Radiohead has walked a strangely backward line, launching a storied career with a fairly disposable, poorly aging pop hit, then working to become one of the most respected, forward-thinking bands ever bestowed with ultra-popularity. Maybe they sold out first, then worked hard to gain credibility, but looking at Radiohead’s first three albums is like watching a band find itself—and find more interesting things around itself. A series of extensive new reissues—each adds a bonus CD and DVD to the original album—offer a comprehensive look-see.
It began with Pablo Honey (its title was taken from a Jerky Boys skit; can you imagine the Radiohead of Amnesiac doing that?) and “Creep,” the modern-rock hit that launched this behemoth. The themes of alienation were established early, but their earliest expressions (“I’m a creep / I’m a weirdo”) were as blunt as possible. It isn’t a bad song, but like much of Pablo Honey, it feels disposable. Pablo isn’t a great album, but it’s valuable to play something like the snarling “How Do You?” next to In Rainbows’ “15 Step,” if only to marvel at what a difference 14 years can make. The bonus material includes solid songs from early EPs (including the semi-hidden gem “Faithless The Wonder Boy”) alongside some live and session tracks, and the DVD gathers the first album’s promo videos and a professionally shot 1994 concert, which is worth it just to see what regular dudes they looked like then. (Nice ponytail, Colin!)
Whether intended or not, 1995’s The Bends felt like a calculated cry of “Take us seriously, we’re artistes.” (That trend would continue, of course.) Unlike Pablo, it sounds remarkably fresh to this day. More importantly, it sounds like an album, with a deliberate pacing and well-placed peaks (“Planet Telex”) and valleys (“High And Dry”). There are still enough hooks to populate a pirate army, but it wasn’t even the bombastic rockers that got the most attention: “Fake Plastic Trees” provided a power-ballad for Gen-Xers who never knew they needed one. The tracklist is pretty staggering: “High And Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees” are right next to each other. “My Iron Lung” leads into “Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was.” The second CD is also packed with amazing songs, most of which the diehards have had for ages: “Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong” and “Killer Cars” are as much a part of the Radiohead story as the album tracks. The DVD features live songs from the same concert as Pablo’s—they just split them into eras for each disc—as well as promo videos and British TV appearances (Yorke wears a Charles Bukowski shirt on an episode of Top Of The Pops, and some kind of flasher outfit on another), all worth a look.
And what can be said about 1997’s OK Computer that hasn’t been said before? It really is the perfect synthesis of Radiohead’s seemingly conflicted impulses. It’s that tension (along with, y’know, absolutely incredible songs and Nigel Godrich’s production) that made it a generally accepted classic within just a couple of years of its release. The bonus disc is no slouch, either: It’d be tough to tack the slightly more rocking “Pearly*” onto the main album, but it’s pretty incredible on its own, as are pretty much all of the era’s B-sides. The DVD is less bountiful—Radiohead was getting shyer—but the three videos (the dark cartoon “Paranoid Android,” the creepy “Karma Police,” and the Thom Yorke-is-drowning “No Surprises”) and three live-on-TV performances offer visual evidence of a band just beginning a long, long peak.