Despite being a crude and tangled precursor to the refined beauty heard in The Bends (1995) and OK Computer (1997), Pablo Honey still has a great deal to offer. The album represents an important stage of Radiohead’s early development; the group were still only in their early-to-mid-20s when recording the album and so it shows signs of their lack of experience and immaturity while revealing a smorgasbord of ideas that can be seen as a proverbial launchpad.
The obvious highlight of the album is the casual Radiohead fan’s favourite, ‘Creep’. The song is a perfectly moody indie anthem that was depressing enough for the BBC to ban it from radio stations in the early 1990s following its release. While the controversial ‘Creep’ was the most memorable song on Pablo Honey, there are some very intriguing tracks in the album’s undercarriage.
The second single on the album, following ‘Creep’, was ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’. The track’s main angle of attack is Thom Yorke’s scathing jab at desperate and unskilled people looking for the fast track to becoming a rockstar. But in the playful spirit of their youth, Radiohead decided to take the song’s title very literally in the studio.
“We rounded up everyone in the studio,” Producer Paul Kolderie remembered. “All five band members, Sean and I, the studio owner, the cook – and gave each person a guitar. Everyone got assigned their own track, and they could do whatever they wanted. The idea was to live up to the title: anyone can play guitar. So they did, and we made it into a little sound collage at the beginning.” For added effect, Jonny Greenwood grabbed a paintbrush to whack the strings of his Fender Telecaster.
While they clearly had some fun recording the rock-out single, Yorke addresses one of his more sincere grievances about popular music in the track. In the lyrics, Yorke uses The Doors’ frontman Jim Morrison as the archetypal rockstar that one might endeavour to resemble. He sings: “Grow my hair I am Jim Morrison / Grow my hair, I want to be want to be, want to be Jim Morrison”. But in an interview shortly following the release of Pablo Honey, Yorke revealed that he had used Jim Morrison as an example because he disliked what the rock icon had become and how aspiring rock stars want to be like Morrison and follow his unfavourable example.
Yorke took his swing at the late Jim Morrison while explaining the ethos behind Radiohead, “It’s a really naff thing to say, but one of the principal reasons for being in this band is because of the songs and that we change very, very fast as a band. We have a sound, but at the same time, we change all the time. ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’ is like a chant almost. And another principal thing behind the band is that lyrically it’s an anti-rock ego song. The second verse is ‘I wanna be Jim Morrison’, and I’ve got this pathological disrespect for Jim Morrison and the whole myth that surrounds Jim Morrison, simply because it affects and has affected the people in bands and in the rock business, in that they think they have to act like fucking prats in order to live up to the legend.”
Yorke continued, addressing the importance of high-quality musicianship: “Yeah, it’s really hard… bullshit!” Yorke said about playing the guitar. “And the better you are at the guitar the worse songs you write. I hope that maybe one day that song will appear on MTV in between a couple of rock tracks and you’ll get all these guys with stupid wigs on, going widdly-widdly and then we come on going ‘Anyone can play the fucking guitar, it doesn’t mean anything!’”
The rant came to a head as Yorke asserted: “Jim Morrison’s a fat, talentless bastard and he’s dead. And none of that means anything, It’s more important just to have your own voice within the business than to live up to this thing that you’re supposed to live up to. I’m reading this book by Lester Bangs at the moment and there’s this brilliant thing about how on the one hand rock’n’roll should be taken very seriously, while on the other hand it should be completely taking the piss out of itself. Like The Stooges… on the one hand they’re a real, fucked-up band, but on the other they just take the piss. Iggy Pop is totally taking the piss so badly.”
These juvenile jabs at Jim Morrison seem to have stewed into a wave of anger in the interview, but they were clearly long-held views of the Radiohead frontman. ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’ seems to lash out at icon worship in general, but the specific use of Jim Morrison reveals that Yorke wasn’t the Doors frontman’s biggest fan and that he wasn’t convinced by his talent in the slightest. I can’t help but wonder what Yorke would make of his comments in retrospect some three decades on.