Nuclear apocalypse – who do you need? Actors are probably not top of the list. What can I do for you? I can pretend to be somebody who can grow you some nice crops.
– Christian Bale
You’d better read our Top 11 Apocalypse Songs now – before it’s too late. You never know.
- “1999” by Prince
In 1982, the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was at its peak. Both sides wielded nuclear stockpiles and could wipe each other out many times over. That year President Reagan promised “the march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.”
Enter Prince, who was inspired by the conflict to compose a party anthem:”1999″. “1982 I wrote that,” Prince said in a 1999 CNN interview. “We were sitting around watching a special about 1999, and a lot of people were talking about the year and speculating on what was going to happen. And I just found it real ironic how everyone that was around me whom I thought to be very optimistic people were dreading those days, and I always knew I’d be cool. I never felt like this was going to be a rough time for me.
“I knew that there were going to be rough times for the Earth because this system is based in entropy, and it’s pretty much headed in a certain direction. So I just wanted to write something that gave hope.”
- Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival
Released in 1969, “Bad Moon Rising” was a Top 10 hit for Creedence Clearwater Revival. “I got the imagery from an old movie called The Devil and Daniel Webster,” John Fogerty told Rolling Stone. “Basically, Daniel Webster makes a deal with Mr. Scratch, the devil. It was supposed to be apocryphal. At one point in the movie, there was a huge hurricane. Everybody’s crops and houses are destroyed. Boom. Right next door is the guy’s field who made the deal with the devil, and his corn is still straight up, six feet. That image was in my mind.
“My song wasn’t about Mr. Scratch, and it wasn’t about the deal. It was about the apocalypse that was going to be visited upon us.”
“I don’t think I was actually saying the world was coming to an end,” Fogerty elaborated in Classic Rock, “but the song was a metaphor. I wasn’t just writing about the weather. The times seemed to be in turmoil. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated. I knew it was a tumultuous time.”
- Anarchy in the U.K. by the Sex Pistols
Anarchy in the U.K., the 1976 punk rock anthem by the Sex Pistols, depicts the civil unrest in Britain during the 1970s. “It is coming from the claustrophobia of endless dreary concrete housing estates,” John Lydon, also known as Johnny Rotten, told Los Angeles City Beat. “It creates a real serious violence in you. You feel repressed from your early life onwards. The school system has permanently put you down as a no-hoper. You have no future.”
“The ideas in that song had been rattling around in my head for years, but I had never had an outlet,” Lydon explained in Mojo. “Then there I was all of a sudden, a singer in a band. The people running the country at that time were running it into the ground, with a pompous us-and-them attitude that Margaret Thatcher would come to exemplify. Young people were constantly being told that they had no future. They certainly had no money; I had to bunk on the subway just to get to rehearsals. There would be trash everywhere, it felt like the downfall of Western civilization – we’re talking race riots, the National Front. It was a society facing imminent collapse, so I threw ‘anarchy’ into that mix, even though there weren’t that many anarchists running around at the time.”
- Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones
Gimme Shelter, written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, was included on the 1969 Let It Bleed LP. The entire album, Jagger said, was inspired by the times. “It’s a very rough, very violent era. The Vietnam War. Violence on the screens, pillage and burning,” Jagger told Rolling Stone. “That’s a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It’s apocalypse.”
The song features background vocals by a then-pregnant Merry Clayton. “We were mixing it, we thought, ‘Well, it’d be great to have a woman come and do the “rape/murder” verse,'” Jagger said on NPR. “We randomly phoned up this poor lady in the middle of the night, and she arrived in her curlers and proceeded to do that in one or two takes, which is pretty amazing. She came in and knocked off this rather odd lyric. It’s not the sort of lyric you give anyone – ‘Rape, murder/It’s just a shot away’ –but she really got into it, as you can hear on the record.”
Tragically, Clayton suffered a miscarriage later that evening, assumed to be caused by the exertion of her singing. “That was a dark, dark period for me, but God gave me the strength to overcome it,” Clayton told the Los Angeles Times. “I turned it around. I took it as life, love and energy and directed it in another direction so it doesn’t really bother me to sing Gimme Shelter now. Life is short as it is and I can’t live on yesterday.”
- Wooden Ships by Crosby, Stills & Nash
Wooden Ships was Crosby, Stills & Nash’s vision of a world after nuclear war. “It’s a post-apocalyptic story,” David Crosby told MusicRadar. “The world has gone to hell.”
Written by Crosby, Stephen Stills and Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner, the lyrics are the thoughts of the survivors as they sail from shore: “Horror grips us as we watch you die / All we can do is echo your anguished cries / Stare as all human feelings die / We are leaving, you don’t need us.” The rescue ships are made of wood because, unlike metal, the material does not become irradiated.
The song was written in the cabin of Crosby’s schooner, the Mayan. “I had the music already and Paul Kantner wrote two verses, Stephen wrote one and I added the bits at both ends,” Crosby recalled in the liner notes of the Crosby, Stills & Nash box set. The three “imagined ourselves as the few survivors, escaping on a boat to create a new civilization.”
- When the Levee Breaks by Led Zeppelin and Memphis Minnie
The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 killed hundreds of people when the Mississippi River breached the levees and swept away towns, homes and farms. The devastation forced an exodus to the North by black sharecroppers unable to find work. The flood was an inspiration for blues singers like Memphis Minnie, who recorded When the Levee Breaks in 1929.
Led Zeppelin often mined the blues of the Mississippi Delta for material. Guitarist Jimmy Page admitted in Uncut that their 1970 version relied heavily on studio wizardry to enhance the track and Robert Plant’s vocals. “On Levee Breaks you’ve got backwards harmonica, backwards echo, phasing, and there’s also flanging; and at the end, you get this super-dense sound, in layers, that’s all built around the drum track. And you’ve got Robert, constant in the middle, and everything starts to spiral around him. It’s all done with panning.”
“There’s a lot of different effects on there that at the time had never been used before,” Page told Trouser Press. “Andy Johns was doing the engineering, but as far as those ideas go, they usually come from me. Once a thing is past the stage of being a track, I’ve usually got a good idea of how I’d like it to shape up.”
When the Levee Breaks by Memphis Minnie
- New York Mining Disaster 1941 by the Bee Gees
New York Mining Disaster 1941 was the Bee Gees’ 1967 debut single in the U.S. Its success was helped by a publicity scheme that led listeners to believe they were the Beatles. Their record company sent DJs promo copies with a blank label and hinted that the singers were a British band with a name that started with a B.
“If you sounded like the Beatles and also could write a hit single, then the hype of the machine would go into action, and your company would make sure people thought you sounded like the Beatles or thought you were the Beatles,” recalled Barry Gibb in The Bee Gees: Tales of the Brothers Gibb. “And that sold you, attracted attention to you. It was good for us because everyone thought it was the Beatles under a different name.”
Barry and his brother Robin wrote the song on a staircase at Polydor Records. “It was in the dark and it was echoey and we had this strange inspiration to write this song about a mining disaster that occurred in New York in the year 1941,” said Robin. “There was in fact a mining disaster in New York but it wasn’t in 1941.”
The brothers were also inspired by the 1966 Aberfan mining disaster in Wales. Barry said they tried to imagine “what would it be like trapped in say a mine, for instance, and you can’t see each other. Can we write something about that? Well, we were very tragic orientated, and in those days we wrote a lot of tragic songs.”
- Crumblin’ Down by John Mellencamp
Crumblin’ Down was a Top 10 hit for John Mellencamp in 1983, the first single from his album Uh-Huh. Mellencamp told Rolling Stone that it reflected a new musical approach. “Radio was my friend after Jack & Diane and Hurts So Good. I was coming off this huge fucking record, but it wasn’t a good one. Very uneven. My task with Uh-Huh was to make a more even record and get away from juvenile topics like Hurts So Good. But I also knew if I wanted to continue, I had to have more hits.
“Crumblin’ Down is a very political song that I wrote with my childhood friend George Green. Reagan was president – he was deregulating everything and the walls were crumbling down on the poor.”
When Mellencamp’s older cousin lost his electrical engineering job, it made the lyrics more personal. “This guy’s spirit is being broken by America, and that’s crazy, because he loves his country and he works so hard,” Mellencamp told the New York Daily News. “I’ve been lucky. I know that. But there are a lot of people, people close to me, who haven’t been so lucky, and I’d rather write about them than me … It’s a very frightening thing when you realize the industrial revolution is over and there’s no place to go.”
- London Calling by the Clash
Clash lead singer Joe Strummer was a self-described news junkie. “I read about ten news reports in one day calling down all variety of plagues on us,” the late Strummer told Melody Maker in 1988. London Calling was released in 1979, when Strummer worried that the Thames River would overflow and flood London. “The initial inspiration for the song London Calling wasn’t British politics,” guitarist Mick Jones told the Wall Street Journal. “It was our fear of drowning. In 1979 we saw a headline on the front of the London Evening Standard warning that the North Sea might rise and push up the Thames, flooding the city. We flipped. To us, the headline was just another example of how everything was coming undone.
“The song’s title came from Joe. When he was a kid, his family had moved to Germany, and that’s where he first heard the phrase ‘London Calling,’ on the radio. The BBC used it for years to open its news broadcasts abroad.
“Once we had most of the words down, I began creating music to fit the rhythm of the lyrics. I wanted the urgency of a news report.”
- Helter Skelter by the Beatles
Paul McCartney related in Anthology that an interview by Pete Townshend of the Who inspired him to write Helter Skelter. “I was in Scotland and I read in Melody Maker that Pete Townshend had said: ‘We’ve just made the raunchiest, loudest, most ridiculous rock ‘n’ roll record you’ve ever heard.’ I never actually found out what track it was that the Who had made, but that got me going; just hearing him talk about it. So I said to the guys, ‘I think we should do a song like that; something really wild.’ And I wrote Helter Skelter.”
Charles Manson, who orchestrated a series of nine murders in 1969, twisted the meaning of Helter Skelter into a coded message intended to start a race war. McCartney, however, based the song on a British playground slide. “I was using the symbol of a helter skelter as a ride from the top to the bottom – the rise and fall of the Roman Empire – and this was the fall, the demise, the going down,” McCartney explained in Many Years From Now. “You could have thought of it as a rather cute title but it’s since taken on all sorts of ominous overtones because Manson picked it up as an anthem.
“We got the engineers and [producer] George Martin to hike up the drum sound and really get it as loud and horrible as it could and we played it and said, ‘No, still sounds too safe, it’s got to get louder and dirtier.’ We tried everything we could to dirty it up and in the end you can hear Ringo say, ‘I’ve got blisters on my fingers!’ That wasn’t a joke put-on: his hands were actually bleeding at the end of the take, he’d been drumming so ferociously.”
- It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) by R.E.M.
The lyrics of 1987’s It’s the End of the World as We Know It were written by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe in the stream of consciousness tradition of Chuck Berry’s Too Much Monkey Business and Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues.
“The words come from everywhere,” Stipe explained in Q Magazine. “I’m extremely aware of everything around me, whether I am in a sleeping state, awake, dream-state or just in day-to-day life. There’s a part in It’s the End of the World as We Know It that came from a dream where I was at [music journalist] Lester Bangs’ birthday party and I was the only person there whose initials weren’t L.B. So there was Lenny Bruce, Leonid Brezhnev, Leonard Bernstein … So that ended up in the song along with a lot of stuff I’d seen when I was flipping TV channels.”
“I wanted it to be the most bombastic vocal that I could possibly muster,” Stipe recalled in Reveal: The Story of R.E.M. “Something that would completely overwhelm you and drip off your shoulders and stick in your hair like bubblegum.”