35 years ago: Roger Waters breaks up ‘Radio KAOS’ to no avail

Radio KAOS. had an often impenetrable theme but Roger Waters – and his label – clearly felt that a shift to more venerable sequencer and synth-based sounds would pay off.

“CBS Records says there’s three potential hit singles on it – which would be very strange for me since I’ve only had two hits in my entire life,” Waters shared Los Angeles Times in 1987, with a laugh. “But then again, they could be wrong.”

They were. “Sunset Strip” arrived on Sept. 12, 1987, as the second of these singles, and like the others, it failed to reach the Billboard Hot 100. None of the four songs released ended up in the UK Top 40. A poorly selling tour in support of Radio KAOS continued to lose money in droves.

His followers simply couldn’t relate to a convoluted plot involving displaced coal miners, a paraplegic who could channel radio waves, a rogue disc jockey trying to hang on to a dying format, and towards the end a potentially disastrous World War 3 simulation .

Even then, Waters seemed tired of trying to explain how it all came together. “I don’t want to talk about the plot of the record,” he said in another contemporary interview“and I’ll tell you why: because it sounds crazy – and it’s crazy to say the least if I start describing it.”

Finally, Radio KAOS wanted to be about miscommunication, monetarism and how mass media can fail us. So a menacing, radio-unfriendly bid ran through the album. Its narrative complexity also tends to make mouth-watering singles a rather confusing experience.

No amount of DX7, Fairlight or E-mu programming would fix it. And it certainly wouldn’t magically turn those songs into hit singles.

“Between [co-producer] Ian Ritchie and myself, we really fucked that record,” admitted Waters Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd. “We tried too hard to make it sound modern. I allowed myself to be pushed down paths that were uncomfortable for me. I should never have made that record.”

Watch Roger Waters’ video for ‘Sunset Strip’

“Sunset Strip” arrives when the song cycle protagonist Billy, the wheelchair-using paraplegic boy from Wales, is sent to Los Angeles to live with a relative. He consoles himself by calling into a radio show hosted by the real-life DJ Jim Ladd, and the song discusses his arrival in America – and what Billy misses at home.

In an odd moment, they finally start talking about Billy’s distaste for different kinds of fish, of which there are many. Ladd pressures Billy to make a song request, assuming that’s why he called. But Billy presses on: “My least hated favorite fish would be sole. That way you don’t have to see the eyes,” Billy says using a computer-generated voice assistant.Sole has no eyes.”

Those interactions were recorded in Waters’ home studio and were largely unscripted, Ladd said Times. “We did about two hours of material, pretty much all improvised – just off the top of our heads,” he said. “Roger knew what he wanted, but he didn’t write it out because he wanted it to be as real and as gut-level as possible.”

It sounds a lot more fun than it was. The song’s smooth groove and grinning DJ contrast with its lonely narrative, and the closing conversation is both profoundly weird and rather dark—especially the implication found in Waters’ final double-tendre about the sole.

Billy becomes increasingly isolated, even as he begins to realize more about his powers – and how to use them for the best. Hoping to scare the world into peace accords, Billy later nearly triggers Armageddon when he can’t reach Ladd, using the same phone to hack into competing nuclear weapons systems. Tragedy is only narrowly averted.

Of course, “Sunset Strip” can’t connect all these dots. Who is this boy? Why is Ladd calling? What does he have against trout? These things are not explained, and cannot be, in a single song. The bigger problems are hardly explained across the whole Radio KAOS., a point Waters seemed to concede by including a libretto in the packaging that attempted to put things into perspective.

These dangers were quite real – and not just the end of the world War games-ish things. In a moment of sad irony, Ladd lost his real job as Waters’ LP was nearing completion when LA rock station KMET switched to an automated New Age format.

But a radio single just wasn’t the place to tell that story either.

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