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.
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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.
So meet Clod A, because I’m happy to explain why so many of us Radiohead fans thought it sucked bugs at first. Radiohead were trying things that were awkward for them, which made the deliberate pace frustrating, especially for fans who preferred the more assertive live songs they were holding back for Amnesiac. Their mastery of Warp-style electronic effects was clumsy and dated (and has been understandably overestimated in retrospect by latecomers). The funniest review came from Select, the best Britpop mag of the era: “What do they want for sounding like the Aphex Twin circa 1993, a medal?”
Also, everybody’s favorite album all that year had been D’Angelo’s Voodoo, another abstract masterpiece that demanded hours of patient contemplation, so many listeners were just running out of ear steam. And since Kid A came out exactly nine months after Voodoo, maybe people were giving birth to all those Voodoo babies and Kid A was the post-partum depression.
I love this album so much now, it’s difficult to find any failed moments on it. Not impossible, though. The horn section in “The National Anthem” was a cornier-than-usual art-rock cliché, trying way too hard for a way-too-obvious gimmick. Sorry, but the “bad horn section as symbol of alienation” thing had been done a time or two before. The premise was Pink Floyd’s “Jugband Blues,” but instead it evoked nightmarish flashbacks of Pete Townshend’s huge 1985 hit “Face the Face” — an acclaimed artistic statement at the time, a forgotten novelty a few months later, a fate that seemed easy to imagine for Kid A. (“Face to Face” sounds a bit like “Idioteque,” too.) All over the album, these guys were trying too hard. The synths had the same painfully gauche effect as Conor Oberst’s voice, so forlorn and hammy, straining for sensitivity until it sounded vaguely humiliating. Yet I ended up loving Kid A, and loving Conor Oberst too. Gauche is beautiful, in a world of dime-a-dozen cool.
That was part of the romance of loving Radiohead — this band always did have a tendency to over-egg the pudding. I mean, if the trees you’re singing about are “plastic,” you probably don’t need to add that they’re also “fake,” least of all in the title. But it’s that hyper-adolescent overstatement that makes the “fake plaaa-haaastic trees” line — and the song title, and the song — so emotionally powerful. “Fake Plastic Trees” would have been easier to take if it had been called “Green Plastic Trees” or “Blue Vinyl Trees” or something — more subtle, more adult, more intelligent. But it would have been a lesser song. And Kid A was emotionally hyperbolic enough to make “Fake Plastic Trees” look restrained.
At that point, it seemed like Radiohead were the only Nineties band left who still wanted to be a Nineties band — who still aspired to vent teen angst and adult dread and geopolitical rage and sexual yearning at the same time. They were aiming for the stature abandoned too fast by the larger-than-life legends of their era: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Biggie, Tupac, Axl, Courtney, R.E.M., U2. Kid A is music made by thirtysomething men who can’t understand why everything they gave a crap about in their twenties went so horribly wrong so fast. The music is full of self-doubt and embarrassment — these are artists who dedicated their lives to something they thought was important (i.e. becoming the World’s Greatest Rock Band), then wondered if they got taken.
And Radiohead obviously weren’t the only ones who felt this way, which is why their most difficult music resonated with the rock audience, despite zero airplay. Kid A debuted at Number One in October, 2000; Amnesiac debuted at Number Two in June, 2001, yet Amnesiac actually sold more copies its first week. That’s a lot of satisfied customers, especially since the supposed premise of the album was refusing to satisfy the customers. We loved hearing this band try so hard, at a time when everybody else was in retreat. Fifteen years later, it’s still a beautiful sound.