A classic slice of infectious Brit Pop from the late Eighties, Right Here, Right Now rises above the pack by being about something immensely meaningful and important, the euphoric and seemingly spontaneous destruction of the Berlin Wall by the German people. Not by governments, mind you, but by ordinary people, out there with sledge hammers and pick axes, pounding away, as if there’d never been anything preventing it but the now vanquished fear to act. Band leader Mike Edwards was moved to write about it while watching the amazing scenes unfold on TV, having at the same time been listening to another, much more pessimistic song about the tragic mess in which the world of the 1980s found itself. From Soundfacts:
Inspiration for this song struck in 1989 when Mike Edwards was listening to the Simple Minds’ version of “Sign O’ The Times,” which they recorded on a 1989 EP titled The Amsterdam. The song, written and originally recorded by Prince, is his perspective on the troubling events of the late ’80s. While Edwards listened to the music, he watched the Berlin Wall coming down on television. “I never thought that I’d see such a thing in my lifetime,” he told The Guardian in 2018, “and I wanted to write a sort of updated but positive ‘Sign O’ The Times’ to reflect what was happening.”
He never thought he’d see such a thing in his lifetime, and neither had any of us. Maybe you remember that giddy feeling, as the Eighties ended and the Nineties began, that extraordinary sense that all the tectonic plates were shifting, and the happy wondering about what it all might mean. For me (and lord knows how many others), the destruction of the Berlin Wall was a singular event that went against everything I thought I knew. By that time, I’d spent about six years of my life in undergraduate and post-graduate work studying international relations, superpower competition, arms and arms racing, and the immutable forces that always led to great power conflict, and I would have told you, as a sage scholar of geopolitics, that there was one thing for certain: the Cold War was a permanent fact of life, or of our lives, anyway. There was no foreseeable way out of the deadlock of mutually assured destruction, as both sides cowered in the shadow of nuclear annihilation, and faced off against each other along a European frontier delineated by what we referred to, not at all inappropriately, as the Iron Curtain, a term coined by Churchill way back in 1946. 1946. That’s how long we’d been living according to a logic that seemed as inevitable as it was ugly.
To those of us in the strategic studies business, it was thought, actually, that we were in an arguably better position than the ones occupied throughout history by geopolitical competitors like Athens and Sparta, Greece and Persia, Rome and Carthage, France and Great Britain, the fascist Axis Powers and the democracies, and every other set of antagonists whose mutual animosity had thus far shaped the whole course of human history. Things were different now. Horrifying technology had, surprisingly, come to the rescue; we’d finally managed to frighten ourselves, as we all realized that the existence of nuclear arsenals made general war unthinkable. This was a good thing, wasn’t it? All those megatons sitting atop all those intercontinental ballistic missiles were the terrifying abominations that preserved the tenuous peace, a peace longer than almost any we could document between great power rivals of the past. Yes, as long as things remained as they were, this toxic status quo, whether by accident, miscalculation, or the impulse of a madman, might one day turn into something that eradicated pretty much all multicellular life from the face of the Earth. That was the truth, and the truth is not always a pretty thing. Yet we had little choice but to maintain this strange international suicide pact of mutual nuclear deterrence. There was no better way. We faced an implacable foe. Our ideologies were absolutely incompatible. We could never occupy the same planet as them without steeling ourselves for a possibly interminable period of deadly opposition, perpetually armed to the teeth, and always ready to go. Or did you prefer to surrender, and to forsake, for yourselves and all the generations to come, every cherished value and sacred belief you’d ever held dear?
That’s how I was taught to think, and as things were, and seemed likely to remain for generations, there was nothing in that teaching that reeked of false premises. Not then, and not now, looking back. People were what they were, and the world was what it had always been. Your only choice was to pick your poison.
Remember how fast all of that changed? Jesus, it made your head spin. The wall coming down, the Iron Curtain breached, the whole Soviet empire, with its ludicrous and viciously imposed Communist ideology, collapsing under its own weight, seemingly all of a sudden, and with little to no warning. It was like a giant dam bursting. It was, in fact, beyond anything we in the West could ever have imagined. Utterly. Yet there it was, happening, and you felt privileged just to be alive at that moment to see it all go down. The whole world was changing, waking up from history, as the song puts it, and it began to look like Western liberal democracy had won the epic struggle so convincingly that all manner of positive next steps were in the offing, including the democratization of Russia and its many former vassal states. After that, who knew? Maybe Russia could become part of the community of European nations then working towards the creation of the EU. Maybe Russia could even join NATO, changing it into something like the Northern Hemisphere Treaty Organization. We were, surely, on the cusp of a new and almost unique state of human affairs, a way of conducting ourselves as nations which no longer needed to be so miserable, so futile, so wasteful, so predictable. It was, perhaps, in the celebrated phrase of political scientist Francis Fukuyama, the end of history.
That’s the feeling that Right Here, Right Now, written at the peak of that once-in-a-lifetime moment, captures perfectly within the narrow compass of a three minute pop song. The sheer joy and relief of it. The realization that what you were seeing on the news marked the beginning of a new and better time to be alive, a blessed moment when civilization was now contemplating one of the most golden opportunities to which it had ever been presented. It seemed within our grasp to usher in what might be a new Belle Époque, or perhaps, even, a period of stability and prosperity unlike anything seen since the Pax Romana. We were present at the creation. Right there, right then.
So, there this superior little pop tune now sits, not just a fondly remembered old blast from the past, but more like a curious and captivating relic pulled out of a time capsule, documenting a brief interlude in the bloody sweep of human history when it looked as if we might really be turning a corner. In bitter retrospect, well, so much for that. Now that a new war of aggression and conquest rages in Europe, as dark men seek to reconstitute all of the most sinister constructs of a former dark age, it seems impossible to believe that we ever lived, however briefly, in such a beautiful place. But we did. I was there. I saw it with my own eyes, as baffled as I was thrilled at the wonder of it all. I listen to this song today, and I’m taken back to that ephemeral window in time when even the most jaded cold warrior, somebody like me, could really believe that the old dream of peace and good will among nations was no longer a naive and pitiable fantasy.
We were wrong. Of course we were. For once, though, we were wrong for all the right reasons. I remember that hope so vividly. I highly doubt I’ll ever feel it again.