Aug 02, 2010, 07:14AM

The Radiohead Covers Creep On

Thom Yorke has become kind of a cottage industry.

I’ll confess that when I first heard that David Fincher was making a movie about the founding of Facebook, my heart didn’t go pitter-pat. Much as I admired Zodiac, Se7en, and to a lesser extent Fight Club, it didn’t strike me as a particularly intriguing topic; the casting of suddenly ubiquitous Jesse Eisenberg as the site’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg – along with the memory of Fincher’s last effort, the visually dazzling but emotionally uninvolving Benjamin Button – further curbed my enthusiasm.

But that attitude changed a couple of week ago, when the new trailer for The Social Network arrived. The story suddenly seemed much more dramatic, Eisenberg appeared to be working outside his comfort zone … and there was the brilliant choice of music: A kids’ choir singing an a capella version of Radiohead’s “Creep.”

Of course, trailers often employ music that isn’t necessarily included in the final film – and chances are I wouldn’t be going to the theater just to hear one song anyway – but curiosity about the Radiohead cover set the Net ablaze, with much commentary about how the combination of the song’s lyrics about inferiority, spooky delivery by that choir, and visual strategy of pairing it with images that underscored what an existentially empty exercise that amassing “friends” can be, resulted in a mini-masterpiece. (Google “social network trailer radiohead” and peruse the 98,000+ results if you dare.)

The Social Network version is the work of Scala & Kolacny Brothers, a Belgian girls’ choir that specializes in alternative rock covers (the unwieldy name comes from the fact that Stijn Kolacny conducts the choir, while Steven Kolacny provides arrangements and piano accompaniment). Scala’s “Creep” dates back to its 2002 debut album, On the Rocks; its catalog includes everything from the predictable (“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”) to the unexpected (Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova,” Placebo’s “The Bitter End”).

Still, Radiohead is one of the group’s favorites; although “Creep” is clearly the standout, the choir has also tackled “Exit Music (For a Film),” “Everything In Its Right Place,” and “Fake Plastic Trees.” And that, in turn, points up the malleability of the Abingdon band’s catalog. Radiohead just might be the second-most-covered band in the world right now, behind the inevitable Beatles.

While there have been a fair share of Nirvana adaptations and novelty reworkings – “Teen Spirit” has been tackled by everybody from Tori Amos and Patti Smith to The Bad Plus and, backed by The Melvins, Leif Garrett – and there’s always some enterprising act willing to take on a track by U2, R.E.M., or The Smiths, covering Radiohead seems to be the preferred way of trying to acquire some instant credibility. “Creep” alone has been recorded by over 100 acts, ranging from the faithful (Pretenders, Korn) to the more thoughtful (über-introspective versions by Ingrid Michaelson and Brandi Carlile) to the ridiculous (lounge comedy act Richard Cheese & Lounge Against the Machine).

Beyond that, there are the all-Radiohead covers albums: Not just solid entries in the lullaby Rockabye Baby!, classical The String Quartet Tribute, and bluegrass Pickin’ On series, but tribute albums like Every Machine Makes a Mistake, Plastic Mutations, the dub collection I’m Not the Only Record for You, and the self-explanatory Anyone Can Play Radiohead. Add in classical pianist/NPR host Christopher O’Riley’s pair of Radiohead covers discs, reggae act Easy Star All-Stars’ Radiodread (which includes terrific versions of “Let Down” by Toots and “Exit Music” by the late Sugar Minott), and producer Max Tannone’s Jaydiohead mash-up project  – and doubtless dozens of others that I’m unaware of – and you have a small cottage industry of people aping Thom Yorke and company.

That Radiohead is popular goes without saying, but the sheer tonnage of cover versions is, if not exactly “Creep”-y, still a little odd. Is it due to general impatience over the ever-slower release of new Radiohead product? The fact that an audience base accustomed to experimentation is willing to go along with some outré tampering with the catalog?

Or is the band actually delivering what in eras past would be referred to as “standards”? Fifty years from now, will popular acts be practically expected to have a go at “No Surprises” or “Karma Police,” the way past performers repeatedly tried their hands at “Stardust” or “Girl from Ipanema” or “’Round Midnight”?

And will the new album – now expected either later this year or early in 2011— add to the cover-ready songbook? Even the dour Yorke would probably concede that there are worse fates than becoming his generation’s Irving Berlin.

  • Good article. Leif Garrett? Isn't he hanging out as a warm-up act for Barry Manilow in the Poconos? Nice for Thom Yorke's checkbook, and deserving, but you seemed to skip an entire generation of songwriters, going from "Stardust" to Yorke. Say Carole King (ugh), James Taylor, the Beatles and most obviously, Bob Dylan.

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