Oct 08

BLONDIE – “Atomic”

FT + Popular80 comments • 9,338 views

#452, 1st March 1980

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.



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  1. 61
    H. on 25 Oct 2008 #

    I loved this song at the time (and still love it), and I definitely remember latching onto the atomic = nuclear = end of the world theme, and that this was part of its appeal. I think I associated it more generally with the alienation/nihilism of a lot of the “new wave” music I was listening to at the time (Gary Numan, Berlin Bowie, Joy Division etc). The hedonism-in-the-face-of-apocalypse is a theme that comes up often enough in pop.

  2. 62
    SteveIson on 26 Oct 2008 #

    Much as i enjoy reading all the posts of these songs dissecting meanings n trends-above ALL those kinda things in importance for the best pop music-beneath the great futuristic production here even, is the intuitive ‘rightness’ of the tune-something rarely (ever?) mentioned…Here,the joy of those long sun-drenched tonights on the verse into the open arms rush of the ‘oh your hair is beautiful’ chorus..Its a quality of magic n spirit that defies analysis-but everyone understands it when they hear it-and if this song didn’t have it in spades it wouldn’t’ve reached #1-and no one here would be talking about it at all….
    Blondie lost touch with that spirit imo after Eat To The Beat..The Police lost it when The Police turned into Sting .Bolan had lost it by the end of ’73.All pop n rock artists seem to lose touch with it in the end.Its like they take their eye off the ball and forget what made their music brilliant n special in the first place or something…..9

  3. 63
    LondonLee on 26 Oct 2008 #

    This is similar to my theory about a band following up a mega success after a long absence with something that’s, if not overblown exactly, but lacking in the ease and lightness of touch they once had. It happened to Duran Duran after ‘Rio’ and The Police after their third album (I’d even say they lost “it” after the second). It could be as simple as money changing everything, but those moments when a band has “it” are usually fleeting and only the really special ones keep hold of it for very long.

  4. 64
    Ariel on 26 Oct 2008 #

    Reading this, some song lyrics popped into my head about “Oppenheimer’s deadly toy”… ‘Russians’ by Sting had exactly the same effect on me as Blondie had on you, and the power of pop on young impressionable minds should never be under-estimated.

  5. 65
    peter goodlaws on 26 Oct 2008 #

    I think 63 has it right. The shelf life of many bands (not all) is never very long once vast success is reached. It’s not that the eye is taken off the ball as 62 suggests, it is imho a case of the ball in question changing from a soccer ball to a rugby ball and Bolan and Sting and company don’t notice and end up slicing their kick. Then there’s someone like five star who in the same analagy didn’t even have any boots and someone had nicked the ball as well so that’s them fucked.

  6. 66
    jeff w on 27 Oct 2008 #

    Surprised (but v. pleased) to see the 10 score here, I was expecting to have to react to another ‘underwhelmed’ review. ;)

    I can at least quibble with the comment about the single edit, which I think improves the song.

    More later. I’m sure I wibbled on about “Atomic” on an ILM thread once. I’ll see if I can find the post…

  7. 67
    Doctor Casino on 29 Dec 2008 #

    I think I just don’t “get” Blondie, and probably never will – “Atomic” bores me more than anything else I’ve heard by them and clearly if I were going to be a fan I wouldn’t feel that way! This just feels empty, thin and wimpy to me, and whatever attitude might be embodied in the nuclear ambivalence just doesn’t crystallize for me. Different strokes, I guess.

  8. 68
    Cowboyrob on 18 Feb 2009 #

    Hello. And Bye.

  9. 69
    punctum on 13 Oct 2009 #

    “Atomic” scared the shit out of me when I first heard it; its luridly lucid music and its livid, primary-coloured video shot straight to videotape, full of gashed yellow and bleeding red, suggested the last three minutes before the Apocalypse, the end of everything. Debbie’s urgent-verging-on-frantic vocal performance (is she singing “Uh huh, make me tonight” or “Atomic me tonight”?) is sung as though the radiation is already seeping in, as though this is absolutely our last chance to “make it right.” If we have to die, then let it be with screams of ecstasy to blank out terror: “Uh huh make it magnificent/Tonight.” The perilously precious security blanket of Romanticism is clung to even as it shreds up: “Oh your hair is beautiful” is proclaimed as the Last Trump.

    The music, with its heavily echoed lead guitars and deliberately backward-looking chord changes, via the Shadows/Barry/Morricone, also drags me back to my earliest memory; the sonorous and vaguely ominous clang recapturing the nocturnal taxi, conveying me back home from the Glasgow Royal Infirmary in December 1964, having just clung onto life following a near-fatal bout of pneumonia – it may have originated from Billy J Kramer’s “Little Children,” of all unlikely candidates. Moreover, the song demonstrates that its parent album, Eat To The Beat, was Blondie’s real masterpiece, ahead of the undeniably great, but a touch too clinical, Parallel Lines; “Dreaming” roars off its leash, ecstatically running downhill, and in particular Clem Burke’s drumming defines liberation, the return to punk power pop, with added Spectorian hauntology, is simultaneously intimate and epic. “Union City Blue” is perhaps Burke’s finest moment, as he lets rip with torrents of fourths and eighths fills and rolls, like thunderclaps over the leaking roof of CBGBs. But “Atomic” just edges out “Rapture” as the group’s greatest single (as in 45) achievement; it is a panoramic, scared and bold declaration of renewed love and permanence of spirit, just as the soul of the planet is being ripped to shreds.

  10. 70
    Brooksie on 14 Feb 2010 #

    Love this. Favourite Blondie song.

    @Doctor Casino # 67:

    What you say pretty much sums up what the bulk of the ‘credible’ music press were saying back in ’80 when this came out. Blondie were dismissed as a corporate rock band, with some decent studio craft, who appealed to kids that didn’t know better.

    Remember, Blondie records were nestled in the same charts that held The Specials and The Jam. Credibility would not have been so generously dished out as today. Think on that.

    Clem Burke was, and is, one of the greatest drummers around.

  11. 71
    Paytes on 1 Jul 2010 #

    Few people have mentioned Shads/Morricone influence on the guitar line here, but I reckon Stein & Co had been listening to Dean Parrish’s Northern Soul Classic (and famed Final 3 at the Wigan Casino tune)I’m On My Way …


  12. 72
    DanielS on 29 Dec 2010 #

    One thing that never seems to get mentioned about this song is the really fine bass work by Nigel Harrison. I don’t know, maybe someone did mention it.

    The song is really propulsive, which sort of makes up for the underwritten middle part. I mean, it’s 4 min. 45 secs. and the sheer driving forward of it is what keeps you interested. Of course what there is of Deb’s vocals is pop heaven.

  13. 73
    hectorthebat on 20 Aug 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    Pitchfork (USA) – The Pitchfork 500 (2008)
    Slant (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s (2012) 59
    Dave Thompson (UK) – 1000 Songs that Rock Your World (2011) 731
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of the 1980s (2012) 87
    NME (UK) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2014) 144
    New Musical Express (UK) – NME Rock Years, Single of the Year 1963-99 (2000)
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 112
    XFM (UK) – The Top 1000 Songs of All Time (2010)
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 14
    Musikexpress (Germany) – The 700 Best Songs of All Time (2014) 611
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – The Best Singles of 5 Decades (1997)
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Hervé Bourhis (France) – Le Petit Livre Rock: The Juke Box Singles 1950-2009
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  14. 74
    Patrick Mexico on 7 Nov 2014 #

    A cracking little bit of Atomic found its way into a cracking little song by some local heroes round my way – featuring Bernie Calvert from the Hollies’ son on bass, no less:


  15. 75
    23 Daves on 14 Aug 2018 #

    When this was first out, I remember my Dad telling me that the central guitar riff had been taken from a track by The Shadows and the group had built the rest of the song around that… and shamefully, it’s taken me until now to realise that’s actually bollocks. It sounds like it could have been one of Hank Marvin’s catchier riffs, which may be where he got the idea from, but I’m flabbergasted I let that myth live in my head for so long without checking the songwriting credits (though fortunately, I don’t think I’ve repeated it to anyone else until now).

    The main reason I dropped by this review again is I’ve just started listening to “Atomic” again for the first time in probably ten or fifteen years, and I couldn’t quite believe I’d left it fallow in my collection for so long. It does seem to me that while various Blondie singles are continually played on oldies radio, this one just doesn’t seem to be reached for by DJs quite so much – though I note it managed to get to number 19 on its reissue in 1994, so that clearly wasn’t always the case. The go-to record “Heart of Glass” just feels slightly less ambitious and interesting by comparison.

  16. 76
    Paulito on 14 Aug 2018 #

    @75: If the riff had been nicked I doubt the songwriting credits would have acknowledged it! That only happens if and when the publishers of the original song successfully sue (and even then it doesn’t always result in a co-credit).

    I agree, though, that this is an absolutely sublime track. “Heart of Glass” is perhaps a more seminal moment in the Blondie canon, as it was the first time they melded new wave with disco (and because of its innovative production techniques), but “Atomic” dwells on a higher plane of pop perfection.

  17. 77
    23 Daves on 14 Aug 2018 #

    @76 – I’ve since dug around trying to find a reference, and there really isn’t one – it does seem to be a misunderstanding on my Dad’s part, or me misinterpreting what he was telling me at the age of 6 or 7 then carrying it around with me as a “fact” for the rest of my life. He wasn’t a huge Shadows fan, so if it was a copped riff it would have to have been from one of their hit singles for him to be aware of it.

    (Should be noted too that my Dad enjoyed the odd wind-up, and when I was a kid he also owned an extremely obscure sixties folk single by a singer with the same name as him, and used to tell me it was his failed attempt at a recording career!)

  18. 78
    Ospero on 23 Jul 2019 #

    Okay, I’m sorry, but is this a case of “you had to be there”? Is this a song that requires all of the context of the early 80s’ cold-war paranoia to become this unbelievably fantastic tune of spite in the face of nuclear annihilation?

    Because the lyrics certainly don’t give that impression. This might actually work better for me if it was an instrumental – but all I can see whenever I hear those three sentences is a German comedian (yes, really) roasting this song in a segment he called “songs that don’t make sense” along stuff like “Twist in My Sobriety”. Seeing the author and a lot of the commenters go crazy over this piece of fluff makes me realize what difference a few years can make – I was barely born when this hit, so I probably never will understand the deeper connotations of “ooh, your hair is beautiful tonight”. And I honestly don’t care to. This doesn’t begin to hold a candle to Blondie’s best – this is no “Call Me” or “Heart of Glass”. I’d say a 5, because this song has no emotional grip on me whatsoever.

  19. 79
    Leonora on 25 Jul 2019 #

    I’ve always been a Blondie fan. Although there are many more songs I preferred to ‘Atomic’, I realise that what makes it is Debbie’s fabulous voice and sheer charisma, which shines through on that fantastic video. Plus it has a great disco beat!

  20. 80
    Gareth Parker on 6 Jun 2021 #

    Plenty of energy here from Blondie. 7/10 in my view.

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