It’s a toss-up as to who has the more intimidating discography, Sun Ra or Merzbow. I suspect Merzbow has our Saturnian friend beat in terms of sheer size, though: according to Discogs, the Merz has 227 full albums and is still cranking, whilst the Ra’s Arkestra has 140 … although Sunny himself appears on some 250+ discs, and the Ark continues to sail on Sunlessly. But it isn’t the size of the back catalog that’s by itself scary, it’s the magnitude of a question that people also ask when confronted with something like the Gundam anime franchise, which sports something like 24 separate shows and movies: Where the heck do you start?
Short answer: somewhere simple. Meaning with Merzbow, you start with one of his shorter albums that bears at least some resemblance to music as we know it (I’d recommend Merzbuddha). With Sun Ra, the same rule applies — pick a record that won’t scare off most of the audience with twenty-minute freeform jams, and you should be fine. I don’t want to imply that Nuclear War would be the first such choice, but it would fit nicely into a list of ten such starter-kit records from the Ra catalog.
Nuclear War is as accessible as most any Sun Ra album gets, not just because of the song lengths (no one cut over 8 minutes, most in the 3-to-5 range), but the material itself. It’s a mix of moody and spirited numbers, with experimental excesses kept to a minimum in all cases, so even the more saturnine pieces like “Retrospect” don’t scare off the wholly uninitiated. Two cuts (“Drop Me Off In Harlem” and “Smile”) are splendid treatments of familiar jazz standards, so those coming in from the Duke Ellington door won’t be inclined to turn around and go back out again. The band is in fine form on every song, too,
It’s the opening track, the title cut, that poses both the greatest challenge and the most oddball appeal. Consider the lyrics:
It’s a motherf — er, don’t you know
If they push that button, your ass gotta go
And then, later:
Oh, what you gonna do?
Without your ass?!
It’s no mean feat to be funny and horrifying at the same time; most people wouldn’t know how to aim that way to begin with. Ra manages that trick by dint of his perpetually childlike sincerity, so even when he’s singing “Melti-i-ing people! Burnt gra-a-ass!” it sounds plaintive and even a bit unnerving, instead of quite a bit silly. Having “Nuclear War” at one end of the record and the band’s lump-in-the-throat reading of “Smile” at the other (“Smile, though your heart is aching…”) creates a bookending effect that only further underscores this feeling.
The story behind War is sadly typical for too many albums I find myself liking. Back in 1979, the Arkestra (as just “Sun Ra”) had taped an album, Strange Celestial Roads, for a 1980 release on Y Records. Y were the same folks who gave us Pigbag, the Slits, the Pop Group and the early Shriekback sides, so Sun Ra was no more left-field than anything else they were putting out. Since Roads was a long-jam Arkestra outing (track timings: 7:03, 12:10, 16:05), I suspect the Y gang decided the follow-up should be a more song-oriented. To that end, Ra & Co. recorded Nuclear War in 1982 with tentative plans to issue the title track as a single. The single did come out, but did not chart — not with that refrain, it wouldn’t — but the full album still followed two years after.
After the album languished in cut-out limbo for years, Atavistic Records dipped back into the archives and restored it to print as part of their “Unheard Music” series. The master tapes seem to have gone missing, and so they had to settle for using an LP copy as their source. Ironically, that ripped-from-vinyl sound only enhances the mystique of the album: it sounds more like some lost treasure passed between friends on the file-trading circuit than a formal, cleaned-up reissue. Then again, Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols sounded downright strange on CD to me, too.