Music

Radiohead: Kid A

Christine Klunk

On Kid A, Thom Yorke uses his voice more as an instrument than as a vehicle for his lyrics. And it's a beautiful instrument -- mournful and keening one minute, pissed off the next, jubilant the song after that.


Radiohead

Kid A

Label: Capitol
US Release Date: 2000-10-03
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I wouldn't want to be in the greatest rock band in contemporary music -- mainly because I'd have to actually be great. Greatness is not easy to achieve and even more difficult to maintain. Radiohead is the greatest rock band in the world right now. We don't look to any other band to produce the kind of genre- and mind-bending music that Radiohead has consistently created on their last five albums. (Pablo Honey was a warm-up as far as I'm concerned.) The Bends gave us varied, gorgeous rock 'n' roll. OK Computer gave us epic genius in the form of "Paranoid Android". Amnesiac is downright sexy with all those low-end rhythms, and Hail to the Thief is Radiohead at their most sophisticated-yet-straightforward.

But Kid A, boy... this is where words escape me. Every... song... on this album works up so many different emotions -- I have trouble articulating them. But here goes.

Here's the thing with Radiohead. The band knows how to make all these crazy sounds, and no one's really sure where they're coming from, who's making them, or what they are. Johnny Greenwood is some sort of otherworldly pixie prodigy. He makes music that puts the dumbfounded/enraptured/baffled grin on peoples' faces. On Kid A, Thom Yorke uses his voice more as an instrument than as a vehicle for his lyrics. And it's a beautiful instrument -- mournful and keening one minute, pissed off the next, jubilant the song after that. So, back to the thing with Radiohead. Together, Greenwood and Yorke make all these wacky noises that sound completely atonal and dissonant one minute, but in the next second fit together to create this moment of perfect resolution.

I didn't think this happened during the album opener, "Everything in Its Right Place". I thought, "Yesterday I woke up suckin' on lemon." What the hell kind of lyric is that? Then the tension in the song started to emerge, and about two-and-a-half minutes into the song, it suddenly didn't matter that Thom Yorke's tongue was singing about lemons. His voice was building and building along with another vocal loop, some understated organ playing a whole bunch of effects to a crescendo that somehow made everything make sense.

The title track is pretty spacey, with Yorke's muffled and compressed vocals and enough plinky organ to put you in some sort of cosmic playpen. "Kid A" mainly serves as a transition to "The National Anthem", which just booms. Colin Greenwood's distorted bass line will rattle your bones, and because he repeats it throughout the song, that hook will be good and lodged in your brain for days after you hear it. You'll keep nodding your head after the song ends. Phil Selway's drumming weaves in and out of the bass hook and this rising syncopated raucous continues to build until Yorke chimes in with "Everyone, everyone around here." The lyrics look innocuous on paper, but Yorke practically spits them out. Backed up by Greenwood's ambient doodling, he sounds ethereal and angry at the same time.

"How to Disappear Completely" breaks my heart. Right from the first melancholy acoustic chords, this song radiates loneliness. I don't even know what instrument creates the haunting hook, but every time it offsets Yorke's voice, I shiver. Never has the statement "I'm not here / This isn't happening" sounded so desolate. Yorke's voice is smooth and sad; sinuously wrapping itself around the string arrangement.

"Optimistic" is an abrupt contrast with commanding guitars and drumming centered around the toms. Selway's pounding coupled with Yorke's assertion that "You can try the best you can / The best you can is good enough" gives the song serious clout and authority. Here is another song that winds itself up into a tight coil of tension and then releases two-and-a-half minutes in. The band builds the tension again just before the four-minute mark and the only real way to describe this second release is with some sexual metaphor. The guitars chime and jangle, Selway creates quite a din with the cymbals, and Yorke's voice is the slick instrument that leads it all.

The sampling on "Idioteque" constructs a dark and dangerous world populated with Greenwood's disquieting organ and Selway's ominous rhythms. Here again, the lyrics aren't as important as the quality of Yorke's sorrowful voice. The track leads directly into "Morning Bell", and here again the band works the "tension and release" idea. Yorke sings at a high enough pitch that I wish he'd sing lower. His voice and some sinister guitar work build until that two-minute mark and then he puts all of his 5'6'' into the resolution.

Finally -- and this track makes the album for me -- there's "Motion Picture Soundtrack". Kid A's closer is a slow-burning and languid end to an almost hour-long experience. The chords that Greenwood draws from his organ spread outward like fog. Each note adds to the track's weariness. Yorke's vocals suggest his exhaustion and frustration with the superficiality of the music industry. "Cheap sex and sad films help me get where I belong / I think you're crazy, maybe / I think you're crazy, maybe."

Radiohead end Kid A like a band ready to be rid of fame, and during this time, rumors circulated that the band would break up. Fortunately for all of us, they've released two other excellent albums, have toured extensively (During these shows, Tom Yorke smiled!) and seem to have accepted their role in the music scene. But, living up to the world's expectations almost did them in. After all, to be the greatest rock band in the world, you actually have to be great.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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