Nuclear War stands as one of the great monuments in the latter part of Sun Ra’s enormous oeuvre. It’s an LP that by all rights should have been one of his breakthroughs, featuring one of the tightest versions of the Philadelphia-era Arkestra in a program that includes an appealing mix of standards and Ra originals.
The title track is arguably to the ‘80s what "Space Is The Place" was to the ‘70s – Ra’s anthem for the decade, a piece that perfectly reflected certain apocalyptic aspects of his philosophy and his underlying quest for a better future. But it’s a sermon like call-and-response rap (a common Ra format since the late ‘60s) with what John Szwed refers to in his Ra biography as "a rare antitechnological moment" inspired by the Three Mile Island disaster, an event that occured, as Szwed points out, rather close to the Germantown Arkestra headquarters. "If they push that button, your ass gotta go," warns Ra. "Now whatcha gonna do without your ass?"
Ra thought very highly of this recording. He personally approached Columbia Records, certain that it was a winner, and when they didn’t opt to issue it he reportedly became depressed and bitter. (To be fair, we should remember that this was the early ‘80s, long before gangsta rap had made it desirable for a major record label to issue a song with repeated use of the term "motherfucker.") Eventually, Ra sold the music to an outfit called Y Records. Y was a very interesting British independent label whose catalogue included important post-punk LPs by the Pop Group and the Slits, some outstanding reggae and a couple of records of improvised music. In London at the beginning of the ‘80s, musical worlds were colliding, and people like Steve Beresford and David Toop actively crossed all kinds of genre borders, confusing rock and dub and jazz and noise. Free improvisor Tristan Honsinger even played cello on a Pop Group single released on Y at the time.
Y Records producer Dick O’Dell first put out "Nuclear War" as a 12-inch single – the idea of Ra on an extended play disco plate was, in its own way, sheer brilliance! – b/w the glorious June Tyson vehicle "Sometimes I’m Happy," and two years later the full record was issued on Y Records in Italy. But the LP never went into full distribution and as a result the few copies that trickled into circulation became some of the rarest entries in Ra’s discography. After he sold Nuclear War to Y, Ra took the liberty of releasing some of the same tracks on two different LPs (A Fireside Chat With Lucifer and Celestial Love) on his own Philadelphia version of Saturn Records, Saturn Gemini. This meant that a few more lucky people who bought copies from them off the stage at concerts managed to hear some portion of this music; the wonderful Arkestra reading of Duke Ellington’s "Drop Me Off In Harlem," however, did no appear on either Saturn Gemini record.
Thus the cruel irony is that one of Sun Ra’s peak records, a slab of vinyl worthy of its legendary status, was heretofore heard only by a relatively small cache of his fans. Hopefully this CD release will correct that and make someone at Columbia Records wish they had done the right thing back in ‘82. – John Corbett, Chicago, May 2001