Give Peace A Chance – Peace Movements Through Songs

Today’s lecture by Philipp Baur dealt with the history of American and European peace movements through song, or more specifically, the role of music for protest movements against nuclear weapons and energy. Most famously, John Lennon’s Give Peace A Chance became the anthem of the anti-Vietnam War protests in the late 1960s, when it was adapted by Pete Seeger at a huge peace rally on Nov. 15th 1969, involving half a million participants.

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In the early years of the cold war, the medium music served as a vehicle of propaganda for the advocates of the atomic bomb. The 1946 song When the Atom Bomb fell by Karl & Harty glorifies the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as “the answer to our fighting boys’ prayers”, the effects of the atom bombs were trivialised which was typical for the early Cold War popular culture.

A shift came when the possibility of a nuclear strike on the USA increased in the 1950s. Civil Defense films like Duck & Cover were used for educational purposes, explaining the right course of action in case of an attack. Gradually the public perceived the nuclear bomb as an outright threat. In Great Britain, the  Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was founded in 1957, introducing the famous Peace logo. Public protests like the Aldermaston Marches soon found their counterparts in Germany with the “Ostermärsche” of the 1960s. In both countries, music play an increasing role for the protests.


Duck and Cover 1951 – Civil Defense Film with Bert the Turtle

A revival of the protest culture came about in the late 1970s during another critical phase of the Cold War, fuelled by the Euromissiles Crisis and the NATO Double-Track Decision. Music played an increasingly important role for the protests, also integrating protagonists of the American Civil Rights movement. For example, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan joined Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE), or the Peace Sunday Concerts in 1982. A continental European counterpart was “Künstler für den Frieden”, founded in 1982.

Big concerts of this period featured singer-songwriters of the 1960s like Hannes Wader as well as mainstream stars like Gianna Nannini. To counter possible accusations of anti-Americanism, artists like Harry Belafonte made their appearance and voiced their support to show that a different, non-Reagan America also advocated peace. The protest culture and its events adapted to mainstream culture, appealing to a much wider audience than the sub-culture of the 1960s.

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According to Philip Baur four general observations can be made. As mentioned before, protest themes within popular culture broadened in the 1980s. But also it got more professional, event managers were hired and the music was much more commercialized than before to make the protests more accessible for a wider audience. So one could argue that the protest happened in the 1980s also through consumption, not just political upheaval. The Protest also became more transnational with American Civil Rights actvists and artists also travelling to peace demostrations to Europe.

After the lecture the class was divided into three groups, working on different music videos and collecting thoughts about them. The chosen works were „Vamos a la playa“ (Righeira), „Forever Young“ (Alphaville) and „Land of Confusion“ (Genesis). Although all three of them are critical towards atomic weapons, they were popular within the 1980s and are still played today. Many people knew the songs but were not aware of the fact that the lyrics deal with nuclear threat. They are good examples for the influence of the political sphere on popular culture, and vice versa.


Genesis – Land of Confusion

At first, „Vamos a la playa“ seems to be a very common summer song: In the video the two members of the group are  dancing in a very colorful surrounding. In the background you can see a family with a small child playing games. An analysis of the lyrics shows that the song is not just another ordinary summer song: Actually it is about an atomic bomb exploding near the beach, radioactivity burning away the people’s hair, the water becomes fluorescent. So there is a big contrast between the video and the lyrics of the song. „Vamos a la playa“ deals with a political topic although it doesn’t seem political at the first sight. It uses common known references and is rather ironic.

In contrast „Forever Young“ and „Land of Confusion“ are more serious: The first song is about the sentiment of young people in an uncertain world. They hope that the atomic bomb won’t fall, at the same time viewing the nuclear holocaust as something unavoidable. The work seems to suggest that it is better to die young when death is unavoidable anyway. The second video heavily criticizes the politics of Ronald Reagan. It depicts a dream Reagan has about the difficulties of being a superhero in need of saving the world. When he wakes up Reagan wrongfully pushes the nuclear button setting the world on fire. Nonetheless the video as a whole suggests that a solution is possible when people become more involved. So ironically while being the only one of the three works depicting an atomic explosion it is the one with the most positive view on the issue.


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