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‘Creep’ , the saddest song we love

As Thom Yorke revisits his band Radiohead's iconic single nearly three decades later, we explore why musicians love to cover it

A studio portrait of Radiohead members in 1995.
A studio portrait of Radiohead members in 1995. (Getty Images)

In April 2008, one of the headliners at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was Prince. The songs he performed included a number of covers, apart from his own iconic numbers, such as Purple Rain, Let’s Go Crazy, Little Red Corvette and 1999. He played three Santana songs and covered The Beatles’ Come Together as well as songs by other bands. But his most memorable, and surprising, cover that night was of Radiohead’s Creep. It also became somewhat controversial.

Prince’s cover of Creep was simply mind-blowing. He took a song that was originally just under four minutes and stretched it to eight. His guitar solos and vocals were riveting; he opened the song gently and transformed it into a grunge guitar extravaganza.

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But a day later, the only online video of this performance was pulled by the artist’s team and access to it blocked worldwide. That was strange because even Radiohead, whose song it originally was, wanted it online for viewers.

Prince’s antagonistic relationship with the internet is well known. He was fiercely protective of copyright and for a long while very little of his music could be found on sites such as YouTube or other streaming sites. It wasn’t until 2015, just a year before he died, that Prince tweeted out a link to the video so that the world could watch his exquisite cover of the song.

Creep, quite likely the most covered song by the British band Radiohead, is from their debut album, Pablo Honey (1993). Bands of every genre have tried to do a version of it. Radiohead have made nine full-length studio albums in all, so, with the advantage of hindsight, and after coursing through their discography, Pablo Honey almost comes across as the work of a band in its formative stages. It was more grungy and guitar-led than the experimental electronic ensemble they resemble today. However, Creep, utterly sad, perhaps even over-emotionally so, continues to stand out.

Why fans and other bands continue to love Creep is a bit of a mystery. It is about unrequited, frustrated love. According to Radiohead’s frontman and vocalist Thom Yorke, it is about a drunk man trying to get the attention of a woman he is infatuated with but lacking the confidence to face her. One verse in the song sums it up succinctly: I don’t care if it hurts/ I wanna have control/ I want a perfect body/ I want a perfect soul/ I want you to notice/ When I’m not around/ So fuckin’ special/ I wish I was special.

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In the original version, sung by Yorke in a light baritone that is also capable of reaching falsetto notes, the lines seem even sadder. Creep was actually a debut single by Radiohead and its release in 1992 preceded Pablo Honey. After a limited amount of radio play initially, it became popular, and, soon, definitional about the kind of music Radiohead played. This was a notion the band itself did not like because they felt their music had transcended the song.

For many years, Radiohead steered clear of performing Creep. Last week though, after nearly 30 years, Yorke revisited Creep with a new take, for the Japanese designer Jun Takahashi’s Autumn-Winter 2021 collection. In the new version, Yorke slows it down, adds special effects and echoes, lengthens it to a bit over nine minutes and, in effect, amps up the gloom. Incredibly, it seems even sadder than the original.

Radiohead and Yorke have always been quite the opposite of Prince when it comes to the internet. They have been known to give out their albums for free downloads before formally releasing them. And, in 2019, they put every official album of theirs on YouTube for free streaming. On 13 July, Yorke put the new version of Creep out with a statement: “Here is my re-imagined remix version of Creep for 2021, 30 years later. Done for my friend Jun Takahashi, and for a world that is seemingly turning upside down.”

Some of the numerous covers of Creep over the years continue to stand out. Nearly 10 years ago, the R&B and soul singer Macy Gray did a version that strikes a mood distinctly different from the original. It is gospelly. A church organ takes the lead instead of guitars, and Gray’s soul-drenched vocals give the song a strangely spiritual twist. At the other end of the spectrum is a Pearl Jam version of the song where singer Eddie Vedder is, ostensibly, drunk.

There are other excellent versions. For instance, a 2006 unplugged version by the American nu metal band Korn, performed live at MTV Studio in New York—singer Jonathan Davis’ sincere emotions are on display. There’s a version by the Brazilian-American singer Bebel Gilberto, whose misty, bossa nova style rendition is pretty unique. Then there are solely instrumental versions by bands such as the Vitamin String Quartet, a Los Angeles group that plays tributes to well-known artists, and Elevator Sky, who have done a piano arrangement of the song. There is even a fun live version by the actor Jim Carrey at an impromptu performance in a tiny Lower East Side nightclub.

Prince’s version, of course, is the best and it’s a pity that it is hard to find other than on YouTube. Creep is probably not the best song by Radiohead. Nor is it the one that captures the band’s virtuosity or innovativeness. But Creep continues to be that one sad, depressing song everyone seems to love.

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