‘Kid A’ at 20: How Radiohead swerved rock music tropes to create something unique
By the time Radiohead released Kid A in the year 2000, the band had already gathered up a healthy reputation as the thinking man’s alt-rock band. Far removed from the ugly machismo that had shaped the nineties thanks to bands like Oasis and Blur, Thom Yorke and the rest of his band instead decided to push their music away from the rocky shores of middling guitar-heavy dirge and instead chartered a course for somewhere completely unknown.
Upon first release, Kid A was unceremoniously slated in the press. Music papers across the globe were routinely misunderstanding the music, Mojo once famously describing it as “a bit of wank”. It made those who loved the album feel instantly vindicated in their choices. While the aforementioned Britpop set were struggling to find a voice drenched in the shadow of a brand new century, Radiohead were clear in their intentions and music was about to change forever.
Prior to Kid A a lot of what had made rock ‘n’ roll so entertaining was the danger of it all. Whether it was Liam Gallagher putting his two-fingers up in a kind of mock-anarchy or, indeed, the brain-cell squashing invention of nu-metal, rock had become a series of macho idiots running around with beers in their hands, coke up their noses and without a damn clue where they were going. It was time for a change.
Radiohead had been following a similar path to a lot of alt-rock acts of the time. Dominate MTV, make their way into the major labels, find themselves some serious fans, fill stadiums and arenas with and make a mint. But to pull off such a plan meant that the said band needed albums that weren’t confrontational, to be so universal that it allowed every listener to attach themselves to it without fuss and to, in no uncertain terms, dilute their message and their art for the masses. Radiohead refused.
Instead, they took a U-turn away from rock and instead forged their own path. They used Kid A to pull the handbrake and spin the steering wheel. Across ten tracks, Radiohead delivered reason after reason of why they were right on the money. Songs like ‘Everything in its Right Place’ showed that Yorke and the band were cultured and curative, ‘Iidoteque’ may well be Radiohead’s only successful foray into dance but it is a superb one, while ‘The National Anthem’ sees the band take the brute-strength of Britpop and slap on a sophisticated monocle.
There’s certainly a case to say that this album is possibly one of Radiohead’s most listless. Despite the brilliance of the aforementioned tracks, one aspect that links them is that, on the whole, they are unlinkable to one another. Each one operating in its own space and time, each one providing a facet of the band that was about to break out over the subsequent 20 years. It has often been the basis for the Kid A detractors—too many pleasant moments of forgettable music and not enough landmarks.
I’d argue, however, that the entire album works as its own landmark moment. It is the moment rock realised that it had a myriad of opportunities ahead of it. Not only was this album for the computer age but it was Radiohead confirming that, like all great artists, each one of their new albums would be drastically different from the last. From OK Computer, the band had ditched guitars and picked up the atmospheric synths on their next record they would change yet again. It was Kid A which acted as the blueprint for that success and continual evolution.
This, for Radiohead, and quite possibly music as a whole, was the fork in the road. The moment they had to choose whether they wanted to become rock royalty or create a whole new kingdom. Every subsequent album that the band have produced have been gleaming jewels nestled into Radiohead’s golden crown and prove that rolling away from rock music was always the right thing to do.