A trip to the used record store is as close as you can get to piloting a time machine, if you ask me. Flipping through bin after bin of vinyl records from the 60s and 70s and seeing the cover art from the albums your parents played over and over again when you were 7, 8, 9 years old, is a powerful memory-jogger. My mom and dad (mom in particular) were big music fans, and new albums found their way into the house every week in the early 1970s.
Pre-disco Bee Gees. Paul Revere & the Raiders. Chicago. Marvin Gaye.
When I was growing up, all the popular new releases were spinning round and round on the family room stereo turntable system that was as big as a coffin.
Coming across the records that your older, cooler siblings listened to back in the day also provides a welcome memory jolt at the used record store. Supertramp. ZZ Top. Billy Joel. Paul McCartney and Wings. Hold these albums close to your nose and you can almost smell the oregano and pot mixture that someone overpaid for in 1976 when they used the album cover to roll a sloppy joint.
Good music, good memories.
A recent trip to a used record store yielded, for me, a major find – just $6 and in “nearly mint” condition. Holding this triple (!) album in my hands instantly transported me back to 1979, when I was 13 years old and convinced that a cloud of deadly radiation was coming for me.
The album: “No Nukes: From the MUSE Concerts for a Non-Nuclear Future.”
Recorded over several nights (September 19-23, 1979) at Madison Square Garden, the six-sided concert album was a fundraising response to the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant disaster of March 1979, when that Pennsylvania facility came awfully close to a full-out meltdown. Three Mile Island spewed some radiation into the air and scared the living daylights out of an entire generation or two — nearly a decade before the nightmare that was Chernobyl. It felt like the end of the world for a few days back in 1979, especially for us kids raised on weekly “current events” films at school that taught us about the “missile gap” between the US and Russia.
On the “No Nukes” album, popular artists from the 1970s – Bruce Springsteen, the Doobie Brothers, James Taylor, Carly Simon and many others – sang songs designed to inspire anti-nuke activism: “Teach Your Children,” “Plutonium is Forever,” “Taking it to the Streets.”
Some of the performances remain legendary: the extraordinary harmonies of James Taylor, Carly Simon and Graham Nash singing “The Times They Are a-Changin’;” Jackson Browne’s “The Crow on the Cradle,” with its menacing lyrics about a baby girl born “with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes and a bomber above her wherever she goes.” Graham Nash singing “Winchester Cathedral.”
There are some really powerful tracks on this record, and the album marked the first official release of a live Bruce Springsteen concert. (The harmonies in this video above still give me the chills, 43 years later.)
But the most impactful and memorable thing about the “No Nukes” albums was the 16-page full-color booklet that was tucked inside. The booklet featured short essays and nightmare-inducing graphics about nuclear weapons, nuclear power and nuclear war.
An essay about the environmental impact of the Three Mile Island accident started with one of the best first sentences I’ve ever read in an essay: “The cows knew.”
And I vividly recall one graphic in particular:
So the next time you’re in a used record shop, look for “No Nukes,” especially if it has the booklet inside.
If you’re a certain age, it will remind you of how scary the headlines were growing up during the Cold War in the 1970s.
And if you’re a 20-something-year-old hipster who periodically pops into a used record store, I’d suggest you buy, listen to, and read all the liner notes and the booklet from “No Nukes.”
It’s a tuneful way to understand why your parents had end-of-the-world anxiety long before you ever did.
2 thoughts on ““The cows knew.” Musical memories of an American nuclear disaster, c. 1979.”
Nice, David. Those themes ran deep back then – from nukes to the Vietnam War. Where did my “It’s a Beautiful Day” and Cat Stevens “Peace Train” albums end up? Here’s an interesting recent rendition of “Peace Train”: https://playingforchange.com/videos/peace-train/ Rock is very embedded in my history – my mother worked on the Birmingham Teen Center when I was a young girl, which evolved into the Palladium. Some of the greatest budding bands introduced themselves there – Alice Cooper, Johnny Winter, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Seger, Pacific Gas & Electric, Savoy Brown, Amboy Dukes, Catfish, and many, many more. Check out this lineup my mother, who had no idea what she was supporting, helped to spark: https://theconcertdatabase.com/venues/birmingham-palladium I went on to help a boyfriend buy and sell vintage guitars all over the US. I did not take up his marriage proposal, however. After all, I was a product of the Women’s Movement and felt compelled to have a “real” career. I ended up in journalism (no comment). His brother ended up as David Bowie’s attorney and business partner, and he went on to buy and sell Fenders, Stratocasters, and amplifiers in LA. Did I make the right decision, David? A topic for further discussion some day. Hindsight is 20/20. On the No Nuke, “I’m so Glad, I’m so Glad, I’m Glad, I’m Glad, I’m Glad” – as my stepbrother’s SRC Band’s performed – that my generation took on some of the big issues and rang the alarm through music. Those were incredible times in the industry.
I think you made the right decision! But it might have been cool to have an “accidental” encounter with Bowie! Appreciate your note – and I’m thinking you have the foundation for a compelling memoir!