Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Let’s celebrate Alien Day with crazy late 1950s novelty songs

Illustration for article titled Let’s celebrate Alien Day with crazy late 1950s novelty songs

One of the weirdest side effects of the Space Race in the late ’50s, a battle for spaceflight supremacy between the United States and the Soviet Union, was an explosion of pop-cultural ephemera about outer space, flying saucers, and alien visitors. Sure, there were drive-in movies like Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers and Teenagers From Outer Space, but the real impact of the fad could be felt on pop radio, where it seemed like a new novelty song about Martians or UFOs was coming out every week. Sheb Wooley’s “The Purple People Eater,” which topped the charts for six weeks in the summer of 1958, can be considered the commercial apex of this youth-driven trend, but Wooley was far from the first or last singer to look to outer space for inspiration. Over at Sun Records, the home of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, rockabilly star Billy Riley recorded a twangy 1957 number called “Flyin’ Saucers Rock & Roll,” credited to “Billy Riley And His Little Green Men.” Among those “Green Men” was Sun labelmate Jerry Lee Lewis on piano.

Another rockabilly musician, Jesse Lee Turner, scored his only hit in 1959 with “Little Space Girl,” a Top 20 single about a young man’s reluctant love affair with an extraterrestrial with four arms, three lips, and three eyes.

A song like “Little Space Girl” can be interpreted as a happy alternative to Betty Johnson’s 1958 smash “The Little Blue Man,” in which the horrified singer spurns the advances of an otherworldly visitor, leading to tragic consequences. Supposedly, the voice of the alien in the song belongs to longtime TV personality Hugh Downs.

But the most innovative and influential of them all was Buchanan & Goodman’s “The Flying Saucer (Parts 1 & 2)” from 1956. This was the first major “break-in” record: a mock news report using snippets of hit records. In this case, “The Flying Saucer” includes excerpts from tracks by Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, and The Platters, making it the first Top 40 record to be built around samples of other songs. The “Flying Saucer” template was copied by comedians for years, including Buchanan & Goodman themselves, and applied to a variety of topics from politics to movies. But it all starts right here. “The Flying Saucer” also had influence beyond the music world. John Waters has frequently cited it as an inspiration for the soundtracks of his early movies.