Search This Blog

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Roger Waters: Radio K.A.O.S.


1) Radio Waves; 2) Who Needs Information; 3) Me Or Him; 4) The Powers That Be; 5) Sunset Strip; 6) Home; 7) Four Minutes; 8) The Tide Is Turning (After Live Aid).

General verdict: One of Roger's better concepts, but perhaps he should have waited thirty more years to get a better shot at it.

Having duly acted out all of his strange sexual fantasies, by the mid-Eighties Roger Waters was ready to return to the tried and true — politics. With a completely new working team and a con­cept that seemed like «Joe Strummer's Tommy», Roger produced the single most politically charged album of his career, making The Final Cut look like an intimate diary in comparison. The concept was actually fun: predictably leftist, but reasonably intelligent and even intriguing, with a disabled, but superhumanly gifted protagonist scaring the world into thinking that it is going to perish in an imminent nuclear holocaust, and letting it see how petty and ridiculous all of its big issues seem in the aftermath of the happily averted catastrophe. With more care invested into the recording process, it could even have been a success.

Unfortunately, Roger Waters may have been the wrong man to be the mastermind behind such a project, and 1987 might certainly have been the wrong year to record it. Waters himself would later admit the flaws of the production — the record was cast in a typical mid-to-late Eighties mold, with booming drums, leaden metallic guitars, and plastic synths all over the place, though, admittedly, not nearly as bad as the contemporary production on Eric Clapton or Cheap Trick or Moody Blues albums: for one thing, the concept demanded lots of Final Cut-like quiet passages, so the record could not be stereotypically reduced to arena-rockers and power ballads. Still, for the first time in history, an album overseen by Roger Waters began looking as if Roger Waters was being overseen by somebody else; a grim fact, and deadly ironic in light of Roger's never ending struggle with Big Brother.

Behind the gloss of the production, however, resides a set of tracks that is nowhere near impres­sive even if you try to recast them as acoustic demos in the back of your mind. Like before, lyrics take precedence over music, but this time around, the music does not even properly materialize: most of the backing tracks are fairly ordinary blues-rock rhythms, and any of them could be just as well written by Bob Seger or, at best, Ric Ocasek. Sometimes slower and more soulful, sometimes faster and more poppy, sometimes placing their trust in a singalong chorus (ʽRadio Wavesʼ), but hardly ever making you deeply invested / involved in the concept. ʽRadio Wavesʼ, if you take it out of context, actually sounds as a ready-made radio hit about the coolness of radio; good enough for Bananarama, but for a founding member of Pink Floyd — hardly.

The only song that carries forward a tiny bit of the Floyd spirit is ʽMe Or Himʼ, whose quiet, restrained arrangement brings out the best in Roger's voice and is also well complemented by his cutely pastoral use of the Japanese shakuhachi. Even then, I think it is largely an effect of context, since hearing the song in between the arena bombast of ʽWho Needs Informationʼ and ʽThe Powers That Beʼ is such a relief. And I wish I could say the same for the final number, ʽThe Tide Is Turningʼ, which also strives to be soulful and soothing — but that song was written by Roger as an afterthought, specially for the purpose of giving the album a more optimistic ending, and it shows: the chorus of "oh, oh, the tide is turning" is thoroughly unconvincing, not to mention how much less convincing it sounds in 2018 than it did in 1987. ("Who is the strongest / who is the best / who holds the aces / the East or the West / this is the crap our children are learning" — for all my reservations about Roger's politics, this is a goddamn great verse, and it rings even more true now than it did thirty years back).

I think that, given the proper care, Radio K.A.O.S. could have been reworked into a much better Pink Floyd album than The Final Cut — its storyline and social issues are well in line with Floyd's usual agenda, and could very easily be loaded with sonic thrills, moody atmospheres, and soulful guitar solos a-plenty. But what we have here instead is a combination of atrocious pro­duction values with musical skeletons that are more close to Eighties' Dire Straits than to classic Pink Floyd (and sometimes, Roger even ends up sounding eerily similar to Mark Knopfler, not because their voices are so close but because of this common adopted down-in-the-dumps working-class Englishman stylistics; which is kinda funny given how Mark and Roger tend to focus on completely different aspects of the existential crises of working-class Englishmen).

Ultimately, Radio K.A.O.S. does not work because Roger's ambitions here vastly exceeded his capacities. The best example, probably, is near the end of the album: ʽFour Minutesʼ is about the final countdown, after which the world is going to be reduced to nuclear ash — and all he has to offer us is a slow, ponderous gospel march, overloaded with boring ticking clocks (and this from a man who once knew precisely how to make the perfectly chillin' thrill out of a ticking clock!). That's IT?.. The irony is multiplied ten-fold by the fact that the gospel vocals are handled by Clare Torry — but no, lightning does not strike twice, particularly if you do not make the effort to assemble the heavy clouds in the designated location; and Torry sounds here just like any generic diva singer. Could be Pat Benatar for all I know.

Still, now that the production does not bother me nearly as much as it used to (as the Eighties recede even further, the pain is gradually subsiding), I think that Waters should be given his due for the effort. He did try to write some music, and he wrote some pretty good lyrics, and came up with a story that is arguably more mature and serious than any of his previous ones. Even the ensuing tour, where he could seamlessly (at least, subject-wise) integrate the old shit with the new shit, was insightful and entertaining. It's just unfortunate that he did not bother to find the right collaborators for the project.


  1. Yeah. This album does not hold up well, but at the time it was showing Waters being more timely and relevant than his ex-partners who were happy just regurgitating the past.
    One of the more depressing moments was seeing Watera perform to a half full venue while the other band was selling out stadiums.

  2. Aren't Bananarama a very politically charged, experimental, and convention pushing band that just happened to decide to be popular though? I don't feel they are the best comparison

  3. WHOOPS, I was thinking of Chumbawamba