Scholars will debate President Kennedy's impact on American history for ever, but this much is certain: The young Commander-in-Chief's repeated Cold War saber rattling spawned a paranoid Civil Defense fad the likes of which had not been seen before (or since). Thankfully, some remnants of this apocalyptic heyday have survived into the 21st century for our contemporary enjoyment. One such gem is a Civil Defense "scare" album called THE COMPLACENT AMERICANS that simply must be heard to be believed. This LP - with its bright orange mushroom cloud cover and its hyperbolic advisories to sensitive listeners - could well have been produced by that genius of exploitation William Castle. But actually it was recorded under the stately auspices of the Office of Civil Defense, a sub-branch of the U.S. government (later replaced by FEMA). Unlike IF THE BOMB FALLS (a more somber wax cousin), COMPLACENT seeks to grab the listener by the collar and shake him or her out of an idyllic peacetime slumber.
Presented as a kind of Cold War "It's a Wonderful Life," THE COMPLACENT AMERICANS (as personified vocally by Robert Connelly), begins side one with its businessman narrator witnessing an H-Bomb attack on the fictional (and unfortunately named) "Target City." His voice, augmented by dreamy and futuristic sound effects, follows as the sirens and the explosion fade away:
"The H-Bomb! The H-Bomb! The H-Bomb! Flash of brightness. A tremendous roar... And I, the complacent American, thinking that no one would ever dare attack an American city. And I told my friends that nuclear war would never happen... but it did. I always thought I was a good American - patriotic and civic minded. But I was wrong. I failed myself and my country."
This less than optimistic set-up shifts to the now deceased Complacent American recalling his last hours before the attack ("I had just returned to Target City from an extended business trip") and how he now knows what went so terribly wrong ("Now I can see how my complacency caused my death..."). Naturally, this recollection includes all the minor things he either ignored (Civil Defense meetings: "What a waste of time, besides I was going to bowl that night anyway."), took for granted (tomorrow night's baseball tickets: "I know now there will be no tomorrow night, because Death does not attend a baseball game") or just plain found annoying (Civil Defense drills: "Now can't those Civil Defense guys sound that siren some other time?"). His tour through the last moments before the great conflagration also showcases a number of the "38 sensational and emotional sound effects" advertised on the cover of the album. In addition to the blast recording, the listener is treated to crowd sounds, car horns, airport arrival announcements and children playing. One wonders if the original buyer of this LP was disappointed to find that a good 32 of the 38 sound effects have nothing whatsoever to do with the H-Bomb.
The next stop for our post-nuclear George Bailey is an omniscient peek into the fallout shelters: "I can see people alive in the fallout shelters. Had I learned the rules as set forth by the Office of Civil Defense, I would be alive and in that shelter now. How simple it looked - those who knew what to do and where to go are still amongst the living. I had my opportunity, but I was the Complacent American."
Side One's highlight is the Complacent American's re-witnessing of the H-Bomb attack that took his Complacent life, but this time with far greater clarity (and more sound effects) than before:
"The streets suddenly became packed with cars, trucks and buses. I remember seeing all those cars just piling up against each other - just wrecking each other! Panic. The hysterical look in people's eyes! Everybody pushing and shoving each other... I had glanced about me and then I saw a great wail of fright overcoming Target City. How those people were bursting from every building. Sidewalks began to blacken with thousands of men and women gripped in sheer terror and panic! Then there was a man carrying a portable radio and I said, 'Hey you, what's that voice saying on the radio?' and then the voice saying 'THIS IS A CONELRAD RED ALERT. THIS IS NOT A TEST. THIS IS AN ALERT. TAKE COVER IMMEDIATELY EVERYONE. I REPEAT THIS IS NOT A TEST, THIS IS CONELRAD. TAKE COVER IMMEDIATELY. WE ARE UNDER ATTACK'"
The Complacent American concludes this side by expressing his remorse for not having taken Civil Defense more seriously:
"I'm afraid. Because THIS IS real. The voice said it wasn't a test. Take cover immediately? What kind of cover? To where? Where will I go?! I wished then that I had attended the Civil Defense meeting... What shall I do? What shall I do? Shall I pray? My God I guess itís too late for even prayers now."
Yes, too late for him, but, gratefully, not too late for us!
Side Two opens ("Note Should not be played for ten minutes following Side One") with the Voice of the Complacent American now reborn as a more mundane but decidedly less complacent Civil Defense spokesman:
"The devastation of Target City was mythical however it could happen. The reasons are many that it hasn't. There are many complacent Americans and as a result of their complacency they fail both themselves and our country..."
After this scolding, a tour of this country's "mammoth military installations" ensues and we are treated to some aural visits to NORAD and SAC. Then, Mr. Jack F. Fuller, Civil Defense Coordinator for the city of Los Angeles, state of California, signs on to give us the broadstroke "basics" of survival:
"First there are two types of sirens..."
"Next we learn about CONELRAD and the emergency frequencies on your radio dial..."
"Now everyone, whether he lives in Target City (and we thought it was mythical) or any other city should act instantly when an attack is threatened..."
The album ends with these comforting, yet difficult to believe, words:
"Follow all these rules and you WILL survive!"
And just who was Larry Blake, the mastermind behind this crown jewel of Atomic Platters? Well, according to Tom Hidley, the recording engineer for COMPLACENT (Hidley also worked with Frank Zappa in the '60s), Blake owned a music store in Los Angeles called Paradise Hi-Fi. The business entrepreneur started the Cee Dee label with just one release in mind, his dire wall-of-sound civil defense warning to his fellow countrymen.
Hidley, stated in an interview with CONELRAD that Blake "actually believed that the possibility (of nuclear war) existed at that time and he was very, very convinced as to what he should do and what other people should be alerted to…He had very strong convictions." When asked about the exploitation style of the album cover, the former engineer laughed and recalled that "This was very much Larry’s style. He was a very aggressive individual."
Hidley remembered that the album was, for the most part, recorded and mixed at the home studio of Bill Henshaw, a staff French horn player for Warner Brothers. When THE COMPLACENT AMERICANS was released, Hidley recounted that when he played it for his friends the reaction was "quite serious for some of them and others thought it was a real gimmick."
This record may never help anyone survive an atomic attack (who knows?), but it is, without a doubt, one of the most entertaining artifacts of the Cold War era. CONELRAD salutes Larry Blake—wherever he may be—for his important contribution to atomic pop culture.
CONELRAD wishes to thank Tom Hidley for consenting to his telephone interview from Hong Kong on March 29, 2004.
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