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Radiohead’s ‘Pablo Honey’: 10 Things You Didn’t Know

Jonny Greenwood’s serendipitous sabotage attempt on “Creep,” a song about wanking and other trivia related to the band’s 1993’s debut

Jordan Runtagh Feb 22, 2018

Radiohead in a promo shoot for their latest album 'A Moon Shaped Pool'. Photo: Alex Lake

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The first major step in Radiohead’s lengthy journey from Oxford club mainstays to globally lauded architects of contemporary art rock took the form of Pablo Honey, their debut LP, issued on February 22nd, 1993. While the album lacks the musical daring that characterized their later works, it finds the band wearing their influences openly, with a refreshing absence of self-consciousness. Glimmers of U2, the Cure, the Smiths and even the Who shine through, signs of Thom Yorke & Co. struggling to assert their dour Britishness in a scene increasingly choked with grunge sounds wafting in from Seattle. Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of Pablo Honey is how undistinguished it sounds ”“ as if the band was simply trying to make songs rather than a major statement.

As Pablo Honey turns 25, here are 10 fascinating facts you might not know about Radiohead’s debut album.

1. The title comes from a Jerky Boys prank-call skit.

In the early Nineties, fellow Thames Valley alt rockers Chapterhouse passed Radiohead a bootleg tape of prank phone calls that had been making the rounds in the New York comedy underground. It was the product of Johnny Brennan and Kamal Ahmed, two childhood friends from Queens who called themselves the Jerky Boys. Together they terrorized the Gotham area via telephone, pleading with unsuspecting piano tuners to help “get my fuckin’ dawg out from inside the piano … he’s a Rottweiler,” urging strangers to “fuck my wife up the ass,” or doing battle with rigid receptionists. “Some of it’s really sick,” Thom Yorke told Select in May 1993. “Some of it I can’t cope with. But the notion of phoning up people cold is so Nineties. It’s just the ultimate sacrilege ”“ turn up in someone’s life and they can’t do anything about it.”

One sketch that Radiohead found especially hilarious, in which one of the Jerkys posed as the confused victim’s mother, opened with a feebly moaned, “Pablo, honey? Please come to Florida.” The band decided to use the line when it came time to title their debut album. “‘Pablo Honey’ was appropriate for us, being all mothers’ boys,” Yorke later joked. Radiohead also sampled the sketch during the guitar solo on the song “How Do You,” giving the mainstream public its first taste of the bit. The comedy duo would release it themselves the following year as the opening track on their platinum album, The Jerky Boys 2.

2. “Stop Whispering” is one of the oldest Radiohead songs, dating back to their days as On a Friday.

Ed O’Brien once referred to Pablo Honey, with some derision, as “a collection of our greatest hits as an unsigned band.” In fact, a number of tracks on the album date back to Radiohead’s earlier incarnation, On a Friday, formed during their time as students at the Abingdon School in their native Oxfordshire. Named for the day they gathered to rehearse each week, the nascent group weathered a lengthy hiatus while they attended university to reconvene in 1991. That spring they recorded a three-track cassette at Dungeon Studios, which included “Stop Whispering,” a song written as a tribute to the Pixies (though they later admitted they missed the mark, landing somewhere in early U2 territory). O’Brien described the song in 1993 as being “about people not standing up for their rights: Stop whispering and start shouting.” They liked it enough to record it for Pablo Honey, but re-recorded it yet again when it came time to release the song as a single in the United States. “We were just never happy with the version on the album,” O’Brien told Creem after it was issued in October 1993. “For us, it kind of lost the plot. So we rerecorded it in a day and a half. It’s more atmospheric now. Like a Joy Division from the late ’70s, early ’80s.”

Radiohead pulled three more songs from their On a Friday”“era back catalogue while recording Pablo Honey: “You,” “I Can’t,” and “Thinking About You.” These had first been recorded in October 1991 at Courtyard, a local studio belonging to the band’s future manager, Chris Hufford. The five-song cassette was sold at an Oxford record shop called Manic Hedgehog, from which the demo took its unofficial name. Its simple, homemade cover insert depicts a childlike drawing, done by Yorke, of an alien head flanked by the words “Work Sucks.”

3. Jonny Greenwood’s aggressive guitar stabs in “Creep” were intended to ruin the song.

The menacing guitar stabs that come just before the chorus of “Creep” are arguably the song’s most memorable hook. They also came about spontaneously. When the band ran through the song at Chipping Norton Recording Studios, not far from their native Oxford, they had no idea the tape was rolling ”“ and Jonny Greenwood was just messing around. “It was recorded while we were actually in the studio to record two other songs,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1993. “We were asked to play some things to check the levels of the tape, and we just did one that we liked best from rehearsing it the day before. We’d only written it the week before and we were just kind of very keen to play it for each other, and they happened to record it.” According to drummer Phil Selway, the surprise tactic paid dividends for the studio novices. “When it was recorded, we didn’t even know it was being taped ”“ we were just warming up for another track by it. The reason it sounds so powerful is because it’s completely unselfconscious.”

The mood was so light that Greenwood felt free to express his distaste for the song’s serene intro. “I didn’t like it. It stayed quiet,” he said later. “So I hit the guitar hard ”“ really hard.” By slashing out a series of muffled dead notes, he created what was affectionately dubbed “The Noise” by the rest of the band. “That’s the sound of Jonny trying to fuck the song up,” recalled Ed O’Brien. “He really didn’t like it the first time we played it, so he tried spoiling it. And it made the song.” The distorted fuzz rudely burst into “Creep” unannounced, elbowing aside the fragile guitar arpeggio and Yorke’s frail vocals in favor of the soaring chorus. The positive effect was immediately apparent, and the band ended the take by bursting into applause. That performance would ultimately form the basis of the final track, including the Noise. “I heard from a couple very professional producers who expressed amazement that we left it in,” co-producer Sean Slade told MTV in 2013. “Of course, not only did we leave it in, but we made it so loud that it punched you in the face. And really, ‘The Noise’ has almost become as famous as the song itself.”

Once “Creep” was earmarked as Pablo Honey‘s lead single, EMI requested that Radiohead record a “clean” version for radio, eliminating the “fucking” in the second verse. The band initially thought that censoring themselves was, according to Jonny Greenwood, “a bit of a sellout … but then we thought, ‘Sonic Youth has done it.’ We thought it wouldn’t be that bad.” Since Yorke was required back in the studio, co-producer Paul Q. Kolderie decided to come clean about something: He wasn’t thrilled about a few of the lyrics.

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“When we first did ‘Creep,’ the first verse was different. I don’t remember exactly what it was now, but it was not good lyrically, sort of stupid and funny,” Kolderie recalled in Marc Randall’s Exit Music: The Radiohead Story. Though the full text has been lost to time, “shoulder of lamb, frying in a pan” was apparently one memorable couplet. “When we went back in [to record the censored version] I told Thom I thought that verse could be better, and at first he said, ‘It’s already written, I can’t change it.’ I said, ‘Of course you can. Look, we’re here to change these other words. We’re going to record some vocals anyway. Come on, you can do better than that.'” Yorke acquiesced, returning 10 minutes later with the lyrics heard on the final recording ”“ and a “very” to replace the offending “fucking.” Over the years, Kolderie’s admiration for Yorke’s quick work has multiplied. “Ever since then, I’ve tried to do that with other artists ”“ ‘Hey man, why don’t you just go in right now and make that better?’ ”“ and I’ll tell you, it’s a rare person who can do it.”

5. “Anyone Can Play Guitar” features Jonny Greenwood whacking his six-string with a paintbrush.

“I never listened to guitar playing in any band, ever,” Jonny Greenwood railed in 1998. It’s a surprising sentiment coming from the man widely believed to be the six-string prodigy of Radiohead. “Worshiping guitarists is all buying guitar magazines. Anybody can play guitar, but writing songs is a far harder challenge. I’d rather idolize someone like Elvis Costello than I would Steve Vai.” This egalitarian view is clear throughout “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” the second single released off Pablo Honey. The song deconstructs the myth of rock & roll stardom, specifically taking aim at Jim Morrison, whose posthumous popularity had surged due to Oliver Stone’s big budget 1991 biopic on the Doors. “It’s really just a series of thoughts about getting up onstage, making a brat of yourself and making a career out of it,” Yorke said of the track in a 1993 interview with Melody Maker. “I’m sure it was great to be Jim Morrison in 1968, but a lot of people can’t relinquish these obsessions.” For any fans who may have missed the point, Yorke was even more blunt during an MTV performance that same year, following up the sarcastic line “Maybe if I grow my hair I can become Jim Morrison” by shouting “Fat! Ugly! Dead!”

While recording the song, Radiohead set about trying to prove the title in a very literal sense. “We rounded up everyone in the studio,” Kolderie says in Exit Music: The Radiohead Story. “All five band members, Sean and I, the studio owner, the cook ”“ and gave each person a guitar. Everyone got assigned their own track, and they could do whatever they wanted. The idea was to live up to the title: anyone can play guitar. So they did, and we made it into a little sound collage at the beginning.” For added effect, Jonny Greenwood took a paintbrush to the strings of his Fender Telecaster. Favoring stylistic innovation over flashy shredding would become a hallmark of his playing throughout the band’s career. “I don’t know any guitar scales,” he insisted in a 1993 issue of Guitar. “Well, I know one major one ”“ that’s it ”“ and l just move up and down the neck depending on what modes I want. But you can get by with just chords. Rather than being able to play two thousand notes a minute, I can play an E chord anywhere on the neck and that’s more interesting, I think.”

6. “Thinking About You” is Colin and Jonny Greenwood’s mom’s favorite track ”“ even though “it was about wanking.”

The Greenwood brothers took great pleasure in ribbing their staid mother by playing up their supposed life of rock & roll debauchery. “Jonathan often teases her about all the drug benders he goes on,” Colin said in a 1995 interview with Select. “And she sits there saying, ‘Oh yes? How nice, dear.’ It was funny, when we first got signed she wouldn’t tell our grandfather what we were doing because she thought it would finish him off.” Despite her initial reservations, she gave their debut a perfunctory spin or two. “She is quite proud of us, I suppose,” says Jonny. “Her favorite song on the first LP was ‘Thinking About You’ which has the line ‘I’m playing with myself.‘ She had no idea it was about wanking.”

The track, a gentle revision of their high-octane Drill EP song stripped down to double-tracked acoustic guitars and a fragile pump organ, isn’t only about wanking. Unrequited love and loneliness are its true emotional focal points, underscored by Thom Yorke’s anxieties towards romance ”“ born in part during his days at the all-male Abingdon School. “I feel tremendous guilt for any sexual feelings I have, so I end up spending my entire life feeling sorry for fancying somebody,” he told Rolling Stone in 1995. “Even in school I thought girls were so wonderful that I was scared to death of them. I masturbate a lot. That’s how I deal with it.”

7. “Creep” got the band sued for sounding like a 1974 hit by the Hollies.

The band initially referred to “Creep” as their “Scott Walker song” when they first debuted it for Kolderie and Slade during early sessions for Pablo Honey. Having misheard them, the producers spent a long stretch believing the tune was actually written by the baritone pop idol turned existential avant-garde troubadour. “We walked out of the rehearsal that night and Sean said, ‘Too bad their best song’s a cover,'” Kolderie recalled of the first time he heard the future hit. Though it was not a Walker original, the bridge for “Creep” did owe a sizable debt to an unlikely source: the catchy pop ditty “The Boat That I Row.” Written by Albert Hammond (father of the Stokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr.) and Mike Hazlewood in 1972, its best-known version was recorded by the Hollies two years later, reaching the upper regions of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Rather than a straight steal, Radiohead intended it as an affectionate homage. “What happened was, we wrote ‘Creep’, and the middle eighth just had … my guitar playing a tune,” Greenwood told Fender Frontlinein 1993. “And Ed stopped and said, ‘This is the same chord sequence as that Hollies song,’ and then sang it. So Thom copied it. It was funny to us in a way, sort of feeding something like that into [it]. It’s a bit of change.” The publishers of “The Air That I Breathe” found it less than funny and filed a suit for copyright infringement, which was ultimately settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. As a result of the case, Hammond and Hazlewood now appear on the song’s writing credits along with the band. “Radiohead agreed that they had actually taken it from ‘The Air That I Breathe,'” Hammond said 2002. “Because they were honest they weren’t sued to the point of saying ‘We want the whole thing.’ So we ended up just getting a little piece of it.”

8. The BBC banned “Creep” for being “too depressing.”
Despite their future status as favorites of the music press, Radiohead’s early efforts failed to bowl over the critics. Following the release of “Creep” as a single in the fall of 1992, the NME described them as a “pitiful, lily-livered excuse for a rock ‘n’ roll group,” and intentionally ran an unflattering photo of Yorke captioned with the words “ugly ugly ugly.” (He never forgot the slight, leading something of a grudge against the outlet.) The Los Angeles Times was more charitable, calling out the lengthy list of influences in their contemporary review. “[The album] doesn’t really deliver anything you haven’t heard before, steering too close to Smiths-like melodies and trying ever so hard to be depressed in the way the Cure popularized,” writes Mario Mundoz. As with the Hollies comparisons, the band was mostly in agreement with these characterizations. “Heaven forbid anyone should judge us on Pablo Honey,” Ed O’Brien told Select in 1997. “We were in hock to Dinosaur Jr. and the Pixies up to our eyeballs.” Yet the most damning criticism wasn’t leveled by a critic. BBC Radio One initially banned “Creep“ from its programming, reportedly deeming it too depressing. But once the song took off abroad, and after Radiohead recorded a censored version, the network reversed the decision.

9. Beavis & Butt-Head played a role in the success of “Creep.”

In addition to the band’s videos earning regular rotation on MTV, Radiohead received an all-important endorsement from the channel’s twin teen titans, Beavis & Butt-Head. On an episode of Mike Judge’s animated series that aired in early 1994, the duo sits around watching the clip for “Creep.” At first, Butt-Head is not impressed by the placid guitar figure that opens the song. “Don’t worry Butthead,” insists a knowing Beavis. “It gets cool in a minute.” As the song shifts into the chorus, the bone-crushing power chords elicit joyful shrieks of “Rock!” from the boys. “Beavis nearly comes, doesn’t he?” Jonny Greenwood laughed when recalling the clip in a May 1996 interview with Spin. The onscreen moment was particularly special for Yorke, a fan of the animated duo. Capitol Records, Radiohead’s American imprint, also appreciated the gesture, and quickly milked it for a new ad campaign. “They were doing ‘I’m a Creep’ contests and placing ads that said ‘Beavis and Butt-Head Say They Don’t Suck,’ Kolderie remembered. The copy touting “Oxford England’s rowdiest band” even included a nod to Beavis and Butt-Head’s trademark “huh-huh-huh” chuckle.

The band would also appear in person on the network, making a memorable ”“ if bizarre ”“ showing on MTV’s Beach House on July 4th, 1993. The pale, moody Englishmen look hopelessly miscast as a peroxide blonde Yorke wails the decidedly downbeat “Creep” and “Anyone Can Play Guitar” surrounded by poolside revelers. He capped off the mini set by leaping into the pool, microphone and all, nearly electrocuting himself in the process.

10. The Bends track “My Iron Long” includes a resentful reference to “Creep.”

Like many newly famous acts, Radiohead quickly came to resent ”“ and even hate ”“ the very thing that vaulted them to superstardom. “Creep” had become a weight around their collective neck by the end of 1993, and the band’s exhausting two-year touring schedule supporting Belly and PJ Harvey did little to soothe any nerves. “There was a point where we seemed to be living out the same four-and-a-half minutes of our lives over and over again,” Ed O’Brien told the Times in 1995. “It was incredibly stultifying.” The pressure to escape the song, now contemptuously referred to as “Crap,” threatened to tear the group apart. “It was frustrating, being judged on just that song when we felt we needed to move on,” Yorke said in an interview with the Denver Post. “We were forced on tour to support it, and it gagged us, really. We were on the verge of breaking up. It was a lesson. The way that modern music culture works is that bands get set in a period of time, and then they repeat that small moment of their lives forevermore ”“ that’s what everybody wants. And that’s just what we weren’t going to do.”

As far as the physically and emotionally exhausted Yorke was concerned, Radiohead had “sucked Satan’s cock” and now the only choice was to push forward ”“ lest they be known as “that ‘Creep’ band” until the end of time. For months they struggled aimlessly in the studio, determined to best their previous work but unsure which direction to take. Band relations had reached their lowest point, but a brief tour helped clear their heads, and eventually the creative juices began to flow.

One of the first new compositions to be written for their follow up to Pablo Honey was “My Iron Lung,” penned after the band cancelled their appearance at the Redding Festival due to Yorke’s vocal problems. Recorded live at London’s Astoria club (though the vocals were redone in a studio), the song seemed to reflect the singer’s tenuous health as he compared Radiohead’s biggest hit to the titular medical device that kept the group alive. “This is our new song, just like the last one, a total waste of time,” he snarls in the verse. By his own admission, Yorke intended “My Iron Lung” to finish “Creep” off for good, dubbing it “the final nail” in the song’s coffin. “But it just wasn’t that at all,” he told B-Side magazine. “We released it because we found it very exciting when we listened to it.” Originally issued as the title track on their 1994 EP, it would be a standout on the Radiohead’s next album, The Bends ”“ a musically dense and emotionally complex masterwork that erased their one-hit-wonder status forever.

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