“My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” – Ronald Reagan
It always happens, art reflects anxiety. At this time of upheaval, uncertainty and fear, there is no doubt that the events of 2020 will trigger some great works of art. The devastation of the pandemic is unprecedented, but the feeling that has invaded our world is not new, it has happened in the past, and the proof is there, in music.
Skip back three decades to the ’80s, those old enough (yours truly) will remember the fear we lived under, and the similarities. Of course, the virus then was the Cold War, a political pissing contest between the superpowers of America and Russia (Ronald Reagan & Mikhail Gorbachev). The fear of nuclear war threatened our existence, for no reason other than the egotistical nature of government leaders. The nuclear anxiety we felt then is comparable to the pandemic anxiety we feel now.
Groups such as CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and Amnesty International heralded our hopes, and the artists we admired reflected our message. These songs represented society perfectly and, what’s more, in 2020 they could still serve us now and act as a soundtrack. But this was a time before the internet, before the negativity created to stoke fear on social media, and a time when musicians were our representatives and purveyors of hope.
Here are ten tracks released in the ’80s, by some of the greatest artists of the 20th century, and they are all fueled by that anxiety of nuclear war. Although the subject that is depressing and scary, there is a unique touch of brilliance to each, and that brilliance emanates today as much as it did then.
#1. Genesis – ‘Land Of Confusion’
After leaving behind their progressive rock roots, Genesis reached stratospheric success in the ’80s. This song is, perhaps, one of their finest moments. Additionally, the clever video to accompany the track, by the satirical legends Spitting Image, highlighted the message with a unique brilliance. This song could be easily released today, and still make sense, which is frightening.
#2. David Bowie – ‘This Is Not America’
The late, and greatly missed David Bowie, never fully achieved the same level of creativity as he did in the ’70s. That said, the Thin White Duke was still capable of producing moments of brilliance, like this one. ‘This Is Not America’, created along with the Pat Metheny Group for the film The Falcon And The Snowman, is a poignant representation of mid-80s disillusionment with the establishment.
#3. Frankie Goes To Hollywood – ‘Two Tribes’
Frankie Goes To Hollywood were a comet of brilliance in the ’80s. They arrived out of nowhere, left a trail of blazing creativity, and then, for the most part, disappeared. What they left behind were three number ones including ‘Two Tribes’, which sat at the top of the UK charts for 9 weeks. It became the soundtrack to the Cold War, with its simplistic but direct lyrics that still echo 36 years later.
#4. U2 – ‘The Unforgettable Fire’
U2 were always political. In some respects, they have lost that edge and hunger they once had. But on their colossal, cinematic masterpiece The Unforgettable Fire they forged a political message within a very stylish framework. The title track is a scary view into the abyss of nuclear war, inspired by the art exhibition of the same name that portrayed the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
#5. Peter Gabriel – ‘Games Without Frontiers’
The former frontman of the aforementioned Genesis never lost his desire to create depth within a song. ‘Games Without Frontiers’, taken from his third, self-titled album, is a clever take on international diplomacy, likening it to children playing games. It did gain momentum as a track of anti-war protest but also drew censorship for its video and the original album lyrics. That aside, it is still an inspired piece of work.
#6. The Psychedelic Furs – ‘Heaven’
More renowned for their teen-inspired ‘Pretty In Pink’, The Psychedelic Furs produced some other memorable tracks—and they still do. Their song ‘Heaven’ is one such track, and perhaps their most interesting. It covers the subject of love in spite of impending doom, with lyrics that sit with the best of the time:
“There’s a hole in the sky
Where the sun don’t shine.”
#7. Kate Bush – ‘Breathing’
Still only 22 years old when ‘Breathing’ was released, Kate Bush’s talent for writing passionate, thought-provoking lyrics is highlighted best in this hauntingly beautiful song. ‘Breathing’ focuses on an unborn foetus, terrified of being born into a nuclear winter. It reflects our own fear of what was happening in the world outside our immediate surroundings:
“Chips of plutonium are twinkling in every lung.”
#8. Queen – ‘Hammer To Fall’
Very rarely did Queen become political. In fact, they made some rather huge mistakes from a political stance. For example, the ill-advised Sun City concert during apartheid in South Africa. Nevertheless, The Works gave us this anti-war epic, played to spectacular effect at Live Aid.
#9. The Smiths – ‘Ask’
Morrissey is always outspoken. Mostly, however, his messages are more troublesome, and, at times, extremely controversial. Back in the ’80s, things were a little different. With the galvanizing force of Johnny Marr he created some dazzling music. This is the Morrissey we loved. Combining a threat with a reason to love someone, forming a relationship in the shadow of fear.
#10. Pink Floyd – ‘Two Suns In The Sunset’
The last song here, and also the closing track on the final album by the original Pink Floyd. The four men that brought us Dark Side Of The Moon had grown apart at this stage. Although uneven, The Final Cut gave us this track—the final glorious piece by the band. A song that highlights the glow from a faraway nuclear blast. It didn’t so much allay our fears, but pushed them right into our faces. It remains an ethereal classic, re-recorded this June by creator Roger Waters as the same anti-nuclear statement.