'Kid A' at 20: Why Radiohead's Futuristic Masterpiece Sounds Right on Time

'Kid A' at 20: Why Radiohead's Futuristic Masterpiece Sounds Right on Time

10/02/2020

Twenty years ago, Radiohead released their greatest album, Kid A. It dropped on October 2nd, 2000, and instantly hit Number One, with zero airplay. The electro-glitch masterpiece was controversial at the time, but the mess Radiohead made on Kid A is a thing of beauty forever. Its mystique just keeps growing — in Rolling Stone’s new poll on the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, the voters put Kid A right up there at number 20. If the music sounds timely these days, maybe it’s because the world has gotten more Kid A–like. So let’s hope we see the day when these songs finally sound dated. Because Kid A makes an all-too-accurate motion-picture soundtrack for 2020 — it’s robot blues for toughing it out in the bunker and riding out the hard times.

“I’ve always been extreme about resisting us being a drum-guitar-bass band,” Thom Yorke told Rolling Stone’s Andy Greene in 2017.  That caused constant friction at the Kid A sessions. “The others didn’t know what to contribute. When you’re working with a synthesizer, it’s like there’s no connection. You’re not in a room with other people. I made everyone’s life almost impossible.”

Radiohead weren’t the first English rockers to respond to success with a self-sabotaging, neurotic mess of a reinvention — hell, English bands are practically required to do this, unless their name rhymes with “schmoasis.” But the crazy part is how well it worked. Radiohead’s favorite verb has always been “happen,” and Kid A is obsessed with it, torn between the extremes of “I’m not here, this isn’t happening” and “this is really happening.” They saw the future as a new millennium full of accidents waiting to happen. Spoiler: They weren’t exactly wrong.

On Radiohead’s superb 2018 tour, Yorke introduced “Optimistic” with a few words of political rage. “This was written in 1998. Me and Jonny were traveling through the desert somewhere. Remember? But it seems much more relevant now than it did then.” Yet that intro could work for any song on Kid A, from “Everything in Its Right Place” to “Idioteque” to “The National Anthem.” All these dire warnings about the times ahead? “Optimistic,” indeed.

The most obvious inspiration for Kid A was R.E.M.’s 1992 classic Automatic for the People — virtually all Radiohead fans in Y2K would have known this album inside out. (Especially in the U.K., where the Georgia boys were even bigger than they were back home.) It’s full of explicit Automatic homages like “Optimistic,” sung in one of Michael Stipe’s favorite rhythms. (You can sing “Find the River,” “Ignoreland,” or “Monty Got A Raw Deal” to the tune of “Optimistic.”) Kid A sounds infused by R.E.M.’s elegiac beauty — but with synths instead of mandolins. And like Automatic, Kid A is set during a pivotal regime change, with Radiohead watching the rise of a new George Bush the way R.E.M. gloated over the fall of the first one: to sir, with hate.

Kid A was the first case of a high-profile album where fans already knew the live versions from Napster. So we were all shocked at the time when they left out “Knives Out,” “I Might Be Wrong,” and “Pyramid Song.” (Which we knew as “Egyptian Song.”) No “Dollars and Cents”? No “You and Whose Army?” The band had no problem with the new file-sharing era — they welcomed it. As Yorke told Rolling Stone’s David Fricke that fall, “The ironic thing was that journalists could not get a copy for review, but anyone could download live versions of the new songs from Napster. I thought that was brilliant.”

The live MP3s built up expectations sky-high, as Radiohead tried out the new music onstage. But Kid A confused everyone by skipping the more direct, aggressive material. They seemed to be perversely holding back their best songs for next time. When Amnesiac dropped in the summer of 2001, it seemed to complete Kid A — twin halves of the same album. Some fans preferred Amnesiac at first — it rocked harder, with the guitars of Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien. But Kid A came to tower over its sibling, to the point where Amnesiac is now way underrated. It didn’t even get enough votes to make the new RS 500 list. (OK Computer, The Bends, and In Rainbows are all in there.) But poetically, Kid A sits on the list right behind Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which samples “Pyramid Song.”

Kid A might be one of history’s most famously dodgy career moves, but the weirdest twist is how popular it was. As with the Stones’ Exile on Main Street, people love to romanticize the myth of the misunderstood masterpiece — the World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band going rogue. Yet both Exile and Kid A were immediate commercial blockbusters. And so were the bands’ next albums, a year later, which proved how much the paying customers liked this one. Amnesiac sold even more copies its first week than Kid A did. In other words, the fans who spent 20 bucks on Kid A did not feel let down, did not wish this band would go back to pretty pop tunes like “Creep.” Radiohead’s faith in the rock audience turned out to be totally justified.

Y2K was the all-time peak of the music biz, so it was a time when big-name artists indulged themselves in experiments that would have seemed insane a few years earlier or later. Garth Brooks recast himself as Chris Gaines. Two weeks after Kid A, Limp Bizkit debuted at Number One with Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water. The stars figured it was the right time to risk their “I’m a serious artist now” move, and if it flopped, hey, there’s always next year. But Y2K turned out to be the year without a next year, as far as CD sales were concerned. The Limp Bizkits of the world were up nookie creek without a cookie.

Kid A came out in the wake of D’Angelo’s Voodoo, everybody’s favorite jam that summer. Both required serious ear time — you had to live with the music before heating up your take. It was frustrating for some fans, since both Radiohead and D’Angelo were proven experts at instant-gratification crowd pleasers. (Nobody had to listen to “Planet Telex” or “Brown Sugar” twice to figure out if they liked them.) But that sense of adventure turned out to be part of the fun. The audience loved being invited along on this loony experiment — and in both cases, the audience has kept listening ever since.

“The National Anthem” holds up as their fiercest space-rock groove, especially in live versions — the studio original is marred by the self-consciously cheesy horns. “Idioteque” shows off their proudly amateurish electronica. Their expertise can be deceptive to new listeners who discover Kid A before they’ve had a chance to hear Autechre, Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, or Funki Porcini. Yet to the Radiohead audience back in the day, these were obvious reference points, and “Idioteque” was meant to sound raw and clumsy in comparison, a garage-band cover. Jonny Greenwood was clearly a punk who’d just unboxed his gear, and the klutz-thud beat of “Idioteque” was in the same spirit as his pedal-stomp noise-guitar blurts in “Creep.”

If there was a moment in the Kid A arc where the album took on its current mythic stature, it was 12/12/00, the day the Supreme Court threw out the November election results and blocked the state of Florida from counting its ballots. (More precisely, the Republican-appointed five-ninths of the Court — what a coincidence.) Mind-blowing. Unprecedented. But it happened in broad daylight. After 12/12, all the things about Kid A that seemed overblown, paranoid, maybe a bit hysterical? They now sounded right on time. How could this be happening? This was really happening.

The album became the mournful soundtrack for seeing the Nineties’ hard-won political gains dissolve into air. Election Night Y2K, watching on my couch as George W. Bush gave a strutting victory speech for the election he hadn’t won, I switched to Comedy Central — needed a laugh — and got an SNL rerun, the 1993 Charles Barkley episode with musical guest Nirvana. Kurt Cobain was in the middle of singing “Heart-Shaped Box.” Hearing his voice at that moment made an already unimaginable night feel absurd. So much thrown away, so fast, for nothing. The Nineties were over. Hey, wait, I got a new complaint.

Something about this music made it uncannily perfect for the fall of 2000 — the same thing that makes it perfect for the fall of 2020. Just a couple of weeks ago, the night Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, Questlove went on social media to spin a three-hour DJ set of Radiohead — “chopped and (we’re) screwed?,” as he put it. It was a spontaneous way to cope with his grief, but it was powerful, with the doleful tones of “In Limbo,” “Treefingers,” and “Optimistic.” His theme was “One weekend to mope and that’s it!” 

In a way, that’s the ultimate tribute to Kid A and its legacy. It’s music for taking your despair and channeling it into rage. Music for refusing to give up. Music for seeing possibilities in the future that the future doesn’t want you to see. That’s why Kid A struck a chord with so many people. And 20 years later, that’s why Kid A sounds more inspiring — and more necessary — than ever.

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