By ProgBlog, Aug 7 2016 10:01PM
Yesterday marked the anniversary of the first ever use of a nuclear weapon, one of only two times nuclear arms have been utilised in conflict when Little Boy (a reference to Franklin D Roosevelt who was president at the time of the inception of the Manhattan Project, the US atom bomb program) was dropped by the American B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, chosen because it was one of the main supply depots for the Japanese army. The device was over 2,000 times more powerful than the largest bomb used up to that time and devastated an area of 13 km2, destroying over 60% of the buildings in the city and, at the time recorded as killing 118,661 civilians. Later estimates suggested the final death toll was up to 140,000 (from a population of 350,000 including military personnel and those who subsequently died from radiation.) Many would also suffer from long-term sickness and disability. Three days later, the US dropped a second, bigger atomic bomb, Fat Man (a reference to Winston Churchill) on Nagasaki. Nearly 74,000 were killed and a similar number injured and though this was a more powerful device, the geography of the region restricted the level of destruction to a little less than 7 km2. The Japanese were effectively left with no choice and surrendered to the Allies on 14 August 1945.
The threat of all-out nuclear war can only be exacerbated by the unwillingness of members of the nuclear club to dismantle their arsenals. I may have grown up in the town most associated with building the vessels that carry Britain’s ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent but ever since my school days when I became politically aware, I’ve believed in unilateral nuclear disarmament. A 2014 report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) listed nine nations possessing nuclear weapons In order of acquisition: the United States; Russia; United Kingdom; France; China; India; Pakistan; Israel; North Korea. They have approximately 16,300 weapons between them. All, apart from Israel, are known to have successfully detonated a nuclear device but it is the first five which are considered to be ‘nuclear-weapon states’ (NWS) under the terms of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) whilst India, Pakistan and North Korea obtained their weapons after the NPT; North Korea did become a signatory but withdrew in 2003. Israel maintains a policy of deliberate ambiguity regarding its atomic weapons program but is estimated to have approximately 80 nuclear warheads. South Africa developed nuclear weapons but disassembled its arsenal before joining the NPT. The SALT talks resulted in some decommissioning but while any weapons exist, there’s a potential to use them. The fall of communism has given way to a dangerous nationalism in Eastern Europe and the posturing by the North Korean oligarchy can only raise tensions. At least sense prevailed over the Iranian nuclear program, though the possibility of President Trump reversing the US/Iranian accord is rather worrying.
On the flip side there’s also the peaceful use of nuclear power, the creation of clean energy from Uranium or Plutonium, plus some pretty toxic waste that hangs around for a very, very, very long time. Also as a schoolboy, I doodled imaginary nuclear power stations and, as a sixth former studying physics, stood on top of the reactor at Sellafield during a site visit (when it was still called Windscale.) At that time tests were being carried out to vitrify the nuclear waste, which would have revolutionised storage of spent nuclear fuel. Sellafield was the site of the UK’s worst nuclear accident in 1957 when a fire broke out in a reactor chimney and the surrounding countryside was contaminated with radioactivity. Amazingly, the Infield Park Gang had access to a long wheelbase Land Rover, driven by the father of a neighbour, which dropped us off at local beaches for a day during the summer holidays. Roan Head was a favourite destination, largely because of the extensive sand dune system and though we were aware of the presence of effluent in the water it didn’t stop us swimming, joking that the presence of radioactivity in the Irish Sea was sufficient to neutralise any number of bacteria.
Last week the UK government continued to procrastinate over the construction of Hinkley Point C which has been dogged by a string of controversies, not least of which is the untested design. Without heading down the nuclear waste debate, I’m equally concerned about the requirement for Chinese money and the unit price of electricity negotiated with the French company EDF who will be running the plant which almost everyone agrees is a poor deal for consumers. However, neither the delay in making a decision nor the government’s energy policy of supporting fracking and removing subsidies on renewable generation, surprises me in the least.
I can’t think of any prog albums that are about nuclear power though Steve Rothery’s haunting, atmospheric and melodic The Ghosts of Pripyat (2015) deals with a post-Chernobyl landscape. His main band Marillion released Radiation in 2008 but the reference there, in the song Under the Sun, a track that sounds more like indie rock with some good organ bursts, is global warming. The best song on that album is the lengthy A Few Words for the Dead which features a more experimental sound and approach, coming across more thought provoking with both eastern and middle-eastern sounds before an anthemic section just after half way through the song preceding a decent guitar solo. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark may not be prog but their anti-war song Enola Gay (from Organisation, 1980) is an undisputed classic. It cites three references to the Hiroshima attack, Enola Gay (the aeroplane), Little Boy and the time of the bomb drop, 08:15:
“It's eight fifteen
And that's the time that it's always been
We got your message on the radio
Conditions normal and you're coming home
Is mother proud of little boy today”
An OMD precursor band, The Id, according to OMD founder Andy McCluskey, was a “bunch of teenagers playing art-school rock that was on the proggy side. We had a brief flirtation with Yes and Pink Floyd.” Former Gong bassist Mike Howlett produced Messages, Enola Gay and Souvenir for OMD after Dindisc boss Carol Wilson insisted they have an outside producer for their third single, the first two having not done very well and sounding somewhat thin. Howlett was Wilson’s boyfriend.
Roger Waters was born into a family with strong left-wing views and his mother was a involved with CND. Two Suns in the Sunset from the last Waters-era Floyd albums The Final Cut (1983), released at the height of the cold war this track spells out the end of the human race in nuclear annihilation, the final track of his final cut with the band, the ultimate anti-war album. A lighter anti-nuclear arms song was released by Waters’ erstwhile colleague David Gilmour on his second solo album About Face (1984). The track Cruise refers to American Cruise missiles which were based at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire, arriving in November 1983. There are two versions of the chorus but the first includes the line “Saving our children, saving our land” which reflects the women-only nature of the peace camp at Greenham, an important facet because the women were using their identity as mothers to legitimise the protest against the nuclear missiles for the safety of their children and future generations. Meanwhile, Gilmour protégé Kate Bush was also singing about the aftermath of nuclear conflict with the single Breathing which would appear as a more lengthy version on Never for Ever (1980.) This track has a further Floydian link, as the spoken words, taken from Protect and Survive, the hopelessly ineffectual official government instruction booklet for civilians in the event of a nuclear strike, “How to make your home and your family as safe as possible” are recited by Roy Harper. I love this track; the video was pretty epic but the brilliant fretless bass, provided by John Giblin, gives me goose bumps. On a non-progressive rock aside, Sting’s first solo album The Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985) features Russians and whereas the album is predominantly soft-jazz, Russians borrows from Prokofiev and addresses the cold war standoff, using clever lyrical references to the atomic bomb.
It may not be the longest track on the eponymous Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe album (1989) and to an extent it’s a bit of an oddity, but Birthright is not just a great sounding song with some beautiful Steve Howe guitar, it evokes vast, barely populated areas of Australia and captures the huge disservice to the Aboriginal people when the British government tested its first atomic weapon in Woomera, in 1954. The test was Britain flexing its muscle in an era when the British Empire was crumbling. This loss of global influence has continued and though there are a number of successful global British brands, our European referendum earlier this summer reflects a desire by 52% of the population to go back to the glory days of Empire. I’m only surprised by so-called progressives who want to retain nuclear weapons. They’re ridiculously expensive, they’re not independent and their deterrent value only increases when you’re willing to have the blood of millions of innocent people on your hands. Nuclear weapons? No thank you.