Radiohead Crushed by Wall of Sound on ‘Let Down’
Thom Yorke is no fan of sentiment. On an album rife with songs about alienation, “Let Down” explores a few forms of disaffection – caused by transportation, alcohol and sentimentality. The Radiohead frontman cries, “Don’t get sentimental / It always ends up drivel” on OK Computer’s fifth track.
“Sentimentality is being emotional for the sake of it,” Yorke told Q in 1999. “We’re bombarded with sentiment, people emoting. That’s the ‘Let Down.’ Feeling every emotion is fake. Or rather every emotion is on the same plane whether it’s a car advert or a pop song.”
When Radiohead were recording “Let Down” (and other OK Computer songs), Yorke tried to remove as much emotion as possible from his vocal delivery. He often preferred the early takes, which put more distance between his feelings and the composition in question.
With its jangly guitars and soaring take on Phil Spector’s “wall of sound,” “Let Down” sounds like it could have been appropriate for Radiohead’s previous album, 1995’s The Bends. The band even considered making the song OK Computer’s lead single, before deciding that “Paranoid Android” gave a better idea of what the entire disc contained.
Still, there are small details that make the tune a perfect fit for this album, from Yorke’s lyrics about outlying human beings getting “crushed like a bug in the ground” by the army boot of society to some musical choices that seem to put barriers between what Radiohead is saying and what the band is doing. The sleepwalking sound was achieved by recording “Let Down” at 3AM in the ballroom of St. Catherine’s Court, a rural mansion at which much of OK Computer was captured. A sense of disharmony also is achieved when Jonny Greenwood plays his twinkling guitar in a different time signature than that of his bandmates.
When speaking about the song, the guitarist invoked Andy Warhol, and also Yorke’s sense of being trapped on “transport, motorways and tram lines.” Elsewhere on the album, Yorke sang of the sinister nature of automobiles, but Greenwood thinks, this time out, the singer was focused on the distance that modern transportation can put between people. It’s not an angry song, but a depressed one.
“Andy Warhol once said that he could enjoy his own boredom. ‘Let Down’ is about that,” Greenwood told Humo magazine in 1997. “It’s the transit-zone feeling. You’re in a space, you are collecting all these impressions, but it all seems so vacant. You don’t have control over the earth anymore. You feel very distant from all these thousands of people that are also walking there.”
In the song, all the lonely people self-medicate by “clinging onto bottles.” That’s not just a nod to the numbing effects of alcohol, but the result of a vision Yorke had when he was in the throes of his elixir of choice.
“I was pissed in a club, and I suddenly had the funniest thought I’d had for ages,” he told Select. “What if all the people who were drinking were hanging from the bottles... if the bottles were hung from the ceiling with string, and the floor caved in, and the only thing that kept everyone up was the bottles?”
That upside-down view of the world came through on “Let Down,” which Radiohead largely avoided playing after the OK Computer tour ended, because the song’s particular aesthetic was difficult to achieve on stage. In 2016, the band gave die-hards a welcome surprise, when Radiohead began regularly including the tune in live sets.
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