20 Covers Of Radiohead’s “Creep,” Rated
In the never-ending curious case of Radiohead, you have a slew of their most iconic songs out there — beloved, covered, cited. Songs that have little to nothing to do with them now, whether they’re off The Bends or even something like “No Surprises.” First and foremost of those, of course, is “Creep,” from their 1993 debut Pablo Honey, AKA the Radiohead Album That Never Actually Happened. Much like Blur’s Leisure, Radiohead was a band that began with derivative, comparatively uninspiring music that would evolve into something much grander, much more exciting, much better. Unlike Blur, Radiohead released “Creep,” a song whose shadow would linger throughout their career, despite the fact that by now they’ve distanced themselves very far from Pablo Honey, both musically and in the their ethos. (Some people still go to Radiohead shows expecting to hear it which, at this point, is simply confounding.)
The case of “Creep” is especially curious. It’s a famous song by a brilliant, pivotal band — but it is almost entirely unrepresentative of them aside from its mainstream reach and has aged especially poorly compared to other material in the Radiohead canon. Meanwhile, it became one of the archetypal representations of Gen X, and it became a go-to song for people to cover by Radiohead. This is totally understandable on one hand — who wants to take on the more hallowed, yet less universally recognized material from Kid A, anyway? The “less universally recognized” bit is also telling. “Creep” is one of those massive things that’s just out in the atmosphere, and that means a lot of the covers of it aren’t from artists who seem logically inspired by or related to Radiohead. As you’ll see below, they range from nu-metal to pop stars to a bunch of other random stuff. Just yesterday we got a professionally recorded take on the song by Tears For Fears. There’s a sense like “Creep” doesn’t even belong to Radiohead anymore, and that’s fitting. I’m not sure they want it. But we know 20 acts who do, and in the spirit of this summer’s “I’m On Fire” list, we’ve given them yearbook-style superlatives.
The “Indiscernible” Award — Pearl Jam
OK, so “indiscernible” is partially Pearl Jam’s honor because this comes off as something random Eddie decided to do when he was drunk onstage, and he is accordingly not quite understandable through all this. But, also — there was a point in their career where I could see Pearl Jam really being into “Creep” and wanting to play it straight, and there’s a point not too much after that where I could see them doing this as something of an ironic, self-deprecating piss take. (There’s also a part of me that wonders where this is from, considering it’s not listed on Pearl Jam’s website bible of songs they’ve played live. If it’s fake, someone did a very good job of approximating the band.) At any rate, judging by the sound of the guitars and the way Vedder’s singing here, I’d estimate this to be sometime in the mid-ish ’90s, in the throes of their post-stardom flare-out (and, ahem, actual artistic peak circa No Code). It’s a sloppy, wire-y cover of the song; the dramatic “She’s running…” part in particular sounds like a complete, booze-fueled mess of a singalong. I’m not necessarily going to cue this one up to listen to it all the time, but I feel like it would’ve been an interesting thing to witness at any point in Pearl Jam’s career pre-classic rock phase.
The “Eighth Circle Of Hell” Award — Korn
For a moment, I was almost dissuaded by Jonathan Davis’ heartfelt introduction to Korn’s acoustic cover of “Creep.” As over-saturated and weakened as the song has become, for it to rise to the prominence it did, obviously it must’ve been really important to a lot of young people like him in the ’90s. Still, I regained my senses and realized this is Korn getting their hands on a Radiohead song. Hands with the residue of aggro rap-metal and white people with dreadlocks. It’s Korn — let’s say, far from one of my favorite bands — covering one of my favorite bands. Even if it’s one of their lesser songs, I can’t abide this.
The “Celebrity Just Having Fun” Award — Jim Carrey
I had forgotten this happened, but: back in 2011, Jim Carrey made a surprise appearance at the Lower East Side bar Arlene’s Grocery and did a few songs, including Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” and what brought us here today, “Creep.” He does a solid job. When a guy like Carrey gets up and there does those songs, I don’t think you’re really looking for the hurt that underlies the originals — it’s just a comedian showing up and having a good time with some alt-rock standards, songs of the sort he might’ve been into when he was young and becoming more and more famous. And some of his mannerisms vaguely remind me of Morrissey, which is kind of weird.
The “(Massive) Campfire Singalong” Award — Weezer
A few years back, Weezer held their Portland Hootenanny and invited a bunch of local musicians to come play with them. Their version of “Creep” sounds like a particularly massive party around a fire, and while the event itself is minor and all that, the song winds up sounding huge and endearingly ragged at the same time. They’ve got strings and ton of guitars, but also lots of little tambourines and tiny percussion in the chorus that sound cool. The make or break for most covers of “Creep” comes in the “She’s running” part, and while they have the unfair advantage of like, 200 people, Weezer’s version is among the frontrunners in that regard. It achieves a paradox: the catharsis of hearing that sort of moment belted out by thousands in an arena, along with intimacy of such an emotionally raw song.
The “Famous TV Singer” Award — Kelly Clarkson
The fact that this cover is by Kelly Clarkson specifically hardly matters. It’s simply symbolic of the fact that “Creep” is a song that is plausible for the “rocker” characters on American Idol or The Voice or whatever to perform. There, is, of course, also those short-lived, caricature rock versions of those singing shows, Rockstar: INXS and Rockstar: Supernova, and “Creep” was definitely played on one of those. All this means is a song like “Creep” gets so big and seems to mean so much about one particular time and generation, that it then becomes de-fanged and empty and meaningless. It’s on Rock Band. Someday, I’ll probably hear a quiet piano instrumental version of it in a Chinese restaurant, alongside “Layla” and “Hey Jude.”
The “Accidental Nu Rock Abomination” Award — Moby
A lot of the sounds might be passe now, but I’ve got a soft spot for those singles from Moby’s prime, and a not-quite-explainably nostalgic reaction to “Southside” in particular. That being said, rock vocals are not the man’s strongest skill, and his cover of “Creep” is not one of his finest moments. Like almost every cover of “Creep,” it’s a pretty straightforward reading, but for whatever reason he has a DJ scratching all over it. Between that and Moby’s nondescript alt-rock vocals, we’ve got something like Incubus covering “Creep,” which is not something I’d ask for. That’s, unfortunately, one of the core issues with “Creep.” Even outside of the heights to which Radiohead would later climb, “Creep” is one of the brooding faces that launched a thousand bad mall-rock bands in the late ’90s and early ’00s. I don’t know why Moby was messing around in that sandbox in 2007, considering that at his peak, he was a major name in the electronica trend that was described as the future compared to all those faceless nu-rock bands that would’ve played a cover like this, and would’ve filmed their video for it in a skate park in southern California.
The “Actual Nu-Rock Abomination” Award — Sentenced
Continuing from the point I made about Moby — part of the reason “Creep” strikes me as such a cartoonish bit of ’90s angst is that it has to be in the top five or ten touchstones of the era, the supposed “classics,” that would’ve served as the inspiration for a whole unfortunate genre of bands that trafficked purely in cartoonish angst, and would record covers like this. It doesn’t get too bad until the chorus, when the singer drops into this Scott Weiland-lite yarl. I mean, Scott Weiland-lite. If we’re talking about that man at his worst, that’s a few levels of grunge-lite. I didn’t know about Sentenced until I found this, but just like that I was transported back to every Hot Topic I thought it made sense to spend time in when I was a teenager.
The “Obligatory Tori Amos” Award — Tori Amos
It seems that every time I make one of these lists, there’ll be some meditative piano cover out there by Tori Amos. Once more: when it comes to rearranging a song to make it your own, the whole stripped down piano ballad version is least interesting to me. But here we are again.
The “White Couch” Award — Idina Menzel
The fact that the woman who sang Frozen’s “Let It Go” and was in Rent covered “Creep” doesn’t necessarily shock me. See: Kelly Clarkson. “Creep” is one of the iconic ’90s songs that, oddly enough, has become a sensible choice for slick, safe pop versions. But, again, really the whole phenomenon of “Creep” is kind of a paradox when viewed in the larger context of Radiohead. When it comes to this one, I’m really more curious about this massive white couch Menzel has onstage, and why/if she spends a whole show sitting on it.
The “Nonsensical Harmonica” Award — Blues Traveler
Blues Traveler’s cover of “Creep” is one of the only ones out there that does anything significant with the arrangement relative to the original. But “significant” doesn’t necessarily equate “not perplexing.” I’m not sure what attracts a band like Blues Traveler to play “Creep,” or how the jam-y rhythms and harmonica solos make any sense. But either way, this is something that exists in the world.
The “Coffeehouse” Award — Ingrid Michaelson
With a band with the stature of Radiohead, and a song with the stature of “Creep,” you’re bound to get to the point where you’re ubiquitous enough that one of your famous songs will get this kind of treatment. The too-cute, too-proficient-without-feeling kind of vibe, the kind of thing that you hear and assume it was made specifically for a coffee shop soundtrack. Ingrid Michaelson’s version fills the role here.
The “Take Me To Church” Award — Macy Gray
This might be the most surprising cover I came across. Macy Gray decides to do “Creep,” and it’s one of my favorites out there. Each time I heard some other cover go into the normal guitar intro, I just cringed — didn’t anyone have an idea of how to do something a little different with the song? Gray’s version has organ drones front and center, pushing those famous pre-chorus guitar slashes into ghostly echoes in the backdrop. It could soundtrack a movie sequence taking place in a crumbling cathedral in a dystopian city, or something. Another surprise is that it actually brought to mind what the song might’ve sounded like, arrangement-wise, had Radiohead been more akin to Britpop than American alternative — there are moments here that remind me of what might’ve happened if Pulp had covered “Creep” around the time of This Is Hardcore.
The “Death Knell” Award — Glee
Well, here we have “Creep” literally soundtracking high school drama. I never watched Glee, but I guess it looks like a breakup. Like Clarkson and Menzel’s covers, it further underlines how “Creep” has become a sort of banal and stereotypical signifier. But having the song on Glee is more extreme, disassociating it from the context of Radiohead altogether — if you didn’t know the history of the song and came across it this way, you’d assume it was a trite, overly literal song written for a TV show about emotional teenagers. I don’t know what degree of control Radiohead would’ve had in allowing “Creep” to be performed on Glee, but if they did have a hand in it, it feels like one final, violent act of distancing themselves from the song forever.
The “Accidental(?) Parody” Award — Robbie Williams
When did Robbie Williams recast himself as a pop-crooner? Has this been going on for a while? Last year, he covered “Creep,” and it came off like one of those Richard Cheese faux-lounge joke covers. (Which, as it happens, also exists.)
I don’t know if this is intentional, and I can’t divine Williams’ intentions. Along the spectrum of “Creep” covers, this is up in the Blues Traveler Pantheon of head-scratching decisions.
The “Celebrity Having Fun But Also Kinda Making A Point” Award — Conan O’Brien
After that whole Tonight Show debacle in 2010, O’Brien set out on what he dubbed the Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television Tour, killing time until he was allowed back on NBC in September, and cementing the public goodwill that already existed with the whole Team Coco business and anti-Leno sentiments. Though it was uncommon to consider O’Brien at fault in the mess, it’s understandable that the guy could relate to “Creep” a bit — after briefly holding his dream job, here he was on the road passing time, in a way issuing a big middle finger at the whole experience. But hey, this is still Conan O’Brien. Even if he felt unwanted in some capacity after losing The Tonight Show, his version of “Creep” is a joke. He delivers the whole thing in a ridiculous mock British accent, before amending the final verse to list a few British celebrities that might be bothered by it. Still, knowing the context, it’s a joke with some bite.
The “Rift In Time And Space” Award — The Mutilators
Previously awarded to Barry Gibb for covering Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” psychobilly band the Mutilators are now also the happy recipients of the “Rift In Time And Space” Award. Psychobilly is, in general, kind of a rift in time and space thing on its own, and that whole thing increases about tenfold when they’re covering “Creep.” I imagine this was meant somewhat seriously, but it’s another one that comes off as the sort of rendition somebody else would have put on a comedy album.
The “Ukulele” Award — Amanda Palmer
For whatever reason, there are a lot of ukulele covers of “Creep” on YouTube. One of them is from Amanda Palmer, because why not.
The “(Surprising) Ingenuity” Award — Cafe Del Mar
This cover of “Creep” comes from a compilation put out by Cafe del Mar, a famous bar in Ibiza known for releasing ambient, chilled out music collections. And, sure, there’s a way to hear this take on “Creep” that way, but it’s also a lot, well, creepier than most renditions of the song. Like Macy Gray’s version, it’s notable because it actually does something different with a song that most people play far too faithfully. That almost cheap-sounding, mechanical beat, the air-y yet claustrophobic synth beds, that eerie piano line — it sounds almost like “Creep, Pt. 2,” when after that big climax of the original, the protagonist lets it go and floats away into the ether. It’s not too out there to imagine this as being more akin to what “Creep” might’ve sounded like had Radiohead released it later in their career. So often, the song is intended to convey such deep, pained emotions, but this one actually pulls that off to a degree. Can you imagine hearing this while hanging out on a beach in Ibiza? It wouldn’t calm me down. It’d haunt and unsettle me.
The “Disappointingly Not Synth-Pop, But That’s OK” Award — Tears For Fears
When Scott told me he’d once seen Tears For Fears perform “Creep” live, I was kinda hoping they had turned it into something like “Mad World.” They didn’t, but their reading of it is still pretty cool. There’s that arpeggiating guitar, but that’s almost it — the sharp downward strikes of Greenwood’s original guitar are reconfigured as muted, distorted thunder. Tears’ cover is spectral, and floatier than most, but I still wouldn’t mind hearing a few layers of synths underlying the whole thing.
The “Song For A New Generation” Award — Scala & Kolacny Brothers
Normally, I’d discount these kinds of covers from a list like this. It’s not hard to find classical or jazz covers of famous rock songs, but that usually feels a little far afield for this. But the version of “Creep” by the Scala & Kolacny Brothers Choir is a different story, and one that isn’t necessarily rooted in the song itself. The crucial fact here is that it was used in a trailer for David Fincher’s 2010 movie The Social Network. That’s a movie I’ll argue is one of the classics to have been released since 2000, one of the movies that sums up so much about the era so incisively. And here’s a choir arrangement of a song that had once done that already, recontextualized — chilly and haunting, “I want a perfect body/I want a perfect soul” over forty seconds of Facebook imagery before you even get to the scenes from the movie itself. It was a stunning trailer that set the stage for the movie perfectly, and the cover of “Creep” elevated it. For me, it pushed “Creep” away from the ’90s stereotypes it could be bogged down in, and rooted it in something different — the world of likes and shares and questions of privacy and information. That’s a rare thing. Songs far greater than “Creep,” even, are rarely that malleable.