As you may have heard, Radiohead recently launched an archive of all their work, the Radiohead Public Library. If you’re into their stuff it’s a fantastic place for a browse – I’d particularly recommend their staggering performance of songs from OK Computer on Later with Jools Holland from May 1997.
Watching that nudged me to pick up my copy of Stanley Donwood’s new monograph, There Will Be No Quiet, published at the end of last year by Thames & Hudson. Donwood, an art-school mate of Radhiohead’s lead singer Thom Yorke, is sometimes referred to as the sixth member of the band (though more honestly the seventh, after producer Nigel Godrich). He’s been designing Radiohead’s album covers since The Bends back in 1994, often in collaboration with Yorke, and also designed the covers for Yorke’s solo albums.
The stunning OK Computer artwork is richly documented in the book.
Donwood explains more about it in a piece on the Thames & Hudson website:
“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.”
This sense of nuclear threat was emphasised through Donwood’s use of imagery from the UK Government booklet Protect and Survive, from 1980.
Here’s the foreword from the booklet:
“If the country were ever faced with an immediate threat of nuclear war, a copy of this booklet would be distributed to every household part of a public information campaign which would include announcements on television and radio and in the press. The booklet has been designed for free and general distribution in that event. It is being placed on sale now for those who wish to know what they would be advised to do at such a time.”
The advice boiled down to staying indoors and hiding under some doors / bags of clothes for a couple of weeks.
Donwood repurposed the cover illustration, as well as the happy family above, for various bits of the OK Computer artwork, including the cover of the Karma Police single.
Anyway, I digress.
That might sound a little… intense. But the book really isn’t. For as well as being a brilliant collection of Donwood’s work, the it’s also a truly fantastic read. Donwood picks through his creative process, digging into his inspirations, exploring both his failures and successes. His tales include haunted mansions, minotaurs, failing to make art with a microwave, injecting ink into paintballs, phallic topiary, and holloways.
One particularly wonderful story recounts a trip he and Yorke took to Cornwall, where they were almost washed away in a biblical flood:
“I retreated inside the house, and through the rain-spattered window we watched nervously as the river became a mindless churning serpent of brown foaming water, an angry flood biting at its banks, growing wider and wilder and deeper and more violent by the minute until it began to fill the valley. First it brought down brushwood, then saplings, then large branches and small trees, and then, unsettlingly, a big 4×4 jeep which smashed into the low stone wall of the little bridge that crossed what had been the stream at the edge of the beach. The collision destroyed the bridge and allowed the flood to go beyond any sort of boundary. At this point Thom and I looked at each other briefly, then raced to unplug anything electrical and began rushing up and down the stairs in an attempt to clear the ground floor of anything we could move. Just before the furious torrent reached the front door we got outside and ran up the lane to higher ground. Everything had become simple, graphic and dramatic. Some metres above and back from the flood, we watched in horrified awe as the river, which was by any normal definition no longer a river at all, wrenched fully grown trees from the earth and carried vehicles of all descriptions – cars, motorcycles, vans – from higher up the valley into the raging sea. The noise was deafening, a bellowing howl we had to shout over to make ourselves heard.”
This deluge inspired a series of linocut prints depicting cities being flooded, some of which evolved into the artwork for Yorke’s first solo album, The Eraser.
Donwood is a witty and engaging narrator, and the book details his personal projects and exhibitions as well as his work with Radiohead (you can read more about the album covers specifically over on Monster Children). I came away from the book with a refreshed desire to just get on and make stuff.