Wimpy bars and the Westway. Nightshifts spinning discs for the disinterested workers at the Gilette factory and fresh wintry evenings with sopping wet hair. Getting your hair cut short, too short. The end of an affair and the open road. Inky black nights and doom laden news. The Troubles on the radio and flickering away on your three TV sets back home. A psychotic AWOL squaddie brings them to your passenger side. Rainswept roads and pylons. Snow on the hills and mist in the air. Fräulein drifters and an Eddie Cochran obsessed petrol pump attendant. Your car radio, on with Bowie and Kraftwerk. The Blockheads and Devo. Wreckless Eric and Ohm Sweet Ohm. Pornographic slides and your dead brother, and why, and why, and which side was he on? 'Happy Birthday, Brother'. Why?
'We are the children of Fritz Lang and Werner Von Braun. We are the link between the Twenties and the Eighties. All change in society passes through a sympathetic collaboration with tape recorders, synthesizers and telephones. Our reality is an electronic reality'
Back in 2013, Radio On got its network television premiere a full thirty four years after it was made. And I was wrong about about it.
Let me be clear, Christopher Petit's film is still far from great. It's ponderous and pretentious, but it is also enigmatic and interesting and proof that sometimes you really do need to watch something more than once to get a handle on it. It is a snapshot of the winter of discontent, embracing the ice that was setting in ahead of Thatcher's ascendancy and offering little comfort or solution in journey's end. It's the enigma of it all that possibly alienated me five years ago but, returning to it now, I'm tempted to read Radio On along supernatural and metaphorical lines, and understand it all the better for it.
We never learn what happened to Robert's brother and how he met his end, alone in the bathtub of his flat. We learn from his girlfriend that the police are involved but, beyond the pornography Robert finds in a Get Carter-esque moment, there is no other suggestion of illegality. The talk of sides is the closest inference we get that his brother was mixed up in something - could it possibly be the Troubles?
As the camera weaves its way around the brother's flat from tub to living room and that handwritten message about Fritz Lang and Werner Von Braun (the closest thing to a suicide note?) I'm left to wonder if this is, in fact, his spirit leaving the body. His subsequent gift from beyond to Robert of Kraftwerk tapes, complete with the message 'Happy Birthday, Brother' (when there's nothing to suggest it is Robert's actual birthday) takes on a great resonance throughout the film as it is music and the eponymous radio that will serve as Robert's most faithful companion on his journey. Is his late brother living on through the music, trying to make a connection - the 'sympathetic collaboration with tape recorders, synthesizers and telephones; the note implies will bring about a societal change? And, if so, is his death the thing to release the previously detached Robert from his stultifying limbo of late night London life? Does the brother's death represent the end of the 1970s and a necessary closure before the 1980s - and Robert's life - can commence. The 1980s seem to be a future that Petit is trying to suggest will (or should) exist on cleaner lines, in the European vein of Kraftwerk and Bowie's Berlin period; a world away from the rock and roll and American bubblegum dream that Robert seems to return to, either by Ian Dury's rocking lament to 'Sweet' Gene Vincent or one of his most chatty and good humoured encounters at the middle-of-nowhere garage with a fellow lost soul, living alone in a caravan and plucking his guitar to the strains of Three Steps to Heaven, waiting for an A+R man to make his dreams come true. A call that will never occur or a letter that will never arrive.
Unfortunately that petrol pump dreamer is Sting, and I still can't tolerate that atrocious cameo from the Geordie poser who dares to call Dave Dee an 'arsehole'. For a film that places so much store in good music, the casting of this future lute bothering knob makes it something of a mockery. Did Robert's brother die for nothing? It would seem so.