Certain Songs #1069: Made For TV – “So Afraid of the Russians”

Single, 1983

I know that you Millennials will never understand this, but worrying about the Russians, and what the Russians might do was a huge preoccupation for young people during the early 1980s. It was weird living in a world where we we were constantly that our crazy President would get us into a nuclear war with a hostile country.

But, of course, given that “nuclear paranoia songs from the 1980s” is definitely one of the larger sub-genres of Certain Songs please forgive me as I discuss this anachronistic song that was at least a minor hit during the early KFSR days.

In fact, we were so flooded with Cold War paranoia songs that it was probably the “Produced by John Cale” stamped in massive letters on the front of the single that made it stand out at first, but of course there was a reason that Cale produced it: it was pretty awesome.

I’d like to feed the children
Find a cure for disease
Rebuild cities
And plant a lot of trees

I’d like to help the sick
Build factories
Give money to students
Hospitals and galleries

Those lyrics are spoken in a slightly distorted deadpan, over a phased out stop-and-start guitar riff that would be almost bouncy if it was didn’t feel so ominous, especially when they went into the chorus and the guitar started freaking out.


I’m afraid of the Russians
I can’t sleep at night
So afraid of the Russians
Afraid we’ve got to fight

“So Afraid of The Russians,” was of course, darkly funny: sure the lyrics described a guy who wanted to do a whole bunch of great things, but his fear and paranoia kept him from even bothering, but in the back of your mind, you wondered if he was just using his fear of the Russians as an excuse.

Nowadays, of course, the threat to the U.S. by the Russians is so minimal that there is even a TV show about that period, called The Americans. Most people haven’t seen it, but it’s kind of a Hogan’s Heroes look at the misadventures of a pair of wacky Russian sleeper agents. It’s hilarious, and a satiric reminder that back then, the existential threat to the U.S. from the Russians was a real thing, as pointed out when the song gives us the laundry list of threats that the Russians proposed.

They’ve got ships at sea
They’ve got missles in the air
Tanks on the border of Europe
And spies everywhere
Spies everywhere
Spies everywhere
Spies everywhere

Spies everywhere
Spies everywhere
Spies everywhere
Spies everywhere

And as vocalist Tom Lyon repeat “spies everywhere,” with both the guitars and drums syncopated for emphasis, there’s a phone call to John Cale, whose Welsh accent is satisfactorily foreign and scary enough to be a Russian spy, and all you can think is “man, I’m glad that whole thing is over!”

“So Afraid of the Russians”

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