Thursday, August 6, 2015

"I Don't Have a Say in the War Games That They Play"

The cover of Bonzo Goes to Washington's
"Five Minutes"
Today marks the 70th anniversary of the first use of an atomic weapon, when the U.S. detonated an atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan, killing 200,000 people--the vast majority of them civilians. (For a harrowing glimpse into what several of the survivors experienced on the ground, read John Hersey's extraordinary August 31, 1946 piece in The New Yorker here.) As a teenager in the Cold War 80s, I was haunted by the very real and terrifying prospect of dying in a nuclear exchange between America and the Soviet Union (movies like "The Day After" didn't help), particularly during the first years of Ronald Reagan's presidency, when he was very belligerent and aggressive towards the Russians, both in foreign/military policy and rhetoric.

I've written a bit about many of the 2 Tone ska bands' expression of fear of nuclear armageddon here on The Duff Guide to Ska before and, given today's terrible anniversary, think it appropriate to revisit this passage below from my review of Blue Riddim Band's re-issue of their "Nancy Reagan" single in 2011.

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"While we're on the subject of the Reagans and pop music, I can't help but mention the significant number of songs about the fear of nuclear war that were written during Ronald Reagan's presidency. Reagan's hard-line rhetoric and stance against the Soviets (several neo-cons in his administration--including Dick Cheney--who were disdainful of detente, increased defense spending to such a degree and implemented provocative polices that ended up re-igniting the arms race with the Soviets, since they were convinced that America was preparing for a nuclear first strike against them), his use of end-of-days evangelical language (Reagan told now-disgraced TV preacher Jim Bakker in 1980, "We may be the generation that sees Armageddon"), and itchy-trigger gunslinger image exacerbated Cold War relations between the nuclear superpowers to such a degree that millions of people throughout Western Europe and the U.S. (and one had to imagine the Soviet Union) were very worried that they might die in a nuclear war (I certainly was one of them).

Within this context, according to Dorian Lynskey's terrific book about popular protest music, "33 Revolutions Per Minute," an additional reason that bands like Frankie Goes to Hollywood and The Specials (as well as a slew of British New Wave acts) wrote about nuclear war was the May 1980 publication and distribution of the Home Office booklet (and release of accompanying short films) titled "Protect and Survive" (read a copy of the booklet here; see one of the films here), which grimly detailed the steps the public should take to attempt to survive a nuclear attack and (if they lived through the initial blast) the radioactive fallout afterward. Lynskey notes that even though "Protect and Survive" was "designed to reassure, it proceeded to scare the daylights out of anyone who read it." This and the very real placement of U.S. cruise missiles in the UK (as part of a NATO counter-move against a new medium-range Soviet nuclear missile) convinced many Britons that they would high on the list of targets should all-out war break out between the superpowers.

Some of the songs expressing the terrible nuclear war anxiety and dread of the early 1980s included: Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Two Tribes," Time Zone's "World Destruction," The Fixx's "Red Skies" and "Stand or Fall," The English Beat's "Dream Home in NZ," "Two Swords," and "Psychedelic Rockers," U2's "Seconds," Fishbone's "Party at Ground Zero," XTC's "Living Through Another Cuba," The Selecter’s “Their Dream Goes On,” The Ruts' "It Was Cold," Nena's “99 Red Balloons,” The Toasters' "Radiation Skank," Prince's "1999," The Clash's “London Calling” and "Stop the World," Alphaville’s "Forever Young," Men at Work's “It’s a Mistake,” The Specials’ "Man at C and A," Elvis Costello's "Peace in Our Time," Billy Bragg's "Help Save the Youth of America," Depeche Mode's "Two Minute Warning," Ian Dury's "Ban the Bomb," The Police's "Walking in Your Footsteps," Aku Aku's "Ground Zero," The Untouchables' "Sudden Attack," and Bonzo Goes to Washington's “5 Minutes."

These anti-nuke songs helped a lot of people cope with the stress of living with the very real possibility of doomsday--and made you feel like you weren't the only freak up late at night wondering if a Soviet ICBM was going to erase all of your tomorrows in an instant. (Around this time, I remember going to an anti-nuke event at our church and actually being able to touch a ceramic roof tile from Hiroshima that had become so hot in that atomic blast that it had formed bubbles on its surface--which were frozen in time after it cooled. I also saw photos of people who had horrific radiation burns that kept me up late at night for years. It may seem far-fetched now, but back then a lot of us really did worry about dying in a nuclear holocaust; and we were under no illusions that "duck and cover" was going to save our asses.) It also made it seem like something could be done to take some small measure of control of a completely out-of-our-control situation ("Forever Young" lyric: "Heaven can wait/we're only watching the skies/Hoping for the best/but expecting the worst/Are you going to drop the bomb or not?"), as musicians banded together for concerts supporting the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and CND anti-nuke benefit albums like Life in the European Theatre (featuring tracks by The Clash, The Jam, The Beat, The Specials, Echo and the Bunnymen, XTC, and more). By giving voice to our collective fears and setting it to music you could dance to, these New Wave groups helped make it possible to live and even enjoy life at a time when world's leaders were unbelievably close (see Able Archer 83) to wiping us out forever."

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While the threat of nuclear war has greatly diminished since the end of the Cold War, there are approximately 10,000 nuclear weapons in various government's arsenals around the globe--and still very much to be worried about.

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