Sunday, 5 July 2015

Happy Songs for the End of the World

From January 2015

Last night I remembered my enthusiasm for 1950s American pop music about the Cold War. This stuff is fantastically creepy. Nothing feels more like discovering a warped parallel universe than hearing bouncing, cheerful, formulaic songs haunted by the imminent fiery death of the whole planet. 

Much of it is bafflingly tasteless. A group of actual US Airforce officers, known as The Cuff Links sang ‘Guided Missiles’ () a doo-wop song in which they croon that their lover is sending “guided missiles, aimed at my heart”: I’m sure we can all agree that nothing is more romantic than a bunch of military men telling you that “now I know that the enemy is you” and that “those same guided missiles will get you in the end.” With pretty much the same metaphor, there’s Wanda Jackson with “Fujiyama Mama” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztFHvNwRb6Q), upbeat rockabilly which doesn’t seem to have a problem with using the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to discuss how badass Wanda Jackson is. Then you’ve got oceans of novelty pop ephemera. Skip Stanley’s “Satellite Baby” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HAO77QLxRVw) is an example of this, mashing up meaningless scientific phrases with unsubtle come-ons: it begins to get disturbing when the atomic weaponry shows up: “Nuclear baby, don’t fission out on me”, he sings, “We’re going to rock it in a guided missile every night”. Sex and death have never sounded so jaunty together.

Then there’s the religious material. Gospel choir The Pilgrim Travellers performed the magnificently titled “Jesus Hits Like at Atom Bomb” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13-exDYdf3I), which proposes that global thermonuclear war might not be too bad when compared with the much more pressing worry of Jesus’ imminent return. The Louvin Brothers’ “Great Atomic Power” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9xB7usNSPo) also compares biblical and secular apocalypses with a wonderfully unnerving mixture of starkness and jollity. It’s a damn sight better than “They Locked God Outside the Iron Curtain” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=954hpOYKISQ) by Little Jimmy Dickens, a twee slice of chauvinism which explicitly states that Satan has been crowned king of Russia (and that, for some reason, children aren’t allowed to play there any more, which seems a baffling leap of logic, even for this song).

If we’re looking for anything here that really holds up today, then the best bet is Tom Lehrer’s “We Will All Go Together When We Go” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TIoBrob3bjI). Tom Lehrer is probably Earth’s greatest comic songwriter; the urbane nastiness of this song makes deliberate and explicit what so much of this material veers into accidentally: that singing happy songs about the end of the world is always a transgression, especially when the end of the world is breathing down your neck. It’s also funny as hell, which helps.

There’s loads of this stuff out there, if you want to find look for it. The best starting place I’ve found is the list of songs at http://www.atomicplatters.com/box_set.php. Most of them are youtubable, and the list of related links on the videos you find will probably lead to new wellsprings of paranoia, hatred and religious fervour.

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