Those for whom nuclear holocaust takes a back seat to other, "real" political and economic events in their experience -- World War II, the Great Depression -- happen to be the same folks sitting in the control booth, blithely reassuring us that all's well for the future. But for those whose first political imprint was the threat of extermination of their own species, there is no real catharsis, no relief from the psychological tyranny of the atom.
Still, one seeks what one knows is not there, and the two groups seem momentarily linked, though for different reasons, in a curious fervor to chat up the bomb, confront it, laugh about it, debate it ceaselessly and emptily. It's as though America has acquired a punkish taste for nihilism, courting the release in ultimate disaster, waiting like an itchy Sid Vicious for Ma to deliver the final bag of goods.
Well, I'm all for bridging the generation gap. And "Atomic Cafe," the soundtrack from the movie, is a sometimes edifying, sometimes hilarious, sometimes sobering record that nukeheads of all ages can enjoy together.
Although the album cover promises "radioactive rock 'n' roll," the musical emphasis throughout the album is country and folk. This is just fine, since it points up how deep into the collective psyche -- and how early on -- the bomb was implanted.
It also shows how commercially disastrous, in terms of pop music products, was any discussion of the social implications of nuclear war in the '40s and '50s, no matter how naive or funny: More than two-thirds of the composers and singers of these ditties are dead or missing in action, and nearly all enjoyed lifelong obscurity.
But the most interesting thing about "Atomic Cafe" is that it starkly demonstrates our ability, right from the beginning, to view nuclear holocaust in sexual terms, and therefore to actually pursue it, subconsciously or not. Those who thought the idea of A-bomb as sex object only emerged with "Dr. Strangelove" will be surprised at how precocious Americans were in acquiring a lust for nuclear destruction.
Song after song refers to the bomb as a big hot mama, the ultimate deadly female (but of course!) and by extension the ultimate orgasm. "She's just the way I want her to be / A million times hotter than TNT" sing the Five Stars on 1957's "Atom Bomb Baby," while Skip Stanley pleads with the flaming femme fatale, "Nuclear baby, don't fission out on me."
Of course, play around with love and you're gonna get burned -- fried, in this case. So there are plenty of warning songs to take up the sexual tension on this collection -- "Atomic Sermon," "Atomic Power," "Old Man Atom" and my favorite of the lot, "Atom and Evil," recorded by the Golden Gate Quartet in 1946.
"Atom and Evil" is a gospely novelty parable, a morality play that borrows its Biblical soothsaying and sexism from the story of original sin. It seems the whole weird psychic blueprint is drawn on the simple lines of this tune, a song that rhymes "wed" with "dead" and draws easy parallels between illicit sex -- or maybe just plain sex -- and global destruction. Listen to it once and you laugh; listen to it twice and you can't avoid a sense of amazement at how quickly the most unsophisticated of Americans picked up on the moral implications of deep-frying your neighbor as you would yourself.
The best offerings, musically, tend to come from the gospel-flavored combos of the early '50s -- the Spirit of Memphis Quartet ("Atomic Telephone"), The Commodores ("Uranium," no relation) and the above-mentioned quartet. Instrumentation is sparse at best, and the songs have a borderline doo-wop feel perversely compatible with the paranoiac zeitgeist they evoke.
Not all of the music on "Atomic Cafe" makes an appearance in the movie, and not having seen the film, I'm not sure whether the soundtrack equals the visuals. But the album is an invaluable tool for getting through the current hysteria, if only because it reveals the way fear has linked the people of this sad little planet unequivocally, inextricably together. THE ALBUM -- "Atomic Cafe," Rounder RR 1034.