Exhibit / January 24, 2017
Object Name: “The Possibility of Life’s Destruction” by Discharge
Maker and Year: Discharge/Clay Records, 1982
Object Type: Song
Description: (Richard McKenna)
As worries about the possibility of nuclear war spiked in the early 1980s, anxiety and anger began to surface in many of the arts, including British punk music. Punk had been politicized since the movement’s inception and many of those involved were, initially at least, informed by the experience of the British art schools. This was the case with Wire, for example, as it was with Crass, whose sophisticated multimedia activism was credited by some with having helped reanimate the moribund Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Hailing from the industrial Midlands of England, an area with a reputation for producing new kinds of loud and powerful music, Discharge appropriated the speed, repetition, and aggression of Motorhead’s heavy rock and took it to a conclusion that verged on the surreal. Taking as their target the nuclear arms race then in progress, their music resembled an enraged, horrified scream of desperation at the cruelty and short-sightedness of the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD), inhabiting an unexpected overlap between brutality and articulacy. Such was the intensity of Discharge’s uncompromising approach that their songs—brief, disorientating bursts of ferocious noise over vocalist ‘Cal’ Morris’ barking and impressionistic lyrics—transcended their initial mandate and became something bordering on outsider art.
“The Possibility of Life’s Destruction” was a track on Discharge’s 1982 debut LP, Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing, the cover of which featured an arresting collage artwork by Morris. The track begins with the following sample:
“At seven tenths of a millisecond after the explosion, and at a distance of 60 miles, the light from the fireball of a single megaton thermonuclear device is 30 times brighter than the midday sun. This little boy has received severe retinal burns from an explosion 27 miles away. The blast wave from a thermonuclear explosion has been likened to an enormous door slamming in the depths of hell…”
The words are taken from the voice-over of Peter Watkins’ 1965 television drama The War Game. Commissioned as part of the BBC’s The Wednesday Play series, The War Game was a grueling black-and-white pseudo-documentary that detailed the possible consequences of a nuclear war upon Great Britain and highlighted the director’s opinion that trust in the establishment’s nuclear deterrent was hugely misplaced. Due to its graphic, incendiary nature, it was withdrawn and not broadcast on television until 1985, as part of a season of programs commemorating the 40th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The BBC claimed that it had elected not to show The War Game of its own accord, but declassified Cabinet Office papers later revealed that the decision had been made after the film had been shown to politicians and high-ranking civil servants, who complained that it risked undermining public morale—that it was “too horrific to be shown.” Watkins resigned from the BBC in protest, and, after a limited cinema release, The War Game won the 1966 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.