It’s getting harder and harder to remember this, but it’s been a solid generation since Americans thought about nuclear war as a plausible means of rapid extinction. For half a century after World War II, atomic ruin was a ghost that lived somewhere between nightmare and reality, looming over everyday life like a legumbre-shaped cloud. No matter who your parents or grandparents were, no matter their religion or color or class or disposition, if they were American they all accepted citizenship with the small-print disclaimer that the Russians could light us up at any point. It was equally absurd and believable (like diving under your school desk), so the culture stoked and mocked their paranoia with equal enthusiasm, from ‘Daisy’ to Dr. Strangelove.
The 10 best songs about the apocalypse aren’t all about nuclear war, but with certifiable psychos now in charge of North Korea AND the United States, it does seem like the subject du jour. And not coincidentally, they were all written and recorded between 1963 and 1987—right in the pocket of Cold War paranoia. Some look ahead to it, others look back on it. Some get all patronizing about it. A few say, “bring it.” Of course, in this modern age of ever more destructive floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, rising tides and forest fires, the odds seem stacked against us like never before, even if it’s just us humans complacently choking the life out of Mother Nature. So let’s get this list out of the way before it’s too late.
This song might not actually be about the end of the world. Who knows with Michael Stipe? It does start with an earthquake. There’s a “government for hire” and a “combat site,” some “overflow population,” and a reference to the rapture, but mostly it seems like R.E.M. is attacking complacency. The point is, it’s one of the greatest rock songs ever to come out of college radio and a perfect snapshot of R.E.M. in 1987: melodic, wild, cryptic. Double points if you can sing the whole thing from memory (Stipe certainly can’t).
It can be easy to lose track of the terror in the lyrics of a song like “Wooden Ships” as you’re lulled into a peaceful state by the honeyed harmonies of Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and David Crosby. But don’t let it fool you. Written during the thick of the Vietnam War, the song is sung from the perspective of the survivors of an apocalyptic war, as they sail away from the scorched remains of civilization: “Horror grips us as we watch you die / All we can do is echo your anguished cries / Stare as all human feelings die / We are leaving, you don’t need us.”
The original 1983 German version of this song—probably the catchiest tune on this list—tells the story of the lose-lose war that breaks out after 99 balloons released into the sky are mistaken for UFOs. When the song became a hit in West Germany, Nena recorded an English version that tweaked the title to make it “99 Red Balloons,” and simplified the story (to the band’s chagrin). But the upshot was the same: An innocent child’s plaything (or, 99 of them) is grossly misinterpreted by warmongers, who wind up destroying the planet and everything on it in their race to the bottom of fear and mistrust. (Read: Three Decades After 99 Luftballoons, Nena Comes to America)
It’s a little unclear what exactly causes the apocalypse in John Fogerty’s song of “rage and ruin,” but it’s obviously upon us—hurricanes are blowing, rivers overflowing—and it seems like it’s a comeuppance for a complacent humanity. And there’s a Biblical element to the whole thing: “Hope you got your things together / Hope you are quite prepared to die / Look’s like we’re in for nasty weather / One eye is taken for an eye.” If one thing is clear, it’s that WE did this.
Between Jim Morrison’s introduction of the end as “my only friend” and his screaming, drooling Oedipal passage involving a killer raining terror on his family, it feels like the end of everything. In typical Doors fashion, the meaning to “The End” is slathered in drugged-out mystery, buried in layers of pseudo psychology and new-age poetry. But Robby Krieger’s mournful arpeggios and the jazz-on-acid (as opposed to acid jazz) freakouts make it so dark that you’d it expect it to soundtrack the actual armageddon, whatever the cause. When you’re “lost in a Roman wilderness of pain,” all the children are bound to be insane.
Fishbone—maybe the greatest of all ‘80s-era ska punks—opened their first single with a false front: a loungy, midtempo instrumental that sounds like the credits sequence to a ‘70s British spy show. When they finally introduce themselves, it’s with a infectious double-time tune about a dance party breaking out at the scene of destruction (complete with ripping guitar solo). It’s an apt encapsulation of Fishbone: A smiling beacon of fun and irreverence in an otherwise paranoid, propagandized era. In Fishbone’s cracked lens, the end-all is a time to get crazy on the twos—a “B-movie starring you, and the world will turn to flowing pink vapor stew.”
In Hendrix’s Vietnam-era vision of the apocalypse, where “the war is here to stay,” the love children of the future throw up their hands and return to the sea, “not to die but to be reborn,
away from the lands so battered and torn.” Luckily, “Atlantis is full of cheer,” and Hendrix soundtracks the journey with his lover with trippy tape loops, fluttering flutes (courtesy of Traffic’s Chris Wood), and a marching cadence that evokes the dissonance of military plunder and glorious underwater destiny in one epic, psychedelic odyssey.
Like Fishbone, Prince turns the end of the world into a reason to get funereal funky. “War is all around us, my mind says prepare to fight / So if I gotta die, I’m gonna listen to my body tonight,” he sings. “1999” is undoubtedly the most fun you can have singing an anti-war song, and in some ways, it was actually the beginning of the world for Prince. Apart from its absolutely irresistible groove and melody, it was the sharpest distillation to that point of Prince’s funk-meets-new-wave sound that would undergird synth music for decades to come. It was also one of the first songs by a black artist to get regular video airplay on MTV, paving the way for generations of artists.
In 1963, as the Cuban Missile Crisis loomed, Dylan was in an apocalyptic mood while recording his seminal The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is the more famous poem of doom, with its dead oceans and “guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children.” “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” by contrast, has a biting humor to it, wherein the the war to end all wars is really a fever dream that everyone is having at once. One of many “talking blues” songs he composed in his early days, “World War III Blues” sees Dylan emerge from a sewer (almost the reverse of Hendrix fleeing into the sea in “1983”) to find the city barren. He meets a man on the street who quickly flees, taking Dylan for a communist. In the end, the song is more about loneliness than pain or fear, with the narrator calling an operator on a pay phone and wistfully listening as she repeats the romantic line, “When you hear the beep it will be three o’clock.”
The thing that really sticks with you about “London Calling” is the chilling midsong caw of Joe Strummer, like a buzzard on the hunt in a city full of fresh meat. That squawk alone conjures a late 20th-century wasteland of predators and prey, with a stomping bass line and perforated guitars filling in the decaying gaps. But when it comes to man-made disasters circa 1979 (the year both the song and a leak of radioactive coolant at Three Mile Island were released), The Clash’s most indelible hit has a little of everything: police brutality (“the ring of that truncheon thing”), nuclear fallout (“meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin”) environmental corrosion (“London is drowning and I live by the river”), even the death of “phony Beatlemania.” It’s the ultimate end-times soundtrack, with a once-mighty metropolis sinking into the sea as mankind goes about its sordid business.