Even if you’re not old enough to remember the Cold War, it’s a safe bet you’re familiar with it from your parents, school, and popular entertainment. From the end of WWII to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the ideological conflict between the United States/NATO and the Soviet Union and its allies defined global politics, and for four decades (give or take) the world held its breath in fearful anticipation of a full-scale nuclear showdown between these superpowers, awar many believed would mean the end of civilization as we know it. If you aren’t old enough to remember, just re-read Watchmen (or watch the film). It was a lot like that, minus Richard Nixon and naked blue superbeings.
However, nuclear paranoia’s influence was not confined to the geopolitical stage. It also had a huge impact on the pop culture of the era, especially in the 1980s, when the doctrine of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) was in full swing, and each side boasted a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the planet many times over. Post-apocalyptic adventures like the Mad Max trilogy, dramas like Miracle Mile, and techno-thrillers like WarGames were some of the most popular films of the decade. But cinema was hardly the only medium affected; the subject was broached in popular music of the time as well, though not always as obviously. The manner in which the issue was treated varied from artist to artist and genre to genre: punk and metal were characteristically loud, direct, and often quite nihilistic in their treatment of nuclear war, while other bands wrote political songs that protested nuclear proliferation. A few even produced recordings that hardly anyone realized were about nuclear war, usually hiding their true message behind catchy rhythms and sardonic wit.
Here then are 10 hits (and a few not-quite hits) of the ’80s that would make a great playlist for when you’re stocking your fallout shelter with canned goods, or trying to outrun radioactive mutants on your custom-built supercycle across the post-atomic wasteland.
10) “Sweethearts”, Camper Van Beethoven
This song, off of CVB’s most successful album (1989’s Key Lime Pie), is probably the least known track on this list; however, it’s also the prettiest. A sweet, mournful ballad about the military-industrial complex of Reagan-era America teeming with lush guitar work, pedal steel, and the Camper’s trademark violin. Give it a listen if you’re unfamiliar with it (which is fairly likely).
9) “Two Tribes”, Frankie Goes to Hollywood
Best known as the flamboyantly gay British band that gave us the megahit “Relax”, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s second single “Two Tribes” was a smash in their native land in 1983, but couldn’t recreate its predecessor’s success in the States. The title was taken from a line in the 1980s post-nuclear classic The Road Warrior, and is a clear reference to the conflict between East and West. ZZT, the band’s label, marketed the heck out of the song’s political angle, with the band appearing in U.S. military uniforms in concert, and producing a cover for the 12-inch single featuring a Soviet mural of Vladimir Lenin, and images of Ronald Reagan and U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The video made for the song speaks for itself. You may recognize the song from its inclusion in the ’80s-themed videogame Grand Theft Auto: Vice City as a part of the playlist for Vice City’s Wave 103 radio station.
8) “Paranoid Chant”, Minutemen
Hardcore Punk pioneers Minutemen of San Pedro, California, wrote this for their 1980 7-inch EP Paranoid Time. Basically, it concerns how one processes the threat of imminent nuclear destruction along with the rest of the bullshit modern life throws at you. It’s fast, loud, short, and funny, like most Minutemen tracks. Video salute to Richard Nixon courtesy of Dogman Dave.
7) “Enola Gay”, OMD
OMD (Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark), the British synthpop outfit best known for “If You Leave”, wrote this song for their second album,1980’s Organisation. The title refers to the USAAF B-29 Superfortress bomber that carried “Little Boy”, the atomic bomb that was dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945. The song questions the necessity of this attack, and was written partially in protest of Prime Minister Thatcher’s decision to allow American nuclear missiles to be stationed in Great Britain.
6) “1999”, Prince
I honestly wasn’t all that enthusiastic about including this song, but I knew folks would be looking for it. Not that I have anything against the Purple One, I just thought it a bit too obvious. Less about nuclear war than about Armageddon in general, “1999” was the title track off Prince’s 1982 album (back in his “Prince & the Revolution” days), but it wasn’t a hit until the success of “Little Red Corvette” revived interest in Prince. The tune was re-recorded by Prince’s new band, The New Power Generation, in late 1998 and played live at midnight New Year’s Eve, 1999 (during his “The Artist Formerly Known As” phase) at the Paisley Park Studios Soundstage. After this, Prince swore the song would never be performed again, a promise he broke in 2007 when he brought it back for his Earth Tour.
P.S. The accompanying vid is from Dailymotion because His Highnessness decided to have the sound removed from his Youtube videos. I guess some people are just allergic to free publicity.
5) “Two Minutes to Midnight”, Iron Maiden
Quintessential British metal band Iron Maiden released this tune in 1984 on their fifth album, Powerslave. The title refers to the infamous “Doomsday Clock”, the symbolic clock used by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists with midnight representing global thermonuclear war. Two minutes to midnight (23:58) is as close as this clock ever got, which occurred in September of 1953 when the U.S. and the Soviet Union tested hydrogen bombs within nine months of each other.
Like the aforementioned “Two Tribes”, this song also appeared in GTA: Vice City, as part of the city’s metal/hard rock station V-Rock. In 2009 it appeared as a playable track in Guitar Hero 5 (though heavily censored), and it is available as DLC for Rock Band.
4) “Christmas at Ground Zero”, Weird Al Yankovic
A track on Al’s relatively unsuccessful 1986 album Polka Party!, this ’60s-flavored Christmas carol wasn’t the first time Al had tackled the topic of nuclear war –a verse of the equally demented “Happy Birthday” from his self-titled first album did this quite well — but this was Al’s first complete song on the subject. Obviously, the post-9/11 world has redefined the term “Ground Zero”, and thus lead to a reduction in the Yuletide airplay this tune once enjoyed. In fact, a folk singer from Michigan released a song by the same name in December 2001, with all the proceeds going to charity.
3) “99 Luftballoons”, Nena 99
It’s actually perfectly reasonable that American audiences had no idea this song was about nuclear war when it was first released in 1983. It’s in German! In fact, even after Nena re-recorded the song in English as “99 Red Balloons”, Americans still overwhelmingly preferred the German version (“99 Red Balloons” is not a direct translation; luftballoon, literally “air balloon”, is a German term for a toy balloon, as opposed to balloons used for transportation or research). The song’s lyrics in both languages concern what would happen if a bunch of toy balloons floated over the Berlin Wall and were mistaken for attacking aircraft or missiles. Absurd as it sounds, something similar nearly happened the very same year when a nuclear attack alarm was sounded in the Soviet Union due to “shiny clouds” that were mistaken for hostile aircraft. Thankfully, the alarm was disregarded by Soviet early-warning system operator Stanislav Petrov, who may well have single-handedly prevented World War III.
2) “Party at Ground Zero”, Fishbone
Originally recorded as a demo called “Pink Vapor Stew”, Fishbone’s popular 1985 tune needs no close examination to reveal its connection to the subject of nuclear war — it’s about as blatant as you can get. Especially when presented as it is here, in video form. Director Henry Selick (future director of The Nightmare Before Christmas) crafted the video as homage to The Masque of the Red Death, in which the clip’s climax has Death removing his mask and creating an atomic explosion. It’s about as much fun as you can have rocking out to a jam about thermonuclear annihilation.
1) “The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades”, Timbuk3
The only popular song of the 1980s I can think of that was misinterpreted more often than today’s #1 was “Every Breath You Take” by The Police (a song about stalking that people were playing at their freakin’ weddings back in the day). Written by Timbuk3 singer/songwriter Pat MacDonald, 1986’s “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” tells the story of a young nuclear scientist and his (ahem) “bright” future as a designer of atomic weapons. Unfortunately, audiences of the time didn’t look past the catchy rhythms and the positive-sounding chorus, and made it a hit at proms and graduation ceremonies. This misinterpretation was best illustrated in the large number of ’80s comedies the song appeared in, including the soundtracks of Something Wild, Campus Man, My Best Friend Is a Vampire, and Dream a Little Dream, not to mention the video made with the cast of the sitcom Head of the Class. However, as the tune was Timbuk3’s only hit, no one in the band really rushed to correct the public until the song was featured on VH-1’s 100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders of the ’80s a few years ago.