Before the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, the nuclear threat simultaneously frightened and infatuated the West in much the same way the threat of terrorism does now. Released in 1987, Roger Waters’s Radio K.A.O.S., is an anti-war paean that is very much a product of the time, playing to our then-new fascination with computers. While there is something quaint in the way it captures the mystery, power and fear of computers before they were in every household (similar to the way the movie WarGames did five years earlier), Waters’ album also wears on its sleeve a dark political tone.
Known for his concept albums, the former Pink Floyd front man filled this slickly-produced 40-minute package with a little of everything: a wheelchair-confined vegetable, anti-Reagan/Thatcher politics, the threat of nuclear apocalypse, an original MTV VJ and a thinly veiled airing of the artist’s contempt for Rambo-style posturing. Waters weaves a somewhat coherent, if fairly goofy, storyline into Radio K.A.O.S. that benefits from an exhaustive outline in the liner notes. It’s the story of twin brothers, Welshmen Benny and Billy. Billy is a wheelchair-bound vegetable who, for reasons unknown, has the ability to pick up radio waves in his head. After a pub crawl, Benny drops a concrete block from an overpass, killing a driver below. After he’s sent to prison, Billy goes to California to live with his great uncle Dave, who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. Using a cordless phone, Billy accesses computers and speech synthesizers to speak and is befriended by Jim, a DJ at radio station KAOS. Influenced by his brother’s incarceration, the cultural upheaval of leaving Wales for the United States and his uncle’s cynicism, Billy simulates an all-out nuclear attack and simultaneously disables the ability of the “Powers That Be” to retaliate, resulting in a global blackout. In the immediate aftermath, the tide appears to turn, as candles are lit, voices rise up in song and perhaps a lesson is learned.
To keep the story moving, Waters frames the entire narrative with the pretense that the listener has tuned his dial to KAOS and is hearing the DJ (legendary KMET DJ Jim Ladd, basically playing himself) have exchanges with Billy (credited as the BBC Master Computer), which are interspersed among the eight songs of the album. Ladd’s album-opening line (“This is K-A-O-S. You and I are listening to KAOS in Los Angeles”), groan-inducing puns (“It’s a beautiful, balmy Southern California summer day. It’s 80 degrees I said balmy I could say bomby!”) and snarky comments (“This ain’t au revoir, it’s goodbye”) are the kind of quotes that could wiggle their way into the lexicon of high school friends the same way references from Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off still pepper conversations. Adding to the amusement is the single-word cameo by MTV VJ J.J. Jackson, who lends his buttery voice to the “fish report with a beat” with the addition of “flounder” to a litany of aquatic life.
At the conclusion of the album’s third song, a nameless radio announcer openly mocks President Reagan by asking the following without a hint of irony:
Do you really think Iranian terrorists would have taken Americans hostage if Ronald Reagan were president?
Do you really think the Russians would have invaded Afghanistan if Ronald Reagan were president?
Do you really think third-rate military dictators would laugh at America and burn our flag in contempt if Ronald Reagan were president?
It seems the bizarre mix of jingoistic foreign policy, messianic governance and cowboy bravado that fuel the current U.S. administration are the same ones Waters recognized 20 years ago. Such songs as “The Powers That Be” chug along with Waters’s Bleeding Heart Band cutting loose, benefiting from Paul Carrack’s guest vocals. The song’s indictment of Reagan-era wheelings and dealings remain appropriate today. When Waters tells you the powers that be like “fear and loathing” and “sheep’s clothing” and “blacked out vans” and “contingency plans,” you realize he could be talking about any of the questionable situations W. has found himself in over the years, from Arbusto to Katrina. And when Waters tells you “they like death or glory, they love a good story” and that “you better run on home,” you believe him.
On “Home”, Waters successfully combines a call to action against government and big business with reflections of what makes someplace home. Waters challenges the listener to not sit passively as “the cowboys and Arabs” face off in boardrooms across America (echoed today in the continued collusion between the Bush Dynasty and the House of Saud) and ticks off a clever roll call of what constitutes home, emphasizing the seemingly opposite notions about both our individuality (“home” is everything from buildings and places to a face in the crowd to Kareem Abdul Jabbar) and our shared basic needs, regardless of our nationality, politics or socioeconomic strata (“Everybody got something he calls home”).
During the tense moments leading up to the culmination of Billy’s apparent attack, Prime Minister Thatcher is heard intoning in her best head-in-the-sand proclamation: “Our own independent nuclear deterrent has helped to keep the peace for nearly 40 years.” Although there is very little to be considered subtle about this album, this comment is mixed quietly behind the building apocalypse but effectively drives home Waters point: Possessing nuclear weapons is not a disincentive for others from obtaining and keeping their own. Yet it is a lesson ignored to this day.
Heartfelt, inspired and over-the-top, “The Tide is Turning (After Live Aid)” is an excellent closer. Here the apocalyptic visions of the previous seven tracks are wiped clean by the combination of Billy’s nuclear simulation and the social significance of Live Aid. Recognizing the concert as a watershed moment less than two years after the event itself, Waters sees July 13, 1985 as a day when “all those kids in the sun / Wrested technology’s sword from the hand of the War Lords.” The Pontardoulais Male Voice Choir, previously used on The Wall‘s “Bring the Boys Back Home”, reappears here in perfect form, closing the song with a majestic chorus.
Morse code plays a role throughout Radio K.A.O.S., both on the packaging and in the music. The green-on-black dots and dashes of the album cover are actually its track listing. The use of Morse code intertwined with the DJ chatter and music on the record itself enables Waters to take a shot at the testosterone-fueled image Hollywood is smitten with by presenting the “lost verse” of “The Tide is Turning (After Live Aid)” in Morse code under the music:
Now the past is over, but you are not alone
Together we’ll fight Sylvester Stallone
We will not be dragged down in his South China Sea
Of macho bullshit and mediocrity
While Waters has admitted in subsequent years that the album borders on over-production (and some would argue it crosses that line), the slick guitar hooks are coupled with lyrics that, though sometimes dated, still lodge into the far reaches of your skull and rattle around in there for years. Radio K.A.O.S. is worth revisiting for its value as a snapshot of the 1980s and its production values and for its insanely catchy tunes. I will always have a place on my shelf for this quirky collection that so accurately represents my impressions of that decade—nuclear fear, the wonder of computers, overproduced pop, aging classic rock icons and gimmicky concept albums complete with Live Aid and Sly Stallone references.
“The tide is turning, Sylvester.”