The Genius Of… Pablo Honey by Radiohead
Released 30 years ago this month, Radiohead’s debut offered few clues of the genre-fusing genius to follow, but it’s an essential part of their story
Image: Gie Knaeps / Getty
Ed O’Brien called it “pretty shit”, Thom Yorke admitted it was “flawed” and “naive”, and it almost split Radiohead up. However, Pablo Honey lit the fuse on the career of one of the greatest British bands of all time.
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Having existed since the mid-80s under the far more prosaic name On A Friday, Radiohead signed a six-album deal with EMI in 1991. Yet it was another two years before the major label were rewarded with a debut album.
Heavily influenced by the dominant American grunge scene, with flecks of stadium-rock grandiosity, Pablo Honey offers little evidence of the compositional genius and thirstless experimentalism that would make Radiohead one of the biggest bands on the planet by the end of the decade.
What’s so good about Pablo Honey, then? Well, there’s something ephemeral and precious in seeing a band who would later write songs of such awe-inspiring complexity and sophistication as Paranoid Android, Everything In Its Right Place and Pyramid Song, so nakedly naive and unguarded. It’s worth the price of admission just to hear Thom Yorke bellow “I wanna be in a band when I get to heaven” with complete abandon.
More importantly, Pablo Honey captures the embryonic dynamic between the band’s three guitarists. Jonny Greenwood’s exhilarating melange of tremolo-picked soundscapes, chunky octaves, screaming high-register runs and killswitch antics place him alongside Johnny Marr and John Squire as the most influential guitarist of the decade.
Meanwhile, notional rhythm man O’Brien’s foundational textures and beguiling chord shifts from Yorke marked the five-piece, completed by bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Philip Selway, out from the rest of the nascent Britpop crowd.
Their Scott Walker song
Searching for a producer to polish the raw talent evident on 1992’s Drill EP, EMI shunned the grouchy Steve Albini, who’d produced Pixies’ quiet-loud blueprint Surfer Rosa.
Instead, the gig went to Yale graduates Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade, yet the early sessions at Chipping Norton Studios were underwhelming.
Kolderie found the band’s lack of experience and vaulting ambition a troublesome perfect storm. “It was their first record and they wanted to be The Beatles,” he later told Mojo.
The producers struck gold, however, when they serendipitously captured lead single Creep during a warm-up to tracking other material. Selway has claimed the band were unaware the tape was rolling.
Creep was viewed by the band as a ‘throwaway’ and nicknamed their ‘Scott Walker’ song, but at the end of a searing performance, everyone in the studio broke into applause, knowing they’d witnessed a lightning in a bottle moment.
The song’s G/B/C/Cm progression, with its Beatles-indebted major/minor shift, nods so heavily to Hollies hit The Air That I Breathe it that it resulted in a legal claim, while BBC Radio 1 banned the single for being too depressing.
Jonny Greenwood had his own concerns over Creep’s sparkly clean arpeggios and launched an attempt at sabotage, armed with his Telecaster Plus and a Marshall Shredmaster. The three pairs of barbarous, muted up and down strokes that introduce the chorus were “the sound of Jonny trying to fuck the song up,” recalled O’Brien. The result has been immortalised within Radiohead as ‘The Noise’.
Even the chef can play guitar
With Creep in the bag, Pablo Honey came together in just three weeks, costing £100,000. Sadly, the key guitars on the album are long gone.
Greenwood is said to have played exclusively a 1990 Tobacco Burst Telecaster Plus bought with the band’s EMI advance. Like much of Radiohead’s early gear, it was stolen in 1995, in Denver, Colorado.
An early-90s Gibson SG Standard used by Yorke on the record and O’Brien’s Rickenbacker 360 Mapleglo, adorned with Pablo Honey stickers, were also victims of the heist, adding to the record’s sense of impermanence.
Pablo Honey’s Side A serves up most of the gold and all of its singles. Stop Whispering, which dates back to the On A Friday demos, is an exercise in simplicity, but contains some of the record’s most scintillating guitar playing.
A homage to Pixies, it’s partially a protest song that cycles between D and G chords. It gives us an early glimpse inside Jonny Greenwood’s sonic toolbox as a repeated five-note pattern opens into a blistering outro replete with unison bends and a scything single-note riff.
The strident acoustic strums and earnest vocals on Thinking About You suggest at least an unconscious appreciation of U2. It was the Greenwood brothers’ mum’s favourite track, despite its overt onanist references.
This brief pause for self-reflection is eviscerated by the stratospheric phaser, egregious pick slides and bursts of feedback that usher in Anyone Can Play Guitar – a brilliantly daft slice of early-90s bombast.
Responding to the title, Kolderie rounded up anyone he could find, including the studio chef, to build a seething guitar maelstrom. Meanwhile, Jonny Greenwood attacked his strings with a paintbrush, a technique Albiini would surely have approved of.
The song is a critique of tasteless fretboard showboating. “Worshipping guitarists is all buying guitar magazines,” Greenwood later spat (ouch). “Anybody can play guitar, but writing songs is a far harder challenge.”
While it stokes the fires of nostalgia, the second half of Pablo Honey is pretty forgettable. Closer Blow Out is most distinct, the raked clean chords and Selway’s jazzy ticking hi-hats evoking Jeff Buckley before it’s whipped up into a shoegaze storm that concludes the album.
Pablo Honey was not met by a fawning critical reception. NME, having recently damned Radiohead as “a pitiful, lily-livered excuse for a rock ‘n’ roll group”, gave the album 7/10. The LA Times dismissed the band for “steering too close to Smiths-like melodies and trying ever so hard to be depressed in the way the Cure popularized”.
Melody Maker’s Simon Price was more measured (and accurate), judging the debut “promisingly imperfect”, while curiously labelling the band “the new Jam” and finding similarities between Blow Out and Dire Straits’ Sultans Of Swing.
Despite a cool reception at home, Creep was gaining the band momentum Stateside thanks to heavy MTV airplay. It was to become a millstone around their necks, though.
After seemingly endless tour dates with PJ Harvey, Belly and James, a politely declined invitation to support Duran Duran and a cancelled Reading Festival show, the band were sick of playing their big single. As Yorke put it, Radiohead had “sucked Satan’s cock”. He later revealed they had come close to splitting up.
Ponder for a moment the direction British guitar music might have taken and the list of bands who wouldn’t exist, at least in the same form, if Radiohead had dissolved in 1993.
Little by little
Despite barely creating a ripple in the album chart, Pablo Honey has since gone triple-Platinum in the UK and sold more than 1.5 million copies in the US.
The album has also been subject of copious critical revisionism; by 1998, Q was naming it the 61st best album of all time. But Pablo Honey’s greatest legacy is that it gave the band the latitude to record more nuanced material.
“The second album is going to be much better than the first,” predicted Yorke. Two years later, The Bends yielded more complete evidence of the extreme, generational talents of its three guitarists.
However, the three albums that followed – OK Computer, Kid A and Amnesiac – changed the musical world in just five years. Having put Britpop out of its misery, Radiohead concocted a radical fusion of ambient electronica and era-defining use of the guitar, becoming the world’s most innovative band in the process.
That half-decade evolution stands alongside The Beatles’ metamorphosis from 1963 to 1967 as one of the most pivotal transformations ever witnessed. It’s nigh-on impossible to imagine modern music without Radiohead, and it all started with Pablo Honey.
Standout guitar moment
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