Main Photo: by Evgeniy Reznik, Agata Cristie live
Your radio is laying on a little holiday away from the snow desert and gun-metal sky beyond your window. A bit of pomp rock blasts out by Cinderella and is followed by a classic by Pink Floyd and then a bit of electronic indie rock from Depeche Mode.
A challenging announcement reminds you that this is Rock FM (95.15 FM). Then maybe Billy Idol pops up, or Robert Plant to tell you not to touch that dial.
The educational spectrum of rock and roll on offer from the sixties right up to this minute cannot be faulted. Here in the capital of Russia you can access the greatest rock and roll show to be found on the radios of our planet.
Except that something is missing. Could that be the track listing? Or the English language? Or something else? It is something else.
Never does this station showcase a single Russian rock track. Never. Ever.
To be sure there is a station called Nashe Radio–I hope that somebody is dancing to this somewhere because I am unable to find it on the dial anymore–which is no doubt playing Zemfira or Nochnie Snaiperi as we speak. But how many have tuned in?
Imagine that a new metro line has been constructed. Fresh and pristine, the trains scuttle back and forth along its lines. Except that there are few passengers. Everyone is on the red, green and blue lines which are so much better known.
Such is the situation that Russian rock is in: it is a line not much visited.
Well it seems so, save for the fact that Russian rock does have its devotees. I have been in bars where groups of not-so-young guys stick some Korol i Shut on the jukebox and bawl along to it. In Red Club I have witnessed legions of Papa Roach T-shirted teens buy tickets on the night for bands like Stigmata to form the rugby scrum at the front of the stage. Then when I went to catch Vyacheslav Butusov play live at Club B-2 a year or two back I could not get a glimpse of the star so over-crowded was the venue.
A poor relation
I am embarking on a tour to somewhere outside the city. The coach is choc-a-bloc and I am sat next to an earnest teenage girl who wishes to practise her English. When she asks me what kind of music I like, it is an opportunity for me to impress her with my hard-won inside knowledge of the Russian rock scene.
“I thought Gorod 312 were pretty good when I saw them live”, I proffer.
“Yes, they’re… alright”, she intones, and stares out of the window. From then on the conversation becomes monosyllabic.
Had I stayed put in Britain for the past few years and listened to a diet of The Stone Roses and then turned up to Moscow last week I would have done better in terms of kudos in the eyes of this representative young lady.
Russians approach Western rock and roll with fresh and eager eyes. They are the late arrivals to the free market ball, pumped for action when the rest of us are asleep or setting off for home. For them nothing quite measures up to those old established metro lines. The time has come to tear off those headphones blaring out the Rolling Stones and spare a passing thought for the line less travelled by.
A Western Russian rock fan
When I–a questing Anglophone full of liberal prejudices set loose on a vast and insecure nation–first touched down on this Federation I knew that there was only way that I was going to survive this experience. I would need to keep on indulging those preoccupations which I had always loved, except do so with a Russian twist.
It is from Merseyside that I hail, and while I am not quite a Beatles fan, the Mersey beat throbs through my very D.N.A. So it was that I hatched a plan to annexe modern Russian pop culture in the manner of William the Conqueror. RU TV (Russian MTV) was my friend. From it poured back-to-back Day-Glo pop-rock extravaganzas. The kiosks in the markets sold me low priced bootlegged CD compilations of Russian rock-pop acts. Even gigs were affordable.
I took it all in: the antiseptic “popsa” of Carmen and Mirage, the blues based rock gods of Mashina Vremeni and Akvarium and dance seductresses like Angelika Varoom and her successor Nyusha.
Much of it seemed lacklustre or over-derivative, but there were some gems: the Bowie-esque art rock of B-2 made me sit up as did the intelligence of Pik-Nik and the dark wave of Otto Dix. And how could I fail to be drawn to a combo which had called itself Agata Kristie?
I remained alone on my journey though. A tolerant smirk is what my fellow expats would give me if mentioned my Russian rock collection. Why had I not done as they did and downloaded the back catalogue of Iggy Pop albums to see them through their time here? Russians meanwhile, enthused over their preference for what we in Britain call “Dad rock”–the likes of Deep Purple and even (a band all but laughed out of court in my country) the Electric Light Orchestra!
No Russian Sid Vicious
If you say ‘the sixties’ to a Russian they think of the 1860’s. In the West ‘the sixties’, the 1960’s, marked a post-war crossing of the Rubicon where the voice of authority was no longer to be taken on trust. Rock and roll was the soundtrack to this.
The apotheosis of this transition came a decade later, in the nineteen seventies. Its figurehead was the “punk pariah” nicknamed Sid Vicious. His manager Malcolm McLaren later said of this Toxic Youth from Balham, South London, that in his short life he “only saw green lights”.
The closest thing to a Sid Vicious that Russian culture can offer is the wolf from the cartoon series ‘Nu, Pоgodi!‘.
How could this be otherwise with the funky tank top wearing, combed haired, living-with-mother till-they’re–thirty, military conscripted young men of Russia? What they do have is Chanson, the Russian blues: songs for swinging losers. They can also lay claim to Dmitry Shostakovich, a composer who one critic from BBC Radio Three (a highbrow classical music station) described as producing a form of “rock and roll” on account of the rhythmic intensity of his symphonies.
But no Sid Vicious.
To rock out in Russia was once a dissident act, and they have-not quite outgrown the attitude of seeing the genre as something that belongs to the West and which must be paid obeisance to. This is evidenced in the fact that many a Russian rock group is the echo of a Western counterpart. Thus Aria = Iron Maiden. Akvarium = The Beatles. Amatory = KoRn, and so on.
Then go to a Russian rock gig. Yes they pogo and twirl on the stage, yes they invite the fans to join them near the end, yes they crack a few jokes, yes they throw their drumsticks into the crowd, yes they play an `unprepared` encore–yes they do all of that. There is however a workmanlike lack of abandon to it all… (or am I getting that mixed up with what women say about me after an evening out?)
Then again, what they may lack in spontaneity they more than compensate for by an unpolished joi de vivre which sets it apart from the often posed blasé stance of their Western brethren. To treat yourself to a quick case in point: compare and contrast Morrissey’s pallid rendering of his own song “How Soon is Now?” with t.A.T.u’s energised cover of the same piece (this is to be found on their album “200km in the Wrong Lane” from 2002).
And let me put in some other points in Russian rocks defence:
They mix it
Having taken in thirty years of Western rock and roll in about a decade, Russians sample a bit of every stylistic phase that it has been through all together in a borsch of their own concoction. Listen to Agata Kristie for instance: you can hear traces of progressive rock, punk, electronic and classic rock, and it all hangs together well.
The Song’s the Thing
Russians may have never really mastered the electric guitar. Where are the guitar heroes like Gary Lucas strumming away in the basements of this land? What they strive for instead are songs with a strong melodic base and thoughtful lyrics. Then these are delivered by vocalists who mean business.
It jives well with ‘popsa’
Western rock is often at daggers drawn with its pop sibling, or at least pretends this is so. Here the two genres have reached a playful communion. Think of Gorod 312 with their breezy string and drum tunes. Meanwhile Valerie Meladze has added his sumptuous voice to some undoubted rock numbers such as “Bezotvetno”.
It is full of feisty gals
I would be hard pressed to be able to count on the fingers of one hand the number of convincing ‘rock chicks’ there are fronting Western bands. In Russia however, perhaps emboldened by t.A.T.u, women seem to lead the way. The 32 year old Lousine Gervokyan is typical: she heads both Louna and Traktor Bowling. Then there can be seen Gorod 312, Mara, Zemfira, Butch and Total, to name but a few.
It has a dash of Asian spice
Kino’s Victor Tsoi was half Korean, Gorod 312 are Kyrgiz, Gervokyan is Armenian, Meladze is Georgian…and so on.
Listen without prejudice
Here follows my idiosyncratic recommendations for a sample of the best of Russian rock:
When it comes to this band you just have to believe the hype–if hype is the right term for the mystique which has enshrined these players since the sudden death of the 28 year old Victor Tsoi in 1990. They forged their own individual guitar rock with a distinct Russian edge to it and it doing so embodied the whole atmosphere of late Soviet period Russia.
With their effortless urban ‘cool’ this talented five piece remind me of Blondie at their best, but as played through a Central Asian filter. Not only that, but they have a lead guitarist who could give Keira Knightley a run for her money!
From their anthemic Euro rock masterpiece “Moi Mir” onwards this band have been producing a brand of intelligent New age soft rock for 18 years now. They bring to mind Garbage or Evanescense, without copying either.
For Russian rock to take its place on the rock and roll pantheon it is not enough for western listeners to divest themselves of their prejudices–it is also necessary for Russian fans to overcome their own inferiority complex.
I invite people onto the new metro line! How soon is now?