28 Years Ago: Roger Waters Stumbles With the Complicated, Synthy ‘Radio K.A.O.S.’
Waters uses eight songs to tell the story of a pair of Welsh brothers – Benny, a coal miner/ham radio enthusiast, and Billy, who is highly intelligent but seriously disabled – who are separated after Benny is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and Billy is sent to live with his uncle in Los Angeles.
Once in L.A., Billy discovers he can modify cordless phones to access computers and speech synthesizers and use them to speak, establishing a friendship of sorts with a freeform radio station (we’re pretty sure you can guess the call letters). In the final act, Billy hacks into a military satellite in order to fool the world into thinking it’s headed for nuclear destruction, thus beginning a new era of peace and harmony.
Acknowledging the complexity of that narrative, Radio K.A.O.S. was bundled with a libretto that tried to explain the story between songs like “Radio Waves,” “Me or Him,” and “The Tide is Turning (After Live Aid).” Complicating matters was the machine-heavy production which Roger Waters himself later derided, saying, “I allowed myself to get pushed down roads that were uncomfortable for me.”
Waters also added “I should never have made that record,” a sentiment shared by many critics at the time – including Jimmy Guterman and Owen O’Donnell, who listed Radio K.A.O.S. in their book The Worst Rock n’ Roll Records of All Time and said it was “fueled by colossal ineptitude and a perversely fascinating inability to communicate even the simplest idea without wrapping it in pretension.”
The commercial reception to the album was lukewarm as well; Radio K.A.O.S. peaked at No. 50 on the Billboard charts, spinning off a pair of minor rock hits (“Radio Waves” and “Sunset Strip”) while Waters’ ambitious tour – which featured a sprawling, career-spanning set and appearances by L.A. DJ Jim Ladd, whose weeknight show on KLOS was said to have helped inspire the album – suffered soft sales and cancellations.
Overshadowing the whole thing was Roger Waters’ ongoing feud with Pink Floyd, which was being settled in court while his former bandmates embarked on their own hugely successful tour in support of A Momentary Lapse of Reason, the multiplatinum smash that proved Floyd could continue without Waters – and sell plenty of records – while he struggled to fill arenas on his own.
Initially undaunted by the relative failure of Radio K.A.O.S., Waters was rumored to be working on a sequel. As it turned out, he wouldn’t re-emerge with another solo album until 1992’s Amused to Death.
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