A Cold War Kid Who Watched (and Listened) As Music Ended the Cold War

A Cold War Kid Who Watched (and Listened) As Music Ended the Cold War

By Jim Bolt (Founder KEDG/KSSU.com Sacramento State)

I am a cold war kid (no, not from the band).  I mean, I grew up during the Cold War.  I was a bona fide 1980s, anti-establishment punk rock, new wave, ska, rock and roll loving teen.  I shopped at Army/Navy stores and still have an East German Border Troop coat I got for $20 (my wife hates it).  I also loved college radio and the “rock of the 80s/modern rock (search KROQ history and listen to current day 91X)” music format.  All of this, clearly makes me a GenXer, so GET OFF MY LAWN!

The 80s wasn’t all about the romanticized, neon fits, mall-life, aerobicizing nostalgia that’s currently all the rage (but, we do this with every era- see the 50s and 60s).  The threat of nuclear war was ever present in our coming-of-age years.  The local, high-end department store even had fallout shelter signs on the escalator walls (the shelter was likely built in the 50s, which was a very different nuclear era).  We were constantly bombarded with messages about nuclear war.  Post-apocalyptic, dystopian movies were everywhere (“The Road Warrior” and “A Boy and His Dog” are still personal favorites).

We even had a class assignment to watch “The Day After,” a 1983 made for television movie about nuclear war, that literally, traumatized millions of viewers (not me, naturally).  Over 100 million people, almost half of the US population at the time, tuned in to watch it.  Politicians and parents talked about the “arms race.”  Some discussed the need to continue a military buildup so the U.S. could show the world that “peace through strength” was the path forward (I agree with this philosophy, but they didn’t mention that outspending the U.S.S.R. was also part of the process until much later).

I grew up in Sacramento, California.  We had two air force bases and an army depot.  One night on the news, the anchors talked about a recovered Soviet strike map that showed Sacramento had at least two dedicated nuclear warheads (we were honored).  One, was targeting an intersection I drove through every day, and which was not even 5 minutes from my home.  We would all be vaporized, so no radiation poisoning or extra appendage growth for us (which was a relief to know).

One day, during a passing period in high school, we all came outside to a huge, bellowing black cloud of smoke.  We didn’t know if this was a nuclear attack, but we knew it was coming from the direction of the air force base.  It wasn’t an attack.  It was a fully loaded B-52 bomber which had crashed on the landing strip (the base was home to a B-52 squadron).  It was still ominous, and very disconcerting.

One of my high school friends said that if we ever got the announcement of nuclear engagement, he was going to sit in his window, smoke a pack of cloves (it’s an 80s thing), and crank U2’s album “War.”  He may have had the right idea.  We all thought it was very cool and deeply poetic.  We also teased him for being overly dramatic (because that’s what GenXers do!).

The legendary KROQ!

On the flipside, it was a very exciting time for new music.  College radio, and a select number of commercial radio stations (which played the “rock of the 80s/modern rock format”- just not in Sacramento!) were bringing in much of the new music from Europe.  And, you guessed it, nuclear war was a common theme.  The theme was also prevalent with American new music artists.  Songs from XTC, The Fixx, Siouxsie and The Banshees, Thomas Dolby, Modern English, The Clash, Midnight Oil, Fishbone, R.E.M., Oingo Boingo, Prince, the Ramones, and others, gave us even more of a sense of our potential, nuclear annihilation.  But, there were also messages of peace and hope.  The music connected us to Eastern Bloc youth and united us in spirit.  We knew they wanted their freedom.

At the same time, we were hearing rumblings about East German and Russian youth who were forming bands and listening to American rock and roll (anything they could get their hands on through the black market).  The Iron Curtain was big on tamping down youth culture and knew that rock and roll was a powerful force that could lead to rebellion.  These were crazy times.  The East German Border Troops had orders to shoot citizens who tried to escape to the west.  They killed over 100 people who tried to escape. 

The Beatles are largely credited with giving the Russians a love of American rock and roll in the 60s.  Their music was seen as a threat, so naturally, their records were banned.  Of course, this just increased demand.  The black market happily met that demand.

Part of America’s diplomacy strategy was to broadcast Western rock and roll on “Voice of America” radio (along with Western propaganda, of course).  The BBC, and other allied radio stations, also joined the effort.  The goal was to get the music to the youth and affect political change.  The themes of rock and roll have always been about freedom, liberty, good time….sex, drugs, and rock and roll!  Eastern Bloc radios could receive the transmissions and the youth eagerly listened.

In 1985, the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev (a progressive, visionary reformer who died earlier this year at the age of 91,) started ushering in new polices of “openness and transparency” (glasnost).  The U.S.S.R. was embracing a more tolerant mindset with respect to its society, its people, and their freedoms.  Music festivals were becoming more common.

During the 80s, a number of contemporary artists played Eastern Bloc countries.  These artists included Elton John, Ozzzy Ozborne, The Rolling Stones, Queen, Billy Joel, and even Bruce Springsteen.

Change was definitely in the air.  Russian youth developed a new slang term for the changing times.  The word was “tusovka.”  It’s original meaning was “a get together or party.”  However, it morphed into “something is happening,” to indicate a broader societal shift.

President Ronald Reagan gave his “Berlin Wall Speech” at the Brandenburg Gate in June 1987.  His now famous quote, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” would go on to help define the post-cold war era.  Reagan’s advisors didn’t want him to use the line as it was seen as provocative.  The full excerpt from the speech is:

“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate.
    Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate!
    Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

In June, 1987, West Berlin held a three-day concert where David Bowie, Genesis, Bruce Hornsby and Eurythmics played.  Bowie’s performance of “Heroes” was a particularly powerful number.  Bowie wrote the song while living in Berlin in 1977.  It is about two lovers, one from East Germany and the other from West Germany.

Photo: European Pressphoto

The concert was announced well in advance, in hopes that East German youth would pour into the streets on the other side of the wall to enjoy the show.  They did. 

The event was also broadcast live on West German/US run radio.  Stage speakers were even pointed at the Berlin Wall.  The fans came out en masse and the East German police began a violent crackdown.  The situation quickly escalated into a riot with the rioters chanting “tear down this wall.”  Bowie’s “Heroes,” along with the overreaction of East German authorities, is credited with helping bring down the wall.  His performance can be seen here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCI9o5IErwc

A year later, in June of 1988, Michael Jackson played West Berlin.  A similar situation erupted at the Berlin Wall.

Desiring to show a more tolerant side (for public relations), the East German government offered Bruce Springsteen an invitation to perform.  He played to a crowd of 300,000.  Many East Germans brought small, hand painted American flags with them and waived them as they sang along to “Born in the USA.

Springsteen’s July, 1989 concert (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBIcfPBVxxQ) is seen as another crucial push for peace and freedom.  During the concert he said, in German, “I’m not here for any government.  I’ve come to play rock ‘n’ roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down.”  East German youth wanted more rock and roll, more freedom, more peace.  More than anything, they wanted to be done with oppression.

Photo:  Herbert Schulze

In August of 1989, the first rock music festival took place in the U.S.S.R.  The Moscow Music Peace Festival was really a heavy metal fest with Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe, Ozzy Osbourne, Scorpions, Cinderella, Skid Row and Gorky Park.  The bands played to an audience of 100,000 and the concert was broadcast to 59 countries.  MTV also aired the event in the U.S.

The Berlin Wall fell on November 9th, 1989.  I watched it live on TV (https://www.nbcnews.com/video/brokaw-reports-from-the-berlin-wall-337455683615).  It was truly amazing.

Photo: David Brauchli

On December 31st, 1989, David Hasselhoff (yes, the Baywatch and Knight Rider star) sang his smash hit “Looking for Freedom” while hovering over the Berlin Wall in a bucket crane (he also wore a RAD light up jacket and a piano scarf- you can check it out here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJ2Sgd9sc0M). It was the first time East Germans and West Germans had been together for New Year’s since 1961.  This was another incredible event I got to watch on TV.

Photo: David Brauchli

“The Hoff” is still huge in Germany.  Some East Germans even credit him with bringing down the wall.  He certainly did his part to inspire the pursuit of peace and freedom.

It is true that U.S. international diplomacy, an allied effort, and a new Soviet leader, were all instrumental components in bringing down the Berlin Wall.

However, it is undeniable that music played a tremendous role in the quest for East German and Soviet, peace and freedom (and, it was also part of the strategic plan).  The youth heard the music, took up the call…and they are the ones who brought down the wall.

I’ve said for years, if you want to topple an authoritarian regime, just give the kids some Coke (the beverage!) and rock and roll.  The rest will take care of itself.

Music is a powerful force, it can calm, it can incite, it can inspire, it can unite.  It can even change the world.


Sources:  I was alive when all this happened and I watched it unfold.  Oh, I also scoured the internet and read extensively.  Special thanks to Vox, Spin, BBC, NPR, Al Jazeera, Encyclopedia Britannica, and, of course, Wikipedia.

Note:  The 1990 Scorpions song “Wind of Change” became the anthem for the demise of communism.  It is suspected, but not confirmed, that the song was written by the CIA (even Rolling Stone has reported on it).

You can also listen to my carefully curated “Cold War College Radio” playlist here:  https://open.spotify.com/playlist/13D6nyLTii0rBIyjDikUO9