How do you bounce back from releasing one of the most critically acclaimed albums of all time, triggering a world tour so exhausting that it causes the lead singer to have a mental breakdown and suffer from writer’s block so intense it nearly forces him to quit the band? Well, releasing the most progressive, forward-thinking album of your generation wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Kid A introduced the world to the new millennium, a digital age that nobody could truly understand; it was a game-changer in every single sense of the term.
Radiohead were a pretty big deal in the late 90s. They were three albums deep, Glastonbury headliners and world famous for their pioneering sound of emotional turmoil meets conceptual brilliance. Another thing that made them truly stand out was the growth and variation over time, each album appeared in a different genre with different motives. Pablo Honey was a grunge-fuelled fever dream, The Bends was an alt-rock heart-string puller, and OK Computer was a space-age masterpiece; showing the band’s drastic improvement with each of their early albums. Radiohead had achieved eternal fame and glory with their 1990s run, but at what cost?
The questions would appear pretty soon after the release of instant classic OK Computer in 1997; just how could they possibly top this? The effort and energy that had been poured into the album was starting to show, particularly with how taken aback lead singer Thom Yorke was by the praise he was receiving for it.
“I was amazed it got the reaction it did. None of us fucking knew any more whether it was good or bad. What really blew my head off was the fact that people got all the things, all the textures and the sounds and the atmospheres we were trying to create.”
– Thom Yorke, Select Magazine 1997
That same year Radiohead became one of the first bands to have a website and look at the possibilities of an online following, something which would become essential to them later down the line. It would prove to be the first step towards the digital leap of faith the band would make for their follow-up fourth album.
Creative differences are nothing new in bands, everyone has conflicting visions as to how they see their musical careers panning out, but when you’re dealing with perfectionists like Thom Yorke, Ed O’Brien, Philip Selway and Colin & Johnny Greenwood, these issues can become increasingly strained. Clearly still jaded and worn out from touring, Yorke spiralled into a deep depression and his songwriting suffered as a result; but he had an idea. He wanted to craft more avant-garde, minimalist lyrics; songs that don’t necessarily paint the whole picture individually but come together as one to leave a lasting statement.
Thom Yorke’s creative touch was starting to return, but in ways so abstract that it planted the fear of God into his fellow band members. There were loose recordings and very rough edges to songs, some of which that didn’t even guarantee every band member’s involvement. He was ditching alternative rock and wanted to make something so out-of-the-ordinary that even his band members were alienated at times.
“The thing I have a problem with is the fact that so much of what people term rock music now is really not based on the music itself, but based on the lifestyle that goes with it. The mythology around it has run its course and is stale and uncreative now, and it has been destroying the people who’ve been trying to make the music.” – Thom Yorke, The Guardian 2000
Yorke was rapidly moving back into his roots of DJ’ing and listening exclusively to Warp music from the likes of Aphex Twin and Autechre to learn about the soundscapes of experimental music; so it hardly comes as a surprise that Kid A ended up sounding like it did.
After strenuous work and endless fine-tuning, the album was finally released on October 2nd 2000. It had no supporting singles and was promoted not with photoshoots and interviews, but instead with the internet and access to streaming the album. It was one of the first albums of its kind to take this approach, with one critic describing the marketing process as a “commercial suicide note”. Despite this, Kid A soared to number one in both the UK and America, going platinum in its first week of release.
So, the album was out and fans could finally digest the newest Radiohead venture. From the very first moments of Everything In Its Right Place, it was apparent that this wouldn’t be a run-of-the-mill project. There were synthesisers, drum machine rhythms and eerie reverbed vocal edits in the background; not to mention confusing repetition lyrically. As little as just three songs on Kid A had obvious guitar chords in them, an outrageous manoeuvre from a band famed on their abilities to craft trendy riffs.
It was a truly challenging listen and that showed in the critical reception. The Guardian panned it, claiming that it was “self-consciously awkward and bloody-minded, the noise made by a band trying so hard to make a ‘difficult’ album that they felt it beneath them to write any songs.” Perhaps Radiohead had bitten off a bit more than they could chew.
As is often the case with some of music’s true great progressive albums, this one took time to nurture; it would be years before critics realised just how earth-shatteringly important Kid A would be. The Guardian’s miraculous U-turn of their stance on the album epitomises this, ranking it as the 2nd best album of the decade in 2009; not bad going for a project that was given a measly two-star review upon release.
“There’s no controversy over Kid A any more … Nobody admits now they hated Kid A at the time … Nobody wants to be the clod who didn’t get it. It’s the defining moment in the Radiohead legend.” – Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone 2015
The timing of the album increases its poignancy, too. Releasing a transparent, kaleidoscopic trip of an electronic album in the same year we welcomed a new millennium feels so fitting; it was a not so warm welcome to the future and a subliminal message of what is to come. Kid A’s timing was remarkably symbolic, it kissed goodbye to the pseudo-Rockstar lifestyle Yorke had mentioned before and opened the door for colourful experimentation.
The subject matter cut deep like a knife through butter, and with each passing day the warning flags raised by Kid A become more and more real and understandable. The incessant cries of desperation when discussing climate change on Idioteque? The hip-firing at the plagued world of consumerism on Optimistic? The mental health struggles on Everything In Its Right Place? They all sound painfully familiar in our modern society, and Thom Yorke was telling us all this nearly twenty years ago.
The reality is that Kid A is one of the most influential albums of the modern era, it challenged the music world to ditch the safe bets of Oasis and Blur and instead push the boundaries of what can be created. It unlocked the mind of the listener and has since been cited as an inspiration for many an artist across many a genre, including modern stars such as The 1975, Danny Brown, Tame Impala and Frank Ocean. But don’t worry, Noel Gallagher doesn’t like it so I guess none of that matters…
Three years previous, Radiohead had conquered the world and exposed the flaws of Britpop with OK Computer; looking back at it now, Kid A was the final nail in the worn-out coffin of the genre. In the end, serene ambience and focused craftmanship won out over sex, drugs and rock & roll. Radiohead were no strangers to inspiring an emotionally jarred generation at this point, but Kid A was the breath of fresh air needed to take not just themselves to the next level, but to take commercial music to a whole other stratosphere.
In the 1990s we obviously had wild and experimental groups doing crazy things musically, of course we did, but look at the grand landscape. People remember the 90s for raves, Britpop and alt-rock. I’ll leave you with this thought, were it not for Radiohead’s bold voyage into the murky waters of Ondes Martenot’s and modular synthesisers, we may not have been lucky enough to see the vibrant movements of some of our modern greats. No Kid A could have meant no Brockhampton, no Death Grips, no alt-J, no LCD Soundsystem, no SOPHIE, no James Blake, no Bon Iver, no Flume, no The xx, no Ariel Pink, no Flying Lotus, no Grimes. I could list forever, so let’s be thankful we don’t need to think about that.
So here’s to you, Kid A, in a musical world dominated by Coldplay’s and R Kelly’s, Radiohead put their reputations on the line to broaden our horizons; and ended up sending a shockwave through the industry that was so powerful it changed the musical world forevermore. I’m well aware this post will be met with an influx of people telling me it’s not that deep, but trust me it really is.