Donald Fagen’s “New Frontier”: A romantic weekend in the family’s backyard fallout shelter

By on August 15, 2017

Night Flight’s “Take Off to Animation III ” — which originally aired on June 1, 1985 — featured the exceptional animated/live action video for Donald Fagen’s “New Frontier,” which you can see streaming over on our Night Flight Plus channel.

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In January of 2017, the Doomsday Clock — appearing on the first cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, founded by the scientists who developed the first atomic weapons — was set to two-and-a-half-minutes from midnight.

The clock’s dire warning, an indication of just how close the world is from using nuclear weapons, is right now the worst it has been since 1953, back when the U.S. and the Soviets were by testing hydrogen bombs.

One of the reasons the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board gave for moving the minute hand even closer to catastrophe was the fact there has been a “rise in strident nationalism worldwide,” including continuing threats made by North Korea‘s Kim Jong-un and U.S. president Donald Trump, two narcissistic world leaders who seem bent on using their nukes against each other, or at least measuring their proverbial micro-penises in a show of blatant brinksmanship.

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Fallout shelter (photo by National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution)

Trump’s recent “fire and fury” comments have also renewed interest in survival techniques and fallout shelter readiness, and the sales of pre-fab fallout shelters — not to mention the construction of underground bomb blast shelters — have reportedly been brisk.

All of this recent talk about nuclear fallout recently reminded us of Donald Fagen’s video for “New Frontier,” which depicted an early ’60s-looking scenario in which a young man entices his beautiful blonde girlfriend to spend a romantic weekend with him in his family’s backyard fallout shelter.

Read more about Donald Fagen’s “New Frontier” below.

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Donald Fagen used the opportunity of his first solo album — 1982’s autobiographical The Nightfly, his first recordings without longtime Steely Dan collaborator Walter Becker — to remember what it was like to grow up in the Passaic, Fair Lawn and the Kendall Park sections of South Brunswick, New Jersey.

By his own account, Fagen, the singing half of Steely Dan, had a “very paranoid childhood,” caused by events like the Cuban missile crisis — a 13-day confrontation in October of 1962, between the United States and the Soviet Union — which (much like we have today) led to daily conversations about impending nuclear devastation.

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Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

The lyrics for “New Frontier” (The Nightfly‘s second single) put a new spin on the idea that nuclear fallout shelters could be used as a well-stocked bachelor pad, where a young man and his girl could have a “a summer smoker underground” and escape the world’s prying eyes.

In the song, though, we’re told that their underground love bunker did originally have a much different purpose.

“The key word is survival,” we’re told, and we should also “prepare to meet the challenge of the new frontier.”

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The title itself comes from the July 15, 1960 acceptance speech that John F. Kennedy made at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in L.A., which was later called his “New Frontier” speech.

The video for “New Frontier” — in which Fagen only appears in a promotional poster hanging on the wall — was directed by Rocky Morton and produced by Andy Morahan for British animation company Cucumber Studios, which we told you about in this previous post about one of our other “Take Off to Animation” episodes.

In the video, we see a teenage couple — a nervous bow-tie and glasses-wearing geek, and a beautiful blonde in a white dress, gloves and pearls (“She’s got a touch of Tuesday Weld”) — who drive to his parents’ house in the New Jersey suburbs.

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We see the vault-like opening to an underground bunker illuminated by headlights, and after a little bit of convincing, the couple climb down a metal ladder into the fallout shelter below.

We see it has been stocked with a few of the things you’d need to survive underground for awhile; in addition to food and supplies, there’s a survival handbook, a TV set, an acoustic guitar, and a shelf of jazz albums (the animated figures seen on the cover of the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out album even come to life and dance around).

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The couple flirt with each other, dance, kiss, kanoodle and watch TV, the young man appearing overly-nervous as he pours her a drink and lights her cigarette.

They later fall asleep, and when he awakens, he’s completely alone.

He climbs out of the shelter, and then he sees someone in a hooded radiation suit approaching him, but it turns out to be his dream girl, having a laugh at his expense.

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There are great animated segments throughout, depicting various hammer-and-sickle type Cold War-era Soviet propaganda as seen in posters, advertising, and cartoons, including a giant red finger pushing down on a button, which we can presume will launch a nuclear warhead-tipped ballistic missile at the U.S.

The animation reminds us of an earlier time in the Cold War era, which was still ongoing when Fagen’s video was made in 1982 (still quite a few years before the fall of the Soviet Union).

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According to Michael Shore’s The Rolling Stone Book of Rock Video, Rolling Stone called the video “a treat for the eyes and ears, and emotionally penetrating and uplifting,” and said it was “possibly the greatest rock video ever.”

Have a look at this complete episode of “Take Off to Animation III ” — which includes videos (all using different types of animated effects) for songs by Cyndi Lauper, Randy Andy (we told you about his video here), the Residents, Pat Metheny, and Jean-Luc Ponty — which you’ll find over on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.