Jigsaw Falling Into Place: Revisiting Radiohead's '90s Output

With deluxe reissues of Radiohead's first three albums in stores next week, PopMatters takes a look back at Pablo Honey, The Bends and Ok Computer.

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?

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