38 Essential ’80s Songs About Nuclear Anxiety
We talk about the ‘80s a lot. Nostalgia for that decade and its pop culture has both seemed to move in cycles and be ever-present for something like the last 15 years. It’s an interesting paradox: We often remember the decade and its pop music in fond, neon hues, the same decade that was shot through with apocalyptic darkness and in turn had a nostalgic bent towards the ‘50s. That was the decade they looked back on as their innocence, the same way we look back on the ‘80s as ours. Those are the years of proms in John Hughes films, and our own proms, and childhood, and all that shit. Those are the years where pop music sounded like the future, but also preceded the real arrival of the future in the true mainstream introduction of the internet era in the ‘90s, a turning point with complete and still-evolving societal ramifications. Sure, it is still tempting to look back on the ‘80s for more than those songs’ undying hooks, to look back and figure them as simpler times. They were, in some ways. But that same pop music was also the soundtrack of a new era of nuclear anxiety.
As of late, I’ve been hearing those classic ’80s songs differently. For the first time in my life, we also live with some degree of actual fear that nuclear war could break out at any given moment.
There are always concerns about certain countries reaching nuclear capability; the topic is never too far from our headlines or our minds. But the last time a full nuclear war wholly captured the American consciousness as a real and central threat to the continued existence of the world was during the ‘80s, with the intensification of the Cold War during its final chapter.
Back then, the prospect of the Americans and Russians bombing the shit out of each other made the possibility of not only nuclear war, but the very concept of nuclear energy, a mainstream concern. Then, with the fall of the USSR, we didn’t think about it as much. The stories of growing up during the Cold War, with perhaps subconscious but perpetual fear of nuclear attacks, once seemed part of history, something of our parents’ or grandparents’ generations. Now, it feels real again, the shorthand historical signifiers burned away for a new, visceral present. Somehow, we live in an era where there are people speculating about cabinet members having to tackle the President Of The United States — another Weird ’80s icon, Donald Trump — if he goes to fire the nukes.
Sometimes it seems inevitable. Already Trump has done unprecedented things like taunt and threaten an unstable foreign leader about nuclear war via Twitter. He has called Kim Jong-Un “Rocket Man” during a speech at the UN. He has tweeted dick-measuring boasts about his nuclear button. Earlier this month, for nearly 40 minutes, people in Hawaii thought they might die from an incoming ballistic missile. It was a false alarm. Trump kept golfing.
Though the moment we are living in comes across as fundamentally unique to 21st century America, there’s been no shortage of turning to history to clarify and survive it. (In the wake of Hawaii, there were articles that drew parallels to similar events that proved to be close calls during the Cold War.) Mostly, these history lessons are defensive: Remember what’s happened before and stay vigilant. Sometimes, it primarily provokes that simmering anger, that aghast frustration that the people in charge seem to be so willfully oblivious to history. Occasionally, it could be comforting, a reminder that we’ve weathered crises before and we can do it again if we manage to not get incinerated.
During it all, I made my way back through the music I grew up on, the music of the late Cold War. Though the role of Cold War politics and nuclear anxiety is often obvious, or at least documented, when it comes to post-punk and new wave of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, it’s rarely a topic we focus on when we talk about ‘80s revivalism. In the case of new wave particularly, there’s often this stereotype that it was a glossier and more romantic genre suitable for ‘80s excess, abandoning the politics of punk, despite the fact that many new wave bands wrote songs set against an end of the world that would’ve inevitably come at the hands of the USA or the USSR. Most of my favorite music comes from the ‘80s, but I heard it in a different light under Trump’s bungling reign. The context we so often forget to consider now seemed crucial, music that soundtracked one era of living on the edge of the world and could clarify a new one.
Yes, there are any number of lush, yearning new wave songs, whether in the loose genre’s art-rock beginnings or its penetration into poppier forms. There’s also any number of famous, beloved tracks from this era that are claustrophobic and avant-garde. It’s easy now to forget the experimental capacity of this music at the time. Making use of new technology, these songs sounded like unimagined territory, but their unsettling atmospheres could also sound like encroaching Armageddon. Cold War tension was baked into the wintry, blue and gray atmospherics; in the imagination, it conjures stark Eastern Bloc cityscapes the same as it does a barren post-atomic wasteland. After all, many of the artists working in this strain were influenced by bleakly futuristic German electronic music that was being made in, you know, a country that had a very literal symbol for the Cold War splitting Berlin in two.
Even artists who weren’t writing about nuclear war or Cold War politics explicitly were crafting music that captured the chilly pressure of the times. Gary Numan’s late ‘70s and early ‘80s robotic futurism sounded like the end of humanity in more ways than us being supplanted by androids. Joy Division’s dark and foreboding world may have given way to some kind of brightness under New Order, but even New Order’s most ebullient material featured the same cold electronics, a search for love in an unforgiving world.
Whether bands were writing on topical political events or the more dire images of nuclear bombs falling, the Cold War was, to quote a famous song of the era, simply in the air. (The fact that Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” was influenced by his divorce but often registers as one of those tense Cold War anthems is a testament to just how much the state of the world was reflected in the textures of early ‘80s pop music.) This would continue throughout the decade, with songs that referenced World War II and earlier events of the Cold War as precursors to the current moment, songs that criticized the American/Russian standoff for putting the entire world in danger of total destruction, songs that imagined what a fallout world would look like or how people would act in the moment they knew the missiles were coming.
And that old new-wave tension, that futuristic sheen that also hints at a post-apocalyptic existence right around the corner? That feels like as fitting a soundtrack today as it was in the ‘80s, even within a different context. The threats are very real today, just as they were then. Infuriated music might be more cathartic. But what we deserve is the paranoid, airless qualities of the best ‘80s songs about nuclear anxiety.
To that end, we compiled a list of some of the most essential ‘80s songs that either specifically addressed or were markedly influenced by the Cold War era and its attendant nuclear anxiety. To keep this reasonable, we kept it to music that fell within the loose parameters of post-punk and new wave, though that’s not to say we didn’t also include some more mainstream artists who were trafficking in similar sounds. What we did omit was stuff like the next generation of punk — Dead Kennedys, Bad Religion, Hüsker Dü, etc. — who often had a ton of political material that feels separate from the batch below. Similarly, we didn’t include any metal here, though nuclear apocalypse was (and continues to be) a fertile source of inspiration in that genre. Even within those parameters, there are many songs to choose from, with different sounds and methods of capturing the foreboding final days of the Cold War. Here they are below, in chronological order by year.
Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark – “Enola Gay” (1980)
There are a lot of songs on this list that sound infectious and poppy while conveying some very dark subject matter. In “Enola Gay,” that contrast is pretty severe. Every part of this song, especially the main synth line that anchors it, is a danceable earworm, but all of that is a propulsive delivery mechanism for a meditation on nuclear war via historical context. Actually rooted more so in Andy McCluskey’s obsession with WWII-era aircraft than by the desire to make a political statement, “Enola Gay” is named for the plane that carried the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The song is filled with allusions otherwise, the line “Is mother proud of little boy today?” referencing both the literal bomb Little Boy and the fact that the pilot had named his plane “Enola Gay” after his mother, and the recurring “It’s 8:15″ denoting the time the bomb was dropped. “Enola Gay” kicked off OMD’s excellent sophomore album Organisation with a somewhat unintentional mission statement and prologue — from a literal reference to the atomic bomb onwards, the rest of the album was dominated by the sort of barren, gray atmospherics we associate with Cold War Europe.
Peter Gabriel – “Games Without Frontiers” (1980)
Though not explicitly about the Cold War exactly, “Games Without Frontiers” often registers as one of the iconic songs influenced by the politics of the era, and it features the pairing of two iconic artists: Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. Inspired by a European game show where teams from different nations competed in ridiculous competitions, Gabriel’s lyrics feature a few references to the series all in service of comparing international diplomacy to children’s games. It’s a classic for that reason, using a metaphor to illustrate the often infantile, reckless behavior of world leaders that so often threatens to bring us to the brink of disaster. It was accompanied by a video that juxtaposed imagery of Olympics and little war dioramas with bombs going off.
Kate Bush – “Breathing” (1980)
The same year she appeared on “Games Without Frontiers,” Bush offered her own haunting track inspired by the times. “Breathing” was told from the perspective of a fetus in a mother’s womb, taking in the outside world. “We’ve lost our chance/ We’re the first and the last/ After the blast/ Chips of plutonium/ Are twinkling in every lung,” Bush sings in one verse. As opposed to some of the more straightforwardly political tracks on this list, Bush’s take was a more impressionistic and imaginative one, using a fittingly nightmarish song to convey the idea of nuclear war from a perspective of innocence, and the ramifications of current events on future generations.
The Police – “When The World Is Running Down (You Make The Best Of What’s Still Around)” (1980)
A characteristic Police offering, this is a catchy and groove-driven track that’s also one of countless ’80s songs that isn’t necessarily about anything on the surface but is actually influenced by the darkness hanging over everything at the decade’s opening. It’s actually told from some kind of post-apocalyptic landscape, the narrator listing his possessions and always following them with a “same one I’ve had for years.” Because, you know, society ended.
The Specials – “Man At C&A” (1980)
“Warning! Warning! Nuclear attack!” is how the Specials’ “Man At C&A” begins, and it remains pretty explicit about its intentions from there, between references to World War III, the news from Moscow, and Mickey Mouse talking to the Ayatollah. The key lines, however, are “I’m the man in gray, I’m just the man at C&A/ And I don’t have a say in the war games that they play,” summing up the viewpoint of the layman caught in the middle of international relations at the time, watching helplessly as powerful governments danced closer to major conflict.
XTC – “Living Through Another Cuba” (1980)
Like “Enola Gay,” XTC’s “Living Through Another Cuba” is another ’80s track that looks to past atomic era events to illuminate their current moment, this time the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Choosing one of the most precipitous chapters of the Cold War was an effective choice and leads up to a later lyric. When Andy Partridge sings “Russia and America are at each other’s throats,” it highlights another common thread amongst ’80s nuclear anxiety songs, especially those sung by British (or at least non-American bands): the idea that here the rest of the world was, stuck on edge in between two superpowers toeing closer to a confrontation that could yield global destruction. Soon after, Partridge barks “If we get through this lot alright/ We’re due for a replay, 1998.” He might’ve been 20 years early on that one and missed one of the primary players, but he turned out to be dead-on about the cyclical nature of people losing their damn minds.
The Clash – “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe” (1980)
One of the most directly political artists on this list, the Clash had a lot of songs that were either influenced by or completely about the state of the world at the time. As far as the Cold War specifically goes, there’s the “nuclear era” line in “London Calling,” a lyrical allusion to the Doomsday Clock in “The Call Up,” an indictment of America’s Cold War-era international interventions in “Washington Bullets,” and the anti-nuclear “Stop The World.” The latter three came from the Sandinista! era, as did the pointedly-titled “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe.” Like “Man At C&A,” it’s a song looking at the US and USSR facing off from the sidelines, or from the middle. Towards the end, the titular G.I. Joe wipes the “earth clean as a plate.” This may have been unintentional, but all the sound effects always reminded me of a vintage arcade game, making it another Cold War track that underlined the absurdity of it all by rendering it mind-numbing entertainment of a sort.
Prince – “Ronnie, Talk To Russia” (1981)
Right in the middle of Prince’s new-wave funk album Controversy, perhaps one of his sleekest and sexiest albums, there was “Ronnie, Talk To Russia.” A brief, synth-y rave-up, it’s a bluntly political song complete with machine gun sound effects. “Ronnie, talk to Russia/ Before it’s too late … Before they blow up the world,” Prince sings over and over as a straightforward litany. Also, this always reminded me of the type of song the Clash could’ve written circa 1981, so it’s fitting that it slots in alongside “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe” here.
ABBA – “The Vistors” (1981)
Though ABBA’s final LP is known as their divorce album, its title track is allegedly a protest song about USSR’s mistreatment of dissidents in the late Cold War. Though its meaning was kept enigmatic at the time, the song is told from the perspective of a person inside, hearing people coming for her. It could be vague — the repetition of “Crackin’ up” could simply make the song’s intensification seem like a run-of-the-mill psychological spiral — but its tension and narrative make it another example of how tons of artists were capturing the atmosphere of the times even when they were focusing on more granular topics than all-out nuclear war.
After The Fire – “Der Kommissar” (1982)
Originally cut by Austrian singer Falco, “Der Kommissar” was also made famous when the British band After The Fire made an English version. It’s one of the songs on this list that happens within the Cold War more than it is about the Cold War. Supposedly, it’s partially about cocaine. But the title refers to a police captain in Berlin, and its narrative takes place in the city whose division physically symbolized the whole era.
Oingo Boingo – “Nothing To Fear (But Fear Itself)” (1982)
Oingo Boingo list a whole lot of troubles in “Nothing To Fear (But Fear Itself),” but the whole thing kicks off plain enough: “Hey neighbor let me give you some advice/ The Russians are about to pulverize us/ In our sleep tonight.” From there, fire’s raining down from the sky and the chorus twists FDR’s famous quote into a sardonic, nihilistic refrain.
Modern English – “I Melt With You” (1982)
One of the all-time early ’80s new wave classics, and one of the foremost examples of a song being radically misunderstood over the years. It sounds like a straight-up love song, the sentiment of melting together an abstraction, and it’s often been used as such over the years. Supposedly, singer Robbie Grey intended that and lyrics like “I saw the world crashing all around your face” a bit more literally and “I Melt With You” was really about a couple making love as the bombs dropped. Though the song has deservedly become iconic over the years, the album it’s taken from, After The Snow, remains one of the more underrated options from the early ’80s.
Au Pairs – “America” (1982)
A roiling, discomfiting post-punk track, Au Pairs’ “America” didn’t shy away from its point or from being deeply scathing about America and its leader. “Get into the mood/ For a worldwide confrontation,” “Let’s have some more mass/ Extermination,” “Why don’t you get a bayonet/ Mince up a peasant or two” are some of the lines that lead up to the early climax of “Just remember, remember/ America’s right behind you!” Later, there’s an excoriation of Reagan, saying he could press the button and he’d survive, because, you know, God is on his side. It all builds up to the grand finale: a caustic, maddened repetition of “Paranoia in America.”
The Fixx – “Red Skies” (1982)
One of the clearest and most memorable nuclear songs from the early ’80s, the Fixx’s “Red Skies” mostly relies on the repetition of the line “Red skies at night” to depict nuclear holocaust. It’s a great, moody example of the era, its synth line both infectious and squirmy, capturing the anxiety in the culture.
Nena – “99 Luftballons” (1983)
Here it is: When it comes to nuclear war songs, Nena’s “99 Luftballons” is one of the most iconic, one that sums up the whole era perfectly. Though the German and English versions of the songs slightly differ lyrically, the basic gist is: Some harmless balloons get released, get mistaken for something hostile, and eventually nuclear war breaks out. It’s the kind of narrative common throughout Cold War fiction, something stupid and accidental — you know, like a tweet, in today’s parlance — setting off the end of everything. Musically, “99 Luftballons” switches between like three different immortal grooves, which paired with the German might’ve obscured the dire nature of its narrative. But as a song and a story, it lives on as one of the best and most succinct examples of ’80s Cold War anxiety in pop music.
U2 – “Seconds” (1983)
I think sometimes people forget U2 have an album like War in their catalog. An enraged, visceral collection, it finds the band honing their sound (and chops) after the album’s occasionally wide-eyed predecessors, and it finds them taking on the sort of big topics the group would become famous for tackling with such skill during their prime. And while War might end with the hopeful, beleaguered prayer of “40,” the road there is violent, including not only the famous “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and a slew of other political tales, but also “Seconds.” In the classic mold of bombs dropping ’80s tracks, “Seconds” takes a cue from other War tracks and uses a furious, militaristic beat to drive forward lyrics about how it takes a second to say goodbye and lightning flashing across the sky. It’s one of the bleaker tracks in U2’s early catalog, though it’s not completely alone. Some say “New Year’s Day” is a love song set against nuclear holocaust, and U2 would engage more directly with the international politics of the era later on, viciously condemning US foreign policy on seething tracks like The Joshua Tree’s “Bullet The Blue Sky.”
Men At Work – “It’s A Mistake” (1983)
“Is it on then? Are we on the brink?” Colin Hay sings at the beginning of “It’s A Mistake.” Both the song and its video depict the footsoldiers on the ground level of this whole mess, speaking to their leaders and asking, in effect, when all this Cold War tension was going to finally burst and spill over into total conflict. At the end of the video, a commander accidentally puts his cigarette out on a trigger button instead of in his ashtray, and the other military men all react by plugging their ears and waiting for what comes next.
The Call – “The Walls Came Down” (1983)
Another perfect pop song that strides along despite the weight of its subject. Throughout “The Walls Came Down,” Michael Been paints an image of the strained global state of the ’80s and an impending break. At the end, he throws it all into question: “I don’t think there are any Russians/ And there ain’t no Yanks/ Just corporate criminals/ Playin’ with tanks.”
Depeche Mode – “Two Minute Warning” (1983)
A sinister piece of synthpop, maybe Depeche Mode’s “Two Minute Warning” doesn’t grapple with things very directly, but it’s another one of the songs from the era that plays with the common language and imagery of the times. “Two minute warning/ Two minutes later/ When time has come/ My days are numbered,” Martin Gore sings in the chorus. It’s another track that hinges on that moment that seemed so plausible day-to-day in the ’80s: that the sirens could ring out and a person would have to make peace with everything with the handful of minutes they had left.
Alphaville – “Forever Young” (1984)
“Forever Young” is another one of the big iconic ’80s songs on this list, and is also both one of the main Cold War examples and one of those songs that has lived on in the popular imagination in a way that erases its Cold War elements. When you think of those ’80s stereotypes, the nostalgia and the emotional proms and the thoughts of childhood and innocence, you think of songs like “Forever Young.” But this is a song that ends its first verse with “Hoping for the best/ But expecting the worst/ Are you gonna drop the bomb or not?” It’s worth noting that Alphaville are one of the German outfits on this list; once more, artists writing from the perspective of the symbolic center of the Cold War, with aggressors on each side. It’s a masterpiece from this milieu, its lyrics mingling further allusions to the threatening world surrounding them with thoughts on aging. Perhaps more than any other song here, it encapsulates the feeling of living a life day to day, with theoretically normal hopes and dreams, under the heavy shadow of the Cold War.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood – “Two Tribes” (1984)
Franke Goes To Hollywood weren’t pulling any punches. Their video for “Two Tribes” opens with archival footage of Richard Nixon proclaiming “Above everything else, the American people want leaders who will keep the peace.” It isn’t any subtler who the two tribes are from there, as the video focuses on a ring match between lookalikes of Reagan and Chernenko. The song reflects some of the common themes from similar songs, both the futility of it all (“When two tribes go to war/ A point is all you can score”) and the feeling of the whole world being caught between American and Russia’s personal pissing match. (Frankie Goes To Hollywood were from England.) And just like there were some unlikely pop hits from their peers, “Two Tribes” is an enduring dancefloor jam thanks to its driving electronics, though that also worked as a representation of the Cold War’s standoff intensifying.
The Psychedelic Furs – “Heaven” (1984)
Like “I Melt With You,” the Furs’ “Heaven” is a surface-level romantic song that has an apocalyptic backdrop (“There’s a hole in the sky/ Where the sun don’t shine”) as Richard Butler strains to claim he doesn’t hear planes coming. “Heaven” was from the Furs’ 1984 album Mirror Moves alongside one of their more underrated classics, “Here Come Cowboys,” a song that, with sardonic lines like “Here come cowboys/ Here to save us all,” is tempting to read into as well.
Ultravox – “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” (1984)
“Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” was another of those songs that told a heartfelt tale against the scene of everyone having mere minutes left in their lives. Notably, it’s one of the songs on this list that reacts to nuclear culture as a whole, as important a strain in ’80s psychology as nuclear war. The video for the song depicted a man realizing a power-plant meltdown was imminent and rushing home to spend his final moments with his family. This point on the list seems as good a time as any to remark on just how uplifting ’80s pop music truly was.
Midnight Oil – “Minutes To Midnight” (1984)
Midnight Oil’s 1984 album Red Sails In The Sunset was a dark, political album overall; its cover was an image of Sydney bombed out after a nuclear attack. There a handful of songs that dealt with nuclear culture in some form or another, but one of the more foreboding ones was “Minutes To Midnight,” which defies a jaunty rhythm to feel genuinely creepy as it references the Doomsday Clock being very, very close to the end of civilization.
Murray Head – “One Night In Bangkok” (1984)
OK, maybe this isn’t quite as “essential” as most of the songs on this list. “One Night In Bangkok” is the famous song from Chess a concept album/musical by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, i.e. the dude half of ABBA. It was a Cold War narrative centering around a chess match between an American and a Soviet. This song doesn’t seem to have much to do with the main narrative, but we could all use a bit of levity at this point.
Time Zone feat. John Lydon – “World Destruction” (1984)
The video for Time Zone — aka, the project headed by Afrika Bambaataa — and John Lydon’s “World Destruction” opens with, like some of the other videos on this list, a bit of footage featuring one of the beloved world leaders of ’80s. It’s a bit with Reagan talking about Biblical predictions of Armageddon, and that it might be coming, with the kicker “Now with regard to having to say whether we would try to survive in the event of a nuclear war, of course we would.” If that intro and the title didn’t tip you off, Lydon and Bambaataa go through it all in this track, touching on nuclear war and the end of the world and nationalities gearing to tear each other apart and the general disintegration of the human race. (Easy to relate to this one, these days.) Thankfully, far from being a dirge, “World Destruction” is a hell of a jam, so at least it gives you something to dance to as the world comes crashing down.
Sting – “Russians” (1985)
Another one of the famed Cold War works, Sting’s “Russians” is one of those songs from a perspective between that of the Americans and that of the Russians. Rather than a paranoid or furious screed, it’s a fractured prayer delivered over synth-strings and a motif borrowed from Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev. He references both Reagan and Khrushchev along the way, but the tone of it is one of struggling hope that both sides realize some kind of common humanity before destroying the entire world, continuously wrapping around to the line “I hope the Russians love their children, too.”
Tears For Fears – “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” (1985)
The title of one of Tears For Fears’ finest hits was originally the much less interesting “Everybody Wants To Go To War.” (I hope you avoid my fate, which is now having that stuck in my head with those lyrics awkwardly stitched into the chorus instead of the real ones.) Though the ruling the world bit could apply to other aspects of ’80s culture — the “Greed is good” corporate rise that led us to today’s America comes to mind — it’s also hard not to hear it as a conversational condemnation of the decade’s politics. In a recent interview, Curt Smith drew the comparison himself: “Back when we were doing … ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World,’ we were really discussing the Cold War. But it was the US and Russia then, and now the concern is more the US and Korea. I find that fascinating.” The song still has its resonance now, in a different context, and either way it sounds as great as ever.
Public Image Ltd. – “Home” (1986)
John Lydon was no stranger to incensed takes on culture and politics, whether in Sex Pistols or Public Image Ltd. In the churning, metallic “Home,” he sneers “Better days will never be” before getting to the big stuff: “Spare no man/ Match bomb for bomb.” It combines the anger at the politicians running all this with the daily anxiety of impending doom, making its final refrain of “Home sweet home” a sarcastic, snarling outro.
Genesis – “Land Of Confusion” (1986)
Another pissed-off indictment of the world leaders during the Cold War, Genesis’ “Land Of Confusion” is another one of the key tracks here, particularly for its music video. One of the most famous, recognizable videos of the MTV era, it depicted the band playing, as well as various world leaders, as grotesque Splitting Image puppets. It centers on Reagan, who spends part of the video running around in a Superman costume. That is, until he wakes up at the end of the video and, when going to press the “Nurse” button next to his bed, accidentally and obliviously hits the “Nuke” button. That one hits just a little too close to home these days.
C.C.C.P. – “American-Soviets” (1986)
A German synthpop outfit, C.C.C.P.’s name was actually derived from translating “U.S.S.R.” The Cold War was baked into their DNA, including on their early single “American-Soviets.” Built on a persistent, throbbing beat, it’s another song that uses the chess metaphor to sketch the outsider’s perspective on the back and forth between the USA and the USSR.
Timbuk3 – “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” (1986)
Not only one of the songs that people might not interpret as being about nuclear annihilation, Timbuk3’s “The Future’s So Bright …” shared something with Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.” in that it suffered from that ’80s conservative optimism atmosphere and was misinterpreted as being a genuine, earnest sentiment. Like, the future was really looking so positive. Honestly. They meant it. I will give you a hint beyond the “nuclear science” lyric: The brightness was going to be pretty tangible, and pretty destructive.
The Ramones – “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes To Bitburg)” (1986)
More a piece of Cold War history than Cold War nuclear anxiety, this Ramones track was one of their best latter-day songs and a scathing commentary on Reagan’s controversial visit to Germany to mark the 40th anniversary since the end of WWII. During that visit, he made the gaffe of visiting a cemetery in Bitburg that had a bunch of SS soldiers buried there, which resulted in … some backlash. Anyway, the whole episode portrays the kind of politician stupidity that again feels so close to home today. “My brain is hanging upside down” is a refrain that describes how I’ve felt for the whole last year.
The Smiths – “Ask” (1986)
Morrissey was always a morose character, so leave it to him to deploy a nuclear bomb reference off-handedly like he does in the Smiths’ non-album classic “Ask.” “If it’s not love/ Then it’s the bomb that’ll bring us together” he sings repeatedly. It doesn’t seem as if there’s a real Cold War narrative here. It’s just an example of how the prospect of nuclear war was so constant, so part of everyday life, that it could function almost like a conversational hinge.
The Stranglers – “Always The Sun” (1986)
One of the more meditative tracks here, the lyrics of “Always The Sun” aren’t always super concrete and revolve largely around the injustice in the world in broader terms. At one point, though, Hugh Cornwell gets more specific and asks “Who gets the job/ Of pushing the knob?/ That sort of responsibility, you draw straws for it if you’re mad enough.” Something about the song, relative to some other examples on this list, feels like an attempt at finding peace amidst all the darkness around them, though, the chorus working as a salve against the rest of the song’s searching.
The Sisters Of Mercy – “Dominion/Mother Russia” (1987)
The foreboding goth sounds of the Sisters Of Mercy made for a perfect pairing with blackened, late Cold War themes. A corroded and roaring epic, “Dominion/Mother Russia” was Andrew Eldritch’s indictment of Cold War politics, with lines like “A white house in a red square” collapsing the two superpowers into a shared villainy. Overall, though, it was driven by a more anti-American sentiment. It eventually charges headlong into an outro inspired by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, with Eldritch intoning “Mother Russia/ Mother Russia/ Mother Russia rain down, down, down.” It became a common image: the idea of radiation spreading through the air and falling down on civilians everywhere.
David Bowie – “Time Will Crawl” (1987)
Of the many roles David Bowie played in his career, one of them was the effective poet laureate of the Cold War in pop music. If you go back to his ’70s work there is, of course, the Berlin trilogy he made with Brian Eno. Bringing an outsider’s perspective, Bowie subsequently soaked up the culture of a Berlin that still very much bore the scars of WWII and epitomized the Cold War era in Europe. Across those records, there are several songs that either capture that place and time or are actually about Cold War and nuclear war themes.
The ambient, ghostly “Subterraneans” from Low was inspired by the bleakness of life in East Berlin; “Warszawa,” from the same album, conjured the remaining desolation of Warsaw three decades after WWII. Then, of course, there was “Heroes”, an album steeped in the Cold War and Berlin ethos, with its krautrock influence and its dystopian sheen tracing inspirations from WWII through its ramifications to the late ’70s. There were references like “V-2 Schneider” ( a call-out to the first ballistic missile ever created and Kraftwerk’s Florian Schneider) and there was “Heroes.” Perhaps Bowie’s most stunning and enduring composition, there’s room for interpretation in “Heroes,” but at least one of the meanings was a tale of two lovers stuck on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall. Its symbolic impact was cemented 10 years later — some people credit Bowie’s performance of “Heroes” at the 1987 Concert For Berlin as being one factor in a cultural push to tear down the wall.
In the interim, he was still writing about the Cold War and the nuclear era from time to time. In 1986, he released “When The Wind Blows,” his contribution to the soundtrack of the film of the same name, which was about a couple in England before, during, and after a nuclear strike. The next year, his album Never Let Me Down included the charging track “Time Will Crawl.” Initially inspired by the Chernobyl disaster, the lyrics rail against the political climate and imagine forthcoming global destruction.
Morrissey – “Everyday Is Like Sunday” (1988)
“Come, Armageddon, come!” Morrissey sings at the end of the first verse in “Everyday Is Like Sunday,” a track from his 1988 solo debut Viva Hate and still one of the high watermarks of his career. Of course, Morrissey is so melodramatic that you’d be forgiven for misinterpreting that lyric as Morrissey simply being Morrissey. As it turns out, the lyrics for “Everyday Is Like Sunday” were supposedly partially inspired by Nevil Schute’s 1957 novel On The Beach. The book tells the story of a group of Australians living out their final days awaiting their deaths at the hands of radiation floating down from a nuclear war that’s already leveled the rest of the world. It’s been a while since I read it, but I remember it being a measured and beautiful book in its end-times existentialism. It’s a fitting inspiration for Morrissey, evident in lyrics like “Etch a postcard/ ‘How I Dearly Wish I Was Not Here’/ In the seaside town/ That they forgot to bomb/ Come, come, come, nuclear bomb.”
You can check out all the songs from our list in one Spotify playlist here (sans “Games Without Frontiers” since Gabriel’s catalog isn’t available on Spotify). At least you now have an excellent soundtrack for the end of the world.