Top 30 Nuclear War Songs
The first detonation of a nuclear weapon took place on July 16, 1945, the result of several years of work by J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project.
The event lasted one day, but concerns and questions surrounding the strength and the political implications of ammunition of that caliber would persist for decades.
For more than four decades, the Cold War loomed large in the world's consciousness, as the U.S. and Soviet Union raced toward nuclear supremacy. Fallout shelters were built, while children hid under school desks practicing for air raids. At any given moment, the world as people knew it could come to a brutal and instantaneous end.
This sort of existential dread permeated many aspects of life, including the arts and music. We count down the Top 30 Nuclear War Songs below.
30. INXS, "Guns in the Sky"
From: Kick (1987)
Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative, which proposed placing weapons in space to intercept Russian nuclear missiles, had many critics, including Michael Hutchence. The INXS singer wrote “Guns in the Sky” as a response. Making sure its message wouldn’t get lost, the Australian band placed the song as the lead track on their breakthrough album, Kick. “Opening with 'Guns in the Sky' is sort of asking to cause trouble," keyboardist Andrew Farriss told Creem. The album was initially rejected due to a perceived lack of singles; Kick ended up with five hit singles, though "Guns in the Sky" was not one of them. (Matt Wardlaw)
29. Timbuk 3, "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades"
From: Greetings From Timbuk3 (1986)
Frontman Pat MacDonald wrote a seemingly cheery song, right down to its harmonica, but he had darker intentions. He immediately spotted “that nuclear angle” in the song's most famous line: “The future’s so bright I gotta wear shades.” The shades signified the blinders people often wore when it came to big issues. He even toned down the lyrics, down, cutting a line about a Ronald Reagan supporter being a “flamin’ fascist.” (Wardlaw)
“It’s a Mistake” was inspired in part by the classic Dr. Strangelove. Frontman Colin Hay said the song was based on “the idea that one of our illustrious leaders would push the button and that would be the end of mankind as we know it.” The possibility was very real at the time - “[it] was then, [and it] is now,” he noted. “Hopefully it will never happen.” Despite the grim subject matter, "It's a Mistake" remains one of the most engaging tracks in Men at Work's catalog and was a hit in 1983. (Wardlaw)
27. Warrant, "April 2031"
From: Dog Eat Dog (1992)
Warrant’s Dog Eat Dog was a drastic departure from the chauvinist pop-metal fluff of its predecessor, Cherry Pie, and nowhere is the evolution more apparent than on the post-apocalyptic prog-metal ballad “April 2031.” Doomy riffs and stampeding drums build the tension as Jani Lane sets a devastating scene of a poisoned, war-torn wasteland sustained by “artificial atmosphere machines,” where the nights are “illuminated by the endless glowing sand that swallowed all the oceans and choked off all the land.” Humankind should have learned its lesson as far back as Vietnam, Lane laments, but all they have to show for their wanton bloodlust is “a world beyond resuscitation, even by God's hand.” (Bryan Rolli)
26. Frankie Goes to Hollywood, "Two Tribes"
From: Welcome to the Pleasuredome (1984)
Themes of the Cold War nuclear arms race run through “Two Tribes,” the 1984 single by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The antiwar song goes to great lengths to include both U.S. and Russian musical motifs within its composition. “‘Two Tribes’ is just about peace, peace,” singer Holly Johnson explained to Smash Hits around the time of the song’s release. “‘When two tribes go to war … .’ There’s two elements in the music — an American funk line and a Russian line. It’s the most obvious demonstration of two tribes that we have today.” “Two Tribes” hit No. 1 in the U.K. but stalled at No. 43 on the Billboard Hot 100. Frankie Goes to Hollywood notably performed the song on the Nov. 10, 1984, episode of Saturday Night Live, hosted by George Carlin. (Corey Irwin)
25. Kate Bush, "Breathing"
From: Never for Ever (1980)
The lead single from Kate Bush's 1980 album Never for Ever, takes the perspective of an unborn child in a mother's womb, distressed about the air they're breathing: "After the blast, chips of plutonium are twinkling in every lung." Bush was concerned the song was too heavy for fans to get behind. "I was worried that people wouldn't want to worry about it because it's so real," she said to ZigZag magazine. "I was also worried that it was too negative, but I do feel that there is hope in the whole thing, just for the fact that it's a message from the future." It wound up at No. 16 on the U.K. chart. (Allison Rapp)
24. Fishbone, "Party at Ground Zero"
From: Fishbone (1985)
One of the best-known songs by the influential ska band Fishbone, “Party at Ground Zero” is so upbeat that its topic is likely lost on many listeners. Released in 1985, the track reflects growing fears surrounding the Cold War, with lyrics such as, “Johnny, go get your gun / For the commies are in our hemisphere today / Ivan, go fly your MiG / For the Yankee imperialists have come to play.” The chorus talks about the world becoming a “pink vapor stew” as a result of nuclear blasts. And yet the whole thing is relentlessly cheerful. With a bouncy rhythm and catchy horns, “Party at Ground Zero” shakes off its weighty subject matter in the name of good times. The apocalypse never sounded so fun. (Irwin)
After the end of World War II, people around the world continued to physically suffer from nuclear accidents and radioactive fallout. One of the most serious medical issues that arose after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster was radiation burn: an atom tan. The Clash released "Atom Tan" on 1982's Combat Rock, and though it didn't directly reference nuclear warfare, the imagery of machine guns, hearses and "plenty people runnin', runnin' for cover" pretty accurately described the fear and paranoia that many felt in the early '80s. (Rapp)
A little more than a year after the Chernobyl disaster, David Bowie released a song that was partially inspired by it, "Time Will Crawl." He had been in Switzerland at the time of the event, taking a break from recording, and the news was slow-spreading across the world. "For those first few moments, it felt sort of claustrophobic to know you were one of only a few witnesses to something of this magnitude," Bowie recalled. "Time Will Crawl," released as the second single from 1987's Never Let Me Down, hit on one of the scariest realizations of nuclear catastrophes: Life can be normal one moment and permanently ruined the next. (Rapp)
21. Steely Dan, "King of the World"
From: Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)
Absent an actual arms race, many of the fears expressed in nuclear war songs feel decidedly retro. "King of the World" goes one better by featuring a hopelessly dated turn on a Moog Arp Soloist synthesizer by Donald Fagen. But the storytelling on this album-closing track is first-rate, and so is the groove. Fagen took inspiration from a vacation gone wrong in the post-apocalyptic 1962 sci-fi movie Panic in Year Zero! and then miniaturized it. His character is a loner in the American West, tentatively trying to reach out on "old ham radio" to the few other remaining survivors of a nuclear strike. Time, as you can imagine, is of the essence. "If I stay inside," he admits at one point, "I might live 'til Saturday." That attention to detail makes it all real again. (Nick DeRiso)
Billy Joel based “Leningrad” on a man he met in Russia during one of his first trips to the territory when it was still the Soviet Union. He took some creative license, making the lead character a little bit older. “Everything in the Soviet Union during the time I was there went back to the Second World War,” he explained. “They were still reliving the war.” It had such an impact on the Russians that everyone there had some sort of experience related to the period. “Leningrad” was Joel’s attempt to capture how sad life in Russia was for its citizens. (Wardlaw)
19. Modern English, "I Melt With You"
From: After the Snow (1982)
All this melting-with-you stuff was no metaphor. The last thing Modern English wanted to do, singer Robbie Gray once said, was compose another song where "boy meets girl, they go to the cinema and make love, and that's the end of it." So, they nuked everything. The results took forever to catch on: "I Melt With You" was initially released in May 1982, but didn't peak on the U.S. rock and dance charts until almost a year later. (Credit in part goes to its appearance in the contemporary teen pic Valley Girl.) Modern English never had another hit of this popularity or influence, so they kept rerecording it: There's an alternate version included on 1982's After the Snow, a rerecording on the 1990 album Pillow Lips and yet another rerecording for the soundtrack of 2010's I Melt With You. (DeRiso)
Dave Mustaine came up with the title for Megadeth’s watershed Rust in Peace album while tailgating a driver whose bumper sticker said, “May all your nuclear weapons rust in peace.” He wrote the title track from the point of view of a missile named Polaris, which annihilates Earth with the purpose and precision of a tyrannical warlord. Instead of focusing on the demise of humanity, Mustaine extols the sheer destructive power of his agent of death. His snarky, defiant vocals pair expertly with the song's bouncy grooves and fleet-fingered riffs. Unsuspecting listeners might even feel compelled to root for Polaris at their own peril. (Rolli)
"The sun is in the east," Roger Waters laments, "even though the day is done." But Earth wasn't the only thing in ruins by the end of "Two Suns in the Sunset." So was Pink Floyd. Waters had fired Richard Wright before sessions began for The Final Cut. By the time he got to this album-closing cut, their fellow co-founder Nick Mason had also been sidelined for drummer Andy Newmark. Waters subsequently left, presuming that Pink Floyd was no more. David Gilmour and Mason had other plans, eventually resuming work with Wright before a bout with cancer killed him. This retooled version of Pink Floyd steadfastly ignored The Final Cut, and "Two Suns in the Sunset" wasn't played until Waters added it to his solo shows in 2018. (DeRiso)
The famous whistle, the spirit of unification and the unproven connection to the CIA – “Wind of Change” will always be closely associated with the Cold War. Scorpions’ hit was written by singer Klaus Meine after his band’s performance at the Moscow Music Peace Festival in 1989. Unlike many of the other nuclear war songs, “Wind of Change” wasn't about its potential impact but the survival and emergence from the constant threats. Months after the song’s release, the Berlin Wall came down, another sign of humanity moving forward. (Irwin)
On the first track from their 1988 album ... And Justice for All, Metallica pulled no punches. “Blackened” details the destruction of the world and the eradication of humanity as nuclear war leaves the planet as a barren wasteland. Across eight minutes, the band delivers an onslaught of pounding drums and fiery riffs. But the real ferocity lies in the lyrics: “Termination, expiration, cancellation human race / Expectation, liberation, population lay to waste / See our mother / Put to death / See our mother die / Smoldering decay / Take her breath away / Millions of our years / In minutes disappears.” (Irwin)
14. Metallica, "Fight Fire With Fire"
From: Ride the Lightning (1984)
Metallica took a quantum leap forward in songwriting and performance between Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightning, the latter of which opens in gloriously heavy fashion with the pulverizing “Fight Fire With Fire.” The delicate acoustic guitar intro represents the calm before the storm, giving way to carpal tunnel-inducing riffs and James Hetfield’s choked, monosyllabic barks of impending Armageddon. “Fight Fire With Fire” is a Herculean technical feat, full of blistering leads from Kirk Hammett and some of Lars Ulrich’s quickest double-bass footwork. It also kick-started Metallica’s transformation from juvenile, beer-swilling headbangers into musically mature augurs of doom. (Rolli)
13. David Bowie, "Bombers"
From: 1990 Hunky Dory reissue
On “Bombers,” David Bowie envisioned an isolated old man, sitting alone in a wasteland as U.S. and English forces drop “A-bombs, H bombs, even very small ones.” Bowie’s vocals seem exaggerated and somewhat cartoonish, likely an effort to emphasize the song’s satire. Originally earmarked for his 1971 LP Hunky Dory, Bowie pulled “Bombers” from the album at the last minute. The song eventually surfaced on the 1990 Hunky Dory reissue. Bowie performed the song on several occasions, including a BBC session in June 1971 that was more toned-down than the studio version. (Irwin)
12. Barry McGuire, "Eve of Destruction"
From: Eve of Destruction (1965)
P.F. Sloan's lyrics reference a host of societal ills, including the era's unfair draft policies, the struggle for Civil Rights, unrest in the Middle East and worries over our rush into space. But all of it is trumped by a staggering single sentence, most memorably brought to the masses by Barry McGuire: "If the button is pushed, there's no runnin' away." The backing track, featuring Sloan on guitar, was nailed by a group of studio aces, but McGuire's contribution was an accidental first take. The single leaked before he could update the guide vocal, which McGuire sang from lyrics on a crumbled sheet of paper. (DeRiso)
The Distant Early Warning Line was a system of radar stations stretching through Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Iceland, designed to detect incoming attacks from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Rush borrowed the name for a 1984 single, while the constant threat of nuclear war played a part in the lyrics. “Living in the modern world basically in all of its manifestations in terms of the distance from us of the threat of superpowers and the nuclear annihilation and all of that stuff, and these giant missiles pointed at each other across the ocean,” Neil Peart explained during a 1984 interview, adding that the threat was “omnipresent” in people’s lives. “I think that threat does loom somewhere in everyone's subconscious.” (Irwin)
Singer-songwriter Randy Newman tapped into some irony for his 1972 song “Political Science,” penning the whole song around a notion for the U.S. to “drop the big one” on the rest of the world (except for Australia, which would just be turned into an “all-American amusement park”). The song was designed as a clever skewing of America’s foreign policies, but the concept was lost on many listeners. "I had it with 'Political Science' when someone read this song all about bombing Paris and London and turning Australia into an American amusement park, and wrote, 'I do hope it's not serious.' They actually said that," Newman recalled to NME in 1974. "Do I look like the sort of guy to bomb London, import black slaves to America, tickle people for kicks or think that all that the Chinese do is eat rice all day?" (Irwin)
“Everywhere else, it was all flower power and everything nice and happy, and people weren’t writing about real life,” Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi wrote in his 2011 memoir Iron Man. “Wars and famine and all the other things nobody wants to face. So we saw that and thought we should be doing it.” The band’s modus operandi resulted in songs like “Electric Funeral,” a blackened psychedelic dirge about the fallout from a nuclear holocaust. Ozzy Osbourne taunts humankind for its folly with his slow-drip evocations of atomic graves, melting suns and rivers turned to wood. The jazz-metal freakout in the bridge sounds like the death rattle from a species on the verge of self-destruction. (Rolli)
Only Duran Duran could make the end of the world sound like a night at the dance club. The lyrics to their 1981 single “Planet Earth” reflect a dreary fate for humanity, as the world appears to have been wiped out by a nuclear holocaust. “Look now, look all around, there's no sign of life / Voices, another sound, can you hear me now? / This is planet Earth, you're looking at planet Earth,” Simon Le Bon sings in the first chorus, his voice backed by a propulsive synth. “Planet Earth” served as the band’s first single, and though it didn’t receive much attention in the U.S., it charted in the U.K., Australia, France and Ireland, giving Duran Duran their first taste of international fame. (Irwin)
U2 was starting to find their voice on their third album. Following records about growing up (Boy) and religion (October), 1983's War declared its intentions in its title with most of its 10 songs about conflict - global and personal. "Seconds," the album's second track, is the most direct. "It takes a second to say goodbye," sings Bono about the brief moment between nuclear detonation and annihilation. "They're doing the Atomic Bomb," he sings, bleeding the line between a dance and a dance with death. From here on out, U2 grew into one of the world's most popular bands. War and its Big Issues helped get them there. (Michael Gallucci)
Iron Maiden can always be counted on to deliver a macabre history lesson or cautionary tale. As Cold War tensions ramped up in the early ‘80s, the band offered a timely warning on Powerslave lead single “2 Minutes to Midnight,” inspired by the Doomsday Clock that predicts the likelihood of human-made global catastrophe. Guitarist and co-writer Adrian Smith provides one of Iron Maiden’s most relentless riffs, over which Bruce Dickinson paints an unflinchingly vivid portrait of “children torn in two” and “jellied brains of those who remain.” “It’s about the romance of war,” the singer explained, “and how we’re all repelled and fascinated by it at the same time.” (Rolli)
David Crosby had just gotten kicked out of the Byrds, so he had plenty of time on his hands. He decided to invite Stephen Stills, Paul Kantner and a few others to enjoy a spin around Fort Lauderdale in his boat, The Mayan. That led to a jam session where Crosby shared a few new changes on the guitar. Stills added some lyrics, and "Wooden Ships" was finished. (Kantner kept writing, and included a longer version on Jefferson Airplane's next album.) But the results, composed during the height of Cold War tensions around Vietnam, were anything but idyllic. Instead, horrified onlookers watch as everyone is incinerated back on shore. (DeRiso)
It helps to poke a little fun in the face of death. That's pretty much the attitude take on Bob Dylan's "Talkin' World War III Blues." It makes sense that Dylan, who was born during the Second World War and grew up in the war's aftermath, coming of age as the Cold War and Vietnam began to make headlines, would want to highlight the absurdity of living in a world full of conflict: "I rung the fallout shelter bell / And I leaned my head and I gave a yell / Give me a string bean, I'm a hungry man / A shotgun fired and away I ran." (Rapp)
3. Nena, "99 Luftballons"
From: Nena (1983)
The German quintet Nena had a huge hit in Europe with "99 Luftballons," an antiwar song about a group of balloons mistaken for UFOs that leads to a full-scale world war after militaries get involved. The song was rerecorded with new English lyrics, which lost some meaning in translation. But that didn't stop "99 Red Balloons" from reaching No. 2 in the U.S. With lyrics referencing Star Trek, a catchy synth riff and a video featuring singer Nena walking among the ruins of a nuclear war, the song's universal appeal was instant. It's still a highlight of the era. (Gallucci)
Sting wasn't exactly subtle on this bummer of a single from his solo debut. How's this for the opening lines of a radio singalong? "In Europe and America, there's a growing feeling of hysteria / Conditioned to respond to all the threats / In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets." Quite a mouthful. But it's a credit to Sting's pull and popularity at the time that a song like "Russians" would even get released as a single and make it to the Top 20 in both the U.S. and the U.K. He clinched it with an infinitely quotable line: "I hope the Russians love their children, too." (Gallucci)
1. Prince, "1999"
From: 1999 (1982)
In 1981, Prince included a song in his Controversy album called "Ronnie, Talk to Russia." A year later he revisited the subject of nuclear annihilation in the title track of his breakthrough album, 1999. But he wasn't fretting over it like before; this time he had a solution. "Everybody's got a bomb, we could all die any day," he sings over one of his catchiest dance-floor grooves. "But before I'll let that happen, I'll dance my life away." Partying as the world burns around you is a common theme in art, but it's never sounded as grand as it does in "1999. "Two thousand zero, zero, party over, oops, out of time!" (Gallucci)