On this day in history, Radiohead released their most popular song to date. “Creep,” the mainstream moody jam that is still widely sulked to by all those who “don’t belong here,” was released on September 21st, 1992. The track is now 22 years old, and interesting for many reasons.
It was recorded practically by accident, and it was never intended for release. It completely flopped in its initial debut, but became a worldwide hit just one year later. It was criticized for censorship. It lost a plagiarism lawsuit, but remained a hit. It even received fan mail from murderers. But mainly, I cannot think of too many songs that are so hated by the band and so loved by the general public.
According to bassist Colin Greenwood, Thom Yorke wrote “Creep” in the late 1980s before the band formed. Guitarist Johnny Greenwood said it was written about a girl Yorke used to follow around while studying at Exeter University, who unexpectedly ended up at one of the band’s shows. During a 1992 rehearsal with producers Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie, the group started playing the song for them spontaneously. Yorke told them it was “our Scott Walker song” because of its style, but they mistook the remark and presumed it to be a cover. It wasn’t until later that the song was brought out again, when recording sessions for “Inside My Head” and “Lurgee” grew frustrating and tense. Slade and Kolderie asked them to play the cover again to try to boost morale, and the whole studio burst into applause afterwards. The band then revealed it was an original, and the producers urged them to record it as their next single.
In its first release in 1992, it was poorly received as a single. Radio 1 found the song “too depressing” and refrained from playing it. York said that many journalists misunderstood the song and often asked him if it was supposed to be a joke. But when it was re-released in 1993 on their debut album, Pablo Honey, it was a global success.
Radiohead received criticism over a television performance in 1993 for Top of the Pops, when they chose to alter the lyrics “You’re so f***ing special” to “You’re so very special.” Oasis guitarist Noah Gallagher said they only altered the song “because it made them more money.” Yorke later said he regretted changing the line, feeling that it disturbed the sentiment of the song and caused it to lose its anger.
The band was successfully sued for plagiarizing “Creep,” when it was found to share chordal structure with The Hollies’ 1973 song “The Air That I Breathe.” As a result, Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood are credited as cowriters of the song.
Radiohead has nicknamed the song “Crap.” The blasts of guitar noise that come right before the chorus were actually an attempt at sabotage by Johnny Greenwood, who felt the song was too “wimpy.” The band grew especially sick of its success in the mid 1990s, when attendees of their shows only showed interest in that one song. Yorke was even more put off when he allegedly received fan mail from “murderers” who told them how much they related to the song. So they started playing it much less frequently, cutting it from their setlist entirely in the middle of their 1998 OK Computer tour. It was not played live again until 2001. It was an impromptu decision, after equipment failure on the organ at the start of “Motion Picture Soundtrack.” Yorke told the audience they would be playing “a slightly older song…I think.”
When you look at its history, this song has been beaten up in almost every way possible. But it was popular for a reason, and if you can strip away all the baggage that comes with it, the song itself is pretty f***ing special. Happy Birthday, Creep.