Mine is the last voice you will ever hear

Childhood fears and “Two Tribes” song defined a memorable summer

Cover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's twelve-inch version of Two Tribes
Two Tribes 12″

When I was a child, and once I understood what an atomic bomb was, the nuclear attack public information films were some of the scariest things I saw. Fortunately, we didn’t have any way to see them often unless they were shown on television, and I don’t think anybody scheduled them in children’s programming.

Add the ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ films from the middle of the 80s, and you have the perfect recipe for a frightening decade. I was only just a teenager. They were scary to watch in the moment, and then I played Wham! and forgot about taking a door off its hinges and hiding under it with the curtains closed.

I’m nearing completion of Trevor Horn’s book, Adventures in Modern Recording, an insight into the life of a music producer who created some of the biggest hits of the 1980s. In particular, I just finished the chapter on Frankie Goes to Hollywood: Relax and Two Tribes. In the book, Trevor discusses the Annihilation twelve-inch mix of Two Tribes. I looked it up and played it on the train on the way home yesterday, and it brought back many memories.

Back in the early summer of 1984, my family was preparing to move from Lancashire to Shropshire. Those were my last weeks at school with a group of friends, some of whom I wouldn’t hear from again until Friends Reunited connected us twenty years later. Two Tribes was the UK’s number-one single for what seemed like most of the summer.

I am trying to remember who in my friendship group had a radio cassette player, but I can’t recall it now. The machine they brought into school may have been called a ‘boom box’ at the time, or that name might have come later. My memory tells me it was a big machine. It was the kind you’d imagine New Yorkers had on their shoulders while they strutted around The Bronx or wherever. We didn’t strut, we were 13. Somebody had a cassette version that featured both the single mix and, what I think was, the Annihilation Mix of Frankie’s Two Tribes. It was being played—on the radio and by others with their cassette machines—everywhere, especially on the school grounds at Standish High School.

A group of us sat in the sunshine on the grassy bank behind one of the school buildings, listening to Two Tribes repeatedly. We might have taken our lunches out there. As I write, I can’t recall lunch at that school for some reason, but I remember sitting on the grass with music blaring quite clearly. We played Two Tribes loud so the air raid siren was audible across the school grounds. We liked the song, but we also thought playing it again and again was rebellious. Of course, nobody would believe it was an actual air-raid warning, would they?

When you hear the air attack warning
You and your family must take cover

Looking back, what’s most surprising is that nobody ever asked us to turn it down or off. They let us do it every break time for days. We even did it when most of the school had bunked off to the Radio One roadshow. It was my last week at the school. I thought I should be there to say goodbye. Looking back, I wonder why I didn’t go and watch Simon Bates & Janice Long. Who would have noticed I was absent? I wasn’t coming back next term.

At the time, I was also presenting a top 30 music show on the local hospital radio station. It’s only now that I wonder what patients must have thought about a child playing a song—albeit an anti-war song—with an air-raid siren as its introduction. Many patients would have lived through the real thing. What was I doing reminding them of the horrors of war while they were in a hospital bed? I thought it was a good song and played it more than I should have.

But when I played it yesterday, I kept my headphones on and didn’t subject the other passengers to that sound.