Album A&E - an occasional series where we rescue under-rated albums from critical oblivion
When I look into the tiny baby eyes on the cover of ‘Pablo Honey’, I sense that it feels unloved. It’s routinely referred to not just as the worst Radiohead record, but as the runt of the litter by some considerable distance.
Assessing the latest round of Radiohead reissues a couple of years ago, Pitchfork’s Scott Plagenhoef joylessly decreed that 'Pablo Honey' "didn't betray hints of the band Radiohead would become” on the way to awarding it a derisory 5.4. Meanwhile Robert Christgau – self-appointed ‘Dean of American Rock Critics’ - didn’t even bother giving 'Pablo Honey' a grade. Instead he named ‘Creep’ his “choice cut”, and deemed the rest of the album “not worth your time or money.”
These men are wrong. I know it’s easy to get carried away by the fantastically clever stuff that followed. It may have only been a year later that they were putting out the ‘My Iron Lung’ EP, but ‘Pablo Honey’ is far too good to be seen as mere juvenilia. Go and put it on now. From the opening squall of 'You' this is a record that still sounds fresh and visceral and alive. If it came out tomorrow it would still sound fantastic, almost 20 years on.
The second track on the record is called ‘Creep’ and you may have heard it from time to time if you’ve frequented indie discos at any point in the last two decades. Some people seem to have a problem with this song, which I’ve never understood. It’s just too thrilling, perhaps? The guitars maybe a little too exciting? No. Not liking ‘Creep’ is as pointlessly contrarian as not liking ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ or the sound of music played loud or the concept of joy.
The band have changed now, leaving their bedroom teenage angst behind, so it’s no surprise that these songs rarely get a live airing anymore. Still, you’d struggle to find anything in their catalogue that’s as unabashedly direct as tracks like 'Stop Whispering', 'Anyone Can Play Guitar' and 'I Can’t'.
Sure you can pick the influences out easily enough, a dash of Nirvana, a pinch of REM, a side order of Pixies, but since when was liking great bands a bad thing? Guess what: Radiohead are still taking ideas from all over the place, it’s just now it’s more likely to be Jonny Greenwood pilfering from the likes of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. All great artists steal, and ‘Pablo Honey’ is the sound of one of the best bands of this or any other generation playing the music that taught them all their good early lessons. Now go and play it loud and show it it’s not unloved.