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With the escalating tensions between Russia and the US and Europe over the developing situation in Ukraine, thoughts of the Cold War surge back into focus for those of us who lived through it. Tensions between the Soviet Union and United States were particularly high in the late ‘70s well into the ‘80s. In response to the massive buildup of weapons and troops by the Soviets, the U.S. dramatically escalated its military machine. President Ronald Reagan famously branded the Soviet an “Evil Empire.” For many years, the specter of possible military conflict between the two superpowers weighed heavily on the minds of people all over the world. Nuclear war seemed a very real possibility. Popular culture of the time reflected this constant anxiety, in films such as Wargames and The Day After, and in numerous songs by a wide variety of artists. It was even reflected in TV (after all, who could forget Rose Nylund’s letters to Reagan and Gorbachev in The Golden Girls?)
Obviously nobody knows what the future holds, and it’s far too early in the very fluid situation in Ukraine to tell if the relationship between the US and Russia will deteriorate to anywhere near these levels, but for those of us who lived through that era it’s hard to keep those old fears from bubbling to the surface in light of recent developments.
Below are ten of the most memorable songs about the Cold War from the ’80s that reflect the fear and nervousness of the era about possible nuclear war and destruction on a massive scale (absent is perhaps the most famous of all, Prince’s “1999,” as Prince doesn’t allow his material to be posted on YouTube). Feel free to add to the list in the comments section below.
From his first solo album The Dream of the Blue Turtles, Sting gets right to the point in his song “Russians.” It wasn’t the first time Sting wrote about nuclear war — on The Police’s final album Synchronicity he wrote “Walking in Your Footsteps,” which compares the human race’s threat of extinction via nuclear war to the annihilation of the dinosaurs. “Russians” reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the winter of 1985. “How can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy? There is no monopoly on common sense on either side of the political fence.”
German group Nena had a surprise smash with “99 Luftballons,” a song about a nuclear war starting accidentally over the release of a bag of balloons which are mistaken for a weapon. The song soared to #2 in the US. The group recorded an English-language version, “99 Red Balloons,” but the German version proved far more popular. “This is what we’ve waited for, this is it boys, this is war. The President is on the line as 99 red balloons go by.”
Australian band Men at Work released “It’s a Mistake” as the second single from their Cargo album during the summer of 1983. The song reached #6 in the US. “Tell us commander what do you think? Cause we know that you love all that power. Is it on then, are we on the brink? We wish you’d all throw in the towel.”
The follow-up to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s iconic smash “Relax” from their debut album Welcome to the Pleasuredome was “Two Tribes,” a #1 smash in the UK and around the world (it stalled at #43 in America). The video features caricatures of Ronald Reagan and the Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko literally wrestling for world supremacy. “Cowboy number one, a born again poor man’s son on the air America.”
Released as the fourth single from the smash album Invisible Touch, “Land of Confusion” became a #4 hit for Genesis during the winter of 1986. The video brings a bit of levity to the situation, with President Reagan and a number of celebrities (including the band themselves) being portrayed as puppets created by the British puppeteers of Spitting Image. “I must have dreamed a thousand dreams, been haunted by a million screams. But I can hear the marching feet, they’re moving into the street.”
The lead single from Kate Bush’s 1980 album Never for Ever is the powerful “Breathing.” Bush sings the song from the perspective of a fetus in her mother’s womb during a nuclear holocaust. The dramatic track hit #16 in the UK. “We’ve lost our chance, we’re the first and last. After the blast chips of plutonium are twinkling in every lung.”
Featuring Kate Bush singing the title in French, “Games Without Frontiers” was the lead single from Gabriel’s third album. He sings about world leaders playing games like petty children, only with much higher stakes. “Dressing up in costumes, playing silly games. Hiding out in tree-tops, shouting out rude names.”
The lead single from XTC’s fourth album Black Sea, Generals and Majors hit #32 in the UK during the fall of 1980. “Away from men who made the grade out in a world of their own. They’ll never come down until the battle’s lost or made.”
The third single from The Fixx’s debut album Shuttered Room, Red Skies is a haunting atmospheric rock track about the coming of nuclear war. Another standout single from Shuttered Room, “Stand or Fall,” also concerns the Cold War. “Someone’s taking over and it looks like they’re aiming right at you and me and everybody. Someone said we’ll be dead by morning.”
From their album War, U2’s “New Year’s Day” was written about Cold War tensions, particularly the Solidarity Movement against the communist government in Poland. “Under a blood red sky a crowd has gathered, black and white. Arms entwined, the chosen few.”