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Music from a different kitchen? Here is why Radiohead's Kid A and Amnesiac may actually be superior to the great OK Computer.

Reconstructing Radiohead: A Second Opinion

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.

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, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.

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