‘Kid A,’ the Radiohead album that set out what music would be like in 2021
The record turned the British group into one of the most important bands of its time and rewrote the rules of the industry. A reissue of the release and its follow-up ‘Amnesia’ is a reminder of its importance
This story begins in 1997 with the Radiohead album OK Computer. Before this record, the English band had released two guitar-heavy albums that placed them at the forefront of the British alternative rock music scene. OK Computer was a more ambitious, mysterious and committed album. In the midst of the nationalistic optimism of Britpop, with then-prime minister Tony Blair and his Labour Party in power, Radiohead looked behind the mirror and forecast the dystopian future that was just around the corner. OK Computer exalted the band, but incurred the wrath of many critics who derided it for being pretentious.
That same tension was also being felt within the five band members: Thom Yorke, brothers Jonny and Colin Greenwood, Philip Selway and Ed O’Brien. The documentary Meeting People Is Easy revealed the unease the musicians were experiencing during their world tour for OK Computer and looked at their discomfort with fame. At the end of the tour, the band was exhausted. The members were in crisis, suffering from writer’s block and there were concerns the group might break up. Amid these problems, recording their fourth album stretched on for 18 months. The band wanted to break with the typical melodies and structures of rock and draw on influences from electronic music, ambient music, krautrock and jazz. The rise of groups imitating Radiohead’s sound also contributed to their desire to break with their past .
“Ninety percent of groups that call themselves alternative aren’t. An alternative group is one that brings something new and there are very few of them. Groups constantly repeat their formula,” Ed O’Brien told EL PAÍS in 2000. The musicians gave themselves the challenge of working with synthesizers and using instruments they didn’t know how to play.
Radiohead decided to release what was going to be a double album as two separate records. Kid A was released first in October 2000, and was followed by Amnesiac seven months later. Now, a reissue of both records called Kid a Amnesia is reimagining what they would have been like as a double album. The reissue, which is set to be released on November 5, also features a third disc, Kid Amnesiae, which contains previously unreleased material from the recording sessions of both albums.
Kid A and Amnesiac are considered today as a watershed moment for the band. This is particularly true of the former, which reached number one in the United Kingdom and in the United States. This was the first time Radiohead had had a record that topped the charts in the US. Many music critics lambasted the album when it first came out, but over time it won praise: magazines such as Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and The Times named it the best album of 2000.
Kid A was not just a musical milestone for Radiohead, it also revolutionized industry practice. The band decided to take advantage of its status and set down its own rules on how it wanted to release the album. There was minimal promotion. They didn’t release singles or music videos, and only sent out 10-second-long animated films with music and artwork called “blips,” setting the precedent for today’s teasers, Instagram stories and TikTok videos.
On the day of its release, London radio stations had to play the album in its entirety and in the correct order, without having received an advance copy. Radiohead refused to do a photoshoot for the British magazine Q, and instead provided digitally altered portraits of the band members looking like alien-like monsters. These images were projected onto the Houses of Parliament in London and placed on posters and billboards to turn Radiohead “back into a product,” Yorke said.
Kid A is also considered to be the first album that used the internet as the main channel for promotion. In 1997, Radiohead were already web pioneers: they opened an official webpage and forum, and were connecting and communicating with the main fan websites of the band. In 1999, Ed O’Brien started a blog on which he discussed the process of recording the new album. The first songs of Kid A were heard on June 15, 2000, in Tívoli Theater in Barcelona, where the band was starting their four-month European tour before the release of the album. Influenced by the book No Logo by Naomi Klein, the band wanted the tour to be free of sponsors.
The concert in Barcelona was filmed and widely shared online. Kid A was also leaked on the peer-to-peer file sharing network Napster. Thom Yorke was sympathetic towards the fans who had pirated the album, and the band decided to introduce an application on their website that allowed anyone to stream the record and embed it for free on their webpages. They were the first band to do this. Just as the world was entering a new millennium, Radiohead changed the paradigm of the kind of relationship a successful artist should have with the media, the industry and the public. It marked a point of no return for the band – one which, according to journalist Steven Hyden, invented contemporary music culture as we know it today.