Radiohead: Pablo Honey, The Bends, OK Computer (reissues)

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Radiohead: <em>Pablo Honey</em>, <em>The Bends</em>, <em>OK Computer</em> (reissues)

Pablo Honey: 65/100

The Bends: 86/100

OK Computer: 100/100

First three albums took now legendary band from vacuous to visionary

While the British press argued over whether Oasis’ Definitely Maybe or Blur’s Parklife would be the savior of mid-’90s U.K. rock, Radiohead sneaked a spanner into the works that went virtually unnoticed—an eight-song EP called My Iron Lung. In 1994, no one expected much from the little English grunge band that had charted the previous year with “Creep,” a tune that sounded almost exactly like Nirvana. But My Iron Lung was a work of stunning beauty and complexity, worlds from Radiohead’s 1993 debut, Pablo Honey. As it turned out, the EP only hinted at what the band would deliver on 1995’s The Bends. Within two more years, as Oasis threatened to implode and Blur began mimicking American indie rock, Radiohead produced OK Computer, one of pop music’s most groundbreaking works.

Capitol has packed all of that and more into expanded "special collector's edition" reissues of Radiohead’s first three albums. It’s a body of work that traces the band’s phenomenal climb from faceless “alternative” to influential torchbearers of adventurous rock. Each set includes two CDs—one containing the original album, and a second compiling early EPs, radio performances and other non-album tracks. The packages also include DVDs that collect the band’s videos, live performances and TV appearances.

As bland as they often were, Radiohead’s earliest performances provide glimpses of the band’s later greatness. Pablo Honey finds guitarist Jonny Greenwood mostly blasting out generic grunge riffs, but the noisy, dreampop-influenced squall at the end of “Blow Out” foreshadows the avant-rock chaos he’d build on. Thom Yorke had not yet developed his expressive reed of a voice, either. Sporting a scruffy, dyed-blond look in the videos, his style is different on nearly every one of Pablo Honey’s tracks—imitations of Bono, Kurt Cobain, and even a Dylan-like lilt on the folky “Thinking About You.” Then there’s “Creep”—a catchy single, sure, but in 1993 its lyrics rang empty next to Nirvana’s “Dumb.” Two other Pablo Honey songs—“Stop Whispering” and “Anyone Can Play Guitar”—hint at Radiohead’s later sound, but they’re still too derivative of U2 and Nirvana to stand on their own.

What a difference two years can make. On The Bends’ opening track “Planet Telex,” Yorke’s Bono has transformed into an assured Thomo. As a vocalist, he’s strong and confident throughout the album, and the band’s overhauled sound weaves in new guitar textures and brush strokes of electronics that add color and depth but don’t overwhelm the melodies. The Bends found the band’s dark, menacing music meshing seamlessly with Yorke’s self-deprecation, paranoia and critiques of fame and consumerism. From the blustery title track to gentle, acoustic-based ballads like “Fake Plastic Trees,” Radiohead’s powerful new sound blows over Yorke’s voice like storm winds over a wheat field.

If The Bends was the band’s giant leap, OK Computer blasted Radiohead into the stratosphere. It’s the masterpiece by which all their subsequent albums would be measured, the springboard from which the band would jump whole-hog into the electronic experimentation of Kid A. A dynamic progressive-rock concept album revolving around the breakdown of humanity, OK Computer easily stands the test of time, its loose storyline making an even a stronger statement amid today’s economic clusterfuck. In the multi-part “Paranoid Android,” Yorke spits invective against the very corporate culture that’s largely responsible for the world’s current woes: “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly / Kicking, squealing Gucci little piggy.” The one fair criticism of OK Computer is that Yorke’s worldview consists only of icy complaints. He even seems to be ridiculing the album’s one hopeful protagonist—the guy in “Lucky” who’s dying (either literally or figuratively) in the muck of an airplane crash, yet still desperately crying out, “This time I feel my luck could change.”

Fifteen years after Definitely Maybe, Parklife and My Iron Lung, luck has changed for Oasis, Blur and Radiohead, but not in the way most people expected. Today, Oasis and Blur are to Radiohead what the ’80s bands Big Country and The Alarm were to U2 in its prime—still slogging it out but producing nothing memorable. Radiohead, over the course of just three albums and a handful of EPs in the mid ’90s, went from average alt-rock poseurs to one of pop music’s most innovative and influential acts.