Radiohead, of course, had the mixed fortune of entering the charts in 1992—the year punk famously "broke"—with a song called "
And it's here that Radiohead's story begins to get really interesting. On the verge of collapse, the band retreated into the studio, where they lay their instruments in a corner, drew lyrics out of a hat, and recorded what may be the strangest record a major artist has ever produced. Radiohead was not the first rock band to embrace electronica—an ambient, groove-driven music that emphasizes process over personality. U2, for instance, had exploited electronic sounds to inject a sense of modernity into a formula that had grown stale and self-parodying (the gambit failed, and U2 has recently announced that they're "reauditioning for the role of 'world's greatest guitar band' "). But Radiohead embraced electronica at the peak of their game; just as the world had begun hailing them as rock's saviors, they rejected the medium.
Kid A was a fantastically difficult album—a collection of heavily processed songs punctuated by electronic speed bumps alerting the listener to the fact that this was not an album built simply for grooving. The record was released without the benefit of singles, videos, or conventional advertising. Yorke's vocals were sliced up,
Yorke and his mates are well-spoken, well-read, and unfailingly polite—once, when an opening act trashed its hotel room, Radiohead was found out to have snuck in afterward to tidy up. The group shuns the spotlight, avoids drugs, groupies, and other temptations of the road, sprinkles its tour diary with references to Christopher Hitchens' latest articles in the TLS, and passes copies of Naomi Klein's No Logo out from the stage. Yorke, who recently became a first-time father, used his royalties from "Creep" to buy a house—it has a 25-year, fixed-rate mortgage—and the band has set aside enough money to start their own label in case Capitol drops them (an unlikely prospect no matter how esoteric their records get).
Moreover, Radiohead's methods of distributing their product, and relating to their audience, stand in stark contrast to those of any rock band that's come before them. The group allows fans to tape their shows (a brisk trade is carried out over the Internet), releases some of their best material on B-Sides and EPs, and refuses to give studio recordings precedence over live performances (songs, for them, are works in progress whether or not they've been committed to record, and they often float around on the Web in one form or another long before they're taken into the studio). As a result, Radiohead's music tends to seep into the world as if it's being filtered through an IV drip.
This may or may not be a winning marketing strategy, but Radiohead already has more money than they know what to do with. Listening to Kid A and Amnesiac back-to-back, you can't help suspecting that, had they culled the more accessible tracks from both albums (you wouldn't know it from Nick Hornby, but those tracks are there), the band would have come up with a commercial success on the level of OK Computer. Radiohead, it seems, could have "saved rock" all over again if they'd cared to. They didn't.
The surprising thing about the Kid A sessions isn't how much machinery the melodies are sifted through, it's that so much of what's meaningful makes its way through the static. The electronic foundation may take some getting used to, but the vulnerability Radiohead fans treasure has remained intact, and the record's interplay between man—Yorke, whose intensity is undiminished despite the manipulations his voice undergoes—and machine is entirely in line with the band's preoccupation with technology's dehumanizing influence. The melodies emerge gradually but are surprisingly
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