How soviet rock is trying to catch up with american rock

Rock group Park Gorkogo at the International Music Festival in Moscow, August 1989. Photo by Natalya SINITSYNA

MOSCOW NEWS has often spoken of the exodus of Soviet musicians to the West, mainly because there is no market for serious music in this country. What about those who write and perform rock and pop music and whose popularity seems undoubted here?

The subject is discussed by Sergei MROV, an actor from the Leningrad Benefis company who describes himself as '‘amateur songwriter/singer, trained stage director and one of the three-piece group Fen o’Men. More than 10 years in rock and pop music”.

Thinking about today's ills ― commercialization gangsterism,money-grabbing, all forms of political extremism ― it 15 easy to see that Russia lags far behind social life in the West, which had all these ills during the 20th century, something which seems to have passed us by.

This is especially painful for those who try to sell our own rock and pop culture on the Western market. The quality of equipment and professionalism matter less than the want of cultural experience, which of course is not lacking in our ballet and classical music. Even the most gifted proponents of youth culture, let alone their audiences have not got this experience. There is no getting away from that: audiences only listen to what they want to.

Soviet rock uses a certain type of lyrics. They are not so much in the tradition of big-city songs as in the tradition of Russian poetry and Russian literature in general, characteristic for high-strung emotions. Russian culture will always remain the culture of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and Russian rock will always rely on psychologism and truth-seeking ― today there is a mortal struggle going on between this and the declarative style of commercial rock. Soviet rock pioneers Alexander Gradsky, Andrei Makarevich and Yuri Shevchuk have their roots in the Beatles and Vysotsky. Boris Grebenshchikov, better known in the US. has favoured David Bowie rather than Pasternak. Hence the conclusion that wanting to be liked over there is much stronger than wanting to remain what you are right here.

Physical and moral weariness from the constant fight for existence, from the many years wasted playing for peanuts in restaurants and the degrading feeling of being helpless before the omnipotent bosses of official culture explain why a musician at 30 is ready to give up and forget his ideals for the promise of a more or less normal life for himself and his family. When a musician in his worn-out jeans is confronted by a kind sir redolent of brimstone and with a wad of dollars in his pocket, no power can prevent the shameful act of the musician selling himself lock, stock and barrel. So yet another conclusion suggests itself: that the East-West cultural exchange is no exchange at all. it is rather a process of emigration which has assumed catastrophic proportions. Groups that have achieved a degree of success in the West don't care if they are popular at home or not and they miss no trick to wangle the right to stay abroad for several years. Kruiz, Avtograf, Akvarium and Novaya Kaledonia, once big names in Russia, are now almost totally forgotten even by their most enthusiastic fans. As for Park Gorkogo, Soviet hard rock fans didn’t have tune enough to hear what the group was all about.

Today’s Soviet music bosses love to call themselves “producers”, but are actually no big deal They are usually superannuated musicians who made a name for themselves in Brezhnev times. They are not interested in suplying the Western market with music that is striking or original. The American public is already entranced by what they think is going on in Russia under perestroika and lap up whatever is advertised. More so because those Russians are trying so haed to look human.

I don't know if all our rock musicians feel humiliated by this, but I can’t blame them: in their own country, God knows, they sufferedjust as much and at least they get paid and treated as humans in the West.

As for pop music, it differs from rock in that it is not necessary or even desirable for the performer to be a person. A group of adroit producers can easily construct an “image” rather than rely on the performer himself. This is precisely why our world competitiveness in pop music is low — Soviet audiences have been stunted by years of hypocritical ideology and artists catering to their tastes are simply unable to make any progress.

The rare Westerners who stray into concert halls to hear Zhenya Belousov, Dima Malikov or groups like Laskovyi Mai and Mirazh are at a loss when they see hysterical kids enraptured by repetitive music and the absurd wrigglings of the “stars” who mouth the words to mediocre tapes often recorded by someone else.

Can nothing be done to beat, or at least match America in this popular and seemingly easy art? Let's be frank, at this stage, nothing. We would have to pay for what our fathers and grandfathers did.

But future prospects don’t seem totally hopeless. We have among us gifted and energetic performers: new names have been discovered (touch wood!). What the nascent show business has to do is to provide musicians with decent equipment and information instead of trying to re-invent what has been with us for a long time. As a sensible person, I don't regard the problem of youth culture in the country of shortages so highly as those who cry for government measures as a top priority. Still I’d like to call upon government officials and all other influential people in the world of music to at least show respect for those still prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of their country’s prestige.

Some order should be introduced to what is now a spontaneous exodus of musicians to the West. Of course I don't have in mind another round of screw-tightening, but if the mediating official organizations levy exhorbitant taxes on musicians, the money, instead of ending up in the country’s bottomless coffers, should be used to enhance our music. People involved in the arts are usually no good at business and literally sell themselves into bondage to anyone who can provide them with the instruments whose market price can run into five figures.

In a word, interested persons and organizations would do right to reconsider their view of the music bussness, then, in 10-15 years we would at last have a chance to see our own stars in shine in the world's firmanent And not because they know how to promote themselves, but because ihey are confident artists standing on firm foundations.

Moscow News weekly No. 18, 1990