Originally conceived of as a double album that ultimately proved too dense to release in one go, the duo of semi-distinct, early 2000s albums ‘Kid A’ (2000) and ‘Amnesiac’ (2001) shifted the musical landscape and cemented Radiohead as the biggest band in the world at the time. As the band release a retrospective of the two albums plus additional unreleased material as ‘Kid A Mnesia’ in late 2021, we look back at those two albums with two decades of hindsight.
Due to the way that ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’ were conceived and recorded, it’s near impossible to consider one without taking in the other. Equally, it is just as difficult to take them in isolation without first referencing the albums that preceded them. From 1993’s ‘Pablo Honey’ through ‘The Bends’ (1995) and the landmark ‘OK Computer’ (1997), Radiohead evolved from slightly grungey Indie Rockers through epic Prog Rockers to a band that was increasingly considered boundary pushing, at least within the generally accepted framework of mainstream Rock. In this atmosphere the band’s next album was much hyped and highly anticipated, yet the band was burned out from ever increasing demands of touring and promotional work as each album found more success than the last. Along with The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Metallica, Radiohead have become one of the most written about bands of the last 60 years and there are any number of ‘definitive’ accounts of this period. Suffice it to say that change was needed, and the band set out to do things differently in any way they could.
Recorded across numerous studios throughout Europe, including in their own newly built studio in Oxford, the band crafted a swathe of ideas, starting points and half-finished tunes but initially struggled to find cohesion or a firm direction. Chief among their issues was a goal to move away from the forms and trappings of Rock instrumentation and structures. Perhaps obviously, this clashed with the various members’ instrumental specialisms as Rock musicians, as well as their writing habits where each member contributed to the whole. Working with producer Nigel Godrich, the group broke out into individuals and smaller groups to experiment with texture and tone while slowly getting to grips with new and novel instrumentation. Slowly the group coalesced around a single vision and the albums that now seem so carefully structured were born through iteration and perseverance.
Having established themselves as the pre-eminent Rock act of the late 1990s, the weight of the media attention had become too much for lead singer and frontman, Thom Yorke. Distrustful of Rock archetypes at the best of times, Yorke began to vehemently push against the grain of guitar plus rhythm section, verse-chorus-verse song structures. Much has been made of his listening habits at the time, revolving around the Electronica and IDM artists releasing on Warp Records, such as Aphex Twin, Autechre and Boards of Canada. It’s clear these sounds influenced the rhythmic palette of ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’, though at the time Yorke was quoted as repeatedly referencing the Talking Heads album ‘Remain in Light’. Elsewhere, Johnny Greenwood’s influences swayed more towards avant-garde Classical and the work of the early electronic music pioneers. The impact of these influences can be felt, most obviously, in the choice of instruments the band began to use for the first time. Greenwood brought in an ondes Martenot, a sort of theremin and organ hybrid that creates oscillating tones while the rest of the band began to work with modular synthesizers, drum machines, and modulation effects for guitar. For lyrics, Yorke selected words and phrases, at times at random, from collected notebooks in a significant move away from the soul-baring lyrics of previous releases.
The result is a pair of albums marked more by texture than melody, cinematic scope over Rock bombast, filled with lyrics more oblique and open to interpretation than ever. Opening track ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ was originally written on piano before being transposed for synthesizer, while Yorke’s vocals were warped in ProTools to create an eerie, uncanny introduction. A real breakthrough moment in the recording process, where the band came to grips with the fact that not every track could feature every member, it also acts as a guide for the listener. A relatively minimal piece, it acts as a careful primer of what is to come.
Part of the joy of ‘Kid A’, in particular, is the sense of the digital and the analogue meshing together and the ensuing friction between the elements. Sometimes there is clear cohesion like on ‘How To Disappear Completely’ where the ondes Martenot seamlessly joins a string section to add ethereal shine. Notably, it’s also one of the few tracks to contain a clear acoustic guitar rhythm at its base. On other tracks, however, the analogue and digital elements feel more disjointed, creating contrasts and chasms like on ‘In Limbo’ where a guitar arpeggio, a Radiohead hallmark, is scuffed by surface electronics and muddied by digital delay, reverb and chorus variously applied to synth, guitar and multi-tracked vocals.
While Yorke referenced the Talking Heads classic, ‘Remain In Light’, a different Talking Heads LP appears to have had as much of an impact; ‘Fear of Music’. From the stilted, staccato, uncoupled guitar melody of ‘Electric Guitar’ to the paranoid, prophet-like vocals of ‘Animals’, the overall ambience of that album, at once airy and also metallic, lingers similarly across many of the tracks on ‘Kid A’.
Created in the same sessions but released eight months after Radiohead had polarized the music buying public with their new “difficult” suite of tracks, ‘Amnesiac’ has always felt more conventionally Rock-y. This, in itself, has created a lot of debate between fans and critics. Initially on release the consensus was that ‘Amnesiac’ was a more cohesive, enjoyable listen and was therefore the better album. Yet twenty years down the line and ‘Kid A’ regularly appears in all manner of ‘best of’ lists, while ‘Amnesiac’ is often relegated to the overlooked, or forgotten younger child. Partly, this is because ‘Kid A’ came as such a shock to so many upon its release, and clearly the growth period for such an album was longer than eight months. Yet by the time ‘Amnesiac’ was released some growth and acceptance had occurred, otherwise it no doubt would not have been received so warmly.
While no doubt Internet sleuths have deduced the order each track was likely recorded in, the sense as a listener is that many of the earlier tracks fell on the latter album. One story from the early recording sessions involves Johnny Greenwood playing a previously recorded take backwards and capturing the imagination of Yorke. Yorke then took existing lyrics and recorded them sung phonetically backwards so that when they too were flipped, they appeared to run as a logical speech pattern but warped and skewed. The resulting track, ‘Like Spinning Plates’, is ghostly and uncanny with an intangible pulse, an emotive and textural palette that can be found a few years later in the early work of future Yorke collaborator, Burial.
The feeling at the time, when faced with this indistinct but clearly political album tied up with ennui and disillusionment, was that it was a singular work unlike anything else in Rock. Yet, eight months prior to the release of ‘Kid A’ another British Rock band known for about-face turns in stylistic temperament had dropped an incendiary LP of layered noise and electronics, and both acts had drawn specifically on the Jazz of Charles Mingus to help inform the horn sections that gave sway to their looser moments. In January 2000, Primal Scream released ‘XTRMNTR’ and touched on many similar points as Radiohead, thematically and texturally, as though both were tapping into a broader zeitgeist. Politically, the New Labour revolution of 1997 had already lost any sheen it started with, the fractured conspiracy theory paranoia of Y2K had built to a frenzy, and well-publicised studies on climate change were first beginning to gather significant mainstream attention.
Given what has transpired in the two decades since, whether it be terrorism and the high cost of the ‘War on Terrorism’, the explosion of performative ‘always-on’ life through social media, unfettered climate change, and a global pandemic costing the lives of millions, the palpable sense of dread on ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’ looks, in hindsight, almost quaint rather than prescient. When Yorke sings, on ‘Idioteque’, “mobiles chirping, take the money and run” he appears at his most far-reaching and prophetic, far ahead of his time, until we realise that in our current world of deadly border conflicts, there’s nowhere left to run for those who need it most.
Across two albums, Radiohead introduced millions to a new millennia ripe with new, and old, reasons to feel uncomfortable. By ripping up the rule book of what a Rock band should be, they elevated themselves higher, attracting wider audiences as they promised challenging, but broadly understandable music where emotion was laid bare and, rather than nodding your head or jumping up and down like with most Indie music, maybe you could find something in there you could actually dance to. Much has already been written, said and debated about this pair of albums, their affiliated artwork which is currently being transformed into a gallery-based exhibition, and the way that the band embraced internet streaming on the albums release; one of the first major artists to do so. What bears repeating is that Radiohead showed that not only was it possible to become one of the biggest bands in the world, it was possible to do it your own way, to challenge your audience and, significantly, not destroy your own band in the process. By creating a landscape of fractured textures, Auto-tuned vocals, and cute cartoon bears printed on every kind of merchandise you can think of, Radiohead created a pair of albums elevated by many critics and fans to the status of high art.