“sunshine on the Waste Land”: 20 Songs About Nuclear Annihilation

It's Cold War Week at The A.V. Club, so we're commemorating it with a look at songs concerned with the very real threat of nuclear fallout. Listen to all of the songs here: http://avc.lu/1TizbUs
  1. “Crawl Out Through The Fallout,” Sheldon Allman (1960)
    You could probably fill this entire list with musical entries from the post-apocalyptic Fallout games, whose soundtracks scour the novelty records of the ’50s and ’60s for songs reflecting the nuclear anxieties of the times. The most jauntily mean-spirited of the lot might be Sheldon Allman’s “Crawl Out Through The Fallout” (featured in Fallout 4), in which the smooth-voiced singer assures the lover he’s tempting out into the wasteland that he’ll “kiss those radiation burns away.”
  2. “The Great Atomic Power,” The Louvin Brothers (1962)
    Ira and Charlie Louvin were an Alabama gospel duo that helped popularize “close harmony” vocals. Their 1962 album Weapon Of Prayer featured “The Great Atomic Power,” certainly one of the jauntiest songs ever penned about the bomb. As Christians, the Louvin Brothers had a pragmatic approach, which was to get right with your maker before things went to hell, because, “When the mushroom of destruction falls in all its fury great / God will surely save his children from that awful, awful fate.”
  3. “Eve Of Destruction,” Barry McGuire (1965)
    The song isn’t only about nuclear annihilation; McGuire growls a roll call of issues related to wars both cold (“you may leave here for four days in space”) and hot (“you’re old enough to kill but not for votin’”). They all add up to an unmistakable end game: “If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away.”
  4. “Come Away Melinda,” Bobbie Gentry (1968)
    Many have covered Fred Hellerman and Fran Minkoff’s “Come Away Melinda,” from Theodore Bikel to Harry Belafonte to Uriah Heep. But Bobbie Gentry’s version, with its swelling strings and Gentry’s low, melodic voice, gives the song a pop quality that counteracts the lyrics that warn of the world after a nuclear battle. “Come Away Melinda” is told partially from the perspective of a child, Melinda, who contrasts the world she sees in a photo album with what she’s living.
  5. “Bombers,” David Bowie (1971)
    There is a distinctly Muppet-like quality to David Bowie’s “Bombers.” From its immediate, high-tempo intro followed by a goofy, bass backup vocal, the song energetically asserts from the start that splitting the world in half using its atomic stockpile is a romp. An example of a common counterculture device established by movies like Dr. Strangelove that presents the military-industrial complex as children, “Bombers” depicts the government as a group of sugar-addled booger-eaters.
  6. “Political Science,” Randy Newman (1972)
    Although time and several similar-sounding Disney soundtracks have turned him into little more than a Family Guy punchline to younger listeners, Randy Newman earned acclaim throughout the 1970s for his combination of catchy tunes and biting lyrics. Those two aspects of his songwriting collided like atomic nuclei on “Political Science,” which found Newman suggesting that the simplest solution to America’s increasing population problems would be to just “drop the big one” on most everyone else.
  7. “King Of The World,” Steely Dan (1973)
    Written from the perspective of the survivor of a nuclear holocaust, “King Of The World” is a sad, desperate broadcast from the wreckage of what used to be, describing the loneliness and boredom of the bunker. As a hot jazz-fusion jam simmers behind Fagen, he mocks the international power struggles that brought him to this point, singing sardonically that “any man left on the Rio Grande is the king of the world, as far as I know.”
  8. “Breathing,” Kate Bush (1980)
    The lead single for Never For Ever sounds slinky and seductive as long as you don’t pay attention to the lyrics or the video: a vision of nuclear doomsday, as experienced by an unborn fetus. Linking birth and annihilation while pushing Bush’s sensualism into strange new territory (see: the phrasing of “Chips of plutonium are twinkling in every lung”), “Breathing” wasn’t the only track on Never For Ever to use the intimacy of a mother-child bond as a prism for war anxieties.
  9. “99 Luftballons,” Nena (1983)
    In both the English and German translations of “99 Luft Balloons,” some errant balloons that look like aircraft accidentally inspire a battle between nations, destroying both sides, as everyone wants to get in on the fight: “Everyone’s a superhero / Everyone’s a Captain Kirk” (Kirk even made it into the German version). “99 Luft Balloons” joined the soundtrack of the MTV generation dancing on the brink of global destruction, with another irrepressible ditty about the end of the world.
  10. “Forever Young,” Alphaville (1984)
    A poppy song that often acts as an anthem to youth, Alphaville’s “Forever Young” ponders how a nuclear blast would freeze the kids in immortal springtide. The youth of the world watches the skies “hoping for the best but expecting the worst,” asking the older generation, “Are you gonna drop the bomb or not?” Both a testament to living under nuclear threat and the creeping certitude of growing up, Alphaville makes the case for going out in a blaze of glory instead of burning out.
  11. “World Destruction,” Time Zone (1984)
    Rap-music pioneer Afrika Bambaataa selected different people to work with for his Time Zone project, and for “World Destruction,” he chose Public Image Ltd.’s Johnny Lydon. Bambaataa noted that he wanted “somebody who’s really crazy” for the project. Credited as one of the first “rock-rap” songs, the single was so infectious that even if the planet was blowing up, dancing it out to “World Destruction” would be a great way to go.
  12. “Manhattan Project,” Rush (1985)
    After reading close to a dozen books about the secret military project created in 1942 to produce the first U.S. nuclear weapon, Neil Peart produced “Manhattan Project” on 1985’s Power Windows. The song paired Geddy Lee’s vocals (and some rockin’ ’80s synth) and Alex Lifes on’s guitar to make for a somewhat somber reflection on Cold War history.
  13. “Distant Early Warning,” Rush (1984)
    The above song will come as no surprise to those familiar with the trio’s catalog, which also includes “Distant Early Warning,” a song that includes commentary on nuclear annihilation and was released a year before Power Windows on Grace Under Pressure
  14. “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades,” Timbuk 3 (1986)
    Like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.,” Timbuk 3’s “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” was widely misinterpreted in the ’80s as having a positive message, because the title’s so upbeat. Frontman Pat MacDonald took the line from something his wife and bandmate Barbara MacDonald said half-jokingly; the song uses it winkingly, to punctuate the first-person testimony of a yuppie nuclear physics student possibly destined to blow up the world.
  15. “Christmas At Ground Zero,” “Weird Al” Yankovic (1986)
    What says “happy holidays” better than the warm, Yule log-like glow of an irradiated wasteland? “Christmas At Ground Zero,” off “Weird Al” Yankovic’s fourth album, Polka Party!, finds the parodic superstar at his most darkly political, putting a smiling face on the looming, late-Reagan fear of nuclear Armageddon. With a sarcastic jolliness bordering on mania, Yankovic sings that it’s “a crazy fluke” that “we’re gonna get nuked” on this jolly holiday.
  16. “Time Will Crawl,” David Bowie (1987)
    Written in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, “Time Will Crawl” describes a nuclear attack’s effect on bodies and landscapes, describing rivers of rotting fish, cities of melting steel, and a slow death from radiation poisoning. Bowie wrote plenty of apocalyptic songs, but whereas earlier compositions like “Five Years” verged on rapture, “Time Will Crawl” is resigned to doom, envisioning a doomsday that will be out of the observer’s control.
  17. “Everyday Is Like Sunday,” Morrissey (1988)
    Plenty of Cold War-era songs expressed fear of a nuclear apocalypse, but how many begged for it? Morrissey’s second solo single pleads for Armageddon to wipe away “the coastal town they forgot to bomb”—an expression of boredom, given a transgressive edge by the language of annihilation. The Mancunian singer has played with violent imagery as a way of phrasing frustration and repression throughout his career, and has a thing for devastated wastelands.
  18. “Nuclear War,” Yo La Tengo (2001)
    Experimental jazz legend Sun Ra weighed in on the geopolitical ramifications of mutually assured destruction with the title track to his 1982 album. Although the song was barely distributed in the U.S., in 2002, Yo La Tengo—who had made the song a staple of its live shows—did a four-song EP that was simply four different versions of “Nuclear War.” The definitive take on the song may be the second, over a one-note drone and a flurry of drums.
  19. “Earthcrusher,” Mr. Lif (2002)
    For most of its run, Mr. Lif’s I Phantom is a fairly grounded concept album about a working-class black man trying, and utterly failing, to achieve the American dream. But the album takes an abrupt, dark turn in its final act when nuclear Armageddon wipes out not only the album’s protagonist, but most of the planet. Rapping in part from the perspective of the almighty blast itself, Lif delights in destroying the world he’s built, and detailing humanity’s grizzly end.
  20. “We Will Become Silhouettes,” The Postal Service (2005)
    This single from The Postal Service was released in 2005, long after the Berlin Wall had come down, but only two years after the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom, so there was probably enough cause for concern for Ben Gibbard to write this indie-rock tune. The title, “We Will Become Silhouettes,” references the “nuclear shadows” that thermal radiation, i.e., nuclear bombs, created in Japan. In the opening verse, Gibbard describes hunkering down in his bunker with pictures of his love.