In June of 1997, Radiohead released their third album, OK Computer. The band followed up its release with the customary year-plus of touring around the world, while critics and fans fell all over themselves heaping adulation—most of it deserved—on both the album and the band. As can be seen in the tour documentary Meeting People Is Easy, Radiohead—mainly singer Thom Yorke—didn’t take any of this very well.
The stress of touring, of subjecting themselves and their particular style of music—as damaged as it was soaring, as cranky and incredulous as it was beautiful—to the inane lunacy of a modern-day media blitz was bad enough. But after the dust from even that settled, the question remained: now what? How would the newly anointed “saviors of rock” follow what would wind up being widely considered the best album of the 1990s—a (cringe) “generation-defining” album? For Radiohead, the choices seemed to be: A) churn out OK Computer 2.0 and risk becoming the very sort of self-satisfied caricatures that had inspired Thom Yorke to write about Gucci-clad swine and buzzing refrigerators in the first place; B) over-react and record a giant middle finger of an album, a Metal Machine Music 2000 designed purely to cull fair weather fans from the flock; or C) break up. The fact that the band chose D) none of the above and instead recorded Kid A may stand as the single best example of why they are the most vital rock band on the planet.
At the time of its release, much of the conventional narrative surrounding Kid A sounded something like option B) above: Radiohead were now a techno band, bored by things like guitars and songs, intent on losing as many fans as they possibly could. Although this sort of theory might seem to be supported by a cursory listen to Kid A, it is, of course, extremely simplistic. I once read something that asked, “Is Radiohead the most mainstream experimental band in the world or the most experimental mainstream band in the world?” Although this might seem like a mostly semantic distinction, I think it’s important to recognize that the answer is clearly the latter. As Thom Yorke said in a Guardian interview shortly before Kid A‘s release, “I always wanted whatever I did to end up in the high street, no matter what it was, because to me, there isn’t anywhere else to go. It is art, but then, it’s not.” In other words: in their intent, if not their sound, Radiohead are, and always have been, an inherently mainstream, populist rock band.
Even though it might seem contradictory—and maybe even a bit precious—for the band to react with such horror at people liking OK Computer as much as they did, Radiohead never set out to make music that was too good to actually be enjoyed. At the same time, however, Radiohead are possessed of a genuine sense of experimentation that is selfish and insular in a way that the creation of great art requires. It is within this context of Radiohead being both “mainstream” and “experimental” that Kid A can be seen for what it truly is.
Perhaps more than any popular rock band since the Beatles, Radiohead are masters of incorporating—in a genuinely organic way—their voracious and wide-ranging musical tastes into their sound as a band. The sound of a brass band falling off a cliff on “The National Anthem”; the Penderecki-inspired glissandos and tone clusters of Jonny Greenwood’s string arrangement for “How To Disappear Completely” (for which the band purposely sought out an orchestra known for playing the works of composers like Penderecki and Messiaen, so intent were they on not duplicating what they saw as essentially the same tired rock music string arrangement that had been used since “Eleanor Rigby”); the angular post-rock of “In Limbo” and “Morning Bell”; the sideways Disney schmaltz of “Motion Picture Soundtrack”; and, yes, the “techno” elements of “Everything In Its Right Place”, “Idioteque”, and the title track—Kid A manages to merge these disparate influences without descending into either shallow dilettantism or boring, overly respectful genre-aping. However, even this doesn’t fully justify Kid A‘s status as a landmark album. For Radiohead, Kid A wasn’t about changing their sound; it was about changing the entire process by which they made music.
Somewhat famously, OK Computer opener “Airbag” represented Radiohead’s attempt to sound like DJ Shadow. The song’s bassline—with its start-and-stop choppiness and stubborn refusal to diverge from its repetitive three-note figure—emulates DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, the songs on which were almost entirely constructed out of sampled elements from completely unrelated songs. For the song’s drum track, the band recorded a three-second snippet of drummer Phil Selway’s playing, then edited it together later in a further attempt to attain a purposefully cobbled-together, sampled sound. But where a lot rock bands would have been happy to reprise that same sort and level of ingenious creative approximation (if they were even capable of it in the first place) for at least a few more albums, Radiohead decided that, for their next album, they needed to move forward—if only so that they themselves could maintain some kind of creative interest in what they were doing.
Instead of continuing to use traditional rock band instruments and processes to approximate electronic music, they would embrace the actual (Pro)tools and methods of making electronic music from the ground up. Thus, Kid A‘s mid-album instrumental “Treefingers” was created by digitally altering what was originally an Ed O’Brien guitar solo; much of “Idioteque” is derived from samples of two pieces of obscure 1970s “computer music”; and Thom Yorke’s voice is often processed to the point of being barely recognizable, essentially serving as another instrument in the song, rather than as the main conveyor of melody and lyrics—many of which on Kid A were pasted together out of phrases literally pulled from a hat. Make no mistake—the songs on Kid A are partly the product of writer’s block. No one was going to mistake the repetitive riff and intentionally vague lyrics of “The National Anthem” for the sprawling, multi-part grandeur of “Paranoid Android” or the exquisitely realized suburban resignation of “No Surprises”. OK Computer is, and may always be, Radiohead’s most inspired group of songs; but, if anything, that might make Kid A the superior artistic achievement—not every band could wake up sucking a lemon and still manage to make this kind of lemonade.
Kid A may not be an intentionally off-putting “statement album”, as some people chose to see it; but it is the sound of a band that had basically taught itself to speak another musical language, in a way that no other massively successful rock band had ever even attempted. To this day, one of the most exciting moments in my music-listening life is hearing “Everything In Its Right Place” the day Kid A came out—partly because it’s a good song, but probably more because of how radically and intrinsically different it was from everything Radiohead had done before. This context, this juxtaposition that makes Kid A so exciting derives equally from the experimentation involved in its creation and from the fact that that experimentation is couched in the still-unmistakable sound of the biggest rock band in the world. In its combination of deep-seated creative restlessness and big rock band ambition, in its almost perverse refusal to succumb to complacency, Kid A thus stands as both a thoroughly unique album and as perhaps the best example of why Radiohead are the most important rock band of our time.