History Is Over : Throughline As the end of the 20th century approached, Radiohead took to the recording studio to capture the sound of a society that felt like it was fraying at the edges. Many people had high hopes for the new millennium, but for others a low hum of anxiety lurked just beneath the surface as the world changed rapidly and fears of a Y2K meltdown loomed.

Amidst all the unease, the famed British band began recording their highly anticipated follow ups to their career-changing album OK Computer. Those two albums, Kid A and Amnesiac, released in 2000 and 2001, were entrancing and eerie — they documented the struggle to redefine humanity, recalibrate, and get a grip on an uncertain world. In this episode, we travel back to the turn of the millennium with Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood and the music of Kid A and Amnesiac.

History Is Over

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RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

OK. A little bit of history.

RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

What? History? Because it's not like we normally do history or anything.

ARABLOUEI: OK, a little bit of public radio history. NPR has been listener supported since it began 50 years ago. Podcasts like THROUGHLINE and the public radio station where you live are both funded in part by listeners like you.

ABDELFATAH: Whether you're a fan of our episodes that transport you across the globe or the ones that hit closer to home, your donation to your NPR station can help us deliver more stories that you love.

ARABLOUEI: It's simple to do. Just go to donate.npr.org/throughline.

ABDELFATAH: That's donate.npr.org/throughline. So you do that, and, Ramtin, how about we get on with the show? Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

THOM YORKE: I keep thinking of this phrase I kept writing in one of my books. I have borne a monster.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MATRIX")

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: (As Morpheus) You can see it when you look out your window.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: People will walk past me and say, get a job, bum.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MATRIX")

FISHBURNE: (As Morpheus) Or when you turn on your television.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The American people can remain confident in the soundness and the resilience of our financial system.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MATRIX")

FISHBURNE: (As Morpheus) It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'm not a bum. I'm a human being.

YORKE: Somehow, we've mutated, and it not necessarily a good thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The A and then the ring around it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: At?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: See, that's what I said. Katy (ph) said she thought it was about.

BARACK OBAMA: Thank you so much Facebook for hosting this.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: What is internet anyway?

YORKE: You know, progress is not necessarily a good thing. Our success was not necessarily a good thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Today, tomorrow, and into the next century.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Anxieties will increase.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Fire coming out from all over.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: The risk of the virus expanding worldwide.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: New cold war.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: A field of tears.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Sea level rise.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Millions still struggling to be free.

YORKE: There's no question that we must feed the monster.

(CROSSTALK)

YORKE: Because the monster has clearly won.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: It's like a movie, but you can't stop it, unless you wake up.

ARABLOUEI: You're listening to THROUGHLINE...

ABDELFATAH: ...From NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O'BRIEN")

CONAN O'BRIEN: Folks, please welcome one of our favorites, Radiohead.

(APPLAUSE)

YORKE: I'm Thom Yorke.

STANLEY DONWOOD: I'm Stanley Donwood.

YORKE: Do we have to say what we do for a living, no?

ABDELFATAH: Probably not, but, I mean...

DONWOOD: I'm not quite sure what it is I do for a living, been doing it for a long time

YORKE: A bit in-betweenies (ph), isn't it?

ABDELFATAH: Radiohead fans need no introduction to these two.

ARABLOUEI: And I'm the biggest Radiohead fan of all.

ABDELFATAH: But for everyone else, Thom Yorke is the lead singer and a songwriter for the band Radiohead. And Stanley Donwood has created all the artwork for the band since 1994, including the album art for "Kid A"...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: "Kid A," a hauntingly beautiful creature.

ABDELFATAH: ...Which they released in the year 2000.

DONWOOD: It was a difficult time for many reasons.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: Even before the year 2000 rolls around, panic itself could cause problems.

DONWOOD: The clock was going to tick over from the last day of the 20th century...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: System failure. Goodbye.

DONWOOD: ...To the first day of the 21st. Each turning of a millennium has produced cults and strangeness and disturbances. And we were all part of that.

ABDELFATAH: So often on this show, we're trying to understand not only what happened in the past, but also how it felt. And this is one of those rare times when many of you listening may remember what it felt like, the turn of the millennium, the year 2000. For some, it isn't very long ago, just one generation in the past, and for others, it's an entire lifetime - familiar, yet foreign.

ARABLOUEI: The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote a book called "Liquid Modernity" that year in which he argued that technology was advancing faster than culture could adapt to it. He said this cultural shakiness was causing people a ton of mental stress. Amid that shakiness, Radiohead created their album Kid A and its companion album, Amnesiac. They in many ways are the band of the turn of the millennium because they captured what that moment represented, what it felt like.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IDIOTEQUE")

RADIOHEAD: (Singing) Who's in a bunker? Who's in a bunker? Women and children first, and the children first and the children - I'll laugh until my head comes off.

ARABLOUEI: And the music sounds pretty different from anything they'd done before - strange, experimental, a total surprise to people expecting more songs like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CREEP")

RADIOHEAD: (Singing) I wish I was special, so...

ABDELFATAH: If you've heard only one Radiohead song, this is probably it - "Creep."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CREEP")

RADIOHEAD: (Singing) But I'm a creep. I'm a weirdo. What the hell am I doing here?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: Do you hate the media's obsession with "Creep"?

YORKE: Yes. Don't ask me about it because I won't answer it.

ABDELFATAH: We didn't ask Tom about "Creep," which was part of an earlier era of Radiohead. We were interested in knowing more about what it took to make those albums of the new millennium, "Kid A" and "Amnesiac."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: This episode of THROUGHLINE, like those albums, is a little unconventional. It's all about capturing the mood of a moment and confronting the monsters around us and within us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: And I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: Coming up, we dial back the clock to the turn of the century.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOCK TICKING)

CLAUDINE: Hi. I'm Claudine. I'm calling in from Kingston, Jamaica. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE on NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #18: Part 1 - is this really happening?

DONWOOD: It's a little bit like looking through an old photograph albums that you've forgotten your had. But as soon as you look at it, it becomes incredibly familiar, and you can remember all of the surrounding around that album.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #19: Repeating once again our top story, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has been removed from power...

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD'S "MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK")

YORKE: We're the children of the end of the Cold War. When there was no longer an enemy, when there was no longer someone on the other side of that wall, that wall comes down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #20: The Berlin Wall doesn't mean anything anymore. The wall that the East Germans put up in 1961 to keep its people in will now be breached by anyone who wants to leave.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK")

RADIOHEAD: (Singing) White lies...

YORKE: Then you're still left with this fear.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD'S "MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK")

ALEX ROSS: The atmosphere, especially in America at the end of the '90s, we had been through this extended period of relative prosperity and kind of relative peace, the fall of the Berlin Wall, supposedly democracy spreading further around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL CLINTON: By the words we speak and the faces we show the world, we force the spring.

ROSS: America's position as sort of the epitome of democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLINTON: A spring reborn in the world's oldest democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROSS: And kind of inclusive capitalism, whatever you want to call it, you know, unchallenged

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLINTON: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

ROSS: The idea started floating that I would follow the band and do a big piece about them, which I did. My name is Alex Ross. I am the music critic of The New Yorker. I ended up calling my article "The Searchers." I just felt like they were, you know, just always in quest of the next new sound and the next new idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

DAVID LETTERMAN: What about this internet thing? Do you know anything about that?

BILL GATES: Sure.

LETTERMAN: What the hell is that exactly?

GATES: Well, it's become a place where people are publishing information so everybody can have their own home page. Companies are there, the latest information. It's wild what's going on. You can send electronic mail to people. It is the big, new thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COOLIO: If you ain't on the information superhighway, baby, then where is you?

DONWOOD: What is this thing? What is this thing? How does this work?

ROSS: This was the the time of the dot-com boom. There was this tremendous optimism about the internet. It was going to connect to everyone. You know, it was going to be this wonderful democracy where everyone gets to express their point of view.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I was speaking to somebody in Japan, somebody in Australia, somebody in New Zealand, somebody in Russia, all over the world.

DONWOOD: We definitely felt as if we were living in a world that previous generations just wouldn't have got, you know, the idea that history is over and everything is going to be fine, but it wasn't. Everything was fraying at the edges.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE SPINNING PLATES")

RADIOHEAD: (Singing) When this just feels like spinning plates.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The refugees came through in 11 covered trucks. Here on these faces, these broken bodies, hard evidence of the previous day's Serb onslaught on Srebrenica.

DONWOOD: History is over.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The world took a long time to realize that genocide had occurred in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Srebrenica was a refuge for tens of thousands of Muslims fleeing the Serbs. The Serbs decided to seize Srebrenica. This would force the Americans to bring peace to Bosnia but only after the people here had been sacrificed.

DONWOOD: Places that had been completely stable were suddenly, like, rent with the worst kind of inter-ethnic violence. It was horrible.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: "The U.N.," he says, "they did absolutely nothing to protect us."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: We came there with a will to do as much as we could do, but we failed.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: It soon became clear that the Serbs had slaughtered thousands of Bosnian men and buried them in mass graves.

YORKE: Who's making these decisions, and why are we not involved? Because especially our generation at that time, we were about to have children or were having children. We had some place in the hierarchy of things. We had some success. We had all these things. But at the same time, most of these important ethical decisions about how does society look after its weakest, how does our society see itself in connection with the rest of Europe or the world or Kosovo or Africa?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Every Sunday, Angelique Mukabukisi thanks God for her deliverance. She hasn't much else to thank him for.

ANGELIQUE MUKABUKISI: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Her parents are dead. Her husband is dead. Her two young children are dead.

YORKE: Who's deciding this? And why the f*** - excuse me. Why the hell aren't they asking us?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: There have been massacres in plenty in the tortured history of Rwanda, but this was something different. This was genocide.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YORKE: So when we did - when we were working on "Kid A" and "Amnesiac," the shift was not necessarily one of just dread. There's two sorts of shift. There was the dread of the millennia coming up. But there was also a shift which was sort of saying we now no longer have to talk about this. Everything's already been decided. You know, progress is what it is. There's nothing you can do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Non-English language spoken).

AL GORE: We came to Kyoto to find new ways to bridge our differences.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: You, the parties, now stand before the eyes of the world...

GORE: That will reduce our own emissions by nearly 30%...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Entrusted with the decisions needed...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: To do what we promise, rather than to promise what we cannot do.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We'll recommend the adoption of this protocol to the conference by unanimity.

(APPLAUSE)

YORKE: The U.N. climate change report was 1994. And us being us, I think we would have read that, probably.

DONWOOD: Twenty years old, 30 years old - this bit of scientific research. And the craziness of people still being climate change deniers now is almost - like, it's unimaginable.

YORKE: The way I was working at the time was very much - lines would go into a hat and get taken out. And when they worked, they worked. So I can't tell you if...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IDIOTEQUE")

RADIOHEAD: (Singing) Ice age coming. Ice age coming.

YORKE: ...I was trying to write a song about global warming. I very much doubt it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IDIOTEQUE")

RADIOHEAD: (Singing) In the fire. Throw it in the...

YORKE: I think probably it was more like I was writing down my neurosis or I was listening - someone may have said, we're not scaremongering on the radio, saying it - whatever. And then it gets absorbed and then comes out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IDIOTEQUE")

RADIOHEAD: (Singing) We're not scaremongering. This is really happening, happening. Mobiles squerking (ph)...

ROSS: There is this kind of constant sense of tension, of questioning in the lyrics, a sense of kind of examining the state of the world, the climate, the planet in crisis, information technology, the seduction of technology and then how it seems to kind of take over and sort of take over our kind of beings. The album just kind of challenged complacency. It sort of challenged the world as it was.

DONWOOD: It's like trying to create beauty from nightmares. You've got to weave some beauty because that's where you live, that's where your spirit's got to live. You can't live in dread. It's not - no one could do that. It's like death.

ROSS: There was this quiet intensity to that music that - in retrospect, it feels like it has a slightly prophetic edge to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: And you can feel it in the air. There's a buzz. You hear that sound? They know it's going to happen, and they'll all be looking at the big ball.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: In 10, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.

ABDELFATAH: Before we enter the new century, before Radiohead could release their prophetic albums, "Kid A" and "Amnesiac," they had to face down fame and their own success.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Because Radiohead, like our world, was teetering on the edge of a cliff, staring down into the canyon of the unknown. What would this new millennium bring? Were we barreling towards collapse or reinvention?

In 1997, Radiohead released an album called "OK Computer," an album that would launch them into mega-stardom. But that stardom came with dread and unease. It pushed them into difficult places and uncharted territory. Just like the world, they were stuck between success and collapse.

ARABLOUEI: When we come back, we fall off the cliff.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VICTOR: Hi. I'm Victor (ph) from Mexico City, and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Part 2 - I Might Be Wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS, TV STATIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Radiohead have charted a unique course across the international sonic and social landscape.

YORKE: I didn't really have much to hold onto, really, because basically I'd find myself in a place that I didn't want to be - ended up in a place I didn't want to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Ladies and gentlemen, Radiohead.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: One of our favorites, Radiohead.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Radiohead.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: Radiohead.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #4: It is the one, the only, Radiohead.

(APPLAUSE)

YORKE: It's like losing someone you love.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: For the first time since the Beatles, a band has redefined what popular music is and can be.

JONATHAN ROSS: You are one of the best bands in the world.

YORKE: Really?

ROSS: Congratulations.

YORKE: It's great. Every morning I get up and I think that.

What we always try and do is challenge people's preconceptions of the band.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: They have created music without the accepted furniture of rock and roll.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You were considered one of the greatest rock bands in 1997.

YORKE: Well, God help us if we fucking were because being - even being called a rock band was a bit of a nightmare, really.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Why?

YORKE: Because it sucks. Fuckin' rock music sucks, man. I hate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD SONG, "CLIMBING UP THE WALLS")

ROSS: So I started listening to Radiohead. It wasn't right when they first started. It was sort of after a couple years that they had been on the scene. Although, it was really "OK Computer" that I was just really thought, oh, my God, this is really quite something.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLIMBING UP THE WALLS")

RADIOHEAD: (Singing) I am the key to the lock in your house that keeps your toys in the basement.

ROSS: "OK Computer" was a huge, huge record. It was a phenomenon. It became one of the defining records of that period, and it was the kind of album where just people listened to all the way through.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIRBAG")

RADIOHEAD: (Singing) In the next world war, in a jackknifed juggernaut, I am born again.

ROSS: Just people became obsessed with the band and seemed to be ready to follow them wherever they were going to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARANOID ANDROID")

RADIOHEAD: (Singing) Ambition makes you look pretty ugly - kicking, squealing, Gucci little piggy.

ROSS: It, you know, really launched them to about as big as you can get in the rock world, short of being, you know, a complete sort of stadium act.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KARMA POLICE")

RADIOHEAD: (Singing) For a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself. Phew, for a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD SONG, "FITTER HAPPIER")

AUTOMATED VOICE: Fitter, happier, more productive, comfortable, not drinking too much, regular exercise at the gym three days a week, getting on better with your...

DONWOOD: The previous record had been very successful. And I think on a lot of levels, the record company would have loved another one of those.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: What happened when you came back from the "OK Computer" tour?

YORKE: It was a mess. Really bad mess for quite a while.

DONWOOD: And I got asked to recreate the artwork I did for "OK Computer" by various people several times. We had no interest in those things.

You know, that was a, in some ways, kind of a perverse, antagonistic position to take, but it was also the only one we could have taken to be, you know, honest and true to ourselves.

ROSS: There was kind of expectations and probably disappointment at the record label when it became clear that they were not going to come up with a sort of another "OK Computer."

YORKE: It wasn't like everybody was on board with moving off into uncharted territory equally because it's scary.

DONWOOD: But with that, when you strike out on your own against what everyone else wants you to do, if you don't have a lot of self-confidence in the first place, then you will be riddled with doubt...

YORKE: Terrified.

DONWOOD: ...With everything you're doing.

YORKE: Yeah.

DONWOOD: Because you think you might be just shooting yourself in both feet.

ARABLOUEI: Shooting yourself in both feet - self-sabotage. If you've had any success doing anything, really, you've definitely thought about that. You might have asked yourself, do I do the same thing that brought me attention and affirmation, or do I push myself and try something new and risk losing the success that I've built? This was a question the members of Radiohead were actually tackling in the late 1990s.

They went from a successful band to perhaps the most revered band in the world, and their album "OK Computer" was largely responsible for that. It was that rare combination of commercial and critical success, yet it had also nearly ripped the band apart. The sudden onslaught of fame, the constant touring, it all took its toll. And they had pressure on them to repeat the success of "OK Computer." Remember, this was the late 1990s. And even though Napster and other illegal downloading platforms were around, the music industry was still making tons of money by selling actual records and CDs. So naturally, another Radiohead album would have meant more money.

And so back to that choice for Radiohead - try and make another "OK Computer" and enjoy success again, or go in a totally different direction and risk alienating the audience and potentially the bottom line. They chose the latter, riskier move. It's a decision that makes more sense when you understand where the members of the band come from.

ROSS: They met at school. They met at this boys school called Abingdon, which is in the area of Oxford.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

ROSS: And it is not one of these super-elite British public schools.

(CROSSTALK)

ROSS: Members of Radiohead, they all came from basically middle-class families. And they weren't part of, you know, Oxford University, which is the dominant presence in the area. They they were sort of townies. They were outside that very, very elite, rarefied world. They had this amazing music teacher, Terence Gilmore-James, who's a very serious, kind of classical music oriented guy, but really liked what Radiohead was trying to do. And even in high school, they were experimenting and kind of trying out unusual things in their music. And, you know, that teacher just welcomed them. And they were just encouraged. And quite rapidly, you know, they ended up getting signed with EMI and, you know, were launched and had their first big hit not too long after. And so it was a very rapid development from a bunch of kids just playing together in high school to becoming, you know, one of the bigger rock bands of the early '90s.

YORKE: There was something quite fundamental in the way that we had grown up, which I think maybe is peculiar to our sense of Britishness that we were always taught that any success you have is because you've cheated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Any band that comes out of Britain is - social class, whether they'll admit it or not, is an important consideration.

YORKE: Which is what we internalized, because that was the attitude of the press. Pick up a music magazine or anything, even talking about an actor, an actor is essentially an idiot who gets filled with the ideas of somebody else. This is the kind of attitude that we grew up with. So one's response to success when you don't feel you merit it - about the people who totally subscribe to their own myths and disappear up their own cocaine-fuelled ass, or the ones who go the other way, who can't handle it, so they do the next best thing, which is go berserk trying to work ahead and preempt any of their own mistakes and work all the time and never stop and just producing and producing stuff, like, all the time, not thinking about it, because that's their response to a situation that they can't compute. And that was us.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD'S "KID A")

ABDELFATAH: When the members of Radiohead went into the studio to record what would be the albums "Kid A" and "Amnesiac," they knew they wanted to throw off convention. They wanted to feel free. They wanted to create something that they felt was true to where they were in their lives and where they felt they were fitting in the world. With a generous amount of class-born skepticism about the myth building around their previous work, they worked for months in defiance of expectations. But what would this new direction be?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KID A")

RADIOHEAD: (Singing) We've got heads on sticks, and you've got ventriloquists.

ROSS: It was a very complex process. There was a lot of debate in the band over what direction they were going to go in next.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVE FANNING: So did you have to be won around? Like, there's three songs on "Kid A" with guitars on them. If I said that that's you six months before the album was released, would you be like, oh, my god, I can't do this?

ED O'BRIEN: No, no. Because what happened is - it's a process. What happened on "Kid A" was a process of everything breaking down over time. So what we basically did...

YORKE: I'm good at that.

O'BRIEN: ...We reduced everything to a pile of rubble and ashes.

ROSS: And so the debate was, are we going to go in a different direction? And obviously, the different direction won out.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD SONG, "PACKT LIKE SARDINES IN A CRUSHD TIN BOX")

ROSS: The guitars were really receding into the background, disappearing altogether in some of these songs; electronics much more to the forefront.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD SONG, "PACKT LIKE SARDINES IN A CRUSHD TIN BOX")

ROSS: This kind of fuzzy aesthetic bordering on kind of experimental electronic music basically.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PACKT LIKE SARDINES IN A CRUSHD TIN BOX")

RADIOHEAD: (Singing) After years of waiting, nothing came. As your life flashed before your eyes, you realize...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONWOOD: We had all of the - these paintings that we've now got down at Christie's. The record company, they came and picked them up from the studio, and they took them to London. I can't remember where it was, but they put them all up on the wall in this big place in London where they were having an industry playback of "Kid A."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No.

DONWOOD: So all the big buyers for record shops and so on, they were all there, and they played - they listened to the - "Kid A" for the first time. And honestly, I've never seen a more - load of people politely smiling.

(LAUGHTER)

DONWOOD: They were...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Chewing glass.

DONWOOD: ...Not expecting it at all. They thought they were going to get "OK Computer" Part II, and they totally didn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Unintelligible, distorted).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Radiohead's got a new album out.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERNET DIAL-UP)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Unintelligible, distorted).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Unintelligible, distorted).

ROSS: And yeah, there was a lot of opposition. There were a lot of - you know, reviews came out that rejected it, that said they've gone completely off track. Where are the guitars? What is this kind of arty nonsense? You know, a sense that the band really might have blown it or sort of taken a complete wrong turn.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE WHISPERING)

YORKE: But in the U.K., "Kid A" got absolutely panned in the press. They destroyed us.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Reading) I have to say that upon first listen, "Kid A" is just awful. "Kid A" sounds like a bit of a wank.

YORKE: Oh, they were - yeah. Oh, they just want to do fucking Aphex Twin and blah, blah, blah.

DONWOOD: Where's the next "OK Computer"?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Reading) In the time since "OK Computer," Radiohead seems to have built up reservoirs of fresh bile and listened to a lot of Aphex Twin records.

YORKE: Where's the hits? Where's the acoustic guitars?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Reading) You can almost hear the cry go up at the start - come on, guys, let's underachieve.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE WHISPERING)

ROSS: And they were mocked. They were mocked for sort of always predicting doom and kind of, you know, there goes Thom Yorke again, you know, trying to save the planet, you know, blah, blah, blah. Why can they just play fun pop songs with, you know, good guitar licks? You know, why do we have to get kind of bombarded with these issues, you know? And so that was, like, a very standard critique of Radiohead when they took this turn.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERNET DIAL-UP)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERNET DIAL-UP)

YORKE: And there was this moment where we - all these reviews had come in. And I never read them, so I was just sitting in a room with everybody else in the band who'd read them. And they were like stone faces - like, oh, dear.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Radiohead's album "Kid A" was released on October 2, 2000, many months into the new millennium - a new millennium that started to see cracks in the facade. Economic growth in the U.S. had slowed. More and more questions were coming up about the downsides of this new thing called the internet. Yet despite all the fears brought on by the end of one millennium and the start of another, the Y2K apocalypse had not happened. The world had not fallen apart. But based on initial reviews, it looked like "Kid A" might not fare so well.

When we come back, the dread and hope of a new album and a new millennium.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOHN: Hi. This is John (ph) from New Market, Ala. I recently discovered THROUGHLINE and don't miss an episode. I want to thank the entire team for their efforts in creating this incredible podcast. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part 3 - You Must Name It.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Radiohead released two albums in the span of a year - "Kid A" in 2000 and a follow-up, "Amnesiac," in 2001. Initially, critics didn't respond positively to the albums.

ROSS: But as it turned out, that was not the reaction from the audience. And I think that's the really remarkable thing that happened - that this experimental offbeat record, which blatantly refused to continue where "OK Computer" had left off, was a huge success and actually really connected with a wider public.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You forgot, didn't you?

YORKE: Got what? Oh, right. What was the question again?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Laughter).

YORKE: There's a great story that one of our managers, Bryce, says - that when they first played it for the publishing company...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The horror.

YORKE: And we'd just really signed with them. And they're expecting, like, you know, guitars. And so, you know, the first song, "Everything In Its Right Place" - not a guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING IN ITS RIGHT PLACE")

RADIOHEAD: (Unintelligible, vocalizing).

ROSS: "Everything In Its Right Place" is just one of my favorite songs of theirs because it's sort of lovely on the surface, and it has a kind of, you know, upbeat feeling to it and that the message in the lyrics is also, like, everything is OK. But is it, you know? It - you don't quite believe it as you're listening to the song. So there's, like, an irony.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING IN ITS RIGHT PLACE")

RADIOHEAD: (Vocalizing, singing) Everything, everything, everything in its right place.

ROSS: There are feelings of melancholy and resignation, kind of temporary bursts of energy that kind of then trail off.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING IN ITS RIGHT PLACE")

RADIOHEAD: (Vocalizing, singing) In its right place.

ROSS: It actually puts me under a spell, you know, when those chords kick in. But there's - this is uneasy music. It's not happy music.

ARABLOUEI: Radiohead's moody, contemplative, emotional album quickly became a massive hit in the United States. It debuted No. 1 on the Billboard charts and eventually sold over 1.4 million copies. The American press fawned over the album...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) The experience and emotions tied to listening to "Kid A" are like witnessing the stillborn birth of a child while simultaneously having the opportunity to see her play in the afterlife on IMAX.

ARABLOUEI: ...Including this notoriously over-the-top review from the music website Pitchfork.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON 21: (Reading) It's an album of sparkling paradox. It's cacophonous yet tranquil, experimental yet familiar, foreign yet womblike, spacious yet visceral, textured yet vaporous, awakening yet dreamlike, infinite yet 48 minutes.

ROSS: It's kind of a pretty rare case of, you know, someone working in the commercial arena, trying something new, challenging the audience and succeeding, you know, holding their audience, bringing their audience with them. And yeah, it just doesn't happen very often.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, BELLS, CROSSTALK AMBIENCE)

YORKE: There were these moments of, like, oh, my god, I can't believe we've done this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YORKE: My favorite moment of the whole of that period was when "Kid A" went to No. 1 in the U.S. Like, you know, almost by accident, you know, this little monster that we created was suddenly everywhere. And everyone's going, what? What's that doing there? And it was so exciting. I found that so exciting. I was talking to this lovely guy, Mr. Fricke from Rolling Stone, and he's literally sitting there going, how the hell did you do that, (laughter) you know? It's like, it was like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

DONWOOD: I've - because I knew a lot of people who were in various sort of kind of electronic music subcultures, and that was the sort of music that I was listening to before and during. And so for a lot of them, they were like, oh, Radiohead. And I - for the first time, I was just like, oh, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, that's right. Yes, yes, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

DONWOOD: You know, because the rock 'n' roll thing was not something that most of the people I knew responded to. And it felt like that I was doing something that they kind of like. Oh, well, that's OK, you know? (Laughter). Whereas before...

YORKE: You mean you got accepted into your mate's house?

DONWOOD: I got accepted into my mate's house, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

DONWOOD: 'Cause I made some music that sounded like "Kid A."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: OK, so the obvious question is hanging here. How did an album that on the surface might seem like a bummer to many people, especially at a time when there were these competing visions of what progress means, do so well? According to Alex Ross, it's because the unease that Radiohead, Thom and Stanley were expressing with the albums was an unease many people were feeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSS: And I think perhaps - and this is just my totally kind of random speculation - but the popularity of the records may have connected with people's unconscious or semiconscious unease and sense that there was something superficial about that sense of complacency and well-being and that something else was coming, which indeed it did.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSS: Looking back on it, well, that doesn't seem so problematic anymore (laughter) that they were insisting that people sort of think about climate change, that they were bringing up these issues around technology and that they were just, generally, challenging complacency. And then these records came along which did not really echo at all that general spirit of optimism and complacency. And I would say that the music itself is actually the primary arena in which all this is happening. The songs lull you and then challenge you, I think, which is just a great dynamic. And it was an experiment that people wanted to - where people were ready for, you know. And so I kind of think of all this music as - I feel like they're premonitions of what was coming in the early 21st century and all kinds of issues and all kinds of dimensions.

DONWOOD: 9/11 was a sharp reminder that all was not well, and it has not really recovered. The - you know, the '90s now look like some kind of almost Victorian era when everyone was just sort of dancing around and kind of smiling, but it wasn't like that for everybody.

ARABLOUEI: When I first heard "Kid A" and "Amnesiac" back in the early 2000s, it stopped me in my tracks. The glitchy synths, the bass drum thump in my chest, the lyrics, the mood - they all made me feel like someone else was seeing what I was seeing. This group of English musicians, who I had almost nothing in common with at the time, seemed to understand my anxiety about the world that awaited me.

I'm an old millennial. I went from being a child to an adult at the same time the 20th century turned into the 21st, a time when, for many of us in America, everything felt possible, yet very little felt right. Everything was getting better, we were told. The Cold War was over, and the internet was here. Yet everywhere, it seemed like our leaders were throwing coins in a wishing well. And with every listen to those albums, I felt like I could better articulate the feelings that I struggled to find words to describe.

Liquid modernity - that concept from Zygmunt Bauman that we talked about earlier in the episode basically theorizes that the anxiety and uncertainty many people feel in the modern world is caused by the fact that technology and life are constantly changing faster than our culture and minds can keep up with. It feels like the earth is unstable beneath our feet. And that feeling was captured by "Kid A" and "Amnesiac."

YORKE: The moment where we're at this particular fulcrum right now, where dread and division has become an economically useful algorithm, whatever you want to call it, like a - we've developed this new form of interacting with each other, which is a form of sickness.

DONWOOD: Yeah.

YORKE: And now, it finally is being talked about. And so as soon as it's named, its power will rescind, you know, because that's what happens. If you want to take something's power away, you have to name it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PYRAMID SONG")

YORKE: (Singing) I jumped in the river, and what did I see? Black-eyed angels swam with me. A moon full of stars and astral cars and all the figures I used to see. All my lovers were there with me, all my past and futures. And we all went to heaven in a little row boat. There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: But is it enough to just name it? Who does it serve to just describe an issue and then walk away? For Thom Yorke, it isn't enough. And the process of making "Kid A" and "Amnesiac" wasn't only to put words to the angst he and his bandmates were feeling; it was about projecting another world. It was and still is about possibilities.

YORKE: One has to imagine a form of progress or a form of living, which is more beneficial to the way human beings want to be. Rather than being reduced to these two-dimensional avatars that appear on your phone. Like - at the moment we adopt modes of behavior that mirror our avatars. But we are, at the same time, now finally formulating ways to think beyond that and going, well, hang on a minute; I don't want to be that.

ARABLOUEI: It's a challenge many of us still face. How do we find a way through the complexity of a world that feels like it's balancing on the edge of a blade and still imagine a different world for ourselves and those who come next?

YORKE: There's always a sense of dread. And there's always then the need to find an adaptive language to get beyond that...

ARABLOUEI: Yeah.

YORKE: ...A way of expressing what it's going to look like...

ARABLOUEI: Yeah.

YORKE: ...In a world that's different.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD SONG, "PYRAMID SONG")

ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD SONG, "PYRAMID SONG")

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me...

ARABLOUEI: And me - and...

LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu.

LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: Laine Kaplan-Levenson.

JULIE CAINE, BYLINE: Julie Caine.

VICTOR YVELLEZ, BYLINE: Victor Yvellez.

ANYA STEINBERG, BYLINE: Anya Steinberg.

YOLANDA SANGWENI, BYLINE: Yolanda Sangweni.

ABDELFATAH: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl. Thanks also to Anya Grundmann, Tamar Charney, Jacob Ganz, Daoud Tyler-Ameen, Laura Eldeiry and Farai Msika.

ARABLOUEI: Special thank you to XL/Beggars Group and Radiohead for letting us use songs from "Kid A" and "Amnesiac" in this episode. The new reissue of the albums, called "Kid A Mnesia," is out now and contains a bunch of never-released-before tracks. You can find it wherever songs are sold or streaming.

ABDELFATAH: Other music for this episode was composed by Ramtin and his band, Drop Electric, which includes...

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

ABDELFATAH: Also, we want your voice on our show. Send us a voicemail at 872-588-8805 with your name, where you're from and the line, you're listening to through line from NPR, and we'll get you in there. That's 872-588-8805.

ARABLOUEI: And finally, if you have an idea or like something you've heard on the show, please write us at throughline@npr.org or hit us up on Twitter - @throughlineNPR.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD SONG, "PYRAMID SONG")

ABDELFATAH: Today we immersed you in the chaotic end of the millennium, with a deep look inside Radiohead's revolutionary albums.

ARABLOUEI: We were able to bring you this story because of your support. And we want to bring you more stories like this in the year to come.

ABDELFATAH: Support THROUGHLINE with a donation to your local NPR station. Just go to donate.npr.org/throughline. Thanks.

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