding the hesitant control that pervades much of the album’s tracks with a sense of self-assuredness, building to a Sonic Youth-like cacophonous crescendo.
Pablo Honey was not an overnight success. It was all but ignored upon initial release and was greeted with middling to fair praise from the music industry and press. The success of “Creep” did see the band start to tour globally, but Pablo Honey does have more to offer. Though not as ambitious as even its immediate follow-up, The Bends, Pablo Honey should be viewed for what it is: the origin of a band that had yet to realise their sound.