Are You Prepared for … the Unthinkable?: Part 5: MAD Music

(This is the fifth installment of a series. Be sure to start with Part 1 .)

The Cold War Era spawned a large number of nuclear-themed musical and spoken recordings. One website has compiled a large collection of what it calls “Atomic Platters.”

AtomicPlatters.com

You can listen to one of the co-founders of the Conelrad.com and AtomicPlatters.com websites discuss a bit of the history of this genre and play brief clips of a few of the classics on a mini-documentary (8 minutes) on Youtube:

Atomic Platters video

As just a tiny taste of the mood of the times during the depths of the Cold War period, this blog entry and the next share the stories of two of the classic Atomic Platters. Given the obsession with Mutual Assured Destruction, we might refer to this genre as MAD Music.

Today’s Blast from the Past

“Fallout Shelter”

Singer: Billy Chambers
Composer: Bobby Braddock

Year: 1962

If you’re too impatient to listen to the song … or couldn’t clearly hear the lyrics, here they are.

Refrain: I’d rather die with you than live without you
And I hope that you feel the same.

Mom and Dad and I were getting ready for the game
I couldn’t play tonight, you know, my leg’s still kinda lame

And then I heard my mother call out our Savior’s name

I looked to the east and the sky was filled with flames

Then Dad said don’t worry, we don’t have to be scared
We’ve got our new fallout shelter waitin’ for us there

When I told Dad I’d go get you, he said don’t you dare

There’s no room for your girl, son, that just wouldn’t be fair

Refrain

Then I thought of all the happy times that we had spent together
And the way we pledged our love to each other forever

Could I be there in that shelter with you out here

Rather than hold you in my arms? No, my darlin’, never

Old Uncle Ben, everybody’s friend, sits in there with his gun
The streets are all deserted now, did you see those people run?

You hold my hand, I understand the sickness has begun

And if we live or if we die our hearts will beat as one

Here’s what the Atomic Platters site had to say about Fallout Shelter by Billy Chambers. (There were other songs by the same name.)

Pop culture historians and music scholars have long noted that the so-called teenage ‘death’ songs of the late 1950s and early 1960s (1959’s Teen Angel, 1960’s Tell Laura I Love Her 1962’s Patches, etc.) were, in effect, allegorical Bomb songs. These dire, yet catchy songs about train accidents, car wrecks and double suicides channeled the atomic angst of America’s youth into mainstream hit singles.

The unforgettable 1962 release Fallout Shelter takes a more direct approach in conveying the fears of teenagers everywhere over nuclear annihilation. Its melodramatic storyline of a boy who wants to share his family’s shelter with his girlfriend and his father’s intervention is a perfect blending of elements from the overt and the allegorical/subtle Bomb song.

And with the tune’s lyrics about radiation sickness and fire-filled skies some might argue that the subtle route would have been the more profitable one. But then this particular non-charting record was written by a 21-year-old man who was more obsessed with impending hydrogen doom then he was in cracking the Top 40.

However, Bobby Braddock, the songwriter and producer of Fallout Shelter, admitted in an interview that drugs may have exacerbated his World War III mania: “To be very candid, I was a musician going through serious psychological problems due to an overdose of speed at the time and I was quite paranoid; I had tried to talk my parents into having a fallout shelter built—I remember we went to a place that built them and looked at their model.”

A secondary, non-amphetamine induced inspiration for his song, according to Braddock, was a 1961 episode of the ‘The Twilight Zone’ (The Shelter) in which a false attack alert throws a small community into chaos with a neighbor’s shelter becoming a flashpoint of mob violence.

Not familiar with that classic T-Zone episode? Here’s a brief overview of the plot.

The Shelter

Season 3, episode 68, aired 9/29/61

It is a typical evening in a typical suburban community. At the residence of physician Bill Stockton, he enjoys a birthday party being thrown for him by his wife Grace and their son Paul. Also at the party are Jerry Harlowe, Bill’s brother-in-law; Frank Henderson and Marty Weiss, Bill and Jerry’s former roommates; and the wives and children of Jerry, Frank and Marty. Bill is well-known and liked by this gathering; he attended the State University with Marty, Frank and Jerry. Moreover, Bill has repeatedly administered to the health and well being of each one of said guests, and/or delivered their children. Everyone is especially friendly and jovial, even when mention is made of Bill’s late-night work on a fallout shelter which he has built in his basement. Suddenly, a Civil Defense (CONELRAD) announcement overheard by young Paul, is made that unidentified objects have been detected heading for the United States. In these times, everybody knows what that means: nuclear attack.

As panic ensues, the doctor locks himself and his family into his shelter. The same gathering of friends becomes hysterical and now wants to occupy the shelter. All of the previous cordiality is now replaced with soaring desperation; pent-up hostility, searing racism and other suppressed emotions boil to the surface. Stockton offers his basement to the guests, but the shelter itself has sufficient air, provisions and space for only three people (the Stocktons themselves). The once-friendly neighbors don’t accept this; they break down the shelter door with an improvised battering ram.

Just then, a final Civil Defense broadcast announces that the objects have been identified as harmless satellites and that no danger is present. The neighbors apologize for their behavior; yet Stockton wonders if they have not destroyed each other – and themselves – without a bomb.

This theme of violence and shelters didn’t show up just in drama and popular music:

Gun Thy Neighbor

Following President John F. Kennedy’s Berlin crisis speech on July 25, 1961 that featured prominent and alarming references to nuclear war and civil defense, the topic of shelter morality entered the national discussion. Indeed, Time magazine published a remarkable article entitled “Gun Thy Neighbor” in its August 18, 1961 edition that reflected hard-line attitudes on shelter defense. One quote in the story came from an unnamed Chicago suburbanite:

“When I get my shelter finished, I’m going to mount a machine gun at the hatch to keep neighbors out if the bomb falls. I’m deadly serious about this. If the stupid American public will not do what they have to to save themselves, I’m not going to run the risk of not being able to use the shelter I’ve taken the trouble to provide to save my own family.”

The Time article concludes with quotes from a gaggle of religious representatives (two Lutherans, an Episcopalian, a Methodist, a Catholic and a Baptist) opining on the morality of shelter defense. With one exception, pacifism was the standard line coming from these holy men.

However, a few weeks later, another holy man weighed in with an opposing viewpoint on the pages of the Jesuit magazine, America (National Catholic Weekly Review). In fact, Father L.C. McHugh’s opinion piece (“Ethics at the Shelter Doorway,” America, September 30, 1961) cites the Time article as his impetus for writing. Father McHugh took particular exception to the following quote in the Time story from the Reverend Hugh Saussy of the Holy Innocents Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia: “If someone wanted to use the shelter, then you yourself should get out and let him use it. That’s not what would happen, but that’s the strict Christian application.”

Father McHugh belittles the moralist argument against defending one’s shelter in his piece and asserts that “unjust aggressors” should be “repelled by whatever means will effectively deter their assault.” Ironically, the editors of the magazine sought to soften the priest’s uncompromising position on shelter defense by offering this ridiculous and baseless line in the accompanying writer’s biography: “Our guess is that Fr. McHugh would be the first to step aside from his own shelter door, yielding space to his neighbor.”

Coincidentally, the night before the publication date of Father McHugh’s controversial article, the CBS television network broadcast the famous episode of The Twilight Zone written by Rod Serling entitled “The Shelter.” This harrowing story about a homeowner locking his frenzied neighbors out of his shelter after an announced UFO sighting crystallized the shelter debate better than a thousand dueling op-ed pieces. And, in true Serling fashion, it is the behavior of the whole human race, not just the shelter owner and his neighbors, that wind up looking bad.

Father McHugh’s article spurred the shelter debate further and various newspaper articles commented on his unlikely position. In a September 27, 1961 New York Times piece by John Wicklein the paper called upon Rabbi Herbert Brichto, a professor of the Bible at the Hebrew Union College’s Jewish Institute of Religion for an opinion the America magazine article. Rabbi Brichto responded that “…preparation for an atomic war, such as building fall-out shelters, is immoral. The moral thing is not to prepare for survival of a fraction of the human race, but to put all our efforts into avoiding such a catastrophe.”

And Time magazine re-entered the fray in their October 20, 1961 issue by quoting a rebuttal to McHugh’s position from Washington, D.C.-based Episcopal Bishop Angus Dun: “I do not see how any Christian conscience can condone a policy which puts a supreme emphasis on saving your own skin without regard to the plight of your neighbor. Justice, mercy and brotherly love do not cease to operate, even in the final apocalypse.”

So well publicized was Father McHugh’s article that even Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy referenced the priest in an internal White House policy discussion on the issue of private versus public shelters. In Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s JFK administration memoir, A Thousand Days (Houghton Mifflin, 1965, page 749), RFK is quoted as saying in a forlorn voice, “There’s no problem here — we can just station Father McHugh with a machine gun at every shelter.” According to Schlesinger and other sources, it was during the McHugh-inflamed controversy that President Kennedy opted for shifting the administration’s support toward public shelters. Private shelters were never outright discouraged, but it was in late 1961 that the first iconic yellow and black National Fallout Shelter Signs started appearing on public buildings. The debate was effectively over.

A P.S. to the Braddock Fallout Shelter song story  …

Braddock would soon abandon his Cold War obsessions and focused on producing more commercial fare. Indeed, he went on to become one of Nashville’s biggest hit makers (1968’s D-I-V-O-R-C-E among many others) and Braddock continues to be a major talent in the country music industry to this day.

And for a less gloomy shelter song, check out this 1961 satirical one by Mike and Bernie Winters:

Fallout Shelter

I’m not scared
I’m prepared
We’ll be spared

I’ve got a fallout shelter, it’s 9 by 9
Hi-Fi set and a jug of wine
Let the missiles fly from nation to nation
But it’s party time in my radiation station
A 14 day supply of multi-purpose food
A TV set I’m sure to include
Build a bomb bungalow, one of your own
With no down payment and a government loan

Let the tests go on in the atmosphere
In my fallout shelter, I’ll have no fear
My baby and me, cozy we will be
Away from radioactivity

20 megatons is the size of the boom
And if they let it go, I’ll feel no doom
Let the cats run about, helter-skelter
I’m gonna, live, live, live in my fallout shelter

I’m not scared
I’m petrified
We’ll be spared

20 megatons is the size of the boom
And if they let it go, I’ll feel no doom
Let the cats run about, helter-skelter
I’m gonna live, live, live in my fallout shelter

So if you want to be full of confidence
Get survival jazz and civil defense
You’ll live like a king in your fallout pad
‘Till the all clear sounds, we’re swingin’, dad
We’re swingin’, dad
So what?

Continue on to the More MAD Music entry in the Prophecy Panic Button blog, featuring the inimitable Simon and Garfunkel. (And no, the song isn’t “Sound of Silence.”) 

 

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8 Responses to Are You Prepared for … the Unthinkable?: Part 5: MAD Music

  1. Well, I prefer a more contemporary musical take on the old fallout shelter — a place to make whoopee, instead of the back of a car. “Let’s pretend that it’s the real thing / And stay together all night long… ” Don Fagen – New Frontier: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8zrKnkd6ss

    Then there’s Randy Newman’s Politcal Science, proposing we do it to them before they do it to us. Now THAT’s preparation. “They all hate us anyhow, so let’s drop the big one now!” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Du3WhHrrNgs

  2. Pingback: Are You Prepared for … the Unthinkable?: Part 6: MORE MAD Music | Prophecy Panic Button

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  7. Pingback: Are You Prepared for … the Unthinkable? Part 12: Painting a Rosy Past | Prophecy Panic Button

  8. Mike says:

    I don’t remember hearing those songs. But if I had to be in a shelter, I would want it to be like the one in the movie “Blast From The Past”. 🙂

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