Happy 20th Birthday Kid A, The Radiohead Album That Put Everything In Its Right Place
Less than a year after it was released, Radiohead’s third record, OK Computer, was named the greatest album of all time by readers of Q Magazine.
They’d voted it better than Sgt. Peppers, better than Pet Sounds, Blonde On Blonde, Blue, Ziggy Stardust and Dark Side Of The Moon. The Oxford band’s 1997 album was sweeping up accolades left, right and centre, they were touring relentlessly, headlining Glastonbury and, when not playing shows, were being flown to awards ceremonies in private jets. A dream come true for any band, musician or artist out there.
However, such an intense schedule – as documented in Grant Gee’s Meeting People Is Easy – and the pressures that come with being hailed the saviours of British rock music meant only one thing for the band; burnout.
The effect was most keenly felt by the band’s charismatic but at times cantankerous frontman Thom Yorke, whose exhaustion at the end of the OK Computer cycle left him ‘completely unhinged,’ questioning everything he and his band were doing and were going to do next.
Instinctively, Yorke aimed to distance himself from the sounds of their back catalogue, the sounds that had made Radiohead one of biggest bands – if not the biggest band – of the 90s. Finding inspiration in the synthesized and electronic textures of artists like Aphex Twin, Autechre and Boards of Canada, primarily coming from the Warp label, Yorke ditched the guitars and began teaching himself and the band a new way of making music.
Three years after OK Computer came Kid A. Arriving on October 2, 2000, with little in the way of promotion and no singles to speak of, anticipation was high. But as the digitised dystopia emblazoned on the front cover would suggest, Radiohead weren’t exactly welcoming us back with open arms.
Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon
From the opening few seconds of Everything In Its Right Place, Kid A’s first track, it’s clear things had changed. Gone were the distorted guitars of Airbag, in their place was a warm but manipulated synth playing in an awkward 10/4 time signature, accompanied by cut-up lyrics about sucking lemons backed by more cut-up vocal samples. Aside from a steady, pulsing kick drum, it’s almost impossible to discern where the rest of the band were. Radiohead had ripped up their own rulebook, this was wholly refreshing but uncharted territory for the band and their fanbase.
We’ve got heads on sticks
And if we were hoping for something more recognisable in track two, a place often reserved for an album’s lead single – see Paranoid Android, for example – Kid A’s title track served to obscure Yorke’s vocal even more. ‘We’ve got heads on sticks.’ Was it even Yorke singing or a computer squawking out some code? It was heard to tell, but at least we had the reliable rhythm section of Colin Greenwood and Phil Selway to keep us grounded.
Everyone has got the fear
Indeed, the rhythm section kept us moving into track three, The National Anthem, one of Radiohead’s greatest bass lines and what would become one of their most enthralling live pieces. Still, the instrumentation is far from conventional – if that even means anything anymore – with discordant trumpets, saxophones and trombones fighting for place over more obscure lyrics. Taking the anger and energy of Electioneering even further, The National Anthem is biting, organised chaos, and sees Yorke apparently exercising some demons – during the recording of the track, he was jumping up and down so much he broke his foot.
I’m not here, this isn’t happening
After a few more, unified blasts for good measure, the dissonant horns gradually subside to something more calm, tranquil and even recognisable. An acoustic guitar. It may be backed by faint, unnerving drones and sweeping soundscapes, but it seems Thom Yorke hasn’t completely dismissed the past. In fact, he’s written what is still one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful Radiohead songs ever (along with the album’s closer, Motion Picture Soundtrack). Utilising Jonny Greenwood’s mastery of the Ondes Martenot and string arrangements, How To Disappear Completely floats like a dark dream on the River Liffey Yorke sings of. Indeed, just as it’s about to fall apart, as the spell looks like it’s about to be broken and the sounds start collapsing in on themselves, it’s brought back from the brink by Yorke’s glorious falsetto. For what feels like the first time on the album, everything – the music, the arrangement, the band members themselves – is in its right place.
As the album unfurls, more new ground is broken. Guitarist Ed O’Brien mines the band’s Brian Eno influence on the instrumental Treefingers, while the exhilarating Idioteque sees the band sample two computer music pieces over Jonny Greenwood’s drum tracks carved out of white noise. Album closer Motion Picture Soundtrack, meanwhile, is Yorke at his most vulnerable, alone at a creaking harmonium and evoking emotions barely revisited by the band until 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool.
The recording of Kid A was as fraught as the period preceding it. Sessions at studios in Paris, Copenhagen and southwest England proved almost fruitless, with the band collecting hours of sounds but no discernible songs. And though lyrics like ‘I’m lost at sea/don’t bother me’ would suggest a band uninterested and adrift, they persevered – have they ever sounded as focussed and together as a band as they do on Optimistic or Idioteque? By the end of the recording process, not only had they completed Kid A, but its masterful follow up, Amnesiac, too.
Though some critics were initially dubious, and some altogether dismissive, in the years since its release Kid A has only grown in stature, soundtracking countless cinematic moments and appearing in at the top of endless best-of lists, even beating its predecessor time and time again.
In the 20 years following Kid A, Radiohead have consistently kept themselves a step ahead of the curve; leading the charge against the resurgence of right-wing politics with Hail To The Thief, embracing the power of the internet and releasing In Rainbows in a pay-what-you-want format, while also celebrating the past with a retrospective look at OK Computer in the form of OKNOTOK 1997-2017.
While the digitised dystopia of Kid A’s front cover by artist and collaborator Stanley Donwood may look all too familiar here in 2020, with the album’s themes of alienation, anxiety and the perils of the modern world seemingly all too prescient, the record set the benchmark for turn-of-the-millennium music, subsequently becoming shorthand for anytime a band had the courage to try something different. Whether they succeeded in the way Radiohead did, however, is still yet to be seen.
Kid A might be all grown up, but the album is, and always will be, timeless.
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