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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

Ironic, Sarcastic, Subversive

There was more nuclear war appearing in pop music lyrics of the ’80s than during the years around 1962, and certainly, there were more hit singles. However, except in nostalgic settings like Grease 2, the shelter nearly vanished as a presence within that music. The majority of nuclear war music was pacifist, political and apocalyptic, nuclear realism aimed to various degrees at warmongering politicians, nuclear fear, and other deleterious effects of the nuclear condition. It was usually ironic, often sarcastic, and sometimes outright subversive. Punk tended towards the nihilistic and oppositional; heavy metal elaborately detailed the stations of the apocalypse; pop musicians mourned the dwindling of everyday life and love.

When the bunker did appear, as in Megadeth’s “Rust in Peace … Polaris” (1989-90), it was part and parcel of the war machine in which bomb shelters are packed and survival absurd. In “Bunker Soldiers” (1980), British new wave band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark used the bunker as an adjective implying mechanization and dehumanization. But for the most part, ’80s music testifies to a nuclear condition that had seeped into every aspect of everyday life. As evidenced by the range of artists on the 1979 triple-LP concert album No Nukes, certified gold in 1980, during this decade, any music would by definition be music about the nuclear condition.

Perhaps the only song to engage in-depth with the shelter did so as an explicit engagement with the heritage of civil defense; as in Grease 2, the shelter embodied the past within the present. “Two Tribes” (1984) spent nine weeks in the top spot on the English charts, the longest-running number-one single of the 1980s (Wikipedia contributors, “Two Tribes”). Based on a line from George Miller’s blockbuster post-apocalyptic film, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1982), “Two Tribes” was released in two distinct 7-inch and four distinct 12-inch versions. Most versions feature, in addition to the main lyrics (“When two tribes go to war / A point is all you can score”), sampled lines from the British civil defense film Protect and Survive: Casualties, released in 1975 and cleaving to the previous generation’s attitudes towards sheltering mercilessly attacked in English films or graphic novels such as Mick Jackson’s Threads (1984) and Raymond Brigg’s When the Wind Blows (1982).

The 7-inch singles sampled directly from the film: “When you hear the air attack warning, you and your family must take cover at once.” For the 12-inch mixes, actor Patrick Allen recreated his original voiceover from the Protect and Survive films (Wikipedia contributors, “Two Tribes”; in Kate Bush’s 1980 single “Breathing” an authoritative male voice similarly speaks in documentary tones, describing the effects of a nuclear blast.). In the “Carnage” mix, his voice intones, “Mine is the last voice you will ever hear. Don’t be alarmed.”

The epic nine-minute 12-inch “Two Tribes (Annihilation)” begins with an air-raid siren, an orchestral crescendo, and an actor’s voice (Chris Barrie) announcing in a Ronald Reagan imitation, “Ladies and gentlemen, let me present Frankie Goes to Hollywood, possibly the most important thing this side of the world.” Over a driving beat, Barrie quotes lines from Hitler’s Mein Kampf, followed by the chorus about dying from Don McLean’s #1 1971 single, “American Pie”. Allen then recites variations on Protect and Survive: Casualties (“If your grandmother or any other member of the family should die whilst in the shelter from contamination, put them outside. But remember to tag them first for identification purposes”) for several minutes before the body of the song begins. During an extended fade-out that begins around the seven-minute mark, Allen recites another long piece from Protect and Survive: Casualties:

When you hear the air attack warning, you and your family must take cover at once. Do not stay out of doors. If you are caught in the open, lie down. And now here is a reminder about fallout warnings. When fallout is expected you will hear three bangs in short succession. Like this. In some areas, the warning may be given by means of three gongs. Like this. Or you may hear three whistles. All these three types of sounds indicate fallout is expected. When you hear them, you must stay in the safest position in the house. Keep the door shut. Do not go outside the house until you are told it is safe. Here is the all clear warning. 

– Protect and Survive: Casualties

As the song closes, lead vocalist Holly Johnson asks, “Are we living in a land. Where sex and horror are the new Gods?” He answers his own question, “Yeah.”

“Two Tribes (Annihilation)” is an ambitious and multilayered text that invokes key ’80s pop culture touchstones while equally hearkening back to the earlier Cold War epoch and inserting itself into contemporary American politics. The title and the closing rhetorical question reference the post-apocalyptic, survivalist imaginary of The Road Warrior while querying exploitative ’80s consumerism and spectacle. The lines attributed to Ronald Reagan’s voice link the president to Hitler, while his presence in the song lyrics—“On the air America / I modeled shirts by Van Heusen, yeah / Working for the black gas”—look back to the actor’s work as a commercial shill in the 1950s and 1960s. Andy Warhol would use the Van Heusen photos the following year for his silkscreen series Ads (1985).

The heartless instructions about removing grandmother’s body from the fallout shelter are likely filtered through memories of Threads, which includes a painful scene where the Beckett family follows these very instructions when the family grandmother succumbs to unsanitary shelter conditions. We later see her wasted body on the kitchen floor when the surviving family emerges. The song thus summarizes civil defense as both practically futile and inhumanly cruel, while simultaneously attacking the warmongering of “Cowboy No. 1 … working for the black gas”.

Nevertheless, “Two Tribes” also offers release from the brutal containment it uses the shelter to embody. This quintessential dance track was designed for the 1980s club, a bunkered space devoted to pleasure even more divorced from everyday life than the darkened cinemas in which Grease 2 was projected. “Two Tribes” was the second single from the band’s debut album, Welcome to the Pleasuredome; the album title and the thirteen-minute title song capture the ambivalence of both dance tracks: Kublai Khan’s pleasure dome is simultaneously the unbreakable transparent bunker enclosing the “land / Where sex and horror are the new Gods” and also the space where bodies moving to the beat transcend that same land—“Listen to the voice sing / Follow me / Listen to the voice sing / Follow me” runs the bridge late in “Two Tribes (Annihilation).”

Unlike the unrelenting degeneration towards extinction in the cinematic Threads, dance music of the nuclear condition finds its own emancipatory space in the temporary release of the club floor just as metal finds it in headbanging, punk and hardcore in the mosh pit. The angrier the lyrics the more the beat drives that anger to a motion and catharsis not far from the sex and horror set pieces of the survivalist fiction that emerged during the same decade, the fine line between prurience and disgust, an ecstatic state that challenges the very idea of containment, albeit with nothing permanent to offer in its place. 

If the texts of nuclear realism – from films of nuclear destruction to the myriad protest songs of the ’80s – deploy memory, alternate histories, and multiple pasts to imagine alternatives in the face of the inevitable conflagration, the embodied music of atomic dance finds release in that same suspended moment. It simply steps outside of itself. As Deborah Harry chants in Blondie’s “Atomic”: 

Tonight make it magnificent
Tonight
Make me tonight
Your hair is beautiful
Oh tonight
Atomic
Atomic
Oh
Atomic
Atomic
Oh

– Deborah Harry, “Atomic”

As she stretches out the syllables of the incantatory one-word chorus, Harry reminds us that in spite, or perhaps because of its unimaginably destructive powers, and even in the full knowledge of the uses to which it serves the military-industrial complex, the nuclear condition remained the most potent metaphor available for any kind of escape from the everyday imaginary of the 1950s in which the 1980s was trapped. For the new realists, there was really no other material left to work with.

*

This essay is adapted from David Pike’s forthcoming book, Cold War Space and Culture in the 1960s and 1980s. Oxford University Press. December 2021.


Playlists

Pike, David. “The Bunkered Decades” – Spotify

Pike, David. “The Bunkered Decades” – YouTube

Works Cited

Gill, Peter, Holly Johnson, Mark O’Toole. “Two Tribes (Annihilation)”. Perf. Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Prod. Trevor Horn. 12-inch single. ZTT. 1984.

Gill, Peter, Holly Johnson, Mark O’Toole. “Two Tribes (Carnage)”. Perf. Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Prod. Trevor Horn. 12-inch single. ZTT. 1984. 

Gill, Peter, Holly Johnson, Mark O’Toole. “Two Tribes (Cowboys and Indians)”. Perf. Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Prod. Trevor Horn. 7-inch single. ZTT. 1984.

Gill, Peter, Holly Johnson, Mark O’Toole, “Two Tribes (Don’t Want to Die)”. Perf. Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Prod. Trevor Horn. 7-inch single. ZTT. 1984.

Gordon, Peter, and Kathy Acker. “Inside the Nuclear Power Plant”. Act 1, sc. 3 of The Birth of the Poet: An Opera. Brooklyn Academy of Music, NY. 3–8 December 1985.

Graham, Jamie. “In Defence of… Grease 2, Michelle Pfeiffer’s much-maligned sequel.” Digital Spy. 22 March 2014:

Harry, Deborah, and Jimmy Destri. “Atomic.” Perf. Blondie. Chrysalis. 1980.

Holas, Nic. “Revisited: ‘Grease 2’ Was A Way Better Film Than ‘Grease’. Here’s Why.” Junkee. 23 January 2015.

In the 80s Contributors. “Songs about Nuclear War from the 80s“. In the 80s.

Leontiades, Louisa. “Why My Mother Hated Grease 2… Along With the Rest of the World”. Huffington Post .30 March 2015

McCluskey, Andy, and Paul Humphreys. “Bunker Soldiers”. Perf. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Dindisc. 1980.

Mustaine, Dave. “Rust in Peace … Polaris.” Perf. Megadeth. Rust in Peace. Capitol. 1990.

Quonset Huts on the River Styx: The Bombshelter Design Book. Berkeley: Architects, Designers, and Planners for Social Responsibility. 1987. 

Rothstein, Jandos. “Rev. of Quonset Huts on the River Styx.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 45.10 (1989): 46-7.

Wikipedia contributors. “Two Tribes”. Wikipedia.

Zak, Dan. Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age. Blue Rider. 2016.

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