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The lyrics at several points refer to the Cold War era in which the band members grew up, fuelling the popular conception that the song was about nuclear war:
For we who grew up tall and proud
In the shadow of the mushroom cloud
Convinced our voices can't be heard
We just wanna scream it louder and louder and louder
What the hell are we fighting for
Just surrender and it won't hurt at all
The term "waiting for the hammer to fall" in the song was taken to refer to the anticipation by the public that Cold War would turn "hot" - or, alternatively, as a reference to the Soviet Hammer and Sickle. The song also contains references to death and its inevitability:
Rich or poor or famous
For your truth it's all the same (oh no oh no)
Lock your door but the rain is pouring
Through your window pane (oh no)
Baby now your struggle's all in vain, yeah, yeah.
The question of the meaning of the song was effectively settled when May wrote on his website that Hammer to Fall is really about life and death, and being aware of death as being part of life. "The Hammer coming down is only a symbol of the Grim Reaper doing his job!"