A Tale of Two Creeps: Radiohead, Stone Temple Pilots, and the Great 'Creep' Face-Off of 1992

In September 1992, Radiohead and Stone Temple Pilots—two rising bands with very little in common—both happened to release songs titled “Creep.” A year later, TLC joined in.
Pick a "Creep." Any "Creep."
Pick a "Creep." Any "Creep." / Thom Yorke: Gie Knaeps/Hulton Archives/Getty Images; Scott Weiland: Niels van Iperen/Hulton Archives/Getty Images

In the alt-rock ’90s, being an outsider was in. As a generation of angsty, mangy guitar bands crash-landed on MTV, it was a bit like Revenge of the Nerds: pep rallies and popular kids were ripe for mockery, and so-called “losers” with no self-esteem became unlikely heroes. All of this may be an oversimplification, but there is some truth to the idea that freaks and geeks were suddenly en vogue.

Or, to use another word, creeps. In late September 1992, Radiohead and Stone Temple Pilots—rising alternative bands from opposite sides of the Atlantic—both released songs titled “Creep.” On the surface, it’s just a funny coincidence; the two groups had nothing in common, save for the fact they were often compared to certain Seattle grunge acts. But these two songs share a certain outcast spirit that will forever link them to each other and the time period in which they were recorded.

“What the Hell Am I Doing Here?”

Radiohead are regarded as one of the most innovative and important bands of the ’90s and beyond, but they actually formed back in the mid-’80s in Oxfordshire, England. Named for a late-era Talking Heads tune, the quintet signed with Parlaphone in 1991 and released their debut EP, Drill, in May 1992. That three-song collection failed to ignite the UK charts. Four months later, however, they returned with “Creep,” the lead single off their debut album, Pablo Honey

Thom Yorke, the band’s famously awkward and cerebral frontman, had penned “Creep” years earlier, while attending Exeter University and fixating on a woman who was presumably way out of his league. “When I wrote it, I was in the middle of a really, really serious obsession that got completely out of hand,” Yorke told NME in 1992. “It lasted about eight months. And it was unsuccessful, which made it even worse. She knows who she is.”

As guitarist Johnny Greenwood told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1993, Yorke even “followed her for a couple of days or a week or whatever.” But Yorke never spoke to her, which you might have guessed from the song’s opening lines: “When you were here before / Couldn’t look you in the eye / You’re just like an angel / Your skin makes me cry.” 

All through the first verse, the music shimmers and twinkles, but then at the 0:58 mark, Greenwood bashes out three of the ugliest guitar chords ever committed to tape, signaling a distortion-heavy chorus in which Yorke proclaims: “But I’m a creep / I’m a weirdo / What the hell am I doing here?”

Greenwood told the Sun-Times that Yorke wasn’t really a creep. “He can be quite, ummm, childish, I guess,” Greenwood said. “And he’s very creative. But not a creep, exactly. No.” In a 1993 interview, Yorke said the song was inspired by modern ideals of masculinity, especially as they pertain to dudes in rock groups. 

“I have a real problem being a man in the ’90s,” Yorke said. “Any man with any sensitivity or conscience toward the opposite sex would have a problem. To actually assert yourself in a masculine way without looking like you're in a hard-rock band is a very difficult thing to do … It comes back to the music we write, which is not effeminate, but it’s not brutal in its arrogance. It is one of the things I’m always trying: To assert a sexual persona and on the other hand trying desperately to negate it.”

The members of Radiohead didn’t think much of “Creep.” They dismissed it as their “Scott Walker song,” since it sounded like the work of that one-time teen idol British American musician. But producers Sean Slade and Paul Q Kolderie heard something special in “Creep” and suggested Radiohead record it. The UK-only 1992 single didn’t initially fare very well, but after Pablo Honey landed early the following year, “Creep” became a massive hit on both sides of the pond, earning comparisons to Nirvana and reaching No. 2 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart, No. 34 on Billboard Hot 100, and No. 7 on the UK charts.

In the immediate aftermath of “Creep,” American radio DJs bugged Yorke about the meaning of the song and asked probing questions about why he’d turned out so creepy. To make matters worse, Pablo Honey didn’t yield any additional U.S. hits, so for a while, Radiohead were known primarily for “Creep.”

“You can’t imagine how horrible that was,” Yorke told The New York Times in 2000. “And the thing about being a one-hit wonder: you know, you do come to believe it. You say you don’t but you do. It messed me up good and proper.’”

Radiohead eventually eclipsed their breakthrough hit with far greater triumphs. They captured the feeling of pre-Millennial discontent on their 1997 masterpiece OK Computer, rewrote the rules for rock bands dabbling with electronics on 2000’s Kid A, and shook up the music industry with a pay-what-you-wish pricing scheme for 2007’s In Rainbows. Throughout these years, Radiohead avoided playing “Creep” live, but then in 2009, they opened their performance at the Reading Festival with the song, and in 2016, they resurrected it again on stage.

“It’s nice to play for the right reasons,” guitarist Ed O’Brien told Rolling Stone in 2016, sounding like a true ’90s alt-rock survivor. “People like it and want to hear it. We do err towards not playing it because you don’t want it feel like show business.”

“Half the Man I Used to Be”

Not all ’90s alternative rockers were geeky brainiacs. Case in point: Stone Temple Pilots. Formed in Southern California in the late ’80s and led by the frequently shirtless grunge pinup Scott Weiland, STP looked like they wouldn’t have been caught dead hanging out with Radiohead. While STP’s songs burned with sorrow and agitation, they also featured glammy hard-rock riffs and radio-ready melodies. Once they signed with Atlantic in 1992 after a few years of toiling in obscurity, they were off to the races.

On September 29, 1992—a week after Radiohead’s “Creep” was released in the UK—STP dropped their debut album, Core. The LP’s second single, “Plush,” reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart, paving the way for “Creep,” an acoustic minor-key slow jam with a sticky melody and cryptic, bummed-out lyrics: “Living under house / Guess I’m living, I’m a mouse / Alls I gots is time / Got no meaning, just a rhyme.” On the chorus, Weiland cops to being “half the man” he once was, a realization that comes “as the dawn fades to gray.” It’s very depressing and very, very catchy.

“This song is a reaction to feeling alienated or pushed out for not being so cool, and the anger and sadness caused by being treated in such a way,” Weiland once said of its meaning, according to the STP fansite Below Empty. In 2014, Weiland told Songfacts that “Creep” is about “being a young person somewhere, caught between still being a kid and becoming a young man.” He added: “It’s that youth apathy, that second-guessing yourself, not feeling like you fit in.”

Weiland paired his tortured words with music by STP bassist Robert DeLeo, who drew inspiration from Neil Young’s 1972 hit “Heart of Gold.” “Scott was thinking about the lyrics, and at that time in our lives we were struggling very much,” DeLeo said. “What Scott was writing about was a real-life situation … ‘Creep’ is a very demeaning word. It was one of those instances where we looked at ourselves, looked in the mirror.”

STP drummer Eric Kretz told Rolling Stone that “Creep” was also a product of all four band members growing up in the ’70s. “I’d listen to AM radio in the back of the car,” Kretz said. “You know, Gordon Lightfoot, Jim Croce, John Denver, Fleetwood Mac, occasionally you’d hear some Led Zeppelin, a lot of Peter Frampton stuff, so the song had a bit of a country influence … ‘Creep’ is not a country song, but it’s definitely not a rock song; it’s something right down the middle.”

“Creep” reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart and No. 12 on Modern Rock. While STP would never quite earn the unanimous respect of critics (some of whom accused them of biting from Pearl Jam), STP scored a ton more hits in the ’90s and ’00s, including the Mainstream Rock chart-toppers “Interstate Love Song,” “Vasoline,” “Big Bang Baby,” “Lady Picture Show,” and “Trippin’ on a Hole In a Paper Heart.” 

As the band conquered the charts, Weiland sadly fell victim to substance abuse, and on December 3, 2015, after six albums with Stone Temple Pilots and two with Velvet Revolver—the supergroup he formed with members of Guns N’ Roses during STP’s mid-’00s hiatus—he died of an accidental overdose. He was 48.

Still More “Creep”

Here’s where things get really weird: There was actually a third ’90s smash called “Creep,” this one a sultry R&B jam released by TLC in October 1994 as the lead single off their blockbuster album CrazySexyCool. TLC’s “Creep” uses the titular word as a verb, not a noun, and this is a key distinction, because the song isn’t about feeling like a societal misfit. It’s sung from the perspective of a woman who learns her boyfriend is cheating and responds by having her own affairs. She creeps around, keeping her flings “on the downlow.” Producer and songwriter Dallas Austin based “Creep” on the real-life romantic misadventures of TLC member T-Boz, who handles lead vocals. 

“‘Creep,’ unfortunately, was one of my true stories,” T-Boz told Billboard. “You’re with a guy and he’s not showing you attention, so another guy comes along and you’re like, ‘Hey, if you were where you were supposed to be, he couldn’t be showing me attention right now!’”

TLC’s “Creep” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and earned the trio a Grammy for Best R&B Performance By a Duo or Group with Vocals. It stands as arguably the most enduring “Creep” of the decade, but there’s no need to pick a favorite. Thanks to a clever mash-up by Ruinedmusic (which you can watch above), it’s possible to enjoy all three ’90s classics at the same time.