Rock Goes Russian

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

What was big in Soviet pop music in 1973 was not necessarily what was permanent. The musical establishment, which controlled the business through exclusive rights to lease stages, issue record contracts, contract for radio and television appearances, or to place songs on the official lists of sanctioned music, sat atop the pyramid of power beating back the attacks of innovators. The preferred style of popular music went under the name estrada (stage music), a mellifluous if unchallenging style of performance that matched the bland melodies and lyrics it normally delivered. Chaste love, peaceful mainstream existence, common pleasures were the substance of these songs; rarely did estrada address social issues outside the world of music, and never did it stray beyond the official boundaries of Soviet discourse.

Performers wishing to find some creative connection to their audience could take a number of avenues more or less connected to the thoroughfare of Soviet pop. Master songwriter David Tukhmanov, honored member of the Union of Composers, authored the smash hit of 1973, “My Address is the Soviet Union,” whose opening couplet, “My home is not my house or my street/ My home is the Soviet Union,” featured a banal Soviet patriotism much in keeping with official norms, enough so that Tukhmanov could compose the somewhat illegitimate electric guitar into the piece. Still the modesty of the song gave Soviet listeners a welcome break from the pompous songs about love for the Communist party and Motherland that the establishment preferred. A rare few Soviet performers could operate outside the system of official recognition and distribution. The bards, such as Bulat Okudzhava or Vladimir Vysotskii, were so popular by 1973 that their voices and lyrics were known throughout the Soviet Union on scratchy unofficial tape recordings.

Rock’n’roll was the unspoken and unacknowledged barbarian at the gate, with 1973 serving as a threshold year. Although the official response to rock was a stony silence, punctuated by occasional campaigns to discredit rockers, officially-approved VIAs (vocal-instrumental assembles, the euphemism for rock band) did try to devise alternatives. The favored pretender in 1973 was the Belorussian band Pesniary (Songsters), whose folk-inflected melodies, lyrics and costumes kept them within the family of Soviet music, enough so to indulge a slight taste for electronic music. Although rock had been long known in Soviet Russia, it was as a western phenomenon, despised by the mainstream, and idolized by a young few. Just as opera was once thought to be sung exclusively in Italian, rock was thought to belong to the English language. Early Soviet rockers sang American and English songs in the original, often without understanding them. The music culture was strictly imitative, and the thought that rock music could be sung in Russian about Soviet life seemed absurd. It was not until Andrei Makarevich, lead singer of the Moscow band Time Machine, which had been in existence since 1968, began writing Russian rock in the early 1970s did Russian audiences understand that rock could be about their lives too. The musicianship of Time Machine was, to be charitable, secondary, and Makarevich’s nasal voice could stray into a whine, but their songs cut so deeply into Soviet hypocrisy that audiences were avid, even though the group was not recognized by official cultural institutions.

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