Protect and Survive was a government information pamphlet advising the public how to protect themselves if Britain should find itself affected by a nuclear war. Enquiries made of the Home Office by the BBC in the mid-1970s regarding civil defence arrangements led to confirmation that guidance, in the form of print and television resources, was in preparation. Initially though nothing was issued: it was intended that the ‘protect and survive’ series, including public information films, would only be made generally available if a nuclear attack seemed likely. A suspicion that the guidance was being kept secret from the public, propagated through letters and articles in the national press, led to the decision to publish the Protect and Survive pamphlet on 20 May 1980. Interest in the nature of the guidance it contained, given the lack of general information on the subject, was high, and its arrival was keenly anticipated. The release of Kate Bush’s single, Breathing, in the weeks leading up to the publication, was therefore timely.
The song is sung from the point of view of an unborn foetus whose mother is breathing in radioactive dust from nuclear fallout. Interviewed on the national television news programme Nationwide shortly after its release, Bush was asked if Breathing was a return to kind of ‘protest’ songs that were prevalent in the 1960s. “Yes, I think that’s a very interesting angle,” she said. “I think people were very aware at that time of what could happen and I think at this time again people are even more aware because there is such a real shadow of it happening all over the world.” Extracts from the promotional clip for the song were shown during the interview, including a scene depicting a nuclear explosion. The spoken section in the middle of the song, which references the flash generated by such an explosion, runs as follows:
“In point of fact it is possible to tell the difference between a small nuclear explosion and a large one by a very simple method. The calling card of a nuclear bomb is the blinding flash that is far more dazzling than any light on earth, brighter even than the sun itself, and it is by the duration of this flash that we are able to determine the size of the weapon. After the flash a fireball can be seen to rise, sucking up under it the debris, dust and living things around the area of the explosion. As this ascends it soon becomes recognizable as the familiar ‘mushroom cloud’. As a demonstration of the flash duration test, let’s try and count the number of seconds for the flash emitted by a very small bomb; then, a more substantial, medium-sized bomb; and finally, one of the very powerful ‘high-yield’ bombs.”
Bush wasn’t the only Smash Hits cover star to release a single with the theme of nuclear war in 1980. Others included Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s Enola Gay, which concerned the attack on Hiroshima in the final stages of World War II (Enola Gay was the name of the aircraft used to drop the bomb), and Pete Wylie’s Wah! Heat, whose Seven Minutes to Midnight referred to the Doomsday Clock, the device used by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to illustrate how close the world is to a nuclear catastrophe. The ‘clock’ was set at seven minutes to midnight when created in 1947 and had returned to that position in 1980. The time it was set to was adjusted several times during the 1980s: in 1981 the time was 23:56 and in 1983, 23:57. This time of three minutes to midnight was confirmed in 1984, although that year Iron Maiden released a single suggesting 2 Minutes To Midnight was more accurate. (In fact, the clock had only been set to that position from 1953-1960, when the threat was most prominent following the United States and the Soviet Union testing thermonuclear devices within nine months of other.) In 1988, the hands of the clock were moved back to 23:54 following the signing of a treaty between the two superpowers to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles.
For information, the time as of 22 January 2015 is 23:57.
NEW SINGLES on sale from Apr. 3
BLONDIE Call Me (Chrysalis CHS2414)
Kate BUSH Breathing (EMI EMI5058)
U2 with B. B. KING When Love Comes To Town (Island IS411)