The nuclear danger after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan made me think back to another, equally less innocent time, when the threat of nuclear annihilation was that dark cloud that hung over the world. In the early to mid ’80s when I was transitioning out of high school and into college, the “new wave” of music was decidedly electronic, at time sterile, and often rather glum. Besides the superstars of pop at the time, there weren’t many who were very optimistic about the future – or maybe lack thereof. The music I listened to at that time spoke in fragments and phrases about impending destruction brought about by an escalation in the tension between the Soviet Union and the United States. Nuclear arsenals were built up, more missiles were deployed in western Europe, the rhetoric on both sides were increasingly hawkish and it all seemed like it was going to end in a fiery exchange of ICBMs. I lived near a weapons depot and my friends and I would joke that if we got word that missiles were coming, we’d pack up our lawn chairs and binoculars and haul ass over to the weapons depot to watch the bombs drop on their targets. We figured it was better to go out in the belly of a mushroom cloud than be part of the sickly survivors of a nuclear holocaust. A grim outlook, I know. But I wasn’t the only one. As you’ll hear in this mix, these artists were also worried that all that humanity had built would be gone if the mad fuckers in the White House and the Kremlin didn’t come to their senses and quit playing chicken with some dangerous toys.
The Clash, “London Calling” (Download)
“…London is drowning…and I live by the river.” Inspired in part by another famous nuclear accident in Pennsylvania (Three Mile Island), the Clash sang about a whole bunch of stuff on this song — and very little of it flattering. War, nuclear “errors,” environmental disasters and a whole host of really upbeat fun stuff. Despite the rather dour lyrics, “London Calling” is one of those songs that’ll keep your fists pumping as we all go over a cliff — metaphorically speaking, that is.
Ultravox, “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” (Download)
And yet another song about, well, a nuclear disaster. How uplifting! But Ultravox was really able to tap into some collective sentiment about life in the nuclear age because the song was in the top 10 (in the UK). Midge Ure’s earnest vocals on this song (and other songs on the album) should remind people that not all new wave music from the ’80s lacked passion.
U2, “Seconds” (Download)
Speaking of a group who doesn’t lack passion… What more can be said about U2’s War? It’s an album that’s probably one of their strongest; one that has great hooks; one that clearly has passion, and one that has the group pondering the toll war takes human emotions. None of it is subtle, but neither is war, so you can’t blame U2 for being over the top at times.
Bruce Cockburn, “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” (Download)
If there were ever a theme song that should have been used in The Terminator, I think Bruce Cockburn could have been a contender. Sure, you can point to “Intimacy” by Linn Van Hek as one of the theme songs in the movie, but just listening to Cockburn’s tune conjures up images of the following carved on a tree: Sarah Conner + Kyle Reese = Lovers in a Dangerous Time
Elvis Costello and the Attractions, “Peace In Our Time” (Download)
Costello loves irony, and what’s more ironic than Neville Chamberlain returning from Germany with assurances that Hitler and his gang were not going to be all aggressive-y and invade-y when it came to Poland and the Sudetenland. And then Germany occupied the Sudetenland the very next day. Hahahaha. Don’t you love a good punch line?
Roger Waters, “The Tide is Turning (After Live Aid)” (Download)
I couldn’t end this mix on a completely depressing note. Waters’ “The Tide is Turning” is probably one of the most hopeful songs he’s written. It seemed at the time the world was leading to its inevitable end with the push of a few buttons. But Waters saw people actually giving a damn about other people thousands of miles away who they didn’t know, but wanted to do so something to help; something to lift them out of hunger and despair. Did the tide turn? Well, in a way, yes it did. But, alas, it was short-lived.
* And yes, a special nod to the Vapors’ 1980 album for supplying the title of this mix: