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1980s Pop Music and the Atomic Pleasure Dome

Saturated in apocalyptic fears of the atomic bomb, 1980s music was also danceable and transporting. How can something that was so horrible also be so much fun?

Cold War Space and Culture in the 1960s and 1980s: The Bunkered Decades
David L. Pike
Oxford University Press
December 2021

I need a place to lie my head
I close my eyes
But there’s no end
Get me out of this wasteland
Of radioactive dreams

– Sue Saad and the Next, “Radioactive Dreams” (1985)

How can something that was so horrible also be so much fun? This was the puzzle of ’80s pop music. It was crafted in a cultural landscape we might call, following English pop band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the atomic pleasure dome. To get a sense of that landscape, let’s start in 1987.

In response to an announcement by the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA, the body empowered in America since 1950 with responsibility for domestic civil defense) of “a plan to construct 656 ‘Emergency Operation Centers’ for public officials during and after a nuclear war” and the Reagan administration’s National Security Defense Directive no. 259, which triggered a request for $20 million to begin design studies for shelters suited to a “survivable nuclear exchange”. The Berkeley-based Architects, Designers, and Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) sponsored its own design competition (Rothstein; Quonset Huts). The 80 entries were assembled as a touring exhibit and printed in an accompanying catalog.

The winning design, by Bill Hickey and Mike Lee, argued that, “Since the cockroach will be the only surviving life form following a nuclear event, it seems only logical to emulate its specific parameters when constructing a shelter.” (Quonset Huts, frontispiece) Hickey and Lee’s design weds the familiar iconography of the cockroach as a quintessential survivor and its repellent associations with filth, disease, and lower life forms, to the iconography of military-industrial design. The technical drawing is precise and detailed, mimicking a technocratic approach to the horrors of war. 

Untitled. Bill Hickey, Mike Lee, Minneapolis, MN. Frontispiece to Quonset Huts on the River Styx: The Bombshelter Design Book. Berkeley: Architects, Designers, and Planners for Social Responsibility, 1987. Permission of the artists. – Oxford University Press via David L. Pike

The genius of the drawing is that it is simultaneously absurd and beautiful. It plays on the fact that many architectural designs for shelter have been based on animal engineering, suggesting in a studied deadpan that this remains the morphology adequate for current circumstances. The next sentences move from deadpan into overt irony. “As a bonus feature,” we read further, the shelter “serves as a roadside folly whilst waiting for the big one. This provides an amusing distraction for the general public.” (Quonset Huts, frontispiece)  A thumbnail photo of women in vintage dress emphasizes the spectacular side of the proposal. Labeling the design a “folly” places the cockroach shelter firmly within the context of novelty architecture, a hallmark of roadside attractions in the ’50s and ’60s.

Curiously, Hickey and Lee also place their design firmly in the context of a new postmodernist architecture that lionized exactly the kind of vernacular architecture they are ostensibly mocking. Indeed, if such a shelter had ever been built, it would today be as sought-after an attraction as either Lucy the Elephant or the once-secret government shelter at Greenbrier in West Virginia. The merging of whimsy with despair perfectly captures the ’80s revision of late ’50s Cold War culture in the context of today’s fascination precisely with the contradiction of building a Quonset hut on the River Styx. Once again: How can something that was so horrible also be so much fun? 

This is not to say that horror did not dominate the nuclear ’80s or that what Frankie Goes to Hollywood called “the pleasuredome” in 1984 was a funhouse. The real and imagined horrors of nuclear accidents and nuclear war were a dominant presence in popular music across the decade. The mainstream face of the antinuclear movement was Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE), formed in response to the Three Mile Island accident and sponsor of five No Nukes concerts in New York City in 1979, a massive protest rally in Battery Park, and an album and film featuring many of the top recording artists of the day, Black and white together. In June of 1982, at what journalist Dan Zak considers “the height of the nuclear-freeze movement,” hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated outside the United Nations building in midtown Manhattan and marched across town to Central Park, where the crowd was estimated at somewhere between 500,000 and one million strong, the “largest political demonstration in U.S. history.” (Zak, Almighty, 100-101) 

Equally strong, if not stronger, in Europe, the antinuclear movement was registered culturally on both sides of the Atlantic, especially in music. The archive of explicitly nuclear-themed pop music includes number-one singles by Nena (“99 Luftballons”), Europe (“The Final Countdown”), Frankie Goes to Hollywood (“Two Tribes”), Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (“Enola Gay”) and Blondie (“Atomic”), as well as top-40 hits by Kate Bush (“Breathing”), UB40 (“The Earth Dies Screaming”), the Smiths (“Ask”), the Clash (“London Calling”), the Gap Band (“You Dropped a Bomb on Me”), and Timbuk3 (“The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades”), among others (a crowdsourced list on In the 80s cites several hundred examples). Punk and postpunk musicians embraced antinuclear protest and the nuclear condition as a state of consumerist alienation (Gang of Four sang of bikinis and H-Bombs together in “I Found That Essence Rare” [1979]); metal emerged in a flurry of post-apocalyptic visions of destruction, often stretched over entire concept albums such as Nuclear Assault’s Game Over(1986) or Megadeth’s Rust in Peace(1989–90).

Nuclear dread emanated from the avant-garde as well: composer Peter Gordon’s and librettist Kathy Acker’s experimental opera, The Birth of the Poet, which premiered in Rotterdam in 1984, imagined an exploding nuclear power plant in a near-future New York among its three “traumatic” episodes of history. Over a background of grinding strings and scattered percussion, baritone Julius Eastman sang in the 1985 Brooklyn Academy of Music run of “workers” and “bosses” in plants “across the world” envisioned “begging for survival”.

The majority of songs in all genres were negative or despairing, strongly critical and suspicious of the nuclear war machine. As opposed to the more novelty-driven pop songs of the ’50s and early ’60s, which focused on bombs, shelters, and power, the nuclear music of the ’80s was apocalyptic and mournful. As Brazilian metal group Sepultura proclaimed in English on their 1986 album Morbid Visions, “The nuclear war announces the end of the world / The mankind is buried and forgotten / Prophets foresee the doom / They foresee the triumph of your death” (“Troops of Doom”). Or, in the indelible words of Afrofuturist jazz musician Sun Ra and his Arkestra, with perhaps more humor but no less pessimistic vitriol than the typical ’80s pop dread,

they talkin’ about nuclear war
it’s a motherfucker, don’t you know
if they push that button, your ass must go
they’ll blast you so high in the sky
you’ll kiss your ass goodbye
radiation, mutation, hydrogen bombs, atomic bombs
what you gonna do without yo ass?

– Sun Ra, “Nuclear War” (1982)

As it had during the Kennedy years, contemplation of the end still served to put the world in focus, but there was no longer any sense of shelter to retreat to, rely upon, or even plead for. Billy Chambers could sing with earnest pathos in “Fallout Shelter” (1962) of young lovers choosing to die exposed rather than be separated by the family shelter; Peter Scott Peters could sing mockingly of living it up in his “radiation station” (“Fallout Shelter,” 1961); even in 1969, the Rolling Stones could imagine a plea for shelter as the apt response to a world falling apart. In contrast, the bunker fantasy around 1983 afforded survival only by looking death in the face and protesting against it.

Like the Quonset Huts designs, the 1982 landmark compilation documentary The Atomic Café crystallized the archival response at its most polemic; however, similar attitudes also found their way into mass culture in a more playful but equally satirical form in retro-nostalgia films and in pop music. Commissioned by Paramount Pictures to capitalize on the success of the original 1978 musical (and the hit show before it), Grease 2 (1982) promoted choreographer Patricia Birch to director, but retained neither the writers nor the stars of Grease.

Critically panned and commercially unsuccessful, Grease 2 has gained a cult following in the 21st century for what proponents see as its “second-wave feminism”, a campiness outdoing the already camp original, and a “faintly subversive” take on its 1961 setting evident especially in its approach to bomb shelters and civil defense (Graham; see also Holas and Leontiades). Donald Fagen’s single “New Frontier” and the accompanying video (1982) similarly tacked between camp and nostalgia in an early 1960s backyard shelter. Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s hit single “Two Tribes” (1984) mined the archive for a differently subversive revision of an earlier Cold War era in light of present follies. Each of them suggests the potential for popular culture to mobilize the critical lens of nuclear realism within a framework of musically grounded pleasure.

The musical number in Grease 2, “Let’s Do It for Our Country”, occurs midway through the film during an attempted seduction in a backyard fallout shelter. The scene is prefaced by an air raid drill at the high school where the football coach explains nuclear war to the students in terms of passes and interceptions. The drill is led by a giddy pair of female administrators attempting not to get too excited in their exhortations not to panic.

The scene plays on the sexually tinged language of the previous generation’s containment culture as well as the absurd lack of preparation; the song plays on the frequently sexual imagery of nuclear war in ’50s and ’60s pop songs. Especially given Grease 2’s gender-role-reversal from the dynamic of the original show and film, the sequence references Ann-Margret’s camp cover, “Thirteen Men” (1962), of Bill Haley and his Comets’ “Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town)” (1954). “Let’s Do It for Our Country” updates the explosive sexuality of the original imagery into a travesty of Reagan-era revisionism. 

Rather than the simultaneous containment and enabling of female sexuality characteristic of the earlier songs, the fallout shelter in Grease 2 stages the iconography of patriotic duty in the service of a cynical seduction. Sharon’s (Maureen Teefy) initial response to Louis’ (Peter Frechette) advances displays the appalled body language of date rape. As his lyrics sway her with the promise that the President and her mother will both approve, she falls for the fake patriotism until the final twist, when she opens the shelter door, eager to play her role as nurse to Louis’ wounded soldier. The ’80s audience is prompted to see through the patriotic blandishments of a cynical war machine as so much ideology mobilized only in the service of seduction.

In “New Frontier,” allusions to John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign slogan and to Dave Brubeck’s cool jazz show a differently failed seduction. An awkward nerd in the early ’80s retro-style descends into his family shelter with a glamorously sexualized blonde who is simultaneously welcoming and unattainably in control. The visuals are resolutely 1962-era, with the sole exception of a poster for Fagen’s new album on the shelter wall echoing the synth-driven homage to Brubeck that keeps the viewer in the Cold War present of 1982. The couple leaf through a pamphlet on “survival” while sampling the adult pleasures of whisky and jazz. As the setting of seduction, the fallout shelter recalls the earlier period’s association between containment and community, newly protests against the misuse of that same association in the present, and provides camp pleasure through its self-aware indulgence in critical nostalgia.

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