Pop in the age of the atomic bomb

The cold war took the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. How did pop react? Like there was no tomorrow.

On 11 October 1962, the Beatles' first single for EMI, Love Me Do, entered the UK charts. Four days later, the Cuban missile crisis began, when a US reconnaissance plane spotted Soviet missile bases in Cuba. In the days that followed, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war. As a Soviet general later said, Earth was "minutes" away from "catastrophe".

The Beatles' extraordinary breakthrough from that date onwards has been put down to a variety of factors, not the least the quality of their music. But among all that explosive positive energy, it's hard not to sense, somewhere in the background, a reaction to the missile crisis. People of all ages were hit by it, of course, but a significant proportion of young people thought: "If we're all going to be blown up tomorrow, then I'm going to do what I want. The only thing that matters is NOW." If you were young, 1963 felt like a jump cut – from the vestiges of Victorianism right into mass modernity. And it all happened in a flash. Instead of existing in the past, it was time to live in the moment.

The Cuban missile crisis was the nearest the world had come to nuclear destruction since 1945, when US atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nuclear terror dominated the 40 or so years of the cold war. It ebbed and it flowed, but it was always there in the back of people's minds, like climate change and jihadist terrorism today.

The relationship between the atomic bomb and postwar popular culture is as intimate as it is complex. It stretches right back to the almost contemporaneous invention of the teenager, in the winter of 1944, as the new model of youth: this product-hungry, pleasure-seeking individual was the perfect person to inhabit the new psychology of a world that could be blown up at any moment.

In the vacuum of 1945, American youth provided a beacon of hope and the ideal of the teenager took hold. Pop culture was thus founded on a kind of mass-market existentialism: living for the moment with no thought of the tomorrow that might not exist anyway. This helped to fuel all the pop explosions that followed Elvis Presley from the mid-1950s on.

The profound effect of the bomb on teenagers was examined by Jeff Nuttall in Bomb Culture, his 1968 survey of postwar youth culture: "No longer could teacher, magistrate, politician, don or even loving parent guide the young. Their membership of the H-bomb society automatically cancelled anything they might have to say on questions of right or wrong." In his view, "the so-called 'generation gap' started then" and had been widening ever since: "The people who had passed puberty at the time of the bomb found that they were incapable of conceiving of life without a future," he wrote. "The people who had not yet reached puberty at the time of the bomb were incapable of conceiving of life with a future."

Wanda Jackson's atomic orgasm

How did this play out in the popular culture of the immediate postwar period? A new box set goes some way to providing the answer. Boasting five CDs, a DVD, and a lavish, 300-page booklet, Atomic Platters is less of a compilation, and more of a digitised exhibition. Spanning 1945 to 1969, it focuses on "cold war music from the golden age of homeland security". As the cold war escalated, the possibility of nuclear annihilation seemed less and less remote. In America, government broadcasts told you what to do if the bomb dropped. Several of these are included here, fronted by such luminaries as Boris Karloff, Pat Boone, Mitzi Gaynor, Bob Hope, and – bizarrely – Groucho Marx.

The most chilling, from 1953, is called The Real Thing and would have been used in the event of a nuclear attack. The honeyed tone of the anonymous announcer's voice slips by easily, until you hear the words: "Normal broadcasting will be discontinued for an indefinite period." Only then does the sheer insanity of the period hit you. The US had won the second world war but had then almost immediately set the stage for the next. A brief peace had turned into an uneasy oscillation between ugly paranoia and sabre-rattling triumphalism.

While the 100 or so songs in Atomic Platters run the gamut of emotions, all contain the recognition that a fundamental shift has occurred. Some take atomic power as a sexual metaphor, like 1957's Atom Bomb Baby by the Five Stars, an Indianapolis group who included jazz giant Wes Montgomery, or 1960's Radioactive Mama by Sheldon Allman, a singer and actor whose credits included The Fugitive and Batman. If you think these are of questionable taste, they pale before songs that either equate nuclear capability with US divine right (as with the Buchanan Brothers' Atomic Power) or actually recruit the Lord into the cold war (see They Locked God Outside the Iron Curtain, by country veteran Jim Eanes). This kind of thinking is still prevalent in the US today.

Outright protest is rare, but Sam Hinton's 1950 tune Old Man Atom tackles the topic head on: "We must choose between/ The brotherhood of man or smithereens." Hinton, a folk archivist and zoologist, paid the price: despite the song's popularity, it was pulled from distribution after rightwing protests, and the singer was branded an un-American commie. The song's co-writer, Vern Partlow, who was blacklisted, remembered how "it was being played on radio stations throughout the country and then it suddenly disappeared".

Some songs internalised the bomb. Fujiyama Mama, by Wanda Jackson (the nearest female equivalent of Elvis Presley, whom she dated), yokes the explosive power of 1,000 suns to her orgasm, while Skip Stanley's crazed Satellite Baby fuses rockabilly and otherworldly whoops with futuristic lyrics: "Geiger counter daddy loves your atomic energy."

A decade after the bomb had dropped, something was clearly happening to the kids. They were entering puberty during a period of frequent bomb tests (yes, the things were regularly exploded in the atmosphere) and a proliferating arms race. While Atomic Platters concentrates on the 50s and early 60s, it's easy to trace the nuclear influence in later decades: Bob Dylan's blistering A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall was recorded in June 1962, followed by the Searchers' What Have They Done to the Rain, Donovan's The War Drags On, and Tim Rose's Morning Dew. Then there was the Byrds' powerful I Come and Stand at Every Door, about a seven-year-old Hiroshima victim.

The negative impact of living in a nuclear world can be heard in Love's furious Seven and Seven Is, which ends with an A-bomb going off, as well as in Iggy and the Stooges' Search and Destroy. All adult values are fake if this can be allowed to happen, runs the thinking, so screw everything. Consider the advice given by Pere Ubu in Final Solution: "Guitars gotta sound like a nuclear destruction."

In its early days, punk even went so far as to imagine a world where the bomb had dropped: as Johnny Rotten sang on I Wanna Be Me, "gimme World War III we can live again". In 1979, Gang of Four's I Found That Essence Rare linked the atom bomb to the onset of consumerism, while Blondie put on black binbags and sang Atomic.

Just when things seemed to be thawing, in the dying days of 1979 Russia invaded Afghanistan and nuclear paranoia bounced back, bringing another crop of protests: Nena's 99 Red Balloons, Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Two Tribes and, re-enacting the sod-it-let's-party principle, Prince's 1999: "I don't wanna die, I'd rather dance my life away." Suede's Stay Together revisits the terror of the time.

Only 23,000 weapons to go

After the official "end of history" and the victory of capitalism in the years after 1989, the problem of nuclear weapons faded from the public consciousness. But the weapons have not gone away: indeed, they have proliferated and, if anything, are just as likely to be used today as they were at the height of the cold war. This fear is highlighted in a forthcoming film: although told from a US standpoint, the documentary Countdown to Zero is a powerful argument for abolition of the estimated "23,000 nuclear weapons" that exist in the world. With rising international tension in the Middle East and North Korea, it looks as though nukes are back.

Certainly, Radiohead's recent Four Minute Warning could, thematically at least, be contained on Atomic Platters. This connection, reaching back six decades, is a reminder that nuclear psychology has become part of everyday consumerism – and that those two horrific days in 1945 continue to haunt the world.

Even seen from a new millennium, the words of Sam Hinton's censored Old Man Atom still ring true: "The people of the world must decide their fate/ We got to stick together or disintegrate/ World peace and the atomic golden age or a push-button war/ Mass co-operation or mass annihilation/ Civilian international control of the atom – one world or none."

Atomic Platters: Cold War Music from the Golden Age of Homeland Security is out now on Bear Family. Countdown to Zero is released in March 2011.


Jon Savage

The GuardianTramp

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