What's that on the cover of The Bends by Radiohead?

28 March 2020, 12:33 | Updated: 28 March 2020, 12:36

Radiohead - The Bends album cover
Radiohead - The Bends album cover. Picture: Press

How a visit to a hospital gave the band's classic album its unsettling sleeve artwork.

Radiohead released their second album, The Bends, on 13 March 1995.

The Oxford band's debut, Pablo Honey, was a far cry from the challenging art rock they'd become known for, but the follow-up was a definitely step in a more mature, thought-provoking direction.

To this end, Thom Yorke collaborated with artist Stanley Donwood on creating an image that would sum up Radiohead's new direction.

"The bends", of course, is the common term for decompression sickness - when bubbles of dissolved gasses get into the bloodstream, which most commonly occurs when deep sea divers surface too quickly.

Yorke used the term as a metaphor for drowning in the sea of modern life: "My baby's got the bends / We don't have any real friends".

Stanley Donwood is the pseudonym for Dan Rickwood, an artist that Yorke met at the University of Exeter and his first commission for Radiohead was the sleeve for the single My Iron Lung.

When the full-length album came along, Donwood jumped at the chance to work on the art. "I was living in this share house down in Plymouth where we had this payphone on the wall that we had the key for," the artist told the Monster Children site in 2017. "The phone rang and it was Thom, “Do you want to have a go at doing the record sleeve?”

"I didn’t particularly like their first record, Pablo Honey. I was into dance music before I got into the other things that went along with dance music. And they used guitars. 'Guitars? Who uses guitars?' So I didn’t really like it."

However, Donwood pressed on with the task at hand as he liked one of the songs on the new album: Just. He decided that they would shoot a photo of an actual Iron Lung to go with the song of the same name.

"Somehow we managed to sneak a video recorder into a hospital—that’s not right is it? You shouldn’t do that.

"We eventually found the iron lung and it was rubbish; it’s just a grey metal box. Nothing to it."

Then inspiration struck.

Donwood tiold Juxtapoz.com in 2018: "In the room where the staff practice resuscitation were some mannequins, and one of them in particular had a facial expression like that of an android discovering for the first time the sensations of ecstasy and agony, simultaneously."

A CPR dummy, yesterday
A CPR dummy, yesterday. Picture: Mihajlo Maricic /EyeEm/Getty Images

So the cover is a CPR (Cardiopulmonary resuscitation) mannequin for first aid training, but the finishing touch was to "re-photograph" the images from the video tape from a monitor screen.

Radiohead - The Bends album cover
Radiohead - The Bends album cover. Picture: Press

"We played these video cassettes on a machine hooked up to a TV and took photos of the screen. Then we took the films to photograph developing shops and waited to see if any of the photos were any good."

It was the beginning of a long association with Radiohead, as Donwood worked with Yorke on the artwork for the albums OK Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail To The Thief, In Rainbows, The King Of Limbs and A Moon Shaped Pool.

Stanley Donwood's official website is www.slowlydownward.com, where you can buy prints of his work.