03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Music for the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Kids today! All worked up about terrorism. Ooooh, scary, a gaggle of bearded men in caves are after us. Pfffff. Back before the fall of the Berlin Wall -- 20 years ago on November 9, 1989 -- the world lived in the constant shadow of a genuine existential threat: total nuclear annihilation.

The possibility that we could all be vaporized in a matter of minutes occupied a dark but prominent place not only in our individual consciences but in pop culture as well. There were cheeky admonishments like Billy Bragg's "Help Save the Youth of American" or Men At Work's "It's a Mistake." And the bomb loomed large for thrash bands, too. For some it may have been just another means to engage in their lyrical orgies of blood and gore, but for others -- check out Exodus's "Fabulous Disaster" -- it was a source of visceral anguish and something bordering on political anger.

And no wonder. With Bonzo dreaming of taking the arms race into space, trigger-fingered loonies pulling his strings, and the opaque and as it turned out reeling and desperate Soviet Union bogged down in Afghanistan, the chance of nuclear Armageddon -- whether due to hawkish swagger or flat-out fuckup -- was tangible. This doomsday obsession was also the basis for some often morbidly romantic music. It may have been grounded in the same sort of teen gloom that can be traced from "The Leader of the Pack" and "Dead Man's Curve" to My Chemical Romance, but the awareness of mortality in 1980s nuke-pop was amplified by the inescapably bleak Cold War reality.

And then, with the fall of the Wall, the threat evaporated -- at least in the popular imagination. The music, however, lives on, offering an oddly affecting reminder of the magnitude of pre-Wall tension and just why its fall was such a big deal.

Alphaville, "Forever Young" Not surprisingly given the fact that their country was bristling with missiles (on both sides) and was regarded as the likely flash point for World War III, the krauts had the most angst of this sort -- like in this worldwide hit from West Germany. The idea of staying forever young sounds nice enough, right? Except for one little thing: the reason we will remain forever young is because we'll all be fried in a global blast of mutually assured destruction. Nena, "99 Red Balloons"Ja, one minute you and your boyfriend are doing ze smooching and holding ze hands as you watch your balloons float into the sky. The next minute an early warning system picks up your dirigibles and triggers an all-out nuclear exchange. Scheisse. Ultravox, "Dancing With Tears In My Eyes" A danse macabre, as it turns out--the tears are your subtle acknowledgment that these are the last moments you and he or she will savor here on earth before the whole thing goes up in flames. The Smiths, "Ask" Shyness, coyness -- bollocks. Don't hold back, because if it's not love (as if!) then it's the bomb that will bring us together. That's "bring us together" as in meet our common destiny of being rendered radioactive ash. La la la la la la laaaa la. The Sisters of Mercy, "Black Planet" Sure, you can run around in the radiation and there's no traffic to contend with, but otherwise this chronicle of life after atomic war seems to indicate that, all in all, it sucks. Anne Clark, "Poem For A Nuclear Romance" What will our love matter when the sky is no longer blue but burning red and kissing will reduce my lips to a pulp and hideous creates will return from the underground? Perhaps not surprisingly, though Clark is English, her career blossomed in Germany. U2, "Seconds" It could all go bye-bye in the blink of an eye. So Bono calls out the "puppets" in the USSR, GDR, UK and USA. Kate Bush, "Breathing" The narrator is an unborn child with a rather prodigious and unlikely knowledge of fission reactions and their aftermath. Fischer-Z, "Cruise Missiles" Another British act that made it big in Germany, here warning among other things that fallout shelters will house only the wealthy and powerful. The Cure, "A Strange Day" "Strange" might not be the first modifier to spring to your mind to describe a day when the world goes up in flames. But you're not Robert Smith, and given the material surrounding this song--the Cure's pitch black Pornography album--the end of the life on planet earth might not have seemed so bad to him.

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