Alphaville – Forever Young
Something we haven’t had much of on Into the Popvoid is the Power Ballad, a pop format that, while seemingly lying dormant at the moment, could strike again at any time – like leprosy. So let’s fix that oversight now with a record that managed to combine all the trappings of the genre with the very real fear of war that was a source of constant distress to people in 1984 – and in doing so created something entirely new: the Nuclear Power Ballad.
It will probably come as a bit of a surprise to the youth of today (they’ve got lots to say), but songs about nuclear war were no barrier to chart success during the 1980s. As a genre it had been around for quite some time – see Carly Simon’s wonderful Share the End from 1971 as an early example – but by 1984 most of us, or at least those who had seen the BBC’s Threads and were inclined to embrace worrying as a hobby, were convinced our lives could end at any time, obliterated in a searing white flash and a moment of excruciating pain. It certainly made you want to live in the moment, but as a twelve year old there’s only so much of that you can do before your mum tells you it’s time to go in for tea. I suppose pop music was a very natural way of facing the fear – records like Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes, OMD’s Enola Gay and Kate Bush’s Breathing somehow made the terror ever so slightly thrilling and increased the chances that if you were going to die, you might do it while dancing.
It wasn’t just us Brits who were slightly preoccupied with the whole annihilation thing – over in America, the sleeve for Blondie’s Atomic pictured Debbie Harry posing in front of a mushroom cloud and the video imagined a post-apocalyptic nightclub where bin bags represented the pinnacle of fashion. The song was more about hair than it was about bombs, but the imagery? Of the moment. The Germans got in on the act too, with Nena’s 99 Luftballons, and it is to Germany that we turn today, to look at a song that was pretty huge across Europe but did absolutely nothing in the UK – Forever Young by Alphaville.
Alphaville, of course, had just enjoyed a sizeable UK hit with the utterly brilliant Big in Japan – though I’ve just found out it’s about heroin addiction, which has slightly taken the shine off – but they fell foul of that peculiar British Pop Commandment, namely: Thou Shalt Probably Only Have One Hit Here Lest You Put Our Own Pop Stars On The Dole. So, despite being as on point as you could possibly be in 1984 – loads of synths, soaring vocals, dramatic percussion crashes, not to mention a nice line in jumpsuits and hairstyles that were just about still acceptable, it fizzled out at no.98. I’m not entirely sure what the problem was. Was it too literal? (“Hoping for the best, but expecting the worst /
Are you gonna drop the bomb or not?”) Were its metaphors too lame? (“It’s so hard to get old without a cause / I don’t want to perish like a fading horse.”) Did it come out too close to Christmas? Maybe there was a UK-wide lighter shortage and we had nothing to wave during the chorus. We’ll never know.
For Forever Young, the story doesn’t quite end there – twenty five years later, the Nuclear Power Ballad to end them all resurfaced as Young Forever, reswizzled for the 21st century courtesy of Jay Z and Mr Hudson, reaching no.10 on the UK chart. It’s not very good though. In fact it’s exactly the dystopian future I was dreading in 1984.
Entered chart: 03/11/1984
Chart peak: 98
Weeks on chart: 2
Who could sing this today and have a hit? I’d say the chances of Louisa Johnson recording this as the follow up to …er.. Forever Young are quite slim. But by god it would be hilarious.