Oppenheimer Songs: How Sting and Rush Expressed Cold War Fears
Many of rock music's biggest names weren't even born in 1942, when the Manhattan Project, a top-secret government initiative approved by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was designed to develop nuclear research during World War II.
At the helm of the project was J. Robert Oppenheimer, an American theoretical physicist who became known as the "father of the atomic bomb" after several years of working with nuclear technology. Three years after the Manhattan Project's creation, the "Trinity test" of the first bomb was launched near Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945. The world then began to learn just what kind of astonishing — and undeniably deadly — science the U.S. government was at work on.
The public's fascination with the atomic bomb, which ultimately killed tens of thousands of people, would not cease. 2023 will see the release of Oppenheimer, a biographical thriller written and directed by Christopher Nolan, starring Cillian Murphy as the scientist
And as with many historical events, the story of Oppenheimer's invention has found its way into some rock songs. One of the first was Sting's "Russians," released on his 1985 debut solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles. It was, he would explain in 2010, inspired by watching Soviet TV via an illegal satellite signal, which a university friend had rigged up.
"We'd have a few beers and climb this tiny staircase to watch Russian television," Sting said. "At that time of night, we'd only get children's Russian television, like their Sesame Street. I was impressed with the care and attention they gave to their children's programs. I regret our current enemies haven't got the same ethics."
The song nodded directly to the bomb's creator, questioning how two opposing sides could have such similar lives: "If the Russians love their children, too, how can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer's deadly toy?"
Four years before the Berlin Wall came down, Sting incorporated other, more contemporary Soviet references into "Russians," like snippets from Vremya, a Soviet news program that acknowledged Margaret Thatcher's meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1984: "The British Prime Minister described the talks with the head of the delegation, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, as a constructive, realistic, practical and friendly exchange of opinions." Audio from the 1975 Apollo–Soyuz mission, the first crewed international space trip that was carried out together by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, can be heard in the background.
Listen to Sting's 'Russians'
Also in 1985, Rush included a track titled "Manhattan Project" on their 11th album, Power Windows: "Imagine a man where it all began / a scientist pacing the floor." Lyricist Neil Peart reportedly read books on the subject and wanted to make the song feel like a story.
"In a song like 'The Manhattan Project,' where it is essentially a documentary, I wanted the delivery to be like punctuation, and the chorus had to be more passionate and more rhythmically active," he explained in a 1986 interview [via Songfacts]. "It was hard to express exactly how I wanted it. The first time we worked on the music, they had phrased the lyrics in a very slow manner and I had to protest. ... There were internal rhymes and internal relationships among the words and within the delivery that had to remain intact for it to make sense at all. It was so carefully crafted that it couldn't be delivered any old way."
Listen to Rush's 'Manhattan Project'
Three years later, singer-songwriter Billy Bragg's "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards" touched on the distance between political turmoil and tangible progress. "In the Soviet Union, a scientist is blinded by the resumption of nuclear testing and he is reminded that Dr. Robert Oppenheimer's optimism fell at the first hurdle," Bragg sang.
Writing in his 2015 book, A Lover Sings: Selected Lyrics, Bragg said the song was his "way of owning up to the ambiguities of being a political pop star while stating clearly that I still believed in Sam Cooke's promise that a change was gonna come."
A decade later, alt-country band Old 97's released a song titled "Oppenheimer," but it didn't have anything to do with the scientist; it's about falling in love on a street named after the Father of the Atomic Bomb. It's not exactly clear if there's any connection between J. Robert Oppenheimer and Texas, where Old 97's formed.
Listen to Old 97's' 'Oppenheimer'