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Why Radiohead's "Creep" is one of the best songs ever written.


in Set List • Illustrated by Kat Heller


There was a time when Radiohead’s “Creep” was a song beloved by frat boy spring breakers who had exactly zero interest in anything else by the band. They liked “Creep” 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 (and post-rock, I’d say) 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,” “Paranoid Android,” “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 “Creep,” which would take all of three notes — tops — to realize. I think you’d want to hear it — as a life experience — the way people would wish to hear Eric Dolphy play “God Bless the Child” in a NYC jazz club or the Grateful Dead shred through a panoply of galaxies with “Dark Star” in the early 1970s. Sometimes people 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 mustn’t be burdened by “keeping up.”  

Simultaneously, the song has to have a perpetual freshness, such that each time we return to the song it surprises us, and 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, but it was for everyone. Note that idea: write a work of art as if it’s for one person as well as can possibly be done, and you’ve created a work for all.  

In thinking about the music that means the most to you, you realize it’s often because you identify with it the most. Music gets us through life. I’m certain that Radiohead has gotten many people through much, but they tend not to outwardly give that credit to “Creep” and instead to a “Fake Plastic Trees” or “No Surprises.”  

For all of their sonic sorcery, there may be nothing Radiohead do more or better than this facilitation. Beethoven was also the same way, and Joy Division. There are no 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. People might not cite “Creep” aloud, but you can’t convince me it’s not the consensus number one choice on the inside.   

“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 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 “Creep” in the studio, Yorke joked that it was the band’s Scott Walker number —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 with 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 has 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” as a single, Radiohead was about big ideas. (Oddly — or fittingly — I’ve never thought of “Creep” as a single. Radiohead was not a singles band, no more than Led Zeppelin were, or Pink Floyd. On the band’s debut LP, Pablo Honey, released in 1993, “Creep” was the work from the past that heralded a forward direction, because it seemed to belong to a perpetual present, even as the band grew sick of their own timeless ode.) We are not screwing around here. Radiohead emphasized vulnerability in a manner only the finest bands do. It’s something most of them have in common, actually.  

At the same time, 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, and trouncers of labels. They added levels of clothing and cloaking. Emotion and empathy are 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. Radiohead had a firm grasp on the latter. “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 a use of the 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, or 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.  

The truth can only be blocked out for so long. Facades exist, we might say, in order to crumble. Said crumbling in “Creep” takes the form of a torrential outpouring of the first person. The narrator doesn’t care if it hurts. They want to have control. They want a perfect body, a perfect soul. Radiohead is playing in the same sandbox favored by Descartes. Who grapples with issues of the mind-body split and union in a pop song? Who begins a career in that manner?  

I remarked that you could slip “Creep” on any Radiohead record and it would belong there, which is fitting for a song about someone seeking belonging. You’d have to rework it, in terms of the production values, but the best songs are also frameworks. They can be rejiggered, as can we.  

The core tenets remain in place. That’s the soul of a song. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood inserted blasts of dead notes before the chorus — it’s an act of sonic vandalism — in what was described as an attempt to destroy the track. Fuck it up, as it were. Of course, it helps to make those dead notes as exciting — you feel them in the chest — as any guitar sounds or textures produced in all of rock and roll. They make you ask, “Who does that?”  

Then we have Yorke’s singing. He’s a master of the melisma. We all reach a point when we can’t pretend any longer, and hopefully, that point isn’t arrived at too late. We can fix what needs fixing. We’re not at an end, but rather what may be a needed beginning.  

You can hear a form of that moment in “Creep” when Yorke stretches the line “She’s running out” at the highest point of his range — or so we think — and then goes higher yet on the repetition of the isolate word “run,” protracted over three full bars of what isn’t a fast tempo for starters, which means that protraction feels even longer.  

If you were Richard Wagner, and you were fond of intense, cathartic moments of sublime, voluminous, but natural emotion, and then playing with listener assumptions as to what was possible by further upping the emotion, you’d hear the likes of this passage and think, “Are you kidding me?”  

They’re not done, though. The section concludes, and the song becomes softer than at any other instance. The sound of reflection. Or is that epiphany? Or does the departure from the fetal position have a sound?  

Whatever the answer, there’s this feeling of forward movement. To me, that’s the sound of walls having come down. We applaud that. Or we should. I’d applaud it in you, and I hope you’d applaud it in me. It ain’t easy, is it? Belonging, I mean.  

“I don’t belong here,” the singer of “Creep” tells us repeatedly. Again: Where is here? And once again, it’s wherever matters most to the person who has said as much. Sung as much.  

The singer’s “here” is not the here where he started, and where we started with him. That’s called a progression. And a progression is also called growth, strength, and hope. So, yes, fucking special indeed. And a necessary reminder that you needn’t wish to be something that you already are. You just have to find a way to be it.•


colin fleming’s most recent books are an entry in the .33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963; a volume about 1951's Scrooge as the ultimate horror film; and a work of fiction called If You [ ]: Fabula, Fantasy, F**kery, Hope. He's the author of the comic novel Meatheads Say the Realest Things. His fiction appears in Harper's, Commentary, Virginia Quarterly Review, Salmagundi, and Boulevard, with his writings on art, film, music, literature, and sports running in The Atlantic, Salon, Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, and JazzTimes. His op-eds feature in USA Today, New York Daily News, The New York Times, LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He's a regular radio guest and maintains the voluminous Many Moments More blog on his website, which ranges in its explorations from ballet to film to sports to literature to music to art to nature to unique workout routines in historical structures while exposing the corruption and discrimination — and plain bad writing — rampant in publishing, and documenting what it truly means to endure and grow. Sometimes there are posts on Twitter @colinfleminglit.