Happy 15th birthday to Radiohead‘s Kid A, released on October 2nd, 2000. Kid A remains the defining moment in the Radiohead legend, and the pinnacle of their trying-too-hard genius. It looms over everything else they’ve done before or since. “Idioteque,” “How to Disappear Completely,” “The National Anthem,” “Motion Picture Soundtrack” — these are the songs that set the context for Radiohead’s other music, even (especially?) the songs they’d already written in the Nineties. It’s safe to say that OK Computer and The Bends, great as they are, remain so famous today chiefly because they were made by the guys who went on to make Kid A.
The most important trick Radiohead learned from their guru Neil Young was to present every album as a bold break with everything they’d even done before. So like OK Computer, three years earlier, Kid A was Radiohead announcing they were starting from scratch: Goodbye, guitars; hello, atmospheric synths. As Thom Yorke told David Fricke that fall, “There’s a lot of things about rock that are still valid, almost shamanic things: delving into drugs for creative reasons, not lifestyle reasons; music as a lifetime commitment. If that’s what someone means by rock, great. But I find it difficult to think of the path we’ve chosen as ‘rock music.'”
Yet the harder these guys strained to transcend being a dorky rock band, the dorkier and more rock they sounded, with a very old-school sense of grandiosity — the Moody Blues strings and Chris Squire bass of “How to Disappear Completely,” the Blind Faith hook of “Optimistic,” the Bowie-in-Berlin vibe of the whole concept. All over Kid A, Radiohead sounded confused, unsure of themselves yet simultaneously full of themselves. It looked like commercial suicide — yet Kid A was an immediate worldwide hit, as was their next album and the one after that.
Man, was this music fun to argue about. Whether you loved or hated Kid A, it gave undeniable entertainment value. All through the miserable fall of 2000, the debates raged on. Is it a masterpiece? A hype? A compendium of clichés? Will it stand the test of time? Why aren’t “Knives Out” or “You and What Army” on this album? Where’d you park the car? Is Al Gore blowing it on purpose? Why didn’t the umpires toss Clemens after he threw the bat? Where’s “Pyramid Song”? Who let the dogs out? When is the second half of this album coming out — you know, the half with the actual Radiohead songs? How did they get away with that in Florida? Is this really happening?
The argument is over, obviously; there’s no controversy over Kid A anymore, and something’s been lost there. The original concept of the album requires an antagonist — the whole “dammit, an artist’s gotta do what an artist’s gotta do” narrative, which requires somebody to do the actual hating. But anybody vaguely interested in Radiohead loves this album; it’s much more fun to argue about In Rainbows or Hail to the Thief. Nobody admits now they hated Kid A at the time, the same way folkies never admit they booed Dylan for going electric. Nobody wants to be the clod who didn’t get it.