The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #97: Let Down by Radiohead (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #97: Let Down by Radiohead.

Just a word of warning: if you are feeling tired and don’t have the energy right now to think about something clever and a bit weighty then, take a break and come back to this post another time. But, if you are in the mood for something that speaks to the human condition; especially, in urban centres AND that is incredibly clever in how it is constructed and presented then, read on because “Let Down” by Radiohead is for you.

“Let Down” by Radiohead is from their album called, “OK Computer”. The album had a lot of terrific songs that explored the concept of our increasing sense of loneliness and isolation that we, as humans, are beginning to feel because of technology. I have loved this album since the very first time I heard it…..waaay back in my Columbia Record Club days in the 1990s. I know that saying I love an album of songs about loneliness makes me sound like someone who is fun at parties! But, I stand by my statement. What attracts me to this album is that it is very intelligently written but, more than that, the way that Radiohead constructed their songs, using advances in the very technology that they are describing, gives these songs a depth of meaning that doesn’t ordinarily exist in most songs.

Specifically, “Let Down” tackles the sense of isolation that one feels in social situations. In particular, it focuses on the value of our time, as humans, when we are commuting. In this song, when you are stuck in the commuter lifestyle, you are always with others but rarely part of a group. You watch others and are watched in reply but rarely ever interacted with. You are not at home nor where you want to be. You are in a nether world of motion and movement but, all the while, you are actually nowhere, doing nothing and wishing against hope that things had worked out differently for you and that you were somewhere else. In essence, “Let Down” is a song about realizing that you have fallen into a trap and that you are simply going through the motions of living while, in reality, the world is passing you by as you whiz through it.

What elevates this song is the clever way Radiohead use technology to further their point. For example, the song is filled with blips and beeps. These tonal notes are meant to stand for commuters. Each beep is someone, going somewhere. As the guitars play, you will notice that the notes seem to be isloated and play crisply and clearly. The guitar notes are meant to act as humans, too. All of the sounds fluctuate from being close to in harmony and then, to being discordant but, not in a painfully annoying way, just slightly askew. This is all meant to replicate the social environment of the commuter. Loads of people, all sharing a common space and direction but lacking community. The lyrics speak to the tedium of commuter travel; comparing it to the soul crushing existence of bugs being stepped upon on the sidewalk. The one ray of hope that is offered by the band in this song occurs near the four minute mark (of this five minute song). At that point, the beeps, blips and guitar chords all harmonize. The tedium-stricken commuter resolves to “grow wings” and live a more fulfilling life. His spirits soar. He feels as though their actually is hope for a better life and then, his train/bus/airplane arrives, the harmony gives way to discordant blips and bleeps again, as everyone leaves the common space and heads out on their separate ways, leaving our commuter alone again, in a crowd, going somewhere he would rather not be.

Obviously, “Let Down” is not a dance song nor a party, rock-out song. Not all songs have to be like that to be great songs. “Let Down”, for me, is akin to reading the George Orwell book, “1984”; it may be bleak in subject matter but, the ideas being discussed are important and the impression left after hearing the song is long-lasting. When I first read, “1984”, the storyline moved me and actually caused me to have a visceral reaction against the protagonist, Winston Smith who, like the commuter in “Let Down”, realizes that he is trapped by the society in which he finds himself. In “1984”, Winston Smith makes a decision that went against everything I believe in and, as such, it provoked in me, an angry reaction. Radiohead leave their song open-ended. They know that for many of us, we are the commuter in this song. We know what it feels like to walk into a crowded subway car and hope to disappear. According to Radiohead, we still have room to make a choice of how we wish to live a more fulfilling life but, time is running out. Our train is about to pull into the theoretical station. What will we do once we arrive? That choice is what “Let Down” is all about.

The beauty of music is that their are songs that fit all occasions and all moods. Sometimes, cranking AC/DC is where I am at. Sometimes, I am in the mood for Celtic fiddle music. But, there are also times when I appreciate the intellectual discourse that a song like “Let Down” provides. It is ok to listen to music and have your mind stimulated by an idea. So, as you listen to “Let Down”, remember that the concept of the song is social isolation and living a fulfilling life. Pay attention to the musical structure; the blips and bleeps and discordant notes that aim to replicate a social scenario where we are surrounded by our fellow humans yet, completely disconnected from them as well. Radiohead are my favourite band for a reason. They make interesting music and, at the same time, make music interesting.

Without further delay, here is Song #97 in our countdown…..”Let Down” by Radiohead. Enjoy…..and think.

The link to the video for the song, “Let Down” by Radiohead, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Radiohead, can be found here.