After an emotional election this past November, similar to the one that occurred in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan, people should get the chance to revisit Roger Waters’ Radio K.A.O.S, a project that many criticized when it first came out in 1987. The politically charged (or anti-politically charged depending on how you look at it) anti-war conceptual story, is an album that I think has finally gained the prominence that it should have received back then.
Originally known for pioneering concept albums with Pink Floyd, what made this specific solo act so interesting was Waters’ timing and the critical reception. Even if this album was one of the weaker projects from Waters, its importance was tremendous. During a period with the Cold War going on, and with people still feeling the effects of World War II and Vietnam, the country needed Radio K.A.O.S.
While the story itself may seem corny, where a kid named Billy in a wheel-chair basically wants to stop any threat of a nuclear war with his radio, the message was significant. What’s fascinating about Waters’ approach was, he combined a socially-conscious perception of the world with a collection of summer jams.
From the introduction with “Radio Waves,” Waters creates an almost Daft Punk style sound with a feel that shows how important music is on the radio. I especially like the addition of Billy calling in on the radio which leads into the next track, “Who Needs Information.” The single itself is a classic rock song with a mix of trumpet noises and a gospel choir in the background. Waters was very much anti-technology as well, and this song clearly represented that notion, with the hook of “who needs information.” He essentially believes many aspects of life are just too big for people to understand. That’s kind of what I realized when going through this album.
Waters pivots a little bit on “Me or Him.” He seemed to be feeling some type of nostalgia , where he talks about “remembering the good ole’ days” where times were simpler for him personally. In my opinion, he’s very anti-government here, where he believes that the country should have been listening to the people and how the radio is such a powerful tool. There’s even some clips of newscasts talking about Reagan’s presidency, and the many doubts that surfaced. It was one of those powerful songs that I’m surprised hasn’t lived on as one of the more meaningful efforts on this project.
What astonished me with regards to Waters’ second solo act was, the countless topics tackled in only eight songs. Each track is over four minutes long as well, which allows Waters to express his deepest feelings about the world he was living in at that time.
“The Powers that Be” is one of my personal favorites where Waters lectures listeners about the impact entertainment has had. He makes a “Star Wars” reference which I definitely appreciated as well. He even addresses what is considered a “mainstream song,” and has his own conventional summer jam on “Sunset Strip.” The diversity of instrumentals on this single really stood out on what in my opinion is Waters’ most lively song on the project. It’s a five minute joy ride that had everyone dancing.
While some of the lyrics on “Home” were a little corny and straightforward, his message again was clear and quite impactful. He pleaded and pleaded for everyone to realize that what makes people so beautiful is the fact that we each have somewhere that we can call home. He also kind of gave his own history lesson on this track, where he sings about the Arabs fighting, and kind of the origin of war.
People complained then about Waters being way too pessimistic on this project, and much of that negative energy was apparently hidden under upbeat tracks like “Radio Waves” and “Sunset Strip.” I think that this is utter nonsense and couldn’t be farther from the truth. If anything, he ends the album with optimism on “The Tide is Turning (After Live Aid).” He wonders what the future holds and puts forth steps in which humanity can improve themselves.
The most memorable takeaway from this 1987 classic is, how educative it is. I felt like I was given a history lesson and I believe that’s why people hated it so much. They didn’t want to be told how to live their lives from a musician. But at the end of the day, I think Waters was on to something. Music is a powerful tool, and we need to use it as a way to look back on humanity’s imperfections and figure out a way to fix them. If anything, that’s what Radio K.A.O.S. did.