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Radiohead Week, Day 5: “I Wanna Be, Wanna Be, Wanna Be Jim Morrison…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 14, 2007

“Your old albums, they sound quickly…old?”

One of my favorite Radiohead theories (which I may or may not have come up with on my own, I can’t remember) is one comparing their run of albums to that of The Beatles. I believe you could apply this to almost any major band of the last 40 years (especially the British ones), but it works especially well for Radiohead. Observe:

  • Rubber Soul = The Bends. Both albums sound like the same bands that made all their previous albums, but with an unmistakably huge growth in songwriting, instrumentation and production. Not quite into experimental territory yet, but enough signs of weirdness to foreshadow later progressions.
  • Revolver = OK Computer. The bands’ universally beloved masterworks. Cohesive, consistent and utterly staggering, two of the only albums in the rock canon that seemingly everyone can agree on. Also function as the sort of midway point for both bands’ careers, separating the early rock/pop stuff from later bizarreness.
  • Sgt. Pepper = Kid A. The bands’ most conceptual records, also the most fluent and least easily broken into its component parts (and of course, neither feature any singles, but are surprisingly commercially successful anyway).
  • Magical Mystery Tour = Amnesiac. Consist of leftovers from the previous album, consequently sound fairly choppy and inconsistent, but contain moments of brilliance that have given them a cult rep in the bands’ ouevres.
  • The White Album = Hail to the Thief. Both bands’ longest and most diverse albums, while marking a sort of “back to basics” compared to the bands’ previous two records.
  • Abbey Road = In Rainbows. Haven’t quite worked this one out yet, but it kind of feels right, doesn’t it?

Obviously there are numerous minor flaws in this theory, but there’s one big one that I’m sure you’ve already noticed–it leaves out all the early stuff. For The Beatles, that’s a lot of stuff–four albums, at least two of which are consider classics, and seemingly countless non-album singles and flips to fill in the gaps. For Radiohead, though, it’s really not that much–it’s one album, one non-album a-side and a handful of b’s. Well, if the theory was perfect, you’d probably have heard it a million times from people way more insightful than me by now.

Nonetheless, I think it kind of brilliantly demonstrates why critics and fans tend to be so harsh on Radiohead’s early years, namely their 1993 debut, Pablo Honey. Imagine if The Beatles released Please Please Me, went away for about a two and a half years, and then came back with Rubber Soul, skipping stepping stones like A Hard Day’s Night (the movie, the single and the album), “No Reply,” “I Feel Fine,” “Yesterday,” years of Beatlemania exhaustion, and basically anything else that would make you think that this band was capable of more than awesome teeny-bopper anthems and above-average R&B covers. Anyone around for it in the 60s would still be feeling the whiplash today.

Yet this is essentially what Radiohead did. It’s sort of hard to remember these days just how ridiculous Radiohead was in those pre-Bends days–if they didn’t quite have the success of world-famous rock stars, they certainly had the attitude. Take this video of the band performing “Anyone Can Play Guitar” at the MTV Beach House. If you’ve seen it before, the mere mention should send shudders down your spine, if you haven’t, whoa Thommy. Even if you can ignore his sunglasses, his tres Parisienne shirt and his ungodly peroxide blonde hair–which, believe me, you can’t–witness the way he preens, the way he attacks the camera with his unbelievably typical rock-star narcissism. The song’s famous Jim Morrison lyric might’ve been meant as ironic, but what’s so notable about it is that there was ever a time when being or not being like Jim Morrison was even on their radar.

The next time we saw the boys, it was the video for “Fake Plastic Trees,” and the rest is pretty much history. Even though, musically speaking, The Bends has far more in common with the band’s early years then anything they would do later, the jump in sophistication–lyrically, musically, and perhaps most importantly, visually (The vids for FPT, “Just” and “Street Spirit” all rank among the tops for the whole decade, and Blondie Thom was never heard from again)–would forever isolate their early material from the band’s later, important years. Consequently, Pablo Honey constantly ranks bottom on fan album-rankings, and is a regular fixture on “Worst Albums By Best Bands” type critic lists.

But I believe that the band’s pre-Bends stuff is extremely worthy–in fact, I’d rank Pablo Honey about as highly as any of their non-OKC/Kid A albums. Listening to songs like “How Do You,” “Thinking About You,” “Vegetable,” “Million Dollar Question,” and yeah, “Anyone Can Play Guitar”–they all shimmer with the energy, hooks and general enthusiasm that all truly great bands should have in their embryo periods. The production is quality, the playing is immaculate, and what’s more, it’s not like there’s nothing connecting this band to the Radiohead we’d come to know and love–take the instrumental last half of “Blow Out,” the 23/8 time hook to “You,” and oh yeah, a little song called “Creep.” Just imagine if we’d had a couple albums’ worth of transition between this and “Street Spirit,” and there’s no reason why Pablo shouldn’t be as beloved as early Beatles.

As long as you forget about “Pop is Dead,” anyway (which, luckily, everyone seems to have done). Still gotta be one of the worst singles of the 90s.

*Underrated Radiohead Songs of the Day*:

India Rubber This FPT b-side is one of the group’s most enigmatic pre-OKC numbers, still can’t quite put my finger on it but I definitely dig it OK.

The Thief A new one on me, a cover of an early Can number that provides the band with one of the best live jams I’ve ever heard from ’em.

Alligators in New York Sewers An early, piano-and-vocal only live run through of the song that would eventually become the “Knives Out” b-side “Fog.” The completed form is much fuller a song, but this is a fascinating and still-spooky look at one of the band’s best b-sides in its most skeletal form.

Paperbag Writer Most of the band’s HTTT-era b’s weren’t phenomenal, but they all at least had some cool ideas, and “Paperbag Writer” had some of the best, including a super-slinky bass line from ‘Head unsung hero Colin Greenwood

Paul Lansky – “Mild Und Leise OK, so maybe you don’t have to listen to all 18 minutes of this ambient keyboard piece. But you do at least have to stick around for the four-note pattern that Radiohead sampled for the hook to “Idioteque”. No matter how much you love it already, it’ll give you new levels of appreciation for the song, I guarantee it.


14 Responses to “Radiohead Week, Day 5: “I Wanna Be, Wanna Be, Wanna Be Jim Morrison…””

  1. Mike said

    “…theres no reason why Pablo shouldnt be as beloved as early Beatles.”

    No. God no.

  2. anonymous(death) said

    The beatles SUCK. Everybody keeps tleling me how they are the best band ever, and how they invented modern rock and roll, but thats bullshit.

    METALLICA is the greatest band of all time. There is a band that truely rocks. People keep telling me how amazing the beatles are but I listened to some of their songs and how can you think that a song about stawberry fields is ROCK. yeah right. Stack that one up against the unforgiven or fade to black. Its like a freakin tea party. You guys can have your beatles tea parties and I hope beatles get in your tea and shit in it.

    Plus! the beatles were just a boyband! boybands SUCK! and by comparing radiohead to a boyband your basically saying they are a boyband too. so I guess they suck. waytogo loser, you just proved to everyone on the internet that your favorite band is just a sucky boyband.

    Go play with your hemp beads, jerk, and try not to watch too much Lifetime.

  3. James said

    Hi Andrew,

    Loving the series so far. Great to hear the observations of a fan who was there from near the beginning.

    One little problem, the “Alligators in New York Sewers” link goes to the Thief cover. Could you possibly fix this, I’d love to hear an early version of Fog.


    Will be sure to keep visiting.

  4. Mac said

    Very cool entry, Andrew. I always have wondered if anyone *really* compared Radiohead with the Beatles, but you’ve done a nice job here. Whether I like it or not, this is probably going to change the way I listen to Radiohead albums from now on.

    Metallica sucks.

  5. Andrew Unterberger said

    hey James–

    Link should be fixed, go for it.

  6. Dave said

    Interesting, although I’ve never quite felt the Beatles/Radiohead comparison was accurate, mainly because the Beatles were much more prolific and culturally significant, but also because Radiohead never played Beatlesque pop and has always had a very different mentality. But you present it in a way that makes it work better than I’d previously thought, and I also think that “In Rainbows” is an “Abbey Road” of sorts, although yeah, I’m not quite sure why. However, I’ve always thought the Radiohead/Talk Talk comparison worked much, much better. Let’s see:

    The Party’s Over = Pablo Honey
    Rather derivative debuts, each with a hit single. Above average for the style of music but still not much to drool over.

    It’s My Life = The Bends
    Huge leap forward in terms of songwriting, instrumentation and production, although still sort of the same type of music as the debut. Kind of. I mean, if you’re not really paying attention.

    The Colour of Spring = OK Computer
    Another huge leap forward in terms of the 3 aforementioned categories. Huge smashes. Both bands were playing music quite different from the debut at this point, but it was still a logical progression from the sophomore outing. They manage to introduce experimental tendencies while still remaining fairly commercial. Absolutely incredible outings.

    Spirit of Eden = Kid A
    The visionary, alienating followups. Yet another radical leap forward in terms of instrumentation, construction, and production. Difficult but immensely rewarding works. A completely different style of music than the last album, yet still somehow a logical progression. No accompanying tour, and no band-authorized singles.

    Laughing Stock = Amnesiac
    The second album after the “reinvention”. Both are clearly tied to their predecessors. At times the previous albums’ innovations are taken even more to the extreme, yet some sections are also “slightly” more “conventional”, at least in terms of instrumentation. Brilliant, again.

    I’d attempt to include “Hail to the Thief” and “In Rainbows” but Talk Talk broke up after album number 5. Oh well. At least Mark Hollis’ debut and ‘O’Rang are pretty brilliant.

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  8. Garret said

    Where’s “Let It Be”???

    Heck, while we’re at it, where’s “Don’t Tell Al Soul”?????

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  14. Mark S said

    I think a really good track off of Pablo Honey is “I can’t.” It’s actually got a really pretty melody, you just can’t hear it well enough because RH still didn’t have their dynamics down. I’d love to hear an unplugged version though.

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