If OK Computer was Sgt. Peppers, Kid A and Amnesiac were Radiohead‘s The White Album. The works are as wonderfully schizophrenic as the Beatles self-titled classic. When compared to the art-rock revelation of The Bends (arguably their Revolver) and the universal embrace of its follow-up, it shows the band getting down to the business of pleasing themselves, not the legions of dedicated fans. Of course, everyone knows by now that Kid A and Amnesiac were more or less written at the same time, came from the same creative space, and reflected the same deconstructionist musical approach band leader Thom Yorke was obsessing over. Yet instead of being one massive double album (Kid Amnesiac?), the group opted for two releases, timed eight months apart.
But oddly enough, these are not two parts of a single whole. Instead of being the Yang to Kid A‘s Yin, Amnesiac is more like Yin 2.0. Thom once described it this way: “In some weird way, I think Amnesiac gives another take on Kid A, a form of explanation.” The frontman would explain that the first album was an accurate reflection of how he felt post-OK Computer‘s massive success and that the follow-up was a way of sticking you in the middle of the fray and feeling every angst-driven moment. In other words, Kid A was the art of falling apart, while Amnesiac was verification that said determined downward spiral was very deep indeed.
It’s important to remember the meteoric rise of this otherwise earnest pop-rock combo. MTV embraced them early with the seminal track “Creep” (off of the excellent Pablo Honey). That was 1992. In England, their 1995 album The Bends would be hailed as a modern classic, earning accolades usually reserved for a certain quartet from Liverpool or Oasis. OK Computer was the real breakout, however, the kind of universally embraced “event,” which took the band from alternative icons to stadium standard-bearers. With “Karma Police”, Radiohead crossed over in a way that few in the group could ever anticipate. They went from geek love to frat boy fixture, and the fear of how to follow it up overwhelmed Yorke.
But Kid A was more than just a response to the “fridge buzz” irritation of the ever-present media. Having been together since 1985 (in one form or another), it was a decade-plus in the making move toward embracing a more personal aesthetic. Yorke’s fixation with electronica, backed his bandmates desire to break away from OK Computer‘s conceptual albatross, mandated a new approach. So did a severe case of writer’s block, something that would see the group improvising in the studio, instead of prepping songs and perfecting them live. In many ways, the Beatles analogy continues to apply — new inspirations, the recording process as creative experimentation, a “damn the torpedoes” mentality toward the fans — all lead to the artistic about-face.
Yet Kid A is every bit a love letter to the true enthusiast as it is a confusing sonic sideswipe. It’s an invitation to come along on a particularly dark and disturbing mystery tour, with the outcome unsure and perhaps unwanted. There is indeed enchantment in the music, but it’s a delight dished out in cold keyboard blips. Almost by accident, the band delivered on the inherent promise predicted by OK Computer. Instead of avoiding the synthetic siren song of technology, the group dove headlong into the digital. Compositions came out of simple programmed beats and clipped Casio riffs. Rhythm and the drone of dub lifted Yorke’s often obscure lyrics to brave new world heights. If one accepts the album as a gift to giving in to your whims, it still works. But if you read the words being sung/spoken, the real purpose behind Kid A/Amnesiac becomes clear.
Fame was particularly harsh on Yorke. Already uncomfortable with his persona (you don’t think “Creep”‘s signature chorus was a lie, do you?) Kid A-mnesiac was a way of taking the blame back from society and its sick need for conformity and onto putting it on himself. A song like “Everything in Its Right Place” might argue for a sense of satisfaction, but the truth can be further unraveled in lyrics like “yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon” and “there are two colors in my head”. Not the most comforting expression of supposed satisfaction. But Amnesiac pushes the borders even further, with its references to “black-eyed angels” and sentiments like “if you’d been a dog / they would have drown you at birth”. With accolades comes proposed happiness. Yorke is working out his perplexing place in the cultural call out, ripping through Kid A‘s cruel dark side before finding any real attempted light via Amnesiac‘s “out of mind, out of sight” delusion.
Both albums are like brainwashing, insular symphonies to a painfully reactive public awareness. The music doesn’t drive outward but, instead, falls inward, bouncing along the various fractured feelings of its singer and his mates. While “The National Anthem” may suggest that “everyone is so near / everyone has got the fear”, the reality is that Yorke feels like a misidentified Pied Piper, the “rats and kids follow me out of town” tenets of the Kid A title track pleading his case to be set free. This could be the main reason why the reaction to its release was so incredibly strong. Newness and novelty can help, but there is more to it than a differing direction. Kid A sounds like the start of a surreal psychological dissertation. Amnesiac occasionally comes across as whining.
Indeed, the idea of being set free permeates the only track both albums share — “Morning Bell”. At the beginning, Yorke pleads “release me/release me.” When his prayers aren’t answered, he turns the tables on the listener, these last lines truly indicating his dilemma and discomfort:
“I wanted to tell you, but you never listened. You never understand
I wanted to tell you, but you never listened
You never understand
Cos I’m walking, walking, walking …
The lights are on, but nobody’s home
Everybody wants to be a
The lights are on, but nobody’s home
Everybody wants to be a slave
Walking, walking, walking …
The lights are on, but nobody’s at home
Everybody wants to be a
Everyone wants to be a friend
Nobody wants to be a slave
Walking, walking, walking …”
Because of the varying approaches, musically, to the two interpretations of the song, it’s easy to understand the mired mental changes going on. Kid A‘s take is more manic, unusual time signature and delayed cacophony symbolizing something much different than its eight months in the making counterpart. Amnesiac‘s interpretation is like a dirge, a funeral march wailing in the distance as the same sad voice lingers over its knotty nursery rhyming.
While Kid A is more blatant in its beliefs (after all, telltale tracks like “How to Disappear Completely” and “Optimistic” practically sledgehammer you with their intent), Amnesiac is more subtle. Had they been released together, two parts of the same sullen whole, their majesty would be hard to ignore. From the harsh, more hateful noises of the first half to the semi-return to pop song structure on something like “Knives Out”, listeners could have free-associated on the meanings for the next millennium. Stuck together on an iPod shuffle with the inclusion of the few B-sides released from the sessions (Kid A had no singles. Amnesiac complied with such commercial pressures), it’s almost impossible to tell them apart.
This might explain the band’s arguments and angst over the running sequence, song inclusion, and overall thematic tone. Yorke reportedly spent weeks working on the conjoined twins’ style separation of the sessions. The success of his efforts, especially when you consider how similar sounding the various pieces really are, stands in sharp contrast to the Beatles “all or nothing/all over the map” inclusiveness with The White Album. Imagine if the Fab Four had taken their double LP millstone and divided it into the “more experimental” and the “more mainstream”. Then imagine they released the odder, more out of step stuff first. While critics were falling over themselves trying to find words to describe the genius vision of this version of the band, the label would be looking to the follow-up, finding the gold mine of potential hit singles outside of the trippy tape loops. That’s what happened with Radiohead.
Clearly, Kid A‘s continued reputation as a masterwork of unbridled brilliance stems from such fascinating “firsties” idealism. When you realize that almost everything on Amnesiac came from the same time approximately, it shouldn’t deaden its impact — and yet, the eight-month delay does. People tend to view the latter LP as a reluctant return to form, arguing that “Knives Out” and “Dollars and Cents” are too “structured”, too similar to sections of OK Computer to comfortably fit within Kid A‘s crackpot schemes. Worse, some suggest that Amnesiac is nothing more than a calculated copy of its companion’s considered cool. For a band always reaching beyond their last set of songs, staying locked in the same experimental mode was verboten. Yet had they taken the route revisited by numerous bands — R.E.M. with Monster, U2 with All That You Can’t Leave Behind — and crafted The Re-Bends, it’s easy to envision an even greater backlash.
While many of the songs on the Beatles brilliant Magical Mystery Tour EP put the similarly styled material on Sgt. Pepper‘s to shame (as does the pre-release double single of “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever”), it’s the double-barreled delivery of something both unexpected and unrecognizable that catapulted the quartet’s beloved concept cornerstone to mythic proportions. Kid A claims the same aesthetic space. You may prefer the piercing melancholy of Amnesiac‘s “Pyramid Song” or the lazy lounge act grace of missing material like “Worrywort” (a “Knives Out” B-side) or the metallic thrash of “Trans-Atlantic Drawl” (another outtake), but you are still suggesting something almost sacrilegious. Being the first one to enter through the door does have its perks. Kid A gets all the groupies. Amnesiac is constantly playing wallflower catch-up.
Oddly enough, it’s the very celebrity that Yorke is rallying against that gave him this opportunity in the first place. Without question, music fans adore the whole “bite the hand that Billboard’s me” ideal, seeing it as the very essence of the rock and roll stance. But like another obvious Beatles allusion — John Lennon’s amazing Plastic Ono Band album — Radiohead’s desire to dismantle their sense of sonic entitlement and, instead, explore new pathways no matter how unusual is what now colors their standing remains a revelation. Had they churned about another series of anti-technology screeds, had they slipped into a mode of mere repetition, we’d be dismissing their later output as hackneyed. But thanks to the freedom that comes with fame, and the fears that tend to tag along, the band begat Kid A. Amnesiac is just as important to the conversation. Leaving it out is laughable. Without it, there is no link. Without it, there is no legacy.
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This article was originally published on 28 October 2010.