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Two Minutes to Midnight: Loss of Cultural Memory & Nuclear Fear in 1980s Music Video

Cultural memory is something that is shaky. Much like our own individual memory, it can be hard enough trying to navigate life when our own past remembrances are colored by subconscious biases, faulty genetics, or even something as simple as continual sleep deprivation. So when you apply this to a bigger societal scale, things are prone to get disturbingly sketchy. Case in point, I remember hearing from more than one person in the early days post the 2016 United States Presidential Election about how nuclear fear hadn’t been this prominent since the duck and cover days of the 1950s and early 1960s. Anytime I would bring up “What about the 1980s? What about Ronald Reagan?,” I would immediately be met with statements like, “Oh I don’t remember that..,” “...nothing like that happened in the 1980s..,” and perhaps the most nauseating, “Reagan was a nice man. He was just old and confused.” (Pretty sure he wasn’t old or suffering from medically-related confusion when he was supporting Joseph McCarthy back in the day. Once a fascist. Always a fascist.) Now, keep in mind these handful of individuals were all various shades of left-leaning. I’m not foolhardy enough to start poking any conservative bears at ye olde VFW any time soon.

I was dumbfounded, especially because even though I was a little girl during the 1980s, I clearly remember seeing fear of nuclear war all over the TV. It popped up in movies like The Day After (1983), 1984’s Threads (which makes The Day After look like Steamboat Willie), Miracle Mile (1988), and a film that would go on to be monumental in my adult life, Cafe Flesh (1982.) But while none of those films were huge on my childhood horizons, music videos were. As a child who had garnered access to MTV, I saw so many songs with images that touched upon the very tangible and real fear of nuclear destruction. This, along with a multitude of other reasons is why when I see anyone from a newer generation post about how they wished they had grown up in the 1980s, I just want to gently shake them and yell, “nooooooooooo.” I love Vaporwave too but it’s retro nostalgia rooted in a fantasy of commercialism. It’s sonic pop art, in a way, and I love it for it, but the actual 1980s were awful. Colorful on a surface level until you start looking at the darker over-the-surface news spectres that haunted my childhood, like nuclear fear, AIDS, the Iran-Contra scandal, growing homelessness, Ted Bundy and his subsequent execution, complete with live news footage of people yelling “Burn Bundy Burn!,” and of course, the solo career of Don Henley. (Yes, even then, I didn’t know how to relax. I was born anxious. Also, Don Henley is still terrible.) That’s not even deeper diving in the various political and cultural sins that were under the surface.

All of these doubts about my own memory gave me pause...for about two seconds, until the flood of all the nuke nightmare-related hits and videos of the decade came rushing back. Everything from cherished favorites (Men at Work’s “It’s a Mistake'') to images so traumatic that I tried to block most of them out (the hell puppets from the Spitting Image TV program in Genesis’ “Land of Confusion”) popped up in my mind’s eye. Nuclear fear has not only never gone away, but it was certainly prevalent enough to come up repeatedly as a theme from popular artists in multiple genres. The masses expect politico-topics from, for lack of a better word, “earthier” bands aka folk-types, hardcore punkers, pseudo-Americana rockers, and in the case bands like U2, corporate pop-rock.

With the onset of the post-punk subgenre, though, you might know it better under its A&R friendlier name, “New Wave” (cause the P-as-in-Punk-word was viewed as too scary for the rabbity masses), there was an influx of newer, more accessible sounds hitting mainstream airwaves. Germany’s own Nena released “99 Luftballoons'' in 1983, which made it all the way to number 2 in the US on Billboard’s Hot 100 charts.

The fact this catchy German language song that details the cataclysmic worldwide effects resulting from jet fighters and especially, the Kriegsministers (war ministers) utilizing these innocent balloons as an excuse to seek out blood money and murderous conquering, was a big hit in America is still mind blowing. Especially considering that it was the Deutsche original that scored higher than the later released English-language version. While the original version of “99 Luftballoons” isn’t extremely explicit about nuclear war, its talk of war, doom, and political sabotage coupled with a music video where Nena is walking through a desolate and smokey landscape, all but hints at bigtime destruction.

This tangible feeling of powerlessness amongst the populace is something that unites us all. The idea of love tying everyone together is admirable, but fear sadly does the job a whole lot quicker. Nationality be damned, because not only do many of us have the same inherent distrust of our leaders and military, but we also have equal awareness that Atomic bombs are anything but neat and fair. Now, if you ever feel like you’re getting too much sleep and pleasant dreams, do a quick search on nuclear near misses that have occurred in the past decades. I’m not detailing it here because I would much rather grip the few strands of good sleep I can and ,instead, talk about Australian band, Men at Work.

Of all the big charting bands from the early 1980s, Men at Work still remain one of the best. The fact that lead singer Colin Hay has found much critical love and praise in the more recent years as a solo artist is proof that justice does sometimes happen with artists. (Nowhere near often enough, but baby steps are still steps.) But the whole band was great, with me personally having a huge soft spot for their flutist/saxophonist, the late Greg Ham. The band is often most associated with the song “Down Under,” which may be one of the most popular songs ever to invoke men “chundering.” Like many of their songs, the tune brims with wholesale cheek and fun.

That said, the band was definitely no thematic one-trick-pony, exploring personal paranoia with “Who Can it Be Now?” and extreme stress with “Overkill.” With their 1983 single, “It’s a Mistake,” the band tackles the fear of war and mass destruction from someone who is within the military’s point-of-view. Directed by Tony Stevens, who helmed many of their big music videos, this clip begins with stop motion animation of children’s toys, multi-gendered soldiers, marching and wielding weapons. A red tank appears on a desert hill and runs one of them over, with the video then cutting to the members of the band pretending to be children playing pretend war. A grown general arrives and ushers them to a private tent, revealing various militaristic figures with party hats, favors, and flowing champagne. If this reads as questionable behaviour, that's because it totally is! The corruption of youth translates to the corruption of idealism, as we then see the adult acting band go from being everyday members of society, including an anti-nuclear activist, a construction worker, and a children’s hospital aide, to becoming figures in the military. Every single one of their faces look shocked at their new transition.

This beginning section of the song and video call back to an equally great and thematically similar creation with XTC’s “Generals & Majors.” That video includes a table full of stuffy generals and majors (including one that is clearly played by Virgin business-naut Richard Branson) intercut with a large child’s bouncy house. It’s a cute though slightly inferior video compared to “It’s a Mistake” but the song is fantastic, with the main lyrical refrain being, “...Calling Generals and Majors. Your World War III is drawing near…

Back to Men at Work, the new soldiers trample through a burned-out rural landscape that is smokey with bleakness. Their leader pops up, played by the band’s actual lead singer, the eternally super-fantastic Hay, who soon is hounded by an old granny. We see more grannies hounding and hitting the men. It’s comical but it is also stark, with the realization that for centuries, it was the mothers and grandmothers that were seeing their husbands and sons go off and die because of decisions made by men who rarely had to see much less spill any direct blood. This is a theme that is also touched upon with heartaching poignance by Kate Bush with her song, “Army Dreamers.” Bush's song wasn't a reference to any specific conflict, though the Irish lilt that she adopts in the song could point to the violence in Northern Ireland at the time. The song's main drive though is about the semi-eternal sad reality of soldiers who are basically still teenagers being fed as grist for the war mill.

Speaking of grist, the weariness of the band as soldiers in “It’s a Mistake,” save for Hay’s overzealous military leader, is effective. It’s all too easy to ignore the fact that most soldiers, no matter what “side” or country you’re talking about, are usually just kids who don't have a lot of vocational options and in some cases, are unwillingly drafted into the situation. One of the many, many dangers of propaganda are the broad strokes that it is painted with, because life is simply not that simple.

As the song and video head towards the end, Hay’s leader inadvertently flips open the lid covering the red doomsday button, detonating it when he unknowingly stamps his lit cigar on top of it. Human flippancy and accident begets our doom with the crew in tow reacting appropriately enough. There are strains of black humor which makes the message even stronger, since straight-eyed preachiness tends to force most of us to look away but threads of humor engage. It's akin to the director grabbing your chin and making you see a bigger picture. Stanley Kubrick must have approved.

From the culturally rich island-continent of Australia to the shores of San Francisco, USA, the cult post-punk band, Translator, also tackled the prospect of nuclear fear with their 1982 song and video for “Sleeping Snakes.” Gone is the black humor and the peek at the human lives affected within the military-industrial complex and in its wake, is replaced with sheer stark warning. The music itself is like a sleek piston fueled by tension and wrought fear mixed with the chorus refrain of “Stop this missile building….” Though the most haunting line is when you hear singer Steve Barton warn us all with the descriptor, “Buried but not dead…

According to a comment on YouTube (again, mileage may vary), the clip was directed by cult musician “Uncle” Vinty Medbury. The imagery is as unforgiving and well constructed as the song, integrating grainy, distant video footage of the band in a desert with newsreel footage ranging from WWII to a more recent horrorshow vintage from the 70s and 80s. The most disturbing image is a quick shot of what looks like a small child shaking from, no doubt PTSD and god knows what else, due to the after effects of bombing. There are lots of shots of missiles, which are on the nose but also appropriate. (Hell, it’s in the chorus!) The combination highlights the fact that the term “winner” should not be used in the face of nuclear annihilation or war in general.

Classic prog-rock virtuosos Rush addressed nuclear fear and warning with care in 1984, with their song and video, “Distant Early Warning.” Depending on your own personal preferences with prog, especially when the rock is melting with the synths, (personally I love it more than ole Thatcher and Ronnie reveled in fascistic oppression) the song by itself is powerful. There’s an urgency in the synth lines, contrasting to Geddy Lee’s warm bass and vocals, coming across like a parent fearing for the world around their cub, especially with the chorus being “The world weighs on my shoulders. But what am I to do? You sometimes drive me crazy. But I worry about you.

Early on in the song, there’s even a reference to “heavy water,” with the lyric, “...There's no swimming in the heavy water…” The literal definition of heavy water is, “Water in which hydrogen atoms have been replaced by deuterium, used chiefly as a coolant in nuclear reactors.” Rush were always a band that were never afraid to delve into deep subject matters, largely thanks to their chief songwriter and drummer, the late Neil Peart. This is a fact that shines bright within “Distant Early Warning.” It’s too bad that the music video, directed by David Mallett, fails to achieve the heaviness of the song. This isn’t a slight on Mallett, who proved himself more than capable with his work for artists like David Bowie and Peter Gabriel. (Check out the clips for “Look Back in Anger” and “Games Without Frontier” for visual proof.) The clip features footage of the band playing in a new wave style war room, complete with a pentagon shaped stage. (I see what you did there, Mallett.) Those shots are fine but it’s the other sequence that it is intercut with that is the issue.

The main plot of the video centers around this little boy, who is all Keane-eyed and adorable playing in a sandbox on a rural farm. A storm starts to come in and he is suddenly kidnapped by rando military people who place him on a missile and then send him off into the air, where he rides the weapon all Slim Pickens-Strangelove-style. On paper, the image of a small child riding a nuclear missile like it's a fairground ride has all kinds of disturbing potential. It’s innocence corrupted by adult mankind, but the video’s budget hurts it and not in the way you might think. If appearances are anything to go by, this definitely had a higher budget than much of its MTV and MuchMusic kin. The shiny and overly-formulaic end result combined with little junior looking way too happy, severely dampens the serious effect that the song deserves. Compare this to both the Translator and Men at Work videos, which are way less glossy but incredibly effective.

Going back to Kate Bush, the danger of nuclear war upon the innocents was earlier explored with her 1980 song, “Breathing,” making this possibly the earliest entry on this particular list. (Nuclear fear in the 1970s is a whole other article, culminating with the No Nukes: The Muse Concerts for a Non-Nuclear Future 1979 live concert and subsequent album.) With Bush’s song, the narrator is an unborn baby whom, along with their mother, is going through the effects of radiation. Lyrics like “...We’ve lost our chance. We’re the first and the last...After the blast, chips of plutonium are twinkling in every lung..” hit hard with a hug and a cut. The chorus is equally potent, with the refrain of “..breathing...breathing my mother in…

If Kate Bush is a sad eyed, gilded-voiced angel from the UK, then Satan himself made his own appearance with the hell-puppets from the satirical British puppet show, The Spitting Image. The ghoulishness is intentional but try being a little kid seeing Genesis’ “Land of Confusion” music video. In a video satirizing then-living ghouls like Thatcher and Ronald and Nancy Reagan, somehow the band’s rubbery-like-Beelzebub’s-nutsack visages are still the most terrifying in the video. It’s like the show’s creators took one look at the Garbage Pail Kids and said, “Hold my beer.” Sweet Jesus. There’s also the weird hints of bestiality between Ronnie and his red-lipped chimp, (No, not Nancy.) in a grostequely clever nod to Reagan’s 1951 “comedy”,” Bedtime for Bonzo. But the image that was the squiggly and writhing definition of kinder trauma is midway through the video where keyboardist Tony Banks pulls out his extended tongue, dresses it with mustard and ketchup, wraps it in a hot dog bun and then proceeds to EAT it. He literally devours his own tongue, while it is still evidently rooted in his mouth.

Welcome to Hell

As an adult, I can better...well slightly better appreciate this video, since celebrity and politics are inherently grotesque and the thought that the fate of the human race could be so massively affected by fundamentalists fascists like Reagan is far more terrifying than any rubbery cartoon mask. (Though that tongue-eating thing is still whew-doggies bad.)

Ultravox opted for a more subtle and moving approach with their song and video for “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes.” With lyrics like, “It's five and I'm driving home again. It's hard to believe that it's my last time. The man on the wireless cries again. It's's over…”,the message is crystal clear. Our narrator goes home to be with his family as the nuclear bloom is about to unfold. Musically, how much the song emotionally hits depends on one’s tolerance for 1980s style slick-pop production. Ultravox as a band had an interesting trek, with the original line-up being fronted by electronic-aesthetico-pioneer John Foxx. When he left to pursue an (absolutely stunning) solo career, ex-Slik and Rich Kids singer Midge Ure stepped in. The Ure era is undeniably the commercial juggernaut of the two and with him, they did produce some really golden work. “Sleepwalk” is a synth-stacked powerhouse and you would be hard pressed to top the sweet grandiosity of “Vienna.” “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes” is a genuine piece of music though a bit treacly. But line it up next to other chart toppers from 1984, like Paul McCartney’s “No More Lonely Nights” or Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” and it’s perfectly fine.

The video, directed by Ure and the band’s bassist, Criss Cross, builds up the narrative of the song pretty well, with actress Diana Weston in the role of Midge's narrator's wife. It’s soft-toned melodrama with a heavier pitch, with the last few frames being the most striking as a reel of the family’s home movies plays out while the film disintegrates.

A less gentle and a more fist-thrust approach would be taken with Time Zone’s “World Destruction.” This track doesn’t just slap or bang, it sets the boombox on fire as whistling embers of debris jut out of it with mad force. There is no room for subtlety, especially when staring in the face of imminent destruction via the hands of fools, warmongers, and greedhounds.

Time Zone was a side project of Afrika Bambaataa, with “World Destruction” featuring guest appearances from both John Lydon and producer/bassist Bill Laswell. The video version of the song opens with Reagan on the TV talking about, “...Armageddon. Those prophecies mean that Armageddon is a thousand years away or a day after tomorrow. In regards of trying to say that we would survive in the event of a nuclear war...of course we would.” The song starts to fade in with those last few lines and we get over three minutes of 100% pure grade funk and punk-piss. Every lyric is a punch that lands, but the following feel especially prescient, “This is a world destruction. Your life ain't nothing. The human race is becoming a disgrace. The rich get richer. The poor are getting poorer. Fascist, chauvinistic government fools.” The last image of the video is a close-up of a grinning Lydon, his face streaked with fake blood and lipstick, kissing an image of Reagan on the TV while the then president is talking about signing “...legislation that will outlaw Russia...we begin bombing in five minutes.”

Along with “World Destruction,” Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes'' is an equally potent piece of music and visuals. It’s a real pity that in the US, the band were and still are best known for “Relax” and a series of t-shirts emblazoned with variations of “Frankie Says…,” because they were one of the best, most culturally relevant, and flat out needed, pop bands to have emerged in the 1980s. One just has to take a listen to “Two Tribes” to feel the band’s power of impact. While it’s never outright spoken in the lyrics, it is clear that the warring tribes in question are the United States and the Soviet Union. With lyrics like, “Cowboy number one. A born-again poor man's son. (Poor man's son). On the air America. I modeled shirts by Van Heusen. (Working for the black gas),” are pointing right to Reagan. He did indeed model shirts by Van Heusen, with the old advertisements being repurposed into pop art by Andy Warhol in 1985. Also, black gas is a reference to oil, which is another smart metaphor and one that has not lost any relevance.

The single's cover art and music video both spell things out even more crystalline, with the former’s front image displaying a mural of Lenin on the left and assorted workers, including an astronaut, nurse, and mother, on the right. In small lettering under the picture is the sentence, “We don’t want to die.” On the back sleeve is a photo of Reagan and Thatcher together, next to a simple graph comparing the amount of assorted nuclear weapons the US and Russia had. (One shudders to think how much that stat has grown since the single’s 1984 release.) The video, directed by music video pioneers and former members of 10cc, Godley & Creme, centers around an actual wrestling match between actors dressed up as Reagan and Konstantin Chernenko, who was at the time General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. At one point, Ronnie literally bites Chernenko’s ear, which was apparently censored for the video’s MTV run. (This is the same channel that banned Sparks “I Predict,” so lameness comes as zero surprise.) The video ends with a globe blowing up, which is the only appropriate ending of such a match.

Heavy metal, much like pop, is a genre that doesn’t get the biggest amount of critical props. Along with “Two Tribes,” 1984 also saw the release of Iron Maiden’s “Two Minutes to Midnight.” This power metal classic features some of the band’s best lyrics, mixing in almost Biblical level imagery with threat of nuclear annihilation. The title alone is a reference to the Doomsday clock, so coupled with lines like, “The killer's breed or the demon's seed. The glamour, the fortune, the pain. Go to war again, blood is freedom's stain. Don't you pray for my soul anymore,” along with Bruce Dickinson’s mighty vocals and the skillful high-octane guitar work of both Adrian Smith and Dave Murray and you get a forcefully great song. Sadly, the music video does not live up to the song’s mini-nihilistic-saga feel.

The video features footage of the band playing that is intercut with a very loose narrative involving old militaristic white men, a bunch of mugs, missile theft, Egyptian symbology (a reference to the album that this song is from, Powerslave, no doubt), and a blonde in a black vinyl dress. The threads binding the imagery with the actual message of the song are hazy at best but more often goony than anything else. Now, IMDB credits Jim Yukich as the director for “2 Minutes to Midnight.” Yukich did direct several other videos for Maiden, as well as for artists ranging from Michael Jackson to Berlin to Genesis and more. (My personal favorite is his The Hungerinspired video for Marilyn Martin’s “Night Moves.”) However, both Discogs and the Music Video Fandom site have this clip credited to Tony Halton, who also directed a clip for the UK pop group, Bucks Fizz. I am inclined to believe both sites over IMDB, but either way, it’s not a great video.

From the accidentally absurd to the intentionally absurd, there is Weird Al Yankovic’s truly demented 1986 holiday chestnut, “Christmas at Ground Zero.” When one of the sunniest and reportedly nicest men within the sleaziest shark tank aka the music industry is commenting on the possibility of “Everywhere the atom bombs are dropping. It's the end of all humanity. No more time for last minute shopping. It's time to face your final destiny,” then it makes burying your head in the sand even harder (not to mention ill advised) to do. Al’s holly jolly vocals and grinning demeanor contrasts with such gleefully bleak lyrics, resulting in a song that is as infectious as it is bent. The accompanying music video features a montage of old newsreel footage with vintage Christmas themed and 1950s ideal “nuclear” family clips. Al appears at the end of the video, backed up by little holiday carolers wearing gas masks in a bombed out landscape. Not sense Devo’s “Beautiful World” has 1950’s pie-eyed kitsch montaged with images of war and weapons has a music video been so expertly vicious. Okay, vicious isn’t a word that can wholly be applied here but for Weird Al, it comes pretty close.

When it comes to the most joyous sounding song about nuclear fear, the top contender has to be Fishbone’s 1985 single, “Party at Ground Zero.” It’s party-time-surrealist-funk that is warning us while grooving us, complete with a brash horn section, infectious rhythm, and lyrics like, “...The toilet has flushed and green lights are a ghost. And drop drills will be extinct. Speed Racer cloud has come. They know not what they've done. Sin has just won. And the Earth is a crumb…” The video is even more surreal, featuring a bunker party with revelers wearing strange masks, including one crescent moon visage that feels like a proto-version of McDonald’s swanky-scary Mac Tonight character, crude and eye-catching animation, and the band themselves painted like the new riders of the nuclear-psychedelic age. Interestingly enough, this was directed by Henry Selick, who would go on to find feature film success directing titles like Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), James & the Giant Peach (1996), and Coraline (2009).

As the 1980s become more of a distant memory for some and history that was learned post-birth by others, it is vital to remember, recall, and explore. With life and especially politics, the only thing that is new are the players but the game is always the same. Joe Strummer once wrote that the future is unwritten, so arm yourself with that while grabbing all the gumption, knowledge, heart, and a level of hope that is worth fighting for. This is our survival. God help us all.

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Feb 18, 2021

Excellent exploration here.

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