Radiohead have made more than one classic album, but it feels like Kid A was the band’s most significant.
They’d recast alternate rock with OK Computer in 1997 and approached its follow up with an overwhelming sense of need for big changes. These changes carried huge risk of alienating the fans they’d gained with that hugely successful third record.
Kid A’s nervy minimalism, pulsating electronica and free jazz squalls still conjure vivid and nightmarish scenes
Because of the fears over the growth of online file sharing via Napster, no physical copies of the album were given out to music journalists to preview.
Instead, they were forced to be holed up together at gatherings and given a single listen to the album.
This didn’t make for favourable early reviews of Kid A in the UK. However in the US, it achieved a rare feat for a British band and a first for Radiohead. It hit No. 1.
With its subsequent massive success, Ed O’Brien on holiday in Australia in 2001, admitted to Richard Kingsmill that the band knew the extent of the risk they had taken.
"We realised that the way we brought the record out – not doing extensive touring, not doing singles, not doing videos – is not the most commercial way of releasing a record and not the best way of getting people to actually hear it. But it just felt right."
Despite their best efforts, the album did leak online. O'Brien wasn't sure whether that was such a bad thing.
"There’s a theory that the whole Napster thing really helped, because people heard tracks up front. Kid A is not the most accessible record [but] people got to hear a bit more and when it came out, they bought it."
Press play today and Kid A’s nervy minimalism, pulsating electronica and free jazz squalls still conjure vivid and nightmarish scenes. What you might not know is that certain hip hop innovators provided influence too.
"When we were making the record, there was a making of hip hop TV series, and it was really, really influential," O'Brien said.
"They had Hank Shocklee on it who produced Public Enemy and he was talking about the way that they set up and basically they all got into a room with a sampler each, five of them, even Flava played and apparently just made a cacophonous noise for 20 minutes.
"Chuck D was saying ‘man I was trying to make records that, if my girlfriend said she liked it, I knew we were doing something wrong’, because he wanted to make something that was really abrasive and really hard hitting."
As a record, Kid A is a major musical and cultural turning point. Over the last 16 years, Radiohead has shown that they can flexibly inhabit and incorporate many styles into their sound. Perhaps because of this, we can’t be surprised by them anymore.
But just as Chuck D sought to deliver a powerful impact with each Public Enemy record, we can be sure that this year’s upcoming album from this English group will exert itself in predictably definitive ways.