At some point in the early 1980s – after this, but not long after – I realised we were all going to die, rather horribly and rather soon. I acquired the conviction before I picked up the geopolitical knowledge to put names to it – Reagan, Afghanistan, Cruise. Maybe I picked up the information at school, or watched the wrong five minutes of the news. Once I became aware of the imminent nuclear doomsday, I avoided fresh information on it, but when some did break through my filter it was like overproof liquor for the imagination. How bad would it be? Infinitely. How would we know the hour of its coming? You wouldn’t. What on Earth would you do when they dropped the bomb?
If I’d been born a few years earlier, maybe Blondie would have given me an answer. “Atomic” stares down Armageddon with contempt and desire and then dances in the ruins. There are, broadly, only two strands of nuclear pop – songs protesting about the bomb and lamenting its consequences, and songs which take its nihilising presence as an opportunity, a challenge. We’ll be meeting great examples of both in the future, but it’s the second type that’s more thrilling and fascinating: “If Ronnie’s got a bomb we could all die anyday! But before I let that happen, I’ll dance my life away.” This kind of song, now I think about it, opened me up to the possibilities of pop more than anything else. Question authority? I was too well brought up. Question sexuality? Save it for later. But for pop to be able to question – no, to flout – something as huge as The Bomb? Now that was power.
But all that came later. I didn’t register “Atomic” at the time, and didn’t return to it until years later, when nuclear war had slipped down my list of concerns. It still seemed exciting, but inscrutable too: in “Atomic” the bomb is in the background, something for Debbie Harry to pose against on the sleeve like a pin-up girl from the dawn of the nuclear age. And that’s the song all over: striking a pose against the end (or after the end, in the hilarious video – 25 UNITS!).
It’s a shame that Mike Chapman cut the album version of “Atomic” down to a four-minute-warning friendly length, as what the single loses is priceless: the sense of event of those “Three Blind Mice” intro chords, and the sense of width and dynamics that bass-driven breakdown gives the song. But what remains is still magnificent. Next to “Atomic”, “Heart Of Glass” sounds tentative, a band experimenting with disco but still half-ready to discard it. As a fusion of rock, disco and pop this is far more full-blooded – indeed it’s one of the band’s most passionate singles. Debbie Harry sounds possessed by the moment, and the climax – “Oh, atomic, oh”, when she fades into her own enraptured backing vocals – is extraordinary.
Blondie, of course, were a group, and never more so than here. The sound of “Atomic” is unbeatable – those surf guitars, the surges of synth under Harry’s verses, Clem Burke’s rocket-fuel drum fills; all interweaving to make the single sound as vast and modern and hot as it does. And as lean: nothing is wasted, nothing is overdone. In the end, “Atomic”’s abstraction is what makes it one of the greatest Number Ones. You could hear the song as making love one last time as doomsday comes, but I prefer a more metaphysical reading: that wanting to come up with something that would match the absolute of nuclear war, Harry simply reached for the perfect gesture of glamour. “Oh, your hair is beautiful. Oh, oh, oh tonight.” Sex beats death.