With every new day of the war in Ukraine, the unraveling relationship between Russia and the West looks more like it did at the height of the Cold War in the eighties — when tensions between the two threatened to boil over into open conflict and, inevitably, nuclear annihilation. This has gotten me thinking about the impact of those tensions on the music of the eighties.
The mood of the era was such that even erstwhile progressive rockers, who famously stayed out of politics as a matter of course, couldn’t help but weigh in. Here are eight examples of eighties prog artists responding to the ever-present existential dread at the height of the Cold War.
Genesis: “Land of Confusion” (1986)
Other Genesis and Mike + the Mechanics songs from the same era — “Domino,” “Silent Running” — may sound apocalyptic, but this pop song from Invisible Touch was actually inspired by the Cold War and the ever-greater risk of nuclear devastation in the 1980s. And if the lyrics weren’t a tipoff, the song’s video left little doubt as to its meaning…
Roger Waters: Radio KAOS (1987)
Roger Waters is one of the few practitioners of prog who never shied away from geopolitical concerns. Exhibit A, of course, is the 1983 Pink Floyd album The Final Cut, on which he expounds on topics ranging from the struggles of World War II veterans to the folly of the Falklands War and brilliantly (if somewhat solipsistically) employs nuclear holocaust as a metaphor for the implosion of the band. Exhibit B? The 1987 concept album Radio KAOS, the central theme of which is the Cold War and the mutually assured destruction that many saw as the only possible outcome of the escalating arms race.
The overall story of Radio KAOS is nearly impossible to discern without — and maybe even with — intensive study of the album’s liner notes, but two of the songs on the record are unmistakably “about” the Cold War. “Home” and “Four Minutes” are both shot through with the anxieties of the nuclear age, recounting as they do the final, harrowing moments before global annihilation. In the end, we learn the attack is a ruse meant to serve as a wake-up call for humanity and Waters leaves us with a rare (for him) happy ending in which we begin to pull ourselves back from the brink.
Barclay James Harvest: “In Memory of the Martyrs” (1980)
German audiences embraced Barclay James Harvest in the seventies. And Barclay James Harvest embraced them right back. On August 30th, 1980, the group staged a free concert on the steps of the Reichstag in the long shadow of the Berlin Wall, with an audience of more than 250,000, including some 75,000 East Berliners who had gathered on the other side of the Wall to listen.
BJH wrote two songs specifically for the concert. One of these, John Lees’ “In Memory of the Martyrs,” was inspired by those who had died trying to escape the Eastern Bloc by climbing over the Wall. Both songs were also included on the band’s 1981 album Turn of the Tide alongside other titles that were at least evocative of the East / West divide: “Waiting on the Borderline,” “Back to the Wall,” “Death of a City.” A 1982 live album from the Berlin concert topped the charts in Germany.
Camel: Stationary Traveller (1984)
In the tradition of David Bowie’s classic “Heroes,” Stationary Traveller invokes Berlin, in many ways the epicenter of the Cold War, as both a setting and a metaphor. Walls and isolation, separation and loss, skullduggery, betrayal, fleeing and seeking refuge. All of these can be either political or emotional. On Stationary Traveller, a concept album about East Germans trying to cross the Berlin Wall into the West, all of them are both.
Steve Hackett: Defector (1980)
Like Stationary Traveller, Defector uses the Cold War as a metaphor — in this case, a metaphor for feeling trapped by your circumstances and making a final, desperate attempt to escape. Here, though, Hackett also explores the divide between East and West through the music itself. An essay on the official Steve Hackett website walks us through the examples: The album opens with “The Steppes,” a “blistering evocation of the windswept landscape that occupies so much of the Eastern Bloc.” “Two Vamps as Guests” includes a nod to the Russian composer Tchaikovsky while also quoting “The Star Spangled Banner.” And the circus-like sounds of “Jacuzzi” suggest the “garishness of Western society.”
Greg Lake: “Nuclear Attack” (1981)
Innerviews host (and Radio KAOS DJ; see above) Jim Ladd could be forgiven for thinking Greg Lake was a “no nukes” kind of guy: Lake did, after all, open his 1981 solo debut with a protest song of sorts called “Nuclear Attack.” But as the former ELP singer explained in an interview with Ladd the same year, he chose the track for rather more mundane reasons. “I’m not on a big campaign against, you know, anti-nuclear stuff,” he said. “But I did like the song.”
Indeed, after another brief back and forth, Lake endorsed the idea of keeping a strong nuclear arsenal as a deterrent. “You’re serious?” Ladd asked. “All I’m saying,” Lake replied, “is in view of the fact that we live in that reality [in which both sides already have the bomb], then we had better make sure that we maintain the balance. That seems to me a logical way of maintaining peace, which is what I am interested in.”
Asia: “Countdown to Zero” (1985)
You can’t have a song about the bomb without a healthy dose of bombast, right?
Supertramp: “Brother Where You Bound” (1985)
Sixteen-and-a-half minutes of rapidly shifting musical moods. A lengthy instrumental section. Scorching guitar from David Gilmour. Who says Supertramp aren’t prog?
The lyrics, helped along by a reading from George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen-eighty-four and snippets from news reports about the Soviet Union, paint a fearsome picture of an encroaching totalitarian state. But really it’s the icy chill of the music here that captures the mood of the Cold War era, when the ideological divides between the world’s two superpowers were as stark and seemingly insurmountable as the geographical ones and you never knew which day might be your last.
Supertramp also released a long-form video as an evocative and provocative accompaniment to the song. Check it out.