"The atom bomb" performed a double duty in early 80s culture, as both the object of a ubiquitous, obligatory terror and a figure for the terrifying thing that had already happened, was already happening in slow motion. No-one was allowed to forget that the world might end tomorrow; but there was also the sense that it had already ended yesterday; that the post-apocalyptic unraveling of customs, institutions and even language depicted to such horrifying effect in "Threads" was already somehow underway, and gathering pace. Not for nothing was "atomisation" one of the watchwords of the era1.
Alongside the fear, then, that the time remaining may be limited, was the feeling that whatever was still standing was already damaged, fragile, weakened by the blast of whatever it was that was sweeping so violently through the contemporary moment. And pop songs of the time registered these feelings, responded to them by throwing a variety of affective shapes, some more overtly "political" than others.
Level 42's Sun Goes Down combines a kind of abstract aspirational positivity ("though I live on the edge, time is on my side / all the doors of my life are open wide") with an alert sense of temporariness, of getting what you can while you can:
Mark King's protestation that "I know what I want, and I don't wanna go to war" is seconded by the weary "soldier standing in a bar", presumably recently returned from the Falklands, who says, "I need to love someone / before they drop the atom bomb". At the same time, love itself may be too long-term, may be too great an attachment to risk: "I get kind of scared when love's around". What will fill up the time that remains is "the groove", which keeps on grooving for "just as long as the wheels keep turning round".
Is the groove, the uplift of funk, an adequate object of devotion, something one can live for? At first, King seems to think so: "I'm married to the beat...to the music I gave the heart I could've given you". But there is the nagging question of whether its "forward motion" is really enough to carry one through: "it it a false emotion?". And behind it all, the singer is stalked by a nameless anxiety: "I get kind of scared when I turn around", when forward motion is interrupted by retrospection. Having "time" on one's side, being in step with the time, entails a certain vertiginous ungroundedness, an ever-present risk of falling back.
Things are complicated somewhat by a female dancing partner, initially rejected in favour of the groove but accepted in stages, firstly as an object of admiration embodying "the shock of the new", then as a potential social trophy ("I want my friends to see me standing next to you"), but finally as a putative alter ego ("there's something about her reminds me of me") and temporary "soulmate". If love as mutual fascination, the game of making eyes at each other and getting bewitched and hooked, is too binding a proposition, then moments of occasional solidarity with a generic fellow-groover ("there must be one like her in every club in every town") at least serve as a respite from nervy atomisation.
It doesn't seem terribly adventurous to stay out dancing only "until the sun comes down" - ordinarily that would be when you'd start partying. But I think the metaphorical associations here link the groove to work rather than play, with sundown being the time when tools are put aside and activity ceases (remember that Level 42 were always a hard-working band who could really play their instruments - King's celebrated slap bass style is especially machinic). Sundown is also, of course, the time when darkness falls, and the apocalyptic overtones would be present even without the passing squaddie's ominous mutter.
Nik Kershaw's I Won't Let the Sun Go Down On Me vanished ignominiously on first release, but had a successful second run on the back of Wouldn't It Be Good. The lyrics are much more explicitly about the imminent threat of nuclear war ("forefinger on the button"), with a sort of protest-song-lite flavour:
Here the proffered counter to nuclear terror is personal indignation, a refusal to countenance the affront of annihilation: I won't let the sun go down on me. There is an appeal to the listener's conscience and political agency - "break your silence if you would / before the sun goes down for good" - and I guess the song might have got some play at CND social events, but the political mode it anticipates is precisely that of Live Aid: the problem of solidarity with others, whether organised and practical or transient and affective, is set aside in favour of striking, and exhorting others to strike, a morally impressive individual posture. I remember an awful lot of 80s "politicalness" being like this: already irrevocably "atomised", and seeking collective articulation through synchronised slogan-chanting - the imagined apocalypse being "as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced".