- One Nation Under the BombThe Cold War and British Punk to 1984
In the spring of 1980, a young punk band from Stoke-on-Trent called Discharge released their debut EP. Entitled Realities of War, it comprised four brutal slabs of chaotic noise that burst forth in a fuzzing amalgam of thumping drums, churning guitars, and guttural vocals. On the front of the record, a black leather jacket covered with studs bore the band's name; on the back, a grainy picture of the group was set amongst a typed run-down of song titles and band members (Cal, Rainy, Bones, and Tezz). Around its edges, spidery handwriting gave details of the record's production and proudly noted that the entire EP had been recorded in only three hours. In keeping with the spirit of the genre, moreover, the band offered their thanks to "no fucker" and introduced the anarchy symbol as part of their iconography.1 So far, so punk rock.
Looking back, however, Realities of War proved to be something of a defining moment in British punk and, subsequently, opens an intriguing cultural portal into Britain at the beginning of the 1980s. For a start, the sound of the record took punk's lack of concern for standard musical convention to another level. In their rawness and ferocity, Discharge stood out even amongst the multitude of rough and ready bands formed in the late 1970s following the advent of the Sex Pistols. Nor, too, did they relate to the eclectic—and often very cerebral—musical milieu sheltering under the post-punk umbrella by the turn of the decade.2 On Realities of War and thereafter, Discharge offered [End Page 65] a version of punk at its most blunt and atonal; their songs were brief (oft en lasting barely a minute) and tended to eschew formal lyrics in favor of short, sharp statements. To this end, Discharge succeeded in forging a new version of punk's stripped-down template that inspired innumerable bands to form or hone their sound into similar blasts of mangled thrash.3 Between 1980 and 1984, Discharge stood among the standard bearers of a punk movement largely dismissed by the media but still capable of selling records in their tens of thousands and thereby dominating the then-important "alternative charts" listed in the back pages of the weekly music press.4
More importantly, for the purpose of this article at least, Realities of War helped bring a new point of focus to punk. If, previously, most punk bands had tended to follow the lead of the Sex Pistols and The Clash in combining an aggressive and irreverent anti-authoritarianism with songs of social exclusion, individual autonomy, and damaged interpersonal relationships, then Discharge was among the first to channel punk's desire to question and provoke in the direction of war and nuclear destruction. Amongst the stark black-and-white images that covered their record sleeves were photos of bombs falling and children dead and dying in the aftermath. Lyrically, the band revealed a preoccupation with the horrors of war and the political systems that perpetrated it. Alongside the title track of the aforementioned EP, Discharge songs included the self-explanatory "They Declare It," "War's No Fairytale," "Visions of War," "Maimed and Slaughtered," "Massacre of Innocence," "The Final Bloodbath," and "Two Monstrous Nuclear Stockpiles."5 With the spectre of a "second Cold War" looming large as 1979 gave way to the 1980s, so Discharge envisaged and soundtracked its potential conclusion. "Scorched earth is all that's left / Where trees and flowers once grew . . . Nothing left but waste land / Littered with human flesh and bone."6
Given all this, my objective here is twofold. First, to make a case for punk's relevance to any discussion of the cultural implications of the Cold War and the associated threat of global and localized warfare that accompanied it. Second, to utilize punk as a means of analyzing the ways in which a significant section of British youth understood and responded to the socioeconomic and political environment in which they lived. In other words, this article uses punk as a means by which to explore the...