Kid A is recognised as a masterpiece now, but it wasn’t always so. On the twentieth anniversary of its release, Gordon Rutherford looks back at the moment when Radiohead confounded everyone and reflects on the legacy that Kid A has built up over the past two decades. (Also watch this interview with Ed O’Brien of Radiohead by John Robb)
“You have no-one to blame but yourselves and you know it.” (Message on the sleeve of Kid A.)
It begins with a ghostly, ethereal electric piano line that sticks in your mind forever. It begins with the song that would signal the close of the band’s live sets for many years thereafter. It begins with the absolute reassurance that everything is, despite what you may have heard, in its right place.
This was a Kid like no other. Born in a period of post-millennium tension and at the height of a digital transformation which would force everything to work differently. Born out of confusion and turmoil and self-doubt. Now our Kid is twenty and all grown-up, it is probably an appropriate time to consider quite what makes Kid A, with all its associated hype and legend, an iconic album.
This was the moment when a band at the absolute creative pinnacle of their career took a precarious left turn. OK Computer, an unparalleled work of majesty and innovation, had propelled Radiohead into the stratosphere. Not that they craved stardom, the attention or acclaim. It is just what inevitably happens when you release such a magnum opus.
The whole fame thing didn’t sit well on their narrow shoulders. The film they created with Grant Gee, Meeting People Is Easy, intimately and forensically documents a band falling apart. Here were five ordinary young men whose lives were spiralling out of control.
Want evidence? Watch the footage of the making of the No Surprises video on Meeting People Is Easy. Watch how Thom Yorke goes from compliant reluctance to outright frustration and disgust, with both the process and himself. Well, wouldn’t you if your head was trapped in an airtight diver’s helmet for hours whilst it was slowly and systematically filling with water? Over and over again. Drown and repeat. And all because somebody thinks that such imagery would make the miming of a pop song somehow more interesting?
Everything had to change. They couldn’t go on. To move forward, they had to kill the beast before it consumed them. But getting people in the right place wasn’t easy. Producer Nigel Godrich, long credited as the sixth member of the band, pushed back. He challenged them on the wisdom of changing a winning formula. After Kid A’s release, guitarist Ed O’Brien was quoted as saying, “once it becomes too comfortable and you have it sussed, that’s when you start making shit records”. Yet, to O’Brien, post-OK Computer rebirth meant going back into the studio and recording a dozen three minute, straight ahead, rock songs. Just like Pablo Honey.
Meanwhile, sitting on the fringes, in the throes of becoming unhinged (his words), Yorke had his own ideas and he was determined that they would hold sway. More than anyone, he recognised that the monster had to be erased and concluded that the slaying should be performed electronically.
Those internal tensions that, at times, threatened to tear the band apart, were well documented in the months and years preceding Kid A’s birth. The initial rumours of a radical transformation, a complete and utter one hundred and eighty degree turn, began to emerge long before any new material was heard. It wasn’t just paper talk. The band, embracing the embryonic technology of the time, created a blog; an online diary where they could share their innermost thoughts and feelings directly with their adoring fans. Before long, Ed O’Brien was publicly airing his frustration, lamenting the lack of progress in getting anything meaningful down on tape. Naturally, this simply added fuel to an already blazing inferno.
With each passing week, the music media scaremongering intensified. The guitars had been cremated in a blazing pyre, they cried. Like some latter-day witch trials, Yorke was tied to the metaphorical stake for his ‘crime’ of selling his musical soul to the devil in the shape of WARP records. Allegedly, he was immersing himself in the work of Aphex Twin and Autechre, and had determined that the future of Radiohead lay in the same place. With typical unconscious humour, bassist Colin Greenwood was quoted at the time as saying, “I don’t really know anything about the Aphex Twin”.
Twenty years later, it’s funny to look back on all of this. Because, ultimately, was Kid A really such a dramatic u-turn? I would argue not, certainly not for a band like Radiohead. Indeed, the step change to Kid A was no more significant than the transformation between the straight-ahead anthem indie/rock of The Bends to the jittery paranoia of OK Computer.
Reflect back to 1997, when OK Computer was released. As was tradition, it was preceded by the new single. Casual fans of the band, expecting another Creep or Just, were to be wrong-footed. At six and a half minutes, and with more changes of direction than Boris Johnson’s Covid policy, Paranoid Android perplexed everyone. That leap from The Bends to Paranoid Android was just as ambitious and daring and risky as the one between OK Computer and Kid A.
Perhaps my perception of the progression from OK Computer to Kid A was skewed by my exposure to the new material a full month before Kid A’s birth. As is customary, the band decided to tour the new album. Perversely, in typical Radiohead fashion, they toured weeks before Kid A’s release. The audience would have no preconceptions. They would be exposed to this new direction and the new songs without having had the opportunity to soak up the album.
I was at one of the shows on that mini-tour. It was in a circus big top planted in the middle of a park. I was right down at the front, mere yards from Jonny Greenwood’s array of pedals and electronica. Despite all the doom-mongers portending the dearth of guitars, the band took the stage with axes slung around their necks and duly launched into Optimistic. That was my introduction to this new music. Meet the new tunes, same as the old tunes. Reassuringly, everything in its right place. The National Anthem seared. In Limbo enthralled. And the most ‘different’ song – Ideoteque – thrilled.
The big top gig was a triumph. At no point did I feel that the band were deviating from their course. I felt so positive about the impending release. Optimistic, in fact. Looking back, I wonder if that experience of hearing the songs live, of the reassurance of seeing all five band members involved in the new songs and clearly enjoying playing them, made a difference to my perception.
When it emerged, blinking into the light, and we could all consume it voraciously in our front rooms, we became aware of the reassuring similarities that carried over from OK Computer. The lyrics were still shot through with anxiety. Fear and isolation and escape. From “hysterical and let down and hanging around” to “I’m not here, this isn’t happening”.
However, in the cold light of day, we became aware of what made Kid A unique. It was a stark, skeletal, electronic suite of songs. The vocals, soaring and emotional on The Bends, had become more considered and, in places, completely distorted. It was as though Yorke had fallen out of love with that voice. The drums were brittle and fragile and in weird time signatures. The songs drifted. No more anthems, just glacial, ambient soundtracks. It was magnificent. It was different, it wasn’t rock and roll, but it was unquestionably still Radiohead.
Moreover, it was evident that this was Thom’s Kid. It’s an album that is entirely shaped by his influences and his whims and desires. By his genius. In the end, the rest of the band adapted, quite brilliantly, around Yorke’s vision.
Of course, the critics didn’t get it. What you see today, when Kid A inevitably crops up on all of those ‘best of’ lists, are hordes of pseuds acting smart after the event. But we saw you. You called out Radiohead for folly. For heresy. For self-indulgence. But we saw you.
Uncut described Kid A as “a lengthy, over analysed mistake”. The Guardian rated it 1.5/5. NME wasn’t quite as bad, scoring it a lukewarm 7/10. Hey, we all have skeletons in our closet. Don’t blame yourselves that you couldn’t see that Kid A is a quite magnificent album. It was then, it still is today.
This week, there will be thousands of column inches devoted to dissecting Kid A. But why should we still be talking about this body of work twenty years on? Firstly, we have to consider the epoch in which the album was conceived. Let’s not underestimate the significance of this period. Here was a moment in time as transformative as the industrial revolution, when the world was changing in ways previously unimaginable. Not only were the changes seismic in nature, they were occurring at light speed. The way we lived and thought and behaved arguably progressed further and faster in five years than it had in the preceding century. More than any other body of work, Kid A symbolises that period of time. It is the soundtrack of the digital revolution, reflecting the times like nothing else.
Undoubtedly, the critical and public reception afforded to Kid A was shaped by this digital revolution. Don’t forget, this was Napster’s moment. Suddenly, everything was free, everything was disposable. That legacy remains today and increasingly people expect great art, of all kinds, for free.
Consequently, a new way of consuming music unfolded and behaviours changed. Whereas previously you would give an album a fair hearing, having invested your hard-earned cash, bodies of work were now being evaluated in minutes. No second chances. It is evident that Kid A suffered from such lazy appraisal. Many people made their minds up about the merits and demerits of the album before hearing a note.
This radical change in how people evaluated albums isn’t Kid A’s legacy per se, but the version of Radiohead that evolved following Kid A (and Amnesiac) undoubtedly is. Kid A is what makes Radiohead the band they are today. The age of digital may well have facilitated premature appraisals of their work, but, ultimately, it also worked in their favour. Embracing the new technology like no others, the band reinvented how they wrote, recorded and produced music.
More notably, they were industry pioneers in terms of their approach to media strategy and promotion. This new platform called the World Wide Web meant that the band could control the message on their own platforms. They no longer had to conduct inane and tedious interviews which they hated with a passion. When Kid A was released, they utilised this new opportunity to the max. They eschewed conventional promotion, choosing instead to employ digital advertising across this fledgling technology to let the world know that their new Kid had been born.
For Radiohead, and in particular Yorke, control over everything in their universe was critically important and the Kid A project was the beginning of them enabling themselves to do that, culminating in the In Rainbows strategy, where they blazed a trail by releasing an album with hardly any notice and allowing buyers to pay what they wanted.
Then, of course, we have the musical legacy. For the band, Kid A gave them supreme confidence to experiment and to evolve. It demonstrated that they could take risks and be led by their art as opposed to commercialism. That’s where you get bodies of work like The King of Limbs from, arguably a much more radical departure from their trajectory than Kid A was.
On its twentieth anniversary, we can reflect and confidently acclaim Kid A as a beautiful collection that makes more sense today than ever before. Much as I have always loved it, I used to wonder why Radiohead didn’t simply take the best of Kid A and Amnesiac (released a mere 246 days later) and release the best album ever. But it all makes sense now.
Treefingers is in precisely the right place.
Twenty years on, it’s incredible to see the Kid who confounded the world all grown up.
All words by Gordon Rutherford. More writing by Gordon can be found in his archive.