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The top 10 songs of the Cold War

The fears of nuclear annihilation made for some memorable pop music - what would be on your list?

The Berlin Wall, that Cold War structure separating East and West Germany, fell 25 years ago. There is now a generation with no living memory of this time. They never heard, like the baby boomers before them, a preposterous jingle about surviving nuclear holocaust by hiding under your school desk, or even walked the earth, like Gen-X, burdened with that backburner dread of annihilation. 

To celebrate this significant shift in societal angst, let us present a soundtrack to the Cold War. Pop music, the greatest gift of Western culture, found the Cold War a worthy catalyst for religious rumination, country weepers, catchy avant-garde metaphors, punk anthems and good old-fashioned booty shakers. Come and listen and be glad it’s over.

1. The Slim Gaillard Quartet — “Atomic Cocktail” (1945):

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were only five months old when Slim Gaillard recorded this confident creeper. Gaillard became famous in the late 1930s with upright bassist Slam Stewart, who scatted in unison with his bowed solos. The two had chart success with novelty songs like “Flat Foot Floogie (With a Floy-Floy).” 

By the mid-1940s, Gaillard was fronting a small group, playing cutting single-note amplified guitar solos in the manner of Charlie Christian, and inventing a proto-bop jive vocabulary he called Vout — small surprise that he’s name-checked in Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road.” “Atomic Cocktail” is a great example of Slim’s masterful phrasing and mordant humor (“It’s the drink that you don’t pour/Now when you take one sip you won’t need anymore”) and a very early example of Cold War angst, served well chilled.

2. Floyd Tillman – “This Cold War With You” (1949):

Another canny political metaphor appeared at the end of the 1940s, this one an early country song by Floyd Tillman called “This Cold War With You.” Tillman, raised in Texas, proved to be an influence on a generation of musicians, and was ultimately inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame by Willie Nelson.  “This Cold War With You” is a strange song by any standard. Tillman sings, “The iron curtain falls on this Cold War with you” in a half-drunk laconic drawl as the band plays a slowed-down two-step. What a way to describe the end of a marriage.

3. Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup — “I’m Gonna Dig Myself a Hole” (1951):

Elvis Presley launched his career by covering Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right.” Here is the most rocking take on building a fallout shelter ever recorded.  “I’m gonna dig myself a hole, move my baby down in the ground,” Crudup sings.  “You know when I come up, there won’t be no walls around.”

4. The Louvin Brothers — “The Great Atomic Power” (1952):

There is not a harmony singer alive who doesn’t owe a debt to Charlie and Ira Louvin.  Their seamless fraternal harmonies led directly to the Everly Brothers and forward into history. “Great Atomic Power” is a religious song, as po-faced as any Carter Family effort, with a new twist in the form of the A-bomb. “Are you ready for the great atomic power?” they ask. “Will you rise and meet your savior in the air?” The Louvin Brothers biography, written by Charlie and full of alcohol abuse and fistfights, is worth a read.  It’s called “Satan Is Real.”

5. The Spokesmen — “Dawn of Correction” (1965):

Few Cold War songs are as weird as “Dawn of Correction,” which offers an insistent positive spin. By 1965, folk music was giving way to amplified pop, and the nerdy Kingston Trio look of the Spokesmen was as nearly obsolete as the mouth harp featured in the arrangement. Still, this apparent answer to Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” is nothing short of terrifying: “So over and over again you keep sayin’ it’s the end/But I say you’re wrong: we’re just on the dawn of correction.”

This 1955 bomb shelter was called the Kidde Kokoon, advertised to keep a family safe for three to five days after an H-Bomb blast. No word from the manufacturers, Walkter Kidde Nuclear Laboratories in New York's Long Island, on what song they're listening to on the radio.

6. Paul McCartney — “Back in the USSR” (originally released 1968):

Most people are aware of this winsome rocker that opens the Beatles’ so-called White Album. Its original title was “Backing the U.K.,” and was Paul McCartney’s jab at the jingoistic and short-lived “I’m Backing Britain” campaign.  Sir Paul subverts the dominant ideology with a quasi-Beach Boys throwback, presages the ’50s nostalgia craze of the next decade and scores another hit, all probably before tea. He also rocks it live, as one can hear here.

7. Sex Pistols — “Holidays in the Sun” (1977):

“A cheap holiday on other people’s misery!” snarls Johnny Rotten at the beginning of this triumph by a band that couldn’t last. “I didn’t ask for sunshine and got World War Three/I’m looking over the wall and they’re looking at me,” he sings, amidst the anthemlike descending riff and a cod-Chuck Berry solo. There’s nothing not to like about this desolate tourist’s guide.

8. David Bowie — “‘Heroes’” (1977):

“‘Heroes,’” an anthem of a different order, was recorded in Hansa Studios By The Wall in Berlin, Germany, and is as evocative a piece about what Bowie called “The Wall of Shame” as any written. Its essence is two lovers’ luckless struggle, with the lead vocals becoming ever more strained and distant as the song progresses. Even the title is wrapped in ironic quotes. The Berlin Wall would endure for another dozen years.

9. Kate Bush — “Breathing” (1980):

“We’ve lost our chance,” sings the unborn subject of this nuclear rumination. “We’re the first and last after the blast. Chips of plutonium are twinkling in every lung.” The middle of “Breathing” is punctuated by a spoken discussion of a nuclear blast, delivered in a newscaster’s monotone.

10. Oingo Boingo — “Nothing to Fear (But Fear Itself)” (1982):

Before Danny Elfman had a career as one of the most successful soundtrack composers ever, he led Oingo Boingo, an angular dance outfit. “Nothing to Fear,” with its punchy horns and Robert Fripp-ish guitar stabs, is a fine example of the canon. “The Russians are about to pulverize us in our sleep tonight,” Elfman sings over an insistent groove. Everything turned out all right.

This is just a sampling of the many marvelous songs inspired by the Cold War, from Bob Dylan’s heavy “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” to The Five Stars’ doo-wop lozenge “Atom Bomb Baby” to Thomas Dolby’s evocative “One of Our Submarines Is Missing.”    We hope you play it loud.

Tom Maxwell's latest album is "Tom Maxwell & the Minor Drag.'' He also has a new memoir: "Hell: My Life in the Squirrel Nut Zippers."

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