Vodka & Pop

Perhaps the audience was too curious to let down its guard; or maybe they lacked enthusiasm because the band was indistinguishable from so many American club bands.

There was a lot of winking and elbow nudging twenty-four years ago, when British bands invaded the States with their re-invention of American rock and roll. But that smugness ebbed after two separate waves proved there was more to the Anglo onslaught than Chuck Berry tunes sung with a cute accent. The Brits hadn't re-invented Yank rock after all; instead, they'd forged culturally sell-reflective styles by leavening basic rock and pop with home-grown ingredients. Among these were the perky silliness and hat-in-hand sentimentalism of the traditional English music hall and the crisp politeness and hail-fellow cheeriness of a people whose survival of a tumultuous history and adaptation to an endemically inclement climate had given them a plucky disposition. Tbday when we hear American bands playing original tunes characterized by a certain rosy-cheeked, lyrical sfyle, the impulse is to say they sound “British”.

The overriding lesson we learned from the British Invasion is that rock and roll is a most malleable musical form. Americans might have invented it, but as with automobile technology and hamburger franchising, the music can undergo foreign-cultural redefinition that makes it almost unrecognizable to us. Thus, when we began hearing reports a few year ago of a rock underground in the Soviet Union, we couldn't help but wonder if and how the music might sound “Russian”. To what extent had “outlaw” Russkie rock been shaped and painted by that country's multi-ethnic heritage and by a history that had swung wildly from the harlequin extremes of czarist rule to the gray blahs of a socialist republic? Undoubtedly, many Americans found more simplistic, chauvinistic sport in imagining young Soviets in contraband Calvin Kleins and fur hats, playing “Roll Over Prokofiev” on amplified balalaikas, while Russian teens inadvertently maimed each other doing Cossack kick-dances on subterranean dance floors.

If the flat importations of Bolshevik boogie discouraged such buffoonish stereotypes, they encouraged more subtle correlatives, particularly the one that would portray all Soviet musicians as unable to avoid filtering their pop through the Russian classical tradition. The first Soviet pop act to sign with an American label was Black Russian, a band so determined to Westernize that the members renounced their Soviet citizenship four years before recording an Amercan debut album in 1980 for, of all things, the Motown label.

The handsome trio of two playing comrades and one (very attractive) singing comradette released Black Russian on the heels of the disco movement, so the record had the predictable thumpa-thumpa rhythm tracks and string-section window dressing of that era. But coursing through the all-original music was a tie-straightening adherence to Russian-romantic formalism. That vague classicism at times made Black Russian sound as though it were produced by Walter Murphy, the goon who four years earlier had made Ludwig spin in his grave like a rotary engine with the execrable disco hit “A Fifth of Beethoven”. Black Russian caused ripples of curiosity in this country before sinking without a trace.

But subsequent forays behind the Iron stage-Curtain by Western journalists and musicians uncovered a healthy, broadranging, officially frowned-upon music scene whose regionalized pockets variously embrace juzz, punk, experimental, heavy-metal, Top Forty, and folk music. Recently, in the spirit of glasnost, a controlled, pop-cultural exchange has enabled a number of Western pop acts to carry the “real thing” to the Soviet Union. Last July 4, an Amencan-style rock festival featuring James Taylor, Carlos Santana, and the Doobie Brothers drew thousands to an outdoor venue near Moscow. Around the same time, Billy Joel staged a tour of the USSR, during which his spoiledbrat behavior threatened to endorse the Soviet government’s portrayal of Americans as braying, self- important jackasses. Now it appears that the reciprocal leg of that exchange is under way. Last week the Russian rock band Avtograf - the only native band to perform at the Moscow festival - played an abbrevated Southern California itinerary that dropped the group at the Bacchanal.

Thanks to a satellite link-up, many Americans saw Avtograf (pronounced “autograph”) perform three years ago during the European segment of the Live Aid festival. Now that the band is on its first, Soviet- sanctioned trip to America, their bags would seem weighted with responsibilities that don't burden most traveling bands. To demonstrate solidarity with their Western countercultural peer group, they'd somehow have to espouse universal brotherhood of the sort that defies the bellicose propaganda of both superpowers, without in the process offending their own government. Meanwhile, they’d have to prove they can rock as well as Western bands, without sounding too derivative. After hearing them in concert, I can give Avtograf the benefit of the doubt as regards the first two parts of their mission, as to the last, well...

First, the basics: the quintet features guitarist and English-speaking spokesman Alexander “Sascha” Sitkovetskiy, vocalist Artur Micheyev, bassist Leonid Gutkin, drummer Viktor Mikhalin, and keyboardist Leonid Mukarevich. With a little fudging, they all look, dress, and act “Western” enough to be able to play a typical American nightclub without attracting the CIA. Reportedly, all are conservatory-trained musicians, which schooling conceivably should have provided the five with the technical tools for pushing beyond plodding, generic rock. And to some extent, they do just that, if you consider classical-sounding fills and occasionally ornate arrangements proof of graduation from rock stolidness.

Unfortunately, Avtograf too often sounded like a band whose members have been studying American, Canadian, and Bntiih rock for twenty years and whose graduate thesis/ repertoire is a disjunct composite of lessons learned. Only the infrequent, idiosyncratic instrumental touch reminded us that this wasn't an ambitious band from West Covina. One such instance came when bassist Gutkin played the bassoon (!) on a languorous ballad, “Clouds,” which keyboardist Makarevich provided with rich, synthesized atmospherics. Otherwise, Avtograf was the victim both of its members’ proficiency at mimicry and of our expectations.

Like the shtick of a rock and roll Rich Little, their material and playing were notable not for their originality, but for the number of well-known artists they recalled. Sometimes the group brought to mind the rococo-pop of the Seventies band Stories; at other times, loud echoes of melodic crunch-rock à la Foreigner or Toto made Avtograf seem little more than skilled poseurs. A spotlighted, solo-guitar introduction to one tune showed that Sitkovetskiy had internalized the early self-indulgences of Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore, and Gutkin's popping bass solo in the middle of “Headache” was a see-there to post-Larry Graham funkists.

Nor did Avtograf’s stage presence cast them in an unusual light. When the musicians moved at all, they did so in halting, self- conscious approximations of rock's physical language, which they'd undoubtedly picked up by watching videos or concert footage of the more studied Western rock acts. Vocalist Micheyev especially, performed as though he were a “channeler” for familiar Western singers, his strong tonsils and impressive range were overshadowed by what seemed a rote compendium of contemporary rock singing styles, including those of Journey's Steve Perry, Rush’s Geddy Lee, and Mr. Mister’s Richard Page.

Throughout their set - the Soviet half of a presentation featuring an American hand, the Rainmakers, and billed as a “Rock and Roll Summit” (get it?) - Avtograf drew mostly polite response from a Bacchanal crowd that didn’t quite fill every available seat. Perhaps the audience was too curious to let down its guard; or maybe they seemed to lack enthusiasm because Avtograf was indistinguishable from so many slick, American club bands. In retrospect, it was probably unfair to Avtograf if unfulfilled expectations of something “different” look some of the steam out of those present. After all, the band never trumpeted itself as anything more than a competent, very accessible, and very popular Russian rock and roll band.

Avtograf’s five-song album has sold six million copies in the Soviet Union not because the quintet is innovative, like their American counterparts, the band is a massive hit in the USSR because, with minor exceptations, their material appeals to mass tastes. But like the better American success stories, Avtograf can at least make such material engaging If you could ignore the inane English lyrics to “Headache”, the tune provided several minutes of enjoyable, skaflavored pixie-funk. “The Last Chance,” one of a couple of songs sung in Russian, featured a tasteful gutlar solo by Sitkovetskiy and some nice synthesizer sequencing by Makarevich. The keyboardist, in fact, enriched many of the band’s songs with semiclassical, Keith Emerson-like fills and flourishes, along with imaginative, orchestral colorations coaxed from a Kurzweil sampler/synthesizer.

The concert's only real duds came when Avtograf performed two soppy ballads written for them by Bob Parr, the American who was commissioned to produce the group's current album, which has yet to find a label in America. Both “We Can Be Love” (which, in true Hollywood-pop tradition, featured a duet by vocalist Micheyev and American rock singer Men D ) and “The World Inside” sported the sort of wet-bread rhythms and sugar-shock lyrics that have earned millions for the Australian schlockers Air Supply. An equally trite, band-penned tune, “We Need Peace,” had a bit more oomph and espoused admirable ideals but similarly suffered from a deadening ratio of good music to good intentions.

On “The World Inside,” which began with each member of Avtograf singing a verse, Micheyev even stooped to repeating, with transparent emphasis, the line, “We are the world”. Thankfully, but somewhat tellingly, the audience did not link arms and sway back and forth in a tearful display of togetherness. A clever, well-intentioned encore rendition of the Beatles' “Back in the USSR” (itself a send-up of Chuck Berry's “Back in the USA”) salvaged much of the energy that had been washed away by the preceding bathos, despite a rather stiff reading that might have left some wondering about the Reds' ability to get down.

It is unfortunate that Avtografs concert here gave us almost no indication of how the Soviet gestalt informs the music of its youth and that in fact all we learned from the performance is what our bands sound like to them. But in fairness to the guys, Avtograf is working from the distinct disadvantage of being in the vanguard of Soviet groups visiting our shores. We shouldn't extrapolate from this one hand’s music that this is the best that Russian rock and roll has to offer any more than we'd want the Soviets to judge Western music by an REO Speedwagon show. The jury should remain out until we've had a chance to hear a representative cross-section of Russian popular music. Only then will we know if the Russians, like the British, have any indigenous qualities to contribute to contemporary music. In the meantime, Avtograf’s tour of the States should be kept in proper perspective: it is more ice- breaking than ground-breaking and thus of more political than musical significance.


February 18, 1988
Reader. San Diego’s Weekly. Volume 17, No 6