[Editor’s Note: Back in August of 2009, Capitol Records continued its Radiohead reissue campaign by unleashing “Special Collector’s Editions” of Kid A, Amnesiac, and Hail to the Thief onto the world. Thomas Britt wrote a very extensive and critical analysis of all three releases, which is linked to below. For this 10th anniversary retrospective, however, Britt has penned a new introduction into his works, which is as follows.]
Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous opened on September 13, 2000, a couple of weeks before the release of Radiohead’s Kid A. The overwhelmingly positive reviews for Almost Famous praised the film’s magical, rose-colored vision of rock and roll’s past golden age. Kid A was also set to receive a sort of declaration on the state of rock music, but the tone could not have been more different. Supporters and detractors of Kid A were united in acknowledging that Radiohead had taken the sizable amounts of commercial and critical capital they had earned in the 1990s and seized the opportunity to transform the sonic boundaries of rock.
For several reasons, I’m generally skeptical when I hear people refer to rock bands providing “a religious experience” through their music. I understand heightened emotions, I take pleasure in the patterns created by rhythm, melody, and harmony, and I enjoy seeing a crowd united by their enthusiasm for a band. Yet these are all still fundamentally earthbound elements. Nevertheless, when Kid A arrived, it became a kind of ritual for me. Without exaggeration, I recall listening to only Kid A for about forty days. There were plenty of exciting, worthwhile albums in 2000, but for that period I neglected them. Was this overkill? Probably so, but each successive day I found myself searching for, and finding, new sounds within the mysterious, paradoxical set of ten songs.
Sometime in early October, in the midst of my Kid A marathon, I went with my friend Mike to see Almost Famous. In the car on the way to the theater, we listened to Kid A, which had become second nature. Ten years later, to look back at that moment in time is to recognize an unlikely intersection of ideals.
Almost Famous sweetly brought to life a rock and roll era that flourished and burned out before I was born. In the film, by the time groupie Penny Lane says, “It’s all happening”, I suspect Crowe has too romantically fed us the sentiment. However, he and his characters succeed in making me want to believe the fiction. In contrast, Thom Yorke patently rejects the rock and roll dream on Kid A‘s “How to Disappear Completely”, singing, “I’m not here / this isn’t happening”. I understand his resistance, and he almost convinces me that rock is dead. That which is timeless and lasting about rock music lies somewhere between these two essences: sometimes it’s happening, and sometime it’s not.
Kid A didn’t actually define the future of rock and roll any more than Almost Famous told the whole story of its past. Radiohead moved on to other, equally adventurous projects, continuing to carve a unique, overachieving path through the art and industry of music. Perhaps the album is the band’s Low or its Remain in Light. Whatever Kid A is, no serious contender has emerged in the past decade to dislodge it as the attention-demanding musical release of a generation.