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'Creep' is the skeleton in Radiohead's closet [September 19, 1993]
Plus: Depeche Mode, Smashing Pumpkins, and Nirvana
Hey, Time Traveller! 👋 Welcome back to September 19, 1993!
📰 America’s biggest train disaster occurs in Alabama. A train derails at Big Bayou Canot, killing 47 people and injuring 108.
📽️ Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan fall in love over the radio in smash-hit romcom, Sleepless In Seattle.
📺 A great week for comedy as American TV airs the pilot episodes of Frasier and Animaniacs.
🎶 A new Number One in the UK Top 40 this week, as ‘Boom! Shake The Room!’ by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince slaps ‘Mr Vain’ off the top spot. We’ll talk about that next week, but for now, let’s discuss the track at Number 13…
I live with a teenager, so my house is currently bouncing to the sounds of Olivia Rodrigo’s new album (which is excellent, check out ‘Ballad of a Homeschooled Girl’.)
Rodrigo, like Taylor Swift, writes confessional lyrics that draw from her personal life. And, as with Taylor Swift, her lyrics get analyzed in forensic detail, with fans trying to find clues that point to the identity of the song’s subject. Is she singing about Harry Styles? Or Jake Gyllenhaal? OMG, is Olivia’s song ‘Vampire’ about Taylor Swift???
People assume that most female songwriters write in this autobiographical voice, with lyrics torn directly from their own tear-soaked diary. For over fifty years, people have been dying to know which arrogant, vain asshole pissed off Carly Simon so much that she had to write a song about it. It is a bigger mystery than who killed Jimmy Hoffa.
Male songwriters don’t get this treatment. When a man sings about a girl, we often assume the girl is a metaphor, or that he’s just singing about chicks in general. The 90s gave us “The Britpop She”, an anonymous, faceless heroine who haunts hundreds of indie songs. Folks were shocked when some of those She’s were real people, like the actual Deborah who inspired ‘Disco 2000’.
Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ feels like it’s about a metaphorical She. The girl who looks like an angel, whose skin makes him cry isn’t a real person. She represents happiness or the end of the Cold War or something.
But no. She is real.
"When I wrote it, I was in the middle of a really, really serious obsession that got completely out of hand. It lasted about eight months. And it was unsuccessful, which made it even worse. She knows who she is."
—Thom Yorke, NME, 1992
And that is, perhaps, part of the reason Radiohead grew to hate ‘Creep’.
When you were here before
Most people know Radiohead’s story, but here’s a bullet point recap:
Met in 1985 in boarding school
All musical nerds
Named themselves On A Friday because that was when they practiced
Took a break from each other to attend college
Regrouped after college and started getting serious
Realised that On A Friday was “the worst name in the fucking world”
Rebranded as Radiohead, inspired by a Talking Heads lyric
Signed to EMI in 1991
Thom Yorke kept writing songs during those colleges years in the late 80s. During this time, he developed an unhealthy infatuation with a woman and wrote a song about it. That song was ‘Creep’.
‘Creep’ stayed locked in a drawer for many years. In 1991, Radiohead issued their first record, the unsuccessful Drill EP with early versions of ‘You’, ‘Thinking About You’, and ‘Prove Yourself’. After Drill failed, the band started working on their next single, ‘Lurgee’, and began rehearsing some new material. One of those new songs was ‘Creep’.
The band all hated ‘Creep’, especially Johnny Greenwood. Hoping to fuck it up so badly that they would move on, he played some loud, incongruous and quite flat guitar chords just before the chorus. This attempt at sabotage actually sounds quite good.
One day in the studio, the producers are checking levels, so they ask the band to play something. They decide to give ‘Creep’ another run-through. Johnny still hates the song, so he shreds his guitar like he’s summon a bolt of lightning directly at Thom’s head.
And it’s perfect. There are no further takes. The recording on Pablo Honey is that the sound of that barely rehearsed warm-up session.
Johnny’s guitar sabotage only makes the song sound better. When Beavis and Butthead heard Johnny shred, they lost their goddamn minds.
‘Creep’ released as a single in 1992, but BBC refused to play it because it was too depressing and it sank without a trace. Radiohead moved on and started working on Pablo Honey.
And then, international audiences started discovering it in the import racks, and an international cult following appeared. ‘Creep’ re-released in the UK in 1993, went supernova, and suddenly Radiohead were big-time rockstars.
She's running out the door
Okay, so that’s Radiohead, but who is she? Who is the woman in ‘Creep’.
Nobody knows. The only firm detail about her is that she studied in Exeter in the late 80s, and that she showed up at a Radiohead gig in 1991. Johnny Greenwood described this incident:
"Thom was mortified, because he's never spoken to her or anything. He just followed her for a couple of days or a week or whatever about two or three years ago. And here she was. He was very shaken up after that."
In the same interview, Johnny is asked if Thom is a creep. He says:
“Oh, no! He can be quite, ummm, childish, I guess. And he's very creative. But not a creep, exactly. No."
Thom’s reaction at that gig says a lot about the mindset of the obsessive. They enjoy looking at people; they may even write a classic rock song about looking at that person. But if she looks back at him—especially when he’s feeling vulnerable onstage—he goes to pieces.
And that’s because he’s not really interested in her at all. He’s interested in what she represents.
‘Creep’ seems like a prediction of modern Incel culture, but Thom is just expressing an idea that’s found everywhere from Le Morte d’Arthur to Friends: men are broken and incomplete, but they can be fixed by a beautiful woman. She only need to be beautiful, not smart or kind or interesting. In fact, having these qualities make her less desirable, because the ideal female is stunningly pretty and utterly passive.
Also, this woman is replaceable. If pursuer gets bored or, even worse, successfully seduces her, he will move on and seek out another abstract, unattainable woman. This endless pursuit can sometimes make men bitter and resentful—towards women.
In a 1995 interview, Thom spilled his guts and admitted how women made him feel:
"Confronted by a beautiful woman, I will leave as soon as possible, or hide in a corner until they leave. It's not just that I find them intimidating. It's the hideous way people flock around them... The way they're allowed to believe they're being so fucking clever. Beauty is all about unearned privilege and power…I've never met a single beautiful woman I've actually liked.
“It’s not just beautiful women. I totally fear women. I fear all women. Ever since I’ve been at school. I would go for five months without talking to a girl my own age. I don’t think it’s misogyny. It’s the total opposite. It’s blatant fear”.
So, maybe ‘Creep’ isn’t about a specific woman after all? Maybe it really is just another Britpop She; a faceless metaphor for desire, rejection and insecurity.
I wish I was special
Radiohead have a famously unhappy relationship with ‘Creep’, which became something of an albatross for them (and ultimately got them sued for sounding too much like ‘The Air That I Breathe’.)
Pablo Honey got a lukewarm response. ‘Creep’ kept them afloat, but they spent the next few years as “The Creep Guys”, even as The Bends became a critically beloved success. Ed O’Brien said:
"There was a point where we seemed to being living out the same four-and-a-half minutes of our lives over and over again. It was incredibly stultifying."
During the OK Computer era, Thom started telling fans to “fuck off” when they called out for the song. By the end of the decade, they’d stopped performing it altogether (except on special occasions), while making music that sounded as far from ‘Creep’ as possible. A few years ago, Yorke remixed the song into an electronic dirge, almost like he was torturing it.
I don’t know much about Thom Yorke as a person, so I don’t know if he is now or has ever been a misogynist. However, it’s probably safe to say that he looks back on the miserable, messed-up, entitled 21-year-old who wrote those lyrics, and he cringes.
We would all cringe if people knew what we were thinking at that age. Unfortunately for him, his juvenile thoughts have been immortalised by his own soaring falsetto—and Johnny Greenwood’s failed attempts at sabotage.
Elsewhere in the charts
[Number 6 ↑] Chaka Demus & Pliers, ‘She Don’t Let Nobody’
Modern pop songs tend to be much shorter than before. They also repeat their main hooks over and over again (for example, recent hit ‘Boy’s A Liar’). All of this is due to TikTok, where people listen to songs for an average of 32 seconds, leaving musicians with little time to waste.
‘She Don’t Let Nobody’ wasn’t written in the TikTok era, but it somehow feels like a TikTok song. It gets a bit monotonous after a couple of minutes.
[Number 9, New] Depeche Mode, ‘Condemnation’
Remember that time Depeche Mode went gospel? Neither do they, probably. They were doing a lot of drugs at the time.
[Number 29, new] Cranes, ‘Jewel’
The only Top 40 hit for Portsmouth’s Cranes, who sit in the Cocteau Twins/Mazzy Star/The Sundays space but are distinguished by Alison Shaw’s helium-drenched vocals. It’s an interesting sound. They’re still going, so I guess they found their audience.
[Number 31, New] Us3 feat. Rashaan, ‘Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)’
‘Cantaloop’ is immensely fun and probably the best of Us3’s jazz-rap experiments in fusion. Rashaan’s flow here isn’t spectacular, but he sits nicely into the groove and makes the whole thing work. A great song to listen to while doing housework (this is a compliment).
[Number 44, New] Smashing Pumpkins, ‘Today’
We normally try to stick to the Top 40, but you have to make an exception for Billy Corgan and his wee ice cream van.
Album of the Week
Nirvana, In Utero
We recently talked at length about Steve Albini’s contribution to In Utero, and how he was replaced on a couple of tracks, including ‘Heart Shaped Box’. In the context of the album, does any of that matter?
Yeah, it does. Much has been made of In Utero’s opening lyric, “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old”. However, if this album has a topic sentence, it is probably in ‘Scentless Apprentice’ where Kurt howls, “You can’t fire me cause I quit”.
Somewhere in his soul, Cobain wanted In Utero to be his Year Zero, a cleansing fire that would erase his sin of becoming a pop star. Albini, who understood the mission, pushed the band to make an album that was brutal and confrontational.
So, we get tracks here like the brutal ‘Rape Me’, the incoherent howls of ‘Tourettes’, and ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’, where Kurt’s monotone growl poses the question that haunted him: “What is wrong with me?”
It is almost a perfect act of self-immolation, a clean break from Nevermind and the rest of grunge. Almost. Except for the songs where Albini was overruled.
The main change in those mixes is that Kurt’s voice is pushed into the foreground. It’s a small change, but it makes them sound more like pop songs. You can hear it when you listen to the original Albini version, in which ‘Heart Shaped Box’ sounded a lot more garage band-ey, almost like something off Bleach.
This miniscule change is crucial, because it shows that Kurt wasn’t quite ready to walk away from stardom. “You can’t fire me cause I quit,” was an empty threat, just a disgruntled employee blowing off some steam.
And how could he quit? In Utero betrays the fact that Cobain had greatness in his bones, a knack for melody that bursts out in even in the darkest places. His unique talent gives an unsettling loveliness to difficult songs like ‘Pennyroyal Tea’, ‘Dumb’ and the album’s climactic emotional rollercoaster, ‘All Apologies’.
In Utero fails at being a big rock album like Nevermind. In Utero also fails at being a refutation of rock stardom. It lands somewhere between those two positions, never managing to resolve its own contradictions.
And that makes it the perfect Nirvana record. In Utero is a masterpiece that soars above every other LP that came out of the grunge era, including Nevermind.
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