Pitchfork Book Club highlights today’s best new music books.
The heady ambition of Radiohead’s work around the turn of the millennium can hardly be considered overlooked. Kid A, which turns 20 next month, has been named the best album of the 2000s by ourselves and some of our peers. This week, when Rolling Stone debuted its revamped 500 Best Albums of All Time list, Kid A leapt straight to No. 20, ahead of any other album of the decade (or by Radiohead). Though the band’s fourth LP initially drew some accusations of pretension, modern critics have fallen over themselves celebrating the infamous hard-left into arty electronics, especially once it turned out to be Radiohead’s semi-permanent direction.
Fittingly, then, Steven Hyden’s new book, This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s “Kid A” and the Beginning of the 21st Century, isn’t just another round of gushing praise. Yes, the Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me author and longtime rock critic does argue that “in terms of the culture and mood of the times, Kid A is the most emblematic album of the modern era.” But he’s as interested in the era itself—how the album serves as a kind of time capsule for the early, confusing years of the ’00s. With the conversational irreverence of the guy sitting down the bar, Hyden draws connections to hybrid rock acts like Linkin Park, surreal and misanthropic blockbusters like Fight Club and Vanilla Sky, the internet’s transformation from a utopian dream into a dystopian nightmare, and, as has been noted before, the tragedy on 9/11. For good measure (and fan service), he bookends This Isn’t Happening’s cultural insights with key Radiohead-related events occurring before and after the album.
Below, read the opening of the book’s first chapter, which traces how Thom Yorke’s post–OK Computer exhaustion forced Radiohead to reinvent themselves with Kid A.
It begins one night in November of 1997, backstage at NEC Arena in Birmingham, England. In Radiohead lore, it is known as the Night of Thom Yorke’s Fateful Mental Breakdown. But in actual fact, there are two mental breakdowns—one before the show, and one after.
The first one occurs after soundcheck, when Yorke—just one month past his 30th birthday, in the midst of the most professionally momentous year of his life—spontaneously decides to ditch the band’s security and exit the arena, without informing anyone of his whereabouts. If only leaving Radiohead and everything it had come to represent in Yorke’s exhausted mind were that easy.
When it comes to being an escape artist, Yorke is a hopeless amateur. A man who has spent the past several years inside the bubble of one of rock’s biggest bands must learn how to disappear completely. But for now, the effort is what matters. His life is at a breaking point, and he’s seeking the right metaphor to express his anguish.
You can try the best you can. The best you can is good enough.
After wandering around the arena for a while, fruitlessly searching for an exit door, he finally makes it out onto the street. He sees a train nearby and decides to hop on board. Maybe disappearing completely won’t be so hard after all.
I go where I please. I walk through walls.
He is a rock star now but not that famous yet—Radiohead’s third album, OK Computer, has been out for about five months, and will be promoted with singles through the following spring. While the LP is a significant commercial and critical hit, the expectation is that the next Radiohead record will finally complete their transformation into the new U2, similar to how The Joshua Tree turned the young U2 into the U2. In this trajectory, OK Computer is merely The Unforgettable Fire. Grander triumphs loom on the horizon. That’s the conventional wisdom in the industry, at any rate.
But for now, Thom Yorke hasn’t been fully Bono-ified yet. Radiohead is still in its pre-imperial period. Popular enough to whip thousands of people into a frenzy while torches are lit aflame in the distance, à la U2’s Under a Blood Red Sky era in the early ’80s, but not truly massive in the stadium-rock sense.
And yet, on that train, the chances that Thom won’t be recognized are close to nil. He is traveling in the vicinity of a rock show—his rock show—not long before showtime. Who does he expect to be riding a train at that hour? He has not thought that far ahead.
Before long, he realizes that he is surrounded by Radiohead fans. All he can do is hide as the train whisks him back to the place he just tried to escape. He has found his metaphor for fame—a closed loop of omnipresent discomfort, perpetual awkwardness, and inescapable impotency.
I’m not here. This isn’t happening.
This is breakdown number one, the “lesser” one. The major breakdown, the one where “it” begins, occurs later that night, after a six-song encore that culminates with the climactic tracks from the two most recent Radiohead albums, “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” from The Bends, and “The Tourist,” from OK Computer.
After wailing “hey maaaaan, slow dooooown!” for several minutes to a worshipful audience, Yorke walks with his bandmates to their dressing room. They should feel triumphant, but Thom is tired. Radiohead has been touring almost constantly for six months, and they have another five months to go. By the time the promotional march finally wraps in the middle of 1998, they will have performed nearly 700 concerts in the past seven years. In 1995 alone, they lodged 179 shows—essentially a gig every other day, somewhere in the world, flogging “Fake Plastic Trees” at the local neighborhood House of Blues, over and over again.
Something inside of Thom Yorke finally snaps. He can’t speak. His bandmates, Ed, Jonny, Colin, Phil—all of his mates from long before the time that he was “MTV famous”—ask if he’s all right. Yorke can tell they are speaking to him, but he can’t hear what they’re saying or respond. For a moment he’s just… blank, like a catastrophically malfunctioning hard drive.
This might seem like a melodramatic, even ridiculous, reaction to being thrust to the top of the rock’n’roll heap. But consider how others have reacted in similar circumstances. Bob Dylan crashed his motorcycle, rock–conspiracy theorists believe, in order to escape the endless, drug-fueled touring of his Blonde on Blonde period in 1966. David Bowie killed off Ziggy Stardust at a “retirement” show in 1973. Kurt Cobain tried to actually kill himself while in the midst of a miserable European tour in 1994, before finally finishing the awful deed that spring back home in Seattle. Relative to those rock stars, Yorke affecting catatonia seems reasonable.
I have seen too much. I haven’t seen enough. You haven’t seen it.
He hates being on the road. He hates himself for hating being on the road. He hates that he worked so hard and for so long to put himself in exactly this position and yet he can’t enjoy it. When Thom Yorke was a boy, he saw Queen guitarist Brian May on television and decided that he was going to be a rockstar. By age 11, he joined his first band and started writing songs. By 1985, he was leading On a Friday, the band that became Radiohead. And he just kept on going, straight to that dressing room backstage at NEC Arena, where he finally realizes that he got what he wanted but lost what he had.
In the future, Radiohead will be known as the band that doesn’t have to show up for things. They will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Thom Yorke won’t show up because of a scheduling conflict with the debut of a piano piece he wrote for the Paris Philharmonic—which occurred nine days after the induction ceremony, which amounts to a scheduling conflict only if you live in the age of covered wagons.
You know the phrase “fuck-you money”? Radiohead will one day have “fuck-you” credibility.
But in 1997, Radiohead still plays the game. Thom Yorke has been playing it for most of his life, starting with that bolt of lightning from Brian May’s Red Special guitar. He wanted, for a long time, to be the guy. He had the same ambition and drive shared by everyone who ends up holding a guitar on television and inspiring the next generation of Thoms to become rock stars.
After “Creep” became a hit in America in 1993—it took longer for Radiohead to break through at home in England, where they started as an afterthought and laughingstock amid a now-forgotten generation of Britpop shooting stars—they did anything and everything to maintain their momentum. They played late night talk shows and awful British award programs and MTV beach houses. They made corny music videos and spoke with reporters from Podunk newspapers in nowhere towns and pressed the flesh and kissed the babies.
And it worked. It worked! It worked?
Did it really work the way he wanted it to?
“I always assumed that it was going to answer something—fill a gap,” Yorke said many years later. “I was so driven for so long, like a fucking animal, and then I woke up one day and someone had given me a little gold plate for OK Computer and I couldn’t deal with it for ages.”
We’re not scaremongering. This is really happening.
Once Radiohead gets off the road, Thom Yorke doesn’t crash his motorcycle or blow his head off. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he feels spiritually and creatively spent. He will decide that guitar-based music is dead, and that Radiohead is woefully out of step for putting out the album that supposedly “saved” rock.
He will buy the entire back catalogue for Warp Records, an electronic music label known for putting out records by cutting-edge, forward-looking acts like Aphex Twin, Autechre, and Boards of Canada. (This is years before streaming, and right before Napster made stealing music online convenient. Thom Yorke had to invest actual money in the sound of his future.) He finds that this cold, mechanical music makes him feel alive again, giving him the same emotional connection that guitars once did. He is sick of melody. All he wants is rhythm.
He also likes that nothing in his new record collection has vocals. He is dreadfully tired of his own voice—the plaintive purity of his instrument bugs him, and it will only get worse once he hears his voice come out of other singers.
During the summer and fall of 1998, as Yorke suffers in private, an affable Scottish band named Travis convenes with the unofficial “sixth” member of Radiohead, producer Nigel Godrich, to record The Man Who. Travis’s 1997 debut, Good Feeling, was an undistinguished stab at nicking the classic ladrock sound of Oasis’s mid-’90s zenith, which already seemed like a distant memory in the wake of their coked-out and overblown third album, 1997’s Be Here Now.
For the second LP, Travis decided to change course. They weren’t a great band, but they did have one great idea: Rewrite “Don’t Look Back in Anger” over and over, and outfit their luminous ballads with the delectable guitar tones associated with Radiohead’s twin mid-’90s classics, The Bends and OK Computer. Who better to help them than Godrich, the man who helped to make those records?
But this is a mere preamble to the band that will come to overshadow Radiohead commercially and assume the “new U2” mantle that Thom Yorke has decided to forsake. In May of 1998, five hundred copies of the debut EP by a new band made up of London college students, Coldplay, will be pressed and mostly given away for free to record companies. Like The Man Who, it sounds like The Bends, and it’s perfect for those who wish Radiohead still sounded like The Bends. By early 1999, Coldplay will sign a five-album deal with Parlophone, Radiohead’s label. The year after that, they will already be well on their way to becoming one of the biggest bands in the world. Eventually, their popularity will dwarf Radiohead’s.
Now that his old songs have become their own genre of British rock, Yorke finds that he can’t write Radiohead songs himself—not anything that he likes anyway. He writes and writes and writes, but he can’t tell if any of his words are good. He can’t even pick up a guitar without feeling like he’s dying inside. New Year’s Eve ’98 is one of his lowest points. In January, Radiohead is supposed to go into a studio in Paris to start work on the follow-up to OK Computer, and he doesn’t have any material to show them. He wonders if he’s going crazy.
Light another candle. Release me.
Paris proves to be a disaster. Radiohead works on a tune called “Lost at Sea” that had emerged during soundchecks at the end of the OK Computer tour. As a song, it quickly goes nowhere; as a metaphor for the new album, it’s obvious to the point of causing acute pain. (It will eventually be given a new title that also describes the state of Thom Yorke and Radiohead at this time, “In Limbo.”)
In March, there are more sessions in Copenhagen. Yorke still can’t complete any of his songs. He brings in demos inspired by Aphex Twin and Autechre—typically a rhythm track spiked with a curious, noisy splat. Nothing resembling an actual song, and certainly not anything that a three-guitar band can play. Ed O’Brien, the handsome, dope-smoking guitar player, thinks to himself that the best thing Radiohead can do now is revert to snappy, straightforward rock. He’s “fed up with prog-rock analogies” and the ponderousness of OK Computer, so why not try to out-Travis Travis?
O’Brien isn’t alone. Colin Greenwood privately worries that Yorke might be leading them toward “some awful art-rock nonsense just for its own sake, so that it looks like you’re cutting your nose off to spite your face,” as he later admits in an interview.
Radiohead spends two weeks in Copenhagen, recording endless bits of music that Yorke insists will eventually be shaped into songs. He cites the great German experimental rock band Can, which would jam endlessly in the studio and then edit the hours of music down to the very best parts. Radiohead stacks their bits of sound on fifty different reels of two-inch tape, each of which represents about fifteen minutes of unfinished, meandering music. None of it sounds as promising as Can’s masterpiece, Tago Mago.
More sessions take place in April, at a mansion in Gloucestershire, in southwest England. The tedium does not break. The band hates everything they record. Incomplete songs stack up like Post-it notes—there are as many as sixty of them, and Radiohead is convinced that nothing is useable. They tinker over and over with a moody, minor-key, guitar-based ballad called “Knives Out,” which would’ve fit well on The Bends or even The Man Who. Later, it is reported that it will take 313 hours of studio time to record “Knives Out,” even though it sounds (in the best sense) like it was gently worked out in about 10 minutes.
Radiohead is approaching Chinese Democracy territory. Perfectionism is curdling into toxicity. There’s even talk of disbanding if they can’t find a way out of the mania.
Yorke buys a Yamaha grand piano and installs it at his new house in Cornwall. For a few months, he follows a routine: he walks out on the cliffs by his home with a sketchbook, and he plays that piano. He sucks at it, but he finds his limitations inspiring. Gradually, he reconnects with his muse. He writes a song inspired by that night in Birmingham, at the NEC Arena, when he realized that he was now living in the future that he had always dreamed about, and found that it was his own private hell.
Well, at least one crucial lyric refers to that night—the rest are deliberately disjointed and obscure, seemingly put together at random. He does not want this song to include a trail of breadcrumbs that the media can use to trace back to his own life. His words are jumbled, meaningless scraps of data, nothing more.
He plays the song for Godrich, who is not overly enamored with what he hears. A slow piano ballad with murky lyrics isn’t exactly the lifeline that Radiohead has been seeking. Yorke and Godrich then decide to play it on a Prophet-5 synthesizer, with Jonny Greenwood manipulating the sound of Yorke’s dulcet voice into a garbled cyborg whisper with a Kaoss Pad, an audio effects unit newly introduced by the Japanese company Korg in the middle of Radiohead’s round of marathon album sessions in 1999. A new toy that produces an entirely new, alien sound.
The song is the breakthrough. Radiohead knows it will be the first track on the new album, even though most of the band doesn’t play on it. (For a time, they decide to put it out as the album’s first single. Then, they opt to not put out any singles.) The band members have accepted that they can now contribute by not contributing, when the circumstances call for it.
From there, Radiohead proceeds to record not one but two full albums. The first, Kid A, comes out in October of 2000. The first song, “Everything in Its Right Place,” confounds listeners and critics. It doesn’t sound like OK Computer; it’s more like gibberish.
Thom Yorke is annoyed by this reaction... even if, on some level, it was precisely the response he was seeking. In the media, he retells the story about his post-show breakdown in Birmingham. He explains that the song’s most quoted line—“yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon”—refers to the death-mask grimace he held on his face during the relentless tour cycles that Radiohead endured during The Bends and OK Computer.
He now chides himself for playing the victim back then, believing now that he abdicated responsibility for his own well-being. Making Kid A was part of rectifying those oversights. He had been stuck for years down in a hole, but he is out now.
Howling down the chimney. Release me.
In the future, Thom Yorke will be vindicated. By the end of the aughts, Kid A will be regarded by many as the best album of the 21st century’s first decade. In 2011, the American electronic music producer Derek Vincent Smith, known as Pretty Lights, will create a popular mash-up that melds “Everything in Its Right Place” with Nirvana’s “All Apologies” and Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” unofficially confirming Kid A’s status as classic rock for Millennials. Five years after that, “Everything in Its Right Place” will appear in the trailer for a movie in which Ben Affleck stars as an autistic math genius who is also a cold-blooded professional killer, confirming that Radiohead has ascended to “thinking-man’s Smash Mouth” status.
When people hear “Everything in Its Right Place” in the future, it won’t sound alien or cold or difficult; it will evoke glitchy cell reception and patchy Wi-Fi and decontextualized social-media updates and the modern reality of omnipresent technological interconnectivity at the expense of genuine human connection. It will eventually seem logical—even the parts that aren’t supposed to seem logical. It will sound like screaming at your neighbors and never being heard, in an online landscape that is as dark, disorderly, and foreboding as a Stanley Donwood album cover. Or as inescapable as an arena you can’t ever leave. In time, many of us will feel like the singer in the successful rock band—surrounded by every convenience, and yet thoroughly alienated by this supposedly inviting world.
What is that you tried to say? What was that you tried to say...
Excerpted from This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s “Kid A” and the Beginning of the 21st Century by Steven Hyden. Copyright © 2020. Available September 29 from Hachette Books.
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