Inane Thoughts: Diary of a Frustrated Writer

To be truly understood, great art, literature or music should be assessed in its historical context. Of course, if it’s something released in your lifetime there will almost certainly be a personal context as to why you might love, hate or shrug at a particular work of art, a book, or a song or album. In the case of Radiohead and me, there is a huge amount of personal context. The first album that I can remember borrowing off of an older kid, listening to it on repeat and finally buying it, after realising that it was bad form to keep that which had been lent to you, was Radiohead’s ‘The Bends’ (the first album I actually bought was Guns ‘N’ Rose ‘Appetite For Destruction’ at the age of 9, but, quite reasonably, my parents thought some of the imagery in the centre fold of a sexually-assaulting robot was a little violent for a 9-year old).

Radiohead are one of the major bands, if not the major band, that shaped my listening patterns during my teenage years. Influenced by increasingly leftfield influences, they helped me delve into the sort of music that I would not necessarily have found at home. It was through Radiohead that I discovered Stereolab, Spiritualized, Boards of Canada, Neu!, Kraftwerk, Can, Aphex Twin, Autechre, Squarepusher, Broadcast, Miles Davis, Bjork and so many more. Although, I have to admit that in the cases of Miles Davis and Bjork, they mainly led me to stealing my parents copies of their albums.

I remember the day that Kid A came out. I remember the weeks of excitement that led up to its release, with wild speculation about what we’d all be hearing. It’s strange to think back on that as a time just before albums would be regularly leaked before release. Maybe it was just me, but I can’t remember anyone getting their hands on a version of Kid A before it was released, or indeed, any of the songs. All we had to go on as fans were some of the live versions of songs like ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’ and ‘How To Disappear Completely’. There were no singles that preceded Kid A. In fact, I can’t remember there being a single released from the album at all. This was an album to be listened to all the way through. This is the last time I can remember having this feeling about an album; genuinely having no clue as to what would sounds would come out of my stereo when I put on the record.

I remember devouring all the reviews of Kid A in the music magazines. In particular, I remember reading a scathing one star review of the album in the now defunct magazine Melody Maker; I’d never disagreed with a review more vociferously. A popular opinion was that Radiohead (and in particular Thom Yorke) had made a deliberately obtuse and unlistenable record, in a fit of pique at their fame and success in the late 90’s, like some sort of musical dirty protest. Listening back to Kid A now it’s hard to know what the fuss was about. Songs like ‘Everything In It’s Right Place’, ‘The National Anthem’ and ‘Idioteque’ are live staples and it’s perfectly clear that there really were quite a lot of melodies on Kid A. It definitely didn’t sound like OK Computer, but the aesthetic was the same; Kid A was an album to be listened to all the way through. It was a complete entity.

Amnesiac came out only nine months after Kid A, but it already seemed like we were in a different era. Anyone with a decent internet connection had already downloaded half of the songs from the album by the time it came out. The band had decided to release actual singles. Some of this gave the impression that Amnesiac was a selection of inferior off-cuts from Kid A (the inclusion of an alternative version of ‘Morning Bell’ did little to dispel this view). On its release, much of the music press gave it the flippant and pejorative title, ‘Kid B’. Listening back to it now, this not only hugely over-simplifies the album, it’s just plain wrong: Amnesiac was meant to be an album on its own merits. It certainly doesn’t flow as an album in the same way that Kid A did, but this is so much more than a collection of off-cuts and b-sides.

As opening track ‘Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box’ kicks in, all pulsating beats and hypnotic bass-line, I remember just how fresh this sounded to me when it came out. It may not sound so fresh anymore (rock bands flirting with electronica is positively the norm these days), but it still sounds as arresting as the day I first heard it. From the off, this album featured some of Thom Yorke’s most paranoid, sometimes aggressive lyrics: “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case”. In contrast, second track, ‘Pyramid Song’ was the sort of song that fans might have expected in a follow-up to OK Computer, all lush orchestration and towering beauty. It’s an epic song of the sort that shows just how far Radiohead were ahead of their contemporary stadium bands (and still are). To put it into context, can you genuinely imagine Coldplay or Kings of Leon writing songs as nuanced and lovely as this?

The Blair-baiting ‘You And Whose Army?’ was a perfect encapsulation of the paranoia inherent in Yorke’s lyrics at the time. It’s also a fragile and beautiful song, that segues perfectly into the rockier middle section of the album, kicking off with the riff-led ‘I Might Be Wrong’, followed by ‘Knives Out’; probably the most straight-forward song on Kid A or Amnesiac. Knives Out also once again showcased the disconcerting darkly-comic, violent imagery that Yorke was dipping into: “So knives out/Cook him up/Squash his head/Put him in the pot”. Next up there’s the disquieting, slowed-down version of ‘Morning Bell’ that more than stands up to the Kid A version, fitting in perfectly with the feel of Amnesiac. Finally there’s ‘Dollars & Cents’, which takes up where ‘The National Anthem’ left off, all jittery beats and Jonny Greenwood’s interrupting orchestral arrangements. However, unlike in ‘The National Anthem’, you can actually understand what Yorke is singing. The violent imagery is in stark contrast to the elliptical word-collages of Kid A: “We are the dollars and cents/We’re gonna crack your little skulls”.

The album certainly has its left-field moments, probably more left-field than those in Kid A. ‘Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors’ wouldn’t seem out of place on a Boards of Canada album, though it does seem further proof that Radiohead were were never quite as good at pure electronica as the bands that they admired. There’s a cold beauty in ‘Hunting Bears’ and, along with the glacial, disconcerting ‘Like Spinning Plates’ (which was bettered by the live version on ‘I Might Be Wrong’), these two songs seem like the perfect lead up to final track, ‘Life In A Glasshouse’.

Life In A Glasshouse is the one track from Amnesiac that wasn’t recorded during the Kid A sessions. For years Radiohead had talked about the way that jazz had influenced their recording style, particularly the influence of Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew’ on OK Computer. Life In A Glasshouse was the most obviously jazz-influenced song, albeit influenced by New Orleans jazz, as opposed to the more experimental jazz of Miles Davis. It was recorded with Humphrey Lyttleton and his band (and for those wondering, yes, that is the Humphrey Lyttleton, long-time presenter of ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’ and general all-round good guy). It’s an absolutely incredible song. It’s gorgeous, elegiac, unsettling, neurotic; a perfect microcosm of what Radiohead had become.

It also seems to presage the paranoia of the post-9/11 war on terror era, with the concomitant infringements on civil liberties and fear-mongering from world leaders and the media alike (“once again, we are hungry for a lynching”). The chorus of the song is, for me, the most perfect distillation of the sort of world-weary paranoia that would come to be the hallmark of the internet-led culture of the 00’s (well that and very SHOUTY people calling each other names, generally being cretinous and probably a little bit racist on Have Your Say forums):

Well of course I’d like to sit around and chat/Well of course I’d like to stay and chew the fat… but someone’s listening in“.

Amnesiac was accused at the time of being disjointed; a mish-mash of influences and styles. From the pulsating electronica of ‘Packt Like Sardines In a Crushd Tin Box’, to the swooning piano led majesty of ‘Pyramid Song’, to the Smiths-influenced guitar play in ‘Knives Out’, the aggressive rock of ‘I Might Be Wrong’, to the paranoiac jazz of ‘Life In A Glasshouse’, Amnesiac is a smorgasbord of ideas. However, in 2011, with groups like LCD Soundsystem making a career out of this sort of album, it no longer seems such an oddity. It was Amnesiac, not Kid A, that became the blueprint for Radiohead’s next couple of albums and possibly for the next decade of indie music.

When asked at the end of 2009 what my favourite album of the 00’s was, I plumped for Kid A. I haven’t changed my opinion, but it seems to me that Kid A was actually the last great 20th Century album, that just happened to be released in the 00’s. It was Amnesiac that pointed to where music was going.

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