Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

“Sunshine on the waste land”: 20 songs about nuclear annihilation

Illustration: Nick Wanserski

1. “Crawl Out Through The Fallout,” Sheldon Allman (1960)

You could probably fill this entire list with musical entries from the post-apocalyptic Fallout games, whose soundtracks scour the novelty records of the ’50s and ’60s for songs reflecting the nuclear anxieties of the times. The most jauntily mean-spirited of the lot might be Sheldon Allman’s “Crawl Out Through The Fallout” (featured in Fallout 4), in which the smooth-voiced singer assures the lover he’s tempting out into the wasteland that he’ll “kiss those radiation burns away.” Taken from Allman’s 1960 album, Folk Songs For The 21st Century—which also contains such crooning lines as “Schizophrenic baby, I love both of you”—the track is nuclear gallows humor at its best, with the singer-songwriter assuring his now-glowing gal he’ll love her for the rest of her life, “Although,” he cautions, “that may not be too long.” [William Hughes]

2. “The Great Atomic Power,” The Louvin Brothers (1962)

The disturbing use of atomic power to end World War II had folks in the following decades pretty shaken up, leading to the “duck and cover” bomb-shelter era of the 1950s and beyond. Ira and Charlie Louvin—an Alabama gospel duo that helped popularize “close harmony” vocals—captured that feeling on their 1962 album Weapon Of Prayer, which features one of the jauntiest songs ever penned about the bomb. As Christians, the Louvin Brothers take a pragmatic approach with “The Great Atomic Power,” which was to get right with your maker before things went to hell, because, “When the mushroom of destruction falls in all its fury great / God will surely save his children from that awful, awful fate.” Sounds as good a method as any other, but at least one of the Louvins didn’t practice what he preached. Alcoholic Ira was married four times and had such a volatile temper that Charlie eventually left him to go solo. Ira’s third wife shot him repeatedly after he attempted to strangle her with a telephone cord, and reportedly said, “If the bastard don’t die, I’ll shoot him again!” He lived, a testament to the power of prayer. [Gwen Ihnat]


3. “Eve Of Destruction,” Barry McGuire (1965)

Barry McGuire’s version of “Eve Of Destruction” may be the best known, but was far from inevitable. The song was written by P.F. Sloan, rejected by The Byrds, and recorded by The Turtles (among others) before landing with McGuire, whose rough first take was released as a single and became a controversial hit. The song isn’t only about nuclear annihilation; McGuire growls a roll call of issues related to wars both cold (“you may leave here for four days in space”) and hot (“you’re old enough to kill but not for votin’”). They all add up to an unmistakable end game: “If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away.” Today, the song sounds both melodramatic (“my blood’s so mad, it feels like coagulatin’”) and a little calculated (give us some of that Bob Dylan feeling!). But there’s also an earnest immediacy to it, owing in part to that quick, no-frills vocal take. It also turns on a titular phrase that has become sadly evergreen. The specific threats described in the song may have faded, but the feeling of imminent doom still resonates. In keeping with the song’s long history of covers, indie band Bishop Allen recorded an effective reimagining of it in 2003. [Jesse Hassenger]


4. “Come Away Melinda,” Bobbie Gentry (1968)

Many have covered Fred Hellerman and Fran Minkoff’s “Come Away Melinda,” from Theodore Bikel to Harry Belafonte to Uriah Heep. But Bobbie Gentry’s version, with its swelling strings and Gentry’s low, melodic voice, gives the song a pop quality that counteracts the lyrics that warn of the world after a nuclear battle. “Come Away Melinda” is told partially from the perspective of a child, Melinda, who contrasts the world she sees in a photo album with what she’s living (“Mommy, mommy, come and see / Oh, mommy come and look / There’s five or six Melinda girls / Inside this picture book”). Her mother counsels her to come away because the world she’s seeing existed before the war, including “someone grown up very tall, who doesn’t look like” her mother: Her father, ostensibly lost in the skirmish. “Come Away Melinda” is sadder than Gentry’s song initially sounds, but her haunting voice adds a quality that demonstrates the song’s inherent melancholy. [Molly Eichel]


5. “Bombers,” David Bowie (1971)

There is a distinctly Muppet-like quality to David Bowie’s “Bombers.” From its immediate, high-tempo intro followed by a goofy, bass backup vocal, the song energetically asserts from the start that splitting the world in half using its atomic stockpile is a romp. An example of a common counterculture device established by movies like Dr. Strangelove that presents the military-industrial complex as children, “Bombers” depicts the government as a group of sugar-addled booger-eaters gleeful to blow up the world just to try out their toys. They decide a vast wasteland would be an ideal place to barrage with nuclear weapons. It’s empty except for a single old man: an acceptable casualty. The bombs keep dropping to increasingly dramatic effect until ultimately the world is blown into nothingness. Only the old man remains; a god who chose to witness firsthand as humankind destroyed itself. [Nick Wanserski]


6. “Political Science,” Randy Newman (1972)

Although time and several similar-sounding Disney soundtracks have turned him into little more than a Family Guy punchline to younger listeners, Randy Newman earned acclaim throughout the 1970s for his combination of catchy tunes and biting lyrics. Those two aspects of his songwriting collided like atomic nuclei on “Political Science,” which found Newman taking an approach not unlike Jonathan Swift in A Modest Proposal by suggesting that the simplest solution to America’s increasing population problems would be to just “drop the big one” on most everyone else. (Not Australia, though: “don’t wanna hurt no kangaroo,” plus “they got surfin’, too.”) Rationalizing that the other countries are riddled with imperfections, not to mention the fact that “they all hate us anyhow,” Newman paints a lyrical picture of his dream scenario: “Boom goes London and boom Paree / More room for you and more room for me / And every city the whole world ’round / Will just be another American town.” [Will Harris]


7. “King Of The World,” Steely Dan (1973)

Donald Fagen’s lyrics often reference the atomic paranoia of his youth, but rarely as directly as in the closing song to Steely Dan’s 1973 masterpiece Countdown To Ecstasy. Written from the perspective of the survivor of a nuclear holocaust, “King Of The World” is a sad, desperate broadcast from the wreckage of what used to be, describing the loneliness and boredom of the bunker. As a hot jazz-fusion jam simmers behind Fagen, he mocks the international power struggles that brought him to this point, singing sardonically that “any man left on the Rio Grande is the king of the world, as far as I know.” And with that Steely Dan signs off for another album, leaving listeners to stew in beautifully arranged, pungent Cold War irony. [Noel Murray]


8. “Breathing,” Kate Bush (1980)

Kate Bush built her career on unconventional singles and unlikely hits, but even by those standards, “Breathing” was left field. The lead single for Never For Ever—the singer-songwriter’s third album, and a major step in her development as a musician—sounds slinky and seductive as long as you don’t pay attention to the lyrics or the video: a vision of nuclear doomsday, as experienced by an unborn fetus. Linking birth and annihilation while pushing Bush’s sensualism into strange new territory (see: the phrasing of “Chips of plutonium are twinkling in every lung”), “Breathing” wasn’t the only track on Never For Ever to use the intimacy of a mother-child bond as a prism for war anxieties. The second single, “Army Dreamers,” found Bush singing from the perspective of a woman whose son had been killed during a military training exercise. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


9. “99 Luftballons,” Nena (1983)

Nena’s guitarist Carlo Karges was at a 1982 Rolling Stones concert in West Berlin when he noticed some balloons resembling spacecraft floating over the Berlin Wall. He then penned the catchiest German pop-protest song ever to hit the charts in the U.S. In both the English and German translations of “99 Luftballons,” some errant balloons that look like aircraft accidentally inspire a battle between nations, destroying both sides, as everyone wants to get in on the fight: “Everyone’s a superhero / Everyone’s a Captain Kirk” (Kirk even made it into the German version). “99 Luftballons” joined the soundtrack of the MTV generation dancing on the brink of global destruction, with another irrepressible ditty about the end of the world. [Gwen Ihnat]


10. “Forever Young,” Alphaville (1984)

A poppy song that often acts as an anthem to youth, Alphaville’s “Forever Young” ponders how a nuclear blast would freeze the kids in immortal springtide. The youth of the world watches the skies “hoping for the best but expecting the worst,” asking the older generation, “Are you gonna drop the bomb or not?” Both a testament to living under nuclear threat and the creeping certitude of growing up, Alphaville makes the case for going out in a blaze of glory instead of burning out, since it’s out of their hands anyway: “So hard to get old without a cause / I don’t want to perish like a fading horse / Youth’s like diamonds in the sun / And diamonds are forever.” [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]


11. “World Destruction,” Time Zone (1984)

The second Cold War terrorized the ’80s, as America and Russia stockpiled loads of nuclear weapons against each other. President Reagan made matters even more terrifying when he joked during a microphone check, “I’m pleased to tell you today that I signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever; we begin bombing in five minutes.” Some Great Communicator. The situation was so dire that, of course, it led to a kickass dance single. Rap-music pioneer Afrika Bambaataa selected different people to work with for his Time Zone project, and for “World Destruction,” he chose Public Image Ltd.’s Johnny Lydon. Bambaataa noted that he wanted “somebody who’s really crazy” for the project, and Lydon, no stranger to dissing heads of state, was more than willing to trade barbs like “The human race is becoming a disgrace,” and “It’s a nuclear war, what are you asking for?” Credited as one of the first “rock-rap” songs, the single was so infectious that even if the planet was blowing up, dancing it out to “World Destruction” would be a great way to go. [Gwen Ihnat]


12-13. “Distant Early Warning” (1984) and “Manhattan Project” (1985), Rush

Rush drummer and lyricist Neil Peart has a penchant for literary references, which is especially evident in the band’s 1976 offering 2112—an album Peart credited to the “genius of Ayn Rand.” Although that caused the band some grief, given Rand’s politics, it didn’t stop Peart from finding inspiration in the written word. After reading close to a dozen books about the secret military project created in 1942 to produce the first U.S. nuclear weapon, Peart produced “Manhattan Project” on 1985’s Power Windows. The song paired Geddy Lee’s vocals (and some rockin’ ’80s synth) and Alex Lifeson’s guitar to make for a somewhat somber reflection on Cold War history. This will come as no surprise to those familiar with the trio’s catalog, which also includes “Distant Early Warning,” a song that includes commentary on nuclear annihilation and was released a year before Power Windows on Grace Under Pressure. [Becca James]

14. “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades,” Timbuk 3 (1986)

Like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.,” Timbuk 3’s “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” was widely misinterpreted in the ’80s as having a positive message, because the title’s so upbeat. Frontman Pat MacDonald took the line from something his wife and bandmate Barbara MacDonald said half-jokingly; the song uses it winkingly, to punctuate the first-person testimony of a yuppie nuclear physics student possibly destined to blow up the world. To be fair, the fate of “Future’s So Bright”’s protagonist is never explicitly stated. Listeners are supposed to assume a lot, based on the subject and based on Timbuk 3’s overall repertoire of smartass techno-folk tunes. Many, many people missed the point—including the writers of the ABC high-school sitcom Head Of The Class, which in 1987 produced an episode where the show’s cast of geniuses-in-training made a self-esteem-boosting music video, set to this track. [Noel Murray]


15. “Christmas At Ground Zero,” “Weird Al” Yankovic (1986)

What says “happy holidays” better than the warm, Yule log-like glow of an irradiated wasteland? “Christmas At Ground Zero,” off “Weird Al” Yankovic’s fourth album, Polka Party!, finds the parodic superstar at his most darkly political, putting a smiling face on the looming, late-Reagan fear of nuclear Armageddon. With a sarcastic jolliness bordering on mania, Yankovic sings that it’s “a crazy fluke” that “we’re gonna get nuked” on this jolly holiday, all while duck and covering under the mistletoe and trimming his Christmas tree from beneath a mushroom cloud. It’s a nasty musical reminder that global extinction doesn’t care about calendars or presents, although it’s also possible that the holidays just bring out Yankovic’s violent side. He revisited Christmas carnage 10 years later with the bloodier (if less globally threatening) “The Night Santa Went Crazy.” [William Hughes]


16. “Time Will Crawl,” David Bowie (1987)

“We’ll give every life / For the crackpot notion.” David Bowie’s career spanned decades, countless styles and personas, and several eras of nuclear paranoia. Written in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, “Time Will Crawl” describes a nuclear attack’s effect on bodies and landscapes, describing rivers of rotting fish, cities of melting steel, and a slow death from radiation poisoning. (Bowie would cite the environmentally conscious Neil Young as a major influence on the song, and it’s possible to pick up traces of Young’s concerned whine in the way Bowie sings the verse.) Bowie wrote plenty of apocalyptic songs, but whereas earlier compositions like “Five Years” verged on rapture, “Time Will Crawl” is resigned to doom, envisioning a doomsday that will be out of the observer’s control. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


17. “Everyday Is Like Sunday,” Morrissey (1988)

Plenty of Cold War-era songs expressed fear of a nuclear apocalypse, but how many begged for it? Morrissey’s second solo single pleads for Armageddon to wipe away “the coastal town they forgot to bomb”—an expression of boredom, given a transgressive edge by the language of annihilation. The Mancunian singer has played with violent imagery as a way of phrasing frustration and repression throughout his career, and has a thing for devastated wastelands; heck, he’d even invoked nuclear war positively before, in “Ask,” one of the classic non-album singles put out by his band, The Smiths. Nonetheless, “Everyday Is Like Sunday,” with its sawed and plucked strings, is one of his best declarations of distaste, seamlessly fusing digs at crushingly uneventful small-town life with a vision of welcome global doom. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


18. “Nuclear War,” Yo La Tengo (2001)

Experimental jazz legend Sun Ra weighed in on the geopolitical ramifications of mutually assured destruction with the title track to his 1982 album. Over a hepcat piano riff, he chants “Talkin’ about (yeah) / Nuclear war (yeah),” and in a few short words gives you all you need to know on the subject: “It’s a motherfucker / Don’t you know / If they push that button / Your ass got to go.” The song runs nearly eight minutes, and the lyrics consist entirely of variations on those four lines, becoming absurd, and then hypnotic, and then absurd again. Although the song was barely distributed in the U.S., in 2002, Yo La Tengo—who had made the song a staple of its live shows—did a four-song EP that was simply four different versions of “Nuclear War.” The definitive take on the song may be the second, over a one-note drone and a flurry of drums, with singer Ira Kaplan deadpanning the lyrics while a children’s chorus shouts “It’s a motherfucker!” along with him. [Mike Vago]


19. “Earthcrusher,” Mr. Lif (2002)

For most of its run, Mr. Lif’s I Phantom is a fairly grounded concept album about a working-class black man trying, and utterly failing, to achieve the American dream. But the album takes an abrupt, dark turn in its final act when nuclear Armageddon wipes out not only the album’s protagonist, but most of the planet. Rapping in part from the perspective of the almighty blast itself, Lif delights in destroying the world he’s built, and detailing humanity’s grizzly end: “Inhaled poison has replaced oxygen / Your heart contracts, aorta snaps / Lungs collapse / Fluid exiled of urinary tracts.” There’s nothing like a nuclear holocaust to put things in perspective. In the end, Lif raps, there are “no more petty crimes, nickel sacks / Rap shows or raves / Sunshine and bullshit holidays / Just radiation and tidal waves.” [Evan Rytlewski]


20. “We Will Become Silhouettes,” The Postal Service (2005)

The title of “We Will Become Silhouettes” references the “nuclear shadows” that thermal radiation, i.e., nuclear bombs, created in Japan. In the opening verse, Ben Gibbard describes hunkering down in his bunker with pictures of his love, trying to fend off loneliness by staging a conversation between himself and his echoes. He considers walking the now-deserted streets, but the threat of radiation from whatever nuclear attack has occurred keeps him indoors. Gibbard and Jenny Lewis blithely sing the chorus “And we’ll become silhouettes when our bodies finally go,” suggesting that the end of the world wasn’t quite definitive enough. [Danette Chavez]


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