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Cold War Music from the Golden Age of Homeland Security

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Fallout Shelter: Billy Chambers [1962]

Pop culture historians and music scholars have long noted that the so-called teenage 'death' songs of the late 1950s and early 1960s (1959's Teen Angel, 1960's Tell Laura I Love Her 1962's Patches, etc.) were, in effect, allegorical Bomb songs. These dire, yet catchy songs about train accidents, car wrecks and double suicides channeled the atomic angst of America's youth into mainstream hit singles.

The unforgettable 1962 release Fallout Shelter takes a more direct approach in conveying the fears of teenagers everywhere over nuclear annihilation. Its melodramatic storyline of a boy who wants to share his family's shelter with his girlfriend and his father's intervention is a perfect blending of elements from the overt and the allegorical/subtle Bomb song.

And with the tune's lyrics about radiation sickness and fire-filled skies some might argue that the subtle route would have been the more profitable one. But then this particular non-charting record was written by a 21-year-old man who was more obsessed with impending hydrogen doom then he was in cracking the Top 40.

However, Bobby Braddock, the songwriter and producer of Fallout Shelter, admitted in an interview that drugs may have exacerbated his World War III mania: "To be very candid, I was a musician going through serious psychological problems due to an overdose of speed at the time and I was quite paranoid; I had tried to talk my parents into having a fallout shelter built—I remember we went to a place that built them and looked at their model."

A secondary, non-amphetamine induced inspiration for his song, according to Braddock, was a 1961 episode of the 'The Twilight Zone' (The Shelter) in which a false attack alert throws a small community into chaos with a neighbor's shelter becoming a flashpoint of mob violence. Braddock would soon abandon his Cold War obsessions and focus on producing more commercial fare. Indeed, he went on to become one of Nashville's biggest hit makers (1968’s D-I-V-O-R-C-E among many others) and Braddock continues to be a major talent in the country music industry to this day.

Fallout Shelter, which was recorded in two or three takes along with the ironically titled A-side of the disk (That's When I Stopped Living), was sung by 24-year-old Billy Chambers and a chorus of back-up singers from Florida Southern College. Chambers, who was in a rock band called the Dynamics, was recruited for the session because Braddock liked the singer's voice. Carl Chambers, Billy's cousin and the lead guitarist on Fallout Shelter, recalled in an interview that his cousin recorded the song primarily because Braddock had wanted him to do it (Braddock and Chambers were high school classmates) and because he "really liked the other (A-side) song." Carl Chambers added that there was a more favorable reaction to the A-side than to the more historically significant B-side. "Most people were put off by 'Fallout Shelter,' although it seems that some found humor in it...our parents thought it was kinda morbid."

Braddock is even more direct in his recollection of how the song was received: "The reaction was about as close to zero as it could have gotten. Two or three stations may have given it a spin or two."

Local press attention that accompanied the release of the record ("soon to be on sale at all record shops") ignored the content of the songs and instead played up the community ties of the musicians who played on it. Upon hearing his composition for the first time in decades, Braddock offered this harsh, but humorous self-assessment: "The melody was okay, Billy wasn't a bad singer, guitar was good, but the lyrics were awful, the arrangement was hideous and it was so badly mixed that it's almost impossible to hear the words. But, it was fun revisiting it anyway."

Despite Braddock's less than charitable critique of his early work, Fallout Shelter is a landmark Bomb song and one deserving of special attention. Whatever one thinks of the song's quality, it is difficult to dispute that it captures the period immediately preceding the Cuban missile crisis in an arresting manner. The defiant stand of the song's narrator echoed the way many young people (speed addicted or not) felt about the morality of shelters. Billy Joe Chambers was born near Athens, Alabama in 1937. He was the second of seven children born to parents Sears and Elsie Chambers. His father was a block mason and moved the family to Auburndale, Florida in 1952. Billy worked for his father in the construction business until taking a job as Building Inspector for Polk County Florida during the 1970s. Other than performing with the local band, The Dynamics, as vocalist and rhythm guitarist during the early 1960s, he never pursued any other professional musical endeavors. That's When I Stopped Living/Fallout Shelter was the only solo single he made. Chambers died in 1991 from cancer.

LYRICS/TRANSCRIPTION:
Fallout Shelter: Billy Chambers [1962]

Refrain: I'd rather die with you than live without you
And I hope that you feel the same.

Mom and Dad and I were getting ready for the game
I couldn't play tonight, you know, my leg's still kinda lame
And then I heard my mother call out our Savior's name
I looked to the east and the sky was filled with flames

Then Dad said don't worry, we don't have to be scared
We've got our new fallout shelter waitin' for us there
When I told Dad I'd go get you, he said don't you dare
There's no room for your girl, son, that just wouldn't be fair

Refrain

Then I thought of all the happy times that we had spent together
And the way we pledged our love to each other forever
Could I be there in that shelter with you out here
Rather than hold you in my arms? No, my darlin', never

Old Uncle Ben, everybody's friend, sits in there with his gun
The streets are all deserted now, did you see those people run?
You hold my hand, I understand the sickness has begun
And if we live or if we die our hearts will beat as one

Refrain

Billy Chambers [1962]
Fallout Shelter
(Bobby Braddock)
DJ Records 2974

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