Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Kid A Grows Up

Kid A Grows Up - Radiohead’s Boldest Album Turns 10
By Bill Reese

I met Kid A on Sunday night, October 1, 2000. Matt Pinfield hosted 92.3 K-Rock’s new music program “120 Minutes,” and dedicated the first hour of that evening’s broadcast to Radiohead’s new album, Kid A in its entirety.

Normally, I would not have stayed up to listen, but once I heard the haunting keyboard licks at the beginning of “Everything In Its Right Place,” I just couldn’t turn it off. It was creepy, and—to 16 year old me—almost cheesy, like the music in the haunted house rides at Adventureland. I was captivated by Thom Yorke’s flickering vocals, which stuttered and skipped like a malfunctioning robot. The song had no verses, no choruses; it just built and built in one long crescendo. I had spent the first 16 years of my life worshiping guitar rock and now I was mesmerized by a song that featured none. I listened to the rest of the album in silence, then went to sleep and tried to comprehend the record that I had just heard. I bought it a week later, and it’s been one of my favorite records ever since.

It’s important to remember where we were as a musical people in October 2000. This was the year of N’Sync and Sisqo. We were a year removed from Woodstock ’99 and a year away from The White Stripes and The Strokes making two records that helped define the decade. Internet downloading was still a brand new concept and all of us cynically declared that Napster allowed us to test-drive new music, and that we would end up buying more CDs than we did before. George W. Bush was about to be “elected” president for the first time and he and Al Gore were debating on how best to use the United States’ record budget surplus. The 90s were over, but only because the calendar said that they were.

So in walked Radiohead, a band who had nearly self-destructed after crafting their 1997 opus OK Computer, a guitar-rock album for the new millennium. It may have been dark, moody guitar rock, but it was their own style and nobody else sounded as they did. They had been listening to way too much Terry Reilly, Paul Lansky, and these Icelanders no one outside of Reykjavík had ever heard of named Sigur Rós. They couldn’t be U2, an arena rock band that pounded out guitar anthems every night. All they had to do was play “Creep” and “Fake Plastic Trees” for 100 gigs a year and they would make money hand over fist. They could have done it, but it would have killed them. Reinvention—drastic, thorough, irreversible reinvention—was the only way they could continue as a band.

Johnny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien—arguably two of the best guitarists in rock at the time, and the only guys who weren’t thumping out chords on 7-stringers—had abandoned the instruments they’d mastered for keyboards and synthesizers. If they did pick up a guitar, they ran it through dozens of distortion pedals, loops and phasers. Thom Yorke—a vocal juggernaut—was hardly singing at all, repeating cryptic lyrics while producer Nigel Godrich spliced them up. Even drummer Phil Selway found himself passing up regular drumbeats for complex rhythms, or was replaced altogether by a drum machine. Radiohead were not the first band to reinvent themselves, hell, the Beatles did that for four consecutive records starting with Rubber Soul. But no band before Radiohead, and no band since Radiohead’s Kid A completely dismantled their sound, re-built it using different materials, and emerged with the kind of critical and commercial success as did the Oxford quintet.

Kid A was released on October 2, 2000 in the U.K. and a day later in the States, reaching #1 on both charts in its first week. Kid A was the first album in decades to top the U.S. charts without the benefit of a music video or a hit radio single. Kid A had no singles, and besides being played in its entirety on “120 Minutes” and occasional sightings of “Optimistic” in K-Rock’s late night rotation, Kid A was barely heard on modern rock radio—at a time when radio was still a relevant force in rock.

Without the video or the lead single, (The singles, they promised, would be on the following spring’s Amnesiac) the band was invited to play Saturday Night Live on October 14, 2000. I’ve described their two-song set as one of the unintentional defining moments of the 2000s decade to founder Sal Bono for years.

The band ripped through “The National Anthem,” accompanied by a 9-piece brass band that recreated the song’s spastic horn section with stunning precision. The band plays this song at most shows, but almost never with the horn section. They later played the album’s showstopper, “Idioteque,” complete with Thom Yorke having the equivalent of a grand mal seizure on stage, his head swiveling back and forth so fast that every other word was caught by the microphone. As the song ended, the SNL crowd looked like the audience from "Springtime For Hitler"—in shock, bewildered, some with offended ears.

This—whether Radiohead intended it or not—was one of the defining moments of the 2000s as a decade in music. Radiohead came out on that soundstage to present to the American public what they believed to be the music of the future. Big American surplus or not, they knew the future was dark, it was chaotic, it was filled with fear, uncertainty and woe. The music they played was simply too advanced for the SNL audience that night. Thom Yorke may as well have pulled a Marty McFly and taken the mic and said, “Maybe you guys aren’t ready for that… but your kids are gonna love it…”

The future Radiohead were offering was just too bleak for rock and roll listeners. No matter how good a record Kid A was, it just wasn’t the kind of music we were ready to rally around… at least not yet. Within a year, a new musical movement had begun that began to throw back to 70s retro rock sounds, with mod outfits and slick guitar riffs. Radiohead promised us the future and the rest of us decided that the past was a much more comforting place to be. In a matter of years, even Radiohead gave up on their own dark future. Discounting Amnesiac—which is essentially a B-sides record for Kid A, 2003’s Hail to the Thief—and 2007’s In Rainbows focused heavily on the three-headed guitar-dragon of O’Brien/Greenwood/Yorke.

Kid A is no Nevermind. It is not a revolutionary, groundbreaking record that inspired a generation of musicians. It’s barely a relevant record in today’s musical arena. After 10 years, it does, however, stand alone as one of the boldest musical statements in the recent history of rock and roll. It was released in an era where bands needed to sell records to make money. It was released during an era where major record labels still had clout, and Capitol Records believed in Radiohead enough to let them take the biggest chance of their career. It may not have ushered in an age of experimental, weird rock bands, but it solidified (and I argue created) the perception of Radiohead as a weird band. They were a moody band on OK Computer, Kid A made them weeeeeeeiiiiirrrrddddd. It may have not have inspired bands to start using synths, keys and samplers, but when a present-day guitar rock band starts to incorporate more electronic elements into their sound, no one bats an eye.

After 10 years, Kid A has taken a prominent, yet un-assuming role atop many critics Best-Of Lists for the recently expired decade—just the way the band want it. It may slip down those lists as time passes but not because it fails to pass the test of time. If anything, it’ll slip because Kid A has been the better predictor of the demise of Western Civilization, and perhaps we don’t yet possess the courage to acknowledge that fact.

Bill Reese is an infrequent contributor to and has previously written for Prefix, Skope, Good Times and The Purchase Independent. He occasionally listens to Kid A while working as an editor at Playbill.