Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Dancing through dark times

At an age when my friends and I should have been enjoying the most hedonistic time of our lives, there was something dark and ominous looming over us like a monstrous headmaster ready to dish out discipline at the merest hint of any mischief: the threat of nuclear war. 

For me - and maybe for you too?  - the early '80s were schizophrenic in the extreme.  On the one hand there were 'Protect and Survive' pamphlets dropping through our letterboxes and, a little later, visions of a post nuclear apocalypse would be beamed into our living rooms via programmes like 'Threads'.

Even the children’s author and illustrator Raymond Briggs, best known for his wonderful books ‘The Snowman’ and ‘Fungus the Bogeyman’, stepped into this terrifying territory and haunted us with ‘When The Wind Blows’.   And ‘Only Fools And Horses’ parodied our deepest fears of imminent nuclear conflict with an episode entitled ‘The Russians Are Coming’ in which the hapless Trotters build a fallout shelter at the top of a tower block.  This was not so far from reality – anyone could buy DIY shelter kits through the Sunday supplements, which carried adverts for them as if getting one was on a par with purchasing a new shed.   With one of these safe havens in your back garden you could relax in the knowledge that when World War III kicked off (which it was definitely going to at any moment) you’d be protected against radiation by a few layers of lead, dirt and concrete and some strategically placed cushions.

On the other hand - perhaps as a direct response to the above - there were a lot of bright  and creative things going on behind the scenes.  However, the mainstream took colourful frivolity to an extreme, and seemed dominated by a culture (if you can call it that) of bubble perms and padded shoulders.   Frothy bands like Bucks Fizz (pun intended) topped the charts – their name, their look and their songs all summed up this strange, frilly party atmosphere.  They may as well have been singing, “Let’s all fiddle while Rome burns!”  On the surface it was all primary colourrs and lipgloss, and I can’t blame anyone for wanting that escapism.  If I’d been into plastic pop and not into punk – or at least the ‘anarcho’ element which one area of it had evolved into -  maybe I could have remained ostrich-like too, and emerged from the sand a few years later, blinking incredulously while asking, “Did I miss anything important?” 

It wasn’t just about nuclear war.  There were dozens of other political issues to worry about and to rail against.  (Life was ever thus.)   For a short time I was right in the thick of it, immersed in a scene in which fanzine writers interviewed bands less about their musical influences and more about their stance on fascism and veganism.  Record sleeve artwork no longer exposed us merely to horrific fashion crimes, but instead to the horrors of crimes against animals and the inhabitants of third world countries.  Although… speaking of fashion, the faded black shapeless uniform of protagonists and followers did suggest an almost criminal lack of imagination. (With the exception of Rubella Ballet, who brought a much needed splash of dayglo to those murky days.)  

Around ’81/’82, when I was most involved with this particular musical movement, I was at art college and, not surprisingly, many of my illustrations reflected the burning issues.  My portfolio at the time included collages of mushroom clouds, strange drawings of women bound by bandages and barbed wire, and a lot of black and red.  I was even commissioned to do a picture of balaclava-wearing activists carrying puppies and guinea pigs for an Animal Liberation Front flyer.  One of my favourite artists of the time was Sue Coewhose uncompromising and often brutal, bloody imagery made my spine tingle.

Of course, I still had some fun; skiving off college and travelling halfway round the country in the back of a hired Sherpa Van with my boyfriend’s anarcho punk band was not without its lighter moments.  There were nice people around and good gigs and sometimes a very genuine sense of connection, especially in the face of this cold-hearted world we were kicking against.  And the causes were very real; I cared deeply about both human and animal rights, the divisive effects of the Thatcher government, the miners’ strike, police oppression, poverty, sexism, racism, etc.   It’s easy to feel downhearted about the notion that we didn’t make any difference – but in a small way I think we did, and maybe I’ll write more about that another day.

Meanwhile, it seems strange now to think that I actually spent some time in my late teens giving serious consideration to what I’d do when the four minute warning was sounded (eat chocolate? - snog the first person I saw? - slash my wrists?) whilst at the same time Top Of The Pops gave us fluffy pink-clad dancers flashing vacuous grins to four minute pop songs.

And here’s a song which, to me, absolutely sums up the feeling of the time with both its dramatic arrangement and poignant lyrics:

The Passage: Dark Times


  1. I never fell for the propaganda they used to spew. I always believed that there'd never be a nuclear war, of course I didn't live as close to the old USSR as you did. I knew deep down that the Russian people never wanted to kill me, topple capitalism, or start a war, I was afraid the nuts who ran things in western countries wanted those things though.

  2. This all brings back sop many memories and, perhaps oddly, many of them are rather good ones! I was a fully paid up CND member in the early 80's and was on more than one rally, waving a placard (and also secretly just as thrilled to see The Jam play as we marched by). Later, as a Labour Party activist (long retired) I was also involved in all the Miner's Strike stuff - raising money, collecting food etc. At least people still cared about things back then. As for 'Protect and Survive' - weren't they hilarious? If a 20 megaton hydrogen bomb falls on you, throw yourself into a ditch but don't forget to cover your head and brush the dust off afterwards! Hahahaha! Did we make any difference? Perhaps we did, a little, even in the face of the evil of Thatcherism. Maybe we should all get active again? Oddly enough, I did watch 'Threads' again recently (you might well ask, 'why?') and found it still pretty haunting. Great post, C. The Passage were good.

  3. God yes...I was on the organising committee of the local CND and got Special Branch asking questions about me (god I was proud of that - even though about a year later it did cost me a job where 'vetting' was required...) and I still get annoyed that any 'eighties' fashion retrospective focuses on rah rah skirts and floppy fringes when everyone I knew was wearing docs, donkey jackets and those knitted Dexy's hats. But yeah I think we did make a difference - even if only small ones, they were for the good. I mean vegetarianism/veganism is no longer a crime against the mainstream and even if the political parties still won't get rid of Trident I've rarely met anyone in the last few years who seriously thinks its a problem if we did. I was on that same march Singing Bear and saw the Jam there too. I might try to find some old pics to put up on Liquid Tin Too if I can. And yes, I'm feeling very much that it's the time to get active again, quite a lot of us still about and even more angry, just more dispersed I think. To the barricades !Thanks C.

  4. As a small kid I remember the Doomsday Clock, The Day After and when the Soviets shot that Korean Airliner down...I remember my parents and other adults openly speculating that "this was it."

    A few years later when I started buying records there was The Minutemen. The epitome of early 80's paranoia...SST should have trademarked the mushroom cloud. The politics were there of course...a hatred of capitalism and above all Reagan (though I still think The Dead Kennedy's...Holiday's in Cambodia, California Uber Alles...were the sharpest pencil in that particular box).

    I was a part of the next generation though. Slackers is what they called us. "They" usually being hippy parents and older punk siblings that didn't understand why we were so disengaged. What can I say...occasionally humanity needs a break from circumstantial concerns to ponder existential issues...or to sit on the couch.

    The funniest episode from the Cold War period came for me in boot camp. We spent a week training for Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical attacks (the chemical part was pretty cool actually). It was 1991, and the threat of WWIII seemed to have I think they calling it. Anyway, the Nuclear portion of the training took about 15 minutes.

    "If you see or hear a blast followed by a mushroom cloud...grab your crotch and fall toward the blast."

    A puzzled look rippled through the group and somebody gathered the courage to ask..."Sergeant why do fall toward from the blast?"

    "Because Onion...if you fall away from the blast the shockwave with catch the inside of your helmet and rip your head off."

    It was a trifle of absurdity.

    I really want to see those pieces of yours from this period.

  5. I remember reading the pamphlet in the 90s retrospectively, fascinated at how matter of factly everything was written. Turn off the electricity at the mains!!! What!! Nevertheless it was terrifying. I grew up in Saudi Arabia so missed alot of those public service announcements but remember Threads and The Day After. I think we, as kids were fantasising about being rebels repelling an invasion from the pesky reds (al la Red Dawn) when they'd come for the oil. Fascinating talking to my Polish buddies now about their perspective of life growing up as the 'baddies' in the 'Evil Empire'.

    1. Oh yeah, and as for the superb 'When the Wind Blows', it still haunts me to this day. "Get inside!"

      "But I haven't taken in the washing."


  6. And all the aids ads on tv as well so the last thing you do he the bomb dropped was jump into bed with a stranger!

    Remember Whoops Apocalypse as well. Yes a comedy about nuclear Armageddon. Odd days

  7. You might not be surprised to hear that I was also a card-carrying CND member (been to Greenham Common, me! Though no way was I camping there - those toilets!), and turned out for every Save the GLC, Coal not Dole, Reclaim the Night and (once only) Troops Out march I could. Being politically engaged was just part of the culture I moved in - which is why it pains me now to see so much indifference among so many.

    The airing of 'Threads' was such a major event, wasn't it? I had a holiday job at the time it was on, and several of the girls I worked with, who had never given "politics" much thought before, came in the following day saying how affected they had been. CND gained a few new members that day, all of them East End party girls rather than earnest students like me.

    And who remembers the Young Ones episode where Neil paints himself white "to deflect the blast"??

  8. Oh, thanks everyone for these great comments, what a brilliant read they make, I love them all. Very heartening to know there are so many shared views, experiences and memories...

  9. The eighties insecuriuties passed me by I am afraid but the early sixties terrified me. I remember vividly The Cuban missile crisis and thinking at school I won't make the prom and my chance to dance with Maureen MacLennan will never come to pass.

    1. The Cuban missile crisis must have been a heart-stopping time, and quite hard for me to imagine, in spite of all the nuclear fears in the '80s. I think my mum might have just been in the very early stages of pregnancy with me around then - hmm... now I'm wondering if I was actually conceived during it!
      Hope you got your dance with Maureen!

  10. Dancing with Maureen

  11. I vividly remember the palpable relief I felt when I saw the newspaper front pages at the commencement of the Reykjavík Summit. Photos of Reagan and Gorbachov standing together and shaking hands. These two powerful old (as it appeared to me then) men were talking and trying to find a way forward, something that appeared inconceivable just a short time earlier. The summit failed, but the deadlock was broken.

  12. Yes, and when I think of Reagan and Gorbachov I get the Spitting Image puppets in my mind... Either that, or the 'Two Tribes' video. Shows how much that stuff infiltrated our culture!

  13. Here in the States I can recall all of my schools in the early 70's having blue and yellow metal signs with a nuclear symbol and "Fallout Shelter", whether that was for the students and faculty or all of the locals was never, fortunately, established or tested.

    1. Ooh. That sounds a bit scary. Just the idea of it and that you were aware of them when you were at school. I'm now thinking vaguely of those old "Duck and cover" public information films too - I think they were from the US? - basically (if I remember rightly?) telling schoolchildren to hide under their desks when the four minute warning was sounded...


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