The Jazz-Rock Counterculture is Born
In this Chapter:
- Stalin and the Jazz Era
- Rock 'n' Roll Arrives in the USSR
- Khrushchev and the Party line vs. Rock 'n' Roll
- How Young People Got Recordings
- How Young People Got Instruments
- The Beatles and the USSR
- Beatles Page (3 images/ 1 sound file)
- Us and Them-Rock and World Politics
- Rock Receives Official Status-the VIA's
During the Stalinist era of Soviet cultural history, Socialism had its functionaries that advocated an official art form under the collective term "Socialist Realism." "Prolonged exposure to socialist art, it was argued, could transform a selfish capitalist into a selfless socialist man." Artists, especially writers were deemed "engineers of human souls." Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin's main cultural official, was at the head of the offensive against any Western influences "poisoning the consciousness of the masses."In 1947, his bilious polemics were directed at a popular form of enterainment from the West; jazz. Zhdanov condemned the "predilection for, and even a certain orientation toward modern, Western, borgeois music, toward decadent music." A style of dress among the urban music fans in black suits, thin ties and dark glasses with chewing gum earned them the name stiliagi, from the Russian stil' (style) and the vehement reproachful regard of the government and the citizens alike. "They were unconditionally considered to be morally depraved and a tumor on the social organism." But their aim was not so much subersive as it was expressive, and they hungered only for more information about the style of music and dress they were copying from the Western jazzmen. Socialist art seemed to be grey and banal compared to the 'cool' style of Europe and America. The Komsomol was sometimes responsible for cleaning up their "scene," where the stiliagi "hung out" along a stretch of Gorky prospect between Pushkin square and the Hotel Moskva which was called, affectionately, "Broadway". Jazz and the stiliagi prevailed despite attempts to purge them. And though many musicians were arrested during Stalin's reign, by 1955, Pravda, the official journal of the Communist Party, was even challenging restrictions on jazz.
After the death of Stalin, the ascendence of Khrushchev with his program of de-Stalinization, and the loosening of restrictions on the arts during the 1950's, gave the youth culture more freedom, particularly in their musical activities. There were still no Western jazz groups published on Soviet recordings, nor were there endorsements by the composersÕ union.
Rock 'n' Roll music was given its premier in the atmosphere of apparent freedom, at the Sixth World Youth Festival in Moscow, in July 1957. According to the Kremlin, the festival was an "attempt to demonstrate to the world that the Soviet Union had emerged from the ethno- and xenophobia of the immediate post-war years." Jazz musicians were invited from both sides of the iron curtain to perform for tens of thousands of Soviet teenagers. The Kremlin did not, however, prepare to regulate the music that would be presented, nor did they anticipate the musicians' bringing electric guitars to the festival, probably out of ignorance of the emergence of rock 'n' roll in the West. "No one was sure if rock 'n' roll was a song or a style of music." Soviet teenagers and officials alike were given a prelude to the flood of electric popular music that would grip the youth and rock the Soviet Union for years to come. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Columbian author who attended the festival, noted, on his second trip to Moscow in 1979, that in 22 years the city had lost it's "slow paced and lackluster" appearance. "Many people believe that the breakdown of that old image traces back to the festival." The world famous Moiseev Ballet, which toured frequently in the West even put on a performance in Moscow that featured a portrayal of Hell featuring rock-style music. It seemed that the authorities in the Kremlin were caught quite by surprise at the enthusiastic and pervasive youth indulgence in the new musical culture.
Throughout the period of rock's emergence there was a great deal of concern and effort on the government's part to regulate the leisure activities of the Soviet teenagers, and guide them down the path toward socialist ideals. But the government officials could hardly compete with rock music for the attention of the youth. Khrushchev considered himself a patron of the arts, but clearly did not consider popular music an art. Rather, it was "the cacophony of sounds with which listeners are assailed and which is dignified with the name of music only through a misconception."
His feelings on the dancing that came along with the music were equally resentful. "A feeling of distaste is also aroused by the so-called modern dances brought into our country from the West...something unseemly, mad and the devil knows what!" Khrushchev therefore praised the East Germans and Moiseev himself for their official efforts to promote "socialist dances" among the teenagers. These dances, choreographed by dancers from the ballet, were generally not accepted by the masses.
Khrushchev's dreams of a socialist dance revolution were dashed, as The 'Twist' spread through Eastern Europe like wildfire after burning up West as a result of Chubby Checker's song of that name. In the first years of the 60's, the Twist spread "immediately to every high school and institute party in [the USSR]." The twist even appeared on Red Square on May 1, 1967, and a huge group of "twisters" were dispersed by the militia. The cultural officials continued to rail against the decadent Western styles that reinforced a sense of "generational confinement, on which rock music fed, the prohibition of which created a vital rock culture."
The ways in which the young people dealt with the attitude of the officials in the Soviets and the general distaste and ignorance of the older generation toward their emerging pop culture is interesting and, at times, ingenious. Owing to the lack of recordings of Western music available in the USSR, people had to rely on records coming through Eastern Europe, where controls on records were less strict, or on the tiny influx of records from beyond the iron curtain. Such restrictions meant the number of recordings would remain small and precious. But enterprising young people with technical skills learned to duplicate records with a converted phonograph that would "press" a record using a very unusual material for the purpose; discarded x-ray plates. This material was both plentiful and cheap, and millions of duplications of Western and Soviet groups were made and distributed by an underground roentgenizdat, or x-ray press, which is akin to the samizdat that was the notorious tradition of self-publication among banned writers in the USSR. According to rock historian Troitsky, the one-sided x-ray disks costed about one to one and a half rubles each on the black market, and lasted only a few months, as opposed to around five rubles for a two-sided vinyl disk. By the late 50's, the officials knew about the roentgenizdat, and made it illegal in 1958. Officials took action to break up the largest ring in 1959, sending the leaders to prison, beginning an orginization by the Komsomol of "music patrols" that later undertook to curtail illegal music activity all over the country.
Another problem the youth confronted when beginning to form groups to play rock 'n' roll, was the shortage of instruments and equipment. Electric guitars were almost non-existent in the USSR until the early sixties. Most instruments were manufactured in Eastern Europe and sold in the USSR in small numbers. The most noÔable were ten guitars that appeared in an East German-sponsored instrument shop in Moscow in 1966. All ten of the guitars were bought in the first hours that the shop was open and immediately resold at twice the price of purchase on the black market. Many groups were forced to make their own instruments or purchase copies of Western guitars that were produced by unofficial manufacturers. One of these manufacturers in 1969 managed to publish in a popular mechanical magazine a technique of converting an acoustic guitar into an electric one using a telephone voice coil, and shortly therafter there were reportedly no functioning public telephones in all of Moscow. Such activities only called more attention to the growing youth cultural trends, and caused the Soviet officials to call for anti-rock action.
The 1960's were no less notorious for cultural revolution in the Soviet Union than in the rest of the world. The seeds of rock culture began to sprout among the USSR's fertile youth following, and the Soviet government was not at all reluctant to stomp it down. Then came The Beatles, and their style inspired the Soviet rockers to form what they called 'beatle bands'. The fans that adopted the style were called simply 'bitlz.' Alexander Gradsky was one of the leaders of a beatle band, whoÕs uncle danced in the Moiseev Ballet company.
His uncle brought him Beatles records from abroad which "put him in a 'state of shock...everything except the Beatles became pointless.' It was no longer an expression of trendiness or snobbery-fans repaid the Beatles in kind for the sincerity they felt in their music."
Groups started up by the hundreds, playing in small clubs, at private parties, at schools, in Komsomol clubs, and even in the army bases. The official stance on Beatlemania was ambivalent. Because nothing could be found ideologically wrong with the lyrics or the music, concerts by beatle bands went on. The only negative response was against the destruction of chairs and windows by enthusiastic fans at the venues, which later led to restrictions on dancing at rock concerts throughout the Union. The overwhelming popularity of the Beatles in the Soviet Union created two major social phenomena: It united people in a common spirit of popular culture totally independent of the official culture and together with the underground record distribution created a means of mass communication of youth values. The Soviet press took advantage of the Beatles' highly publicized religious tour of India and their use of psychedelic drugs as a chance to portray the Beatles' "desperate unhappiness with Western consumer society" to the Soviet youth.
When Lyndon Johnson proposed to increase contact between Eastern and Western Europe through a campaign of "building bridges" in 1964, in an attempt to stabilize the political climate in Europe, it was seen as "ideological subversion" by the Soviets. A "war of ideas" in which the Soviets would attempt to defend themselves against Western influences ensued.
Previously the United States had used music before as a kind of cultural weapon, when they sent Elvis Presley to Germany as a celebrity G.I. in 1958. And in the 60's, the BBC and Radio Free Europe were used by NATO to reach and research the expanding youth culture in the Soviet sphere. They promised free recordings and explanations of popular dance steps to listeners who sent in their addresses. A survey of the mail received "revealed an astonishing identity of tastes among teens in Britain and USA with those in Eastern Europe." Most East European governments and the Soviet Union, viewing the youths' preference of rock 'n' roll to the socialist ideal for their cultural activities, undertook to eradicate Western rock from their countries.
By this time, 'hippies' had made an appearance in the Soviet Union. They were just as divergent and countercultural as their Western counterparts, pasting pictures of Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger over Party slogans and hitchhiking all throughout the country, some even took to drug use for entertainment.
The Kremlin had very high-level meetings on how to approach the youth and address their cultural tastes with socialist didactics. It seemed that the Party was beginning to consider concessions to the youth, meaning to establish control over the musicians and fans. A "Beat Club" was established at the Melody and Rhythm cafe in Moscow, offering many activities to its musician membership, and applications which requested lots of personal data, flowed in by the hundreds. The club promptly closed down after receiving these applications and handed them over to the Soviet secret police, who now had dossiers on hundreds of Moscow's rock musicians.
The acceptance of rock bands and their division into 'unnofficial' and 'official' categories began at the point when the Kremlin took the music seriously as a way to influence the youth. This was perhaps the USSR's "most explicit concession" to rock music. At this point appeared the Vocal Instrumental Ensemble. The VIAs, as they were known, were required to register with the Ministry of Culture and "were urged to write and perform songs on topics wuch as space heroes or economic achievements." They followed the philosophy of Khrushchev's commentary on socialist art, "We are for music that provides inspiration, that summons people to exploits on the field of battle and in their work." The VIA represented on one hand, official Soviet recognition of rock as an art form, but on the other hand, a return to Socialist Realist didactics. The bands were named in accordance with the intended positive nature of their work, such as 'Singing Guitars,' 'Songsters,' 'Blue Guitars,' and 'Happy Guys,' harkening back to the Socialist literary prescription for 'positive heroes.' Comparing these names with those of some "unnofficial" groups of the late 60's renders an interesting contrast: Hairy Glass, Little Red Demons, Soft Suede Corners, Russo-Turkish War, Witchcraft, Fugitives from Hell, Midnight Carousers, Symbols of Faith, The Economists.
The best known of the VIAs was Happy Guys (Veselye Rebiata) who were "amply supplied with the best equipment through official channels, but [were] often instructed to add deadwood to the ensemble, giving jobs to the sons of cousins of official persons" who simply didn't plug in their instruments in performance. Another officially sanctioned concession was the Komsomol undertaking to upgrade the clubs, which had been poorly furnished, dirty and cold, in exchange for the possibility of better regulating youth activity.
Official recognition and regulation led to the division of the rock culture into "official" groups that were salaried and given venues and jobs by the cultural organs of the State, and the "unofficial" or underground groups, who were not payed or regulated by the state, but who had the most freedom of expression.
The underground musicians were, however, not exempt from Soviet society, and had to retain jobs in order to avoid imprisonment for "social parasitism." It seemed that moonlighting as a musician was common, as Alexander Gradsky in the late 60s counted 263 unofficial bands in Moscow. Often, an underground promoter would hire two or three of these bands and a hall, charging an admission of up to ten rubles, and have an all night rock party, that would usually break up without a trace by morning and leave the promoter with a sizable profit. By 1969, it was estimated that there was not a factory, high school, or institution without at least one rock band...meaning that several thousand private and independent producers were operating in the field of pop culture."