Radiohead are powerful. They uplift people and take them to another place with bleakness but the music is so beautiful and challenging that it rocks. Scott Kara previews Kid A, the band’s new album with its warped dance beats that collide with ambient soundscapes and gritty guitar riffs.
Two years ago Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, the unusual private school lad with an angelic voice and a bleak streak, told one music magazine it had taken nice months for people to fathom 1995’s The Bends so it would probably take them about two years to “get” 1997’s OK Computer. It wasn’t something he was worried about, it was something Radiohead thrive on – surprise and making albums out-there enough for people to finally click a little down the line.
But it didn’t take the world two years to “get” the 1997 landmark album, which churned and squirmed with a delirious floating-in-space feel. For all its distorted beauty it was still a rock album and the world loved it. In the recently released Radiohead book by Martin Clarke, Thom Yorke tells him how the album was meant to be abrasive. “I think people feel sick when they hear OK Computer. Nausea was part of what we were trying to create,” Yorke says.
So now it’s time for Kid A. This may well take two years to get, if not longer. But Kid A is gettable – not because we know what to expect, that’s impossible with Radiohead – because it is beautiful, boundary-pushing and as fresh as a lopped-off limb. It’s experimental to say the least. It’s psychedelic dance music for aliens.
True fans will buy it, some will love it, others will get used to it and others will think, ‘What a pack of art-want wankers’. But prog rock [the dreaded dinosaur, progressive rock] it ain’t because there are too many groovy, yet unnerving, beats infecting the songs. For a band with three guitarists it’s amazing the lack of guitar on Kid A.
It makes use of electronica, a unique collection of steady and quirky grooves, and Yorke’s voice is still heard but takes a bit more of a back seat compared to past albums.
Some of the new songs, like ‘How To Disappear Completely’ and ‘Kid A’ have already appeared on the Internet as live versions.
The band recorded demos of about 40 songs in the lead-up to finalising the nine tracks that finally appear on Kid A. And during the recording process many of these demo songs were played during surprise webcasts by the band – the first of which was last December. Apparently, Radiohead plans to release the songs that aren’t on the album as a series of EPs after Kid A’s release.
The band started recording Kid A early in 1999 in Paris and continued in various places including Copenhagen, the English countryside and London.
Not known for rock extravagance and never in a hurry to do anything, the band have been together 12 years. Kid A is fourth behind 1993’s Pablo Honey, The Bends and OK Computer. In Clarke’s book he says despite moments of band tension, they are a sound bunch and have had the same management since the beginning and “Thom has been with the same girl.”
Clarke goes on to say: “All their hard-earned royalties are quickly placed into a high-interest deposit account (so if we’re dropped, we’ll have enough money to put another album on our own label) and after Thom’s bank account swelled from the funds from Pablo Honey, all he bought was a Sony walkman. Their record company were so frustrated by the band’s total lack of extravagance that they offered them a clothing budget. Ed [O’Brien the guitarist] bought one white shirt.”
Musical excess, rather than material excess is the Radiohead game. Kid A is seriously out-there.
In keeping with their mad-cap mentalities Radiohead will tour, starting at the beginning of this month, around Europe under the cover of a circus tent. There is also a Radiohead bear, which is the central figure for the promotion of Kid A. The bear appears in some of the 200 two-minute animation sequences Radiohead made to release exclusively worldwide, in place of videos.
Word has it that Yorke returned from holiday on August 21 to a barrage of requests from waiting international media and to ready himself for tour. So let’s go to the circus. If you can’t get there the best accompaniment to Kid A is headphones and a deep swallowing cough. But beware, there are also beats abound.
KID A – track by trackEVERYTHING IN ITS RIGHT PLACE
Radiohead have always said the droning, funky beats of German band Kraftwerk were an influence and a band they listened to a lot, along with Marvin Gaye, Miles Davis and the Beach Boys. In this opening track, which shimmers into play, the meandering, yet mechanical chords are truly Kraftwerk inspired. As expected, the haunting and paranoid vocals are there and they say, “What was that you tried to say ... Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon.”
The title track is, both in name and sound, in keeping with Thom Yorke’s adolescent voice-breaking vocals. Kid A is full of childhood sounds like an open music box going ‘round and the pitter-patter of drums. But the wickedist minimalist beats on the off-beat will get even the most morose fan jiggling. It’s not Radiohead getting funky, it’s Radiohead getting a groove. The softest, subtlest beats are accompanied by trembling bass lines, sneaky squelchy sounds and warped and indistinguishable vocals. It’s clear even after just two tracks that Radiohead don’t need structures – they make their own.
THE NATIONAL ANTHEM
In keeping with Radiohead’s funny fetish for country-specific singles releases and EPs, EMI New Zealand are allowed to choose the single off Kid A. It’s anybody’s guess whether there will be one, however ‘The National Anthem’ would have to be a top contender. A driving, chunky bass is almost the entire song for the first one-and-a-half-minutes and then Yorke’s highly attractive vocal hits. It’s perfect. The bass monotony keeps driving and weird bass – scrawly sax and squealing trumpet – are laced with spiralling space quest sounds.
HOW TO DISAPPEAR COMPLETELY
Again the paranoia theme is strong in Kid A. “I’m not here, this isn’t happening, I’m not here,” says Yorke in a low repetitive rant. Epic strings and a deep strumming guitar combine together and on occasions hit head on with Yorke’s crescendo-ing falsetto voice. It’s the first time on the album his vocal chords of old are seen.
Treefingers is a long ambient piece – not dolphins and washes of waves – but just plain beauty that comes to a searing end. Again it is as far from rock as you’re likely to get and it sounds as it it’s direct from the keyboard of ambient master Brian Eno, if he was a bit younger. The word experimental keeps slicing into the consciousness. Will the attention span survive?
Another potential single. The raunchy acoustic riffs are overlapped with Yorke faltering in and out with gut-wrenching high notes. It’s hard to imagine but industrial beats – made with a guitar – beef up the song. The guitar becomes a rotor and an agitator rather than a six-string instrument. But Optimistic is a classic rock song with a classic and accessible rock ‘n’ roll line (for once): “You can try the best you can, the best you can is good enough.”
Optimism falls into this bleak little number. It’s paranoia once again but wait for the pulsating outro. Enough said.
All the way through Kid A you can’t help but get the feeling there are tracks gagging for a remix. ‘In Limbo’ has been left open for it but whether Radiohead enter into the remix realm is another story. The squelchy bass-heavy electro beats could become something extremely stomping if unleashed. Again, Yorke is singing over the top of beats and noises rather than guitars. It is truly out-there noise but his unnerving vocals, because they are so unique and his voice so dominant, tames the instruments. Far more out-of-it than U2’s wussy Discoteque attempt.
Sounds very Radiohead – maybe it’s just Yorke’s voice – but again there’s few guitars and more keyboards making the soundscapes. Without looking you can tell you’re nearing the end.
MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK
Organs, harps and ambience brings you to the end.
FAMOUS BY DESIGN
Cutting an illusive figure, graphic artist Stanley Donwood has sat quietly beside Radiohead from the band’s early days. Since attending Oxford University with Thom Yorke, he has quietly slipped into the Radiohead team without fanfare, designing artwork for albums, videos and parts of www.radiohead.com.
Arguably, Donwood has created the face of Radiohead, applying his warped graphics to artwork for The Bends, OK Computer, and most recently the much-anticipated Kid A.
In his spare time, Donwood has worked on various stages of the official Radiohead Web site, which has always been somewhat of an experimental realm. Here Stanley’s artwork and short stories have permeated Radiohead culture, providing reference points for Thom Yorke’s lyrics and the sort of introspective moods you might assume of the band. It may just be that Donwood’s bleak world-view fits nicely with Radiohead’s own discontent.
Donwood agrees to speak from the cyber equivalent of a dimly-lit street on a stormy night. From an unidentifiable hotmail account he agrees to answer – in his own brief and lower case writing kind of way – a few questions. This is what he said.
STANLEY: Mmmmkay, though I may be unable to answer some things because of the official Radiohead secrets act send some questions and I’ll do my best.
RIU: Will the album cover be similar to the circus type feel of artwork for the European and tent tour posters?
STANLEY: not remotely
RIU: What can you tell me about the white chocolate farm (always credited next to Donwood on Radiohead packaging)? Is it a co-operative or individual endeavour?
RIU: How did you become involved with Radiohead?
STANLEY: met them at university met others when needed a place to stay... saw them play at jericho tavern in oxford
RIU: The CD covers, posters and assorted merchandising... is this a joint effort between members of Radiohead and you or do you have freedom to create what ever you see fit? – how does this work out?
STANLEY: they seem to like most of what i do... they see stuff as its being done so i spose theyd say if they hated it
RIU: There is a sense of impending doom and fear of the future that strikes me, especially in the OK Computer booklet... does this theme continue in the next CD cover?
no its all trees and fields
and some other stuff. clouds.
RIU: Your visuals seem to accompany the music really well, how does the artwork for the new Album Kid A compare to OK Computer?
STANLEY: ok computer was ok this is better... i hope people agree
RIU: What do you think of the new album? What else are you listening to, watching reading, at the moment?
STANLEY: its fucking brilliant
im listening to kid a, late 80s acid house, late 90s techno, and some weird punk stuff
RIU: Do you think your visuals have any responsibility for people seeing Radiohead’s work as “gloomy” and “depressing”?
i hope so
but theres positive things in there too
RIU: What else have you worked on?
STANLEY: not much
some book covers
my own stuff
bits and bobs
radiohead things take most of my time though
And then Donwood slips quietly out into the night, probably flanked by a bunch of Radiohead boys who make him promise not to say another word. We don’t hear from him again.
RADIOHEAD – THE HISTORYPablo Honey (1993)
What better way to get the world’s attention than by calling yourself a ‘Creep’ and putting the word “fucking” in the gloriously sulky line: “You’re so fucking special, I wish I was special.” Okay the album Pablo Honey wasn’t exactly where it all started but it did have ‘Creep’ on it. ‘Creep’ , the single, is really what started it all back in 1992.
The song dawdled gently at first but the atmosphere was uneasy enough for the listener to know something big was about to happen. And the quietly spoken “fucking” just gave it right way. Then the steel bending riffs that launch into the chorus were truly what caught a generation’s heart. Yeeha.
‘Creep’ was a step up from the Drill EP, which was also released in 1992. But ‘Creep’ was probably even further away from the band On A Friday that the five Radiohead boys formed while attending private school in Oxford.
An equally classy appeal to the world’s slacked generation as ‘Creep’ was the single, ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’. It appears on Pablo Honey and shoed ‘Creep’ wasn’t just a novelty or quirky pieces of luck.
On Pablo Honey there was no real true indication of Yorke’s brittle and powerfully high vocal skills except perhaps on the beautiful last single, ‘Stop Whispering’.
The Bends (1995)
With The Bends they did it all again. The Bends was one of those albums that if it’s played, you know every song just as well as any other. This album has been played so much around the world that people know every song just like they know every song off Pearl Jam’s first album, Ten or Nirvana’s Nevermind.
This is where the real Radiohead-sound started. Yorke’s voice started soaring achingly, the bare acoustics of Pablo Honey became intensity and it started getting weird and intriguing.
Although ‘High And Dry’ was the first single from the album it did not do well on the charts and sales of The Bends suffered because of this. Maybe it was a bit too gentle and slow after the lazy-lout performance of Pablo Honey.
But ironically the next single ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ – where Yorke is meandering around in a leary supermarket sitting in a supermarket trolley in the video – was also a slow burner but gave The Bends the boost it needed.
There were four singles off this album but really there was five because ‘My Iron Lung’ (which was also on the album) was released as an EP in 1994, before The Bends. The other singles included the rollicking ‘Just’ and the mind warping – both through music and video – ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’.
OK Computer (1997)
From the warped chords in the opening bars of Airbag you know you’re in for a challenge with OK Computer. But because of the tantalising textures and of course Yorke’s serenading you’re up for it.
A few glorious head-splitting guitar bursts litter the album but you’re patched up throughout by Yorke’s voice and soothing outtakes like ‘Exit Music (For a Film)’, the lovely ‘Let Down’ and second single ‘Karma Police’. Although the songs sentiment – “Karma police, arrest this girl, her Hitler hairdo is making me feel ill” – may not be soothing the layers of sounds sure are.
The last half of OK Computer – signalled by the mangled voice that became fashionable on people’s answer phones at the time – is kicked off by the storming Eletioneering. But then the calm hits. It is one of the best and most chilled out, yet unnerving, ends to an album that has ever happened.
‘No Surprises’ has detectable childhood jangles that gravitate you onto your back and place you in a time when staring into space without a care in the world was the place to be. But Yorke, unsurprisingly, is telling a far different story in ‘No Surprises’: “A Heart that’s full up like a landfill. A job that slowly kills you. Bruises that won’t heal.”
What a set up for the next one.
My Iron Lung EP (1994)
Only one format (the Australian) of many released around the world featured the wailing acoustic version of Creep. The EP was still raw sounding Radiohead and lacked the intensity of The Bends even though it was released only a year before. It was the band’s only release in a quiet year but it didn’t really matter because they were about to go round the bend.
Drill EP (1992)
Anyone Can Play Guitar (1993)
Pop Is Dead (1993)
Stop Whispering (1993)
My Iron Lung EP (1994)
High and Dry (1995)
Fake Plastic Trees (1995)
Street Spirit (Fade Out) (1996)
Paranoid Android (1997)
Karma Police (1997)
No Surprises (1997)