Anyone who knows me understands that my favorite band of all time is the Beatles. But for me, to say that is almost not worth having a conversation over. It’s not fair. It’s like when my uncle Danny says that he can’t really enjoy most live shows because they don’t play 2 ½ - 3 hour blistering sets that Springsteen does on a regular basis. He feels that just about every band should be held to that standard whereas I understand that Springsteen is an anomaly and to expect his energy and stamina from other live acts is simply unfair and not realistic. For anyone who has seen Springsteen live, you understand that he is truly in a class by himself. And so are the Beatles. So if it ever comes up in conversation, I have to say that the Beatles are my all-time favorite, but I also say that my statement doesn’t really count because it’s unfair to compare all other bands to them. So I quickly follow that point of information by stating that my other favorite band, the one that’s up for grabs and merely arguable, is Radiohead. And they came through for me once again the other day with the release of their eighth album, The King of Limbs.
This album was their second consecutive release that was distributed through internet downloads months before the scheduled CD release in stores. As I downloaded the album Friday night, I was reminded of the other times in my life when I listened to a new Radiohead album for the first time, and I realized that I was about to embark on another historic musical milestone. I could hardly contain myself. This experience got me to thinking about all of their other albums and how they all play a critical role in my collection of music. So I decided it would be a cool idea to start a series of blogs about each album and all the memories and feelings that each one brings about. I knew this would be an intriguing and lengthy task for me but it is also well worth the time. Because for me, listening to a new Radiohead album and trying to digest it is an experience unlike any other in music and no other band or artist has come close to generating the same level of interest, intensity, or excitement that Radiohead has. This all started back in 1993 with their debut release, Pablo Honey.
The first time I had even heard of Radiohead was probably a similar way that most people heard of them. The memory is one of my more faint ones for Radiohead but I do remember watching the video for “Creep” in the living room of my home in Canajoharie, NY. It was in the spring and grunge rock was really coming through in the mainstream. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice and Chains all broke through with the new Seattle sound and with them came a flood of other grunge acts that defined rock for the next decade. Some people, including one of the contributors to this blog (the one who never writes.....hint hint) have vilified that era as being a horrible time for rock, but I was way into it. At least in the beginning. My first impressions of Radiohead were actually not that special. The "Creep" video was done in mostly dull and blurry colors and had a very grainy texture to it. It started off very somber and chill as Yorke’s voice was at times indecipherable as he lazily sang his way through the first verse. But then came the blistering chorus introduced by an urgent and violent strum of Johnny Greenwood’s guitar surrounded by flashing lights which took the song into a completely different direction. Again, I wasn’t all that impressed by it, but I also didn’t hate it. In fact, most of my opinions centered on how strange I thought the band looked. Particularly Yorke and Greenwood. I thought they weren’t that bad, but I also distinctly remember thinking that they would be just like any other alternative band at that time. They surely would blend in with everyone else and eventually fade away in just a few short years.
Despite my lackluster first impression of them, I did find myself purchasing a copy of their album shortly after this introduction at the Crossgates Mall in Albany. I think the store was “Tape World” right near the movie theater. And for some reason, I distinctly remember as I picked up a copy of Pablo Honey that I had a choice in the color of the case that it came in. Half the CD’s came in black cases (as just about ever other CD came in at the time) and the other half were in yellow. I was initially turned off by this oddly colored case and almost bought the black one. But then I remembered the first tape I ever owned, Duran Duran’s live album, Arena. That tape was a Christmas present and although I was psyched to finally have my own tape (which included my favorite song at the time,” Wild Boys” on it) but I was disappointed that it didn’t have the traditional black colored case that most tapes had. No, this one was bright orange in color and I thought it was kinda lame. I wanted a tape just like everyone else. I didn’t want anything different, for that somehow made my possession all the less meaningful. Evidently this bothered me so much that I eventually took that orange case off and switched it for a black one. While this satisfied me for a period of time I later regretted that decision as I learned that most of the tapes I had were black in color, and I never saw another tape that came with an orange back. I realized that having a tape with a different colored case was unique and special and I wanted it back. I did not remember where I put that orange backing and for the life of me I was never able to find it ever again. I still have my copy of Arena and sadly, the cover is still black. I decided I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice and opted for the version of Pablo Honey in a yellow case. To this day it remains the only CD in my collection of hundreds with a yellow case.
I brought the album home and found myself really enjoying it. I also made a point to open up the liner notes (a brief six page insert that included a track listing, the credits, two pictures of the band, and another picture of a rubber toy alligator and a live iguana). Your guess is as good as mine. But I do clearly remember staring at the picture of the band and matching the faces with the names. I was on sort of a kick of familiarizing myself with the bands to which I was listening and I forced myself to learn the band names. They were bizarre and kinda creepy looking and I wondered how they got together to form a band. It was a question I posed to myself often during these years. I was always amazed and curious as to how bands met and what events led up to them recording and releasing an album that had somehow found its way into my bedroom. I still think that’s a great question, but I just don’t find myself thinking about it as much as I did back then.
I had the album on regular rotation as did many of my friends, so I got a lot of listens out of it. I was surprised to learn that in the album version of “Creep”, Yorke didn’t say “very special” as he did in the video, but instead opted for the more profane and less radio-friendly “fucking special” which caused me to be sure I was near the volume control whenever it played so as to ensure my parents wouldn’t hear it and demand I never listen to it again. So yeah, I was happy with my purchase and really dug how it started. However, I usually stopped listening to the album after the first six songs. I thought they were all great and I was particularly into “Anyone Can Play Guitar” ironically because of the cool-ass walking bass line.
But something about the second half of the album just lost me. I can’t explain it or put it into words here but I just found the second half of the album boring. The only song I played on purpose in the latter half of the album was the second recording of “Creep” which was really the censured version we all heard on MTV. It was also the version I put on any mixed tape I made to guarantee I would not run into an awkward situation with my parents in the car as I insisted on playing my mixes on various trips.
Time went by and seven years later I found myself in Oakland, California living with six others in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Radiohead had come to mean something so much more to me in the previous years and were becoming my favorite band of all time (refer to the first paragraph). I loved all their albums but remembered not being that familiar with the second half of Pablo Honey. I wondered if I had not given it much of a chance or if it was in fact, just not that good. Perhaps they were merely a freshman band just trying to understand who they were and were trying to get the kinks out. I listened to it the whole way through for the first time in years and could not believe what I was hearing. The second half was not only good, it was quite possibly better than the first half. The songs sounded familiar but they resonated so much more with me and I started to wonder what my problem was back in 1993. And even more surprising is the fact that the second half of the album contains one of my all-time favorite Radiohead songs, “Lurgee”. To me, it’s their most beautiful recording. It gets me every time.
While Pablo Honey was just the beginning for Radiohead, it also represents their only mainstream/generic/top 40 rock-type sound. Their follow-up album, The Bends is very much rock based but is also much more complex and clearly goes beyond the popular grunge-rock sounds of the mid-90’s. And if you ever see Radiohead live these days, they hardly ever play songs off this album. I've seen them five times and the only time I ever heard a song off Pablo Honey was in Colombia, Maryland when they played "Creep". For years Yorke publicly stated that he hated that song but he eventually got over that and introduced it that night by saying "We like this song now". So yes, Pablo Honey is somewhat generic in its nature. Nobody at the time could have predicted what this band would become based solely on the content of this album. Don’t get me wrong, it is extremely solid and very much underrated, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the creativity they started to unveil four years later and with every album since. But I think that’s what I like so much about it. For Radiohead is an extraordinarily complex band and their music can take months to digest. Sometimes it’s nice to know that I can always go back to a more simple time when the standard framework of a rock band was at the forefront of their makeup. And it’s also nice to know that they can create some great straight forward rock music. I love their more experimental stuff, but every now and then I hope that they go back to a stronger rock sound, for as we’ll see with their second album, they proved themselves to be very good at doing just that.