Monday, September 29, 2008

"London Calling" - The Clash, 1979 (punk)

London calling to the faraway towns
Now that war is declared-and battle come down
London calling to the underworld
Come out of the cupboard, all you boys and girls
London calling, now don't look at us
All that phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust
London calling, see we ain't got no swing
'Cept for the ring of that truncheon thing

The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in
Engines stop running and the wheat is growing thin
A nuclear error, but I have no fear
London is drowning-and I live by the river

London calling to the imitation zone
Forget it, brother, an' go it alone
London calling upon the zombies of death
Quit holding out-and draw another breath
London calling-and I don't wanna shout
But when we were talking-I saw you nodding out
London calling, see we ain't got no highs
Except for that one with the yellowy eyes

Now get this
London calling, yeah, I was there, too
An' you know what they said? Well, some of it was true!
London calling at the top of the dial
After all this, won't you give me a smile?

I never felt so much a' like

Even the punks have something to teach us!

"London Calling" was the first track recorded by this British punk band in 1979 and it reached No. 11 on the UK Singles Chart. Of course, it didn't do very well in the States (reaching only to No. 30 on the Club Chart) because punk music was never intended to be heard by the masses...the "squares". However, "the underground" provided a great place for musicians to vent their political and cultural frustrations without fear of reprisal from the fans or their producing companies. After all, at this time, punk rock especially was about playing what you wanted to play and saying what you had or wanted to say.

The song was written by Clash band members Joe Strummer and Mick Jones. The song revolves around the state of the world's countries nuclear power capabilities, not so much as they appeared in the world in 1979, but it poses more of an apocalyptic look to the possible future of such goings-on. While we have learned to harness nuclear power for the good of humanity, today we are blessed to have a wealth of knowledge and technology at our disposal. However, in the world during which the song was written, bear in mind that in 1979, the home computer consited of an Atari 800 that was really good for playing Pong or Asteroids; nevermind running a dangerous, precision-required nuclear reactor. The technology for ultimate safety just wasn't available. In particular, the song uses the accident which occurred at Three Mile Island as an example, which is noted by the lyrics, "The ice age is coming/The sun's zooming in/Engines stop running/and the wheat is growing thin/a nuclear error but I have no fear..."

Three Mile Island is a civilian (meaning non-military) nuclear power plant located on an island in the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It was built with two pressurized water reactors. These reactors use ordinary water under high pressure (superheated water) as a coolant. While these types of nuclear reactors are the most common in the world, they do have some severe disadvantages. In order for the superheated water to remain liquid (and not turn to steam), this requires high-strength piping and a heavy pressure vessel. The higher pressure can increase the consequences of a loss of coolant accident, which is a form of nuclear reactor meltdown, which is what happened at Three Mile Island when one of the feedwater pumps broke. In a nutshell (without being too nerdy...after all, this is pop culture) coolant, obviously, keeps things from overheating. You put it in your car. Nuclear particles move around and create friction. When particles are split (fission) or joined together (fusion) friction happens again. Friction causes heat. When your serpentine belt or your water pump break in your car, there is nothing to cool the parts that rub together (like the particles). If you keep driving it, you'll seize your engine. The same thing happens with a nuclear reactor. The particles get too hot and well, there you have meltdown.

The accident at Three Mile Island in 1979 was probably the most significant nuclear accident in the history of the American commercial nuclear power generating industry. Approximately 43,000 curies of radioactive krypton (think Superman) and just under 20 curies of radioactive iodine into the environment. While that sounds very ominous, this incident really wasn't all that big of a deal. There were no deaths recorded, and although 25,000 people lived within 5 miles of the reactor site, there were no reported injuries from radiation.

What made this reactor meltdown so prestigious was general public ingnorance of nuclear power and the lack of information available and understood by the public. For starters, just a few weeks prior to the meltdown, the movie The Chine Syndrome was released...and guess what it's about. Yep. A sci-fi movie about a nuclear reactor meltdown. Also, during this time, there was much political and social activism against nuclear power. To make things worse, during the occurrance, there was a lack of official information available to the public. People like to know what's going on, and when they're not told they panic. There were, though, several mass adverse health affects, however even those have been judged by many epidemiologists to have been stress induced BY the fearful public.

The incident has been a point of interest as an example of how groups of people react and make decisions under stress. There were many decisions made by public officials, plant operators, and the general public that was made based on information that was either non-existent, incorrect, misleading, or irrelevant. However, what we DID learn was that people are afraid of what they don't understand. Nuclear physics is not something that the average person is wired to comprehend, so even something as innocuous as Three Mile Island can cause a panic. What this incident also taught us was that these things should NOT be taken lightly. As a result, safety in operation of nuclear power plants has been greatly improved. Today, we have emergency plans, standardized checklists, trouble tags and alarms - all kinds of bells and whistles and fancy gizmos on these complicated things that help us all sleep better at night instead of fearing total apocalyptic The Clash did.

By the way, the repeated lyrics (and title) "London calling" refers to the BBC World Service's radio station identification during WWII. "This is London calling..." was heard during opening news/informational broadcasts and emergency and broadcast interruption to occupied areas.

"London Calling" - The Clash, 1979

(all information in this entry is hoping to be correct...and not irrelevant, having been gleaned from all kinds of places from London to Pennsylvania)

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