Retro Active: A Nuclear Era, But I Have No Fear

A few weeks ago, because my XM radio unit and my heart are both perpetually stuck on the Eighties channel (XM 8), I started to notice how many of the seemingly innocuous pop songs from those pastel-tinged years had much heavier concerns. Perhaps those erudite Englishmen Duran Duran put it best in “Is There Something I Should Know?”: “You’re about as easy as a nuclear war.”

At first I thought it would be cool to make a list of all the ‘80s songs about nuclear war and/or the Cold War, since it was such a trendy topic in those days. But then I realized inthe80s.com had already done so, much more exhaustively than I could, covering everything from OMD’s “Enola Gay” to Weird Al Yankovic’s “Christmas at Ground Zero” to “Balls to the Wall” by Accept, which is apparently about the Berlin Wall. (I know.) But since the ‘80s was also the golden age of music video, I thought it might be fun to comb YouTube and see how many of the top nuclear pop songs’ mushroom-clouded visions translated to their videos. The results may surprise you. Or they may not.

Timbuk 3, “The Future’s So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades)” -- The Austin duo’s freak No. 2 hit – with some killer harmonica - is obviously a tongue-in-cheek take on Max Headroom-era east-west tensions (“Studied nuclear science, I love my classes…”), and the video throws in some wacky Max Headroom-like animation to boot. Back in live action, Pat McDonald and then-wife Barbara K are in survivalist mode, singing by their Airstream trailer in the middle of Big Bend somewhere as an adorable burro brings them their TV set (slowly) and McDonald fiddles with a reel-to-reel tape machine. Conan O’Brien fans will enjoy the early use of putting moving lips behind a static portrait.

Nena, “99 Luftballoons”: Ah yes, “99 Luftballoons.” -- Other contributors to Houstoned Rocks are under the mistaken impression Nena (full name: Nena Kerner) was a one-hit wonder, but she’s actually had a long and fruitful career in her native Deutschland between birthing four children; she headlined over Snoop Dogg at the Hamburg leg of this year’s Live Earth concert. There’s not a whole lot to this video, just Nena, in a fetching varsity letter jacket, traipsing around her band – I’d say check out the haircuts, but that’s pretty much true for all these videos - on a frigid overcast day in some northern German field. They’ve apparently exhausted the entire budget on those colored smoke bombs you can buy at any fireworks stand (purple here), but then night falls, some luminous giant balloons appear and the explosions begin. Awesome!

Alphaville, “Forever Young” – Again, holy shit, the hair! Before this song was a touching moment in Napoleon Dynamite, it was a completely whacked-out video, set in some monstrous Victorian industrial building, that seems equally based on Oliver Twist and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The German trio, clad in shiny Ghostbusters-like jumpsuits, performs for an assortment of Dickensian urchins and similarly clad older folks. Then, when the synth-trumpet fanfare begins at the bridge, they all start walking through this diamond-shaped portal into a blinding white light. This could represent either the bomb or the afterlife – the song’s most pertinent lyric is “Are they gonna drop the bomb or not?” – but it’s basically the same thing anyway.

Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” – Because I hadn’t seen this video in about 15 years, I had totally forgotten how ridiculous it is. It opens on a soundstage decorated like a typical post-WWII suburban kitchen. Billy bangs on the table with various utensils as a newlywed couple enters, obviously members of the Greatest Generation about to start squeezing out some Baby Boomers. (The ones who didn’t start the fire; try to keep up, people.) Billy starts in with his litany of then-current events - everybody: “Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray…” - and for some reason it takes him two minutes to get out of the ‘50s; the ensuing 30 years are dispatched in about a minute. During the chorus, flames consume various iconic postwar photos until Billy gets to “China’s under martial law,” decides he’s had enough and flips his keyboard over in disgust. He’s not the only one.

The Clash, “London Calling” – Not a whole lot in this video can either confirm or deny it has anything to do with nuclear war. The band is either playing on the banks of the Thames or on a boat in the water (remember, “London’s drowning and I live by the river”), but it’s really too dark to tell. It is cold, though, because you can see Joe Strummer’s breath when he sings. There are a couple of shots of Big Ben to establish location – these are also at night, either because of a nuclear blackout or the band’s meager budget.

Escape Club, “Wild Wild West” – Some bands chose to dwell on the doom-and-gloom aspects of impending nuclear holocaust, while others just wanted to party. Kicking off with a gunshot, the Australian dance-rockers decide to spend their final moments “waiting for the big boom” livin’ it up and listening to the band member with the ironed perm – dig it – try his hand at toasting. (He’s not half bad.) The director had been out of film school for all of five minutes, it seems, because he uses this lens that cuts out all the dancers’ heads and torsos, leaving a Shiva-like mess of slithering arms and legs. Still, a catchier tune than you probably remember.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood, “Two Tribes” – Now here’s some Allegory, laid on extra thick. Anyone care to guess who the two tribes are? Luckily, Frankie is here to help. The video depicts a wrestling match between a Ronald Reagan lookalike and a stand-in for whoever the Russian premier was in 1984; Frankie and the other guy play the TV commentator and his cameraman. There’s some clips of Yassir Arafat, Nikita Kruschchev and Richard Nixon with their mouths manipulated to lip-sync “Frankie Goes to Hollywood” just in case you still don’t get it.

Prince, “Purple Rain” – “1999” would be the obvious first choice, of course, but His Royal Purpleness – does anybody know if his new album is any good? – has apparently decreed that none of his videos shall be available on YouTube. The closest thing I found was this, a collage of purple-tinged landscapes (mountains, lakes, meadows of flowers, lighting) – plus some candles, an elf and some faeries, with the words closed-captioned at the bottom. It reminds me of this completely bananas Korean karaoke bar I used to go to after hours in Austin sometimes, and in so doing is probably much cooler than the actual video anyway.

U2, “The Unforgettable Fire” – Both the 1984 album and its title song took their name from an exhibit of paintings and drawings by Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors the band saw at Chicago’s Peace Museum during the War tour. The video opens on a city at night (I think it’s L.A., but don’t quote me) with that sped-up headlights effect, a motif it carries throughout. Bono is alone in some factory/studio as Edge trudges through a snowy landscape somewhere, perhaps a subtle homage to the “New Year’s Day” video. The most arresting image is during the verse that begins “carnival…” when a carousel suddenly becomes a mushroom cloud and flashes right back. Like much of the album, brooding and heavy on atmospherics without making a whole lot of sense.

Genesis, “Land of Confusion” – Never, ever would I want to watch this on anything stronger than a shot or two of whiskey – but those would be essential, because it’s freaking terrifying. Entirely acted out by demonic puppets that look like Sid & Marty Krofft creations gone to seed, it stars Ronnie and Nancy Reagan, Mikhail Gorbechev, Moammar Qaddafi, Richard Nixon, Mr. Spock, Ed Sullivan, some dinosaurs, a gorilla and of course the band. Ronnie drowns in a bathtub as Nancy and the gorilla dance in the window, Mike Rutherford plays a four-necked guitar and the “We are the World” crew shows up for some strange reason. In an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, the gorilla throws a bone in the air and Phil Collins catches it, whereupon he begins singing the final verse into it like a telephone receiver. It ends when Ronnie accidentally pushes the “Nuke” button by his bed instead of “Nurse,” and apocalypse ensues, not a moment too soon. Christ.

Tears for Fears, “Shout” – Someone said this song was about nuclear war, but you’d never tell from the video. It’s mostly the duo singing at various locations around their native southern English countryside; they were from Bath, and the best shot here is the chalky cliffs of Dover, three hours to the east. About all the violence in the video is when someone bangs some drumsticks on the ground during the bridge.

Siouxsie & the Banshees, “Cities in Dust” – By rights, this song should be about nuclear war just from its title, but the video is much more ambiguous (though there is lots of lava). It alternates between Siouxsie lying prone in some sort of Ziggy Stardust catsuit shredded across the thigh, her inherent hotness increased by the flames in front of her (subtle), and a Gollum-like dancing skeleton. Later it’s just her in the dark, the camera hypnotized by Siouxsie’s piercing eyes. It’s much sexier than when Billy Idol does the same thing in “Eyes Without a Face.”

Donald Fagen, “New Frontier” – This near-forgotten track from the sometime Steely Dan member’s 1982 solo album The Nightfly – you always wondered where the Press got that, huh? – is one of the cooler videos on this list. A high-school couple, a Buddy Holly type and his Naomi Watts-like girlfriend, climb down into his parents’ bomb shelter for some hanky-panky. Besides the sleazy/smooth electric piano, there’s lots of surreal animation – think Dali meets Dudley Do-Right – and a nice homage to Dave Brubeck’s Take Five album cover. The bomb never goes off, but this lucky couple wouldn’t even notice if it did. – Chris Gray

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