The Music I listened to and loved in the 80s had an influence on me, it’s undeniable. Along with the books I read, the television shows and movies I watched, the people I met, they all helped shape create the foundation of who I am today. Would I be me today if I hadn’t seen “The Day After” at a young age and had a near-obsession level of paranoia over my skin getting peeled off in a nuclear blast? Who’s to say? Did the artists of the music I listen to and their speaking out on political and social matters shape me? Absolutely.
I stumbled across Stereogum‘s list of 80s songs about nuclear war and it was nostalgia on full volume for me. Their list included songs I may not have realized at the time were as political as they were, but now with adult eyes and 30+ years of hindsight, I am grateful that they are. I hope you enjoy some of them as much as I do.
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.