Petrov's Dilemma, Radio 4<br>R.E.S.P.E.C.T &ndash; The Art of Backing Vocals, Radio 4

Meet Stanislav, the Russian who saved the world
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It's the classic what-would-you-do moment: it's September 1983 and the Cold War is virtually ice-bound. A MiG fighter has shot down a civilian airliner; the US has unveiled the Pershing II missile and Ronald Reagan is making smug noises about Star Wars. You're at work, though you should be tucked up in bed, when the alarm sounds.

In Petrov's Dilemma, Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant-colonel in the Soviet Union's strategic rocket forces and deputy head of the combat algorithms department, was filling in for a colleague at the Serpukhov-15 early warning station – "I can't say I was particularly vigilant that day" – when the siren sounded and a single word came up on the big screen: "Start!" He rang his superiors, told them he thought it was a false alarm.

Then it went off again. And again, and again, and again, five times at five-minute intervals. The screen changed from "Start!" to "Missile Attack". It's at that point that brown trousers, if not already deployed, would become a sine qua non of the whole operation.

"It was so tense that I couldn't even stand up," Petrov remembered. "I was glued to the chair – my legs failed me." But he stood, or sat, firm, and became the man who saved the world. It was all hushed up, of course, and Petrov sworn to secrecy. (This was after they'd tried to blame him for the whole incident even though a dodgy satellite was to blame.) He couldn't even tell his wife, he chuckled. "The next day the whole of the town would have known."

So, it's obviously a toss-up between Petrov and whoever arranged the backing vocals on Gladys Knight & the Pips' "Midnight Train to Georgia" for the title of Greatest Person in the World Ever. Yes, one saved the world from nuclear catastrophe, but the other created a thing of beauty, which is quite important, too. In R.E.S.P.E.C.T – The Art of Backing Vocals, Nick Barraclough promised to "expose the flying buttresses and gargoyles of songs you thought you knew". I'm not sure he quite did that, though he did usefully explore how backing vocals are layered for maximum effect – sometimes by the same person singing in different styles – and how there's a direct line from Elizabethan fa-la-las and "Sumer is icumen in" to rama-lama-ding-dong and bop-showaddy-waddy.

And, best of all, in exploring a few great examples of the art, such as "Leader of the Pack" and "Midnight Train ...", he made you listen to old songs with new ears.