That time Russians invaded the U.S. pop charts…

With all the talk in Washington about Russia’s involvement – some still like to use the word “alleged” – in American politics, and as that talk will likely intensify with the changing of the guard in the U.S. House of Representatives this month, I thought it would be fun to take a lighthearted look back at a long-ago January – one when Russians actually did infiltrate a U.S. institution.

Before anyone gets their panties in a wad, I’m talking about the American pop music charts, which should immediately alert readers that everything henceforth will be presented with tongue slightly planted in cheek; although the events described here are real, not fake, to partially borrow from a phrase de jour.

It was January 1986 – 33 years ago this month – when America’s ongoing Cold War with the former Soviet Union and the occasional romanticism of all things Russia manifested itself on the Billboard Hot 100.

To wit, there were no fewer than seven songs on the chart in the middle of January ‘86 which were either directly or loosely tied to our ongoing conflict with the former superpower. The convergence of such pop hits at that time was coincidental not only because of the sheer number of topically related songs charting but because the Soviet Union was on the cusp of historic change that would see its dissolution only five years later, preceded by the end to the four-decades-long conflict between the world’s two prevailing superpowers.

Perhaps rock stars and movie producers sensed then that the Cold War was nearing an end and that they’d better capitalize while the story could still sell.  In this case, the stories sold very well.  All seven songs reached the top 20 of the Hot 100 and became memorable time stamps in their own right. 

Djrobblog takes a look back at the seven “Russian-influenced” songs charting in winter 1986 and how they were connected to our conflict with the Soviets. 

“Say You, Say Me” – Lionel Richie

“Separate Lives” – Phil Collins/Marilyn Martin

Starting at the top of the chart was Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me,” the title song from the motion picture White Nights. The film starred a real-life Soviet defector – actor and ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov – and was about two defectors going in opposite directions, one from Russia and the other from the U.S. (played by the late Gregory Hines) who had evaded the Vietnam War. 

As the story went, the two unlikely friends meet through unusual circumstances after the KGB captures Baryshnikov’s character (also a dancer) following his plane’s emergency landing in Siberia.  To avoid punishment for defecting, the dancer is forced to perform at the Kirov Ballet in Russia under the custody of Hines’s character, whom the KGB apparently trusts.  The story follows the loves and lives of the two friends as well as their own budding relationship, and ends with both eventually getting to the consulate in the former Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg).

On the January 18, 1986 Billboard pop chart, “Say You, Say Me” had just completed a four-week run at the top and was parked at No. 2.  It was the second of two No. 1 singles from the movie, although it never appeared on the soundtrack album because the song was at the center of its own mini-conflict.  

Motown Records didn’t want Lionel Richie’s first new single in two years to appear on a label other than Motown, so the song wasn’t placed on an album until Richie’s Dancing On The Ceiling was released several months later.  (The single did sell a million copies and ultimately won the Oscar for Best Original Song.)

On the other hand, Phil Collins’ “Separate Lives” was included on the soundtrack album (which was on Phil’s label Atlantic Records).  It was the first No. 1 single from the movie – having beaten Richie’s song by a few weeks – and was billed as the “theme” song (remember, “Say You, Say Me” was the title song… there is a big difference).  The Oscar-nominated song had given Phil Collins his third No. 1 hit of 1985 (his fourth overall) and had also been the first and only No. 1 hit for Marilyn Martin.  On the January 18, 1986 list, it was at No. 19 and falling.

“Burning Heart” – Survivor

“Living In America” – James Brown

Perhaps no song epitomized the ongoing battle of Communist East vs. Capitalist West better than Survivor’s “Burning Heart” from the film Rocky IV.  Released in 1985, the movie featured fictional American boxing hero Rocky Balboa (from Philly) taking on the menacing Russian fighter Ivan Drago (from Moscow) in a brutal and dramatic boxing match that symbolized – intentionally – the ongoing battle between the two rival nations.  Drago’s relentless killing (literally) of Rocky’s friend and former opponent Apollo Creed during an exhibition fight – along with his cold, intense demeanor – reflected American’s biased perceptions of Russians at the time (and to this day).  

Rocky IV is considered among the best films in the Rocky franchise – mainly because of the U.S.-versus-Russia symbolism – with a storyline that continues to the present day.  Ivan Drago (played by the original actor Dolph Lundgren) returned 33 years later in 2018’s Creed 2, where his son Viktor takes on Apollo’s son Adonis in a memorable, revengeful quest for the championship.

“Burning Heart” continued in the tradition of Survivor’s other Rocky contribution, “Eye Of The Tiger,” although not as big.  On the January 18, 1986 list, “Burning Heart” had just moved into the top ten on its way to a No. 2 peak, falling one position shy of “Tiger,” which had hit No. 1 three-and-a-half years earlier.

“Living In America” by Soul Brother Number One James Brown was Apollo Creed’s theme as he entered the ring to take on Drago… in America, of course.  It was also the last song we heard before Apollo met his death at Drago’s hands.  At No. 36 and climbing that chart in January, “Living In America” would become James Brown’s biggest hit in over 20 years on the pop chart (and second-biggest overall after “I Got You”), reaching No. 4 later that winter.

“Spies Like Us” – Paul McCartney

Technically speaking, Paul McCartney has only had a handful of solo hit singles.  The rest were billed either with the Beatles, his group Wings, his late wife Linda, the late Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, or Kanye West and Rihanna.  “Spies Like Us,” from the farce/action movie of the same name starring Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase, was one of those solo hits. 

Aykroyd and Chase play a hapless pair of low-level government employees who think they are spies but are only used by the CIA as decoys in an attempt to expose the Russians in a Cold War nuclear showdown. With the distraction set, two real spies are sent in to hijack a Soviet missile launcher, launch the missile and test the U.S. defense system.  When the defense fails after the missile is launched while aimed for an American City, all havoc breaks lose and World War III hangs in the balance.

“Spies Like Us” was climbing up the Hot 100 on January 18, 1986, a week shy of entering the top ten where it would eventually peak at No. 7.  “Spies” would be McCartney’s last top-10 hit for almost three decades before he surprisingly teamed with Rihanna and Kanye West on 2015’s “FourFiveSeconds.”

“Nikita” – Elton John

If only by name, this top-10 song by Elton John was one of two Russian-influenced songs on this list not tied to a movie.  Instead, as depicted in the music video, the song’s storyline was of a male protagonist (Elton) with a crush on an East German border guard (“Nikita,” played by a British woman).  Although the setting is Communist East Germany (before the Berlin Wall came down and the two Germanys were reunited), Elton was mindful that Nikita is in fact a masculine Russian name.  He decided to use it anyway and got one of his many top-10 hits in the process.  (Elton later fully came out, making the title decision not such a dubious one in retrospect.)

“Nikita” debuted on the Hot 100 on that January 18 list and ultimately peaked at No. 7 in early spring.  And finally…

“Russians” – Sting

Sting’s first album away from The Police was The Dream of the Blue Turtles, which included the song “Russians.”  It would be released as the album’s third single and was one of ten new entries on that January 18, 1986 chart.  “Russians” eventually peaked at No. 16 for two weeks that winter and was the only song in this list of seven that directly addressed the ongoing conflict between the U. S. and the Soviet Union.

Although the chorus line uses the refrain “I hope the Russians love their children, too,” Sting criticizes the Cold War policies of both nations and the doctrine of “Mutually Assured Destruction,” in which nuclear weapons – should they be used – would annihilate both the attacker and defender.  In the song’s third verse, Sting wistfully sings “Mr. Reagan says ‘we will protect you,’ I don’t subscribe to this point of view.”  A similar scorn is directed at former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in other verses.  Russian cultural references are used throughout the song and/or its video, including radio broadcast footage and images of a ballerina dancer.

Of course, the threat of a nuclear disaster was significantly diminished three years later when Mikhail Gorbachev and President Reagan’s successor George H. W. Bush jointly declared the Cold War over (with the Soviet Union dissolving two years after that).

But the pending gloom and doom of such a threat certainly made its presence known on American radio and the charts of early 1986 – the time that Russians’ influenced American pop culture unlike any time before or since.

Well, at least on the Billboard music charts.  

DJRob 

P.S. It wasn’t all about Russia during that time.  American references in pop music abounded as well.  Aside from James Brown’s “Living In America,” there was ELO’s “Calling America” (No. 18 peak), Jackson Browne’s “For America” (No. 30), Bob Seger’s “American Storm” (No. 13) and John Cougar Mellencamp’s “R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A.” (No. 2), proving that American pride had as much a place in popular music as the concern over nuclear disaster.

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