Silly Songs about the Space Race

By: Tim Smolko (Athens, Georgia) //

CBS special news coverage from 1957 about the launching of Sputnik

The Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, on October 4, 1957, triggering the space race with the United States. Although the satellite was only the size of a beach ball and emitted nothing more than radio beeps, many Americans feared it, supposing that it had some sort of militaristic purpose. This fear can be tracked through three novelty songs from the late 1950s: “Russia, Russia (Lay That Missile Down),” “Sputniks and Mutniks,” and “A Russian Love Song.”    

Sputnik was not the first great accomplishment of the Soviets in space. On August 21, 1957, they launched the R-7 Semyorka, the first intercontinental ballistic missile. It travelled 4,000 miles carrying a dummy warhead and was theoretically capable of reaching the United States. This news did not alarm Americans, since the Russians had a reputation for propagandizing. But six weeks later, another R-7 missile launched Sputnik, causing widespread alarm. There it was sailing blithely through American skies, visible from the ground with the aid of binoculars. Paranoia was multiplied again a month later when a third R-7 launched Sputnik II on November 3, 1957. This satellite emitted not beeps, but barks, since it carried a dog named Laika, the first living creature launched into orbit around Earth. This launch proved that the missile was powerful enough to carry a heavy payload, like a nuclear weapon. (In fact, Sergei Korolev, the great Soviet aeronautical engineer, designed the R-7 to launch both observational satellites and nuclear warheads, combining the efforts of space exploration and national defense.) 

“Russia, Russia (Lay That Missile Down)” (1958) shows the American fear of Sputnik and the R-7 rocket that launched it. It was written and sung by folk musician Tom Glazer, although credit is given on the record to his pseudonym “Prescott Reed.” The song in D minor has two contrasting sections, verses (A) and bridges (B), and closely follows the traditional AABA form. Extra B and A sections are added to the end making it AABABA (often called extended AABA form). The two superpowers are mapped onto the structure of the song, with the verses representing Russia and the bridges representing America. The dark hue of D minor governs the verses while the bridges are brightened with the relative major, F major. The instrumentation also accentuates the differences between the two countries. The verses are marked by the strumming of a balalaika while the bridges feature a ragtime-derived, syncopated piano ostinato. Glazer’s vocal delivery also paints the two countries differently. He adopts mostly a scolding tone in the verses, but sings the bridges in a light and carefree manner. Thus the music paints a portrait of the Soviet Union as dark and mysterious, possibly sinister, and America as cheerful, harmless, and carefree.

The lyrics fluctuate between warning the Soviets not to go too far with their war technology, complimenting them on their cuisine (borscht and caviar), and charming them with offers of some good, old-fashioned Americana (baseball and weenies). The lyrics even mention Van Cliburn, the Texan classical pianist who won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in April 1958. His unexpected victory, endorsed by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev himself, was viewed in America as a hopeful sign of peaceful, diplomatic relations between the superpowers amid the ever-intensifying arms race and space race. Hopping on the diplomatic bandwagon, the record label that released the song (Brunswick) intended to send the first two pressings of the single to Eisenhower and Khrushchev as a peacemaking gesture. One can imagine what type of “gesture” Khrushchev would have come up with if he heard such a silly song, especially one that creates such an overt “good versus bad” dichotomy around the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

“Russia, Russia (Lay That Missile Down)” by Prescott Reed

Country musician Ray Anderson marked the launching of Sputnik II with his song “Sputniks and Mutniks” (1958). As mentioned above, Sputnik II carried the first living being into orbit around the earth, a dog named Laika. Laika—Russian for “barker”—was nicknamed by American press reporters “muttnik,” a portmanteau of “mutt” and “Sputnik.” In the first verse, Anderson light-heartedly wonders if Laika is simply on some kind of canine diplomatic mission, braving the skies to visit America’s “hound dog” and “groundhog.” These are most likely references to Elvis Presley’s 1956 hit “Hound Dog” and “Punxsutawney Phil,” the Pennsylvania groundhog who supposedly predicts how long winter will last. The second verse has more serious overtones, with Anderson admitting he just wants to find a place to hide from the satellites. The chorus also reflects fear, with Anderson questioning if the two Sputniks are “atomic” and can be used as nuclear weapons.

“Sputniks and Mutniks” by Ray Anderson

What did the British think of Sputnik? They too were fearful, but also amused at the widespread paranoia in America. “A Russian Love Song” was performed by Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, who along with Harry Secombe were the geniuses behind England’s first great post-World War II comedy team, The Goons. Their radio program “The Goon Show” ran throughout the 1950s and is widely credited with originating a fast-paced, surreal style that would dominate British comedy in later decades and influence acts such as Monty Python. The song was recorded on October 14, 1957, just ten days after the launch of Sputnik. The musical and lyrical jokes fly by so quickly that it is difficult for the listener to keep track of them. In the song’s three and a half minutes, ten different characters sing or speak the lyrics: a suave narrator, a boastful Russian, an elderly British ARP (Air Raid Precautions) member, a flustered British woman, a dimwitted British hunter, two British magistrates, a presidential aide, the President of the United States, and Elvis Presley. Each character gives their impression of seeing Sputnik, the “Russian satellite moon,” and is accompanied by appropriately humorous music.

The lush and romantic opening of the song portrays the Russian view of Sputnik. The satellite is serene, casting a spell on two lovers who gaze up at it. Its “silvery light” makes it as magnificent to behold as the real moon. In contrast, the rest of the song portrays the paranoid bewilderment of the Britons and Americans who view the satellite orbiting above them as some sort of weapon. The song pokes the most fun at American fears of the satellite (it “turns Americans white”), but British fears are also lampooned (a British hunter tries to shoot it down with his rifle). The massive influence of rock ‘n’ roll on American culture in 1957 is also a target of the song’s satire. By 1957, Elvis Presley was a huge star. The Goons portray Americans as being obsessed with rock music while the Soviets were launching satellites and winning the space race. The song ends with the boastful Russian man calling Elvis “Comrade Elvis,” implying that he and his hips are Russian allies since they are helping the Soviets distract America from the space race.

“A Russian Love Song” as performed by Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers

After the launch of Sputnik, Americans could no longer deny that the Soviets were a bona fide superpower. For the first time, the United States had to play catch up. The U.S. launched its first satellites in 1958–1959, which sent back data about cosmic rays, radiation belts, and the weather. These songs, like those satellites, documented the “atmospheric pressure” of the early space race.

Because of their lyrical specificity and topical nature, novelty songs rarely have timelessness, that quality of being universally revered and forever relevant. Yet this lack can be seen as a gain, giving novelty songs an often overlooked virtue, that of timeliness. The specificity in these songs makes them time capsules, which when unlocked, give insight into the Cold War.

For Discussion

  1. How do the first two songs portray American presumptions and stereotypes about the Soviets, and about their interests in space? How do they portray Soviet presumptions about Americans?
  2. In the third song, how do the sound effects and different accents add to the social commentary in the lyrics?
  3. Many American parents in the mid- to late 1950s felt that rock ’n’ roll performers were a bad influence on the youth, especially since they were imitating African-American musicians. See this link. How is the controversy about Elvis’s effect on young Americans used in “A Russian Love Song”?

From Atomic Tunes: The Cold War in American and British Popular Music by Tim and Joanna Smolko. Copyright © 2018, Tim and Joanna Smolko. Reprinted with permission of Indiana University Press.

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