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Investigating Radiohead's love/hate relationship with 'Creep'

It is not uncommon for musicians or bands to develop an intense hatred for the song that made them mainstream popular. This can be for a plethora of reasons. However, it often stems from the fact they are required to play the song an innumerable amount of times due to demands from audiences, TV shows and radio stations. In turn, it means the track is played to death, so much so that it becomes an unfunny caricature of itself. Take Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit‘ or Oasis hit ‘Wonderwall’, for example.

However, there exists another song that fits into this category, one that is often regarded as being cut from the same cloth as Nirvana’s breakout single, another classic “slacker anthem”. Radiohead’s 1992 single, ‘Creep’.

When listening to the song and how Jonny Greenwood’s fuzzy guitar kicks in, cutting through the mix just before the chorus, sonically and lyrically, it could not be further from the band we know today as Radiohead. Yet to come were the swooning orchestral elements of their sound, or the haunting minimalist electronica; instead, the song is indicative of the time it was released, conjuring images of college radio and flannel shirts.

Given the contrast between the Radiohead of then and the one we know today, their iconic hit song has become a point of contention for the band, as understandably, nearly 30 years later, they, like society and music, have moved on considerably. This provides the first entry into why Radiohead have such a complicated love/hate relationship with their first worldwide hit. It is important to note, at this point, that when ‘Creep’ was originally released on 21st September 1992, it wasn’t a massive hit, and it only built a cult following owing to extensive play in Israel and on American alt-rock radio stations. However, it was reissued in 1993, and this culminated in Radiohead announcing its arrival to the world of music. 

The song was penned by frontman Thom Yorke in the late 1980s when he was studying at Exeter University and looking back on the song in 1993, he said: “I wasn’t very happy with the lyrics; I thought they were pretty crap,” which provides us with another reason why the band hate the song. The lyrics are drenched in that futile teenage grasp of romance, something that the band do not associate with anymore, given the fact that four of them are over 50.

In some ways, it is hard to imagine the deeply cerebral and introspective Radiohead we know today actually wrote the lyrics to ‘Creep’. However, this perspective is redundant as we all have to start somewhere, and constant progression and development is key to a healthy and successful musical career.

Following the release of the band’s debut studio album, Pablo Honey, in 1993, the band spent two years supporting Belly and PJ Harvey. They played the song every night. Let the implications of that sink in. In fact, in 2018, guitarist Ed O’Brien recalled: “We seemed to be living out the same four and a half minutes of our lives over and over again. It was incredibly stultifying.” 

This wasn’t all, though. Particularly in America, after the song had blown up, audience members would arrive at Radiohead shows incessantly shouting “Creep!” wanting it to be played. However, showing no decorum whatsoever, they would leave after the song was played. Understandably, this drew the ire of the band. Around that time, Yorke would go as far as to say: “It’s like it’s not our song anymore… It feels like we’re doing a cover.” Furthermore, Yorke has since said that the band felt they were being judged on one song and that it was stifling their hopes of progressing.

However, this story is one tinged with irony; after all, what facet of life isn’t? and this is where we get the love part of Radiohead’s relationship with ‘Creep’. Although the band felt that they were being held back by the mega-hit, it actually meant that, economically, they were not in debt to label EMI and could proceed to record their sophomore album, 1995’s The Bends, in whatever way they chose to. The song that held them back was also the one that freed them. 

Esteemed producer of The Bends, John Leckie, recalled that around the time of the band writing the album, EMI hoped for a single that was “even better” than ‘Creep’ although the band “didn’t even know what was good about it in the first place”. However, what they did do, was write their dynamic classic ‘My Iron Lung’ in response to it. The song also contains the explicit line: “This is our new song / just like the last one / a total waste of time”. 

In 1995, Yorke again spoke of how the band felt ‘Creep’ was holding them back, stating: “People have defined our emotional range with that one song, ‘Creep’. I saw reviews of ‘My Iron Lung’ that said it was just like ‘Creep’. When you’re up against things like that, it’s like: ‘Fuck you.’ These people are never going to listen.” It wouldn’t end there, either. While the band were touring their career-defining record, 1997’s OK Computer, Yorke was so sick of the song he refused to discuss it in interviews and even told a Montreal audience, “Fuck off, we’re tired of it,” he muttered. After the 1997 tour, Radiohead would not play the track until an Oxford homecoming show in 2001.

Again, the band would refrain from playing it live until their triumphant headline performance at 2009’s edition of Reading Festival, and of course, this reunion would be short and sweet as they would put it back in the locker until 2016. This came when they were touring 2016’s record A Moon Shaped Pool, but in reality, it wasn’t by choice of their own. Worn down by a fan who spent a whole show relentlessly shouting for the song, the band opted to give it a go in order to “see what the reaction is, just to see how it feels”.

Given that time had perhaps soothed some of the resentment they had for the song, the band included ‘Creep’ as part of their encore for their now-iconic headline set at 2016’s Glastonbury. It was met with roaring applause, speaking volumes of the song’s intergenerational and crossover appeal. It is safe to say that Radiohead would have been slated in parts of the media if they hadn’t included the song. 

In a 2017 interview, O’Brien offered up a weighted take on the song that made Radiohead: “It’s nice to play for the right reasons. People like it and want to hear it,” he said. “We do err towards not playing it because you don’t want it to feel like show business.” In the same discussion, Yorke added: “It can be cool sometimes, but other times I want to stop halfway through and be like, ‘Nah, this isn’t happening.'”

Radiohead’s relationship with ‘Creep’ is a complex one. It is often the case that the songs that really make bands in terms of exposure and commercial success are ones that quickly become a curse. Although ‘Creep’ set Radiohead free in terms of economically casting off the manacles of EMI, the song’s essence as a mega-hit is something that the band are antithetical to. Given the fact that since they have cast of musical mores and paved a path of their own, ignoring what fans and critics want them to do is unsurprising. This speaks of the magic of Radiohead; they are true pioneers. However, would they have been if not for the early experience of ‘Creep’?