Ah, what a difference two decades make. Consider me tickled by a line in a recent Wall Street Journal article about the 20th anniversary of Radiohead’s Kid A that made passing reference to “the album’s pioneering digital-first release — it was available online before being sold.” This statement is not exactly wrong, and I suppose it makes sense now to view that “release” as pioneering. However, I can tell you that at the time, most people regarded it not as a release but as a leak, unsanctioned by the members of Radiohead or anyone within its organization.
Fans, of course, were delighted by the free availability of new songs; what they thought about those songs, which departed so drastically from what was then expected of Radiohead, was a whole other question. But many observers greeted the leak with dismay. It was an early indication of what was to come in the 21st century: the music industry’s near-total loss of control over its product due to rampant online file-sharing and piracy. This particular moment was brought to us via Shawn Fanning, not Thom Yorke, but it’s a well-established matter of record that Yorke and his bandmates took quick note of it and responded in the smartest way possible, by cutting their record-label ties as soon as they could and going it alone. And somehow the whole episode seemed to resonate perfectly with the music of Kid A, and with the story that music told: of humankind becoming subordinate to the technological systems it had created — and getting screwed in the process.
I found myself in an unusual position during Kid A’s birth. I had just written a book about Radiohead. Unfortunately, because the book’s publication date coincided roughly with the album release, it had been impossible to include many details about the new music. But even if that purely logistical problem hadn’t been a factor, I doubt there would have been all that much more to say, since the band wasn’t talking. Not to me (after I’d interviewed them, both together and separately, multiple times between 1995 and 1998), not to anyone in America. Indeed, they agreed to only one press interview before Kid A came out — with the U.K.’s Q magazine (RIP) — and they wouldn’t speak to a journalist again until nearly a year after its release. What little direct information the world had about the album came mostly from guitarist Ed O’Brien’s periodic diary entries on the band’s website, and that information hadn’t been encouraging. For example, he’d written on Aug. 4, 1999: “We’ve been working on this since January and nothing substantial has come of it, except maybe a few harsh lessons in how not to do things.”
All the sales and acclaim that Radiohead had garnered over the past eight years and three albums, from Pablo Honey to The Bends to OK Computer, and all the hype that had gone along with it — the new saviors of rock, the next Smiths, the next R.E.M., the next U2, the next Pink Floyd — had clearly thrown them for a loop. They didn’t want to be the next anything, but they also didn’t know what they did want to be. If they wished to go on, they would have to remake themselves. Kid A is the sound of that remaking.
Kid A is also, funnily enough, the last Radiohead album that I heard for the first time without needing a computer or Internet connection. The famous leak — or “digital-first release,” if you will — happened only after the big New York launch event I attended on Sept. 5, 2000, at the Sony IMAX Theatre near Lincoln Center. Yes, for my debut listen to “Everything in Its Right Place,” I was wearing 3-D glasses and watching eel heads dart out of rocks on a giant screen.
It’s difficult now to convey just how puzzling that song and the two subsequent ones, “Kid A” and “The National Anthem,” were to the 600 or so people in the auditorium — even those, like me, who’d followed the band closely and could hear occasional hints of their previous work in the new recordings. For the first three tracks, Thom Yorke’s voice, among the most distinctive and naturally strong in popular music, was rarely heard without processing or other electronic manipulation, and a group already hailed as one of the all-time great guitar bands didn’t play anything that sounded like a guitar. From there, things settled down somewhat; “How to Disappear Completely” and “Optimistic” even resembled the Radiohead of old. But unreleased songs that fans had cheered in concert over the years and fervently hoped to hear on disc — “True Love Waits,” “Lift,” “Nude,” “Knives Out” — were nowhere to be found. It all seemed a tad disappointing.