”Another New Year and too much beerAnd a puke into the sea...”
It was the early hours of New Year's Day 1984, and a somewhat sozzled John Baine was walking home from a night's celebrating in Shoreham. On arriving home, he turned into his alter ego, the punk poet and musician Attila the Stockbroker, picked up his mandola and wrote the song 'Down On Airstrip One'.
“Going on about Orwell” was indeed something of a national pastime at that point. Michael Radford made a bad film version of '1984', while the Eurythmics stripped it for buzzwords and turned them into a rubbish dance number. As already mentioned on this blog, the sheer dreadness of the date was enough for the anarcho-punk band band Crass to split up. It all felt like something of a media frenzy. (Which is, you know, different to a lucid frenzy.) After all, it was common knowledge that Orwell hadn't picked the date out of some prophetic vision but as an anagram of 1948, the year he'd written the book.
But mostly it felt like misdirection. Perhaps there was no point looking for 1984 on the horizon, perhaps it had already arrived. Since the time of Orwell's writing, the world had been locked into a war between superpowers. It was just a cold war, and when it was fought it was by proxy. 'Cruise' (read nuclear) missiles had arrived at the American base on Berkshire's Greenham Common two months earlier. Many felt that Britain was already Airstrip One, America's Cuba. A handy platform on which to park it's battle gear, and a handy fall guy to take the hit should it's enemies start firing back.
Those nuclear warheads overshadowed everything, to a degree that's hard to imagine now. For all our watching apocalyptic faux-documentaries such as 'Threads' or 'The War Game' I doubt anyone could actually envisage so much destruction, it was simply too big an idea to truly hold in your head. But it became a totemic issue for all that was wrong with the world – people at the top willing to risk the end of it. I constantly wore an anti-nuclear badge through those years, which led to a fair few... ahem!... heated debates.
Yet, however prevalent the blather about Orwell, neither was there much of a shortage of songs about nuclear war. In the spirit of the times, Crass had taken to releasing compilation albums of tapes sent in to them. After listening to the slush pile for these Steve Ignorant emerged muttering “if I hear one more bastard song about Cruise missiles”, before wandering off into the night. Truth to tell, most of these songs were so turgid and worthy you started to wish for the onset of mutually assured destruction just so you didn't have to hear another one.
(Some even came to see them as a reactionary pursuit, suggesting problems didn't riddle our divided society but were confined to a few loose screws at the top. But that's a question for another time...)
Attila's number immediately outpaces the pack by not trying to sound as much like the Subhumans as possible. Those kind of pleasures were scant back then. But there's more...
On first listen, the New Year setting and the Sussex landmarks seem mere scene-setting, incidental to the main thrust of the song. In fact they're what lifts it from it's sorry company. Attila smartly roots things in the everyday, one minute singing about the over-familiar lights of Shoreham harbour, the next the end of everything.
But mostly the song works, and rather brilliantly epitomises it's era, through juxtaposing the New Year's jollity with the threat of annihilation. He sings the word “fun” more sardonically than at any other point in British history. Given the times, getting wrecked seemed simultaneously an act of bravado and the only option left, in a world so intent on wrecking itself. (In that way it's a kind of second cousin to the Specials' 'Ghost Town.') This has an extra piquancy in my case. I first heard this song live, at some Sussex University benefit gig Attila had agreed to play. And yes, at that moment I really was too wrecked to care.
Attila's posted the lyrics and some details of the song here. Though oddly, he hasn't mentioned what might be the most obscure reference for modern ears:
“And if you think your Kentish prayers
Are mightier than the gun
I'll tell you that you're dreaming
Cause the countdown's just begun”
This recounts a 1982 meeting of South Coast Against the Bomb, where the Kent contingent baulked at Sussex's insistence on more radical direct action. Some have compared this to the historic split in the First International...
...okay I made that bit up! It's really a reference to Bruce Kent, Catholic priest and then General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament - a group who emphasised political lobbying and electoral support for Labour. Attila, it seems, was unimpressed.
“There's some choose civilisation
And a promise unfulfilled
And there's some choose extermination
When it's someone else who gets killed
A gesture of insanity
And a world left to the crabs
Five thousand years of history
And now they're up for grabs”
At a time when the Tories are trying to throw cash at a replacement to the Trident submarine programme just as they slash benefits for disabled people, I'd sing along with those words today. Come to think of it, I just did.