The Leningrad Rock Scene

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Nourished by decades in the underground, featured in the Leningrad Rock Club since 1981, the flourishing rock scene of Leningrad burst onto the open stage of stadiums and concert halls once glasnost had undermined the Party’s cultural hegemony. The city of Leningrad, distance from the ministries and minions of Moscow, had long featured a more vital musical life. By now the group Aquarium had become the grand old men of Russian rock, fostering a spirit that less rejected than it simply ignored official Soviet values. Aquarium and its lead singer Boris Grebenshchikov sang of opting out entirely from Soviet life. In pursuit of time for their art, rockers had taken low-end jobs that paid little, demanded little work and allowed them to develop their musical and spiritual lives. Aquarium called on their peers as well to become a “generation of janitors and nightwatchmen.”

Tusovka, the slang word that characterized the informal, crash-anywhere play-everywhere spirit of the scene, was the byword of Leningrad rock. The music could be played in an apartment, a basement, an abandoned store front, or a park. Official resistance to rock only reinforced its ethos, heightening the anxiety of elders in the world of culture. All this was swept aside in the busy year of change, even in stodgy Moscow, always a rock-n-roll backwater. Now the Moscow City Council and the Komsomol sponsored concerts, and rockers were even invited to play at the Victory Day celebration, the most traditional Soviet holiday. Giddy with delight, rockers embraced these opportunities; but they would soon find that official acceptance and the cash payments that came with it would forever undermine the counterculture spirit they loved.

Aquarium attracted huge audiences to their concerts, but they shared the stage with a new generation of rockers whose music carried new inflections, and whose vocalists enjoyed a stardom rivaling Grebenshchikov. Viktor Tsoi, lead singer of KINO whose powerful stage presence would make him a cult idol, and whose starring role in the film Needle would make him an icon, enjoyed a status that was only enlarged by his premature death in a 1990 motorcycle accident; Kostya Kinchev, front for the band ALISA, who would also achieve film stardom in The Burglar; or Zhanna Aguzarova of BRAVO, a provincial girl from Siberia who became the first female star of Russian rock: these were some of the new names on the scene. Accepted by the official record company Melody, given concert dates in large stadiums, and allowed to tour the whole of the Soviet Union, the comfortable world of the tusovka was changing forever.

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