Artists have always seized upon turmoil 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.
When the fourth reactor at the nuclear power plant of Chernobyl exploded 35 years ago, rendering the surrounding area uninhabitable for the next 20,000 years, the world feared the worst. Amid the dread and uncertainty that followed, a slew of creative rejoinders emerged. One of which is an iconic classic from The Smiths that sought to reconcile the response to the catastrophe and what it said about society at large.
At the time, 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 tragedy. “The story about this shocking disaster comes to an end, and then, immediately, we’re off into Wham! ‘s ‘I’m Your Man’.”
Marr then incredulously recalled the infamous moment that made Steve Wright the band’s enemy number one: “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’.”
Despite bemoaning the fickle mainstream of culture, the song ironically became a radio hit scoring number eleven in the UK charts, which prompted Morrissey to dub the track a “tiny revolution”. And it was a revolution backed by the visceral guitar tones of Johnny Marr, who rotates around G Major and E Minor for chiming an onslaught of atmospheric indie.
This musical side of things was heavily inspired by the influential glam rock of T. Rex and their anthem ‘Metal Guru’. As Marr told Les Inrockuptibles in 1999: “When we wrote ‘Panic’ Morrissey was obsessed with ‘Metal Guru’ and wanted to sing in the same style. He didn’t stop singing it in an attempt to modify the words of ‘Panic’ to fit the exact rhythm of ‘Metal Guru.’ He also exhorted me to use the same guitar break so that the two songs are the same.”
All in all, the anthemic track is a signifier of art’s ability to distil elements of society down into a cognizant dose of reflection. While it might not have brought any comfort to the masses in the face of the tragedy, it did successfully point the finger at the way that the world can forget that gravitas of disasters all too quickly without responsibly endeavouring to change or learn.