Kid A is the fourth studio album by English rock band Radiohead. It was first released on 2 October 2000 in the United Kingdom by Parlophone and a day later in the United States by Capitol Records. After suffering a near-mental breakdown while touring in support of their previous album OK Computer (1997), the band's lead singer and songwriter Thom Yorke envisioned a slight change in musical direction for their next album. As a result, Radiohead incorporated synthesisers, drum machines, and the ondes Martenot into their instrument lineup, as well as influences from genres such as krautrock and electronica.
Radiohead recorded and co-produced Kid A with OK Computer producer Nigel Godrich in Paris, Copenhagen, Gloucestershire, and their hometown of Oxford from January 1999 to April 2000. The recording sessions produced over 40 tracks, with 20 of them being finished; the band saved half of the finished material for their next album Amnesiac, which was released the following year. Radiohead chose not to release any commercial singles or music videos to promote Kid A, conducting few interviews and photoshoots. Instead, it was promoted by being made available to stream online, with 16 to 30-second "anti-videos" inspired by its artwork also being released.
File sharing services shared bootlegs of early performances, and the album was leaked before its planned release. Despite this, Kid A debuted at number one on the UK Albums Chart, where it went platinum in its first week of sales, and became Radiohead's first album to debut at number one on the US Billboard 200. The album won the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Album, and received a nomination for Album of the Year. Its slight departure from Radiohead's earlier sound initially received a mixed reaction from fans and critics, but later attracted widespread acclaim. In 2010, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and The Times named Kid A "the greatest album of the 2000s", and in 2012, Rolling Stone placed Kid A at number 67 on its updated list of "The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time".
Following the critical and commercial success of their 1997 album OK Computer, the members of Radiohead began to suffer psychological burnout; particularly songwriter Thom Yorke, who suffered a mental breakdown. He told The Guardian:
"I always used to use music as a way of moving on and dealing with things, and I sort of felt like that the thing that helped me deal with things had been sold to the highest bidder and I was simply doing its bidding. And I couldn't handle that."
Troubled by new acts he perceived to be imitating Radiohead's style, he believed his music had become part of a constant background noise he described as "fridge buzz", and became openly hostile to the music media. He began to suffer from writer's block, and said "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."
Yorke said he had become disillusioned with the "mythology" of rock music, feeling the genre had "run its course". He had been a DJ and part of a techno band at Exeter University, and began to listen almost exclusively to the music of Warp artists such as Aphex Twin and Autechre, saying: "It was refreshing because the music was all structures and had no human voices in it. But I felt just as emotional about it as I'd ever felt about guitar music." Bassist Colin Greenwood said:
"We felt we had to change everything. There were other guitar bands out there trying to do similar things. We had to move on."
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" and "just wanted rhythm". He liked the idea of his voice being used as an instrument rather than having a leading role.
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. In 2003, he told the Chicago Tribune:
"We had to come to grips with starting a song from scratch in the studio and making it into something, rather than playing it live, rehearsing it and then getting a good take of a live performance. None of us played that much guitar on these records. Suddenly we were presented with the opportunity and the freedom to approach the music the way Massive Attack does: as a collective, working on sounds, rather than with each person in the band playing a prescribed role. It was quite hard work for us to adjust to the fact that some of us might not necessarily be playing our usual instrument on a track, or even playing any instrument at all. Once you get over your insecurities, then it's great."
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 latter, 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 Greenwood "conducted" the jazz musicians to sound like a "traffic jam".
"Idioteque" was built from a drum machine pattern Greenwood created with a modular synthesiser. Feeling it "needed chaos", he experimented with found sounds and sampling. He gave the unfinished 50-minute recording to Yorke, who said:
"I sat there and listened to this 50 minutes. And some of it was just 'what?', but then there was this section about 40 seconds long in the middle of it that was absolute genius, and I just cut that up and that was it."
Greenwood could not remember where the song's four-chord phrase had come from, and assumed he had created it himself on synthesiser, until he realised he had sampled it from "Mild und Leise", a computer music piece by Paul Lansky released on the 1976 LP First Recordings — Electronic Music Winners. In an interview with the BBC radio show Mixing It, Greenwood said:
"It was only a few days later when we'd finished the song and spent days on it, that I put the same record back on and these four notes came out clearly, so I had to track down Paul Lansky. And the record was interesting because it was made in 1974 when he was a student. And I wasn't sure what he was doing now, I didn't even know if he was still a musician or anything. This was a student competition record, 'who can make the best electronic music in 1974'. And then I found out that he's at Princeton and a professor of music. So I wrote to him and explained what I'd done, you know, a bit embarrassed and sent him a copy of the recording. And luckily he liked it, liked what we'd done with his music".
"Idioteque" also samples another piece from the First Recordings — Electronic Music Winners LP, titled "Short Piece" by Arthur Kreiger.
Despite their slight change in direction, Colin Greenwood still described Radiohead as 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 in the spring of 2000, having completed almost 30 new songs. The band considered releasing them as a series of EPs or a double LP, but struggled to find a track listing that satisfied them. Instead, they saved many of the songs for their next album Amnesiac (2001), released only eight months later. Yorke obsessed over potential running orders, and the band argued over the track list, reportedly bringing them close to a break-up. The final mixing was completed by Godrich and was mastered by Chris Blair at London's Abbey Road Studios.
Composition and lyrics
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 music of Charles Mingus, Alice Coltrane, and Miles Davis. During the recording period, Radiohead drew inspiration from the album Remain in Light (1980) by their early influence Talking Heads. They also attended an Underworld concert, which helped renew their enthusiasm in a difficult moment, and band members listened to abstract hip hop music from the Mo' Wax label, including that of Blackalicious and DJ Krush.
"How To Disappear Completely" was inspired by singer Scott Walker. 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 his 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 band Can.
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 albums; however, guitars were still used on most tracks. The instrumental "Treefingers" was created by digitally processing recordings of Ed O'Brien's guitar to create an ambient sound. In addition, some of Yorke's vocals on Kid A are heavily modified by digital effects; for example, his vocals on the title track were simply spoken, then vocodered with the ondes Martenot to create the melody. The band's shift in style has been compared with U2's Zooropa (1993) and Passengers (1995), as well as Talk Talk's Laughing Stock (1991).
Kid A was the first Radiohead album since the band's 1993 debut Pablo Honey (1993) to not have its lyrics officially released or published in its liner notes. Yorke felt 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 web site during the recording. Post-punk bands who influenced the band, 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 written by Carl Steadman dealing with the work of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. He suggested that the title could refer to the first human clone, but denied he had a concept or story in mind. On another occasion, he said it 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. He 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. As a result, some feel that Kid A conveys an anti-consumerist viewpoint, expressing the band's perception of global capitalism. In 2005, Chuck Klosterman wrote that the album 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 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" was inspired by Yorke partner Rachel Owen. "Everything In Its Right Place" was a result of his inability to speak during his breakdown on the OK Computer tour.
Artwork and title
The album's cover artwork, by Stanley Donwood and Tchock (an alias for Yorke), depicts a digitally manipulated image of a mountain range under a red sky, with a forest visible in the distance and distorted black lines appearing at the bottom of the image. 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". He also produced colourful oil paintings, creating a sharp texture with knives and putty. Donwood said:
"I got these huge canvases for what became Kid A and I went mental using knives and sticks to paint with and having those photographed and then doing things to the photographs in Photoshop. The overarching idea of the mountains was that they were these landscapes of power, the idea of tower blocks and pyramids. It was about some sort of cataclysmic power existing in landscape. I was really chuffed with it."
The back cover is a digitally modified depiction of another snowscape with fires raging through fields.
Initial CD versions of Kid A came with a booklet of bonus artwork, printed on both glossy and thick tracing paper. Near the back is a large triptych-style fold-out drawing. The booklet contained political references, including a demonic portrait of Prime Minister Tony Blair surrounded by warnings of demagoguery. 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.
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; a book documenting the work and Donwood's inspirations titled Dead Children Playing was also issued.
After completing the record, Radiohead drew up a marketing plan with their record company EMI. One executive praised the music, but described "the business challenge of making everyone believe" in it. However, there was considerable media interest, as Spin described Kid A as "the most highly anticipated rock record since Nirvana's In Utero". According to O'Brien, the marketing campaign aimed to dispel hype about the new album. No advance copies were circulated, but the album was played under carefully controlled conditions for critics and at listening parties for fans, and was previewed in its entirety on MTV2.
In a departure from music industry practice, Radiohead decided not to release any official singles from Kid A, although "Optimistic" and promotional copies of several other tracks received some radio play. Radiohead's labels Parlophone and Capitol Records marketed the album unconventionally, promoting it partly through the internet. 30-second-long short films called "blips" set to its music were shown between segments on MTV, occasionally as TV spots 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 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. Capitol also created the "iBlip", a Java applet that could be embedded in fan sites, allowing users to pre-order the album and listen to streaming audio before its release. A more traditional video was released in late 2000, with 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".
Yorke wrote that the decision behind the unconventional marketing strategy was not made for reasons of "artistic credibility", but because "the stress of getting into that area at the time was too much, and perhaps too misrepresentive". After the attention for OK Computer had brought him to breakdown, Yorke was hesitant to launch Kid A with too much publicity. He wrote on Radiohead's website:
"Coming back into the lions' den was not easy, especially for me personally. It meant bringing back ghosts that made me shut down in the first place. so a lot of the decisions we made and what we chose to do was to avoid the normal giant cogs turning and crushing."
However, he later regretted the decision to release no singles:
"It meant the only judgement of our music was being made too much by critics opinions, which was okay and everything but there is nothing like the excitement of hearing on the radio."
In early summer 2000, Radiohead made a brief tour of the Mediterranean performing the Kid A and Amnesiac songs for the first time. By the time the title Kid A was announced in mid-2000, concert bootlegs were being shared on the peer-to-peer service Napster. Yorke said:
"[Napster] encourages enthusiasm for music in a way that the music industry has long forgotten to do."
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".
Estimates suggested Kid A was downloaded without payment millions of times before its official release date, and as a result, 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 still debuted at number one in the UK, the US, France, Ireland, New Zealand, and Canada. It was the first US number one in three years for any British act, as well as Radiohead's first US top 20 album. Some have suggested peer-to-peer distribution may have helped sales by generating word-of-mouth, but 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, Radiohead toured Europe in a custom-built tent without corporate logos, playing mostly new songs. They 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 erratically to "Idioteque". Radiohead went to the US just after Kid A's's chart-topping debut; 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".
- Everything In Its Right Place
- Kid A
- The National Anthem
- How To Disappear Completely
- In Limbo
- Morning Bell
- Motion Picture Soundtrack
Collector's Edition bonus disc
- Everything In Its Right Place (BBC Radio One Evening Session - 11/15/00)
- How To Disappear Completely (BBC Radio One Evening Session - 11/15/00)
- Idioteque (BBC Radio One Evening Session - 11/15/00)
- The National Anthem (BBC Radio One Evening Session - 11/15/00)
- Optimistic (Live) (Lamacq Live in Concert: Victoria Park, Warrington, England - 02/10/00)
- Morning Bell (Live) (Canal+ Studios - 28/04/01)
- The National Anthem (Live) (Canal+ Studios - 28/04/01)
- How To Disappear Completely (Live) (Canal+ Studios - 28/04/01)
- In Limbo (Live) (Canal+ Studios - 28/04/01)
- Idioteque (Live) (Canal+ Studios - 28/04/01)
- Everything In Its Right Place (Live) (Canal+ Studios - 28/04/01)
- Motion Picture Soundtrack (Live) (Canal+ Studios - 28/04/01)
- True Love Waits (Live) (I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings)
Special Collector's Edition bonus DVD
- The National Anthem (Later... with Jools Holland - 09/06/01)
- Morning Bell (Later... with Jools Holland - 09/06/01)
- Idioteque (Later... with Jools Holland - 09/06/01)