3. “The National Anthem”
Radiohead fans accustomed to the infamous “Creep”-y styles of the ’90s really had their patience tested with the first two tracks of 2000’s Kid A. So far, guitars and bass appeared to be absent, and the percussion felt synthetic at best. No one can be blamed for thinking that Radiohead was stubbornly refusing to sound like a “real band”. But for anyone who persevered through the disembodied alien mutterings of Thom Yorke matched to vintage keyboards, “The National Anthem” felt like a relief. At least it did at first.
“Everything in It Right Place” is compositionally simple but wins out with a sneaky headphone mix. The album’s namesake is more carefully charted, though the main music-box-gone-celestial riff didn’t make it any more accessible. But from the start of track three, that all goes out the window. At last, a bass guitar! Playing a fairly straightforward riff at that! (apparently, the three-note motif in question was composed by a 16-year-old Yorke) And as Phil Selway kicks in with a not-too syncopated drum beat, devotees of The Bends everywhere exhaled a collective “aaaaahhh…” Even if this newfound cyclical groove had more in common with Massive Attack than anything from Radiohead’s past, the listener nevertheless felt like they were out of the woods and into the rock.
The use of the adjective “rocky” would prove more apt.
“The National Anthem” thrusts a different Radiohead influence down one’s ear canal: Charles Mingus. Sure, Kid A is heavy on electronics, samples, and distorted vocals, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no room at the inn for some noisy avant-garde jazz. The compositional style of the great Underdog would shine through Radiohead’s music in other ways. Compare the shifting downbeat of “Pyramid Song” from Amnesiac against “Freedom” from The Complete Town Hall Concert for further proof). “The National Anthem” was a chance for Jonny Greenwood to show us that he can corral a small ensemble of wind instruments into sounding like, as one critic put it, “a brass band marching into a brick wall”.
The song’s lyrics are cryptic, which is typical of Radiohead. Not only can fans on the internet zero in on one true meaning, but some people hear them differently: is the repeated refrain “It’s holding on” or is it “what’s going on?” The sleeve for Kid A offers no lyrics, just wacky landscapes. What’s clear is Thom Yorke paying a visit to his old friend paranoia: “Everyone is so near / Everyone has got the fear.” Being neither nationalistic nor anthemic, everyone was going to have to sort this one out later.
It’s a little past the three-minute mark where Yorke and Greenwood achieved their desired “car-jam” sound. One trumpet, two alto saxophones, two tenor saxophones, one baritone saxophone, one trombone, and one bass trombone all improvise simultaneously. Had one or two of these instruments been showcased at a time, the whole thing would be an easier pill to swallow. But why do that when you can get so much closer to “Better Git It In Your Soul” by having everyone solo at once? While conducting, Yorke and Greenwood instructed their players to “just blow.” This might be different from how the giant, imposing bandleader would have handled it back in the day (barking orders, threatening physical harm). Still, Radiohead’s outcome is no less of a racket than anything you’d hear on Mingus Ah Um.
The three-note bass riff has been going this whole time with drums dropping in and out intermittently. By around 5:12, the horns have the rug pulled out from under them completely as they continue their solos with no corresponding theme in sight. A quarter rest is given, and suddenly all eight horn players give one last blaring note before exiting. One can almost picture Gunther Schuller leaning over his conductor’s stand, hand outstretched and shaking, hair flailing, begging his big band to burn a hole in the back of the concert hall. Had Mingus not been cremated in 1979, he’d probably be giving a thumbs up in his grave.
Thus concludes what is debatably the most challenging five minutes and 50 seconds of what is debatably Radiohead’s most challenging album. Even though “The National Anthem” is one of the few songs on Kid A to thrive mostly on organic instruments, this is the song that most listeners probably chose to skip over in future listens, if they even felt like revisiting Kid A at all. We can’t tell if the paradox was intentional or not, but Radiohead were already aware of the power behind the song. It had been a holdover from previous album sessions, and bassist Colin Greenwood was cited as saying that it was too good to be restricted to being a B-side.
And you don’t pick just any old song to open your live shows, now do you? — John Garratt