The song has a strong anti-war message, focusing on the United States‘ involvement in the Vietnam War and the effect it had on the soldiers who served. The track was notable for early use of sampled and processed speech, in particular a synthesized stutter effect used on the words ‘nineteen’ and ‘destruction’. It also includes various non-speech, re-dubbed sampling, such as crowd noise and a military bugle call.
“19” features sampled narration (voiced by Peter Thomas), out-of-context interview dialogue (“I wasn’t really sure what was going on”) and news reports from Vietnam Requiem the ABC television documentary about the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) suffered by Vietnam veterans. In 2009, the song placed at 73 on VH1‘s 100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders of the 80s.
“19” had huge international success in the charts; it went to No. 1 in the UK for 5 weeks, as well as a number of other countries worldwide. “19” became the top-selling single in 13 countries for 1985. This was helped by international versions of the song spoken by well-known local news anchors in French, Spanish, German and Japanese. The song received the Ivor Novello Award for Best-selling single of 1985. The song’s English-language release came in 3 different 12″ versions: “Extended Version”, “Destruction Mix” and “The Final Story”, all with an alternative cover design.