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Inside the work: A photo essay with Radiohead art collaborator Stanley Donwood

Posted on 02 Oct 2019

Radiohead’s longtime collaborator and artist Stanley Donwood looks back, with his editor and book designer Darren Wall, on some of his best-known work for the band and Thom Yorke’s solo albums.

'The Bends' © Stanley Donwood

The Bends

Darren: Your first collaboration with Radiohead was for their second album, The Bends. Can you recall the band getting in touch, and what your gut reaction to producing music artwork was? I believe the screaming figure on this cover is in fact a resuscitation dummy found in a Somerset hospital? Can you recount how this artwork came about?

Stanley: This is now so long ago that my memory has probably reconfigured certain aspects of what happened. I’ll do my best to answer. So – at that time I lived in a house with a telephone attached to a wall in the hallway – it was a payphone, but I and my housemates had a key to the cashbox, so in effect it was a primitive savings account, a sort of piggy bank with a telephone attached. Anyway, it rang one time and it was Thom on the other end of the line, asking if I fancied having a go at doing a record sleeve. He had been in a band since I’d first met him, some time previously, but a year or so before they’d got a record contract. Apparently the band didn’t much care for the cover artwork that the record company had come up with, hence the phone call. I didn’t know the band’s music and I hadn’t done a record sleeve before, but I thought I’d have a go.

Around the time this happened I was making different sorts of artwork, from painting on derelict buildings, using a sports pitch-marking machine to draw huge pictures on the grass of the local park as well as attempting to write romantic fiction. It took a long time to learn how to use computers and all that came with them. One of the problems was the huge range of possibilities that came with making digital art. Compared to what I was used to – pots of paint, pencils, scissors, glue, pitch-marking machines – a computer offered a vast range of visual tools; the thing I discovered quite quickly was that you can easily create something very, very bad. And that is what I did for at least a month. I still have a folder of printouts of the ghastly horrors I created.

Another thing I was doing was making pictures by taking photographs of images on TV screens, because I liked the distance between the intention and the result. I wanted to remove myself, my humanity, from the artwork. Also I liked the lines that appeared when TV screens were photographed – because of course, this was the ancient era of analogue televisions and cameras that took rolls of film. So the technique me and Thom eventually devised to make the artwork for The Bends was to use a VHS video camera to make video recordings, play the resulting videotape on his TV, photograph the images on the screen, take the film to the photographic developer’s shop in Oxford, wait until the photos were done, then scan the results and manipulate the digital results on the computer. Everything took a long time back in the last decade of the previous century, but we thought we were cutting-edge. So it goes.

I intended to find an iron lung, which is a kind of metal box that’s pressurised, used (in the past) for patients who couldn’t breathe properly unaided. Prosaically, this was because Radiohead had a song called My Iron Lung. I don’t remember how, but we were wandering around in a big hospital on the outskirts of Oxford with our video camera, looking in various forgotten rooms for this archaic therapeutic machine. Eventually we found one, but it was – how can I put it? – really boring to look at. It was a big grey rectangular metal box on a sort of bed frame. It looked kind of eerie, left to gather dust while more modern and efficient equipment carried out the task it had been designed for. And it was quite horrible to imagine the poor soul who had needed to lie within it. But as an image – it was boring. So we left that room and carried on exploring the hospital with our video camera, which I’m sure must have been at least unadvisable and at worst probably illegal. Anyway, these were more innocent times, I guess. In another room was the equipment for resuscitation, and the dummies or mannequins that were used to practise this. One of them had an expression that looked to me to be somewhere between ecstasy and agony, like the face of a suffering martyr. I filmed it, we played the videotape on the TV back at Thom’s, photographed it, took the film into town, dropped it at the developer’s, waited, went home, scanned the photos and made the cover. Just before the deadline.

'OK Computer', digital composition, 1996 © Stanley Donwood

OK Computer

Darren: Your artwork for OK Computer was notable for looking unlike anything else in record stores at the time. When we were working on the book you mentioned that Radiohead’s record company was initially baffled by OK Computer, fearing the music lacked commercial potential. They needn’t have worried of course as the album became a global sensation both critically and commercially, and transformed Radiohead into one of the biggest bands on the planet. I wonder: did their confusion over Radiohead’s musical direction offer you freedom with your cover artworks? Thom mentions in his foreword for the book that you were a ‘persuasive’ presence in record company meetings. Did they ever attempt to direct or guide your work for the band?

Stanley: I can’t remember any ‘direction’, and we both would have completely, furiously rejected it had it been tried. We’d have been livid… This was the first time I had immersed myself entirely in the making of a record; listening to it being created – improvised, tried, rejected, selected, recorded, re-recorded, rejected again, rewritten, re-played, mixed, and fed through the whole process of production. Most of this happened initially in an Elizabethan mansion house in Somerset, but during that time I had discovered an early incarnation of the internet so spent most of my time writing html code. But the effect of completely submerging into the stream of new music that was being made must have been profound, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time. So really, all that I had to do was draw the pictures that the record was making. Most of this was done after the recording sessions, in a spare room on the eastern outskirts of Oxford and in recording studios in London. I couldn’t stop thinking about the aftermath of a nuclear war.

We made a lot of artwork; far too much for the format that the record company would allow at the time; this was one of the reasons we did the OK NOT OK version 20 years later in 2017. Back in 1997 the only rule that we had when we were making the pictures was that 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. I was very interested in the idea of ghostliness, of the feeling of unease when you just catch someone at the corner of your eye and then you turn, but they’re gone. And blank, denuded landscapes, empty of meaning, just an erasure, or a palimpsest of something that’s been removed. Again, it was the idea of nuclear winter; when a quantity of warheads are detonated and so much debris is thrust into the atmosphere that not enough sunlight can penetrate to allow photosynthesis. Everything dies, and so do we, of radiation sickness, starvation and savagery. And in the end there is nothing left.

The only interference from the record company regarding the cover of OK Computer was them asking if I could make the name RADIOHEAD a little bigger. I did, because it really was very tiny. I mean, fair enough. The point is to actually sell some records, after all.

© Stanley Donwood


Darren: KID A, the follow-up release to OK Computer, feels like a more sinister and dystopian partner to the previous album, again an assemblage of indecipherable symbols and semi-familiar iconography, like discarded documents from an alternate reality. In the book you mention the artwork reflects some visual preoccupations you and Thom had at the time, such as glitchy graphics in 3D PlayStation games – how closely did you and Thom work on KID A? How involved were the rest of the band at this time?

Stanley: No one knew what was going on. It was a very strange time, and when I look at KID A and Amnesiac now I’m baffled, horrified and concerned. They are both just really weird objects, sonically, visually – and physically too; I mean, they’re both 10” records in gatefold sleeves which is odd to start with. Holding them makes you feel as if you have giant hands. I have a fragmented memory of hearing even more frightening versions of what was released, with crashing music and chanting children, or screams, wailing; I don’t know. I might be imagining it. It was a darkly shaded time and nobody was very happy. Happiness was an unattainable luxury product available only in select areas to which we were not admitted. “Your name’s not down, you’re not coming in.”

As far as I can remember we worked together on almost everything. I don’t think I yet had my own computer then, so everything was done in Radiohead’s new studio in the countryside. I think it took about two years. I had started painting too, big canvases of the detritus of European war. Nigel, the band’s producer, had a computer program that could make 3D landscapes from photographs; and with screengrabs of these, drawings, digital collage, paintings, and I don’t know what else we made long landscapes. I’d figured out that there was a very thin space between the two faces of the back of a jewel case, which was a stupidly brittle plastic case that compact discs were sold in. So I made a booklet that had to be inserted by hand into every copy of KID A. It was quite a lavish CD package really, with fold-out pages and tracing paper and things like that. This time the record company were very relaxed about extravagance. They were expecting another OK Computer, I suppose.

'Cnut', 30 x 30 cm, linocut print, 2005 © Stanley Donwood

The Eraser

Darren: This artwork for Thom Yorke’s first solo album is one of your best-loved works and a notable departure from the otherworldly bricolage of Radiohead artworks up until that point. Was this linocut look a premeditated stylistic shift, or did it merely reflect your own interests and activities at the time?

Stanley: I had entirely another idea for The Eraser, and I spent a lot of time on it. It was going to be a sort of collection of campaign materials for a doomed protest organisation that was something like CND and something like the anti-nuclear movement generally, but as if those organisations had existed in a parallel universes where they had succeeded in winning over public opinion but there had been a nuclear disaster anyway. I designed logos, posters, badges and stickers and all that sort of things and I got quite excited about it all – the movement supposedly was called Atoms For Peace, after a speech by Dwight Eisenhower, who had been a president of the USA. The idea that I had was that the campaign to get rid of nuclear weapons had been entirely successful, but civilisation had been fatally damaged by accidents at nuclear power stations.

Anyway, so I didn’t do that. At the same time I had started on a project that was a result of having been present at a huge and disastrous flood in Cornwall, which is the furthest western part of the islands of Britain. I was trying to copy the woodcuts in a book called the Nuremberg Chronicle that had been published in the 15th Century. The woodcuts were really quite bad, but there were some of biblical disasters like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah which interested me; all toppling buildings, curling flames and swirling waters. I made some drawings of the same kind of things, but the pen and ink treatment didn’t really work, so I thought I’d better try woodcuts instead. The process of making woodcuts involves a high level of skill, patience and tenacity, so I gave that up quickly and used linocut instead. For reasons which are now obscure I embarked on a thirteen-foot long linocut of London being destroyed by fire and flood in a quasi-mediaeval style.

This work ended up being the basis for my first solo exhibition, and most of the linocutting was done at an improvised desk in the studio where The Eraser was being recorded, and I think that the fact that we were both slightly obsessional about the same things led to a kind of unintended convergence. Strangely, even though the two elements of the eventual record release – music and artwork – had obvious contrasts, both shared a germination in Cornwall and both addressed some very old problems – political deceit, natural disaster, war – in an oddly modern manner. And in the end, I can’t imagine The Eraser with any other cover; black and red on white, the colours of a cheap tabloid with a dramatic headline.

'March no BOTHRd', digital composition, 2007 © Stanley Donwood

In Rainbows

Darren: In the book you recount how developing the artwork for In Rainbows was a somewhat protracted and torturous process, your original idea being to fill pinball pellets with black ink using a syringe and fire them at a canvas. How did your paintball experiments turn out, and how did you eventually land upon the liquid chromatographic look which defined the campaign?

Stanley: Somewhat protracted and torturous? Well, yes, I guess it was. I just looked up ‘torturous’ and it basically means ‘painful’, but there’s a similar word, ’tortuous’, which means ‘twisted, circuitous’. Both work in this case. An early refrain in the songs for what became In Rainbows was Down Is The New Up, which I thought was brilliant, and it sparked off all kinds of ideas. I thought that it was a great title for the record, in fact. But I also wanted to rebrand Radiohead as an estate agent and have boards made up on corrugated plastic and put them up in front gardens. I made all the necessary graphics; they were going to be called Radiohead Estates. That idea didn’t get very far, luckily; although it did foreshadow my adoption of technical architectural drawing, which did lead somewhere – a series of large-scale photographic etchings that I called If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now. I got heavily into the study of suburban sprawl and the consequences of a civilisation based almost entirely on the availability of cheap petrochemical energy. It transpired that none of this was relevant to the Radiohead record I was ostensibly creating artwork for.

At the same time I had become very interested in the idea of ink or paint fired at high velocity against a hard surface. I tried to achieve this in a number of ways, but the one that looked best was using a paint-ball gun and injecting the paint-balls with ink after extracting the disgusting gloop they come filled with. Without going into details this … didn’t work. So I ended up with a large number of medical hypodermic syringes which I’d intended to use to fill the paint-balls and decided to use them for drawing with. This, coupled with an accident involving a large candle, was the starting point for the artwork that was wrapped around In Rainbows. Torturous, yes, and incredibly protracted. Luckily Radiohead took quite a long time to make the record. I think they had quite a tortuous time too. And obviously protracted.

You can find out more about the contents of There Will Be No Quiet here.

Stanley Donwood: There Will Be No Quiet (Signed Copy)

Stanley Donwood, Thom Yorke Out of stock

Stanley Donwood: There Will Be No Quiet

Stanley Donwood, Thom Yorke