Countdown to IN RAINBOWS Pt. 1 — PABLO HONEY

By way of introduction — so, this is my big ol’, highly random, kinda crazy, ‘I’m doing it anyway’ blog project. It’s the type of thing that in a lot of eyes:

  • …only a goofy blogger with time to kill would do. Yup, not denying it. We’ll see how this all plays out, though.
  • …only a severely obsessed Radiohead fan would do. Not really, though. The vast majority of what I’m going to be relistening to and talking about is stuff I haven’t heard in years, in some cases over a decade. My listening patterns are my own and there’s a lot of stuff that I’ve heard in recent years more that I like rather less.
  • …adds to the whole ‘OMG Radiohead are so important we must study their every move’ mythos. There’s plenty of that about, not here. At least, it’s just not my way. People have created stage productions out of Radiohead lyrics and the like. Fine, but that’s a case of loving not too wisely but too well as I see it.
  • …is going to be solipsistic claptrap. Well yeah, but if you’re reading this blog you’ve learned to expect THAT by now.
  • …is a pointless diversion from the issues that are going to kill us all, perhaps literally. No, only if you want it to be. I call it part of life.
  • That all stated, onward.

    It is 1993.

    Early 1993 to be specific, not winter early but no later than early spring. I’m in grad school at UCI, have been for a little under a year, taking advantage of a surprise offer of a fellowship at the English department there. Four years, fully covered. Won’t say no. I live in grad housing on campus and have been wondering a bit about this Internet thing my friend Brian hangs around on.

    Met Brian at KUCI, the campus’s radio station, which was the second thing on campus I sought out after the department itself. One of the first people I met there. Having worked at KLA at UCLA for almost four years I breezed into a slot at KUCI like that, a late night one initially, but by this time I have moved to a reasonably late one instead of a punishingly early morning one. Those I hated, I admitted, but you do what you do.

    So it’s one of these slots, and I’m flipping through the new releases. After a slight interruption in fall 1992 as I concentrated on my studies, plus went through a messy personal phase, I am once again a regular reader of the UK music press, specifically Melody Maker, where a lot of my favorite writers can be found. This being the case a variety of the names of the time that were getting hyped over there were things I was fairly au fait with, though my ability to hear them was not always easy (if I had listened to Rodney on the Roq more this might not have been a problem, but hey). Still, they had turned me on to Disco Inferno among other bands, for which I am eternally grateful still. At the time, a jumble of names are in my brain, some of definite interest, some of slight.

    I notice a familiar name in the new release rack. “Radiohead, heard of them. ‘Creep,’ heard of that. Hmm, might as well play it.”

    I do so. And my initial reactions are a bit like this.

    “Hmm, nice enough.

    “Guy’s got a good voice, sorta world weary

    “Whoops, a swear word. Well at least it’s late night and –

    HOLY HELL where’d that guitar come from?!”

    Backtracking.

    In the summer of 1992 I visited the UK for the first time. I spent a good chunk of it in Oxford. My reasons for going were twofold — I wanted to celebrate my graduation from UCLA, and I wanted to attend a fantastic conference on Tolkien at Keble College. It was the 100th anniversary of his birth and I wanted to be there for it — a fantastic event, one I am still glad to have attended.

    Being in Oxford was also of interest to me because one of my favorite groups ever, one I’m still fond of, came from there. Ride. I’d seen them a couple of months beforehand for the second (and as it proved, final) time in LA, two nights at the Palace, Slowdive opening one night, the Pale Saints the other. Shoegaze heaven, once again. So given I was in Oxford I took the time to wander around, visit the record store that the band had namechecked in a past newsletter, get a sense of the place rather than simply drowning in the academic mystique. Americans coming to the UK for the first time too easily buy into a myth about it and while I wasn’t fully clear on that in my head yet I was vaguely trying to kick against the obvious. Vaguely.

    I did not, though, go and see local bands. Should’ve done. Never know what I would have found. I would not, it seems, have found Radiohead. According to this page, no dates were played in August, the month I was there, except at the very end, and that was out of town. But presumably the band were there in whole or in part, kicking around, working their jobs, gearing up for the tour that was centered around the original release of the “Creep” single (trivia: in the UK, “Creep” did nowhere near as well initially as the follow-up, “Anyone Can Play Guitar” — the former’s anthem status there kicked in only after it was an anthem here, but that jumps ahead a bit). For all I know I passed by them any number of times — five people, small city center, no students around much.

    In my memory Oxford struck me as a place that, if you lived there, was pleasant or could be, though it seemed rougher corners were equally evident. Town vs. gown is the eternal struggle in such towns, and town has it worse for the most part. Away from the colleges was suburbia, dumpier corners as well. Forming a band to get out of it, why not? Ride had done it. The Jennifers, who were on the verge of releasing their first and only single (I think) were doing it, shortly before they transmogrified into Supergrass. And Radiohead had already done it, had already done one tour around England, were gearing up for the next. They’d already signed to EMI, done their initial press interviews. They were kinda known by some, a small amount.

    Their last fully anonymous summer. It was a good August, I remember that.

    It’s later in 1993 and I am standing in the back of the Palladium in LA. Strange venue, cavernous sound, I’ve already been to see many shows there a number of times. At one of them, a random lineup of the godlike L7, the never-fails-to-entertain Redd Kross and the immortal Butthole Surfers at the headliner, I was up in one balcony while, allegedly, one Kurt C. and Courtney L. were first meeting or close to it in the other. At another I was marvelling at the opening act for Fugazi, an opening act who were just incredible — I’d never heard Fugazi but the show was of course cheap, friends were going and MAN their opening act was great! Who could top them! Then the opening act came out for an encore and I went, “Wait…this IS Fugazi.” (The actual opening act was this kinda generic hardcore band with a braided-hair lead singer that were all right. The first time I ever saw the Offspring, I realized in later years.) I missed the Happy Mondays there a couple of years beforehand but my roommate Beau told me he only went for the opening act — an utterly out of place but loving every minute of it Bongwater — and then found he couldn’t leave the show because the security wouldn’t let him. Sounds like LA security to me.

    The headliner tonight is PJ Harvey — I was still kicking myself for missing her set the previous fall (with David J! what a wonderful combination) and with the release of Rid of Me she had already packed in a huge fanbase. Good thing too, the album was a monster and was the second in the can-do-no-wrong series of releases she has put out since. Bottom of the bill is the fairly weird and good Moonshake, before Margaret Fiedler has left to form Laika. She and Dave and the band do their thing and most of the crowd is bemused and confused. I am too, frankly, but I hadn’t settled into their work yet (part of the unexpected munificence of Rick Rubin, who has signed the Too Pure label to American distribution — later ensuring that the godlike Pram and Long Fin Killie can both tour the States, both of whom I also miss, to my eternal regret).

    In the middle, meanwhile, is the band that has the smash single of the summer on KROQ. Nobody else comes close. Sure, it’s a slightly edited version of the original — a ‘fucking’ has been tamed to a ‘very’ — but “Creep” is omnipresent. Even as the hype is already starting to build for the new releases by Nirvana and Pearl Jam, something else with loud, loud guitars has clawed its way onto the charts. MTV is kicking into heavy rotation. This song is known. By default, so is the band now. Suede are trying to kick into US consciousness around the same time but they’ve been decisively, completely trumped. Radiohead have, even if only in a one-hit-wonder way so far, broken America.

    I watch from the back as mentioned — I’ll go up later for PJ (and do, and have a great time). In retrospect the memories are dim. They’re on stage, they’re playing and they seem, well, okay enough to be there. They’re not actually part of the tour, this is a one-off date, part of, again referring to the gigography page, a series of LA performances including a separate club headlining show, a radio session, and a TV appearance for Arsenio Hall. It’s not a bad initial touchdown in LA, and it helps that they are the in thing.

    I remember Thom’s hair. EVERYONE remembers Thom’s hair. It was in all the photos then, he had grown it into this strange…mop. It wasn’t grunge. It wasn’t glam. It wasn’t ANYTHING. It was, just, well, strange. The stage lights glinted off of it, it shook a lot. Some rock people do big hair really well. Thom Yorke didn’t, frankly. But he was happy with it, at least initially, and hey, like I’m one to talk. Still, I think I was doing a touch better than him. However, he was the one on stage and I wasn’t, so enough of that.

    I had a promo tape of Pablo Honey at this point; I would have preferred a CD but I only got that bit later. I really loved “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” scattered other songs. The setlist indicates they played that but I only remember “Creep.” Because the place, unsurprisingly, went nuts. And I think the band were already pretty tired of it. But they played it, and they knew why they were there in the first place, why they had a leg up over all the other bands whose first LA appearances were small club showcases and nothing else. It was because of that song.

    Later that year in a writing class, the first I ever teach, I ask people to name their favorite songs and why in a brief essay. Several people mention “Creep.” The lyrics are a particular factor and are quoted more than once.

    Listening to Pablo Honey now is kinda weird. Rephrase that, a lot weird. It’s not because there’s no ‘experimentation’ — the lazy but understandable tag that has been used too much about the band over the years, and which I’ve probably used a lot of times, and is distracting to what works about the band. More on that in later days.

    Halfway through it today I thought, “You know, this reminds me of the Cure.” Not in terms of sound. Not…entirely. But it does, in this sense, stretched as it might be: when the Cure came out for the first time, goth wasn’t yet a tag (sure, there might be music with a Gothic touch, but those references were used with a knowing intentionality, a reference to styles of art and aesthetics from another time). They were just a band, in a wider context into which they slotted. But they had a couple of things going for them — catchy song structures that were slightly arcane, just a hair off from straightforward. They had a good live reputation. And they had a hit, a small one, not “Creep” level, not yet, but “Boys Don’t Cry” was enough of a hit to justify the tag. There was a vein, easily mined further, waiting for them to pursue.

    They sidestepped.

    This is to project a bit, and to try and fit situations fifteen years or so apart into different contexts, near and yet far. And yet like Three Imaginary Boys/Boys Don’t Cry or whatever you want to call the first Cure album, it is like and yet unlike in Radiohead’s history. It is definitely a product of its time and the band are a product of its influences; so taken are they by what can be called a certain American modern rock sound that more than half of it has been recorded by the team of Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie over in the States. Compare this to the Cure recording their debut using stolen studio time and borrowed equipment from the Jam, a slight difference. The guitars are state of the art for the time — loud, crisply sludgy, big sounding but not irritating, very well sculpted in all their distorted chunk.

    It’s a thorny album at points, Pablo Honey. It’s catchy but not quite obvious. Some songs are just loud-as-fuck brawlers and there’s no reticence or delicacy about them at all, at least on first blush — “How Do You?” might as well be Sunset Strip cock-rock, or maybe more appropriately the Manic Street Preachers‘ attempt at same (it ain’t quite “You Love Us” but it’s not that far removed – hell, the piano is almost boogie, in a fractured Mike Garson-playing-for-Bowie sense). The first song is essentially a very loud waltz, sorta. “Anyone Can Play Guitar” looks at the rock myth, junks it, but at high fist-pumping volume. There’s a bit of zone/drone guitar at the start of “I Can’t” that’s all the more attractive to me by being the only thing like it on the disc (though the not-quite-gaze but kinda “Blow Out” comes close). Among the apparent ballads is “Lurgee,” in which the tender celebration is because the object of affection isn’t around at all. Then there’s “Creep.” I have very little to say about “Creep.” It’s great and I need never hear it again and I love it every time I do hear it, especially when Thom hits that high note after the second chorus. I kinda think this is the moment that when people first heard it they really went, “…damn.”

    Still, I also remember something good friend Stripey said in later years. “You know, the people who say they really love that song? In my experience, they usually are creeps.”

    The other day friend Juan mentioned this was his favorite album from them still, specifically because of “Thinking About You.” Tense, acoustic, brisk, chiming, not quite U2 but not far gone, Coldplay if they were a bit bratty and desperate instead of boring and withdrawn. I can see why he likes it.

    It is sometime later in 1993. I am home, and watching MTV (the grad housing does not have cable and I indulge in it during said trips home, which happen once every few months). Beavis and Butthead are making fun of Radiohead for a bit.

    Then the guitar part on “Creep” kicks in.

    “YES! YES! YES!”

    I knew how they felt.

    Thank you, YouTube — embedding on here seems flaky, so some of these might end up being direct links:

    “Creep” on TV, August 1993 — maybe Arsenio?

    “Creep” on Conan:

    “Inside My Head” in Chicago, summer 1993:

    “Prove Yourself” — I think from the Live at the Astoria video, I’d guess:

    “Anyone Can Play Guitar” — ‘live at the MTV Beach House!’ Some things we will never see again:

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