Jigsaw Falling Into Place: Revisiting Radiohead’s ‘90s Output

[15 March 2009]

By Mehan Jayasuriya

Pre-Millennium Tension

Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!
Re-evaluate the songs
Double-pack with a photograph
Extra track (and a tacky badge)
—The Smiths, “Paint a Vulgar Picture”

Whenever you ask Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien what his band’s next album will sound like, his usual reply will involve some variation on the phrase “Smiths-esque guitar pop”. The accuracy (or lack thereof) of O’Brien’s pronouncements aside, it has always been clear that Radiohead draw a great deal of influence from the Smiths, both musically and where ethics are concerned. And while Radiohead’s career trajectory has not allowed the band to avoid all contact with major labels (as was the case with the Smiths—at least until the very end of their career), the five members of Radiohead have publicly shared Morrissey’s disdain for the majors’ cash grabbing ways, largely sidestepping attempts to fleece their fans and compromise their integrity for a quick buck—or quid, as the case may be.

So it’s not surprising then, that Capitol and Parlophone’s attempts to squeeze every last cent out of Radiohead’s back catalog have been met by much groaning from both the band and its fans. To be fair, the members of Radiohead surely knew that this would happen—one imagines that a desire to fully control their output played a significant role in the band’s decision to move away from major labels after the expiration of their contract. Still, I don’t think that anyone expected that quite so many compilations and rereleases would come quite so soon. Since the band’s departure from Capitol/Parlophone in 2005, we’ve been treated to a boxed set, a best-of album and companion DVD, deluxe reissues of thee of the band’s albums and soon, vinyl editions of nearly all of the band’s early singles and EPs.

Given our critical disposition, it would be easy to dismiss this deluge of plastic as unnecessary and unwarranted, especially for a band that’s been in the public eye for less than two decades. Still, in a country where The Eagles’ Greatest Hits stands as the best selling album of all time, one must consider that these reissues will offer some value to at least a percentage of Radiohead’s fan base. After all, wouldn’t we want an impressionable young music fan to discover OK Computer while perusing the impulse buy rack at the local big box retailer—rather than, say, Nickelback’s latest? And might it not be more convenient to have a littering of tracks and videos previously scattered across various albums, singles and DVDs collected all in one place?

“Anyone Can Play Guitar”

For years to come, Pablo Honey, Radiohead’s debut album, will be held up as evidence that a band cannot be judged by the merits of its first album. A hodgepodge of half-baked grunge, jangle-pop and stadium-ready alternative rock, Pablo Honey is nearly indistinguishable from other early ‘90s college rock throwaways, save for a few hints of greatness. Opening number “You” sounds a bit like a formative template for The Bends, though Thom Yorke’s wail halfway through the song veers uncomfortably close to hair metal territory. The Smiths-esque “Stop Whispering”, meanwhile, showcases Yorke’s pipes nicely, foreshadowing the otherworldly abilities he would later cultivate. “Thinking About You” sounds like a blueprint for numerous acoustic ballads to come. And “Anyone Can Play Guitar” and “Blow Out”, with their paranoid lyrical concerns (apocalyptic collapse and alienation, respectively) and embrace of Sonic Youth-esque guitar noise, come the closest to prefiguring what Radiohead would eventually become.

Of course, one can’t discuss Pablo Honey without mentioning “Creep”, the song that launched the band to stardom and which, ultimately, became a source of great frustration for its author. More than a decade later, it’s difficult to hear the song outside of its context—“Creep” will likely always sound like one of the self-loathing ‘90s most iconic singles. Sure, the overwrought lyrics are, in hindsight, fairly gag-worthy. Yet somehow, Jonny Greenwood’s pre-choral guitar chugs still cut through radio static the way that Johnny Marr’s vibrato-heavy lead on “How Soon is Now?” did nearly a decade earlier. And then, of course, there’s that final, soaring chorus where Yorke’s voice takes flight—a moment of true beauty in a song that chronicles ugliness. “Creep” might stand as an embarrassing entry point into the public consciousness but I submit that “Prove Yourself”, with it’s refrain of “I’m better off dead”, is truly Pablo Honey‘s most cringe-worthy track. If “Creep” is now seen as a joke, then “Prove Yourself” must be the album’s morbid punch line.

As with the other two records discussed here, the “Special Collectors Edition” of Pablo Honey pairs the original album with a bonus CD containing B-sides, demos and BBC sessions, as well as a DVD that collects live performances, music videos and television appearances. Pablo Honey, as it stands, is not a very enjoyable album, so it’s not surprising that the various bits and pieces of audio and video from that era are equally disappointing. Still, what the bonus discs lack in quality, they more than make up for in quantity and despite the odds, there are indeed a few gems to be found.

Disc two leads off with the Drill EP, the band’s first official release. Long out of print, Drill is now highly sought after by collectors (though not for its musical value, I would imagine). Four of the tracks on Drill would later reappear on Pablo Honey and are listed here as demos, though “Stupid Car” (notably the first song to address Yorke’s preoccupation with and general distrust of vehicular transport) never resurfaced. Logic suggests that the song was reborn as the superior “Killer Cars”, which appears here as a live cut, one of the many B-sides to “Creep”. “Coke Babies”, a B-side to “Anyone Can Play Guitar”, is notable for its atmospheric opening and squall of shoegazey guitar noise. And “Pop is Dead”, an upbeat, tongue-in-cheek personification of pop music, stands as perhaps the funniest song in a largely humorless catalog. I dare you not to simultaneously laugh and wince when Yorke sneers, “Oh no, pop is dead, long live pop/One final line of coke to jack him off “.

Surprisingly, the two best cuts on the second disc turn out to be alternate, acoustic takes. The acoustic versions of both “Creep” and “Banana Co.” are things of beauty, largely due to their lush, gorgeous guitar arrangements. “Creep” is especially notable, as its final chorus finds Yorke pushing his voice to its very limits, lending the tune a far more satisfying, cathartic feel. It’s the sort of vocal performance that would make even Jeff Buckley—one of Yorke’s vocal idols—stand up and take notice.

On the audiovisual side of things, Pablo Honey is equally overstuffed, though no better for it. All four music videos from the album are collected here, though they also appeared on last year’s The Best Of DVD compilation. Be sure to note the head banging grunge kids and moshpit in “Creep” (not to mention Phil Selway’s ridiculous hat), a wealth of cheesy, surreal imagery parading as profound in “Anyone Can Play Guitar” and—what else?—a zombie Thom Yorke being carried about in a casket in “Pop is Dead”.

By way of contrast, the band’s “Top of the Pops” performance of “Creep” from 1993 is fairly mundane, at least as far as “Top of the Pops” performances go. The band would revisit the show three more times during their career, consistently failing to subvert the program’s silly format by taking the piss out of it (as Nirvana and Belle & Sebastian, among others, did).

Finally, the bonus DVD makes the interesting choice of splitting the band’s Live at the Astoria DVD into two parts, collecting the Pablo Honey cuts here and placing the songs that would appear on The Bends on that album’s bonus DVD. This footage provides an interesting document of what Radiohead were like as a live act in 1995: tight, focused and workmanlike, much as they are today.   

More than 15 years after its initial release, Pablo Honey feels like little more than a curiosity—a voyeuristic look at the awkward first steps of a band that would eventually come to both define and outgrow the alternative rock movement. While it’s hard to recommend the album on its own merits, the folks at Capitol/Parlophone have done a commendable job, expanding the album with a wealth of bonus material, to the point that it’s difficult to pinpoint anything that may have been left out. The Special Collector’s Edition of Pablo Honey might not be the most compelling item musically but at the very least, hardcore Radiohead fans will find that it’s a great historical document, not to mention, good for a laugh or two. And honestly, what more can you expect from a record named after a Jerky Boys quote?

"Where do we go from here?"

“Where do we go from here?”

Released in 1995 to widespread critical acclaim, The Bends cemented Radiohead’s place among Britain’s most notable acts, making irrelevant the “grunge” tag that had dogged the band since its early days while simultaneously obviating the Britpop movement (though that didn’t stop lazy critics from lumping the band in with Oasis, Blur and Pulp). One of the decade’s classic, slow-burning rock records, The Bends found Radiohead embracing their strengths, expanding their musical palette and tackling weightier, more substantive subject matter. Gone were the self-absorbed temper tantrums of Pablo Honey, replaced by beautifully introspective ballads, soaring prog-rock anthems and a sumptuous, overarching aesthetic. A decade later, it’s not hard to see why The Bends is often pointed to as one of the high water marks of ‘90s alternative rock.

cover art

Radiohead

The Bends

(Capitol; US: 24 Mar 2009; UK: 23 Mar 2009)

“High and Dry”, the album’s first single, predated even the songs on Pablo Honey and the version that appears here was, in fact, originally tracked during the Pablo Honey sessions. It’s mind-boggling to think that the band had a pop gem like this tucked away all along and it’s even more confusing to hear that Yorke had to be convinced by the label to include the song on the album (a decision that he regrets to this day). “Fake Plastic Trees”, meanwhile, is an inviting acoustic lament for all that consumerism, globalization and modern life hath wrought. “Just” is still a delicious slice of overdriven guitar pop—its guitars alternately crunch and coo in accordance with the Pixies’ loud/quiet/loud dynamic. “Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was”, a hazy, dreamlike ballad, sounds something like Morrissey on tranquilizers. And “Street Sprit (Fade Out)”, with its cascading guitar arpeggios and solemn imagery, stands to this day as one of the most devastating tunes the band has ever penned. In interviews, Yorke has attributed a mystical quality to the song, claiming that “Street Spirit” chose the band as its “messenger”. As such, it closes out the album, as it often does Radiohead live sets.

Like the album itself, the bonus material appended to The Bends contains much worth revisiting. First up is the My Iron Lung EP, which was released in 1994, as the band struggled to record their sophomore LP. The title track, built around a sarcastic reference to the band’s dependence on and confinement by the success of “Creep”, initially offered listeners a disorienting glimpse of what was to come. “The Trickster” meanwhile, alludes to the grimy guitar tones of “Just”, while “Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong” foreshadows the detached spaceyness of OK Computer. “Lozenge of Love” sounds like the band’s attempt to pen a folky ballad along the lines of “Norwegian Wood”, whereas the mostly instrumental “Permanent Daylight” is cut from the same cloth as album tracks like “Planet Telex”. While not nearly as accomplished as the album that it previewed, the My Iron Lung EP can now be seen as an important and necessary bridge between Pablo Honey and The Bends.

Maquiladora, one of two B-sides to the double A-side “High and Dry”/“Planet Telex”, features fantastically phased-out guitars courtesy of Jonny and portends the band’s later obsession with the work of globalization critic Naomi Klein. The second B-side, a sped-up, almost punkish reading of “Killer Cars” is largely forgettable and sounds like the work of a less mature band.

From the “Fake Plastic Trees” single, we get the atypically loungey “India Rubber”, “How Can You Be Sure?”, an acoustic ballad from which Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag” seems to have been derived and acoustic readings of “Fake Plastic Trees”, “Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was” and “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”. As before, the acoustic cuts prove to be the real treat here, though the band does struggle a bit with the complex arrangement on “Street Spirit” (it’s worth noting that they now perform note-perfect renditions of the song live).

“Street Spirit” is arguably the most accomplished song on The Bends and its B-sides fare similarly well. “Talk Show Host”, which originally appeared on the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet has long been viewed as one of the band’s strongest non-album cuts. A delirious blend of funk, mid ‘90s indie rock and Beatles-indebted Mellotron worship, the song sounds quite unlike anything else in the Radiohead catalog and remains a fan favorite to this day. “Bishop’s Robes”, which would later reappear backing “No Surprises” on the Japanese Running From Demons EP, sounds like Radiohead’s answer to the Smiths’ “Headmaster Ritual”; a wooly indictment of schoolmaster cruelty. And “Banana Co.”, despite its dated feel, is inexplicably hard to deny.

The bonus disc also appends a BBC session from 1994, notable for its inclusion of “Maquiladora” as well as two of the album’s best tracks (“Just” and “Street Spirit”).

Of the three reissues discussed here, The Bends easily features the best video content. As with Pablo Honey, we get all five of the music videos produced to promote the album (all of which previously appeared on last year’s The Best Of collection and some of which were collected on 1998’s Seven Television Commercials), as well as the Live at the Astoria clips. Of particular note are Jamie Thraves’ tantalizingly enigmatic clip for “Just” and Jonathan Glazer’s haunting, formally brilliant take on “Street Spirit”. Additionally, we’re treated to both a “2 Meter” session and a “Later With Jools Holland” session, both from 1995, as well as three “Top of the Pops” performances.

Though at this point it should go without saying, The Bends marked a crucial turning point in Radiohead’s career and remains one of the finest examples of ‘90s alternative rock. If you count yourself among its many fans, you’ll likely find that there’s more than enough included here to warrant a repurchase, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the many B-sides that the second disc collects.

"In an interstellar blast / I'm back to save the universe"

“In an interstellar blast / I’m back to save the universe”

OK Computer: easily Radiohead’s most influential album, arguably the band’s best album overall, probably the finest record of the 1990s and quite possibly, one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded. A cohesive, atmospheric tour de force, the record documents the alienation, uncertainty and malaise felt in pre-millennial, late capitalist society better than just about any other. “Airbag” is a dense, musically rich tale of dystopic rebirth and redemption, with bells, drum loops and strings pulling the listener down into OK Computer‘s rabbit hole. “Paranoid Android”, as it’s often said, is a contemporary answer to “Happiness is a Warm Gun” and “Bohemian Rapsody”; a sardonic, even humorous, series of snapshots of modern life at its worst. “Exit Music (For a Film)”, a hushed, acoustic lament that blossoms into a dramatically triumphant aria, is more cinematic and heartbreaking than the film that it was written for (again, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet). “Karma Police”, the album’s highest-charting single, may well be remembered as the band’s defining anthem—and it’s certainly not a bad choice for the job. “Climbing up the Walls” offers a terrifying window into mental illness, climaxing with a rare moment of catharsis after a solid four minutes of tension. And “No Surprises”, the album’s third and final single, has to be one of the prettiest songs ever written about suicide.

cover art

Radiohead

OK Computer

(Capitol; US: 24 Mar 2009; UK: 23 Mar 2009)

Naturally, the best album of the lot also features the best B-sides, many of which could easily have been A-sides. The first four tracks are culled from the “Paranoid Android” single, all of which also appear on the band’s now out of print Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP—a collection of songs that nearly rivals OK Computer in both quality and consistency. “Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2)” is song in two-parts: a spare, acoustic snippet married to a spacey, triumphant game of random word association (“Plastic bag/Middle-class/Polyethylene”). Live staple “Pearly*” features one of the band’s best guitar hooks, not to mention a fantastic, shuffling drum beat courtesy of Phil Selway while “A Reminder” is an earthbound cousin of “Subterranean Homesick Alien”.

From the “Karma Police” single we get “Meeting in the Aisle”, a sample-heavy instrumental that serves as a nod to the influence of DJ Shadow, which hangs like, well, a shadow over the album proper. “Lull”, meanwhile, harkens back to the guitar pop of The Bends era, though its use of glockenspiel recalls “No Surprises”. And two remixes of “Climbing Up the Walls”, one from Zero 7 and one from Fila Brazillia, reimagine the song as a trip-hop and dub tune, respectively.

“Palo Alto”, taken from the “No Surprises” single, could very well be the best song left off of OK Computer. Sounding like a heavily-distorted ode to the early Beatles at their most raucous, the song’s chorus (“I’m okay/How are you?/Thanks for asking/Thanks for asking”), dares the listener to not sing along—something that can’t often be said of Radiohead songs. “How I Made My Millions”, on the other hand, is the most austere B-side presented here. A home demo of Yorke at the piano (his girlfriend can supposedly be heard putting away groceries in the background), the song’s minor key progression is both arrestingly sad and undeniably moving, not unlike that of Amnesiac-era B-side “Fog (Again)”. Yorke’s lyrics here are indistinguishable but that’s hardly important—his rich, mournful voice is, for all intents and purposes, just another instrument. Supposedly, Yorke took this demo to the band hoping to craft a full song out of it but the band refused, having been so moved by the demo version. In this instance, it’s not hard to side with them.

Capping off the bonus disc, we get two live cuts and a three-track BBC “One Evening” session, all of which demonstrate Radiohead’s widely acknowledged proficiency in a live setting.

Interestingly, three of the B-sides featured on the second disc (“Polyethylene”, “Pearly*” and “Palo Alto”) are far more muscular than the bulk of the songs on OK Computer, suggesting that the band made a conscious effort not to lean too heavily on guitars when sequencing the album. This, of course, foreshadows the band’s outright rejection of guitar rock on Kid A and to a lesser degree, Amnesiac.

Unlike the other two deluxe reissues, OK Computer‘s bonus DVD is sorely lacking. All that’s featured are three music videos—three fantastic music videos, sure—all of which have been previously featured on two other DVD collections, as well as a single “Jools Holland” session. This, likely is not so much the labels’ fault as it is Radiohead’s. Exhausted and disillusioned from years of touring (see Grant Gee’s fantastic 1998 tour documentary Meeting People is Easy), the band started to wind down with regard to promotional appearances after the conclusion of the OK Computer tour, a tour that the band’s members often cite as a low point. During the release of Kid A four years later, the band would release no singles or videos and make no promotional appearances at all.

OK Computer, being one of the landmark albums of the past two decades, is more than deserving of the deluxe reissue treatment, so it’s hard to blame Capitol/Parolphone for milking it. Thankfully, they’ve done so in a grand fashion, compiling all of the album’s fantastic B-sides and a handful of live performances. Unfortunately, the one area where the OK Computer reissue falls short is the DVD, which is of little value to anyone who already owns a release containing the three music videos contained therein. For this reason, it’s difficult to recommend the “Special Collectors Edition” and all but the most fervent fans are advised to pick up the two disc “Collectors Edition”, which excludes the DVD.

While it would have been nice to see a true rarity to entice even completists (the aborted “Lucky” video? Fragments from the “Big Boots”/“Man O’ War” sessions?), the Collectors Edition of OK Computer, largely does the album justice and for fans who have yet to hear the album’s B-sides, should be considered nothing short of mandatory.

“Everything in its Right Place”

Try as we might to discredit the very concept of reissues, in the end, it’s hard to find fault with the exhaustive and thoughtful manner with which these albums have been repackaged. While Pablo Honey might never be ripe for revisiting, The Bends and OK Computer surely are. And given Radiohead’s continued relevance more than a decade later, one can’t deny that these new editions will likely find a market, among both longtime fans and neophytes alike. Here’s hoping that thanks to these deluxe editions, a new generation of rock fans discovers one of the most impressive runs in contemporary music. After all, even young Steven Patrick Morrissey had to start somewhere.

A veteran of many a cold winter, Mehan was born in Montreal and reared in Southeastern Wisconsin. After four years spent earning a degree in Japanese literature at the University of Chicago, he spent a year living in Japan before finally landing in Washington D.C. A technology policy activist by day, Mehan spends his nights listening to, watching, photographing and writing about music. You can visit his personal website at http://www.mehanjayasuriya.com.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/71398-jigsaw-falling-into-place-revisiting-radioheads-90s-output/