My apologies to Stanley Donwood

Alternate Musical History: Radiohead

I love Radiohead.  I’ve never been subtle on that point.  I love Radiohead in their The Bends era rock mode.  I love Radiohead in their ‘glitchy’ Kid A era.  I love Radiohead when their lead singer goes solo or goes dancing.  And I especially love Radiohead when they go Punk Floyd.  Even as an unwaveringly devoted fan, they challenge me, and that’s what I love about their work.  Art that doesn’t challenge on some level isn’t succeeding on any level.

At the same time, I recognize that one can be a Radiohead fan without loving every one of their career divergences.  My oldest brother was the person who introduced me to Radiohead, right around the time that Amnesiac released.  Ironically, while he wasn’t a big fan of Kid A upon its release (it’s grown on him) and he has never professed much love for the follow up, I ended up adoring Amnesiac above every album other than their seminal breakthrough, OK Computer.  My brother is a true Radiohead fan (we got the chance to see them live together back on their Hail to the Thief tour), yet he has his limits.

I can respect that.

What I cannot respect are those Jonny-come-latelies who join the Radiohead-backlash bandwagon, declaring with all the authority of a five-year-old that the band hasn’t done anything worth listening to since OK Computer, or perhaps more damning, since The Bends.  One of the most common complaints that I see in the interverse is the notion that everything Radiohead has produced since 2000 has been nothing but “bleep bloops” and computer noises.  When I read such criticisms, I know I’m reading the opinion of an uneducated hate-bandwagon-jumper.

Besides for the fact that latter era albums Hail to the Thief and, especially, In Rainbows consisted considerably of straight ahead rockers with a minimum of glitchy moments, even their most famous period of experimentation (the era that produced the one-two punch of Kid A and Amnesiac) wasn’t as avante-garde as common consensus has led the general music-consuming populace to believe.

Don’t get me wrong, in 2000 when Kid A first appeared it was undoubtedly a splash of cold water in the midst of the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears musical dominance, or even in the wake of Brit Pop acts.  But that doesn’t mean that, taken individually, the songs that the band were producing at the time were truly all that far afield of what they recorded in 1997.

To illustrate this point, I’ve decided to reconfigure Radiohead’s output of 2000 and 2001, stripping it of its electronica-infused highlights and condensing the two albums from the era into one cohesive whole that, I believe, represents a pretty faithful follow-up to OK Computer.  Call it Kid Amnesiac.*

Please understand me: I am not suggesting that Radiohead should have released this album in lieu of the two they released.  Not only do I think the band is more interesting for their experimental asides (many of my favorites songs are from that vein), but I think music in the past decade is all the better because of their effort to push the boundaries of what defines ‘pop.’  A musical world without Radiohead’s personal detours is a boring world.

Still, I can’t help contemplating what would have happened if the band had attempted a more straight-ahead sequel to OK Computer, the album that made them the biggest band in the world (for awhile) and won them their first Grammy (for what that’s worth; they won another for Kid A).

I want to reiterate that I don’t think this is a better tracklisting for an album (in fact, I’d say it’s worse), only that if the band would have released this album, they may have forever escaped the lazy criticism that they are a band that’s lost touch with their rock roots in favor of masturbatory experimentation.  It’ll be noted that I haven’t excised all of their experimental flourishes.  Even on OK Computer, the band included the bizarre, computer-voiced track “Fitter Happier” which, despite its unusual form still fits nicely within the album as a whole.  Radiohead was never the Goo Goo Dolls, not even on Pablo Honey.  Even at their most straightforward, they make most rock bands look like the Wiggles.

Listen Here or Here to the alternative universe Radiohead album, Kid Amnesiac:

1. The National Anthem
2. I Might Be Wrong
3. Pyramid Song
4. In Limbo
5. Knives Out
6. How To Disappear Completely
7. Treefingers
8. Optimistic
9. Life in a Glass House
10. Dollars & Cents
11. Morning Bell/Amnesiac
12. True Love Waits
13. Motion Picture Soundtrack

Imagine the musical history if this had been the album that was released in 2000 instead of Kid A.  It’s conceivably possible, as their 2001 album, Amnesiac, was recorded in the same sessions as Kid A.  These songs still represent a decidedly experimental take on ‘rock’ music, yet the electronic flourishes are less pronounced in these tracks.  Radiohead, themselves, provided the footwork for this sort of alternative history by providing two versions of the song “Morning Bell,” the Kid A ‘glitchy’ version and the Amnesiac dirge version (represented here).  

Instead of being labeled as “electronic music,” would they have instead been shouldered with the genre of “Jazz Rock?”  Both “The National Anthem” and “Life in a Glasshouse” (the extended version provided here) include horns with the improvisational feel of live jazz musicians descending into controlled chaos or New Orleans sobriety (respectively).  Much of the arrangements on the songs listed above feel like they have that loose but meticulously arranged structure of the best jazz songs.  Would indie hipsters adore Miles Davis with the same reverence as they currently hold for Aphex Twin?  Would anyone have even heard of Aphex Twin?

Kid Amnesiac is a considerably more downbeat affair than Kid A, especially with the loss of amazing songs like “Everything in its Right Place” and “Idioteque” (or even Amnesiac’s “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box”).  The electronic infusion gave both albums most of their forward momentum, so without those moments the unified album drags a bit, especially near the end.

Those are catchy songs that definitely would have hurt the album for their absence.  The more unconventional songs like “Pulk/Pull Revolving Door,” “Hunting Bear” and “Kid A” are also left off, generally making the album more accessible and stripping the two albums of their glitchiest moments.  Personally, I dig all three songs (yes, even “Pulk/Pull”), so I’m sad to see them go, but at the same time I can recognize how they represent a barrier to the casual music fan.

I included “True Love Waits” despite it never being officially recorded in the studio.  In this context, it would have likely been Kid Amnesiac’s “Fake Plastic Trees” or “No Surprises,” the acoustic ringer that hits all the sour emotional notes that have given Radiohead their dour reputation (despite their humor and upbeat music).

It’s obvious that Radiohead isn’t hurting for respect and admiration. Despite The King of Limbs being a relative sales flop for the band (though, I’m sure they did just fine without a major label sucking up the funds), the band is still modern rock royalty. But with each new release and every subsequent news item, I see the same refrains popping up all over the internet: Radiohead hasn’t written a rock song since the 90s. “Where are the guitars?” everyone asks, despite there being guitars all over each album.

It’s all utter bullocks, so here for your Alternate Musical History pleasure, I submit: Radiohead’s Kid Amnesiac.

My apologies to Stanley Donwood

*Other people have done similar things and combined the album into one and even given it the name Kid Amnesiac. I’m not claiming to be original in the concept, just in the execution.  Instead of creating a ‘best of’ tracklist, I’m focusing on crafting a genre exercise.