How The Making of Radiohead’s Kid A Changed the Band Forever

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After their third album, OK Computer, had received critical acclaim, Radiohead was on top of the world in 1997. But rather than attempting to repeat its success, the band went with a follow-up that was startlingly original and very different than their previous work. Despite defying the expectations of an increasingly mainstream audience, the then-controversial new release would ultimately be heralded as a triumph.


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The beginnings of the album came from its predecessor’s success, as OK Computer had seen the band reach new heights – but endless promotional work and touring commitments had put a strain on the group. Frontman Thom Yorke told The Guardian that climbing the mountain of fame had left him “completely unhinged,” and the members of the band were being compared to “survivors of a plane crash.”


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Reflecting on his fame in 2000, Yorke told The Guardian “There’s nothing more boring than a rock ‘n’ roll star, someone who has been on the road for 10 years, expecting attention wherever he goes, drinking himself stupid, who is obnoxious, incoherent, uncreative and has a massive ego. There’s nothing more pointless.” At that point, it seemed that Yorke was fed up with the success and the band might have to record under a new name or break up.


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“We were all terrified at the prospect of making another album, which is then preserved in aspic or amber as a promotional device for the already-booked two-year world tour, with merchandise deals and the TV rights sold to the relevant syndicate companies,” bassist Colin Greenwood told the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot. Not wanting to become “a one-trick band,” Radiohead “felt [they] had to change everything,” said Greenwood. “We had to move on.”


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When the band began looking to record in famous French studio Guillaume Tell in January 1999, they had nothing but fragments of songs to work with. Things apparently didn’t go well, so in March the band regrouped at Medley Studios in Copenhagen.


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Rather than simply recording songs, Yorke reportedly wanted the band members to work like computer engineers, creating new sounds and textures to build the album. The group would work on dozens of tracks at once and move on to different pieces when they hit a wall. Because of this, the recording process would involve constant experimentation, with everything being recorded and possibly becoming part of the record.


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The record would be produced by Nigel Godrich, the band’s honorary sixth member who had produced and engineered their previous two albums. “I think [Nigel] thought I’d lost my marbles,” Yorke told The Guardian. “He didn’t understand why, if we had such a strength in one thing, we would want to do something else. But at the same time he trusted me to have an idea of what I wanted, even though he didn’t understand what it was for ages.”


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There were also reportedly doubts within the group, as guitarist Ed O’Brien apparently stated that he’d rather make an album of guitar tracks. Colin Greenwood, meanwhile, noted to NME that the band’s new approach effectively took the group back to their school days of just learning to play their instruments. “There was a lot of pain in making it,” he said. “The only reason you go through all this shit is because you’re looking for new things to inspire you.” Nevertheless, Greenwood also voiced a concern that it would all descend into “awful art-rock nonsense, just for its own sake.”


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In April, recording moved to Batsford Park in Gloucestershire – at which point the band had as many as 60 partially completed songs on their hands. The group then headed to a fourth and final studio space in Oxford that September, which is when the process apparently began to truly gel.


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Lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood (Colin’s younger brother) told NME, “The truth is that it was a difficult process to get going. But once we were up and running, it started going too well, and we were recording good song after good song, and it became difficult to stop – which is partly why we’ve got so much material recorded, and partly why it’s taken so long.” By the end of the year, the band had finished work on six songs, including what would become the album’s title track.


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As has come to be expected of the visionary songwriter, Yorke would be the one who would propel the album forward. “Thom drove the album, more so than any other album,”  O’Brien told Q magazine. “It was an eye-opener for me. He has a great art-school ethic. He did art at university and he has that kind of drive. Okay, I’ve done that, now I’m going to move on.”


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Ultimately, Kid A would completely deconstruct the band’s sound. Guitars only appear on three tracks, primarily being replaced by orchestral arrangements and the ondes Martenot – an electronic instrument created in 1928. Yorke also apparently forbade his lyrics from ever being printed, claiming that they’re beside the point.


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“You’re not supposed to think about the words; that’s the whole point all through the record,” Yorke said in Radiohead: Music for a Global Future by Phil Rose. “The lyrics are over before you have time to talk and worry about it. That’s how it works.” Rather than becoming a rock idol, Yorke actively wanted to create distance and remove his own personality from the music.


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Speaking to NME, Yorke addressed one of the album’s main themes. “It’s fear of dying, actually,” he said. “It’s a 30 thing. Most men hit 30 and think, ‘Oh my God, I’m not actually immortal.’ There’s definitely fear of dying on Kid A. I have this house down by the sea and the landscape around it is really harsh, and I used to just go off for the whole day walking and just feel totally like nothing.”


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The band also began to reject the whole idea of trying to create a live rock and roll sound – instead embracing synthesizers. “[A recording] is all as illusory and fake as any synthesizer,” Jonny Greenwood wrote on Radiohead’s web forum. “It doesn’t put Thom in your front room. But one is perceived as ‘real,’ the other somehow ‘unreal.’ It’s the same with guitars versus samplers. It was just freeing to discard the notion of acoustic sounds being truer.” In early 2001, O’Brien cited Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada and Autechre as influences and noted that the band had been envious of Björk’s ability to reinvent music.


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