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From The Smiths to David Bowie: 5 songs written about Chernobyl

It is hard to reconcile the Chernobyl disaster retrospectively. Of course, the incident was a disaster, but at the time, the fears raced towards thoughts of something even more catastrophic. It was 35 years ago this week when the fourth reactor at the nuclear power plant exploded, leaving the surrounding area uninhabitable for the next 20,000 years, and the world feared the worst. 

Artists have always seized upon such instances and tried to make sense of the chaos through the act of creating something that either reflects or illuminates it.

The classic example is that of Marcel Duchamp who sparked an art revolution by responding to the mindless horrors of World War One by hanging a urinal in an art gallery, operating on the logic that the only way to reflect the senselessness of society was through equally senseless art. 

Chernobyl might not have been on the same scale as this, however, it still grabbed the attention of the world and artists once again attempted to reconcile what had occurred.

This brought about a slew of creative rejoinders in the 35 years since it happened, but these five songs, in particular, stand out as the pinnacle of music’s response that came from the fallout of Chernobyl.  

5 songs written about Chernobyl:

‘Panic’ by The Smiths

The Smiths were a shot to the arm of the glam saturated music industry in 1986. They shunned the ubiquitous use of synths and turned up with their third record, the highly original masterpiece The Queen Is Dead. Six months after the release of the record, The Smiths put out the single ‘Panic’.

Although ostensibly the track was an attack of the pop culture of the period (“the music they constantly play says nothing to me about my life”), Johnny Marr has actually stated that the single was, in fact, a direct response to the Chernobyl disaster. Marr told NME that he and Morrissey were listening to Radio 1’s Newsbeat providing updates on the unfurling catastrophe. “The story about this shocking disaster comes to an end, and then, immediately, we’re off into Wham!’s ‘I’m Your Man’.” 

Adding: “I remember actually saying ‘what the fuck has this got to do with peoples’ lives?’ We hear about Chernobyl, then, seconds later, we’re expected to be jumping around to ‘I’m Your Man’… And so: ‘Hang the blessed DJ’.”

‘Time Will Crawl’ by David Bowie

David Bowie was always an artist who bravely grabbed the thistle of society with both hands. In April 1986, the star was already halfway through recording his seventeenth albumNever Let Me Down, but he was stirred up by the disaster enough to put the planned material to one side and focus on writing a new song in response.

As Nicholas Pegg quotes the Starman in The Complete David Bowie: “I was taking a break from recording […] it was a beautiful day and we were outside on a small piece of lawn facing the Alps and the lake. Our engineer, who had been listening to the radio, shot out of the studio and shouted: ‘There’s a whole lot of shit going down in Russia.’ The Swiss news had picked up a Norwegian radio station that was screaming – to anyone who would listen – that huge billowing clouds were moving over from the Motherland and they weren’t rain clouds.”

Thus, with this unsettling notion in mind, Bowie set about writing a song that illuminated the dangers of pollution and the continual destruction of the planet through industry. 

‘Can’t Run But’ by Paul Simon

Although some songs may well have tackled the issues the Chernobyl in a more nebulous sense, with lyrics like “A cooling system / Burns out the Ukraine / Trees and umbrellas / Protect us from the new rain,” do away with any ambiguity surrounding Simon’s effort. 

Through the track, Simon elucidates the notion that society is constantly hurtling towards progress without stopping to think if anything is lost along the way. It is a powerful piece of poetry that removed the surface drama of the catastrophe and focused instead on the loss of humanity not just as a result of the disaster but of brutality in general. 

‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ by Billy Joel

Contrary to popular belief, Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ is not actually kitsch and tawdry; it is a very interesting piece of songwriting that chronicles the entirety of modern culture in under four minutes with a singalong chorus to boot — if that isn’t commendable then what is?

Although Chernobyl is not actually mentioned directly in the lyrics, Billy Joel has stated in interviews that the track was spawned by the mounting global issue of ‘atomic anxiety’ and a slew of political tensions that hung in the air. Naturally, Chernobyl was at the precipice of these fears; however, with this song, Billy Joel states, and later repeats many times, that the turmoil of the world is nothing new. 

‘Dominion/Mother Russia’ by The Sisters of Mercy

The irony of the mid-eighties is that a lot of the political issues regarding the cold war and opulent industrialism could not have been tackled in a more musically glossy way. Musicians were pouring more technology into music than ever before, and ‘Dominion/Mother Russia’ is near the peak of that. 

Although the song hurls a barrage at America’s continual perpetuation of Cold War tensions, the finale sees the band cascade into an outro of apocalyptical Chernobyl imagery. “Mother Russia/ Mother Russia/ Mother Russia rain down, down, down,” intones the culturally ubiquitous image of radiation clouds spreading across the world in a slurry of nuclear fallout. This dark prophesying of doom was the generalised response to the disaster and raising the alarm for change.