Remember When: Radiohead Zigged When We Thought They Would Zag with ‘Kid A’

The best artists don’t always deliver what’s expected of them. Radiohead has always seemed to inherently understand this principle, which is part of the reason they’re so revered by their fans. Their release of the 2000 album Kid A not only epitomizes their need to experiment, but it also displays their ability to imbue these surprising stylistic shifts with their natural chemistry and bracing worldview.

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Kid A also emerged from a period when the band was stressed nearly to the point of fracture, which makes the genius within the record even more impressive. Our story begins in the aftermath of Radiohead conquering the top of the rock and roll mountain, only to wonder where they were supposed to go from there.

Computer Glitches

Radiohead had already undergone a few transformations before Kid A. Their unlikely, grungy hit “Creep” had them pegged as likely one-hit wonders, but they turned into a buzz band with their intelligent, hard-rocking 1995 sophomore album The Bends. OK Computer took it to another level, as they combined ambitious, often anthemic music with lyrics that touched on the dread and paranoia of living in an age of technology.

But they found being lauded as rock’s saviors to be an uncomfortable experience. This was especially true of lead singer Thom Yorke, who dealt with anxiety over the constant demands being placed on his suddenly beloved band.

Yorke’s mental health was reeling a bit as he tried to write new Radiohead material. He found it utterly impossible to compose on the guitar, as he had always done in the past. When the band first began the process of recording anew in 1999 with sessions in Paris and Copenhagen, Denmark, little got done.

To make matters worse, the band members harbored far different ideas of how the new album would sound. Guitarist Ed O’Brien imagined the band departing from OK Computer by leaving behind some of that album’s progressive trappings and focusing on simpler, melodic songs. As Yorke acknowledged in a 2000 interview with Q magazine, he was on a much different page. “There was no chance of the album sounding like that. I’d completely had it with melody,” he said. “I just wanted rhythm. All melodies to me were pure embarrassment.”

The New Kid in Town

Yorke eventually convinced the other Radiohead members to follow his vision of a far more drastic deviation from the norm. The band built songs from drum patterns, computerized sounds, arcane instruments (ondes Martenot, anyone?), and Yorke’s piano playing, even though he wasn’t all that trained on the instrument.

Even when tunes were evident (“How to Disappear Completely,” “Motion Picture Soundtrack”), they were either drowned out by sound washes or underplayed by Yorke’s singing techniques. More common were clashing, furious musical pieces, such as “The National Anthem” and “Idioteque,” where urgency stood in for melody. Slower numbers like “Everything in Its Right Place” and “Morning Bell” favored atmospheric oddities over traditional instrumental backing. The music, jarring and elusive, dovetailed with Yorke’s lyrics, which took the themes of OK Computer and dragged them into even more harrowing territory.

Kid A arrived in October 2000 and immediately set about dividing critics and fans. Some who had applauded the band’s forward-thinking tendencies on the previous record thought the lack of traditional rock sounds and structures were a bridge too far. Others recognized the band was getting ahead of the curve by embracing genres such as electronic and techno while traditional rock was stagnating.

These days, the album is generally regarded as a masterpiece, as people have now caught on to the subtle songcraft and piercing lyrical messages hiding beneath the layers of obfuscation and misdirection ladled on by the band. With Kid A, Radiohead went from the brink of a breakup to the horizons of a brave new musical world, taking their legions of fans with them—whether they were ready or not.

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Photo by Troy Augusto/Newsmakers

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