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The Best ’80s Pop Songs About Nuclear Apocalypse

The pop songs are most often about love, loneliness, angst and…nuclear holocaust? At least they used to be.

Slim Pickens rides a nuke in Dr. Strangelove

There was a good point in the analysis of the lyrics of the Polish 1983 rock song “Zamki na piasku” (Castles in the Sand) published by the monthly Teraz Rock in the early aughts. The line went more or less like this: You people think that terrorism is a modern phenomenon but people in the ’80s were as scared of it as much we are. Just think about Palestinian nationalists or IRA in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, they had another threat hanging over their heads: the danger of nuclear annihilation.

I’m aware that the Northern American attitude towards the nuclear arms race was the same as in Poland, yet different. People on both sides of Atlantic Ocean thought: “our politicians are crazy!” but they were thinking of different power brokers. The Westerners were probably angrier than the Easterners, because their information wasn’t filtered through censorship. A lot of this legitimate anger and fear seeped into the best pop and rock music of the time. Some of those more or less veiled protest songs are classics in the Anglo-Saxon world, some are perennials in my country. Two 1979 hits are included because no serious examination of this trope would be complete without them.

Blondie, “Atomic” (1979)

No better way to start the party but with the band that ruled the Earth in that era. It was already their third number one in the UK. According to the group it’s just a dance workout with a striking title but the post-nuclear apocalypse tones of the video seem to disagree.

The key line: “Oh-oh, atomic” (not much of a choice here)

The Clash, “London Calling” (1979)

The title track of this 1979 punk rock landmark has been written as a mockery of contemporary media and their exploitation of the human fear of death. Forty years have passed and nothing changed for the better—as we know from experience and from another accusatory British song: Faithless’ “Mass Destruction.” The title comes from the World War II BBC radio signal. So…it looks like Joe Strummer and co. harbored traumas similar to Roger Waters. Once again: who does hate Pink Floyd?

The key line: “A nuclear era, but I have no fear”

Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, “Enola Gay” (1980)

Few people in Poland know and like “If You Leave,” but “Enola Gay” is legendary for us (as well as “Maid of Orleans” and “Sailing on the Seven Seas”). Maybe that’s because almost no one in Poland knew what the lyrics meant. It’s highly probable that the state-sanctioned newspapers were mentioning the OG Enola Gay in their pieces on non-proliferation, but they were mostly ignored by our pop afficionados. Soothing but danceable melody and Andy McCluskey’s dorky vest were enough for them to fall in love. Not entirely surprisingly, the song’s title became a template for juvenile wordplay on these shores when remixed by German trance producer SASH! in 1998. I was in primary school back then and I really didn’t know better.

The key line: “This kiss you give, it’s never ever gonna fade away”

The Jam, “Going Underground” (1980)

Whether they’ve seen them as punk, post-punk or mod revival, the early ’80s Britons loved The Jam. When they were nearing their break-up, they were in a position that scoring number two on the singles charts was quite literally a bitter pill to swallow for them. They dressed sharply but there was a rage in their music that often rivaled The Clash. Enough rage to make this song debut (!) at the top domestically, an extremely rare feat at the time.

The key line: “You want more money of course I don’t mind to buy nuclear textbooks for atomic crimes”

Nik Kershaw, “I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” (1983)

It’s not a very popular opinion but I believe that Nik’s 1983–1986 singles run was impeccable. The guy was planting massive hooks even in the songs with absurd titles like “Radio Musicola.” “I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” belongs to the Big Three of his hits with “Wouldn’t It Be Good” and “The Riddle.” This #2 UK smash (as a re-issue, to be precise) mercilessly pokes fun at the powers-that-be of the period. The title line in itself is as powerful plea as it gets. Real shame that he was only one-hit-wonder in US.

The key line: “Forefinger on the button, is he blue or is he red?”

Alphaville, “Forever Young” (1984)

Speaking of one-hit-wonders (from the American point of view), this synth ballad got a new lease of life from the Jay-Z sample and prom dances. Young folks seem not to mind that those Germans don’t seem to strongly believe that eternal life is an option in the atomic era. Their country was divided into two warring blocks, always at risk of becoming a nuclear battlefield, so who can blame them?

German ’80s pop gave us a rare depiction of nuclear horror from a Japanese point of view—Sandra’s “Hiroshima.” It makes sense not only because both countries were World War II allies. The singer known internationally as the voice of early Enigma started her career with the German-language version of Alphaville’s biggest domestic hit, titled…”Big in Japan”. And I even haven’t mentioned “99 Luftballons” so far…

The key line: “Are you gonna drop the bomb or not?”

Frankie Goes To Hollywood, “Two Tribes” (1984)

The most domestically popular musical Liverpudlians since The Beatles (sorry, OMD!) were occupied with the biggest obsessions of humanity on their first three singles. No points for guessing which one—love, war or sex—this one was about. This video is probably the only thing most people remember Konstantin Chernenko from. No one would guess at the time that the old guy didn’t have much life left in him. FGTH singer Holly Johnson refreshed nuclear imagery a solo artist in 1989.

The key line: “Are we living in a land where sex and horror are the new Gods?”

Ultravox, “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” (1984)

It makes me sad that Poland didn’t have a chance to properly appreciate Ultravox’s biggest hit. When “Vienna” charted all around the world, my country was in the throes of martial law. The band was peddling their brand of chilly melancholy for few years more, offering their take on nuclear panic along the way. Isn’t the title of this song a perfect metaphor of the New Romantic movement?

The key line: “The man on the wireless cries again, it’s over, it’s over”

Tears For Fears, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” (1985)

We can call it the synth pop Chekhov’s gun. This duo wanted to kick out the style and bring back The Jam so we should spend a little time with them. This song is probably the biggest stretch in this tale, but still “a room where the light won’t find you” can be interpreted as a fallout shelter, I guess. Also, the whole sentiment expressed in the title hints at the extension of the “Two Tribes” story, because the adjectives “nuclear” and “political” both go well with “power”.

The key line: “There’s a room where the light won’t find you holding hands while the walls come tumbling down”

Morrissey, “Everyday Is Like Sunday” (1988)

I have no doubt that Morrissey is an awful person. I also have no doubt that the second single of his solo career is a masterpiece. Maybe it’s because I live in a spa village that “closes down” after the summer holiday, too. Maybe we should thank for those stately strings in the middle eight. Or maybe because Moz focused more on drawing the picture of unglamorous England of this time than on analyzing his own woes. It’s strange to end this piece of writing with the song that (sarcastically?) begs for the nuclear armageddon because this type of disaster is both dangerous and interesting. But that’s Steven Patrick Morrissey for you.

The key line: “In the seaside town that they forgot to bomb”

The end of cold war didn’t bury apocalypto-pop (so to speak) completely. The state of the environment became bigger concern for musicians as prominent as Michael Jackson or Jamiroquai. The atomic menace was still rearing its ugly head from time to time. The band Fall Out Boy became a household name in the ’00s. “Jestem odpadem atomowym” (I’m a fallout) was also hit for Polish pub rock stars Elektryczne Gitary (Electric Guitars) in 1996. But as Green Day and many others proved not so long ago, there’s no reason to sing about nuclear weapons when the conventional ones are dangerous enough…

Written by Kordian Kuczma

Kordian Kuczma is a writer, tour guide and teacher from northern Poland. One of his biggest dreams is to write the comprehensive biography of Pet Shop Boys. Being a good European boy, he chose to live his life in the company of Bergman and Tarkovsky. Kordian's path is a strange and difficult one.

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