Precursor To Immortality
Both a treasure map of things to come and a sometimes disjointed debut album, Radiohead released Pablo Honey 30 years ago
I've always been of the opinion that judging a band on its debut album is a bit dangerous until you know everything about the band and more importantly, wait a bit to see if they stick around a make more.
I say this because in most cases, a band has a "lifetime" to write their first record (or at least from the time they first learned how to play instruments and write songs), and if they're on a major label, typically less than a year to follow it up and write the next one. Songwriting is an art and it's fueled by experiences and inspiration. Most songs on a band's debut album were years in the making, ideas germinating in the writer's mind since they first began humming melodies as a child.
This is relevant in the case of Radiohead's debut, full-length album, Pablo Honey (released on February 22, 1993, in the UK and on April 20th in the US) because if you have never heard a Radiohead song and were to start with something off of Kid A or their masterpiece, OK Computer, you'd have a hard time believing the band playing on Pablo Honey is the same as the one playing on later releases.
This doesn't make any of these albums bad, on the contrary, they're all great. Just vastly different.
90s music, mainly rock and several of its subgenres, was known as much for its experimentation as it was for its bombast and eventually, its commercialism. The decade was full of new sounds, looks, and genres, and bands were given more latitude than in previous generations to play with and change their sound from time to time while still keeping (and sometimes adding to) their fanbases.
Looking through the prism of hindsight, Pablo Honey is a perfect example of a debut album that doesn't sound like the band we all know Radiohead to be, but if you listen closely, the hints were layered and mixed in throughout this (often) neglected record.
Some of you may be saying, "how can the album with 'Creep', the band's biggest single to this day, be neglected?" Well, outside of faithful Radiohead fans, most people cannot name another song off Pablo Honey, that's how.
While it's true that "Creep" is the song that not only launched the album but also gave the band its first glimpse of fame and success, like most songs that take off too quickly it has the ability to pigeonhole a band into a sound or style. Radiohead was fully aware of this unwanted phenomenon and took the steps to make sure it wouldn't happen to them.
Did they succeed? That's up for debate.
If you listen to certain songs on Pablo Honey like "Lurgee", "Blow Out", and yes, even "Creep", you can clearly hear elements of who Radiohead would become just a few short years later. Although future albums would be considerably less "rock" oriented, looking back on Pablo Honey does give some insight into the type of band Radiohead always intended on being. It's a lot to ask of a band to make their debut album into a career-defining description.
There's a very good article about this here by Ryan Britt for The Fatherly Turntable website. I was referred to this piece by my friend Mike and it inspired me to write this blog for Generation Riff. Yet another reason why 90s music has lasted as long as it has. People who grew up with it can be and are still interested in discussing it with friends because it truly is the soundtrack to their lives.
If you look at other popular rock bands from the 90s, it's easy to see how a band's first release cannot be used to describe their sound throughout their careers.
Nirvana debuted with Bleach in 1989, a heavy, sludgy record with a crude yet fitting production style. Two years later in 1991, the band released Nevermind, the most popular album of the decade, and its sound and production style couldn't have been any different from its predecessor.
1991 also saw the debut album from Pearl Jam, Ten. While this record may be considered their most well-known, its classic rock influence and slick production sound nothing like anything they've released since nor does it give listeners any indication of how raw and heavy the band sounds live.
The Smashing Pumpkins released their debut album Gish, a record full of heavy bass grooves and atmospheric guitars in 1991, and a few years later dropped the double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness in 1995 which in comparison to their debut sounds like a movie soundtrack with distortion.
There are plenty of other examples but these three came to mind immediately. The lesson here is simple, do not write off a band after its debut album, you never know what's coming down the pike so enjoy the ride. If you need to revisit these debuts after discovering bands mid-career, I'd strongly suggest you do so. You may just discover your favorite "new" record.
I'm currently writing my first book, SLACKER - 1991, Teen Spirit Angst, and the Generation It Created (late 2023 Inspired By You Books) and you can reserve your 1st edition, signed copy here.