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What Rock Music Tells Us About the Soviet Union

Author: Beth Flanagan
Scholastic Update
March 7, 1986

Sitting at the kitchen table in his tiny Leningrad apartment, Boris Grebenshikov recalls "the best concert I never got to play."

Grebenshikov heads the popular Leningrad rock group, Aquarium. He had taken the Red Arrow overnight express train to Moscow for a solo concert—only to find, when he arrived, that Moscow authorities had cancelled his permission to play. His music, they said, was a bad influence on young people.

Grebenshikov smiles broadly as he tells what happened next.

"All the ticket-holders came, plus hundreds more who were hoping to squeeze in," he says. "I was mobbed. I signed autographs and answered questions about my music, and I couldn’t get out of the building. It was great! The poet Andrei Voznesensky [considered perhaps his nation’s greatest living poet] was there, and he said he loved my songs. Incredible! I’ve had concerts get canceled before, but this was the best!"

Grebenshikov, 32, is well-known in the Soviet Union’s big cities. But he has never had a record produced, or a song played on the radio. That’s because, as far as the government is concerned, he is not a musician at all. He is a night watchman.

Grebenshikov belongs to a generation of younger Soviet musicians, artists, and writers who pursue their arts without official approval. For artistic freedom, most have given up the chance for a secure place in the cultural establishment. Many look to the West, and the U.S., for inspiration.

A Giant Fishbowl

"I called my band Aquarium, " he explains, "because here in the Soviet Union we are in a giant fishbowl. Since we can’t travel freely to other countries, we are like fish in a tank who swim up and press our noses against the glass, trying to see out at the rest of the world."

Since 1979, Grebenshikov and his band have taped seven albums in a Leningrad recording studio. Their cassettes are copied and passed from city to city and fan to fan. Aquarium earns no money from its recordings.

"We’re the biggest little label in the world," Grebenshikov jokes as he pastes photos of his band onto cassette boxes. Next to him, an artist friend neatly letters the word AQUARIUM above each picture.

Grebenshikov used to travel around the Soviet Union, performing in smaller towns and distributing tapes. He couldn’t afford to continue. He paid his own way, receiving no money except when, sometimes, someone passed a hat for donations.

In the Soviet Union, musicians must gain professional status before they’re allowed to earn money. The Leningrad branch of the State Concert Agency wouldn’t accept Aquarium, however, and the Musicians’ Union denied membership to the band’s members. So, they all make their livings doing other things.

Like Grebenshikov, they have chosen jobs that allow lots of free time for music. His cello player cuts weeds along the railroad tracks outside Leningrad. The lead guitarist stokes a furnace, and the flute player sells watermelons from an outdoor stand.

Neither Grebenshikov nor his band members ever have much money. But they and other musician friends have a strong sense of mutual support. They share food and drink, records and tapes, even strollers for each others’ children. Despite their poverty, they insist they’re not suffering for their art. They’re having too much fun.

There are many such amateur groups in Leningrad and other large Soviet cities. Some of the best known go by such names as Strange Games, Animal Noises [Zvuki Mu], The Movies [Kino], and The Zoo [Zoopark]. They can’t perform in the concert halls reserved for approved Soviet groups. Still, amateur groups can play at private parties, in school halls, and in trade-union clubs. Usually, the auditoriums are strung with red banners proclaiming Communist Party slogans, such as, "Work Hard, Study Hard, In The Manner Of Lenin," or "The Party Is The Honor and Conscience Of The People."

Many Soviet rock musicians, both amateur and official, are trained as classical musicians. Typically, they graduate from conservatories or music academies, then find themselves drawn to rock and jazz. So, the quality of the music is quite high.

Glitter and Masks

When performing, Grebenshikov—slim, blonde, and intense—resembles David Bowie. Dressed in a white jumpsuit, he dances around on the small drab stages under the red banners. He wears glitter on his face and sometimes dons a mask.

Grebenshikov has been performing since he was 17, and he has been influenced by many Western styles. His band plays them all with ease, from reggae to punk. But Aquarium’s usual style is upbeat folk-rock, with classical licks thrown in by the cellist or flutist. It’s a rich sound, with pretty melodies. Sometimes odd sound effects, like short-wave radio transmissions or bird calls, are added. The band also plays some American songs, including "Johnny Be Good."

Like many Soviet amateur groups, Aquarium is made up of a motley arrangement of whatever musicians happen to drop by when Grebenshikov is trying out a new song. At various times, the band has included a bassoonist, a saxophonist, a keyboard player, and a female vocalist, in addition to its four regular members.

Some rock groups, unlike Aquarium, are officially approved and allowed to perform abroad and on television. Last year, a Soviet group called Autograph joined, by satellite, the LIVE-AID concert that raised money for African famine victims. Approved groups get their instruments and equipment from the government. The state-run record label, Melodiya ("melody"), produces their records.

However, Soviet music buffs say that because the official groups’ music has won the censors’ okay, it’s not as interesting as what the unofficial groups play. Their lyrics tend to be bland and sidestep sensitive issues.

A fairly typical song of the official type, by the group Stas Namin’s People, is called "Be Glad": Be glad for the sun! There’s still hope for children of the earth, when adults stop shooting. Be glad for the sun, for the first snows of winter, For the bold searching of spring’s first buds! Be glad! Be glad for life itself!

In the Soviet Union, the big newspapers print charts of the most popular songs that are based on write-in votes by readers. Aquarium has had top songs on the Leningrad charts several years in a row—even though the band doesn’t officially exist. A verse from "Snow Has Fallen All Morning," a number one hit, shows a daring edge that official songs lack:

Let’s tiptoe past the open door,
We’ll make it look as if we’re not home,
Let’s go where it’s quiet and light.

Oh, you can be as haughty as steel,
And you can pretend
This Is only a movie you’re in,
About people who live under high tension.

But, love, snow has fallen all morning,
All morning long,
And there is nothing you can’t do,
If you want to enough.

Queen of Rock

The undisputed queen of official Soviet rock and pop music is a singer named Alla Pugacheva. She performs love ballads and story-songs in a husky, powerful voice, often accompanied by an orchestra. She has a very dramatic presence on stage, reaching out to the audience, then clasping her arms around herself.

Whatever the music, Soviets love to dance. The Soviet Union reportedly has over 10,000 discos. They all play some Western records in addition to Soviet ones. Admission is cheap, and there are no age restrictions. Concerts, however, are another matter. Tickets are impossible to get, and dancing is not permitted. The most emotion fans can show is to sway and clap.

Soviets who are curious about trends in Western music often buy records and tapes from the steady stream of foreign tourists and exchange students. Melodiya puts out a few records every year of famous foreign artists, such as the Beatles. There are also TV programs devoted to music from other countries. One show is "Foreign Jazz Tunes and Rhythms."

Michael Who?

Still, most current Western music stars are unknown in the Soviet Union, because the Soviet government considers them unworthy. One Moscow newspaper criticized Michael Jackson for being indecent onstage, but most Soviets had never heard him.

Even official groups must watch their steps. One of Grebenshikov’s close friends is Andrei Makarevich, the leader of an official group, The Time Machine. His band, praised in 1981 as a trendsetter that dealt with urgent questions, was denounced the next year as "un-Russian." The Time Machine apparently has corrected its "mistakes," for Makarevich still enjoys the special privileges of a star. On tour, he stays at the best hotels, with a car and driver at his disposal.

When Grebenshikov travels, he goes by train, or he hitchhikes. He sleeps on the floors of friends’ apartments and worries that the local artistic committees may cancel his concerts. But he insists that he doesn’t envy Makarevich’s success.

"When Andrei and The Time Machine are visiting Leningrad, they come over sometimes after their big concerts in the Palace of Culture," Grebenshikov says. "Sitting around my kitchen, they play some of their best songs, songs they couldn’t play in public because the censors didn’t like them. When I play in public, even though I am broke and have an old guitar and lousy amps, everything I play is my best and from my heart. I am freer than Andrei, with his limousine and his prestige, and I prefer it this way."

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