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Much of the music created during the decades-long Cold War reflected the anxieties and absurdity of the time. Below is a list of some of the songs created during the Cold War that reflect the constant anxiety of potential nuclear holocaust that could strike at any time with the push of a button.
If you have any other songs about the Cold War that should be added to my list, please let me know in the comments below. Thanks for reading!
10 Famous Songs About the Cold War
- "Games Without Frontiers" by Peter Gabriel
- "Jesus Jones" by Right Here Right Now
- "Give Peace a Chance" by John Lennon and Yoko Ono
- "Wind of Change" by Scorpions
- "99 Luftballons/99 Red Balloons" by Nena
- "Two Suns in the Sunset" by Pink Floyd
- "We Didn't Start the Fire" by Billy Joel
- "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival
- "Eve of Destruction" by Barry McGuire
- "Back in the USSR" by The Beatles
1. "Games Without Frontiers" by Peter Gabriel
This song, featured in one of the best scenes in the Cold War/spy-themed show, The Americans, seems to be a commentary on the games that are played on the international scale with nothing short of the survival of humanity hanging in the balance. I interpret this song as being about the spy games played throughout the world and the balance of power internationally, but especially between the USSR and Western Europe.
Andre has a red flag, Chiang Ching's is blue
They all have hills to fly them on except for Lin Tai Yu
Dressing up in costumes, playing silly games
Hiding out in tree-tops shouting out rude names
Whistling tunes we hide in the dunes by the seaside
Whistling tunes we piss on the goons in the jungle
It's a knockout
— Peter Gabriel, "Games Without Frontiers"
2. "Jesus Jones" by Right Here Right Now
I've always interpreted this 1991 song as a celebration of the unfolding collapse of the oppressive reign of the USSR over much of Europe and the opening up of society to the outside world. To me, it's a very positive song about hope for the future. Sadly, it seems as though much progress has been lost, and the expansionist spirit of the USSR lives on. Hopefully, things turn out better than the way they appear to be heading.
Right here, right now
there is no other place I want to be
Right here, right now
watching the world wake up from historyI saw the decade in, when it seemed
the world could change at the blink of an eye
And if anything
then there's your sign of the times
— Right Here Right Now, "Jesus Jones"
3. "Give Peace a Chance" by John Lennon and Yoko Ono
During the Vietnam War era, this was the quintessential anti-war anthem by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The Vietnam War protests are relevant to the Cold War because it was one of various "proxy wars" involving the great world powers indirectly through (among other things) military funding, training of soldiers, and providing weaponry. Apparently, around half a million people sang it together during an anti-Vietnam protest in Washington around the time the song was released.
Ev'rybody's talking about
Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism
This-ism, that-ism, is-m, is-m, is-m
All we are saying is give peace a chance
— John Lennon and Yoko Ono, "Give Peace a Chance"
4. "Wind of Change" by Scorpions
This ballad became an international sensation around the time the Soviet Union collapsed. There's very little ambiguity regarding what the song is about. Here's a little snippet for reference.
The wind of change
Blows straight into the face of time
Like a storm wind that will ring the freedom bell
For peace of mind
— Scorpions, "Wind of Change"
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5. "99 Luftballons/99 Red Balloons" by Nena
The meaning and lyrics of this awesome song betray its cheery tone and would likely come as a surprise to anyone who never took the time to look into its meaning.
What I surmise, from looking at various sources on the internet, is that this song is about an accidental triggering of an all-out nuclear war caused by a young boy or girl releasing a bunch of balloons into the air, tricking the satellites and/or other surveillance systems into identifying them as a nuclear "first strike."
While this particular scenario (triggering an accidental nuclear apocalypse) may be unlikely, there were numerous times during the Cold War when satellites and/or other surveillance systems failed and identified objects in the air as a nuclear attack. During one such instance, the only thing that prevented the triggering of a nuclear war was the decision by a nuclear submarine Vice Admiral, Vasily Arkhipov, who refused to comply with the order to launch nukes after a failure of the USSR's early warning system, which indicated that the Americans had launched a nuclear first strike.
Auf ihrem Weg zum Horizont
Hielt man für UFOs aus dem All
Darum schickte ein General
'Ne Fliegerstaffel hinterher
Alarm zu geben, wenn's so wär
Dabei waren dort am Horizont
Nur neunundneunzig Luftballons
— Nena, "99 Luftballons/99 Red Balloons"
6. "Two Suns in the Sunset" by Pink Floyd
The lyrics of this song leave no room for ambiguity. The title itself references two suns, which clearly means one of the suns represents a nuclear detonation. And, if all of this is insufficient to convince you of what this song is about, at the end of the song, there is a helpful weather prediction for the following day that should put this issue to bed.
And now the weather. Tomorrow will be cloudy with scattered showers
Spreading from the east with an expected high of 4000 degrees
— Pink Floyd, "Two Suns in the Sunset"
7. "We Didn't Start the Fire" by Billy Joel
I lump this one in as a Cold War song due to the references to all the historical figures in it, including the Communist Block, Red China, Joe McCarthy, and so forth. I can't explain how they relate to one another in the song because he's essentially just spit-balling names rapid-fire, but this song has always made me think of the Cold War.
Leningrad by Billy Joel is more explicitly about nuclear war/the Cold War, but I like "We Didn't Start the Fire Better."
We didn't start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world's been turning
We didn't start the fire
No we didn't light it
But we tried to fight it
— Billy Joel, "We Didn't Start the Fire"
8. "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival
This song is about one of the various proxy wars that were going on between the great powers at the time. It's also about how American boys were being used as cannon fodder on the grander chessboard that was Southeast Asia for the purported purpose of stopping the spread of Communism.
Some folks are born
Silver spoon in hand
Lord, don't they help themselves? Yoh!
But when the taxman
Comes to the door
Lord, the house look a like a rummage sale, yeah
— Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Fortunate Son"
9. "Eve of Destruction" by Barry McGuire
Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction" captures the constant fear and terror of a possible nuclear holocaust that could have happened at any time (see reference to the button being pushed in the lyrics quoted below).
Don't you understand, what I'm trying to say?
And can't you feel the fears I'm feeling today?
If the button is pushed, there's no running away,
There'll be no one to save with the world in a grave,
Take a look around you, boy, it's bound to scare you, boy,
And you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
Ah, you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction.
— Barry McGuire, "Eve of Destruction"
10. "Back in the USSR" by The Beatles
This song underscores the difference between life in the United States and the Soviet Union.
Flew in from Miami Beach BOAC
Didn't get to bed last night
On the way the paper bag was on my knee
Man, I had a dreadful flight
— The Beatles, "Back in the USSR"
Berkeley Lieberman on May 11, 2019:
I loved it
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on May 10, 2019:
So neato. Great and so well done. I grew up with bomb shelters and under the desk with hands over neck. And then I was a "downwinder" poisoned by White Sands boom booms.
I think Peter Gabriel most but my son is name Gabriel so maybe a bias.