Release date: October 2000
Kid A is the fourth studio album by English alternative rock band Radiohead, released in October 2000. A commercial success worldwide, Kid A went platinum in its first week of release in the UK. Despite the lack of an official single or music video as publicity, Kid A became the first Radiohead release to debut at number one in the US. This success was credited variously to a unique marketing campaign, the early Internet leak of the album, or anticipation after the band's 1997 album, OK Computer.
Kid A was recorded in Paris, Copenhagen, Gloucestershire and Oxford with producer Nigel Godrich. The album's songwriting and recording were experimental for Radiohead, as the band replaced their earlier "anthemic" rock style with a more electronic sound. Influenced by Krautrock, jazz, and 20th century classical music, Radiohead abandoned their three-guitar line-up for a wider range of instruments on Kid A, using keyboards, the Ondes martenot, and, on certain compositions, strings and brass. Kid A also contains more minimal and abstract lyrics than the band's previous work. Singer Thom Yorke has said the album was not intended as "art", but reflects the music they listened to at the time. Original artwork by Stanley Donwood and Yorke, and a series of short animated films called "blips", accompanied the album.
Kid A has been considered one of the most challenging pop records to have commercial success. The album won a Grammy for Best Alternative Album and was nominated for Album of the Year. It also received praise for introducing listeners to diverse forms of underground music. Despite the band's new direction alienating some fans and critics, Kid A received generally positive reviews from notable music publications. It was subsequently listed by multiple publications as one of the best albums of recent years, and in 2009 was ranked No. 1 in lists of the best albums of the 2000s by Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and The Times.
By 1998, the attention Radiohead had received from OK Computer had become a strain, particularly for singer Thom Yorke. His feeling of disconnection with the "speed" of the modern world, which inspired songs on OK Computer, had intensified on the 1997–1998 "Running from Demons" world tour. As documented in Grant Gee's 1999 film Meeting People Is Easy, Radiohead unveiled new songs on the tour, including what was then known as "How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found", but the band had difficulty recording them.
While Yorke was receiving praise for his music, he became openly hostile to the media. He believed his songs had become part of a constant background noise he described as "fridge buzz". Yorke felt that "all the sounds you made, that made you happy, have been sucked of everything they meant", and he suffered depression as he struggled to write new music. Yorke said that in late 1998, "Every time I picked up a guitar I just got the horrors. I would start writing a song, stop after 16 bars, hide it away in a drawer, look at it again, tear it up, destroy it". Radiohead members decided to continue; bassist Colin Greenwood adding, "we felt we had to change everything".
Recording and Production
When Radiohead began work on the album early in 1999, the members had differing ideas as to the musical direction they should take. Guitar player Ed O'Brien wanted to strip the band's style down to direct, three-minute guitar pop songs, while Yorke felt their past efforts with rock music had "missed the point". Yorke said he had "completely had it with melody. I just wanted rhythm". Yorke had been a DJ and part of a techno band at Exeter University, and began to listen almost exclusively to electronic music, saying, "I felt just as emotional about it as I'd ever felt about guitar music". He liked the idea of his voice being used as an instrument rather than having a leading role in the album.
Work began on Kid A with OK Computer producer Nigel Godrich, without a deadline from the label. Yorke, who had the greatest control within the band, was still facing writer's block. His new songs were incomplete, and some consisted of little more than a drum machine rhythm and lyric fragments he had drawn from a hat. The band rehearsed briefly and began recording at a studio in Paris, but rejected their work after a month and moved to Medley Studios in Copenhagen for two weeks. Some music from early 1999 was incorporated into the album, often unrecognisable from its original form ("In Limbo", originally known as "Lost at Sea", dates from this time). According to band members, the period was largely unproductive.
O'Brien began to keep an online studio diary of the band's progress. He later described Radiohead's change in style during this period: "If you're going to make a different-sounding record, you have to change the methodology. And it's scary—everyone feels insecure. I'm a guitarist and suddenly it's like, well, there are no guitars on this track, or no drums". Drummer Phil Selway also found it hard to adjust to the recording sessions.
In April 1999 recording resumed in a Gloucestershire mansion before moving to the band's long-planned studio in Oxford, which was completed in September 1999. In line with Yorke's new musical direction, the band members began to experiment with different instruments, and to learn "how to be a participant in a song without playing a note". The rest of the band gradually grew to share Yorke's passion for synthesised sounds. They also used digital tools like Pro Tools and Cubase to manipulate their recordings. O'Brien said, "everything is wide open with the technology now. The permutations are endless". By the end of the year, six songs were complete, including the title track.
Early in 2000 Jonny Greenwood, the only Radiohead member trained in music theory, composed a string arrangement for "How to Disappear Completely", which he recorded with the Orchestra of St. John's in Dorchester Abbey. He played ondes Martenot on the track, as well as on "Optimistic" and "The National Anthem". Yorke played bass on "The National Anthem" (known during the sessions as "Everyone"), a track Radiohead had once attempted to record as a B-side for OK Computer. Trying it again for Kid A, Yorke wanted it to feature a Charles Mingus-inspired horn section, and he and Jonny Greenwood "conducted" the jazz musicians to sound like a "traffic jam". Jonny Greenwood and his brother Colin also began experimenting with sampling their own and other artists' music. One such sample yielded the basic track for "Idioteque", which Yorke sang over. Despite their change in direction, Colin Greenwood still described Radiohead as being a rock band. Jonny Greenwood summarised their recording sessions for Kid A: " I don't remember much time playing keyboards. It was more an obsession with sound, speakers, the whole artifice of recording. I see it like this: a voice into a microphone onto a tape, onto your CD, through your speakers is all as illusory and fake as any synthesizer—it doesn't put Thom in your front room—but one is perceived as 'real' the other, somehow 'unreal'... It was just freeing to discard the notion of acoustic sounds being truer."
Radiohead finished recording during the spring of 2000, having completed almost 30 new songs. Preferring to avoid a double album, the band saved many of the songs for their next release, the 2001 album Amnesiac. Yorke obsessed over potential running orders and the band argued over the track list, reportedly bringing them close to a break-up. It was eventually decided that Kid A would begin with "Everything in Its Right Place". Yorke felt the song, which was written on a piano and computer, was most representative of the new record, and initially wanted to release it as a single. Final mixing was completed by Godrich, and mastering of Kid A took place at London's Abbey Road Studios under Chris Blair.
Marketing and Release
After finishing the record, the band, with their label, drew up a marketing plan. One EMI executive praised the music but described "the business challenge of making everyone believe" in it. However, there was considerable media interest; Kid A was described as "the most highly anticipated rock record since Nirvana's In Utero". Thom Yorke found the situation "terrifying", and according to Ed O'Brien, the marketing campaign aimed to dispel hype about the new album. In a departure from music industry practice, the band decided not to release any official singles from Kid A, although "Optimistic" and promotional copies of several other tracks received some radio play.
Radiohead and their fans had a large Internet presence by the late 1990s. As a result, Parlophone (UK) and Capitol Records (US) marketed the album in an unconventional way, promoting it partly through the Internet. Short films called "blips", set to the band's music, were distributed freely online and were shown between programmes on music channels. Capitol created the "iBlip", a Java applet that could be embedded into fan sites, allowing users to pre-order the album and listen to streaming audio before its release. No advance copies were circulated, but the album was played under carefully controlled conditions for critics and at listening parties for fans, and it was previewed in its entirety on MTV2.
The aforementioned "IBlip" was also given to two Peer-to-peer file sharing companies that streamed the entire Kid A Album in it's entirety a full month ahead of the release date. The two Peer-to-peer file sharing companies were Angry Coffee and Aimster. This was an unheard of action by a Major Record Label at the beginning of the Napster lawsuits that brought much press to the release of Kid A. Both services inserted it as a Java applet on the front door of their websites. EMI and Capitol Records were well aware that at the same time the IBlip Player was offered on the front door of these two controversial Web destinations, both services could be used to download the entire leaked album. It was rumored the band handpicked the two services to give this "experiment" to. The experiment also included a non-negotiable post to include a call to action to Radiohead fans over political and economic issues including: Global Day of Action - September 26, 2000, Indy Media dot org - Anti-globalization protests in Prague, Global Days of Action - September 21-28, 2000 - Annual Meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank Group, Join the summit in Prague, Destroy the IMF World Bank, and Your online anarchist community - infoshop.org.
The band made a brief tour of Mediterranean countries in early summer 2000, playing their new songs live for the first time. By the time the album's title was announced in mid-2000, concert bootlegs were being shared on the peer-to-peer service Napster. Colin Greenwood said, "We played in Barcelona and the next day the entire performance was up on Napster. Three weeks later when we got to play in Israel the audience knew the words to all the new songs and it was wonderful." A month before its release, the finished album appeared on Napster. In response, Yorke said "it encourages enthusiasm for music in a way that the music industry has long forgotten to do." Estimates suggested Kid A was downloaded without payment millions of times before its worldwide release, and some expected weaker sales.
European sales slowed on 2 October 2000, the day of official release, when 150,000 faulty CDs were recalled by EMI. However, Kid A debuted at number one in the album charts in the UK, US, France, Ireland, New Zealand and Canada. It was the first US number one in three years for any British act, and Radiohead's first US top 20 album. Some have suggested peer-to-peer distribution may have helped sales by generating word-of-mouth. Others credited the label for creating hype. However, the band believed measures against early leaks may not have allowed critics (who were supposed to rely on the CD copies) time to make up their minds.
In late 2000, the band toured Europe in a custom-built tent without corporate logos, playing mostly new songs. Radiohead also performed three concerts in North American theatres, their first in nearly three years. The small venues sold out rapidly, attracting celebrities, and fans who camped all night. In October the band appeared on Saturday Night Live. The footage shocked some viewers who expected rock songs, with Jonny Greenwood playing electronic instruments, the in-house brass band improvising over "The National Anthem", and Yorke dancing spasmodically and stuttering in "Idioteque." Radiohead went to the US just after Kid A's chart-topping debut and according to O'Brien, "Americans love success, so if you've got a Number One record they really, really like you." Yorke said "We were The Beatles, for a week."
Sound and Influences
Kid A is influenced by 1990s IDM artists Autechre and Aphex Twin, along with others on Warp Records; by 1970s Krautrock bands such as Can, Faust and Neu! and by the jazz of Charles Mingus, Alice Coltrane and Miles Davis. During the recording period Radiohead drew inspiration from Remain in Light (1980) by their early influence Talking Heads, they attended an Underworld concert which helped renew their enthusiasm in a difficult moment and band members listened to abstract hip hop from the Mo'Wax label, including Blackalicious and DJ Krush.
"How to Disappear Completely" was inspired by singer Scott Walker, who had previously inspired the band's 1993 hit single "Creep". The string orchestration for "How to Disappear" was influenced by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Jonny Greenwood's use of the Ondes Martenot on this and several other Kid A songs was inspired by Olivier Messiaen, who popularised the early electronic instrument and was one of Greenwood's teenage heroes. "Idioteque" samples the work of Paul Lansky and Arthur Kreiger, classical composers involved in computer music. Thom Yorke also referenced electronic dance music, saying the song was "an attempt to capture that exploding beat sound where you're at the club and the PA's so loud, you know it's doing damage".
"Motion Picture Soundtrack" (a song written before "Creep") was an attempt to emulate the soundtrack of 1950s Disney films. Yorke recorded it alone on a pedal organ and other band members added sampled harp and double bass sounds. Jonny Greenwood described his interest in mixing old and new music technology, and during the recording sessions Yorke read Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head, which chronicles The Beatles' recordings with George Martin during the 1960s. The band also sought to combine electronic manipulations with jam sessions in the studio, stating their model was the German group Can. The album's title track was written by computer and improvised over by the band.
Radiohead have stated their lack of identification with progressive rock. As such, Kid A includes no songs longer than six minutes and has been sometimes characterised as post-rock, due to a minimalist style and focus on texture. Jonny Greenwood's guitar solos are less prominent on Kid A than on previous Radiohead albums; however, guitars were still used on most tracks. The instrumental "Treefingers" was at first a guitar solo by Ed O'Brien that was subsequently digitally processed to create an ambient sound. In addition, some of Yorke's vocals on Kid A are heavily modified by digital effects; Yorke's vocal effect on the title song was created with the ondes martenot, giving an effect comparable to vocoder. The band's shift in style has been compared with U2's Zooropa (1993) and Passengers (1995) projects, and Talk Talk's Laughing Stock (1991).
Kid A was the first Radiohead album since the band's debut, Pablo Honey (1993), whose lyrics were not officially released or published in its liner notes. Thom Yorke, who wrote all the lyrics, explained this by saying the words could not be considered separately from the music. He said he used a vocal manipulation to distance himself from the title track's "brutal and horrible" subject matter, which he could not have sung otherwise. For at least some of the lyrics, Yorke cut up words and phrases and drew them from a hat. Tristan Tzara's similar technique for writing "dada poetry" was posted on Radiohead's official website during the recording. Post-punk bands who influenced Radiohead, such as Talking Heads in their work with Brian Eno, were also known to employ the technique.
According to Yorke, the album's title was not a reference to Kid A in Alphabet Land, a trading card set dealing with the work of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Yorke suggested that the title could refer to the first human clone, but denied he had a concept or story in mind. On another occasion, Yorke said "Kid A" was the nickname of a sequencer. Yorke said, "If you call it something specific, it drives the record in a certain way. I like the non-meaning".
Band members read Naomi Klein's anti-globalization book No Logo while recording the album, recommended it to fans on their website, and considered calling the album "No Logo" for a time. Yorke also cited George Monbiot's Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain as an influence. Yorke and other band members were involved in the movement to cancel third world debt during this period, and they also spoke out on other issues. Some feel Kid A conveys an anti-consumerist viewpoint, expressing the band's perception of global capitalism. In 2005, music journalist Chuck Klosterman wrote that Kid A was in fact an "unintentional but spooky foreshadowing of the events of the 11 September 2001 attacks" and the world's situation beyond that.
Yorke said the album was partly about "the generation that will inherit the earth when we've wiped everything [sic] out". However, he has refused to explain his songwriting in political terms. Some songs were personal, inspired by dreams. Other lyrics were inspired by advice Yorke received from friends. The lyric "I'm not here, this isn't happening" in "How to Disappear Completely," were taken from Michael Stipe's advice to Yorke about coping with the pressures of touring. The chorus of "Optimistic", "If you try the best you can, the best you can is good enough", was inspired by Yorke's partner, Rachel Owen. "Everything in its Right Place" was a result of Yorke's inability to speak during his breakdown on the OK Computer tour.
Videos and Blips
No conventional music videos were initially released from Kid A, but 30-seconds-long short films called "blips" were set to its music. The blips were shown between segments on MTV, occasionally as TV commercials for the album, and were distributed free from Radiohead's website. Each blip was made by one of two collectives: The Vapour Brothers or Shynola. Most blips were animated, often inspired by Stanley Donwood's album artwork, and have been seen as stories of nature reclaiming civilisation from uncontrollable biotechnology and consumerism. Characters in the blips included "sperm monsters" and blinking, genetically modified killer teddy bears, the latter of which became a self-conscious logo for the album's advertising campaign. A more traditional video was released in late 2000: the band performing an alternate version of "Idioteque" in the studio. Several months later a video was released for "Motion Picture Soundtrack", which entirely consisted of material from the blips. Yorke described it as "the most beautiful piece of film that was ever made for our music".
The cover art, by Donwood and Tchock (an alias for Thom Yorke), is a computer rendering of a mountain range, with pixelated distortion near the bottom. It was a reflection of the war in Kosovo in winter 1999. Donwood was affected by a photograph in The Guardian, saying the war felt like it was happening in his own street. Influenced by Victorian era military art depicting British colonial subjects, Donwood also produced colourful oil paintings, creating a sharp texture with knives and putty. The back cover is a digitally modified depiction of another snowscape with fires raging through fields. Kid A came with a booklet of Donwood and Tchock artwork, printed on both glossy paper and thick tracing paper. Near the back there is a large triptych-style fold-out drawing. A "hidden booklet" was included in early pressings.
Some of the artwork was seen to take a more explicitly political stance than the album's lyrics. The red swimming pool on the spine of the CD case and on the disc represents what Donwood termed "a symbol of looming danger and shattered expectations". It came from the graphic novel Brought to Light by Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz, in which the CIA measures its killings through state-sponsored terrorism by the equivalent number of 50-gallon swimming pools filled with human blood. This image haunted Donwood throughout the Kid A project. Early pressings of Kid A came with an extra booklet of artwork hidden under the CD tray. The booklet contained political references, including a demonic portrait of then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair surrounded by warnings of demagoguery.
A special edition of Kid A was also released, in a thick cardboard package in the style of a children's book with a new cover and different oil paintings of apocalyptic landscapes and bear images. Although in the same style as the album art, these paintings were without digital distortion. The book included a page with statistics on world glacier melt rates, paralleling the art's themes of environmental degradation. In 2006, Donwood and Tchock exhibited Radiohead album artwork in Barcelona, with a focus on Kid A. An art book documenting the work and Donwood's inspirations, called Dead Children Playing, was also issued.