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Cold War Experience:  Culture

Atomic Rock: The Cold War hit parade




George clinton


By David Browne
Entertainment Weekly Music Critic

Cold War music: Nena
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In the summer of 1983, Germany invaded the United States -- by way of the airwaves. "99 Luftballons," a single by an unknown Berlin pop band called Nena, began attracting attention and airtime in America. With its carnival-carousel-on-speed hook and its mechanical beat, "99 Luftballons" nestled perfectly on the radio alongside other synth-pop hits of the time; the lyrics, sung in German, only added to its allure.

Soon after, the band unveiled a second version of the song, this time in English. As it turned out, "99 Red Balloons," as it was now called, was, of all things, a protest song. In the lyrics, a boy and girl innocently release a batch of balloons into the air; confused by these flying objects, international governments panic, triggering a nuclear holocaust. "It's all over and I'm standing pretty/In this dust that was a city," lamented the band's lead singer, Gabriele Kerner.

Although many DJs and listeners were surprised, they shouldn't have been. When it came to fodder for pop and rock broadsides, Vietnam had a high profile, but broader-ranging Cold War anxieties had wormed their way into rock 'n' roll years before most songwriters had heard the word "Cambodia" -- and they lingered far longer. For more than two decades, the thought of being reduced to cinders by an atomic bomb hit home for two generations of rock stars -- perhaps because it could hit their home.

The first signs of atomic anxiety in pop surfaced, of course, in the early '60s; the same '50s children who had grown up with bomb-shelter drills were now folk-rock singer-songwriters. Of Bob Dylan's many topical songs, one of his most evocative was the resigned, fixing-to-die ballad "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" (1963), inspired by the Cuban Missile Crisis. His peer Phil Ochs, who frequently gleaned song topics from newspaper headlines, chronicled the sinking of a nuclear submarine in "The Thresher" (1964). (Ochs later revisited the theme in "The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns," about another nuclear-sub accident.)

Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction," a heavy-on-the-cheese slice of cash-in apocalypse, made it to No. 1 in 1965. Tim Buckley's "No Man Can Find the War" (1967) opened with the sound of an atomic bomb explosion; Creedence Clearwater Revival ("It Came Out of the Sky") and Jimi Hendrix ("1983") also touched upon a war potentially bigger than the one in Southeast Asia.

Whether the cause was protest-song burnout or the political apathy of the era, Cold War rock lay low in the '70s. The few atomic songs that crept out, like Jackson Browne's elegiac hymn "Before the Deluge" (1974), used elliptical imagery far removed from the direct-hit finger-pointing of Browne's '60s predecessors. It wasn't until the last months of the decade, when news bulletins broadcast reports of an accident at Three Mile Island in the spring of 1979, that rock 'n' roll again woke up. In response to the incident, Bruce Springsteen wrote one of his first topical songs, "Roulette"; by the end of that same year, the Clash had released a double-sided single with nuclear-annihilation themes (their own powerful "London Calling" backed with a cover of the reggae tune "Armagideon Time"). In late 1979, a group of pop stars better known for introspection than news analysis -- the Doobie Brothers, James Taylor, Carly Simon and others -- organized the "No Nukes" benefit concerts in New York. At the shows, co-organizer Graham Nash debuted "Barrel of Pain (Half-Life)," about nuclear waste dumped in oceans.

Cold War music: Sting
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The years that followed, presided over by military-buildup fan and "evil empire" enemy Ronald Reagan, were a second golden era of Cold War-inspired pop. This time, nuke protest songs came in all shapes and sounds: In addition to "99 Red Balloons" there was Prince's sardonic funk "Ronnie, Talk to Russia," George Clinton's party-til-you-burn-up "Atomic Dog," and Sting's dolorous pop-jazz "Russians," which lamented that "there's no such thing as a winnable war/It's a lie we don't believe anymore." Concluded Sting, "I hope the Russians love their children too."

With the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union came the end of Cold War rock. Topical songwriters, from folkies to rappers, turned their attention to other issues -- racism, the environment, police brutality, Amnesty International -- as nuclear incineration once more took a back seat. But, as rock history has proven, it's only a matter of time before a new accident, or another threat of a live warhead, again prompts pop stars to revisit their (and our) worst fears.

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