Tim Smolko (Athens, Georgia)
American record producer Dickie Goodman made a career out of writing novelty songs. From the mid-1950s to the 1980s, his songs poked fun at current events, politicians, dance crazes, films, and especially the Russians. He is best known for creating and popularizing the “break-in,” a technique of inserting brief portions of popular songs into a ludicrous narrative to comically respond to, and comment on, current events. This practice began with his first recording, “The Flying Saucer” in 1956. Using razor blades, adhesive tape, a steady hand, and a hefty dose of patience, Goodman spliced together various portions of reel-to-reel tapes to make these songs. Taking advantage of the spate of alleged UFO sightings in the 1950s, “The Flying Saucer” used hits by Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and others to comment on an alien spacecraft landing on Earth.
Goodman created several songs with Cold War themes, his first being the 1959 instrumental “Stroganoff Cha Cha.” It is an unlikely mishmash of Russian and Cuban music. This song shows that even a cheesy instrumental novelty song without lyrics can be meaningful and even prophetic. This Russian/Cuban alliance in sound was released in February 1959, not only before the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, but before Nikita Khrushchev had even met Fidel Castro.
“Stroganoff Cha Cha” features the melody of the traditional Russian work song “Song of the Volga Boatmen” (“Ey, ukhnem!”) played on a raunchy saxophone. Even Goodman’s title makes the Russian/Cuban connection explicit. Beef Stroganoff has been among the most popular Russian dishes in the United States since it was introduced in the nineteenth century. The cha-cha-chá, a dance of Cuban origin created in the late 1940s by composer, violinist, and bandleader Enrique Jorrín, has been an emblem in America of Cuban music and dance since the mid-1950s. Since few Americans would have had direct contact with the cultures of these two communist countries, the dish and the dance are American imaginaries of the exotic. “Song of the Volga Boatmen” is one of the most well-known Russian folk songs and has come to symbolize in the American imagination the toil of Russian peasants under the oppression of czars or communist dictators. The combination of a slow and heavy Russian work song with a light and frisky Cuban dance must have sounded odd in early 1959, since there was little connection at the time between the cultures of the two countries. A brief history of the two countries’ alliance will provide a deeper appreciation for “Stroganoff Cha Cha.”
Fidel Castro came into power in early January 1959 and soon began to steer Cuba in a communist direction by severing the capitalist connection between the United States and ousting president/dictator Fulgencio Batista. Khrushchev, who was always on the lookout for communist allies, took little notice of Castro at the time. But when Khrushchev heard that Castro had been snubbed by President Eisenhower, he became interested. Soon Castro had Khrushchev in his good graces and in August 1962, American U-2 spy planes supplied indisputable photographic evidence of Soviet nuclear missile bases in Cuba. Suddenly the Soviet Union, its nuclear weapons, and communism were at America’s doorstep.
Goodman created “Stroganoff Cha Cha” with the help of his close friend Mickey Shorr, a Detroit disc jockey. When they made the song, there was no way Goodman and Shorr could have known that Khrushchev and Castro would join forces and form a Russian/Cuban alliance, or that this alliance would dictate geopolitics in the Western hemisphere for decades. When it was released in February 1959, Castro had been in power for just one month and Khrushchev knew little about him. Just as politics can make strange bedfellows (Khrushchev and Castro), so can a Cold War novelty song (Russian work song and Cuban cha-cha-chá). It is unexpectedly meaningful and uncannily prophetic.
“Stroganoff Cha Cha” by Spencer and Spencer (a pseudonym for Goodman and Mickey Shorr)
Two additional Goodman songs deserve exploration because of their comically exaggerated impressions of Soviet media control. The first, “Russian Bandstand,” is among the most sinister and tasteless of all the Cold War songs. Released two months after “Stroganoff Cha Cha,” it uses the instrumental track of that song as its foundation. A parody of American Bandstand, the song imagines what the show might be like if Nikita Khrushchev were the host instead of Dick Clark. It begins with the host, Nikita Clarkchev, introducing himself in a mock Russian accent and observing that almost everyone in Russia watches the show. After the sound of machine gun fire, he announces with a sneer, “Now everybody watches ‘Russian Bandstand,’ ” implying that he has just shot the last person in the country who was not watching it. He then announces the number one song in Russia (Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” played backwards) and shoots anyone who says they don’t like the song. After another tape-reversed snippet (by Nikita Presleychev) and another shooting, the song ends with the secret police shooting the host. Although the song is a hyperbolic parody of Soviet media control, it reflects real fears in 1950s–1960s America of state-monopolized radio and television. While the technologies of radio and television were “born free” in the United States—though of course shaped by market forces—all forms of Soviet media were under strict government control, and this was often emphasized in America during the Cold War.
“Russian Bandstand” by Spencer and Spencer
Two years later, in 1961, Goodman made his next Cold War song, “Berlin Top Ten,” again a commentary on government-policed radio. The song begins with disc jockey Happy Hans Kaput playing a snippet of the supposed number one song in East Berlin, “Don’t Fence Me In.” This is undoubtedly a commentary on the Berlin Wall, which had just begun to “fence in” East Berlin when the song was released. (The Berlin Wall actually surrounded West Berlin.) Happy Hans is then machine-gunned by the “secret police” and replaced by Boris the Spinner, “the people’s disc jockey.” After a few more news announcements and song snippets, the sound of marching soldiers and machine guns are heard once again. This time it is Boris’s turn to face the secret police and he signs off with a snippet of “I’ll Never Smile Again” by the Platters.
“Berlin Top Ten” by Dickie Goodman
The secret police mentioned twice in the song is either the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency/military police, or the Stasi, the East Berlin equivalent. Both are considered to be among the most repressive and invasive state agencies in modern history. The song comically portrays how East Berlin radio was controlled by these two organizations. Dickie Goodman grew up listening to American radio during its “Golden Age” (1920s–1950s), before the ascendancy of television. He knew and worked with many American disc jockeys and radio personalities, and garnered airplay for his songs by hawking them around to radio stations. Thus it is fitting that he would create a song like “Berlin Top Ten,” which, although comical, shows the plight of radio disc jockeys in countries where broadcast freedom is denied.
The song is also remarkable for its pertinence to the construction of the Berlin Wall. The border between West Berlin and East Berlin was closed on the night of August 12, 1961, by means of a barbed-wire fence. A few days later, cement blocks began to be put into place. Goodman conceived the song, recorded it, and released it a little over two months later on October 23, 1961. At the time, Goodman could not have known the pervasive impact the Wall would have on world politics for the next almost thirty years. Nor could he have known how prescient his song was. Although it wasn’t a hit, only reaching number 116 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart, the song’s use of “Don’t Fence Me In” helped to establish it as an emblematic commentary on the Berlin Wall.
These three novelty songs show how popular music can capture historical moments and comment on them as they are unfolding. The farfetched scenarios in the last two songs (“secret police” gunning down disc jockeys on the air) show that Goodman understood that the United States was prone to exaggerate the extent to which Soviet media was controlled. Yet at the same time, these songs clearly contributed to U.S. fears of communist countries during the Cold War.
- How do Goodman’s song snippets add atmosphere and setting to these songs?
- How do these songs function like editorial cartoons?
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.