As soon as Germany and Japan signed their own treaties of surrender in 1945 to end World War II, the term “World War III” almost immediately became pop cultural fodder. In fact, Cold War paranoia was so prevalent that as early as 1951 we had the sci-fi parable The Day The Earth Stood Still in theaters and Collier’s Preview of the War We Do Not Want issue on newsstands. It didn’t take much longer for World War III terminology to start showing up in music, with its first outcroppings naturally occurring in the politically charged early-‘60s folk revival movement.
Since that time, sentiments about World War III and all of its trappings (Cold War terminology, fear of nuclear war, mutually assured destruction, call outs of specific political players, etc.) have been a mainstay in popular music, reaching a feverish pitch in the 1980s, as the U.S. and Russia played a game of chicken that teetered on igniting an all-out war on multiple occasions. Over the years, the frequency of these types of songs usually ebb and flow directly with times of war (or threat of war), which makes many of them seem regrettably relevant again in our current adversarial political climate.
While many songs have dealt with these topics over the decades, very few actually so far as to use the term “World War III” explicitly. That list of songs gets even smaller after removing the ones that just use the term metaphorically to describe things like strained family relationships (Pink’s “Family Portrait”), offhand figures of speech (Frank Sinatra’s “What A Funny Girl You Used to Be”), romantic woes (Jonas Brothers’ “World War III”), fighting group factions (The Stray Cats’ “Rumble in Brighton” and Ruff Ryders’ “WW III”) and whatever Prince was talking about in “Moonbeam Levels.”
With that in mind, here are 17 songs that call out World War III for what it is or could be. With our country’s list of enemies growing at an alarming rate and our current list of allies dwindling by the day, here’s a soundtrack to try and help make some sense of it all.
Bob Dylan released his sophomore album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963—one of the heaviest years of the Cold War era that saw the implementation of the Moscow-Washington hotline (directly connecting the Pentagon and the Kremlin), the murder of South Vietnamese Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem during a CIA-backed coup and the shocking assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Many of the iconic album’s songs like “Master of War” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” deal directly with the topics of nuclear war, the military-industrial complex and Red Scare hysteria, but it’s Dylan’s candid “Talking World War III Blues” that serves as the easiest point of entry to understanding the complex, fear-filled political atmosphere of the turbulent times. Using the loosely structured talking blues format, Dylan spins an all-verse-no-chorus yarn in which he humorously describes an apocalyptic dream to a psychiatrist who ends up confessing to having the same type of dream with one crucial difference: Dylan’s dream involves him running into a few other people where the doctor’s does not (“I dreamed that the only person left after the war was me”). For a song sung with Dylan’s tongue firmly planted in his cheek, the seemingly innocuous closing lyric speaks volumes to our basic human need for connection: “I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours.”
In what is possibly the highest-charting pop single to specifically mention World War III, the radio-ready title track to Whitney Houston’s quadruple platinum 1998 album My Love Is Your Love casually mentions the apocalyptic event in its second verse. Released as the album’s fourth single, the song spent 17 weeks in the Top 10, peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and eventually going on to be certified double platinum. Although it’s merely used as a background pretense for a “no matter how bad it gets” romantic sentiment, the World War III terminology being employed literally instead of metaphorically is definitely unique territory for a pop song. In fact, when the song actually does deal in metaphor in the chorus—“And the chains of Amistad couldn’t hold us”—the result skews problematic and seems a bit too glib for its own good. However, the song does earn some extra points for its charming vocal interjection from Houston’s then six-year-old daughter Bobbi Kristina, a special touch that gave “My Love Is Your Love” a uniquely sweet mother-daughter moment in 1998 and one that contributed to its bittersweet tone after their deaths in 2012 and 2015.
While “Weird Al” may be best known for his expansive catalog of parodies, pastiches and songs about food, some of his more impressive songwriting talents can be found in his equally (if not more) engaging originals where he uses his intelligently offbeat sense of humor to craft astute social commentary. Such is the case with “Happy Birthday” from his 1983 self-titled debut album, a punk meets new wave send-up with bouncy instrumentation that contrasts wonderfully against its grim verses. Amidst the quick lyrical references to starvation, poverty, pollution, acid rain and the possibility of Earth crashing into the sun, Yankovic references the era’s ever-present anxiety of nuclear war at any minute: “The monkeys in the Pentagon are gonna cook our goose. Their fingers on the button, all they need is an excuse. It doesn’t take a military genius to see we’ll all be crispy critters after World War III.” Just a few years later, “Weird Al” would again address the threat of potential nuclear war on his 1986 album Polka Party via the Spector-esque holiday caricature “Christmas At Ground Zero” (although its lack of World War III wording makes it ineligible for this list).
Speaking of a Cold War Christmas, however, one of the more interesting offshoots of the Reagan era was the proliferation of war toys, a topic post-punk duo Timbuk3 addressed on their 1987 holiday standalone single “All I Want For Christmas.” After calling out ‘80s toy mainstays like G.I. Joe and Rambo (along with Transformers, ThunderCats and Rock Lords), Timbuk3 frontman Pat McDonald coolly croons, “It looks to me like World War III underneath the Christmas tree” over a slinky acoustic guitar and drum machine groove. Timbuk3 even used the vinyl single’s back sleeve to let fans know about the “International Days to Protest War Toys” (November 27 and 28 for those keeping track at home) and to state that their artist royalties from the single would be donated to the Stop War Toys Campaign. If the Cold War elements, toy shout-outs, accompanying music video and charity proceeds angle weren’t enough to make this the most ‘80s-centric Christmas single of all time, the additional lyrical mentions of ghetto blasters, satellite TV, a VCR and “Star Wars I and II and III” should definitely vault it to the top of any Cold War Christmas playlist.
Decades before “Weird Al” was a thing, Tom Lehrer was the reigning satirist du jour throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. Incredibly talented, exceptionally intelligent and wildly humorous, Lehrer was equally adept at writing about science (“The Elements”), black humor (“Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”), social commentary (“Smut”), topical events (“Wernher von Braun”) and more. While writing for the television series That Was The Week That Was in the mid-‘60s, Lehrer’s songwriting took an overtly political turn, although he still maintained his razor-sharp wit and his playful approach to the piano. One of the songs written during this period was “So Long, Mom (A Song For World War III),” a song he described as being “a bit of pre-nostalgia… that some of the boys sang as they went bravely off to World War III.” While not only kicking the song off with a bouncy bit of gallows humor (“So long, Mom, I’m off to the drop the bomb”) and acknowledging that this war would be televised (“No need for you to miss a minute of the agonizing holocaust”), Lehrer also earns songwriting kudos for rhyming “This is what he said on” with “His way to Armageddon.” For more of Lehrer’s tongue-in-cheek takes on nuclear war, be sure to check out “Who’s Next?” and “We Will All Go Together When We Go.”
It’s no secret that U.K. punk legends the Sex Pistols had already earned quite the (carefully orchestrated) reputation as one of the most (intentionally) controversial bands of all time before they even released a full-length record. So when Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (their one and only studio album) was finally released in late 1977, the band knew it needed to start things off with a bang. Opening track “Holidays in the Sun” begins with the ominous sound of marching troops that quickly gives way to the signature sonic fury that the band conjured up like few others ever have. Lyrically inspired by a trip to Berlin, lead singer John Lydon warbles about the symbolism of The Berlin Wall, makes a passing reference to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and sneers, “I didn’t ask for sunshine and I got World War III / I’m looking over the wall and they’re looking at me.” Equal parts politics and paranoia, the song’s message took on even more context when Skid Row performed a thunderous cover of it in the Soviet Union during the Moscow Music Peace Festival during the summer of 1989, just a few short months before the fall of The Berlin Wall that November.
Jackson Browne started dipping his toes in the waters of social activism and topical songwriting in the late-‘70s, but it wasn’t until his 1983 album Lawyers in Love that he cannonballed into the deep end of political commentary. There were a couple of direct anti-war lyrical moments throughout his seventh album, but it was the Top 20 charting title track that seeks to frame the debilitating nature of the Cold War malaise in which he sang, “Eating from TV trays, tuned into Happy Days, waiting for World War III.” Making sure the reference wouldn’t be taken as mere symbolism, Browne goes on to sing about Washington, the Russians, and how “the USSR will be open soon as vacationland.” The song’s music video—a true gem of early-‘80s special effects limitations—goes even further with its political subject matter, including a scene of a faux newscast with a map of the USSR where the Communist hammer and sickle symbol morphs into a question mark and one of a group of lawyers deplaning in Russian territory and marching in front of the iconic domes of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square.
Bad Religion is often heralded as one of the most politically charged punk bands of all time and they started earning that reputation straight out of the gate. Their hard-hitting, self-titled EP was released in 1981 and “World War III” serves as the closing sonic knockout punch to the blistering six-song tracklisting that’s in and out in less than 10 minutes. In just 54 seconds, lead singer Greg Graffin (who was only 16 years old at the time) gruffly howls, “They think they know it all, America, China’s about to fall” and how after the president releases the first bomb, “All the rest will release soon into your living room.” In true early punk minimalist fashion, the song’s chorus is just the words “World War III” repeated five times in a row. Even as teenagers (the oldest Bad Religion band member was 18 at the time), the band showed an incredible ability to address a variety of political issues at the global, national, local, and personal levels—a trait they’ve continuously exhibited throughout their 37-years-and-counting career.
XTC released “Generals and Majors” as the lead single from their 1980 album Black Sea, and while the military-minded lyrical content (“Calling generals and majors, your World War III is drawing near”) may not seem like the most logical choice to kick off a new album cycle, the song’s hooky new wave bounce made the decision a no-brainer. The lyrics may have said things like ,“Generals and majors always seem so unhappy ‘less they’ve got a war,” but the song’s upbeat whistling, plucky guitar lines and disco hi-hat sell a different story. As with most XTC albums, Andy Partridge wrote the majority of the songs on Black Sea, but “Generals and Majors” was one of two Colin Moulding creations and it gave the band their first charting single in the United States (reaching No. 28 on the Billboard Album Rock Tracks chart). XTC also filmed a quirky, pre-MTV-era music video for “Generals and Majors” that featured go-karts, a bouncy castle and (oddly enough) a young military-uniformed Richard Branson ziplining into a creek.
As one of the most talented and engaged singer-songwriters of the American folk movement, Joan Baez was no stranger to writing about a slew of political and topical elements in her vast catalog. Baez wrote “Where’s My Apple Pie?” as a veteran’s lament with a strong anti-war message. Using the recurring setting of military veterans returning home from war to find the reception in opposition to when they left (“You saw us off at the troop train smiling a brave goodbye / but where were you when we came home to claim our apple pie?”), the song’s verses address the situation in light of multiple wars, including scathing commentary on the conditions faced by injured Vietnam vets in need of medical services (“We all believed in something, though it wasn’t very clear / but I know it wasn’t rats in a hospital room and a broken-down wheelchair”). Baez closes “Where’s My Apple Pie?” on a resolutely optimistic note, ending with a repeated refrain of “There’ll be no World War III” that is part wide-eyed hopefulness and part “hell no, we won’t go.”
When your album is titled Bedtime for Democracy, your tracklist contains songs called “Anarchy for Sale” and “Rambozo the Clown” and your album artwork is a drawing of the Statue of Liberty under attack from Nazis, Wall Street tycoons, politicians, the media and more, it’s safe to say your band may be trafficking in some pretty heavy topical material. Dead Kennedys remained squarely in the political arena throughout their all-too-short career during the Reagan years and when it came time for their fourth (and final) album in 1986, Jello Biafra and company pulled no punches. “Gone With My Wind” is a blistering attack on the Reagan administration that paints a vivid picture of presidential ineptitude and doltishness. Containing the line, “What’ll happen if I push this button? Let’s start World War III for fun,” the song does a skillful job of capturing many of the same types of critiques against Reagan that can be seen in Genesis’ “Land of Confusion” music video (also from 1986) and countless Saturday Night Live clips from the same era.
Opening with an air raid siren and closing with the sound of a bomb blast, there’s no second-guessing about the intention and inspiration behind “Atomic Bombs” from glam metal rockers Kix. Kicking off their 1981 self-titled debut album, Kix’s “Atomic Bombs” is similar to Whitney Houston’s “My Love Is Your Love” in that it employs its non-metaphorical World War III verbiage merely as a backdrop for its romantic notions: “Safe and sound, you’re next to me. Close the door on World War III.” However, for all its ‘80s glam rock and lovingly isolationist charms, Kix try to drive the point home a bit too much, ending up with such unintentionally morbid lyrics as, “Hear the people scratch on the shelter door, leave us alone.” If you find yourself getting cozy in a fallout shelter with a guy who won’t open the door to those facing certain death, maybe it’s time to second-guess your end-of-the-world choices.
While Roger Miller’s 1964 debut album Roger and Out is mostly celebrated for its two top 10 Billboard Hot 100 hits “Dang Me” and “Chug-A-Lug” (the former becoming Miller’s first country No. 1), the album is also notable for being a top-selling country album with a satirical anti-war anthem. Miller’s “Private John Q.” contains many of his unconventional calling cards—rambling delivery, humorous lyrics, nonsensical scat-singing—that help ease the digestibility of the subject matter that’s cleverly disguised in the lyrics. Released less than a year before U.S. troops officially entered the Vietnam War, “Private John Q.” captures uneasiness on both sides of the civilian-soldier coin and used humor to try and cast some silver-lined optimism. “King of the Road” may be Miller’s signature song, but “Private John Q.” may be his most substantial.
For his third album, Joe Jackson tried to push his sonic fences by incorporating reggae and experimental elements into his new-wave-meets-power-pop songwriting. This transition is most evident on the adventurous title track, where surf guitars, dub bass and reggae drums lead the way, while bass player Graham Maby takes lead vocal duty and Jackson handles the heavily processed background vocals. The majority of the song’s lyrics deal with teenage drug culture with occasional deviations into Red Scare absurdities (“If the Russians ever come, they’ll all be beating bongo drums”) and philosophic waxing (“So who’ll defend in World War III? Where could we turn? Where would they be?”). All three of the album’s singles failed to chart upon their initial release, but a few of the album’s songs have aged much better over time. “Beat Crazy” not only fits that category but proves to be a really interesting sonic footnote in both Jackson’s career and in the larger Cold War era pop cultural landscape, as well.
As with most Two Tone ska bands in the late-‘70s, early-‘80s, politics played a big role in The Specials’ lyrics and messages. On “Man at C&A” from their second album, More Specials, their specific inclusion of the “World War III” terminology may initially feel like a bit of word salad (“Warning, warning, nuclear attack. Atomic sounds designed to blow your mind. World War Three!”), but the song’s verses help give its usage some appropriate context as it references “the latest Moscow news” and politicians deciding about people’s lives from behind a desk. Additionally, the band repeats the line “I don’t have a say in the war games that they play” a couple of times, driving home the critique that most individuals who start wars don’t actually have to fight in them. Oh, and just in case you weren’t 100% sure this was an ‘80s song, Mickey Mouse and Ayatollah Khomeini get lyrical mentions, too.
Adolescents are hardcore punk legends from the same early-‘80s Orange County scene that birthed Social Distortion and Agent Orange, and their self-titled debut album from 1981 is an early American punk favorite. Aggressively grooved songs liked “Democracy” are the reason why ‘90s-era punk bands often pointed back to them as an influence. With lyrics like, “They’re leading us into World War III and this is what you call democracy,” the song is more anti-government than just specifically anti-war. The “us versus them” mentality is driven home even further when lead singer Tony Cadena calls out the “nuclear pigs” and hopelessly surmises, “We’re too far gone for democracy.” With a dog-on-a-chain tempo, it seems the Adolescents intentionally restrained the tempo to allow listeners the opportunity to properly catch the song’s message—a theory that is bolstered by the song’s 2:07 track length that makes it one of the longer songs on the album.
There are a handful of early-‘80s punk songs named “World War III” (with varying degrees of listenability between them) and T.S.O.L.’s entry in the canon certainly fares better than most. “World War III” is the closing track on their five-song 1981 debut EP from 1981, and its amped up guitar-bass riff, relentless drumming and barked lyrics that namedrop Jimmy Carter and ask, “Where do I stand in this government?” are all fundamentally characteristic of the political punk rock that was brewing during Reagan’s first term. The band started out as a leftist/anarchistic/Marxist leaning foursome (T.S.O.L. stands for True Sounds of Liberty and other songs on the debut EP include “Property is Theft” and “Abolish Government/Silent Majority”), but they would quickly evolve into a more horror-themed goth punk band by the release of their first full length album Dance With Me. While “World War III” and their other political punk diatribes seem a bit out-of-step when placed alongside the rest of their goth-rock catalog, the call-and-response chorus of “Third World War and you’re the victims” is a perfectly distilled time capsule of the distrust and unrest that was inherent in the scene at the time.