There was a time when Radiohead’s “Creep” was a song that frat boy spring breakers just had to hear. They liked it not because it induced any necessary searching of souls, but because it 1. Felt like it could be about you when you were drunk and all in touch with your emotions, but not in a prissy way and 2. It rawked hard with some crazy guitar noises.
To watch the available videos of Radiohead playing for such folks is to have your heart break for the members of the band, while also understanding why they disavowed the song that was how many people first came to experience their art.
They described playing gigs that were better befitting a band like Smash Mouth than a collective that would eventually number among the dozen or so best groups that rock has produced, where audience members departed en masse after “Creep” had been performed. They had to have felt like mice in a maze, which I suppose is a huge downer, even if you’re a mouse.
In the decades since the release of “Creep,” Radiohead’s fans have mostly adopted the band’s attitude towards the number, in that just about every single one of them parrots the opinion that it’s well below the qualitative likes of OK Computer or Kid A, the accepted masterpieces and any individual tracks you care to name (“Fake Plastic Trees,” “I Might Be Wrong,” “Follow Me Around,” “Street Spirt”).
Further, Radiohead heads single out “Creep” as being unlike anything else they did, and not in an advanced, artistic way. It’s an embryonic snapshot of a band that didn’t yet know or understand what it could be. A hackneyed nod to the then-current grunge movement. A stab at radio play. A piece of pop puffery that is unworthy of what Radiohead became. And yet, if you went to a Radiohead show, you’d lose your shit if they started to play it, which would take all of three notes—tops—to realize. Sometimes those we’re quick to label hypocrites are but vested lovers in disguise, and we must forgive them the foibles that are really a part of all of us.
But let’s not be sucked into the vortex that kills critical thinking when it comes to “Creep.” Stay with me here, but I’m going to say something that I both believe and believe to be self-evident if we allow ourselves to deaden the noise and listen to this song as a song, and not a work that has been beaten down by the hip folks who made it. “Creep” isn’t just the best work of art that Radiohead ever made, it’s one of the greatest songs ever written by anyone. Additionally, it’s the only Radiohead song that would fit on any album they’ve done.
If you’re going to write a song for the ages, certain attributes need to feature. The song has to be both simple and complex, which sounds like an impossibility. You’ve perhaps heard someone suggest that it’s harder to write “All You Need Is Love” than “Stairway to Heaven,” which I’m willing to accept. The kind of song we’re talking about can’t overwhelm you with its difficulty. The listener must not be burdened in “keeping up.” Simultaneously, the song has to have a perpetual freshness, such that each time we return to the song it surprises us, hits us anew. We have to hear that song as though it’s tailored to who we are and what we’ve experienced. J.M. Barrie wrote Peter Pan for a family, and they read the work like it’d been made exclusively for them.
If you think about the music that means the most to you, it’s often because you identity with it the most. Music gets us through life. I’m certain that Radiohead has gotten many people through much. For all of their sonic sorcery, there may be nothing they do more or better than this. Beethoven was also the same way, and Joy Division. There are not grander compliments to pay, just as there is not a single person in the history of humans who hasn’t asked themselves, “What the hell is wrong with me?” and felt that the answer to that question was unique to them.
“Creep” is a song about that universal question posed at the level of the individual who thinks it was engineered for their solitary personage. It’s that movement from the personal to the universal and back again in a timeless loop that is what all eternal art has in common, for all of the untold number of differences. Don’t be bashful: Let your love for “Creep” be known. This is the Radiohead song we’re all always going to need.
The track was written by Yorke in the late 1980s while a student at Exeter University, which means that it predates anything to do with grunge, a label for the song which has always mystified me. Before cutting the song in the studio, Yorke joked that it was the band’s Scott Walker number; that is, a weepy, torch-y type of ballad, high on emotionalism.
The producers were crestfallen, thinking the closest thing the band had to a sterling offering was a cover. It’s amusing what some bands don’t take seriously. The Rolling Stones viewed “Satisfaction” as a joke, and ditto Guns N’ Roses with “Sweet Child O’Mine.” But if something is always in your head and you’re an artist, there’s an excellent chance that a part of you believes it best to pay attention.
“Creep” is not grunge, but it is the blues. It has more in common with Billie Holiday and Howlin’ Wolf than it does Bush and Nirvana. That resonates as a funny claim because it’s an unfamiliar, against-the-current one, but you could also take the likes of “Idioteque” from 2000’s Kid A and play it on acoustic guitar and scat to it as if you were Ella Fitzgerald. John Coltrane would have been able to riff on the refrain. Let me put it this way: Radiohead have been around longer than they’ve been around. Whatever they most are has always been in the air, on the walls, and in hearts. They just formally codified some of that, and applied instruments and titles.
The concerns of “Creep”—the overwhelming doubt with which this narrator contends—go back to an age before language itself. Grunting cave people could have heard this sound and recognized it as common emotional ground. Where there is human life, there is that doubt, and we also always know the sound of that doubt, because it comes to us in the form of a voice from within and that voice doesn’t require words. Knowing that the doubt need not be there or can be redressed—that acceptance has a part to play, and growth is better still—is both the key to self-awareness and happiness.
So right from the start, with that September 1992 release of “Creep,” Radiohead was about big ideas. We are not screwing around here. The band was also about being open. You don’t want to listen to a song and assume that the singer and the first person of that song are the same individual. Someone, for instance, wants to take you down in “Strawberry Fields Forever,” but to make that John Lennon the guy is to reduce the potency and range of the narrative voice. Then it’s but a biopic in song form. There isn’t as much imagination in the biopic, and there isn’t the same amount of opportunity for empathy.
Ironically, that empathy would become more obscure for Radiohead as they progressed as wizards of the studio, masters of the loop, purveyors of intense amalgamation, trouncers of labels. They added levels of clothing and cloaking. Emotion and empathy was in there, but you have to work harder to wrest it from the likes of 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool.
There’s a nakedness, though, to “Creep” that shocks and still shocks, arguably more than ever in this age when we have wired ourselves to pretend that "Hey! Everything is super duper awesome, look at my social media feed!" when everything is everything but.
After F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his “Crack-Up” essays, Ernest Hemingway essentially called him a sorry bitch. An unmanly man who had embarrassed himself by revealing how he felt. To Hemingway, this was weakness, which goes to show how little he understood the meaning of true strength. “Creep” models our doubt and fears for us, standing in front of the classroom, and letting the robe fall to the floor. These guys were so bloody good right away, and brave. The song starts with the use of second person with its opening line, “When you were here before," which also sounds a lot like "When you were in a fog." Who isn't? Where is here? It’s everywhere, isn’t it? We’re not talking about a room, a bus stop, the doctor’s office. We could be. But that’s immaterial. You work that out for yourself. “Here” really means “in the place that matters most.” Pick whatever that is for you. The second line contains what is a lyrical ghost note: “Couldn’t look you in the eye.” It’s also a sonic pun via what is left out. Yorke doesn’t use “I” the pronoun, but it’s implied, and played off of by the word “eye.” That holding back of the first person mirrors the narrator’s self-doubt. He doesn’t belong on this floor.
The guitar riff is a lot like a walking bass figure in a 1940s jazz number. We’re guided by that riff and it determines direction, but we’re not consciously noting it. We’re feeling what this person is saying about another person. They’re rhapsodizing them. Mere skin induces tears, because it’s not mere skin; it’s what nominally holds this other figure together. And why is that figure so revered? Because she is everything the singer—this narrator—is not, or believes himself to be.
That’s pretty crushing, right? Brave. Honest. Real. That is a doozy of a hit, by which I mean, a blow to the soul. If you haven’t been there, then please, by all means, take me to your planet, because you are an alien not from these parts, and I should get out more.