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Reconstructing Radiohead: A Second Opinion

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Something I read here on Blogcritics caught my eye today.

In his article “Thom Yorke is Not an Alien: Deconstructing the Radiohead Conundrum”, a writer named Rockbeatstone, whose work I’ve never come across here before, talked at some length about his experiences discovering the music of Radiohead.

Specifically, he talks in great detail about the records Kid A and Amnesiac.

The reason this piqued my interest is because these are the very two records that were the catalyst for my own conversion from being a fairly casual Radiohead listener to the raving, borderline obsessive fan I would become shortly thereafter.

And make no mistake, I am very much a hardcore Radiohead fan. But much of what I am about to say is probably going to piss a lot of my many fellow Radiohead fans off. Especially the younger ones. But here goes.

Like pretty much everybody else at the time Kid A was released in the fall of 2000, I owned a copy of its predecessor, OK Computer. On the other hand, unlike pretty much everybody else at the time, I did not buy into the massive critical praise heaped upon OK Computer three years prior. I still don’t, to be perfectly honest. Did I buy OK Computer based upon those great reviews it had received? Of course. Again, just like everybody else did.

But to my ears, OK Computer is the same record now that it was then. Which is to say, its a very decent progressive rock album filled with great songs like “Karma Police,” “Paranoid Android,” and “No Surprises.” But groundbreaking? In the same league as Dark Side of the Moon or Pet Sounds as so many continue to insist today? Hardly.

OK Computer sounded great at the time, and it still does today. But as far as what is actually there on the record itself musically? The truth is, the spacey interludes and frenetic time signatures actually owe more than a little to seventies progressive rock bands like Robert Fripp’s King Crimson.

What OK Computer actually succeeded in doing is pulling off what amounts to a musical parlor trick. The sleight of hand involved was pretty simple. By reviving a few long forgotten moves from the seventies prog-rock playbook, Radiohead ended up sounding remarkably fresh and innovative at a time when there was not otherwise all that much really new going on.

At least, that is, unless you count all of the bands trying to duplicate Nirvana’s breakthrough at the time. Can you say Silverchair? Nope. Me neither. Bush? Well, I will certainly give props to the bundle of joy that Gavin and Gwen welcomed into the world yesterday.

Indeed, to a generation who have never heard lesser known bands that were ignored then by the FM rock radio of the day, just as they continue to be ignored today by classic rock formats serving up a steady stream of Zeppelin and Skynyrd, I’m sure it all sounded quite new.

But those swirling mellotrons you hear on OK Computer? Look no further than Genesis when Peter Gabriel was at the helm, long before Phil Collins ruined them. Hell, for that matter look no further than Hawkwind or even perennial seventies’ critical losers Uriah Heep.

Which brings us to Kid A and Amnesiac. These are, without question, two very difficult records to digest for many listeners. They are probably especially tough for Radiohead fans weaned on The Bends and OK Computer . It is on an initial listen, challenging music, to say the least.

Yet they remain my favorites in the entire Radiohead catalog to this day.

The author of the Blogcritics’ piece which inspired this response talks intelligently, passionately, and in great detail about how it took months (and even years in the case of Amnesiac) to come around to those records. Reading the article is almost painful at times, as it seems the writer is struggling to find a song somewhere amid the computerized whirs, clicks, and beeps that constitute much of Kid A.

In fairness to that writer, to someone whose life was changed by OK Computer (as this author says his was by the article’s fourth paragraph), Kid A was probably a pretty bitter pill to swallow. For many of Radiohead’s earliest fans, it probably still is. I empathize with that. I really do.

But as for me, I had no problem getting past the lack of recognizable guitar parts described in Rockbeatstone’s article in his initial appraisal of Kid A.

On the surface, there is no mistaking the cool, icy vibe that permeates much of Kid A in songs like “Idioteque” and the title track. But as with the debt owed to seventies’ prog-rock by OK Computer, there was, and is, a clear reference point here. The stripped down minimalism of Kid A has its roots in everything from techno pioneers Kraftwerk to the infamous Bowie/Eno “Berlin Trilogy” of Low, Heroes, and Lodger.

If one starts with the basic assertion that every single rock and roll record that has been made since Chuck Berry is basically a reconstruction of that original three chord progression, a significant argument could even be made for Kid A owing something of a debt to some very early classic hip hop.

Records like Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, and especially De La Soul’s Three Feet High And Rising, are nothing if not marvels of the art of deconstructing music to create something uniquely new. Kid A is a perfect example of that sort of music coming from a slightly different kitchen.

Once you get past the icy computerized shock of Kid A, there are plenty of other diverse musical fields to be mined, from the thundering bass powering the dissonant radio broadcasts of “The National Anthem,” to the pastoral keys and looped vocals (there’s that Robert Fripp influence again) of “Everything In Its Right Place.” In many ways, Kid A is actually every bit the groundbreaking marvel that OK Computer is touted by the majority of critics and fans to be.

By the time Amnesiac was released the following year, I actually had the somewhat unfair disadvantage of seeing them perform many of those songs live. The songs of Kid A already had nearly a year’s worth of time to grow on me by the time I saw Radiohead for the first time live. That was in the summer of 2001, at the beautiful setting of the Gorge Ampitheatre nestled high atop the banks of Washington State’s Columbia River.

During the three-hour drive over from Seattle to the Gorge, we also listened to a great soundboard recording a friend brought along from one of Radiohead’s shows the previous year in Europe. In addition to the songs from Kid A, the show also included much of what was to become Amnesiac. As that friend will attest, I drove him crazy the entire way begging him to let me burn the CD.

Listening to that CD on the way to the show, what I was most struck by was how much warmer the songs sounded in a live setting. Where songs like “The National Anthem” just outright rocked you right outta your chair with thundering bass, a so-called minor track
like “Morning Bell” built from the quiet pastoral beginings of the recorded version to a powerful crescendo driven by Jonny Greenwood’s screaming guitar pyrotechnics.

But I have to say that the point I was sent pretty much sent straight over the edge was when I actually saw the band perform at the Gorge on that starry August night. For me, that show was nothing short of the moment where everything about why this band has built the considerable reputation it has finally became crystal clear to me. It was an absolute revelation, comparable in some ways to the impact I had the time I first saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band live back in the seventies. Just amazing.

For anyone, and especially anyone who considers themselves a fan of Radiohead, I cannot stress highly enough the need to see this band live in order to completely “get it.” They are only playing a handful of shows this summer. I’ll be travelling to San Francisco to see them next month. But for those who aren’t able to get to any of those shows, I’ve assembled a stream of several live clips. In addition to a number of rare live clips you can pick and choose from the 2001 and 2003 tours here, there are also several clips from a show featuring brand new material recorded at a show in Europe earlier this month.

Anyway, by the time Amnesiac was released later in 2001, I already knew several of the songs from the live show. At the time, the record represented to me the far warmer flipside of the icy cool that was Kid A. That feeling has only grown in the years which have passed since. I should add that there is also a decidedly jazzy feel to much of Amnesiac. From the dark, moody bassline, which anchors the orchestral ebb and flow of “Dollars and Cents,” to the Allman Brothers meets George Benson breeziness of “Knives Out,” Amnesiac has a very smooth feel to it in it’s own sort of way.

One thing I haven’t talked much about in this article are Radiohead’s lyrics. That is because, to me at least, Radiohead have always been a band that is far more about what is being said in the various moods evoked through the music than anything being said in the lyrics themselves.

And I have to be completely honest here. Lyrics such as “Yesterday morning I woke up sucking a lemon,” looped endlessly as they are in “Everything In Its Right Place,” can be pretty nonsensical taken on the surface. But when they are sung in that haunting, otherworldly cry that is Thom Yorke’s voice, they make perfect sense.

They make all the sense in the world.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    Glen, I absolutely agree, insofar as Kid A. I, too, became a hardcore fan after that album; I, too, had owned a copy of OK COmputer for years without really paying much attention to it. And Kid A is not only the best Radiohead, it is the best album of the past ten years, period. The touchstone of the millennial decade.

    But on the other hand, Amnesiac never much impressed me. There is some great material on it, but overall, it never sounded to me like a companion piece to Kid A as much as it did a Kid A outtakes collection–tracks that didn’t make the cut for the earlier record.

  • zimmerman

    listen to the whole Warp label back catalog, like thom did, and you’ll find that Kid a etc… is not quite what it seemed it was. Sorry. still good though. who’s Johnny Underwood? Greenwood perhaps???

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Hey there Zimmy.

    Thanx for catching the error. Musta been the crack I was smoking last night when I wrote the article…kidding of course.

    I’ve already alerted an editor and hope to get that changed. But thanks again for pointing that out to me.

    -Glen

  • http://alienboysworld.blogspot.com Christopher Rose

    All fixed up now, GB.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Thank you kind sir.

    -Glen

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Micheal (#1),

    Sorry I didn’t mean to ignore your original comment. Getting the error that Zimmy caught fixed just took precedence.

    Regarding your comments on Amnesiac, you really oughtta give it another listen. For one thing, there is a lot more diversity on that album than there is on Kid A (though I love them both).

    Three key songs on Amnesiac:

    Knives Out: Contains what may be Thom Yorke’s most haunting vocal on record…and the jazzy guitar aint too shabby either.

    Dollars and Cents: Just a killer bassline here. Very dark and mysterious sounding. The bassline carries the orchestral swells and the dissonant, grating guitars at the end are real cool too. This one is also really good when played live.

    Pyramid Song: This one starts with a quiet piano that slowly builds to an almost regal-like orchestral crescendo at the end. Love those crescendos.

    Give Amnesiac another try Micheal. I think you’ll find it is far more than the Kid A outtakes you currently take it to be.

    I don’t think you’ll be sorry.

    -Glen

  • Kevin Davis

    Hey Glen,

    Great article, it’s great to hear perspectives from a different corner.

    Just one small quibble – “RockBeatsTone” is not my pseudonym, it’s the name of the magazine I write for. Kevin Davis is both my real name and author name. Is there any way to edit that in the essay? No biggie if not.

    I’m truthfully not sure how my article ended up here – maybe my editor submitted it –

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Kevin,

    Unfortunately I doubt I could get that edited out at this point…partially, because I’ve already had to bug the editors to change a few things on the story today. But also because Rockbeatstone is actually the writer who is credited on (your) story.

    I really enjoyed reading your piece though Kevin. Very passionate and very well written. It’s actually what spurred me on to write one of my own. I absolutely love Radiohead. Can’t wait to see them in Berkeley next month.

    Have you heard the new material? If not, follow the link in my story and you can actually check out some of the new songs performed live in Europe last month.

    As always, they are very weird, very experimental…very Radiohead.

    Thanks for the comment Kevin.

    -Glen

  • Kevin Davis

    No problem, Glen. I haven’t heard the new material yet, but I’m very excited for it, and I will undoubtedly check out your site sometime in the very near future. We got up early to try and get some tickets for Chicago, but they’d sold out in about five minutes. Enjoy your show.

    Are you familiar with the Amnesiac B-sides? They’re an outstanding complement to the record itself. If you don’t have them, I’d be glad to send them to you via SendSpace or something.

    cheers,
    Kevin

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    Glen, if Kevin sdns you those b-sides, can we work something out so you can send ‘em to me, too? :-)

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Kevin,

    I’m not familiar with SendSpace, but yeah I’d love to get my hands on those B-Sides if theres a way you could get them to me. Sounds like Micheal is interested as well.

    If you we’re to send them to my home address via snail mail, that might work as well…but if it can be sent as a file or something (maybe through this “SendSpace”, which again I’m not familiar with).

    If you we’re to send them via snail mail, I’d be happy to give you the address. Just email me. You can get my email address by going to my personal blog (URL is under my name here on this comment box). From there, just go to my personal profile and you’ll find it.

    Anyway, whatever works. I have some pretty great live stuff you might be interested in as well (I hear Micheal salivating in the background already as well…LOL).

    Whatever works though…I’d love to get my hands on those B sides.

    Let me know.

    -Glen

    P.S. If this is something that can be burned I’ll be sure you are covered as well Micheal one way or the other.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    One last thing Kevin…

    Sorry to hear you didn’t get tickets. Berkeley also sold out quickly (I think it was like 7 minutes there…two nights too).

    My buddy who I’m going with (the same guy in my story I went with in 2001 when Radiohead played the Gorge), is just a real whiz when it comes to beating the Ticketmaster system where it comes to getting tickets. I don’t know how he does it, but we score pretty much every time.

    I plan on reviewing the show here so be on the lookout for that.

    As far as the show in your area goes, heres something you might want to try. Go to the venue the day of the show and check for will-call no shows. I know that sounds nuts but it’s worked for me more than once.

    When Springsteen played Vancouver last summer for Devils & Dust I actually scored a 3rd row seat doing this…so it does work. Theres just a lot of luck involved. Good luck Kevin.

    -Glen

  • http://sterfish.blogspot.com Sterfish

    As one of those younger fans who was weaned on OK Computer, I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed both Kid A and Amnesiac. I was in college when both albums came out and at the time, I started to get into groups like Boards Of Canada and Mouse On Mars. That made me very receptive to what Radiohead did on those albums.

    It’s funny though. OK Computer changed the way I listened to music and that pretty much prepared me for what Kid A and Amnesiac ended up doing.

  • Kevin Davis

    Hey guys – if you like, I’ll just copy the Amnesiac B-sides onto a CD and send them to your home addresses. I’ll augment with some of the better B-sides from The Bends and OK Computer as well, to fill out the space on the disc.

    [Deleted. It’s not a good idea to post contact info. Comments Editor.]

    Cheers,
    Kevin

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Kevin,

    Thanks. Most generous offer. I have some live shows on both DVD and CD that are quite good. So if there is anything you’d be interested in, send me your address and I’ll be glad to reciprocate. The Glastonbury show I have from 2003 is absolutely excellent. All pro-shot with DVD quality sound and video. Let me know if you are interested.

    My address should be in your email box about now. Again, thanks for the generous offer. Looking very forward to getting this.

    -Glen

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Sterfish (#13),

    Thanks for the comment. Kid A and Amnesiac are not the easiest records to digest at first. I’m not familiar with either of the groups you refer to so I’ll have to make a point to seek those out.

    Again thanks for the comment.

    -Glen

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Micheal J West,

    You need to e-mail me. Kevin has contacted me about the Radiohead B-sides and asked for your address to get you a copy.

    You get can find my e-mail by going to my personal blog and going into the profile.

    Thanx!

    -Glen

  • http://www.chantalstone.blogspot.com chantal stone

    hey Glen….
    great article…you’re so passionate about these 2 albums, I’m definitely going to have to check them out—see what all the fuss is about ;)

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Thanx Chantal.

    You definitely should check them out. Had a good time in Reno by the way. Lost a little money…but had a good time. Glad I’m back home. Talk soon.

    -Glen

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    your experience with Radiohead is very close to mine, particularly with OK Computer.

    i read soooo many articles/reviews about the record, mostly cleaving to some form of “this is the greatest, most innovative, most bestest album ever made!”

    so i bought the thing…and for a time enjoyed thinking of it as “Low Rent King Crimson”.

    when Radiohead “turned weird”….well, that was when i started to appreciate them. Kid A and Amnesiac are much more interesting to my ears.

    and before the dj pops in here to kill me for the “Low Rent Crimson” dig, he recently admitted to me that he owns no King Crimson records.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Mark,

    I’m not so sure I’d go as far as calling it “low rent King Crimson”, because OK Computer is a very good record in it’s own right.

    It’s just not the greatest album ever made as so many people claim it is. And yes, it does owe a lot to seventies prog-rock bands like Crimson and Gabriel era Genesis (not the horrid act they later became under Phil Collins direction).

    Looking forward to reading your take on the Seeger Sessions Band show in Boston by the way Mr. Saleski.

    -Glen

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    i have since modified my opinion of OK Computer. partly because it’s not like me to slag off a recording using a tag line like that…and also because the album does have its charms. like you said, it’s definitely not the best thing ever recorded.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Understood Mark. Just read your Seeger Sessions by the way…great review.

    So I wonder what prompted the editors to change the headline on my piece here (scratching head). No biggie…just was kind of weird to see that this afternoon.

    -Glen