“The use of nuclear power is merely a symptom of our troubled times. It is time for all Americans to take control of their own lives and stop being pushed around and poisoned. The race for nuclear superiority can only end with the destruction of civilisation.” — Debbie Harry
There is nothing so distant as the recent past, especially when narrative accounts of that history are suppressed as official secrets. The cult status of the Sundance/RTL television series Deutschland 83 has revealed to audiences, in both Europe and America, just how close we came to nuclear war in the early 1980s and the escalation of geopolitical tensions in the final years of the Cold War. However, revisiting the mainstream pop hits of the era, it would seem the soundtrack was already written.
Amongst a raft of synth-pop anthems anticipating nuclear Armageddon, Peter Schilling’s Bowie-inspired ‘Major Tom’ sets the mood perfectly. Originally a 1983 number one in West Germany, it is now enjoying a second life as the show’s title theme. Missing out on the UK Top 40 at the time, remarkably, the song peaked at 14 on the US Hot 100 and topped the chart in Canada.
With its signature “4,3,2,1” countdown, the song captures the anxiety of the latter half of the Cold War, specifically the NATO operation Able Archer, an exercise simulating DefCon 1, and the preparations for a nuclear attack. The drill was so convincing that, according to papers from 1990, declassified in 2015, the USSR was on the verge of launching a preemptive strike.
Reputedly, it was the closest the two superpowers had come to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, with the Soviets loading warheads onto combat aircraft at bases in East Germany. The crisis was deescalated thanks to Director of Defense Intelligence Leonard Harry Perrot, who advised leaders not to respond to the Soviet activities in contravention of the Warsaw Pact, based on intelligence sources gleaned from a UK double-agent.
Oblivious though much of the general population was to this brush with nuclear destruction, the music of the synth-pop, new-wave era captures the sublime terror. Here we take a look at ten massive hit records that capture the energy of the atom-splitting and continue to resonate to this day.
The 10 best Cold War pop songs:
The Clash – ‘London Calling’
While the second crescendo of Cold War anxiety is synonymous with the 1980s and the Reagan-era Star Wars plan, The Clash were among several artists who saw this coming. In part, this can be attributed to an incident at a US nuclear plant in March 1979, known as The Three Mile Accident, which is alluded to in the line “A nuclear era, but I have no fear”.
Elsewhere the imagery speaks of a desolate nuclear winter, ‘The ice age/the eighties is coming, the sun’s zooming in / Engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin’. Musically the song is defined by the marching beat and the melody driven by speech rhythms. Like Debbie Harry’s proclamations on Midnight Special, the anxieties are as much about nuclear power as they are nuclear weapons. However, the reference to ‘London Calling’ and the BBC World Service wartime identification anticipates combat.
Peter Gabriel – ‘Games Without Frontiers’
Kicking off the 1980s with his first Top 10 solo hit, the former Genesis front man’s ‘Games Without Frontier’ captures the tense atmosphere of the new decade. The fragmented vocal melody is disjointed, punctuated by mechanized instrumental interjections, offset by a whistling motif that gestures to the soundscapes of infantry in the trenches. Banned by the BBC, the video included footage from a 1950s educational film advising American schoolchildren what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. This retro-futuristic aesthetic was characteristic of an era still defined by the geopolitics of World War II. Soviet military action in Afghanistan at the end of 79 had seen President Carter post-pone the SALT II nuclear weapons treaty and recall the US Ambassador.
Two decades on, and the world may have had a new perspective on the tensions that lead to the Cuban Missile Crisis, but they were no closer to them being resolved.
Blondie – ‘Atomic’
Recorded in 1979 for Eat to the Beat, Blondie’s ‘Atomic’ anticipates that the nuclear apocalypse will be a cross between a warehouse rave and an Ennio Morricone scored Spaghetti Western. Taking the space disco of ‘Heart of Glass’ and abstracting it even further, the minimalist song structure of ‘Atomic’ echoes Joe Meek’s production for The Tornados’ Telstar, written in homage to the Space Race satellite victory of 1962.
It is a textbook example of the power of an ostinato, with the five-chord pattern providing a shifting harmonic landscape under the repeated melody line of the guitar, much like the invisible power play of the Cold War. Resonating down the years, it has been remixed and re-appropriated several times with prominent use in the film Trainspotting and by Coca-Cola for the 1998 World Cup. However, it is the iconic single cover image that lingers, with Harry’s signature blonde mop morphing into a plutonium mushroom cloud.
Kate Bush – ‘Breathing’
While Kate Bush featured on backing vocals for Peter Gabriel’s ‘Games Without Frontiers’, ‘Breathing’ was the lead single from her third album, Never For Ever. Written from the perspective of a baby in the womb, the song anticipates birth in the aftermath of the apocalypse with lines like “Last night in the sky, ooh, such a bright light / My radar sends me danger, but my instincts tell me to keep breathing”. With spoken news reportage of a mushroom cloud, Bush rivals Harry in the casual invocation of Apocalyptic visions. Repetitive musical devices are used to reflect the cyclical breathing process, mirroring the ‘in-out’ of the vocal line. There is also a recurring keyboard figure over a limited if unusual chord progression.
However, the imagery of the line “Chips of Plutonium are twinkling in every lung” resonates most. The tension between the determiner ‘every’ and singular noun form of ‘lung” implies that the apparatus of breathing is not an individual but a collective experience, referring to all the individual members of a set, without exception.
OMD – ‘Enola Gay’
Equally oblique was OMD’s ‘Enola Gay’, which grazed the UK Top 10 in October 1980. Based around a four-chord progression reminiscent of do-wop, the nostalgia is at odds with its subject matter. The vocal line is accompanied by a relentless synth motif with a metallic edge invoking the sound of a siren. ‘Enola Gay’ was, of course, the soubriquet given to the B-29 Super Fortress bomber that dropped the first nuclear warhead over Hiroshima at 8.15 am on 6 August 1945, a detail fact-checked in the lyrics.
Likewise, the line “Is mother proud of little boy today?’ reminds us that ‘Enola Gay’ was not only the name of pilot Paul Tibbet’s mother, but ‘Little Boy’ was the affectionate title given to the bomb, which killed over 200,000 Japanese civilians. A slow-burner in the UK singles chart, eventually peaking at number eight, it went on to top the charts in both Italy and Spain
Peter Schilling – ‘Major Tom’
Reworking the narrative of ‘Major Tom’ from the David Bowie song, Peter Schilling’s crossover hit does not explicitly address themes of the Cold War. However, the song’s success in the US made it a unique proposition in 1983, at a time when Germany was the crucible of tensions between East and West. In most instances, the Teutonic rhythms underpinning tracks on this list, combined with the retro-futuristic sounds of synthesizers, create a sense of both foreboding and nostalgia that is disarming.
However, with Schilling’s ‘Major Tom’, the dysphoria is compounded by the shift in the percussive accent in different parts of the song. In the introduction and chorus, it is placed on the backbeat, propelling the music forward. However, this accent is displaced in the verses, creating inertia and confusion entirely in keeping with the Cold War anxiety it encapsulates.
Nena – ’99 Luftballons’/‘99 Red Balloons’
Written in 1982 and a hit across Europe the following year, the narrative of Nena’s ’99 Red Balloons’ foreshadows the events of operation Abel Archer with eerie precision. The song’s premise is that 99 balloons are mistaken for UFOs, which set off a chain of events that leads to a military campaign launched in error. The opening bars are characterised by a breathy vocal, heavy on the reverb, painting an aural picture of the sky. The proceeding instrumental places emphasis on the backbeat and slowly layers new musical material as the gravity of the situation materialises.
The second verse shifts gear into a rockier soundscape as the hierarchical chain of command fills in the gaps missing in Blondie’s elliptical ‘Atomic’: “99 Decision Street/ Ninety-nine ministers meet/ To worry, worry, super-scurry/ Call the troops out in a hurry/ This is what we’ve waited for/ This is it, boys, this is war/ The president is on the line/ As ninety-nine red balloons go by”. Like OMD’s ‘Enola Gay’, the conventional chorus vocal is substituted by a synth line that becomes the song’s signature hook. However, in the final spoken verse, we return to the empty landscape of the opening, we are reminded of the MAD doctrine of mutually assured destruction underpinning nuclear conflict: “In this dust that was a city/If I could find a souvenir/Just to prove the world was here”.
Ultravox – ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes’
‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes’ was not Ultravox’s first attempt to wed romantic allusions to the nuclear apocalypse. In their earlier incarnation, with John Foxx, ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ took its title from a 1959 French new wave film, directed by Alain Resnais, in which two lovers disagree over their memories of the nuclear attack on Japan. However, ‘Dancing With Tears in My Eyes, is from their final album Lament, with Midge Ure. The song grabs the listener’s attention, opening with the chorus, and in the desperation of the vocals, which begin, unusually, in the upper register. Released in the aftermath of the tensions that lead up to Operation Able Archer, the video actually anticipates the Chernobyl disaster.
In the clip, we see singer Midge Ure as the protagonist, racing against the clock to be with his family following an accident at a nuclear power plant. As the blast blows through the open windows of a stylised domestic idyll, the narrative foretells what would happen two years later in the Soviet State of Ukraine when a nuclear reactor exploded. While the video predicts a cataclysmic meltdown, the actual impact of Chernobyl was more subtle, going undetected outside of the USSR for several days until scientists recorded abnormally high radio levels over Sweden.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood – ‘Two Tribes’
Frankie Goes to Hollywood is another synth-pop classic from 1984, anticipating the sublime terror of nuclear Armageddon and DefCon one. The song begins with an air-raid siren and a spoken word sample from the public information film Protect and Survive, advising British civilians how to survive a nuclear attack. The song was allegedly inspired by President Reagan’s repeated invocation of Old Testament scriptures, the inevitability of nuclear armageddon, and the characterisation of the Soviet Union as evil. Trevor Horn’s bombastic Wagnerian production invokes Russian classical works, while the pounding bass echoes the debauched excess of Bobby O, as well as Frankie’s breakthrough single ‘Relax’.
While this juxtaposition of sex and death articulates itself in the vernacular of Cold War rhetoric, it can also be read-off against the fight with the body’s own immune system and the terrifying spectacle of HIV and AIDS amongst the gay community during this period. Right-wing world leaders, like Reagan and Thatcher, preoccupied with the geopolitics of oil, turned the other cheek while the LGBTQ community campaigned for medical research into the new global epidemic.
Tears For Fears – ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’
While the Clash’s ‘London Calling’ anticipated the rising tension between the East and West in the 1980s, Tears for Fears’ ‘Everybody Wants to Rule The World’ predicted the denouement: “Holding hands while the walls come tumbling down”. It would be four years, however, before the Berlin Wall would come down, on 9 November 1989, and an end to the Cold War was declared. The two songs also encapsulate the evolution of pop in the 1980s, from the harsh political rhetoric of post-punk to the polished ephemeral rapture of new pop.
This is encapsulated in transient and exultant euphoria of the lines “Help me make the most of freedom and of pleasure/ Nothing ever lasts forever”. For teenagers growing up in the monochrome grey of the East, life on the other side of the wall appeared to be in glorious Technicolour. Indeed, the video is pure Americana, shot in California and the Arizona desert, with singer Kurt Smith driving to the propulsive rhythm of incessant 12/8 time signature. This majestic metre found elsewhere in tracks such as Queen’s ‘Killer Queen’ and Simple Minds’ ‘Waterfront’ has a swagger and energy that drives the music forward. ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’, however, is a cautionary tale. Simultaneously, the line ‘’we will find you’ alludes to the surveillance culture of the Stasi regime, while “say that you’ll never never never never need it” gestures to the semantics of greed underpinning Western consumer capitalism.
From 1979 to 1984, there is definite chemistry between the taut metallic sound of mainstream pop and the political tensions that characterised the end of the Cold War. This was emphasised by the use of synthesisers and drum machines, which created a modern sound that contrasted greatly to the charts before punk. Ironically, this contemporary aesthetic concealed some very traditional songwriting, which often echoed the doo-wop’s melodic richness and familiar chord progressions.
When lyrical themes touched upon the emotional fallout of the impending apocalypse, the collision of nostalgia and nihilism created a heady cocktail that continues to thrill. With the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991 bringing an end to a divided Europe, this line of creative tension in pop also dispersed. As the Nineties proceeded, the popular imagination moved on to anticipate the impending Millennium as the next source of cataclysmic disaster. However, while nuclear fission seemed to supply 1980s pop culture with a vernacular of technological futurism, the century’s final decade was characterized by remembrance and sentimentality.
Co-author: Michael Whiteside