This week’s news that makes us feel old: today marks exactly 20 years since an upcoming Oxford quintet who went by the name of Radiohead released their debut album. Pablo Honey was a record that got little love at the time and has had relatively little since. Back in 1993 it was overshadowed by the globe-conquering success of its hit single, “Creep,” and these days it’s overshadowed by the albums that followed it — as, indeed, has much of the band’s early work. And that’s a shame, because some of it was great. To celebrate the anniversary of Pablo Honey, we thought we’d revisit some of Radiohead’s great under-appreciated 1990s songs, from b-sides and rarities to overlooked album tracks. Do let us know your suggestions if you have any!
The general consensus among casual fans is that Pablo Honey was basically “Creep,” “Stop Whispering,” “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” and a bunch of other tracks that shouldn’t be mentioned in polite company. That’s not entirely fair, though, because the album certainly had its moments. Foremost among them was this track, which belies its gentle sound with a lyric that equates leaving a shitty relationship with shaking off a persistent cold.
Thom Yorke’s lyrics have always had their share of obliquely political references, and this track was one of several that explored his fascination with the US’s policies in Latin America. It references the plot of Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and the conduct of the notorious United Fruit Company, cramming a lot of history into a short, forlorn ballad that can be found in acoustic form on the Itch EP and in its studio incarnation on the b-side to “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” (That’s the former above.)
In the same vein is this song, the title of which references the large manufacturing facilities set up by US firms across the border in Mexico to take advantage of cheap labor costs and questionable safety regulations, although the lyrics are so non-specific that they’re applicable to wanting to blaze your way out of just about any shitty work situation. The song features a particularly coruscating Jonny Greenwood solo (and also bears something of a resemblance to ancient On A Friday-era track “Shindig.”)
“Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong”
Back in the days when singles were actually a thing, you could often judge what sort of songwriting form a band were in by the quality of their b-sides. (See also: Suede.) The fact that that this epic ended up as one of the tracks on the My Iron Lung EP, which preceded the release of The Bends, shows what a rich vein of creativity Radiohead tapped into between their first and second records. Also, “I stood in front of her face/ When the first bullet was shot” is right up there with Morrissey’s double-decker bus as far as disconcerting declarations of love go.
“You Never Wash Up After Yourself”
Also from My Iron Lung, this crams a wealth of forlorn alienation into eight lines and a simple repeating arpeggiated guitar figure. The imagery of someone confined to their apartment by depression (or perhaps addiction) is vivid and disturbing (“The dust settles, the worms dig/ Spiders crawl over the bed”), and the whole thing is one of the most subtly effective lyrics that Yorke’s ever written.
It will surprise absolutely no one to learn that Thom Yorke didn’t enjoy high school a great deal — not if this Bends-era b-side is anything to go by, anyway.
“Faithless the Wonder Boy”
A very early track that was a fine demonstration of Yorke’s ability to transition smoothly from the innocuous to the disturbing — the lyric starts with a rather standard adolescent declaration of want (“All my friends have skateboards”) but veers pretty quickly into Chucky territory (“I want a knife and a gun and things/ But mom and dad will not give in”), before segueing into the disconcertingly hummable “I can’t put the needle in” chorus. The Pixies-influenced quiet/loud dynamics the band deploys would be put to good use in a certain other song from this same era, too.
Another great Pablo Honey album track — it’s the album’s opening track, in fact, and introduces the themes of borderline obsessive love that run throughout the record (“You are the sun, the moon, the stars are you/ And I could never run away from you”). This song continued to surface in the band’s live sets all throughout the ’90s and early 2000s; they rarely play it these days, though, perhaps because it must be a hell of a struggle for poor Thom to hit that high note at 1:48.
And finally, a couple of great lost OK Computer-era tracks. “Palo Alto” appeared on the Airbag/How Am I Driving EP, and actually dates from after the album — at the time, it appeared to signpost a fascinating new direction for the band, building on the unconventional sounds that characterized OK Computer and twisting them into fractured, abrasive shapes. In the event, Thom Yorke would embrace electronic music and made Kid A instead, making this both the final progression of the band’s pre-2000 sound and a tantalizing taste of what a guitar-led Kid A might have sounded like.
“Big Ideas (Don’t Get Any)”
If you have In Rainbows, you’ll recognize this as “Nude” — but the track had been kicking around for the best part of a decade by the time the band finally found a way to record it. (See also: “True Love Waits,” which the band still hasn’t recorded, despite it having been in their live setlists for the best part of 20 years.) This recording is from Tokyo in early 1998 — it is, in fact, the very first performance of the song, with Yorke introducing it as simply “an unreleased song.”