This is a column called Major Keys written by Phil Witmer, the only actual musician employed by Noisey. It's about timbres, theory, chords (lots of 'em), and how these nerdy qualities make us feel things.
Thom Yorke was pissed about rock stardom before he was even a rock star. “Grow my hair / I wanna be, wanna be, wanna be Jim Morrison” he sneers derisively on “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” a snotty and barbed grunge-pop number from Radiohead’s 1993 debut album Pablo Honey. 25 years later, that combative and detached stance, as though the band was afraid of fully engaging with the emotions in its songs, is the album’s first noteworthy characteristic. The other is its impish, jumpy dynamics; songs like “Ripcord” and “Prove Yourself” burst abruptly into raging, squealing guitars every few bars because hey, it was the 90s and everyone was doing it. Pablo Honey is endearing because we now know the band that made it would become something extraordinary not even five years later. There was a single clue that hinted towards that transformation, and funnily enough, it’s right there when you first press play on the record.
“You” is the kind of song that every rock band’s first album should start with, a dramatic intro on par with Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times,” The Killers’ “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine,” or Lil Wayne flying in on Tha Carter II (yes, Lil Wayne is a rock band now). It rocks out more confidently than the rest of Pablo Honey, and Yorke’s lyrics, while reading like high school poetry, hit harder than his critiques of rock radio. That’s thanks to the use of a 6/8 time signature, the swaying feel common to waltz and folk that you count “1-2-3-1-2-3” rather than “1-2-3-4.” This rhythm isn’t all that uncommon but gains a certain flowing aggression when married to distorted guitars (see also: Deftones’ “Hexagram”). The structure of “You” is also unusual, letting its terse, brief verses explode into instrumental jams that differ each time. Then there’s that climactic moment when Yorke suddenly lets loose a long scream, all the more effective for appearing out of nowhere. It’s clear from a cursory listen of “You” that even a young Radiohead could rearrange a simple rock song into something more compelling than the average band could manage. But it’s the deeper composition of “You” that points to where Radiohead would go, since it’s here they would first use the tricks they’d make their own going forward.
Ed O’Brien’s spidery central riff feels uneasy, like a smile that extends too far on either cheek. It wraps around an E dominant seventh, a chord that’s dissonant thanks to the inclusion of a tritone but cheery because it’s still a major chord. In addition, the main chord progression goes from an E major to an E minor in succession, meaning that in objective music theory terms “You” ping-pongs from happy to sad in a matter of seconds. This tempers the vague melodrama of Yorke’s lyrics into the distinctly unsettling jubilation that always happens with modal mixture, and if Radiohead got good at one thing, it’s making the mixolydian mode convey a deep ennui. That angst gets tossed completely into a blender by one of Radiohead’s soon-to-be-trademark rhythmic stunts. Each measure of “You” concludes with a bar that’s one beat shorter than the others, ending just slightly before where the ear expects it to. Later Radiohead songs like “Morning Bell” and “2+2=5” also fiddle with slightly off-kilter time signatures without making them readily apparent.
These composition tricks, much like the rest of Pablo Honey, are applied as more of an “oh yeah? watch this” display of chops rather than to make a focused artistic statement, but Radiohead would indeed learn how to do the latter for the rest of their career. For example, OK Computer’s “Airbag” captures its protagonist’s near-death experience with an unpredictably drifting melody, while “15 Step” on In Rainbows turns its jerking 5/4 groove into an expression of romantic anxiety. “Everything in Its Right Place” makes use of both modal mixture and odd time signatures, and it’s arguably one of Radiohead’s signature songs. Those kinds of arty directions first reared their heads on “You,” and that the band has continued to make those choices more than two decades later shows that the song ended up being one hell of an opening feint. “You” is proggy yet heartfelt, enormous but wounded, and those qualities became enmeshed into Radiohead’s catalogue from then on. Sometimes you really get it right the first time.
It’s most interesting that the only song on Pablo Honey that matches “You”’s sophistication closes out the album. With its ice-cool, bossa-krautrock verses and strong, melancholic melody, “Blow Out” is so much more textured than the songs that precede it that it barely fits. Radiohead were still mining its jazz-rock grooves on Amnesiac in 2001. Even then, “Blow Out” is sabotaged by those impatient guitars, demonstrating that the band still hadn’t yet figured out how to sustain a mood. But it, along with “You,” are prescient bookends to an album that finds a great band unleashing that greatness in fits and spurts. It can’t be a coincidence that these two songs, along with “Creep,” are the only Pablo Honey tracks that have survived as rare appearances in Radiohead’s setlists even after the turn of the millennium. “You” might be special for them, too.
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