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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: Radiohead and the One Song They Couldn’t Escape

The Brit rockers are one of the most popular and influential bands of the past three decades, but “Creep” still stands alone in their catalog

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our show 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 50, about Radiohead’s first and biggest hit, “Creep.”

Little quote for you. This is rad English journalist John Harris, interviewing Thom Yorke for the NME in October 1992. This is John writing about listening to Thom explain “Creep.” “‘When I wrote it,’ Thom remembers, staring at the floor like a child admitting to shoplifting, ‘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.’”

Four months later, talking to the NME again, in February 1993, Thom Yorke said, “I got into a lot of trouble over that. I shouldn’t have admitted to her being a real person.” But then he added, “I’m sure she didn’t give a shit, really. She never gave a shit. She wasn’t even that nice, anyway.” Thom Yorke invented emo. That’s my conclusion. Part of the reason we ain’t got time to fuck around is that I need all the time I can get just to try to convince you that Radiohead were ever just young, unproven, uncouth, unsophisticated knuckleheads writing knuckleheaded songs about the girls who rejected them and giving knuckleheaded self-aggrandizing interviews to English music magazines just like 10,000 other knuckleheaded English rock bands who’d never be heard from again.

But mostly we gotta talk about that sound. I will try, and fail, to convey to you the full epochal significance, the cataclysmic impact of that sound. Its impact on me, its impact on rock ’n’ roll, its impact on society. JOOT JOOT. JOOT. This is the very moment when Air Guitar, as a lifestyle, peaks and then dies. Same deal but for the electric guitar as a lifestyle. This song’s about to get super loud. The verses are very quiet; the chorus is very loud. That’s not the cataclysmic part, of course. Radiohead loved the Pixies. Every self-respecting early-’90s rock band loved the Pixies. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was Kurt Cobain ripping off the Pixies. You get it. We get it. Everyone had gotten it by 1993.

No, the cataclysmic part is just that sound. JOOT JOOT. JOOT. I just made that sound with my mouth, again. The cataclysmic part is the explicit contempt for the song inherent in that sound. Jonny Greenwood, guitarist, Radiohead, makes that sound. We got Ed O’Brien also on guitar, we got Jonny’s brother Colin Greenwood on bass, we got Philip Selway on drums. Plus Thom. Formed in Oxfordshire in the mid-’80s. Used to be called On a Friday but everybody hated that name; renamed themselves Radiohead after a Talking Heads song. That’s Radiohead. Ed, explaining the genesis of “Creep” to the NME—this is ’92, this is the She Knows Who She Is interview—Ed says that sound, “Is the sound of Jonny trying to fuck the song up. He really didn’t like it, so he tried spoiling it, and it made the song.”

“Creep” is a gordian knot of self-loathing. It is a self-aggrandizing monument to self-loathing as constructed by a band that also maybe loathed the song itself. Or would eventually loathe it. That’s the myth, anyway, yes? “Creep” made Radiohead, and Radiohead would go on to despise “Creep.” They pretty much stopped playing it live for years. They went on to make lavishly adored and prophetically dystopian albums that pointedly sounded nothing like “Creep” whatsoever. Turns out they hated “Creep” so much that they threatened to give up guitars altogether. Right? Right? “Creep” is an albatross. “Creep” is a knuckleheaded embarrassment. “Creep” is Radiohead prank-calling MTV.

And it backfired. “Creep” was a disastrous clarion call to millions of unsophisticated teenage dipshit rapscallions like me who fell in love with the song and turned up in Thom Yorke’s life and he couldn’t do anything about it. There’s me, at 14, untroubled by wit or wisdom or perspective of any sort, fused to my couch with Cheeto dust on my fingers, rapt as Jonny Greenwood bends in half over his guitar, he’s got the rather emo curtain of jet-black hair, his posture is awful, he looks like he’s boneless, and he looks like the awesomest dude on planet Earth at the precise moment when he makes that sound. Within a couple years Jonny would start wearing an arm brace, onstage, which always struck me as the raddest possible thing: He rocks so hard he might hurt himself. See? This isn’t working. I am unsatisfied with my attempt to convey to you the status-quo-annihilating magnificence of this moment. New plan: I’m tapping in Beavis and Butt-head.

There we go. Alex Ross, the famous rock and classical music critic, profiled Radiohead for The New Yorker in 2001. This is Kid A + Amnesiac era, of course—Radiohead are now the most rapturously revered rock band on the planet. Alex wrote that, “Radiohead have stopped playing ‘Creep,’ more or less, but it still hits home when it comes on the radio.” He also says, “What set ‘Creep’ apart from the grunge of the early ’90s was the grandeur of its chords—in particular, its regal turn from G major to B major.” So, But I’m a creep—G major. I’m a weirdo—B major. He says, “No matter how many times you hear the song, the second chord still sails beautifully out of the blue. The lyrics may be saying, ‘I’m a creep,’ but the music is saying, ‘I am majestic.’” End quote. I’m not about to start a musicological feud with The New Yorker’s classical music critic, but I will say that I, personally, have always preferred the regal turn from the third to the fourth chord, from C major to C minor—the C minor, to my ears, also sails beautifully out of the blue. Plus the brutal emotional epiphany of that move from major to minor. The realization. The resignation. What the hell am I doing here—C major. I don’t belong here—C minor. Here, you listen to it. You and Beavis and Butt-head listen to it.

So. You are 14 years old. You are now fused to the ceiling above your couch. You have been electrified, and radicalized, by boneless Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s failed attempt to sabotage Radiohead’s breakout hit with that sound. While you are fused to the ceiling, MTV plays the video for “Creep” 50 more times. You are thus further radicalized. So you peel yourself off the ceiling. Maybe you wash the Cheeto dust off your fingers, maybe you don’t. And you get in your car and you drive—eh, sorry, you get your mom to drive you to the mall, to Camelot Records, in the mall, because you desperately need to buy the Radiohead album Pablo Honey for $16.99. Oh, boy. Yeah. I am here to once again try and fail to convey to you young people the existential crisis that was CD shopping in 1993. I am almost definitely not saying this to you for the last time. If you wanted to listen to an album—one album, by anybody—your mother had to drive you to a second location and you had to buy the album for basically $20. $20 got you one album and, like, a pretzel. Yes, I said existential crisis.

Album covers, from this era, still unsettle me, now, in 2021. So the Pablo Honey cover, right, the baby in the flower? Dirt, by Alice in Chains, the ghost lady in the dirt. Dirty, by Sonic Youth, the sock-puppet dude. (“Sugarcane” is a rad song. “Wish Fulfillment” is a radder song.) Bad Religion glowering from the cover of the Bad Religion album with the song “Infected” on it. Couple different Soul Asylum albums, which I bought. All of these were gleaming vectors of anxiety to me. At 14 I would walk into a record store with $20, maybe, and I’d slowly spin around, daunted by these looming walls loaded up with first- and second- and third-tier alt-rock albums, and I would agonize—and I do think that’s the right word—I would agonize over which one to buy. Which of these album covers that I long ago internalized, that I’ve already stared at for hours, represents the album that will have the most good songs in addition to the one song I’ve already heard on the radio 50 times? Which album will reward my investment? Which of these albums is spiritually worth $16.99? You buy Dirty by Sonic Youth because you love “Sugarcane,” and you hope you are rewarded with “Wish Fulfillment.”

But for all of my overwrought angst about this, I honestly can’t think of an album that I regret buying—when I bought it because I loved one song, but the other 12 songs sucked, and I was crushed. I don’t think that ever happened to me. I’d like to think I’d remember if that’d happened; I’d like to think I’d tell you. The real tragedy here—and I do think that’s the word—the real tragedy of this state of affairs is all the extremely great albums I didn’t buy in 1993 out of an overabundance of caution. I love it now. I would’ve loved it back then. I almost bought it back then. But I didn’t. And as a consequence I deprived my already plenty-deprived teenage self of an album I love.

I mention all this—the gravity, the severity, the finality of buying one CD for $16.99—in order to put you in the mindset of the hundreds of thousands of skittish teenage goofballs who bought Radiohead’s Pablo Honey in 1993 because they loved the song “Creep” and for no other reason. Like the first two Jerky Boys CDs, Pablo Honey did go platinum in America: It sold 1.5 million copies or so. The rest is history. But this is the challenge before us today: Forget the history. Forget everything you know, think, feel, or have read about Radiohead, arguably the single most thought-about, felt-about, written-about rock band of my lifetime. The next time you throw on Pablo Honey—“throw on” at this point is a hilarious euphemism, like, the next time you stick Pablo Honey in your combo radio/tape deck/five-CD changer—the next time you listen to Pablo Honey, pretend you’ve never heard the whole album before. Pretend you know only “Creep.” Pretend you have no idea whether Radiohead will even make another album, let alone sustain an outlandishly acclaimed decades-long career. Pretend that you suspect they might break up tomorrow. Pretend that you are actively concerned they’re a one-hit wonder. A bust. A bad investment. I want you to listen to all 12 songs and 42 minutes of Pablo Honey and then answer one question: Is all this, and all this alone, worth $16.99?

To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.