Music Monday: A Look at a Slice of Soviet Rock and Roll History

The NPR website had a fascinating article a couple of weeks ago about the history of rock and roll in the Soviet Union.

The focus of the article was on the Leningrad Rock Club: a 600-seat theater that opened in the early 1980s where bands could be seen and — more importantly — watched.

The club was run by a committee of musicians who selected the best underground bands of the day, organized concerts, and negotiated to keep the gigs rolling. KGB agents monitored lyrics and surveilled the audience during concerts from a balcony.

“I dealt with three KGB agents regularly,” says Nikolai Mikhailov, who served as the club’s elected president starting in 1982. “We’d meet and talk about twice a month.”

Occasionally, Mikhailov says officials forced him to suspend groups from performing when they broke the rules — such as playing unsanctioned songs. “The bands understood. They knew the rules,” says Mikhailov.

But more often there were workarounds — such as claiming questionable song lyrics were in fact a veiled critique of U.S. policies in Latin America or the Middle East. This was still the Cold War, after all.

“I’ll get hanged for saying it — but these KGB guys in some ways played a positive role,” insists Mikhailov. “They kept their bosses in the Communist Party or the police from shutting us down.”

The acoustics? Terrible by all accounts. The soundboard? A fire hazard on its best days.

But the club offered musicians a long-sought-after stage —- and the public everything official Soviet culture could not: groups that played hard rock, metal, punk, ska, blues, new wave, and more.

Bands had to audition before a committee that judged talent liberally. “We took everybody except for those who really couldn’t play,” according to Olga Slobodskaya, the club’s secretary. She paused for emphasis. “I mean really.”

The club was wildly popular. With membership limited and tickets hard to come by, young Soviets would gather on the street outside its entrance at 13 Rubenstein St. — with some fans even crawling through the lavatory windows to sneak a show.

By the late 1980s, there were over 100 such clubs in the USSR.

The Leningrad Rock Club moved locations several times before finally shutting its doors in the mid-’90s, but the bands of the Club remain among Russia’s most revered — even if many of its rock heroes didn’t live to see the extent of their fame.

One such singer was Viktor Tsoi who was killed in a car accident in 1991. Tsoi was a singer and songwriter who co-founded Kino, one of the most popular and musically influential bands in the history of Russian music.

Born and raised in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), Tsoi started writing songs as a teenager. Throughout his career, Tsoi contributed a plethora of musical and artistic works, including ten albums. After Kino appeared and performed in the 1987 Soviet film Assa, the band’s popularity surged, triggering a period referred to as “Kinomania”.

Here is a video clip from that movie featuring Tsoi and Kino singing their song Peremen, which means Changes. The song begins at about the two-minute mark.

I think the song has a nice driving beat to it, and the lyrics are powerful. Tsoi reminds me a bit of a cross between Mick Jagger and Roger Daltrey.

Fortunately, there are English subtitles to the song!

First performed by Tsoi in the summer of 1986, Peremen quickly became an important political song, an embodiment of the spirit of the Perestroika. It remains a powerful political song, prominently used during 2020–2021 Belarusian protests.

Sources:

*image from Radio Free Europe

49 thoughts on “Music Monday: A Look at a Slice of Soviet Rock and Roll History

  1. An interesting and educational look at the music scene behind the iron curtain. I can’t imagine being an artist in such a oppressed society. We are so lucky that we have the ability to say what we want in our country.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. An interesting look into music behind the Iron Curtain, and the controls they had to get around. I can’t say I’m impressed with the actual song, though: reedy vocals, and I think Jagger and Daltrey would be offended at your comparison! Things were opening up by then, though: this was just a year before Billy Joel was invited to play in what was then still Leningrad, and there is a live album of his shows. His song ‘Leningrad,’ on his album ‘Stormfront,’ is a powerful reminder of the differences between the two countries, but also of what their people had in common. I prefer it to this, I’m afraid!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I guess it depends how much money Apple thinks it can make from them. They’ve recently expanded their international categories but have a long way to go. Russia has rock, pop and hip-hop sections but no folk – I want to see Otava Yo in there!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’ve featured them in a Tuesday Tunes post, so you can find one of their songs via the search box on my blog. Loads of stuff on YouTube: a talented bunch with a great sense of humour. Try the Streetcleaner as a starter 😊

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    1. I thought the song was OK, and I thought Viktor looked a little bit like a cross between Jagger and Daltrey and some of his mannerisms seemed similar. His voice was nothing like theirs.

      I think I’ve heard Leningrad before from Billy Joel, but now I’ll have to give it a listen later today…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. what a wild backstory to the russian rock music scene. i had absolutely no idea this even happened, and it shows that music will find a way to be heard no matter the harsh circumstances.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love this piece of history. I like the sound of the band, too. It’s refreshing to know that ways were found to work around the bureaucratic oppression of the Soviet government. Maybe a way around government when it goes wild, is with music gone wild.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting post but like Clive, I’m not a fan of Tsoi. It’s difficult to find good Russian rock bands even now. However some Eastern European countries, especially Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, have a decent rock scene but it tends to be based in small clubs in main cities or on sites like Soundcloud.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thanks for that info; I wasn’t sure what to expect when I gave Tsoi a listen, and I thought it was OK. I’ll have to look into the music from the countries you mention. Any suggestions?

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      1. There are so many heavy rock/metal bands but I prefer the Polish Indie Rock stuff which is easier to listen to, more up-to-date and similar to British music. I only have three in my playlists which I originally heard on Spotify or BBC Radio 6 Music but they’re OK. Check ’em out….
        Getting Old, The Poise Rite https://open.spotify.com/track/1vwE9BvFF9fGyZ1AhXZm82?si=46deaf4068ff4e3d Indie Rock
        Sailor’s Grave, Fertile Hump https://open.spotify.com/track/1qAMcckfHf6QU8KnaBFJb4?si=2e2a5cf8ac6c418e Bluesy Rock
        Syrena I kot, Drewnofromlas https://open.spotify.com/track/2LsaFroKUXryWrYenUivpJ?si=6909aa6f1c6d4b3c (chill indie)

        Liked by 1 person

      1. China is exerting the same kind of artistic censorship as the Soviets. The effect is not limited to China. American movies, for example, must be aware of Chinese censors if they have any hope of reaching the Chinese market. Hollywood and other industries seem happy to oblige.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. There are so many heavy rock/metal bands but I prefer the Polish Indie Rock stuff which is easier to listen to, more up-to-date and similar to British music. I only have three in my playlists which I originally heard on Spotify or BBC Radio 6 Music but they’re OK. Check ’em out….
    Getting Old, The Poise Rite https://open.spotify.com/track/1vwE9BvFF9fGyZ1AhXZm82?si=46deaf4068ff4e3d Indie Rock
    Sailor’s Grave, Fertile Hump https://open.spotify.com/track/1qAMcckfHf6QU8KnaBFJb4?si=2e2a5cf8ac6c418e Bluesy Rock
    Syrena I kot, Drewnofromlas https://open.spotify.com/track/2LsaFroKUXryWrYenUivpJ?si=6909aa6f1c6d4b3c (chill indie)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I remember learning about music from the USSR during the Cold War in the course I took on the history of the Cold War- it’s absolutely fascinating! Russian music in general is so fascinating not just during this time but in general- there is so much history and so many political messages in it and each decade tells a new story. This is something else we learnt about Russian music: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1812_Overture

    Like

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