Pablo Honey occupies a rather odd place in Radiohead‘s formidable back catalog: It’s their first studio album, the one that contains “Creep,” which would basically set the stage for their next two decades of artistic growth. And yet, aside from that song’s arty, anguished guitar stabs, there’s little else on the album that even hints at the greatness to come … it was named after a Jerky Boys bit, for crying out loud.
If anything, the album shows a band poised on the precipice, still trying to work through their myriad of influences and find their way. You can hear it in songs like “Stop Whispering,” “Anyone Can Play Guitar” and “Blow Out,” which feel strangely foreign given the group’s current context as the premiere art-rock ensemble of a generation. And really, that’s what makes Pablo Honey so fascinating — it’s the only Radiohead album that doesn’t sound like a Radiohead album, the one before they made that great artistic leap. And because of all that came after, it’s the often the band’s most overlooked effort.
Still, on Friday (February 22), Pablo Honey turns 20 … and MTV News is marking the occasion by speaking with the two men who produced the album, Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade, to get the backstory on its creation, and re-capture a time when Radiohead were just another alt-rock band with grand ambitions and one really great song.
“Sean and I had done a lot of records in America that were bigger in England, like Dinosaur Jr. and Buffalo Tom, so we said ‘Let’s go to England and try to get some work,’” Kolderie said. “Our manager set up a meeting with Nick Gatfield, who was with EMI at the time, and he said ‘Well, we have this band Radiohead, and we’re trying to get bigger guitar sounds with them, would you be interested?’ He played us a couple of early demos, but you could hear Thom’s voice was great, so we said ‘Sure, let’s do it.’ We were looking for work and they were looking for producers that were kind of fluent in guitar.”
“So we met Radiohead and the first thing I remember thinking was that they were incredibly young; they had basically just gotten out of college, but they had been friends since they went to public school together,” Slade added. “So I was aware of their unity — they seemed like a band that was together for the right reasons; they were friends and they really loved each other and they loved making music together. And you could hear that even in those early demos.”
After that initial meeting, Kolderie and Slade were given a de facto audition: record a pair of songs with the band that would be played to the folks at EMI Music. Neither track ended up making much of an impact, though an impromptu performance of a third song certainly did: It was “Creep,” the single that would change everything … even if neither of the producers knew it was an original composition at the time.
“When they played it, Thom mumbled something like ‘That’s our Scott Walker song,’ but I thought he said ‘That’s a Scott Walker song,’ and, at the time, I wasn’t the biggest Scott Walker scholar, so, on the way out of the studio, Slade said something like ‘Wow, that cover song was great,‘” Kolderie laughed. “And so, when we were in the weeds in the studio a few days later, trying to get a good take and it wasn’t going that great, so I said, ‘For a change of pace, why don’t you guys try that Scott Walker song?’ So they just did it, they only played it once, and by the end of the day, I called our A&R person at EMI, and I said ‘We have this other song, I think it’s worth working on.’
Understandably, the EMI agreed, though they (and a whole lot of other people) took issue with a section that would become the song’s signature: Jonny Greenwood’s singular guitar slash, which the band had affectionately dubbed “The Noise.”
“I heard from a couple very professional producers who expressed amazement that we left it in,” Slade said. “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.”
And while that angry, angular departure suggested that Radiohead had higher aspirations, it wasn’t the only clue. Though they were very young, the band came into the studio with a determination that belied their age: They wanted to take everything that had inspired them and turn it into something more.
“There was an undercurrent of seriousness, especially with Thom. A seriousness of purpose and a seriousness of trying to create music that was a little different. They had a lot of influences — U2, Ride, Sonic Youth — but they were always trying to figure it all out,” Slade said. “I remember one morning coming into the studio and I heard somebody playing almost a Brubeck-style jazz piano, and I said ‘Wow, who’s that?‘ And it was Jonny in there, just playing. So it was fairly obvious that they were a very talented band.”
And though Radiohead would go on to do great things with their next album, The Bends (which Kolderie and Slade would mix the majority of), their debut holds a special place in the hearts of both producers … and not just because it was a snapshot of a band still stretching their legs and trying to make everything work. No, Pablo Honey also represents something more pure; simply put, there’s an innocence to the whole thing.
“I remember having a lot of fun with them. The studio was kind of an old converted school, and we’d be watching movies, staying up late, drinking warm ale,” Kolderie said. “There weren’t really weren’t any horrible sex and drugs stories … I remember it was rainy and cold all the time, but one day, about 1 p.m., the sun came out and it was a blazing, glorioussun, and everyone just ran outside and took their shirts off and sat in the sun. Now, looking back on it, it’s hilarious — Radiohead without their shirts — but at the time, it was just fun.”
“When we finished the album, I thought they could be a really great band, but they were so young they were not physically up to the task. And I thought ‘If those guys go out and tour for a while, and get some stamina and perform a bunch, they’re going to be a totally different band,’” Slade added. “And it ended up happening because ‘Creep’ became this huge hit, and so they did a year-and-a-half of touring, and if anything I attribute their amazing leap forward with the fact they had gone out and played for a whole year, and physically became a different band. A great band.”
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