Nuclear meltdowns and impending atomic doom have, perhaps surprisingly, long been sources of creative inspiration for these artists
If, like Team NME, you’ve been glued to the HBO masterpiece Chernobyl this last month, you may now find yourself increasingly paranoid about the radiation levels present in your place of residence. Maybe you’ve popped to Currys to see if they stock any Geiger counters? Built a shelter under the stairs out of empty boxes of Special K? Started stockpiling tins of beans?
Well, in a move that will do absolutely nothing to elevate your nuclear anxiety, we’ve compiled this nuclear-themed mixtape for you. Warning: it’s ripe!
Municipal Waste, ‘Wolves Of Chernobyl’
The idea of nuclear apocalypse is as central a tenant to thrash metal as Hi Tops and sweat bands. Municipal Waste are a modern take on the genre. They hail from Richmond, Virginia and have previously penned ‘thoughtful’ observations on all-matters-nuclear entitled things like ‘Toxic Revolution’ and ‘Radioactive Force’. This song concerns the theory that Chernobyl’s wolf population is spreading radiation-caused mutations across Europe. Which is upsetting.
David Bowie, ‘Time Will Crawl’
Not a great period of Bowie’s career, the mid-to-late eighties, but this is a great song. Released in 1987, a year after the Chernobyl disaster, the song was directly inspired by the incident. “I was taking a break from recording,” said the late songwriter. “It was a beautiful day and we were outside on a small piece of lawn facing the Alps and the lake. Our engineer shot out of the studio and shouted, ‘There’s a whole lot of shit going down in Russia.’ The Swiss news had picked up a Norwegian radio station that was screaming – to anyone who would listen – that huge billowing clouds were moving over from the Motherland and they weren’t rain clouds…”
Ultravox, ‘Hiroshima Mon Amor’
The late French New Wave film director Alain Resnais didn’t do rom-coms. His most notable piece is perhaps the short film Night and Fog from 1956. It’s about Nazi concentration camps. Three years later, in 1959, he made the movie Hiroshima Mon Amor, which concerns itself with themes of memory and forgetfulness, using the lack of physical remains of victims of the Hiroshima bombing as a sort of metaphor. In 1977 Ultravox took the title for a song. It’s as bleak as you might imagine.
Crass, ‘Nagasaki Nightmare’
As much an art-collective as they were a band, Crass formed in the open-house commune of Dial House in Epping in 1977. By 1980, they’d written and released one of the most poignant, if abrasive, mediations on the evils of nuclear warfare. The song came packaged with fold-out artwork. Mike Holderness of the long-standing pacifist magazine Peace News wrote the inlay, in a piece that connected the relationships between those than ran nuclear power stations and the nuclear weapons industry. Oh, and they even included a map of where those power stations were. In case anyone fancied having a word, like.
Nik Kershaw, ‘I Won’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me’
Peace and love and all that, but this writer is totally willing to have an actual fist fight with anyone who disputes that this song – Kershaw’s biggest ever hit, charting at number two in the UK charts in 1984 – is an absolute jam. Written during the latter part of the Cold War, the line “old men in stripey trousers rule the world with plastic smiles” still chills today. “It’s probably not immediately obvious,” says Kershaw, “but the song is about The Bomb, or rather about people taking responsibility for what they do generally.” There’s a reason Elton John calls Kershaw “the greatest songwriter of his generation”, y’know…
Architects, ‘Colony Collapse’
The Brighton-based band Architects are the finest metal band in Britain by some distance right now. Though more recent releases come close, their 2014 album ‘Lost Forever // Lost Together’ remains their finest work. Many of the band’s songs deal with environmental concerns – singer Sam Carter is an ambassador for the marine-conservation organisation Sea Shepherd – but when this song, which draws parallels with the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 and the present day, passionately pleads for an opportunity to “start anew”, it’s perhaps the most arresting message they’ve ever committed to tape.
The Blue Hearts, ‘Chernobyl’
Japanese punks The Blue Hearts included this song as a ‘double A-side’ on their 1988 single ‘Blue Hearts Theme’. It was a controversial release. The Shibuya band were signed to Meldac Records at the time – a label supported by Mitsubishi, a company with significant investment in the nuclear industry at the time. They were asked to drop the song. They refused. Then they left their label, subsequently signing to East West Japan, and released the song anyway. They even reissued it in 1992. There’s saying you’re punk, and then there’s being punk.
Iron Maiden, ‘2 Minutes To Midnight’
“We oil the jaws of the war machine and feed it with our babies” isn’t a lyric heard too frequently at weddings or birthday party discos. And yet it says a lot about where Iron Maiden found themselves in 1984. The album from which the song is taken – their fifth, ‘Powerslave’ – even features the band’s mascot Eddie in the shadow of a mushroom cloud. The song itself references the Doomsday clock, the symbolic object used by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which represents a countdown to global catastrophe. At two minutes to midnight, 1953 remains the closest it’s ever got, when the U.S.A and the Soviet Union tested H-bombs within nine months of each other. The year this song was released as a single, in 1984, the ‘clock’ had reached three minutes, the most dangerous reading since 1953. Until last year. The clock currently stands at two.
Kate Bush, ‘Breathing’
Even by the Bexleyheath songwriter’s lofty standards, this single from 1980 comes right out of leftfield. It’s almost six minutes long. The English folk music great Roy Harper features on it. It’s fairly fucking batshit. The song’s lyrics concern a foetus in the womb, wrecked with anxiety about post-apocalyptic nuclear fallout. In the video, Kate herself ‘plays’ the foetus. At the time of its release she considered the song the best she’d ever written. There’s something in that.
Slayer – ‘Chemical Warfare’
This weekend, at Download Festival, Slayer play their final ever UK show. It’s only fitting, then, to end this list with a gem from the early days of the California thrash legends. Legend has it that drummer Dave Lombardo played the song with such ferocity during recording sessions that fellow drum legend Gene Hoglan was forced to hold his kit together so the band could achieve a usable take. “I remember thinking, ‘I hope he does this in one or two takes,'” recalls Hoglan. “Because this is rough!”