Soviet Band Is Rockin` Across U.s.

And There`s No Kgb To Tell Them What To Do

BOSTON — His parents wanted him to stick with classical studies on violin, but once he heard the Beatles, he went right out and bought an electric guitar.

``For my generation, the Beatles were the turning point,`` he said.

Sounds like a familiar rock `n` roll story, but this one applies to Sasha Sitkovetskiy, the Russian guitarist who plays for Avtograf, his country`s leading band.

The group performed through a satellite hookup at the LiveAid concert two years ago and headlined with Santana, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor and the Doobie Brothers in a July Fourth Moscow peace concert last year.

Their greatest Western coup, though, is their current tour of the United States for the first time. They`re playing three dates on the way to the Calgary Olympics.

``We have complete freedom while we`re here-no one is telling us what to do,`` Sitkovetskiy said in a phone interview from Washington. ``There are no KGB guys with us. There is only one man who is the chief of our concert organization in Moscow, but he`s really professional and is glad he`s here because he`s trying to understand the way American show business works.

``Everybody seems surprised that no one is watching over us,`` added Sitkovetskiy. ``In the past it might have happened, but not now.``

Avtograf (Russian for autograph), whose five members grew up listening to the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and other Western acts they heard via underground records in pre-glasnost days, hope to make the most of their American opportunity.

``The concerts are not the most important thing now. The most important thing is to sign a contract and make a record here. And if that happens, we will return for a big tour,`` said Sitkovetskiy, who speaks very good English. ``All the songs that we`ll play here, except one or two, will be in English,`` he said. ``And all the songs on the album will be in English, too. It`s the only way to have success here. People must know what you`re singing about.``

The band has begun an album of English songs with American producer Bob Parr. Last month, he went to Moscow to make a demo tape, now being shopped around to U.S. labels.

``When Parr heard us for the first time a year ago, he compared us to a mixture of Cutting Crew, Bon Jovi and Rush,`` Sitkovetskiy said. ``But I think it`s hard to categorize us. Now, I think, we`re closer to melodic hard rock with maybe some elements of progressive music.

``Some of our songs have an antiwar message, but mostly we`re singing about our generation, ourselves, the problems of living in this world, the speed of life and so on. But some of the songs are about the connection between the two worlds (the United States and Soviet Union) and about the necessary things that we must do. It doesn`t matter which political system we have, we must live in peace.``

There have been recent news reports of Kremlin conservatives proposing a crackdown on rock in the Soviet Union, but Sitkovetskiy dismisses them.

``I`ve heard about them, but I haven`t felt them,`` he said. ``Right now there`s a real explosion of rock `n` roll in the Soviet Union.``

Sitkovetskiy, 32, started Avtograf eight years ago. The group includes bassist Leonid Gutkin, drummer Viktor Mikhalin, keyboardist Leonid Makarevich and singer Arthur Micheyev. They tour up to 340 days a year, and their first album sold 6 million copies, though they`ve made nowhere near the money of Western counterparts.

``We`re not so rich as Elton John or other big Western stars,``

Sitkovetskiy laughed, ``but we have enough money for living in our country. Rock and roll musicians live better than workers, but the difference is not very big or striking. For an average concert, we would make 70 rubles, which is about $50. But that doesn`t include money for author`s royalties. We get additional money for that, just like your ASCAP system.``

He said Soviet and Western albums cost the same in Moscow-about 3 to 5 rubles, which is just $1 to $4.

``It`s getting much easier to get Western music,`` he said. ``Now you can go to a shop and buy albums by Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen and such European stars as Elton John, Genesis and so on. But not all of them. Yet for us it`s a striking change and a very good one.``

Stereo systems, however, are much more costly than in the West. ``Our domestic systems cost 1,500 rubles, so it`s officially about $1,000. But on the black market, Western hi-fi systems are very expensive-about 3,000 to 4,000 rubles. Most young people have systems, but not high fidelity.``

For musicians, there`s also the problem of getting instruments. ``We can only buy instruments from Socialist countries. They`re good enough for the younger bands-for the beginners-but not for professionals. They have to buy instruments abroad or ask someone going abroad to get them.``

Although Avtograf is just cracking the U.S. market, its members have been abroad enough to play in 20 countries.

``We`ve played with the band Chicago in Canada, and we liked them very much,`` Sitkovetskiy said. ``And we have played in France with Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes. It was a concert in the south of France at a very big festival in April of 1987. Johnny is very humorous. I like him. It was a good concert.``

For American audiences, the most exposure came from the LiveAid concert in Philadelphia, where Avtograf was projected on a video screen while playing a set in Moscow.

``We knew nothing about LiveAid until 3 o`clock that morning,`` he said.

``All of us were resting in different parts of the Soviet Union and we collected that day. Only when we arrived (at a Soviet television station) and set up our equipment, were we told what would happen. American producer Robert Dalrymple-he later came with Billy Joel on his tour of the Soviet Union last year-told us what to expect, and we became very nervous. But after the show we were really excited and we saw the whole of LiveAid on television. We saw the Led Zeppelin reunion there and recorded it, too.

``Zeppelin has always been important to us. It was the Beatles, then Zeppelin, then the Rolling Stones, then some American bands like Grand Funk Railroad who influenced us.``

Avtograf received some boos at LiveAid from fans who thought their song sounded like a typical American commercial track.

``For me, a regular commercial American song is not bad, because I understand it`s not a simple task to produce one. To make a song commercial, you must have a little talent, I think.``

Sitkovetskiy knows the pressure is on Avtograf to prove itself in America.

``We don`t know what kind of equipment is waiting for us here,`` he said. ``In the Soviet Union we have a huge laser show, but it was impossible to bring the lasers with us. But we just want to play in real American rock clubs with whatever lights they have. That`s all we need.``

By Steve Morse , Boston Globe.

February 04, 1988
Chicago Tribune