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The Radiohead anthem that "copied" a 1970s pop classic

Radiohead rose to fame from the obscure mediocrity of their Oxford school friendship born out of a shared desire for sanctum. The group, originally named On A Friday after the day they would meet to rehearse, would seek refuge from belligerent teachers and fellow students at Abingdon school in the music room. The school has been depicted as having a Dickensian atmosphere by members of Radiohead as well as the comedian David Mitchell who had also attended the school a year after the rock group had left. 

During David Mitchell’s Desert Island Discs episode on BBC Radio 4 in 2009, he picked out Radiohead’s first big hit, ‘Creep’, as one of the tracks he would take away to a desert island. He explains that the song perfectly captured the hostile environment of Abingdon School and portrayed his mindset of being a social outcast in his days there before being freed from his shell at the University of Cambridge. He explained that the song posed almost comically as a school anthem, and he could imagine the pupils gathering in the chapel and singing along to an organ arrangement of ‘Creep’.

‘Creep’ was the lead single from Radiohead’s first album Pablo Honey, and, despite their efforts to escape its shadow, the song has remained one of the group’s most beloved and well-played songs – as much as the group dislike hearing or playing it these days. The track was also somewhat controversial upon its release. The bleak self-depreciation of the song appeared so precursory to suicide that the BBC initially banned ‘Creep’ from national radio waves, deeming it “too depressing”. The controversy surrounding the record didn’t stop here, however. 

While Radiohead were in the studio creating ‘Creep’, the group had been recording the guitar sequence when “Ed O’Brien stopped and said, ‘This is the same chord sequence as that Hollies song,’” as Jonny Greenwood once recalled. The track, ‘The Air That I Breathe’ was released by The Hollies in 1974 and became a radio sensation. He then explained that Thom wrote the lyrics for it from there. “So Thom copied it. It was funny to us in a way, sort of feeding something like that into [it]. It’s a bit of a change.” It may have been these pop sensibilities that would eventually give Radiohead their unwanted hit.

As it transpired, though, the publishers of The Hollies’ song couldn’t find the same humour in the connection. Rondor Music filed a suit for copyright infringement against the group. The dispute was quickly settled with an agreement that songwriters Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood would receive co-writing credits and a percentage of the royalties.

Hammond subsequently explained that Radiohead had been “honest” about having reused the composition, and so the songwriters agreed to take only “a little piece” of the royalties; the exact settlement was not disclosed.

Listen to Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ and ‘The Air That I Breathe’ by The Hollies below.