Image Credit: Parlophone and Capitol Records, 1997
Whether or not you’re a fan, Radiohead’s influence has been pretty hard to escape over the past few decades. Maybe it was an embarrassingly bad guitar cover you strung out in year nine, or the reverberations of that first track on the awkward break-up playlist your ex messaged you. On a much broader level, they have been dubbed as the most accomplished art-rock band of the 21st century, revolutionising the sound of rock. Yet, equally piercing is the hypnotic and hauntingly beautiful art that graces the cover of each album, crafted by the curious and inadvertently cool Stanley Donwood. Intricately translated into visual pleasure are the ecstasies and anguish of the band’s distinct sounds, each piece defining the tone of the music to come. Although you could probably write an essay on this stuff, this article looks at some of the most popular covers from the artist.
Donwood’s first collaboration with Radiohead was on their second release, The Bends (1995). Friends with Thom Yorke from university, the singer rang Donwood’s rickety shared payphone, asking “Do you want to have a go at doing the record sleeve?”. The two infamously crawled around an Oxfordshire hospital equipped with a VHS video camera, looking for a disused iron lung (a visual spin on the album’s eighth track: My Iron Lung). Upon finding the metal contraption, they decided that it was too boring and opted for an abandoned CPR dummy instead. After being taped, photographed, and taken to the photo developers in true 90’s spirit, the cover was released in its final form. The result is both unsettling and intriguing; a silicone head thrown back, eyes closed and settled somewhere in purgatory. If The Bends suggests symptoms of numbness and then unconsciousness, Donwood’s dummy epitomises this transcendent state. The fuzzy texture of the photo gives an uneasy feeling of being not-really-there, like you’ve accidentally stumbled upon some lost footage from another world. The overall effect is uncanny; and captures the jarring high-pressure environment Yorke found himself in after the success of Pablo Honey.
Following The Bends is the bleached cityscape of OK Computer (1997). The former dummy has now fused into a collective scene of angst that aligns with the album’s incisive political critique. Speaking to Thames & Hudson, the artist recalls how he “couldn’t stop thinking about the aftermath of a nuclear war” when working on the cover. People scatter the canvas like debris, but they’re blurred and confused, like Donwood deliberately forgot about them. The words ‘Lost Child’ are neatly stamped in the upper corner, while a crowd is half-dissolved behind translucent motorways. “We weren’t allowed to use the ‘undo’ function on the computer – if we made a mistake we either erased it badly or covered it up with something else”, he quips. Donwood’s disintegrated cities suggest a society where whole swathes of people can be easily erased or swept over (as much as they refuse to entirely disappear). Themes of urban alienation, technological angst, and bleak mundanity are packed into the piece’s winding roads and faded iconography in a state that left its citizens behind.
Hail To The Thief
Donwood’s original plan for Hail To The Thief (2003) was to join the National Trust and then take photos of topiary shaped into giant dicks. Unfortunately, Thom Yorke swiftly shut that idea down and he was forced to come up with something else instead. Looking at LA from the passenger seat, the artist noticed the gaudy palette of road signs and logos; “There’s not more than seven colours that they use for the whole city, everything’’. These colours would be merged with reappropriated phrases from advertisements and lyrics to form a linguistic roadmap of modern Los Angeles. No longer dressed in the glamour of commercialism, each word feels unsettling in its honesty. ‘Oil’ and ‘armed’, startling reminders of the War on Terror, are placed next to more colloquial items like ‘donut’ and ‘lube’. Donwood’s piece is a self-conscious delve into the gap between consumerism and reality, allowing the black sludge to bleed out from underneath.
With the band’s move to a more organic sound came the tangerine coloured cosmos of In Rainbows (2007). Created using syringes and molten wax, Donwood quite literally injects colour into the canvas. “A friend of mine is a doctor, and I asked if he could get me any hypodermic needles. He gave me a whole bag in the school playground”. The result is one that’s every bit as colourful as you’d expect an interstellar supernova, as though you’d hacked the NASA space station. Closely resembling a fetus, Donwood captures a rebirth that coincides with the album’s next era of sound that is both fragile and sensual.
Albums Kid A, Amnesiac, The King of Limbs and A Moon Shaped Pool are all worth checking out for their art alone, and sadly won’t fit in the brief glimpse of an article. It’s unclear as to when another Radiohead album will be but ,if there is another, Donwood’s album art will surely be just as exciting as the next instalment of music.