Roger Waters' Radio K.A.O.S.: A Compelling Misfire

Roger Waters can’t seem to roll out of bed without it becoming a concept album. The former Pink Floyd frontman certainly has a knack for transforming his pie in the sky fantasies into cold, hard slabs of rock reality designed to challenge his audience, even when the music itself leaves something to be desired. Whether it’s the social alienation evoked by Pink Floyd’s The Wall or the sweeping midlife crisis depicted in his debut solo outing The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking, Waters is nothing if not a visionary. Sometimes that means ol’ Rog flies a little too close to the sun. Heck, maybe he embroils himself in a bitter spat with Scarlett Johansson over her endorsement of SodaStream, but would we really want him any other way? Shine on you crazy diamond (what’s up, mid period Floyd fans?)! However, despite his myriad faults and prickly personality, Waters is usually self-aware enough to understand his own backlash, and perhaps add a little fuel to the fire when the getting’s good. And as his second solo album indicated, Waters’ misfires are often just as compelling as his successes.

Released in 1987, the oft-criticized Radio K.A.O.S marked Waters’ second chance at solo glory, and more importantly his first artistic statement upon leaving Pink Floyd, the legendary prog and psych rock outfit he’d increasingly come to dominate in the wake of Syd Barrett’s collapse. Radio K.A.O.S. tells the story of Billy, a mentally and physically disabled Welsh man who, although mistaken for a fool, is in fact a genius capable of understanding and manipulating radio waves. The album climaxes with Billy tricking the entire world into believing nuclear war is imminent, only to call off his dogs at the last moment, prompting a collective sigh of relief for the ages. While this may initially sound like a cruel joke, Billy’s no ordinary prankster. There’s a method to his madness. Moments after that hour of darkness when everyone on God’s green Earth was scrambling to settle scores and squeeze in one last glorious fuck, humanity learned something: compassion and love are infinitely superior to competition and greed. I’m not crying, you’re crying! Sure, it’s a silly notion to more cynical listeners, yet Radio K.A.O.S. represented the perfect storm of late 80s Cold War politics, a period when the superpowers remained locked in a deadly ideological battle and neoliberalism was riding roughshod over the welfare state. This was extremely personal stuff for Waters. After all, his father was killed in the Second World War when Waters was just a baby, dying for the dream of a society in which all citizens looked out for one another. Rog was disgusted by the rising tide of capitalism in the West and how the pursuit of money was pitting the working classes against each other. With such fertile ground to play with, the release of Radio K.A.O.S. should’ve been a watershed moment for him (get it?). Too bad it flopped!

So what went wrong with Radio K.A.O.S.? According to Waters, who has himself practically disowned the record, aiming for a more “modern” production and mainstream appeal ultimately diluted the message. You could even say the final product was watered down (you got this one, right?). Waters has also expressed regret over agreeing to release Radio K.A.O.S. as a single album instead of a double LP. How typical. If only the album was twice as long it would’ve been great! While admittedly somewhat of a mixed bag, Radio K.A.O.S. still packs a few diamonds in the rough. Closing number “The Tide is Turning (After Live Aid)” is a true gem that beautifully weaves together the ambitious themes of Radio K.A.O.S. The track marks the album’s resolution, when humanity comes together to throw off the yoke of capitalism, greed, and all that other oppressive bullshit weighing us down. If you can get past Waters’ bizarre decision to date his own material by referencing Live Aid (an event where he didn’t even perform), then this slow burner should move even the hardest of hearts. And to think that it almost didn’t make the final cut (what’s up, late period Floyd fans?)! Waters recorded the song after his label complained that the ending to Radio K.A.O.S. was too bleak. Apparently the prospect of nuclear annihilation’s a bummer or something. Oh, well. His artistic loss is our gain. Thank goodness for that! And if you genuinely enjoy “The Tide Is Turning (After Live Aid)” make sure you send Rog a SodaStream for his trouble. He loves those things.

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