In September, the hardcover version of my book This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ and the Beginning of the 21st Century was released. It came out three days before the 20th anniversary of Radiohead’s classic fourth album, which my book analyzes in extreme (perhaps too much?) detail. On June 8, the paperback edition of the book comes out, which is three days after the 20th anniversary of Kid A’s sister LP, Amnesiac. The paperback of This Isn’t Happening truly is the Amnesiac to the hardcover’s Kid A, in the sense that it arrives about eight months later and is softer than its predecessor.
To all of the people who have read the book, thank you. To all of the people who haven’t, a warning: There’s a part of one chapter that, based on the feedback I’ve received, you will either totally love or absolutely hate. This section is easily the most commented-upon aspect of This Isn’t Happening, and like the LP it covers, it’s apparently pretty polarizing! This was not my intention, but I think I understand why it was received that way.
First, some context: Radiohead started working on the followup to their hit 1997 album, OK Computer, in early 1999. Over the course of about a year and a half, they accumulated enough material for two albums. After briefly considering lumping all of the songs together into a double LP, they opted to put out Kid A in the fall of 2000, and Amnesiac the following summer.
When Kid A was released, some critics were disappointed that the more conventional “Radiohead-sounding” songs performed on the band’s summer European tour — including “Knives Out” and “Pyramid Song” (then dubbed “Egyptian Song”) — didn’t make it on the record. Kid A was deliberately sequenced as a monochromatic mood piece with a heavy emphasis on suffocating emotional paralysis. The more dynamic material was reserved for Amnesiac, which also became a clearinghouse for Radiohead’s weirdest songs from the sessions. The result was a willfully inconsistent (though often thrilling) listen.
In my book, I write about the circumstances that compelled Radiohead to make Kid A and Amnesiac, and how those albums affected their career in the years afterward. I also engage in at least one thought experiment: What if Radiohead had decided to make a single 14-track album culled from all of the material they recorded at the turn of the century? What if, instead of Kid A and Amnesiac, they instead made Kid Amnesiac? What would such an album sound like? What songs would make the cut in such a scenario?
Now, some people read this and thought it was a fun hypothetical. Other people read it and were annoyed (or even angry!) over my sacrilege. Let me be clear: I don’t think Kid A and Amnesiac SHOULD have been a single album. I love both records exactly as they are. They’re both classics! But I am intrigued by this hypothetical Kid Amnesiac.
In honor of Amnesiac‘s 20th anniversary, I am sharing my made-up early aughts Radiohead album. If you are a Radiohead fan, I am sure your version would probably be different. Though hopefully not that different, as I think I nailed this pretty much perfectly.
Let’s walk through Kid Amnesiac one track at a time.
“Everything In Its Right Place”
This is my favorite Radiohead song. And it’s one of my favorite album-opening tracks ever. Kid A didn’t take shape in the band’s minds until Jonny Greenwood took a middling piano ballad composed by Thom Yorke and played it on a Prophet 5 synthesizer. The sound of that riff played on the Prophet 5 immediately creates the paranoid, spine-tingling vibe that defines the band at this time. I can’t imagine any version of the album without this song in the lead-off position.
Unfortunately, that means I have to leave off the first track from Amnesiac, “Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box,” which is very good and evokes a similar feeling but in a slightly less compelling way. In this timeline, “Packt Like Sardines” must exist as a beloved B-side. Does that seem wrong? Buckle up, we’re just getting started.
“The National Anthem”
The hardest rocking song from this period. (If I was going to be super nerdy here, I would be tempted to put on the live version from Saturday Night Live performed two weeks after Kid A dropped.) It’s also one of two quasi-jazzy tunes, along with “Life In A Glasshouse,” which didn’t make my cut. In my book I actually made a disparaging comment about “Life In A Glasshouse” that my copy editor strenuously objected to. Typically, copy editors are only supposed to care about my awful grammar, not my awful opinions. But apparently this take was exceptionally beyond the pale.
After two defining Kid A mindfuckers, a sharp turn toward the majestic. “Pyramid Song” certainly wasn’t left off of Kid A for quality reasons. It was saved for later because “Pyramid Song” would’ve decisively altered the feeling of Kid A. You put this song on and all of that “technological anxiety at the dawn of a new age” stuff goes out the window. Listening to Kid A feels like being trapped in a dark room for 40 minutes; “Pyramid Song” meanwhile is a ray of light.
“How To Disappear Completely”
In the context of Kid A, “How To Disappear Completely” is the “normal-sounding acoustic ballad” track. But in the context of this imaginary record — which is a bit more dynamic and less centered on suffocating techno-horror — the oddness of the arrangement is teased out more. When it’s sequenced immediately after “Pyramid Song,” Kid Amnesiac suddenly seems much more closer to OK Computer than either Kid A or Amnesiac.
“Dollars & Cents”
An inspiration for Radiohead at this time was the German band Can, who would jam endlessly in the studio and then assemble the best bits into songs. “Dollars & Cents” came together in similar fashion, starting out as an 11-minute piece that Yorke described as “incredibly boring” that was cut in half and then tricked out with a Greenwood arranged string section. Another nerdy caveat: The live version from Radiohead’s July 4, 2000 concert in Berlin trumps the take on Amnesiac.
These tracks are attached at the hip on Kid A so perfectly that I can’t bear them to separate them on Kid Amnesiac. In a way, they’re an odd couple — “Optimistic” is perhaps the most straightforward guitar song to come out of this period, while the head-swimming “In Limbo” sounds like five musicians playing in five different tempos. Coming after “Dollars & Cents,” this feels like the appropriate conclusion to the “jammy” part of Kid Amnesiac.
It’s my duty as a stereotypically obnoxious Radiohead fan to include at least one B-side on this imaginary album, and then put it at the top of Side B. I went with this one, my favorite B-side of the era, with all due respect paid to “Worrywort” and “Fog.” It supposedly came close to making Amnesiac, showing up on a promotional copy that was serviced early to French radio. Instead, it ended up on the “Knives Out” single, a dubious fate for one of the most epic-sounding Radiohead songs to come out of these sessions.
The most cited example of Radiohead losing their minds in 1999 and early 2000 is the fact that it supposedly took 313 hours to make “Knives Out,” a seemingly simple ballad that sounds like it was knocked out in 10 minutes. This speaks to the weird insecurity that has plagued Radiohead throughout their career, in which they spend months or even years in the studio trying to not sound like themselves before inevitably realizing that Radiohead sounding like Radiohead is actually pretty great. (This song also includes the album’s single bleakest lyric: “If you’d been a dog / They would have drowned you at birth.”)
This has always been my dark horse favorite on Kid A. It’s not the greatest track or the most adventurous or the one that best exemplifies this era. It’s simply one of the songs that I most want to hear, every single time I put on Kid A, because I never tire of it. It’s the best fusing of Radiohead’s classic ’90s “mid-tempo ballad” sound with the “forward-thinking” sensibility of the 1999-2000 sessions. It’s like “Karma Police” after a Bitches Brew phase.
“I Might Be Wrong”
Yorke claims that he wrote and recorded this song after seeing a ghost in his house, “with this presence still there.” It sounds like the sort of story that became associated with David Bowie during his mid-’70s L.A. period, when he was having all kinds of dark hallucinations because he was snorting enough cocaine to kill all five members of the Eagles. This is not to suggest that Thom’s vision was drug-induced; the only thing he was sniffing was ambivalence about his own success.
“You And Whose Army?”
Most of the lyrics on Kid A and Amnesiac are deliberately vague and even nonsensical, as Yorke was tired of having to explain to nosy music journalists that OK Computer was in fact not a concept album. But this song comes closest to making an overt political statement. The echo effect on the vocal — which was intended to evoke the Ink Spots, a popular vocal group from the 1930s and ’40s who predated doo-wop — was created in part by something called The Palm Speaker. It makes “You And Whose Army?” sound like a pre-war blues record, as future generations will come to understand pre-war blues in the year 2900, when all humans are living on Mars.
Purists will protest about separating this song from “Morning Bell,” as that transition is nearly as perfect as “Optimistic” melting into “In Limbo.” But my instinct is to put “Idioteque” in the penultimate slot. It is part of the trio of most essential tracks from this period, along with the prominently situated “Everything In Its Right Place” and “The National Anthem.” The easiest way to explain how Radiohead changed from OK Computer to Kid A and Amnesiac is to play those songs. (I say this as a person who wrote about 63,000 words that attempt to explain how Radiohead changed from OK Computer to Kid A and Amnesiac.)
“Like Spinning Plates”
Just as Kid Amnesiac can only have one undeniable opener, it can only have one inarguable closer. It was either this or “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” and I’m going with the one that reminds me of experiencing a low-level tinnitus hum after hours of screamingly loud music. (But in a good way.)
This is another instance where I’m strongly tempted to include a live version, in this case the stunning reimagining from the I Might Be Wrong EP. But the studio cut from Amnesiac is ultimately preferable precisely because it’s not so damn pretty. “When I listen to it in my car, it makes the doors shake,” Yorke later said of this song. Any representation of Radiohead at this extremely creative and momentous juncture in their history should leave us all feeling shaken.