Atomic: '80s Nuclear War Songs
6 months ago
By Gavin Smith
I have written about how important music is to me when I write a couple of times before. It’s no real secret that I’m a big fan of alternative, rock and metal music; but I do like a good pop song as well. As a kid you tend to be exposed to pop music first, but the pop music of the ’eighties was different to the pop music of today. This is in no way a denigration of today’s tunes: pop music is always something of a reflection of the era that it exists in. It’s very telling, then, that so many of the pop songs of the ’eighties were less to do with boys-meeting-girls, or broken hearts, as they were about being turned to ash in a nuclear firestorm. I’m not talking about some floppy-haired angst-ridden indie bands, or angry protest rock/metal. I’m talking about mainstream top-ten pop hits in all their excessively-hair-sprayed glory. At the height of the Cold War and before perestroika, this selection should give you some idea of just how much the idea of nuclear war permeated mainstream culture.
From Operation Ivy: the above is the very first thermonuclear device detonated in late 1952 at Eniwetok Atoll at the Pacific Proving Ground in the Marshall Islands. It saw the Doomsday Clock set to Two Minutes to Midnight.
Just to put this into perspective. I was only sixteen at the end of the ’eighties, but throughout that decade, particularly as a teenager, I was very well aware of the possibility, and to a lesser degree, the effects of a nuclear war. Of course it didn't help that I went to school within spitting distance of the high security psychiatric hospital at Broadmoor. Every Monday at 10am the Broadmoor Siren would be sounded to test it. The siren was an old World War 2 air raid siren. It was supposed to warn us if one of the patients (who included Ronnie Kray, Peter Sutcliffe and [the other] Charles Bronson) had escaped. It wasn’t, however, difficult to imagine the siren as the Four Minute Warning. (Don't believe me, just ask the Members. They were from the next town over). What we would do if we only had four minutes left to live was a pretty common playground topic of conversation.
Anyway I just thought I’d share some of the nuclear war flavoured music of my yoof with you, the partial soundtrack of my new book Special Purposes: First Strike Weapon. It’s all hyperlinked, so please have a listen to what pop music was like thirty years ago (Jesus Christ, I’m getting old):
So straight away I'm going to break my pop-only rule and talk about metal. Not just any metal band, but that the metalist of metal bands, the surprisingly uncompromising Iron Maiden! I shall convince you that this is okay by pointing out that their single “Two Minutes to Midnight” reached number 11 in the UK charts in 1984. From the album Powerslave, “Two Minutes to Midnight” is a protest song about nuclear war referencing the Doomsday Clock, a symbolic clock designed to illustrate how close humanity is to global catastrophe (midnight). Two minutes is the closest it has ever been, hence the song title. (It’s worth noting that, thanks to the election of Donald Trump, the Doomsday Clock currently stands at two and a half minutes to midnight.)
So for my second choice... er... I’m going to cheat again. (So the blog’s going well then.) I always thought this song was about nuclear war. I’ve just checked the Wiki and discovered that it’s about a meltdown in a nuclear power station. So anyway now the blog is about songs in the key of nuclear. I just really like Ultravox’s “Dancing With Tears in my Eyes,” also from 1984. It reached number 3 in the UK charts (we had those before Spotify).
3. Enola Gay (Orchestral Movements in the Dark)
Now, the third track is about nuclear war; in fact it’s about the only nuclear war we have ever had: World War Two. “Enola Gay,” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, references the dropping of the atomic bomb Little Boy on Hiroshima on the 6th of August 1945. The bombing, along with the destruction of Nagasaki, led to the end of WWII. The title comes from the name of the B-29 Superfortress bomber that dropped Little Boy. (Somewhat creepily, the B-29 was named after the pilot’s mum.) Reaching number 8 in the UK charts, the song questions the necessity of the bombing. Released in 1980, “Enola Gay” was considered a protest song at a time when Margaret Thatcher (Theresa May’s more competent, but no less evil spiritual predecessor) was welcoming US nuclear missiles onto British soil.
4. Two Tribes (Frankie Goes to Hollywood)
Frankie Goes to Hollywood took a slightly different approach to the prospect of nuclear war when they enthusiastically and nihilistically embraced it with their track “Two Tribes” in 1984. (Again! What was going on 1984?) The track included samples from Protect & Survive, a British public service film that included guidelines for keeping a stiff upper lip whilst dying of radiation poisoning. Using elements of both Russian classical music and American funk music to symbolise the clash of the two superpowers, “Two Tribes” was the longest running number one single of the ’80s. The song title is taken from a line in the film Mad Max 2, which is of course a post-apocalypse movie. The single’s cover included a Soviet-style mural of Lenin, as well as images of Thatcher and Regan. Promotional pictures for the song saw the band in Red Army uniform standing in front of iconic American landmarks. (Trivia: Chris Barrie [Arnold Rimmer of Red Dwarf fame] appears on some of the 12-inch remixes doing an impression of Regan, who he played on Spitting Image. I did not know that.)
I am not sure of the name of the final song in my pick, or rather which name to use. The original “99 Luftballons,” or the name of the seminal 1982 playground classic that I knew it as: “99 Red Balloons” by Nena. I’ve linked to both versions. Allegedly inspired by Nena’s guitarist, Carlos Karges, watching red balloons being released during a West Berlin Rolling Stones concert, and seeing them float towards East Berlin. The original song in German imagines the balloons being mistaken for UFOs, causing panic and triggering a war that lasts ninety-nine years. The English translation has the balloons mistaken for enemy aircraft by a faulty early warning system, which results in a nuclear war. Apparently the band never liked the English version, feeling it was too on the nose, and that they did not wish to be seen as a protest band. I’ll leave you to make up your own mind.
Part of the reason I chose to write Special Purposes: First Strike Weapon, and set it in 1987, was to work through all my teenaged nuclear war angst (and people think growing up under the oppression of social media is tricky!) When I finished Special Purposes and sent it to Dave, my editor, the worldwide political spectrum had changed. Brexit and Trump had considerably weakened Europe and the US in the face of what appears to be an expansionist Russia. War with China and Iraq was being discussed as a possibility. Dave drew a comparison with the subject matter of the book and current events. We both laughed awkwardly, and changed the subject.
So we’ve barely scratched the surface here. We’ve not even touched on rock, metal and alternative music. Thrash bands who referenced World War III in their names, like Megadeth, or the even more subtle Nuclear Assault. Tracks like “Distant Early Warning” and the “Manhattan Project” by Rush, or the Fields of the Nephilim’s post-apocalyptic-flavoured “Preacher Man.” But if you want to drop me a line about your favourite ’80s soundtrack for armageddon you can find me on Twitter @gavingsmith or on Facebook.
Oh and just before you go: “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tiffany. What the fuck does this have to do with nuclear war, I hear you cry? Well for the answer to that question, you’ll just have to read Special Purposes: First Strike Weapon. (And frankly if it’s good enough for Robert De Niro in Cape Fear then it’s good enough for me.)