Books / Features

This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s Kid A and the Beginning of the 21st Century by Steven Hyden [Book Review]

“In 1999, as the end of an old century loomed, five musicians entered a recording studio in Paris without a deadline. Their band was widely recognized as the best and most forward-thinking in rock, a rarefied status granting them the time, money, and space to make a masterpiece. But Radiohead didn’t want to make another rock record. Instead, they set out to create the future.”

People often say to me, Dan, can we have another one of your meandering, rambling paragraphs about bands you love, and why you love them, please? Well, they might not but here we go and I’m going to state it for the record: Radiohead are my band. Sure, there have been others over my lifetime, through the genres of all shapes and sizes, but these five chaps from Oxford have always found a way to get inside my head and, crucially, into the very essence of my being.

Why the insight? Because what follows will become an amalgamation of review and nostalgic reflections, and that’s a response to the style of this outstanding read. Steven Hyden’s This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s Kid A and the Beginning of the 21st Century, from Hachette Books, is an absolute masterclass in not only sharing his love for an album he obviously adores, and shows a deep respect for, but also a delve into their discography and the impact on his life.

Hyden has superb knowledge in many curves and corners of music, and this is demonstrated throughout. As with any Radiohead fan, he discusses important, smaller moments in their back catalogue that stand out above the rest, and it’s rarely the obvious songs you’d expect. With that in mind, we start from my perspective because like so many people, my first introduction to Radiohead was Creep. In those early days, songs from bands weren’t as accessible as they are now and in-between my loves for the likes of Suede, Pulp, Blur and Oasis, there’s little uncertainty that Creep was an attention-grabbing track. For me, it snuck onto Now! That’s What I Call Music 26 in-between the likes of Crowded House, James, R.E.M and Meat Loaf. Although that specific compilation came out in November ’93, it wasn’t until 1994 when the cassette slipped into the tape player of, wait for it, my GCSE Art classroom (not far from Exeter by the way), where a small smattering of (what felt like) friendly outsiders trawled through actual cassettes, and the occasional CD, looking for that favourite new tune we could connect to and embrace into our young souls, rather than other throwaway pop songs of the moment.

Creep sits vividly in my mind during that teenage “What am I doing here…” era but over time, much like the band themselves (of which you’ll learn a bucketload about in this book), I grew tired of the commercial side of its success. I was even genuinely shocked when Radiohead played it headlining Glastonbury for the fourth time in 2017, and seeing Thom full with a sense of acceptance and, yes, absolute sheer enjoyment of the moment amongst the 25 track setlist, as well as that band of Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Phil Selway and (everyone’s friend) Ed O’Brien, having the absolute time of their lives, in their own unique way.

While the title refers to their fourth album Kid A, produced by their long-term friend and producer Nigel Godrich, and it certainly is the crux of everything, you’ll also learn that Hyden’s book isn’t exclusively about that release. However, it’s always an enticing flickering light in the distance, because Kid A will always be at the centre, pushing/pulling at the world around it. The book also treats us to a galaxy of Radiohead moments, including influences, breakdowns, let downs and comebacks and, yeah, I’ll endeavour to stay from too many metaphors, but I can’t say a few song titles won’t sneak in, with the hope you won’t disappear completely.

Incredibly, it’s been 20 years since Radiohead’s Kid A. While its influence at the time couldn’t have been predicted today, those who know it will understand there’s nothing else like it. Hyden’s book offers us a huge, in-depth insight into every track, it’s connection with Amnesic and even his own ‘ideal’ track listing for an unification of both albums, of which you appreciate could work as well. During the read, his book introduced me to the likes of Elvis Costello and The Attractions 1986 album Blood & Chocolate, who was someone I never really ‘got’ before, but the delving into it has already taught me of its purposefully impure and upbeat stories of love lingered and lost, and how it influenced a young Thom Yorke.

Hyden’s book actually led me to places beyond anticipation because much of what’s discussed has essentially been part of my life to. While he’s a few years older, the considered music and films of that era match up, at important intersections. As well as learning about Costello, the Brian Eno discussions particularly intrigued me and made me investigate U2′s Zooropa for the first time, and surprisingly linked it to Coldplay’s Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends without me even realising.

You can listen to both albums and plainly see the Eno link, right from the start. It doesn’t mean either aren’t original but it furthers the unique nature of Radiohead, and how they’ve pushed beyond and have been self-aware enough to not be ‘too Radiohead’ along the way, which is a welcome paradox of their creativity. Of course, with progression comes other issues and This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s Kid A and the Beginning of the 21st Century is also the tale of them nearly quitting, and then metaphorically floating down the Liffey above their own creations to re-work their entire existence as a band, until it felt fresh again.

While for many Kid A was a strange step away, I lapped it up. Those opening bars of Everything In Its Right Place blew my 20-year-old mind and that’s way before we even hit The National Anthem, How to Disappear Completely, Idioteque and beyond. For me, it re-captured the glory of discovering The Bends in 1995, and consequently the behemoth of OK Computer in 1997, a record that frankly changed my life, and runs alongside a gig in Plymouth that year that I’ll never forget. During that night, the band stopped at one point because everyone was swaying so frantically. We’d become a tempestuous ocean, as waves of people smashed into one another in every direction, so much so the band walked off and wouldn’t come back until we’d all calmed down a bit. For me, that’s Radiohead. Understanding the elation but not encouraging the chaos amongst fans, whereas they want us to be a part of it but not if we’re going to get physically hurt, oh no, they’ll save that emotional turmoil for their music, and in the very best way.

The UK music scene in 2000 was pretty stale, the early inklings of Blink 182, Savage ‘really shit’ Garden and other similar acts began filtering through the internet. This was the early days for Napster and LimeWire – and yes, Hyden talks about this and reminded me of the joy of downloading single tracks over hours to discover they were mislabelled. It was all on dial-up as well, but there wasn’t a lot more around, beyond the gradual growth of Muse and Coldplay – the latter who actually blew me away at Glastonbury 2002 with their first ‘major’ set in the UK.  But, before that Kid A was something different. I liked it because it wasn’t what they’d done before, and took real dedication to relearn what you didn’t know you’d love, until you loved it. They might have even reprogrammed my brain to want that from most bands I’ve admired since. I also loved that with the CD, there was a little booklet hidden underneath the CD case itself, and if you’ve never found that before, go look now – you’re in for a treat. There’s so much Stanley Donwood goodness in all its glory, and if you love his work, then you must check out There Will Be No Quiet as well.

The truth is, Hyden’s This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s Kid A and the Beginning of the 21st Century is one of those books that feels like perfect, healthy nostalgia. You get towards the end, feeling like you’ve had an amazing night down the pub, or with your record player at home, alongside someone who really appreciates the band and, of course, Kid A. This is an album that unconsciously changed everything, a true example of music being ahead of its time. It’s a unique dip into an era where albums like this weren’t really happening, especially from bands with such high expectations on their shoulders. It also re-centred the fan-base, and found a place that took us into the space between committed music lovers and fair-weather friends of the time, which in itself was enlightening when it came to relationships and growing up.

Overall, I want to say ‘this is the best book ever written about Kid A’ but that sounds sarcastic, when it’s really meant in a respectful and ridiculously inspired sense. If you adore Radiohead, if you love this album, if you remember that era then get this book into your collection, and even if you don’t remember the time, but love Kid A, you’ll still develop and increase your music knowledge and never look back. This book is what music is all about: sharing your passion for something everlasting, and there’s very few bands who effortlessly transverse three decades with relentless originality, and I’m satisfied to be with them on that journey for as long as we’ve got.   

Steven Hyden’s This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s Kid A and the Beginning of the 21st Century is out now, order https://amzn.to/3egiB6z

NB: Told you it’d be extensive:

One thought on “This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s Kid A and the Beginning of the 21st Century by Steven Hyden [Book Review]

  1. Pingback: Review: U2 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind (20th Anniversary Deluxe Vinyl) | critical popcorn

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