To discuss the evolution of Radiohead, we must contend with their first hit-single, "Creep." It was the song that catapulted them to stardom and to this day remains their most streamed and most recognizable song. Although scorned by numerous Radiohead fans and even by the band itself, "Creep" is inescapable. In this episode we'll focus specifically on the reception of "Creep" on MTV — at their MTV Beach House performance in 1993 and on an episode of Beavis and Butthead. But before that: a little history behind "Creep."
[00:00:00] Savannah Wright: [00:00:00] This is Fake Plastic Podcast, a podcast that unlocks the alchemy of Radiohead — one song, music video, or live performance at a time. My name is Savannah Wright.
[00:00:13] To discuss the evolution of Radiohead, we must contend with their first hit single "Creep." It was the song that catapulted them to stardom, and to this day remains their most streamed and most recognizable song. Although scorned by numerous Radiohead fans and even by the band itself, "Creep" is [00:00:30] inescapable.
[00:00:31] Andy Greene: [00:00:31] It just sends your brain back the first time that you heard it.
[00:00:34] Savannah Wright: [00:00:34] This is Andy Greene, senior writer at Rolling Stone.
[00:00:38] Andy Greene: [00:00:38] And it's the one song of theirs that my sister even knows. I mean, it's a song who is not a fan of the band at all.
[00:00:45] It has penetrated the culture in a way that nothing that they've done since has, which is a true accomplishment. If you write a song that big, the whole world knows and can sing along to, then you've got something special.
[00:01:00] [00:00:59] Savannah Wright: [00:00:59] Andy became a fan of Radiohead after seeing them at the Tibetan freedom concert in 1998.
[00:01:05] Andy Greene: [00:01:05] And I didn't really know them all that well. And then they started playing and they just blew my mind. And then I went out and I bought the album I bought, you know, OK Computer. And then that was it. It was just off the race. If I became a super fan.
[00:01:18] Savannah Wright: [00:01:18] In this episode we'll focus specifically on the reception of "Creep" on MTV, at their MTV Beach House performance in 1993 and on an episode of Beavis and Butthead. But before that, [00:01:30] a little history behind "Creep" .
[00:01:31] Andy Greene: [00:01:31] Um it was this weird sort of post grunge era where record labels were throwing money at any band that sounded remotely alternative. Because Nirvana and Pearl jam were selling records by the tens of millions.
[00:01:44] And so there's this whole flood of like second generation, you know, like grunge bands that weren't grungy in the least, but that had this sort of patina of grunge to them and their sound. And "Creep" just got sort of lumped in with that. And it sort of took on a whole life [00:02:00] of its own and became much bigger than they were even comfortable with.
[00:02:03] Savannah Wright: [00:02:03] At first, the reception to "Creep" was mixed. Some journalists even asked Thom Yorke if it was a joke.
[00:02:11] Andy Greene: [00:02:11] Well, because there was so many sort of jokey songs in that time period. They were like that. I think "Ex Loser" was just, that was just a tad bit later. There was, there was , there was STP's "Creep," that same month even, and all these sort of tongue in cheek songs then that were flying out. [00:02:30] Uh, and then it just sort of got lumped in there.
[00:02:32] Savannah Wright: [00:02:32] But despite its off putting lyrics, the song rose in popularity, getting spins in Israel, then Spain, New Zealand and a few Scandinavian countries and ultimately the American West coast. The song hit the U. S. with full force when MTV added it to their Buzz Bin, which featured a select group of music videos from upcoming artists.
[00:02:52] Think of it like the featured playlist on Spotify or Apple Music that predict the next big thing. In a pre-internet [00:03:00] world, the Buzz Bin was the go-to source for suburban listeners on the hunt for new music. And that's how Andy discovered the song.
[00:03:08] Andy Greene: [00:03:08] Because the radio stations, they just play the biggest hit. And lots of radio is just classic rock. And so there were very few ways for a kid like me in Cleveland to even hear a new band, if I wasn't really trying, uh, whereas MTV, they had this thing that they called the Buzz Bin you know, so that's the first place I heard Weezer or Green Day or so many [00:03:30] groups.
[00:03:30] I remember that there'd be commercials for it. And I remember being just 12 years old and there being just this little, little snippet of the "Creep" video, it's the hook. And that's, you know, I think for a lot of people all over the country, it was like, it was, that was the introduction. And at the time they couldn't tell if it was like a silver chair or a cracker or just some group that had one song or a group that would have real legs.
[00:03:52] But that was, that was the first exposure to the whole country was just that little. That, that like four seconds of the song on the Buzz Bin [00:04:00] commercial
[00:04:01] Savannah Wright: [00:04:01] With the popularity of "Creep" propelling Radiohead into the mainstream, MTV invited the band to perform on MTV Beach House a one-hour music show featuring videos and live performances.
[00:04:12] Andy sets the stage.
[00:04:14] Andy Greene: [00:04:14] This was in '93. It was sort of the peak of the alternative rock movement in a lot of ways. They went. In just a few years they had gone from underground to the mainstream. And all the old seminal bands from the eighties, they were dead and MTV, [00:04:30] they stopped playing all Poison all Motley Crue. All that stuff was dead.
[00:04:35] And any band that was remotely alternative, you know, like seeming and having even a minor hit, it became part of the universe. And at the Beach House they, you know, they had, they had lots of time to kill. So they'd bring bands on that even had sort of so-so hits on the charts. And Radiohead, you know, it was the first U.S. Tour and they said yes to everything so that the chance to go on to MTV and [00:05:00] sing to the whole country? They, they gladly took it.
[00:05:03] So that's the wind up, you know, in the same stage as like Naughty By Nature and stuff, you know, bands that were very different than they were.
[00:05:11] And it's funny, you know, when you look back now, that was the group that says no to most everything like down to their to their own Hall of Fame induction, which they're not going to, but back then, it was just, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
[00:05:24] So they were willing to go and sing a censored version of their song at the Beach House to a bunch of [00:05:30] like drunk college kids.
[00:05:32] Savannah Wright: [00:05:32] Radiohead is performing for a crowd of college aged kids in vaguely grunge beach outfits. They smile and nod to the beat, but they seem slightly uncomfortable listening to such a depressing song, especially on a sunny 4th of July day.
[00:05:46] The band members, Andy notes look equally uncomfortable.
[00:05:48] Andy Greene: [00:05:48] They'd just come to America and they were playing super small places, and you know, they're these pale guys from Oxford that were real intellectuals and they [00:06:00] get on stage in you know, this blinding daylight, all wearing sunglasses. You look at Thom Yorke. He has like long blonde, slightly bleach blonde hair.
[00:06:09] He looks, he was like Tom cruise from the interview from the, like the from the Vampire movies. You have this like. His skin is so pale. It's like translucent. He's singing a song that he had, he was already sick of and the whole band, they're all wearing sunglasses and kind of weird, bright colors and their playing at this ocean of drunken college [00:06:30] kids in like, bikini's, uh, just sort of nodding their heads, along to "Creep."
[00:06:35] And you could just almost see Thom sort of like, "This is just so debasing that this is what it takes," but he was willing to do it. They play "Creep," they play "Anyone Can Play Guitar." it was one of their lesser early songs. And then he dove into the pool, but he was holding the mic still. So he almost got electrocuted. He could have died, right? That would have been, you know, one of the craziest rockstar deaths ever.
[00:06:59] But [00:07:00] in comparison to everything they did after that, when they got famous and they got control and every bit of their image they could curate and hire video directors and have everything be so precise... just to see them as just, just some other like second rate, like fake grunge band at the Beach House is just hysterical.
[00:07:22] Savannah Wright: [00:07:22] I loved seeing what they were wearing, like how Ed was wearing this loose, white kind of pirate shirt.
[00:07:30] [00:07:29] Andy Greene: [00:07:29] Yeah. Right. That it's like they're playing dress up. It's like they're pretending to be some other band. They don't look like Oxford kids with high IQ's. They look like morons, you know, it's so different than everything that you saw afterwards.
[00:07:43] Savannah Wright: [00:07:43] But beyond the humor of seeing Ed in his pirate shirt and Thom stage diving into the pool, this performance marked something bigger.
[00:07:55] Andy Greene: [00:07:55] It's one of the last moments where you see them [00:08:00] sort of at the mercy of their label and the mercy of MTV and forces they can't control. And it shows the dangers of what happens when they've, somebody else is calling the shots. And I think, I think that they, that they learned from it.
[00:08:14] I think the lesson is that we need our own art directors. We need video directors. So we carefully pick. We can't look like a bunch of clowns, you know, it will, it will hurt the music. It will hurt everything if we're seen as just some lame MTV band. If we don't [00:08:30] look different than Bush or Cracker or the Lemonheads, we can't rise above the, like this.
[00:08:36] Savannah Wright: [00:08:36] Radiohead got flack from the music press and other musicians for censoring "Creep" in this and other performances. Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher said that Radiohead was willing to perform the clean edit of the song because it made them more money, but Andy says this wasn't the first time the band got accused of selling out.
[00:08:53] Andy Greene: [00:08:53] I remember I interviewed the entire band about a year and a half ago, and they were all saying that even when they signed with [00:09:00] EMI, they got a ton of shit. That all the indie bands that they'd come up with said, you know, that that's selling out.
[00:09:07] Uh, and then to go have some sort of, sort of fake grungy song, or a scrunge song that's often called, you know, it was just seen as your. If people's first exposure to you is a song being relentlessly hyped by the label and just all over the radio, it's just it's, you seem suspect. It seems that you didn't pay your dues, [00:09:30] that you're supposed to build up a groundswell slowly by digging and digging and digging and putting EP's out that you sell out of the trunk of your car and you slowly build up. If your first thing goes all over the radio, it's like, these guys are fake. That this is just record company bullshit.
[00:09:47] Savannah Wright: [00:09:47] Yet "Creep's" appearance on MTV did not end there. The song was also featured on the network's hit sitcom, Beavis and Butthead.
[00:09:54] Andy Greene: [00:09:54] Beavis and [00:10:00] Butthead is one of the great satires of the nineties and the audience. They had no idea that they were being mocked. It was young kids who are watching MTV staring at at two other kids who were watching, who're watching MTV back and were watching videos and just being confused by them.
[00:10:20] And it was Mike Judge, who went on to do so much great stuff just sort of commenting on how MTV melts your brain, how the audience of this network is a bunch of idiots that are getting dumber by the [00:10:30] second as they watch these videos all day long.
[00:10:34] Butthead: [00:10:34] Uh, what is this?
[00:10:36] Beavis: [00:10:36] Don't worry Butthead, it gets cooler in a minute.
[00:10:40] Andy Greene: [00:10:40] So that MTV was very subversive. It was the network, basically just viciously mocking its own audience and they would watch videos by Pink Floyd or the Rolling Stones or weird metal bands. It was, it was just, it was just all over the place. And just, didn't just do commentary. It was their [00:11:00] confusion and frustration with what they were seeing.
[00:11:03] So in '94 they watched "Creep" and I've seen it at about 20 times probably. And each time I laugh as hard because they want the song to rock because their ideal band is Pantera. So when the, when, when the chunky riff comes, you know, they're so thrilled, but for the rest of it, they're bored.
[00:11:26] Butthead: [00:11:26] It better start rocking or I'll really give him something to cry about.
[00:11:30] [00:11:29] Beavis: [00:11:29] Shut up buddy it gets cool. Check it out, check it out. Here it comes.
[00:11:44] Andy Greene: [00:11:44] It's sort of, it's like the one bit of the song that was like uh Johnny just sort of mocking, like, like guitar bands or something is the one that they respond to. He was sort of mocking a sound which would excite Beavis, and watch it works perfectly. [00:12:00] And then for them to be bummed out by the rest of the song, it's just utterly funny.
[00:12:07] Beavis: [00:12:07] Hey, what's going on? How come they don't just like, play that cool part through the whole song?
[00:12:15] Butthead: [00:12:15] Well Beavis, if they didn't have like a part of the song that sucked, then it's like the other part wouldn't be as cool .
[00:12:22] Savannah Wright: [00:12:22] So how do you think their response to "Creep" was representative of the popular response to this song?
[00:12:28] Andy Greene: [00:12:28] Yeah. I think the popular [00:12:30] responses to this song is I sort of liked the song, at least that one bit of it, but the rest of it is sort of boring, you know? I think a lot of people, they were like, they're like Butthead they're like, they were like, why can't the whole song be like that.
[00:12:48] Beavis: [00:12:48] Yeah. Rock!
[00:12:50]Andy Greene: [00:12:50] Yeah, I think that this moment where Butthead, who was smarter than Beavis, would occasionally [00:13:00] stumble on some wisdom by accident. And I think he's right there. That part of what makes "Creep" great is you get this occasional jolt that it gives you. And the rest of it just goes back to being mellow. That if it wasn't for that, if Johnny didn't think of that one little "da da" ,
[00:13:17] they wouldn't have made it. It was, that was what got the attention of the country was the one moment that had the same reaction as Beavis: definitely. Yeah. Yeah. Cool.
[00:13:27] Savannah Wright: [00:13:27] It's rumored that Johnny inserted that signature [00:13:30] guitar thrash to mock "Creep" and that the effect made it into the song by accident.
[00:13:35] Andy Greene: [00:13:35] Uh, I've seen him tell various stories about that. And when I interviewed him, I was sorta bummed out I didn't ask, but I think that he, from the story I've heard a few times is that he added it in as a joke, almost. That they didn't like the song and, you know, so he just sort of put that in there and, and it stayed
[00:13:52] Savannah Wright: [00:13:52] After the wild popularity of "Creep," Radiohead seemed eager to shed their unwanted reputation as a scrunge band. Andy [00:14:00] says the transition was slow — starting with their sophomore album, The Bends and culminating in OK Computer.
[00:14:07] Andy Greene: [00:14:07] I think The Bends shows a huge evolution in song writing. And then on Pablo Honey there's maybe like three songs that really lasted. I, I, I think I like "Lurgee," I like "Blow Out". I like "Creep" obviously, but most of it is second tier. And The Bends, I love every single song, but there's no hit. And I think Alicia Silverstone [00:14:30] in Clueless she spoke for a bunch of the country when she was like, wow, this is a cry baby.
[00:14:37] Alicia Silverstone: [00:14:37] Yuck. The maudlin music of the university station. Wah Wah Wah. What is it about college and crybaby music?
[00:14:49] Paul Rudd: [00:14:49] Hey, who's watching the Galleria?
[00:14:53] Alicia Silverstone: [00:14:53] The flannel shirt deal. Is that a nod to the crispy Seattle weather? Or are you just trying to stay warm in front of the refrigerator?
[00:15:00] [00:15:00] Andy Greene: [00:15:00] By '95 the alternative scene was dead. I mean, it was completely gone. It was Hootie and the Blowfish, it was Sheryl Crow and it was happy music. It was a very different time. And there was little audience for, in the States for a band like that.
[00:15:18] And I think that"Fake Plastic Trees" to most people in, in like America, that was like a boring, I don't wanna hear this. I don't wanna hear this guy whine. You know, was, it was big in Europe, but they were opening up [00:15:30] forAlanis Morissette, and for David Gray, I mean, they were, uh, not really making it.
[00:15:35] Um, and on "My Iron Lung" he's singing about "Creep," how the very thing that was keeping them alive it was also like entombing them in an iron lung, you know, which is crazy. I just think, you know, they did so many concerts. They were on tour for like five straight years in many small places with people who would show up to just hear "Creep" in the States. They play one song, they watch the [00:16:00] place go nuts and then just get nothing. And they would watch fans, they'd walk out.
[00:16:03] You know, it was very frustrating to be a band as brilliant, talented as Radiohead and, and feel like Rico Suave or something, feel like this one hit wonder.
[00:16:13] Savannah Wright: [00:16:13] So do you feel like, because The Bends was, was great and it was showing that they had more breadth, but it didn't produce another hit. Do you think it was OK Computer that really marked like, okay, this band is not just a one hit wonder?
[00:16:26] Andy Greene: [00:16:26] There's no question. What The Bends did was it gave [00:16:30] them, it gave them a much bigger audience in Europe, it gives them the respect of their label and crucially, they met Nigel Godridge, who became who became basically like the sixth member of the band in some ways.
[00:16:44] And it gave them the freedom to go out then and make an album that they really wanted to make, where they had absolute freedom. Or did they were, they, they weren't where they, weren't stuck using a producer that they didn't really jive with and it allowed them, you know, it's, it's the [00:17:00] classic story of the third record.
[00:17:01] It's the, make it, or break it, record that the first one is,it gets you attention. The second one is sort of rushed and is a disappointment. Even though The Bends is fantastic. And the third one is when you make. It's the story of Bruce Springsteen, it's the story of Tom Petty, U2. There's so many bands where it's the third one that sort of breaks you through.
[00:17:21] And it was just also Thom's songwriting. I mean, it was, he was, he was getting better just like exponentially and by OK [00:17:30] Computer, you know, he was in a whole other realm
[00:17:33] Savannah Wright: [00:17:33] Since their first hit, Radiohead's music has progressed significantly in both lyrical and musical complexity, but Andy contends that "Creep" remains an essential part of their legacy.
[00:17:45] Andy Greene: [00:17:45] I'd watch them go back and forth on it. I think in the early aughts, they were really sick of it and they didn't play it for a very long time. And when I interviewed the band, I sort of asked all of them about it. And even Thom said that it was very helpful that it was sort of their calling card. [00:18:00] It, it opened up all these doors and they made their money back.
[00:18:04] There's so many bands after the first album tour, they owe money to the label and it's a major problem. They have to pay for studio time and all this stuff, but they were profitable from day one, which, uh, which again, it's sort of, it sort of made the label, it, they perked up and they realized that it was a band that was, that was with giving more resources, to which they used in a huge way.
[00:18:27] You know I saw them. I saw them a [00:18:30] bunch of times on the last tour, but I was in Peru. It was like last April. And it was the first time they ever played in Peru. So they played "Creep." And then it was a stadium full of hardcore fans. When they played "Creep," I feel that the energy, the stadium, they just sort of doubled. It's the song everybody knows. And when they play it live, when they mixed it in with other songs it still sounds great.
[00:18:53] It's a truly, it's a great song and they shouldn't be ashamed of it. You know, I think that I [00:19:00] understand why they're sick of it, but there's something about it. And it still works.
[00:19:03] Savannah Wright: [00:19:03] Perhaps after 23 years, Radiohead was finally ready to recognize "Creep's" role in their career. On their 2016 tour in support of A Moon Shaped Pool, the band played "Creep" for the first time in decades. And not just once, but on multiple shows.
[00:19:22] Andy Greene: [00:19:22] I think on the 2012, like King of Limbs tour where they didn't play a lot of old songs, I think Thom was [00:19:30] bummed out on that tour. He was going through a lot of hard stuff in his life with his, with his wife being sick, uh, with their drum tech dying when the stage collapsed. It was a very difficult time and they did too many straight concerts and they were just sort of just bummed out and done just playing new songs.
[00:19:47] I think after a four year break they went back on tour in 16, they were willing to sort of present their whole catalog in concert in a very different way. And "Creep" is so old. Now it's almost, I've heard Thom say that when he plays it, [00:20:00] it's almost a feeling of, of, of a cover song. He even forgets that he wrote it.
[00:20:05] And he said to me, I mean, I asked him about it. He's he says sometimes it's fun, then there's some times I'm playing it and halfway through, I just wanna stop. Yeah. So I think, I think after all this time they can step back and then they can look at it as sort of almost part of history. And they're no longer, you know, they're so successful that they're no longer like trapped by it.
[00:20:25] They broke out of their iron lung, you know, a long time ago. So I think they can look at it [00:20:30] now with sort of the distance of history.
[00:20:34] Savannah Wright: [00:20:34] When Kennedy, the MTV Beach House host interviews the members of Radiohead, you can tell she has no idea what the band will become.
[00:20:41] Kennedy: [00:20:41] Oh, I love them musical types. Yes indeed. Well, here we are at the Beach House and coming up, we've got a very special performance from Radiohead.
[00:20:49] Now this is Ed. Now Ed you guys have had fun, little bit of success with the whole "Creep" song. And, um, you guys have been on tour I understand. Now are [00:21:00] the audiences receptive to more than just that song?
[00:21:02] Ed O'Brien: [00:21:02] Yeah. I mean,
[00:21:03] Savannah Wright: [00:21:03] She's silly and jokey with them. She barely knows their work and she doesn't seem particularly interested in their trajectory.
[00:21:13] And why should she? At this point, Radiohead is just another scrunge band with a hit. A Nirvana soundalike that'll disappear with all the rest.
[00:21:22] Andy Greene: [00:21:22] It's hard for fans of Radiohead who weren't around and in 93, or at least paying attention to popular music, [00:21:30] to realize just how many songs that were, that were very similar to that were just being, being pummeled at you, by MTV, by the radio, by the labels. There was this feeding frenzy to find the next Nirvana to find the next Pearl Jam, to find like the next goose that would lay the golden egg. And that could sell like that many records.
[00:21:49] So most of these songs by, you know, whether it was like Glycerine or something orGood Vibe or Nez, or they seem like light bubblegum finds, of bands that'll go nowhere. And most of those bands, they [00:22:00] go nowhere.
[00:22:01] So it's just very bizarre that, that one of those bands who seem to be on like the B list of most bands. I mean Bush were much bigger. That that's the band of the 2000's. That's the band that'll go on and make the best musicof the next 30 years. It just.
[00:22:15] At the time, if you told me that in 93 I would have said that's ridiculous,
[00:22:21] Savannah Wright: [00:22:21] But despite their unlikely beginning, Radiohead did manage to break from their iron lung to subvert listener's expectations and create music that astounded [00:22:30] critics and fans around the world.
[00:22:33] And in this podcast, we'll find out how
[00:22:41] You've been listening toFake Plastic Podcast. Fake Plastic Podcast is an Alternate Thursdays production with new episodes every other Wednesday. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. And if you really liked this episode, please leave a rating and share your thoughts with us on Instagram or Twitter [00:23:00] @fakeplasticpod.
[00:23:01] I'm Savannah Wright. Thanks for listening.