World Destruction: 17 ’80s Songs About Nuclear War: with fears of nuclear war back in fashion, let’s look back at some Reagan-era rockers that helped soothe tensions the first time around.
The latest news have you a bit on edge? It’s understandable-we have two world leaders acting like toddlers, once again raising the plausible event of nuclear war between the U.S. and North Korea.
If you’re a parent with young children or teenagers this can seem particularly troubling (luckily my daughter is too young to understand any current world events). You want them to feel safe, but there isn’t much you can do except hope that sanity prevails.
But if you’re a member of Generation X who grew up during the Cold War chill of the 80’s, this was an anxiety you learned to live with, and it scratches a familiar itch. Because we lived through the Reagan era when a washed up movie star turned president played hardball with Russia, and the threat of mutually assured destruction was palpable.
Pop culture ably represented the times, with movies, TV and music all reflecting our anxieties. MTV was awash in nuclear nightmare fuel wrapped in an alluring package of rock stars waxing poetic about the end of the world. It was scary, but somehow soothing to hear our musical heroes make sense of the senseless.
In the end pop culture actually helped end the dick measuring contest between America and Russia (for awhile at least): the made-for-television film The Day After proved so traumatic that even Reagan took a step back, and the arms race de-escalated. And songs about nuclear war seemed a quaint thing of the past. Until now.
Well folks, all I can say is hang on tight, try to relax and get some historical perspective that we’ve been in this situation before, escaping unscathed. Maybe current events will inspire some new anti-apocalyptic songs to help keep us calm. Until then here are 17 classic 80’s tracks to get you through the nuclear blues.
17. Red Skies-The Fixx (1982)
One of the Brit New Wave acts most memorable singles is a harrowing tale of an imminent nuclear holocaust with one haymaker of a chorus.
16. Always The Sun-The Stranglers (1986)
One of the punk/goth rockers more genteel tunes, Always The Sun is still pretty ruthless, with lyrics that foretell the end: “Who has the job/Of pushing the knob? That sort of responsibility you draw straws for If you’re mad enough.”
15. Christmas at Ground Zero-Weird Al Yankovic (1986)
Hey if you gotta face the apocalypse, at least do it with a smile on your face right? Weird Al Yankovic somehow manages to make a song about nuclear Armageddon at Christmastime sound not nearly as awful as it would certainly be, with sardonic lyrics including bon mots like its “a crazy fluke” that “we’re gonna get nuked!”
14. American Soviets-C.C.C.P. (1986)
One of the most underrated synth-pop songs from the 80’s, Germany’s C.C.C.P. made an utterly irresistible dance club hit all built around soundbites of Cold War newscasts and vocalist Rasputin Stoy’s pointed political lyrics.
13. The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades-Timbuk 3 (1986)
What sounded like a quirky paean to youthful ambition was really a snarky commentary on the dangers of nuclear weapons, featuring lines like Well I’m well aware of the world out there,
getting blown all to bits, but what do I care?
12. TIE: Distant Early Warning (1984)/Manhattan Project-Rush (1985)
The Canadian prog-rock trio recorded not one, but two nuclear war-centric attacks: Distant Early Warning is pretty much what the title suggests–an fictional account of the calm before the storm of a nuclear apocalypse.
The Manhattan Project is something different altogether, with drummer/lyricist Neal Peart offering listeners an auditory history lesson. It’s the Cliff’s Notes account of the Cold War, focused on the creators of nuclear weaponry, and the philosophical issues they faced while designing a device that could wipe out all of humankind.
11. Blackened-Metallica (1988)
The bruising opening track to Metallica’s …And Justice For All begins with an eerie backwards guitar figure before kicking into the opening riff–which packs a suitable bomb-like impact. It’s one of the group’s heaviest and most blistering songs, with James Hetfield spewing post-apocalyptic imagery: “Death of Mother Earth/Never a rebirth/Evolution’s end/Never will it mend.”
10. Time Will Crawl-David Bowie (1987)
One of the few saving graces off Bowie’s turgid 1987 album Never Let Me Down, the haunting Time Will Crawl saw the Thin White Duke inspired by the Chernobyl Disaster, saying in an interview the song “deals with the idea that someone in one’s own community could be the one responsible for blowing up the world”.
Lyrics like “We’ll give every life / For the crackpot notion” give visions to a world beset by ecological collapse, destroyed cities and radiation posing. Bowie always had a way with apocalyptic imagery (see 1971’s Bombers), but Life Will Crawl was one of his most affecting.
9. Party At Ground Zero-Fishbone (1985)
A downright chipper account of nuclear annihilation, ska rockers Fishbone’s giddy rocker sounds like the band doesn’t have a care in the world. Even the music video is decidedly and oddly upbeat, with the group dancing like maniacs to morbid lyrics like “Party at ground zero/A “B” movie starring you/And the world will turn to flowing/Pink vapor stew.”
8. Forever Young-Alphaville (1988)
A song that almost assuredly played at your high school prom if it occurred in the 80’s, the seemingly upbeat and euphoric Forever Young actually deals with darker content, basically informing the youth of the era to enjoy their time on the planet in case it all turns to ash: “Let’s dance in style, let’s dance for a while/Heaven can wait we’re only watching the skies/Hoping for the best, but expecting the worst/Are you gonna drop the bomb or not?”
7. Breathing-Kate Bush (1980)
Kate Bush lent her angelic pipes to a nightmarish sonic odyssey (lyrically that is–the tranquil arrangement is deceiving) of nuclear fallout told from the perspective of an unborn fetus. Lyrics like “Chips of plutonium are twinkling in every lung” certainly paint a disturbing yet indelible image.
6. TIE: Every Day is Like Sunday-Morrissey (1988) /Ask-The Smiths (1988)
One of Moz’s most lovely solo outings, the sublimely bleak Everyday is Like Sunday is based on the novel (and film) On The Beach, where survivors wait with grim resignation for nuclear fallout headed their way, as witnessed in some of his dourest lyrics: “Etch a postcard, how I dearly wish I was not here, In the seaside town, that they forget to bomb, come come come – nuclear bomb.”
A more upbeat (musically that is) Moz track is this Smiths tune. Amidst Johnny Marr’s glimmering guitar-work, Morrissey intones “If it’s not love/Then it’s the bomb/Then it’s the bomb/That will bring us together” in his classic biting style.
5. Russians-Sting (1985)
Before Sting went full adult contemporary he still had some edge, and Russians is a case in point, with the former-Police frontman hypothesizing that hopefully the Russians were just as scared of being blown off the map as the rest of us.
Pointed lyrics like “We share the same biology, regardless of ideology/Believe me when I say to you/I hope the Russians love their children too” painted a wary, yet hopeful plea that sanity would prevail in the end. Luckily it did!
4. Enola Gay-O.M.D. (1980)
The synth-pioneers had an unlikely hit with this infectious number that presented the moral dilemma faced by Colonel Paul Tibbits, the pilot that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima (the plane, and the song’s title was named after his mother). It’s the catchiest ditty about killing 90,000 people you’ll ever hear, which makes it all the more disconcerting.
That’s because the song’s dreamy, romantic arrangement is at stark odds with the lyrical content, as vocalist Andy McCluskey noted, who claimed that he “wasn’t really politically motivated to write the song”, writing so that it “conveyed an ambivalence about whether it was the right or the wrong thing to do.”
3. World Destruction-Time Zone (1984)
A song given new life thanks to Mr. Robot, World Destruction saw the unlikely duo of hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaata and snarling Sex Pistols/PiL vocalist John Lydon. Over a caustic drum machine beat and world music textures, the two trade-off verses, spitting out warnings that sadly still haven’t been heeded:
“This is a world destruction. Your life ain’t nothing.
The human race is becoming a disgrace.
The rich get richer.
The poor are getting poorer.
Fascist, chauvinistic government fools.
People, Moslems, Christians and Hindus.
Are in a time zone just searching for the truth.
Who are you to think you’re a superior race?
Facing forth your everlasting doom.”
Tell me, does it sound like anything’s really changed?
2. TIE: 1999 (1982)/Ronnie, Talk To Russia (1981)-Prince
Prince’s classic party anthem was all about living it up before the bomb hits, realizing the end is nigh, so enjoy while you can: “I woke up this mornin’, could’ve sworn it was judgment day/The sky was all purple, there were people runnin’ everywhere/Tryin’ to run from the destruction, you know I didn’t even care.”
While 1999 is certainly his most famous paean to nuclear war, 1981’s Ronnie Talk To Russia is even more pointed, with His Purple Majesty warning President Reagan to reach out to our Cold War adversaries or suffer the consequences: “Ronnie if you’re dead before I get to meet ya/Don’t say I didn’t warn ya!”
1. 99 Red Balloons (99 Luftballons)-Nena (1983)
A song so catchy it became a hit in America even with lyrics in the band’s native German (it was later re-recorded in English, but the original flows better), with vocalist Gabriele Susanne Kerner pontificating on what would happen if soaring balloons crossed the Berlin Wall and the Soviets mistook them for warheads.
The concept is a little far-fetched, but the sentiment is the key, and the rocking New Wave arrangement makes it an irresistible irradiated gem.
Honorable Mention: Land of Confusion-Genesis (1986)
I was informed that I missed one of the most popular nuclear war songs ever, so here it is. Never been a huge Genesis fan, but the song’s lyrics and the music video (with those creepy Spitting Image puppets, featuring Reagan accidentally setting off nuclear missles) is a must inclusion. Whoops!
Well folks that wraps up my list of the best 80’s songs about nuclear war. I realize things are a wee bit heated, and this list could be considered a downer, but my advice is to take solace in some great songs that got us through one rough patch, and can hopefully get us through another.
What other radioactive rock songs would you include on the list? Tell me in the comments!
More Honorable Mentions:
Hammer To Fall-Queen
2 Minutes to Midnight-Iron Maiden
Live Fast Die Young-Circle Jerks
No Nuclear War-Peter Tosh