Kid A Reaches Adulthood: Radiohead’s Mesmerizing Fourth Record Turns 20
Musicians, filmmakers wax poetic on the importance of the trailblazing band’s 2000 LP
A little over three years after releasing their atmospheric masterpiece OK Computer, Radiohead set the tone for the rest of their career with Kid A: a radical and beautifully bizarre collection that relied less on guitars, more on fragmented electronics and ambient experimentation.
As writer Zev Borow observed in SPIN’s November 2000 issue, Radiohead’s fourth LP was the most anticipated rock album since Nirvana’s In Utero. But Radiohead did little to promote it, eschewing press interviews and promotional photoshoots. Critics weren’t provided with advanced copies, and there wasn’t a music video. In a clear sign of the times, Kid A was leaked on Napster three weeks ahead of its release — shocking an unsuspecting public with its beguiling rhythms.
With Kid A, released 20 years ago today, Radiohead proved that great art often requires more than great talent — it demands great risk. The uncompromising record introduced the world to several beloved tracks (“Everything in Its Right Place,” “The National Anthem,” “Idioteque”), pushing the band outside the “rock” format altogether.
As Kid A approaches legal drinking age, we reached out to several musicians — along with one very successful screenwriter — for their takes on what makes the album so special.
I first heard Radiohead at Newbury Comics in Cambridge. I was maybe 20, and I was browsing the racks and saw this album called OK Computer with a handwritten sign saying, “Such and such magazine called this the album of the year,” and I had never heard of it. I just bought it on a lark. I took it home and liked it, but it wasn’t until a few months later, when I was in college, and I had a lover who was absolutely obsessed with the record. We wound up lounging around and getting to know each other and having a lot of sex and listening to OK Computer over and over again. It was our relationship’s soundtrack, and it really got under my skin, and became the soundtrack to an era of my sexual awakening and my youth.
There was also something illicit about it because I was a real avant-garde non-mainstream music obsessive, and by that point, Radiohead seemed to belong to other people. So, there was something almost subversive about me snatching it back, and saying, “No, I’m allowed to have this band too, and I will shack up in my weird dorm room with my weird love, smoking my clove cigarettes and this music is allowed to belong to me.”
The songwriting is phenomenal, but the production embraces your soul. There’s a spectrum of songwriters, from the very literal to the extremely vague and metaphorical, and the lyrics of Radiohead straddle that spectrum so beautifully that the songs are almost a study in what is possible. I adore Thom Yorke’s ability to go from incredibly broad to the incredibly finite in two seconds. That’s something Leonard Cohen did beautifully, and as a lyricist, listening to Kid A, almost as an exercise, is really helpful — how those lyrics draw from a certain palette, and then all of a sudden, the palette becomes a frisbee thrown off a cliff.
Screenwriter/producer/director, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Interstellar
Around when OK Computer came out, I had been egging my brother and my sister-in-law to move to Southern California — they were in London at the time. Chris finally said, “The hell with it … let’s go to L.A. and try to make movies.” We had my dad’s old Honda — l was in D.C., and I picked him up in Chicago. Before we started the road trip, we were watching — of all things — MTV, and the video for “Paranoid Android” came on. Chris was watching it, and he’s like, “What the hell is this?” I said, “Oh, this is Radiohead. This is their new album. It’s awesome.” We set off that day and drove to Los Angeles, and along the way, I pitched him the idea for Memento, and when we got there, he then wrote it as a film.
The first inkling I got of Kid A, Chris reached out to see if we could use a Radiohead song in Memento, and their managers or publishers very politely declined. The quote that came back to us — which was disappointing, but very exciting — was that they were about to drop a record and it was going to be huge. We were like, “That’s a bummer … but I can’t wait to hear that album!” Instead, we used a terrific David Bowie song, and I waited breathlessly for Kid A to come out. When it did, I went to the old Virgin [Mega] store in the Sunset Plaza — on the first day — and bought it. I came home, put it in, put the headphones on, closed my eyes, and just this fucking acid-washed, cinematic experience from the beginning to the end. It has this transportive quality to it.
I love all their records, but Kid A, in particular, because it sustained me, creatively, during a period in which we had this false start. We had this year in L.A. with a finished movie no one wanted to release, because they thought it was too complicated, thinking, “Oh shit, maybe it’s not going to happen.” I just kept listening to that album, and I started writing The Prestige and thinking about what the next projects would be. It is so full of beauty and oddness, it allows people to kind of sit inside it, imagine different realities, different experiences, different truths. I got to luxuriate in that album in a year in which I was getting by on couch change and 99¢ tacos from Jack in the Box.
The first time I heard Radiohead, one of my best friends in the world played me “Creep” off his iPod Nano when we were sitting on the bus home. When I first listened to Kid A, I remember it was 5 a.m., and I was lying in bed — exhausted and slightly delirious. Hearing “Idioteque” for the first time was something of an out-of-body experience for me.
Radiohead have this unique ability to shape-shift whilst creating and maintaining a specific, intense mood, and Kid A is one of their most important and beautiful sonic experiments. I would say it’s the jewel in the crown of Radiohead’s legacy.
Kid A was really one of their first albums that solidified them as a band that’s about the art. “If you don’t get it, sorry.” They’ve had it all, from the point of view of, they’ve been revered for writing beautiful songs that were sort of pop songs — they were singable, and they were radio darlings — but at the same time, are still respected purely as artists, as creators that are doing it for its own sake. I think that’s what every musician dreams of. To be able to have some of both is sort of the ultimate achievement. But they defined a generation’s musical statement.
When Kid A came out, I remember not getting it at first but then loving what it was saying about this band, which is they decided they needed to make sure they made a record that, if no one got it, it didn’t matter. They made a record they loved, and I think that’s one of the reasons why the song “Optimistic” is one we plucked and put into our live shows some years later. It’s such a tone-setter and walks the line of having enough pop sensibility where we thought we could bring something to it. But ultimately, it was a tip of the hat to an artist who has always chosen the art.
Singer/songwriter, Beverly, Public Practice
I was first introduced to Radiohead in middle school by my dad and brother. It wasn’t so much of a diehard fandom in our household, just a really consistent reliance on music news and alternative releases. They probably read about Radiohead in SPIN, to be honest! So, the excitement around Radiohead was probably on par with the excitement about Beck or say, Lauryn Hill, at the time.
By the time Kid A came out, we were all very stoked on the band, and its heavy electronic production became the perfect backdrop for many a druggy all-nighter in high school. I remember “Idioteque” blasting during a pseudo rave we had in my friend’s bedroom.
There are so many bands in the rock pantheon where the cheeky ingenuity and recognizable, standalone vocals of the singer pair perfectly with the unhinged genius of the guitar player. My favorite examples of this may just be Blur and Radiohead. I think it’s really hard to give everybody’s talents the floor at all times, but somehow, Radiohead achieves that. I’m a huge fan of The Bends and OK Computer — I’m a sucker for a soaring chorus and a haunting melody and just big guitars in general. With every album, Radiohead seems to stretch their muscles and go beyond their — or more accurately, their listeners’ — comfort zones. Kid A is such a leap into the unknown, they really let themselves go crazy for drum machines and weird song structures, and I really admire that.
Singer/songwriter, Young the Giant
Kid A came out when I was 11, so a lot of Radiohead’s music has been out of order and in my own chronology. I discovered OK Computer first, and I heard that at a CD-listening bar with my dad, who was also obsessed with music at that time. We’d got to Second Spin and sit in the little booth, checking out CDs, and I remember hearing “Airbag.” That was the first Radiohead song I heard. It was such an eye-opener for me.
My initial reaction to Kid A was really bewilderment over the fact that a “rock band” could do this. At that time, my general view of music, like a lot of musicians and listeners in general, things were in a vacuum. I didn’t have much historical context. All I knew was, “Wow, I have never really heard anything like this before.” That record really has become such a template for the sonics of the modern alternative: to use a synthesizer, to use an Ondes Martenot — all these things that, I guess, at a certain point in the ‘90s, were kind of taboo — became something that now is ubiquitous. Everyone is using this stuff and everyone, in a sense, is still trying to copycat that feeling.
I always joke that, if Radiohead, for some reason, offered me a gig to just be the background vocalist and do harmonies with Thom Yorke, I’d take it in a heartbeat. I absolutely love them, as a career band: they have been able to traverse essentially upstream the whole time, but still remain so amazingly relevant and still managing to redefine their sound with every record. It’s been breathtaking.
Singer/songwriter (formerly of San Fermin)
I first became aware of Radiohead through my high school buddy, Colin Turner, who was fanatically obsessed with them and listened to nothing else. He had every album of theirs in his car, and nothing else — and we used to drive around after school, listening to them and geeking out. After high school, I worked as a camp counselor in Burbank, California, where we went on this 7-mile hike from the top of a mountain (where the camp was located) to the beach— and I would always ritualistically listen to “Treefingers” on my way down. Walking through the mist with those eerie synths felt right as a soundtrack, and I’ll always associate it with being 19.
Kid A is the album that famously got a 10/10 from Pitchfork and 2/10 from Melody Maker’s Mark Beaumont, who branded it as “look-ma-I-can-suck-my-own-cock whiny old rubbish.” I think it’s a polarizing record because its abstract, shapeshifting nature means that it awakens different things intuitively, for different people. To me, Kid A is the soundtrack to a sci-fi movie, it’s teenage existentialism, it’s a dissonant church hymn in “Everything in its Right Place.” I read that Thom Yorke recorded his vocals after the music was recorded by literally pulling words out of a hat. The line between random and intentional is blurry — just like life.
It was early 2001 and high school was rapidly approaching. My teenage angst was at full-tilt and I had mostly shifted my focus onto heavier music to match the aggressiveness of my hormones. But with those big, pubescent mood swings came a lot of sadness, too. One day, after school, I went to Sam Goody with a few friends and saw a copy of Kid A in the new releases section — even though the album had come out almost six months prior. I remember that day because it was raining, and I took the wrong bus going home and had to walk about a mile back. When I got home, I was soaking wet and I went straight to my room to get changed. Before that, though, I put Kid A into my dresser’s resident boombox. I left the CD playing while I hopped in the shower and when I got out, I quickly discovered that I had neglected to do laundry and had no clean clothes. It might have been the progression of the day and the misery of walking home in the rain paired with my uncontrollable early teenage emotions, but it was the final inconvenience in a long chain of unfortunate events that day, and I started crying.
This weeping spell coincided with “How to Disappear Completely” coming up in the tracklisting and I have an incredibly vivid memory of just sitting there in a wet towel, crying and looking out the upstairs window of my bedroom, into the gray and rainy street, with that song as the backdrop. I don’t think Kid A ever left that CD player before it stopped working
Radiohead provided the foundation for so many amazing bands that came out of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and even far beyond that. Their absolute fearlessness in artistic expression has said to so many people — me included — that you can deviate from the musical path that your band or you, as a musician, have beaten for yourself. To Radiohead’s legacy, Kid A represents artistry, experimentation, a wide range of emotional expression, and, most importantly, the fearlessness to jump with both feet into a new body of water.
Singer/songwriter (Mise en Scene)
I remember being a kid when I first heard “Fake Plastic Trees” in the movie Clueless. It was the scene where Cher actually complains and makes fun of the music, and I remember being like, “Cher! What the fuck? I’m loving this!” I have to say that I feel like most people discover Radiohead through another person because their fans are so dedicated to the band and they share the love. An added bonus is that Radiohead fans are really cool — usually progressive — people, so you’re down to take their music recommendations.
I remember being confused by Kid A. I was younger then, and looking back, I appreciated that they presented me with a sound that allowed me to confront my preconceived notions of what new music was and what Radiohead could sound like. As an artist, I definitely appreciate the boundary-breaking. It gives others permission to break away from what they have already done, which is incredibly important in a creative practice.
Radiohead’s albums are diverse, and they explore instrumentation and different genres in a tasteful way while remaining leaders in contemporary music. I think that’s why Kid A factors into their legacy, because some love it for its jazz qualities, while others feel it represents a departure of the previous guitar-based sound and an exploration into new technologies in music — and culture — and new understandings of who Radiohead are as a band at the beginning of the 21st century. Radiohead always has been and will remain explorers and pioneers of modern music and Kid A was a big part of that.
Songwriter (Man on Man and Cool Hand Luke)
My earliest memory of Radiohead is a live performance of them playing a show on MTV and Thom diving into the pool after they played “Anyone Can Play Guitar.” At this time, I was really much more into hip-hop, R&B, and grunge, so I was sort of scratching my head when it came to how I should receive the band. I was in Australia when Hail to the Thief came out and I bought the CD based on the artwork alone. I fell in love with the music and worked my way backward from there. I wish I could say I was a day one Radiohead fan, but I think it went over my head until I was old enough to appreciate what they were doing.
When I bought Kid A, my CD player was accidentally set to “shuffle,” so the first song I heard was “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” which completely changed my first impression of that record. To this day, that song is still one of my top three favorite Radiohead songs. Radiohead shows the world that success and intrigue can be found in doing your own thing. Remember, Kid A came out during the peak of the ‘90s pop explosion — Christina, Britney, ‘NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys. The world seemingly didn’t have anywhere to go from there. The entire class was asleep, and Radiohead came along and smacked us on the back of our heads with a ruler and told us to wake up. And they keep doing that over and over again. Just when you think there’s nowhere else to go, Radiohead does something new every time.