The Language of Rock
In This Chapter:
- The Shift from English to Russian Lyrics
- Large Shows Organized for Unnofficial Russian Groups
- Jesus Christ Superstar
- Official (VIA) Groups Dominate the Recording Industry
- Baltic Subversion of the Official Music Scene
- The Thaw of the 70's-Disco
- Western Bands Allowed to Tour
During the first decade of rock's history in the Soviet Union, English was the main language. The use of English had the effect of alienating officials from the youth culture, but also gave them a reason to denounce it as borgeois and decadent, (English being the language of the West, of capitalism.) When rock was given a place in Soviet culture, with the advent of the VIAs, Russian was given the priority of the linguistic influence of rock, and VIA lyrics were overseen by the literary censors. In the underground, the Russification of lyrics came from an entirely different precedent. With the emergence of reel-to-reel recording apparatus, independent publishing was revived, and called the magizdat from the word for tape-recorder, magnitofon. The Language of rock music in Russia and other republics swiftly became the native language of the poets who wanted their own voices to be heard. (In the case of the VIAs, they were instructed to sing in plainly understandable lyrics for the ease of censorship). The first star of the magizdat was Bulat Okudzhava, a bard who sang in Russian anti-war and anti-Stalin songs. (His father had been "liquidated" by Stalin. He was expelled from the Communist Party in 1972.) Another exemplary of this period, singing in the Russian bardic style was Vladimir Visotsky. Later, rock groups began to sing in Russian simply because they could publish their work in the magizdat, partly as a natural development of the rock culture.
Large concerts of amateur Soviet rock were arranged in Riga, Tallinn, and Yerevan, and Sverdlovsk, to bring the more popular groups together, and provide a venue for the 'unofficial', yet very popular Russian-language groups. The concerts in Yerevan known as the "Woodstock of the Soviet Union" in 1969-1972 were successful in bringing together well known groups from all over the USSR due to the work of an Armenian promoter, Rafael Mkrtchian, who payed off bribes to the local party officials, and was later arrested and sent to prison for ten years for not paying sufficient bribes to officials. It seemed that the line between official and unofficial existed beyond simple ideological lines. Rock festivals of this kind usually had a judging panel that would choose the best groups and award them with honors. Unofficial group sometimes won these honors, yet they still had to withstand the scrutiny of Soviet principles of taste and socialist ideals. The band 'Time Machine' (Mashina Vremeni) was disqualified from the student songfest in Sverdlovsk in 1978 for the lyrics to their song "The Calm":
'My ship is the creation of able hands,
My course is a total disaster
But just let the wind pick up
And everything around will change,
Including the idiot who thinks otherwise.
An answer ready for every question,
Night has always made right,
But noone believes that
There's no wind on Earth,
Even if they've banned the wind.'
An interesting phenomena happened with the rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice; "Jesus Christ Superstar." It was smuggled into the USSR immediately after its release in USA in 1971, and immediately banned after its production in Vilnius in 1973. The opera was inspiration for many rock groups, and millions of fans despite its being banned, because unofficial rock groups performed much of the score at their shows. Performances occurred throughout the 70's and by the end of the decade, the signature theme song was adopted by the Soviet television news program "Vremya." A popular, religious rock opera had more weight than the dictates of the Soviet cultural burocracy.
With the official recognition of rock as a legitimate art form, and the VIAs being offered lucrative compensation for their transition to official status, (Songwriter, Yuri Valov of 'Winds of Change' group discovered he could earn three times the money he could have made as an attorney, for which he had been educated) rock became a kind of adopted child of the State. They bowed to officals, writing songs dedicated to pipelines and bridges and even anti-Nazi themes. The Soviets realized they could not rid themselves of rock, so they changed policy and simply absorbed those musicians into the ranks, keeping a close watch on their activities. Lyrics had to pass the literature review boards, and repertoires were checked regularly to make sure that all the material that would be performed was of acceptable socialist nature. The result of the VIA monopoly on gigs and recording (Melodija, the only recording company in the USSR, would record and promote only officially recognized groups in the rock genre) meant unofficial bands could not afford to continue their activities for long, and only about twelve unofficial groups remained in Moscow by the mid-70's.
In the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, rock music was much less stringently regarded than in Russia and even encouraged to some extent. The first Soviet rock group came from Latvia, and quite often trends from the West came through the Baltics and then spread from there to the rest of the USSR.
In Estonia the situation was unique. Tallinn was a sort of Mecca for the Soviet hippies, and though there were Estonian VIAs, the number of unofficial rock groups did not drop significantly. Estonia gave Soviet rock as many talented musicians as Leningrad and Moscow combined. The Estonian branch of Melodija, being autonomous from the Moscow branch, even recorded some unofficial groups. Finnish television had been responsible for bringing televised music programs to the Estonians, whose language is similar to the Finnish language, and yet quite unintelligible to most Russians. The language barrier made possible the lyrics of many Estonian groups that were often anti-Russian. In later years this led to an enormous nationalist movement in Estonian rock, that republic being the first to declare national sovereignty in 1985.
In Latvia several prosperous collective farms emerged as the main patrons of the arts purchasing expensive equipment for the musicians of a few rock bands. The groups toured under the aegis of their sponsoring collective farms, thereby bringing these progressive establishments both praise and profit.
By the second half of the 70's there was a kind of "thaw" (another term from Soviet literature) as the "Soviet burocracy had accepted rock as an unavoidable reality." The ministry of culture was always wary of the explosive potential of rock, but they were compelled to accept the 'electric sound.' Then disco made its appearance in the USSR, and a form of pop culture was much more readily accepted by cultural officials than ever before. The rhythm and inocuous lyrics apparently lulled the crowd and had little of the countercultural undertones and hooligan followers for which rock was notorious. Discotheques were seemingly ready made venues for both benign music and socialist indoctrination. Though this seems to be the ulimate in bad taste given the contemporary Western attitude toward the 70's disco, a national effort was made to assess the possibility of socialist didactic programs being mixed with the musical fare. Moscow registered 187 officially sponsered discotheques by 1978. Saturday Night Fever was released 1979, and John Travolta's character in the movie was appealing to the ideologues who were always looking for 'positive heroes' for the youth culture. At this time, Western recordings were being issued on Melodija, with the tremendously popular Swedish band ABBA being the first, with a manditory counterpart release in the West of a Soviet group.
Western bands were also being invited to the USSR to tour. Cliff Richard toured in 1976 to a grand welcome. Richard was asked after the tour why he was asked by Gosconcert (the official musical concert agency) had invited him to tour, "he speculated that it was because he was 'safely middle of the road, with a clean-cut image and no drug rap. They're still miles away from inviting the Rolling Stones.'" (the "Stones" played in Warsaw in 1967 and caused a riot)
With the signing of the Helsinki accords in 1975, which were meant to improve relations between East and West, rock music was a form of dialog, and more freedom was allowed to the invitation of Western groups to tour. Elton John, a world popular British star, was invited in 1979 to play in Moscow. He was asked to strike a Beatles' song, "Back in the USSR" from his repertoire, and the best tickets were distributed to party functionaries and their families. The show was very coolly received by the well behaved (ie. not dancing) crowd until the encore, when he played the banned song and almost caused a riot.
what can be seen throughout the 70's was a gradual but general acceptance of the rock culture by the Soviet Ministry of Culture and the people of the USSR. "For all their efforts to guide popular values, Soviet officials were still unable to do more than respond to a vital private market." This private market was the result of the peopleÕs own efforts, and some very good music.
By the late 70's there was a network of distribution for homemade 'albums,' complete with printed artwork and lyrics. (These were in fact cassettes that were duplicated and passed on throughout the country) It was a real cottage industry, and the resultant Russian language albums were the establishment of cultural heroes independent of Socialist ideology, loyal more to the fans than the establishment. Bands of the Leningrad underground were Boris Grebenshchikov and his group Aquarium, Time Machine, Kino and various other groups that appeared sporadically. Most received recognition from the state, though only by the term 'not recommended.'