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Songs of Nuclear Horror

Sprinkling some vinegar to counteract the oily Graham Nash, David Crosby provided a bracing moment of skepticism toward the generally sanctimonious pop-star posturing documented in No Nukes, the movie centered on a series of concerts and rallies staged to protest nuclear power and nuclear arms in 1979. Pop musicians are not particularly well-equipped to speak with authority on issues such as nuclear policy, Crosby said at a press conference captured in the film; but they have a public forum, he said, and can’t help themselves. (My copy of the movie is an old pre-DVD laserdisc, and the non-performance segments are not on YouTube, so I can’t post the Crosby footage here.) Very little of the music in either of the two No Nukes concertsan open one at Battery Park followed by a pricey one at Madison Square Gardenhad much to do with nuclear policy. I went to the free show, because it was free and I was just out of college, and I remember a minor punk band doing a dull, not-very-punkish chant song that repeated the phrase “No more nukes” for a couple of minutes. The Garden event, which I couldn’t afford to attend and know only from the movie, was devoted mostly to hit music by the big acts of the day: “What a Fool Believes” by the Doobie Brothers; “Mockingbird,” by James Taylor and Carly Simon, who were married at the time and did lots of happy-couple hamming for the cameras; one of those mopey songs by Jackson Browne; and “The River” and a couple of other numbers by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, who were captured on screen for the first time in No Nukes. The film’s only notable performance of music with a nuclear theme is the still-moving “We Almost Lost Detroit,” Gil Scott-Heron’s ballad about the partial meltdown of the early breeder reactor Fermi 1 in 1966. The song remains one of the most potent pieces of work in the timely and vast catalog of pop songs about the threat of nuclear disaster.

The sheer number of songs in the broad category of nuke pop, from the Cold War jitters humor of Tom Lehrer’s “We Will All Go Together When We Go” to YouTube quickies like this week’s “Song for Fukushima” is staggering. Historically, nuke-pop songs have tended to fall into one of five sub-categories:

Bleak nuclear-horror narratives, such as Heron’s “Almost Lost Detroit” and Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”

Wishful, post-apocalyptic utopianism, such as Crosby’s own “Wooden Ships” (cowritten with Stephen Stills)

Dark whimsy, such as the tunes of Lehrer and his inheritor Donald Fagen, who put a smarty-pants sheen on fallout-shelter chic in his 1982 song “New Frontier

Pamphleteering for action against nuclear arms or power, of which there are fewer distinguished specimens than one might expect to find

A kind of mimetic nuclear music—atomic rock that evokes chaos and meltdown in noise and volume, such as “Blackened” by Metallica, “Brighter Than a Thousand Suns” by Iron Maiden, and “Rest in Peace...Polaris” by Megadeth

A web chronicler devoted to this subject has listed literally hundreds of songs with nuclear themes produced in the single decade of the 1980s, when the memories of Three Mile Island were fresh and Reagan freely wielded the nuclear threat. David Crosby had a point, and the earnest women who sing “Song for Fukushima” are no Dylans. Still, the present decade is young, and the hard rain has just begun to fall.

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