Written by William Alberque
I’m sure there’s a solid political science and cultural anthropology quantification of when and how phenomena in International Relations intrude into popular culture. My casual observance is that very few IR themes intrude into the cultural consciousness and are reserved for the more dangerous and sustained security threats. Which brings me to my topic: the late Cold War depiction of nuclear weapons and the threat of global Armageddon in the medium of indie music from 1979-1989.
What exactly did Frankie Say, regarding nuclear war? What was Simon LeBon’s opinion of the prospects for war around the second Berlin crisis? How much did the Orzabal brothers have to contribute to the preservation of (or restoration of) deterrence in-crisis? Well, more than you might think. In fact, bands from the top of the pops all the way down to dingy basements playing DIY sequencers incorporated the pervasive societal anxiety into song during the final stages of the Cold War.
To me, as a child, growing up a stone’s throw from a major SAC/MAC base (McGuire), a purported surface-vessel nuclear weapon loading facility (Earle Naval Weapons Station), a Navy training facility (Lakehurst) and an Army base (Fort Monmouth), the fear of war was in the background. I can still recall when I was ten and I asked my father what would happen in case of war with the Soviets, he fondly smiled at me, tousling my hair, and said, “we die first, son.” Vaporized in a cacophony of overlapping waves of blast, heat, light and radiation. So don’t worry.
So, the rhythm of the apocalypse moved through me as I explored music on the radio and my first forays into the record shops which would foster a life-long hobby of record collecting. Fast forward to 2010, and then-Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller (now the second in command here at NATO) tweeted out for songs about nuclear war. I was a bit underwhelmed by the response, which planted the seed, now blossomed into my own attempt at a playlist on the bomb.
My thanks to those who replied with some really great and thoughtful suggestions.
Note my list has four self-imposed rules:
- Each song has to be from the new wave/indie realm that constitutes most of the music I know and love.
- I differentiate between songs that one might associate with nuclear war due to a secondary affiliation such as Try a Little Tenderness, which has nothing to do with nuclear war, but is `inextricably linked in our minds through the astonishing opening sequence of Dr. Strangelove.
- I omit dozens of songs that have been included in other people’s lists with no association whatsoever with nuclear war but are included because…I guess the title and general moodiness (e.g., Black Celebration – really Wikipedia? And Cities in Dust is about Pompeii – everyone knows that!).
- No Sting. Sting is terrible.
So, without further ado, my special boosted atomic playlist with 35 songs on the end of the world:
I have a soft spot for Clark’s work with Vini Reilly, but her work with David Harrow is also very good.
A song about an anthropomorphized bomb by Rat Scabies of the Dammed and the legendary Jah Wobble, on the b-side to a weird no-label one-off 12”? Yes please!
First off, no, not Sleeper. Second, it’s not exactly about atomic war (unless Blondie was going to very extreme lengths to bleach her hair), but it still goes on the list.
I quite like this band, despite only seeing them live once and never hearing from them again.
One in a series of propulsive songs on the list, all about the dangers of unleashing the power of the atom.
I have a soft spot for Charli, and her use here of nuclear war as a metaphor for the ups and downs of love.
I always thought Any Second Now was about nuclear war, but then I read the lyrics. Here’s their nuclear war song, but it’s not as good.
“You’re about as easy as a nuclear war,” sings Simon – not to trivialize matters at all.
I was glad to find a whole French/Belgian new wave scene unheard in the States (unlike the Neue Deutsche Welle), including Eli and Jacno, Charles de Goal (no, really), Ruth, Jo Lemaire and Flouze, Lio, Carol, and Moderne.
Some clichés are just right.
I love this song, and had no idea it was about nuclear war until I read the lyrics.
Yeah, I liked Maiden for a while…but we grew apart.
My friends Rick and Brandon found this gem. I love LANL, so I was stunned to hear there was an underground electro paean to its work on the bomb.
I finally listened to Kraftwerk’s brilliant Radio-Activity album after decades of only lazily loving the band through best-ofs. Little did I know they had a song from the perspective of Uranium! PS: the morse code at the beginning and end of the song spells out “radioactivity”, if you didn’t guess (I hadn’t).
Ah, my mopey industrial goth phase. A young Sarah McLachlan makes her only appearance in my record collection, and it’s exactly as depressing as you’d expect.
Who hasn’t wished for a bomb strike to alleviate boredom on a rainy summer vacation day?
The German version is better. It just is. Accept it.
New Order rarely make forays into politics, but hid an anti-war statement on the bside to a gleefully hedonistic single (Fine Time).
The most complex song on here, where OMD cleverly hides a pretty scathing criticism of pilot Paul Tibbets inside an irresistible pop song.
With a name like that, everything they recorded fits somewhere in this category. Catchy tune, too.
Another song I’ve loved for years but had no idea was about nuclear war until recently.
Kinda obvious when you think about it, but I didn’t have it on my original list!
Oh, so topical, but so overplayed in its day.
Another song I missed on my original list, but a great one. The Scottish voice of the apocalypse.
Manchester, Martin Hannett, and pure bleakness. My kind of song.
I remember when this came out, thinking the future of music was here. It wasn’t, really. But MTV was a hell of a powerful drug.
If it’s not love, then it’s the bomb that will bring us together. Pre-curmudgeon Morrissey had some great lyrics.
A strange song, with an instrumental b-side titled “Yellowcake UF6” (uranium hexafluoride).
Leave it to Talking Heads to juxtapose nuclear war and CBGBs. Fair enough, if you were there before it closed.
Not my favorite song by The The, but it has to be on the list.
Sort of “peak depression” from This Mortal Coil. I’ll always prefer their first album, but the song Holocaust is about a personal conflagration, not a societal one.
Peak Johnny Rotten with Afrika Bambaataa in a showdown for who can be more bizarre. Centuries from now, this video will illustrate the 1980s.
A song that mentions nukes, NATO, and Tomahawks – topical and danceable.
I can’t believe I didn’t realize this, too was about nuclear war.
I think this is the hands-down best song on the list. The incredible minimalism and fragility of the song expresses an all-too-brief lifetime of fear in one minute forty-four seconds. The Galaxie 500 cover deserves special mention for its sheer audacity.
Special thanks to the contributors:
- Ian Anthony (@Siffror)
- Peter Spoor (@peterspoor1)
- Alessandro Azzoni (@AlleAzzoni)
- Anna (@AnnaBrk)
- Oliver Meier (@meier_oliver)
- Melissa Hanham (@mhanham)
- Amy (@Woolaf)
- Dakota Rudesill (@DakotaRudesill)
- Rick Slettenhaar (@RSlettenhaar)
William Alberque is the Director of NATO’s Arms Control, Disarmament and WMD Non-Proliferation Centre.
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The War Room from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove.