I’m a huge Radiohead fan, and have collected the bulk of their special/deluxe editions over the years, usually as they were released. Their music is pretty well documented, so I don’t know that more writing about that is worth anyone’s time, but, in terms of physical media, it really doesn’t get much better, or more artistic, than Radiohead.
The special editions of their albums are like little art projects in and of themselves, and well worth exploring. They have many of them, though, so this will be the first part of delving into them.
The band’s first two albums, Pablo Honey and The Bends, are fairly standard releases, in terms of these editions, and their third album, OK Computer, didn’t get the deluxe treatment until just last year, so we’ll save that one for last.
A little background: Radiohead’s frontman, Thom Yorke, met the artist Stanley Donwood in art school, and they stayed in touch and were great friends as Radiohead began to rise in prominence. Yorke asked Donwood to do the artwork for a single the band was working on, “My Iron Lung,” and was pleased enough with the results that Donwood ended up doing the cover artwork for The Bends. Thom Yorke is a bit of a control freak. He’s intimately involved with the band’s artwork and collaborates with Donwood on all of it. Around the time of the release for OK Computer, Yorke adopted several pseudonyms so that he could work as a visual artist but still stay under the radar a little bit (this was the period where the band exploded, and Yorke went through a mental breakdown while dealing with the band’s success). The pseudonyms he used were “The White Chocolate Farm” and variations of the name Tchock (“Dr. Tchock” being the most common, “Tchocky” sometimes as well).
AKid A, 2000
There was a lengthy break after the success of OK Computer, and Radiohead needed time to reinvent themselves. Kid A was a huge roll of the dice, but it paid off very well for the band — the album was a huge hit. As part of the release, we get the very first deluxe edition of one of their albums, in the form of a children’s book. The book has thick cardboard pages, with text unique to the package and images of bizarre landscapes, cartoon bears, and a page devoted to “Selected examples of ice melt around the world,” with statistics from the website worldwatch.org. This foreshadows Yorke’s activism regarding climate change, and the whole package is a beautiful beginning to the band’s “art project” releases.
On the heels of Kid A, Radiohead released a companion album, Amnesiac, culled from the same sessions as their previous release. For the deluxe edition, the CD came in a sort of “book from a lost library” format, complete with a pocket in the front, containing a library card with stamped dates. The book is hardcover, and has images of weeping minotaurs, illustrations of trees, and unsettling cartoon images of people layered in with buildings, creating a dystopian future vibe. The package was a huge step up from Kid A, and it won a Grammy award for “Best Recording Package,” leading to Dr. Tchock’s identity being revealed as Yorke all along.
CHail to the Thief, 2003
The special edition of Hail to the Thief was another unique package, this time in the form of a map. The CD is tucked into a pocket, and the package folds out, revealing a booklet with the album’s lyrics on one side, and a full fold-out “map” on the other side. The map is huge, a variation on the album cover with somewhat random words in a variety of colors. The text is especially well-designed, and it really does feel like a map to some imaginary bleak land, probably inside of Thom Yorke’s head.
DDead Children Playing, 2007
This one isn’t from a Radiohead album, and is an art book published a little after Hail to the Thief, but it feels very relevant to this time period. It contains unused artwork from OK Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac, and Hail to the Thief, along with surreal text passages, and even a sneak peek at artwork that would eventually evolve into the cover art for Yorke’s first solo album, The Eraser. It’s a treat to see all of the various attempts at the cover art for Hail to the Thief in particular — they must have made dozens of painted maps with little words scrawled in before ultimately deciding on the one they used, with a variety of different map locations. It gives the impression that they created a whole world before paring it down enough to get to a final image, and helps add to a beautiful book.
I’ll write about more Radiohead deluxe editions in a future blog. It turns out they were just getting started, and after Hail to the Thief, vinyl came back into vogue, which really let Yorke and Donwood cut loose!