For Gen Xers who grew up listening to songs like Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” and movies like the American-Soviet nuclear war film The Day After” 1980s Cold War pop culture suddenly feels uncomfortably contemporary again.
In his 1985 song “Russians,” Sting asks, “How can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?” referring to physicist Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the atomic bomb. In an Instagram post last week, Sting performed the song again. In an accompanying post, he said he’d rarely sung “Russians” since it came out because he never thought it would be relevant again.
“But in the face of one man’s gory and woefully misguided decision to invade a peaceful, non-threatening neighbor, the song is once again a plea for our common humanity,” Sting wrote of the Russian invasion of Russia Ukraine.
Today, Gen Xers, who grew up worrying that a nuclear war between the two superpowers would destroy the planet, are experiencing a combination of deja vu and PTSD.
“I remember crying myself to sleep as a kid, thinking I wouldn’t make it to adulthood,” recalled CNN international correspondent Matthew Chance, covering the war in Ukraine. in an interview with the Playbook Deep Dive podcast. “The idea of ’mutually assured destruction,’ that a confrontation could escalate, was something that’s really a deep-seated fear in people my age.”
Americans are hearing once again about threats of nuclear weapons and the possibility of a third world war, which were the subject of many songs and films of the 1980s.
In “Russians,” Sting sings, which might save, “save us, me and you / Is if the Russians love their children too.” The song challenges leaders from both sides, including President Ronald Reagan, who violently confronted the Soviet Union from 1981 to 1989 – and was a popular target for many of the decade’s apocalyptic songs.
Reagan called the Soviet Union “an evil empire,” and he once quipped over a hot microphone: “My fellow Americans, I am pleased to announce today that I have signed a law that will ban Russia forever. We’ll start bombing in five minutes.” This, of course, only fueled fears – particularly on the left – that Reagan was a trigger-happy leader unfit for an era when the two Cold War adversaries possessed thousands of nuclear weapons.
In the 1984 hit “Two Tribes,” British band Frankie Goes to Hollywood satirizes Reagan as “Cowboy No. 1 / Son of a Born Again Poor Man.” On the 12-inch mix, the throbbing song begins with an air raid siren and a narrator ominously instructing listeners, “When you hear the air raid warning, you and your family need to take cover,” before the band sings their oft-repeated line about two tribes going to war.
In case anyone missed the news, the song’s music video shows actors playing Reagan and Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko engaging in a bloody WWF-style brawl, culminating in the earth being blown to bits is torn.
(A recent episode of “South Park,” which poked fun at ’80s Cold War nostalgia, shows Russian President Vladimir Putin shirtless dancing while “Two Tribes” blares from a boombox on his desk.)
The video for Genesis’ 1986 song “Land of Confusion” ends with a senile puppet Reagan reaching out of his bed to press a button that says “Nurse,” but accidentally presses “Nuke” instead. A mushroom cloud explodes and Reagan quips, “That’s a damn good nurse!”
The punk group Dead Kennedys also imagined an unstable Reagan threatening to destroy the world. Their song “Gone With My Wind,” off the 1986 album Bedtime for Democracy, imagines a drunken Reagan screaming in the band’s trademark rapid-fire style:
“So come on John, what do you say? / It’s been dancing in my head for years
“What Happens When I Push This Button / Let’s Start World War III for Fun”
A few songs from this period painted a striking picture of nuclear war, such as U2’s 1983 song “Seconds”:
“Lightning bolts across the sky / From east to west, do or die
“Like a Thief in the Night / See the World by Candlelight”
Not all songs from the Cold War era were that serious. In the DC band Made for TV’s 1983 song “So Afraid of the Russians,” singer Tom Lyon begins to reel off a list of all the great things he wants to do for society: feed the kids, cure diseases, clean up rivers and lakes, plant trees. “But,” he sings in a dead voice:
“I’m afraid of the Russians / I can’t sleep at night
“So afraid of the Russians / afraid that we have to fight”
The Clash, meanwhile, poked fun at WWIII in their 1980 song “Ivan Meets GI Joe,” sung to a disco beat.
Another source of Americans’ nuclear neuroses were movies like the 1983 film War Games, in which a teenager, played by Matthew Broderick, hacks into a US military supercomputer, nearly starting World War III with the Soviet Union. Disaster is avoided when the supercomputer, War Operation Plan Response or WOPR, learns the futility of nuclear war by playing a series of tic-tac-toe games, all ending in a stalemate.
But there is no happy ending in the ABC TV movie The Day After, which came out the same year and starred Jason Robards and John Lithgow. The film, touted as “perhaps the most important film of all time,” depicts an all-out US-Soviet nuclear war and its horrific impact on survivors in Lawrence, Kan.
Hundreds of millions of people tuned in to see the film. If they weren’t depressed enough when the final scene shows Robards crying, dying in the rubble of his former home, the film ends with this on-screen message:
“The cataclysmic events you have just witnessed are in all likelihood less severe than the devastation that would actually result if the United States were completely nuclear attacked. We hope that the images in this film will inspire the nations of this earth, their peoples and leaders to find the means to avert that fateful day.”
And indeed, the filmmakers may have succeeded in that goal.
After seeing the film at Camp David, Reagan wrote in his journal that the film was “very effective and left me very depressed… My own reaction was that we had to do whatever it took to have a deterrent and see there is never a nuclear war.”
“The Day After” was first shown on Soviet television in 1987, and that year Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. “Don’t think your film didn’t have any of that,” Reagan wrote in a telegram to the film’s director Nicholas Meyer, “because it did.”
https://www.independent.ie/world-news/europe/how-ukraine-war-gives-gen-xers-flashbacks-to-1980s-nuclear-war-songs-and-movies-41471089.html How the war in Ukraine gives Generation Xers flashbacks to songs and movies about the nuclear war from the 1980s