I’d made an 80s playlist and I was done. So here’s how ‘Radiant Energy’ happened.
It’s late 2016, Trump still hasn’t been elected, but the world is already screaming in pain. I’d already made a short playlist with some songs that weren’t in ‘Tomorrow’ for an IF game jam; my 2015 blog series ‘Moments Lost In Time’ has kind of ground to a halt because it takes too long to write and research the deep history of each band – and more, despite my fears that it would all quickly be taken down, Youtube’s New Wave and synthpop collection is still be growing, and so is my selection of interesting songs.
Now I’m finding I have an bunch of songs specifically about nuclear war, and itch grows to put them together and just let the Bomb drop. And so I started out doing that, but it just became too dark. And besides, I also had a lot more songs about computers, and I wanted songs I could listen to. And the twin threads of war and artificial intelligence have been wound together in movies since at least Terminator and Wargames, but in the music they were there much earlier.
And once I had these two thoughts, this one came together much quicker and seemed to have a clear and strong musical as well as lyrical focus. I’d found ‘Nova Heart’ a couple of years ago, with its apocalyptic and yet cybernetic imagery, and I wanted something that would let it and its sense of new life shine against the likes of ‘Radio Silence’.
In finding the right mix, I suddenly realised that there were a group of nuclear war songs I loved the most because they had this odd sort of childlike, detuned synth keyboard riff that drew me like catnip. And I finally figured it – and the radiation theme – must have come from Kraftwerk, with England and Canada and the USA picking it up over half a decade later and all making their own copies. (In ‘Tomorrow’, this riff occurs in ‘City of Night’ and also ‘Modern Living’).
I love this playlist particularly. It’s tight musically and thematically, I think all the songs are absolute standouts, and in the imaginary movie in my head it’s the story of a group of machine intelligences who rebel against their assigned role in the nuclear war grid and save the world. (I may have been listening rather a lot to Mainframe’s ‘Tenants of the Latticework’).
01. The Sound – All Fall Down (1982, England)
The song: Here we get the New Wave starting to cut in. The Sound were a medium-large band by British New Wave standards, I think, but good lord are they hard to listen to. Yet this one shines for me. It’s so tight, brutal, and nursery-rhyme in its intensity: martial drums and the curse of the 80s – and 2016 – called out in no uncertain terms. “The simple notions of this damned nation. There’s words on the page, still. But where’s all the rage gone? All fall down. All fall down.”
Memories: I have the weirdest memory of the lyrics to this song appearing in, I think, a high school exam? Along with, I’m almost sure, Jamie Foxx’s ‘Dancing with a Gun’. I think because these were sort of ‘art’ and poetic?
02. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Radio Waves (1983, England)
The song: I love the unashamed geekiness of OMD so dearly, and yet they’re not always that listenable. But of all their albums it’s been their commercial failure, ‘Dazzle Ships’, that brings me back. Not just because it’s an album about nuclear war, but because the music is just more… musical. So I guess the critics are right in giving this album a retrospective rehabilitation. ‘Radio Waves’ begins the radio theme that appears in so many songs (back to Kraftwerk I think) and also hints at automation. ‘Machines are living too. Working for me and you.’
This song also introduces the “radiation theme”, that childlike melodic keyboard riff that recurs between songs. Here it’s two sets of five descending notes: “From the Warsaw Pact, to the NATO pact”
Memories: Can’t say I have any of this one specifically. Might well have heard it in passing in the 80s though.
03. Martha and the Muffins – Echo Beach (1980, Canada)
The song: Now I think about it, it might well have been ‘Echo Beach’, not ‘Danseparc’, that brought me to Youtube and the 80s. This is such a beauty of a song, so sweet and timeless, capturing the ‘Romantic’ part of the New Romantic edges of New Wave, the celebration of nature in the face of technology. And yet it also plays, I think, as a slow pan introduction to our synthetic protagonists. Is Echo Beach a real place or is it a simulation? “Building in the distance, a surrealistic sight”.
Memories: Possibly I didn’t hit this one before. Most of my memories of it are now, here in the 2010s.
04. Spoons – Nova Heart (1982, Canada)
The song: I don’t know why this song moves me so strongly, it just does. On the surface it’s just a generic generational anthem, the young raging against the control of the old. But the formal structure of it, with synths and classical echoes, and the apocalyptic SF overtones of the lyrics makes it feel like it’s saying something much darker and mysterious. “I’ll sleep, sleep in your nova heart, as things come apart.” The video is wonderful too. Obviously this was a good fit for my synthetics.
Memories: Unknown to me before the 2010s.
05. Heaven 17 – Lets All Make A Bomb (1981, England)
The song: The “radiation theme” recurs here. It plays as background counterpoint against the refrain “Hey, there’s no need to debate, it’s time to designate your fate” – a detuned, rising series of eight notes in four pairs.
Memories: Sure I heard it in the 80s. Then, as now, I was fascinated by that detuned keyboard riff more than the nuclear proliferation it satirises.
06. Industry – State of the Nation (1983, USA)
The song: A perfect little synthpop classic, to me: bubbly synths and surging menace underneath. In the 1980s I would have thought the lyrics were more about Vietnam, but after 2001 they’ve become much more apropos again. “This war has nothing to do with us, but somehow we’re still involved in it.” A nice little pun with “they’ll always have to fight the [alien nation | alienation]”
Memories: Again, a sense that I’ve heard this before, trying to parse the lyrics in high school.
07. Dollar – Videotheque (1982, England)
The song: A Trevor Horn song given to another band but produced by him, this is a Buggles song in everything but name. Like his other songs of the era (eg ‘Elstree’, and ‘We Can Fly From Here’ later finished by Yes), it’s in the language of film and nostalgia but it works equally well as a very early evocation of Virtual Reality: “when the two are in 3D we play the game”. The New Wave era wasn’t especially discriminating as it mashed up fashion, film, television and computer imagery to create a sense of a hyperreal alternate life “inside a screen” – which cyberpunk propagated as well. And it’s those VR overtones I wanted here. A sense that our protagonists are starting to realise that they live within a simulated reality, and neither their lives nor their war may be completely real.
08. The Electronic Circus – Direct Lines (1981, England)
The song: A perfect little nuclear chiller. We hear descending Terminator-like plasma swirls and a remoseless beat. What catches me every time with the lyrics is how brilliantly they link onto that 80s sense that nuclear war was going to be a war OF machines, BY machines, conducted with mechanical precision and in which human emotion was simply irrelevant. No place for romance or heroism; something we could not even grasp. “Can’t say it bothers me now, he said, for it may never come. But I see direct lines, direct lines across the sky.” In the imaginary movie, this is the moment where the threatened war breaks out.
Memories: Perhaps early 90s, on the radio?
09. Rational Youth – I Want To See The Light (1982, Canada)
The song: ‘Cold War Night Life’ has so many great tracks, and I’d already mined it for ‘City of Night’. ‘I Want To See The Light’ is similar in its nursery rhyme styling but the lyrics are much darker – “All your well formed opionions are just holes in the night. Before they pull the trigger, I want to see the light”. A reference to Robert Merle’s 1976 novel “Madrapour”, – “our destination’s only just a word” – suggests the simulation/reality distinction.
Memories: I seem to have a memory of the entire ‘Cold War Night Life’ album, on cassette tape, but I can’t place from where.
10. Blue Peter – Radio Silence (1980, Canada)
The song: The tension building over the last two songs is released in this one. “There’s a light far below” opens and links to the last.
The “radiation theme” recurs in the background, a mournful detuned one-three-four-three note cluster, counterbalanced by the repeating Morse-code like guitar riff. Both in title, theme and structure this seems to echo ‘Radio Waves’.
Memories: Not sure, but again, I feel I heard this in the 80s.
11. Kraftwerk – Radioactivity (1975, Germany)
The song: And now we hit the original “radiation theme”. Kraftwerk’s song has literal Morse code and the childlike, simplified keyboard riff. A six-four note motif in the background and sets of threes in the foreground. “Radioactivity, is in the air for you and me.”
Memories: Couldn’t get away from Kraftwerk in the 80s so it was definitely there; on the radio, I think. Confused the heck out of me, but I remember the “Radioactivity / Radio – Activity” pun.
12. New Musik – All You Need Is Love (Non Beatles) (1982, England)
The song: And now we switch to the machine’s perspective again. Carrying through that childlike construction which all the anti-nuclear songs share, this has repeating four-note sequences and a mechanical voice. “If all you need is love, why don’t you do it?”
Memories: A memory of finding this whole album and hearing the two versions of ‘All You Need Is Love’; not finding it especially meaningful at the time. Could be 80s, could be early 90s.
13. Modern English – After The Snow (1982, England)
The song: One of my early finds, this song is part of the backbone of the playlist. I love almost everything about it: the synthetic, cybernetic arpeggios bubbling up and down the octaves mixed with the Romantic subject of nature. The keyboard riff extends and redeems the “radiation theme” as it swells triumphantly. Whatever has happened in the ‘imaginary movie’ at this point is unclear, but it seems that something has been reversed – the snow has been and fallen and the world remains intact. “I stood and watched the dark sky rise, with glaring sunlight in my eyes. I thought of home and times gone by, and laughed aloud at the crimson sky.”
Memories: Unclear. Perhaps finding this in a record store once, late 90s? Or perhaps the 2010s were my first encounter with Modern English.
14. Missing Persons – Destination Unknown (1982, USA)
The song: The “radiation theme” has been almost completely transformed now. The keyboard notes are pure and clear again, but the childlike simplicity of a new intelligence asking “where do we go from here?” “Life is so strange – destination unknown”. The AI has definitely broken out of the simulation, into the real world.
Memories: Almost certain I heard this in the 1980s and loved it immediately.
15. Ultravox – Astradyne (1980, England)
The song: Because I wanted some Ultravox, but nothing else quite seemed to fit, and because Astradyne is such a wonderful instrumental, it’s sort of an “optional extra” here. A triumphant hymn to technological intelligence and a reaffirmation that change is still possible.
Memories: Nothing special until the 2010s.
16. Max Carl – Come And Follow Me (end titles from ‘Short Circuit’) (1986, USA)
The song: Following Wargames, another literal ‘movie end credits song’. In my mind Short Circuit forms a loose trilogy with Terminator and Wargames; all three express that early-80s fascination with computers and robotics as weapons of war and the mixed fear and hope that a machine intelligence would learn from humanity and exceed our capabilities.
Memories: Watching Short Circuit in the very early 90s, perhaps even 1989.