17 songs for the coming nuclear apocalypse

From Black Sabbath to Prince to Bob Dylan, these 17 songs about the nuclear holocaust are more relevant than ever

By Noah Berlatsky
March 15, 2014 7:00PM (UTC)
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Bob Dylan (AP)

With Russian troops in Ukraine and subsequent East/West saber-rattling, it's been an uncomfortably Cold War kind of week -- also, "The Americans" is back!

As such, it seemed like a good time to revisit all those dated fears about nuclear holocaust, which seem a little less dated than they did not so long ago.


Pilgrim Travelers, "Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb"

As the song says, "In nineteen hundred and 49/the USA got very wise/they found that a country across the line/had an atom bomb of the very same kind/people got worried over the land/just like the people in Japan." This song was originally a country number by Lowell Blanchard and the Valley Trio, but a number of gospel groups covered it as well. It's not quite clear whether the Travelers see the atom bomb as the hand of God or as a distraction from the upcoming, more important apocalypse. Either way, that "hey, hey, hey my Lord" sounds positively lighthearted considering the subject matter.


Louvin Brothers, "Great Atomic Power"

The Louvin Brothers have a lot of songs warning sinners to get ready before they die and are cast into the fiery pit; this one just substitutes nuclear holocaust for generic termination. Charlie and Ira may say it's an "awful, awful" fate, but those high lonesome bluegrass harmonies drip with schadenfreude.


Wanda Jackson, "Fujiyama Mama"

Wanda Jackson stakes a very convincing claim as an atomic bomb, complete with hiccupping detonations and glottal fallout. "I drank a quart of sake/smoked dynamite/I chased it with tobacci/and then shoot out the light." Inevitably, this was a huge hit in Japan.


Talbot Brothers of Bermuda, "Atomic Nightmare"

Despite the bouncy calypso beat, this is the first song here that actually presents atomic war as an unambiguously negative thing. The brothers seem to think the bombs will come from some sort of spaceship, but if they're confused about that, the bulk of the tune, in which they repeat, "I'm going to run, run, run like a son of a gun/I don't know where I'm going to go but I'm really going to run," seems like an eminently reasonable reaction.


Krzysztof Penderecki, "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima"

Penderecki's composition has appeared on a number of film scores and is much imitated, but the original is still remarkably affecting, all bleak, ominous dissonance culminating in a fractured crescendo.


Charles Mingus, "Oh Lord Don't Let Them Drop that Atomic Bomb on Me" 1962

Mingus channels gospel blues, with the horns as a kind of honking spiritual moan. Half lurching parodic mimicry and half tribute, the joke is that he can squeeze so much soul out of really, sincerely not wanting them to drop, drop, be-bop that bomb.

Harry Belafonte, "Come Away, Melinda"


The Byrds' setting of Nazim Hikmet Ran's poem  "I Come and Stand At Every Door" is probably the most famous child-tugs-at-the-heartstrings-after-nuclear-holocaust song, but it's not the only entry in the genre. The most famous version of "Come Away, Melinda" by Fred Hellerman and Frank Minkoff is probably Uriah Heep's preposterously towering prog melodrama version. But in its own way, Harry Belafonte's performance, complete with children's choir and vocals dripping with pathos, is just as over-the-top.

Bob Dylan, "Talkin' World War III Blues"


Dylan recorded a number of anti-nuclear songs, including "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" and "Masters of War." This is the jauntiest, though; a talking folk blues take on the simultaneous excesses of Cold War paranoia and Cold War optimism. Everybody thinks the world's going to end, and everybody thinks they're the ones who will get to see it.  "I didn't see you around," as the doctor says.

Black Sabbath, "Electric Funeral" 1970

"Robot minds of robot slaves/lead them to atomic grave." Nuclear holocaust comes with a slow doom-riff inevitability, then turns halfway through to a sluggish trashy, Vegas showstopper, like a mutant chorus line shuffling amidst the corpses. Sabbath's metal heirs would often revel in death and destruction, but Ozzy's a protest singer; the bleak vision is a warning, not a celebration.


Can, "Mushroom" 1971

Black Sabbath's apocalyptic fantasy is gothic and vivid; Can's is blank, monotonous and anticlimactic. Some bored hipster mutters "I saw mushroom head/I was born and I was dead," against a psychedelic drone, until everybody gets tired of it. "Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead," bomb explodes, the end.

Stooges, "Search and Destroy" 1973

Iggy isn't quite as convincing when he claims to be an atom bomb as Wanda Jackson was, but he still does pretty well. You could also see the song as a queasily prescient tribute to our drone program, with Obama humming "Look out honey 'cause I'm using technology"  as he presses the button.

Crass, "They've Got a Bomb" 1978

No adrenaline-junkie cheerleading for violence here. Anarcho-punks Crass' "They've Got a Bomb" is all jagged-edges ranting, feedback and (literally) blank spaces. This is agitprop that's irritating the way agitprop is supposed to be.

Kate Bush, "Breathing" 1980

Bush shows why she's the missing link between David Bowie and Nick Cave with a musical theater glam cabaret Kurt Weill-meets-Disney number about inhaling her incinerated loved ones. The guys in radiation suits dancing/dying toward the close are unexpectedly disturbing.

Prince, "Ronnie Talk To Russia" 1981

"1999" is the Prince nuclear post-apocalypse song everybody knows, but this brief track from 1981's "Controversy" is unjustly overlooked. The two-minute number is packed with sing-song chorus, Hendrix guitar, sound effects and fleet funk as Prince pleads with his president not to feed gorillas who want to blow up the world.  To his credit, Reagan did eventually talk to Russia — maybe he was a Prince fan, just like everybody should be.

Sun Ra, "Nuclear War" 1982

Yo La Tengo's version is perhaps better known, but I'll stick with the zoned-out Sun Ra original. "Nuclear war, nuclear war/it's a motherfucker don't you know/if you push that button/your ass gotta go." That about sums it up.

Minutemen, "Dream Told By Moto" 1983

The nuclear holocaust provokes the Minutemen, like Sun Ra, to profane funk. "Yeah, yeah, World War III" could be an affirmative anthemic chorus for some bands, but here it's just stated and abandoned as the track wanders/lopes into dissonant feedback and, presumably, the end of the world.

Smiths, "Ask" 1987

This is one of my all-time favorite Smiths songs. Morrisey doesn't do sunny very often, but when he does it's ravishing, not least because of the elaborate melancholy put down for just a second on the other side of the hairdo. "If it's not love/then it's the bomb that will bring us together" has to be one of the more sublimely ridiculous pickup lines in pop.


Noah Berlatsky

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