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Back In the U.S.S.R – Music behind the Iron Curtain

Member Since
Oct 2020
Published Books
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Back In the U.S.S.R

During the Cold War, the United Soviet Socialist Republics, was a very restrictive place. The media was heavily censored, foreign radio and television station waves were jammed, books that criticized the Soviet regime were banned, and playing western music that was deemed morally and culturally deprived was prohibited.
At the same time, dissident activity was rife. Banned literature and underground publications were reproduced by hand and the documents passed from reader to reader. Even music was bootlegged.

The table in the following pages, is in Russian and from the year 1985, names every Band/Musician that his Music was not approved by the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R.

In this book I will try to illustrate how was Music made famous in the U.S.S.R, from the two sides of the coin; on the one side, thanks to the Communist Party, and the other side, rose from the underground using bootleg tapes and vinyls.

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Back In the U.S.S.R – Music behind the Iron Curtain by Alexander Zelinsky - Ourboox.com
Back In the U.S.S.R – Music behind the Iron Curtain by Alexander Zelinsky - Ourboox.com

The Sixties

We all know the song “Back in the U.S.S.R” by the legendary band “The Beatles”. A lot of the music in the Sixties was on par with the Western music and the U.S.S.R was a great place to listen to classical-return to the roots music, a great emphasis on synths and classical music; Tango, Swing, Shanson and much more.

To break through into the mainstream with state-owned Soviet media, any band should have become an officially recognized band. Each band had an artistic director (художественный руководитель) who acted as manager, producer, and state supervisor. In some bands even the artistic director was also the band’s leading member and songwriter.

 

 

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Example of early soviet band

Soviet singers developed a specific style of pop music. They performed youth-oriented, yet officially approved radio-friendly music. A mix of western and Soviet trends of the time, classical music with Pop, Soft Rock and even Disco.

Folk music instruments were often used and because of the state censorship, the lyrics of singers used to be “family-friendly”. Typical lyrical topics were emotions such as love, joy and sadness. Many bands also praised national culture and patriotism, especially those of national minorities from smaller Soviet republics like; Uzbeks, Estonian, Latvian.

Here is an example of a band from my Motherland, Uzbekistan.

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That Seventies Show

In the previous chapter I have mentioned Disco.

Yes, the Disco Plague even penetrated the Iron Curtain.

One of the greatest Disco bands that were popular in the U.S.S.R and the West alike, was none-other than Boney M.

Boney M. is regarded the first “western” band that performed in the U.S.S.R, (they are originally from West Germany) as I quote former bandmate Liz Mitchell, in regards of their hit “Rasputin”:

“Our music penetrated the hearts of the leaders of that time, so they allowed us to perform. Although “Rasputin” was very popular in the USSR, she was excluded from the playlist during a performance by Boney M in Moscow in December 1978. A year later, the group visited socialist Poland, the city of Sopot, but there Rasputin was performed again despite the prohibition of government officials, albeit in a slightly edited form. This concert was broadcast on Polish national television. Around the same time, it hit the Polish radio and sounded there in spite of all censorship – in full, as it was intended.”

Here is also a video footage of them arriving in Moscow

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From the other side, the inside, came one special female singer. One of, if not the greatest lead singers of all time was Alla Pugacheva, her career started in 1965 and continues to this day (albeit not performing live anymore).
She is known throughout the former Soviet Republics for her clear voice, she enjoys an iconic status across the Soviet Union as the most successful Soviet performer in terms of record sales and popularity.

In my Humble opinion, she was something out of everyone else’s league, she sang like a swan and preformed like a queen. In her prime years, she had got the opportunity to sign a record deal with the State owned label, the only “legal” one at that time, Melodya.

Here is her one song of that era, named “Yes”:

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Now, we move to something more underground, Rock Music. Rock came to Soviet Union in the late 1960s with the infamous “Beatlemania” and many rock bands arose during the late 1970s, such as “Time Machine”, “Aquarium”, “Kino” etc…

Unlike those whom approved by the government, these bands were not allowed to publish their music and remained underground and used to listen in secrecy, otherwise it would be some harsh punishments in schools, future jobs and many more places whom the government controlled.

That’s why you almost couldn’t hear them in your “local” record store (the only ones were in the capitals; Moscow and St. Petersburg), so people like me that are “hungry for the rock”, had to resort to X-Ray machines.

X-Ray machines? What? Exactly, more into that on the next page.

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Back In the U.S.S.R – Music behind the Iron Curtain by Alexander Zelinsky - Ourboox.com

On the Left, official record of “The Beatles”.

On the right, bootleg record of Various Artists.

In those days, music in general, was available only on vinyl records, and to reproduce those records one needed an equipment known as a recording lathe and blank vinyl discs where the recording could be etched. These things were expensive and not easily available to your average factory worker without any connections with people in East Germany (main scene of bootlegging) or diplomats in Moscow.

Despite the lack of necessary equipment and materials, many Soviet teenagers like my mom and dad, whom had liking for jazz, rock-n-roll and western pop, met up with their high school friends that engineered makeshift recording lathes from converted phonographs and duplicated many albums from western artists such as the King Elvis, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and the Beach Boys.

Dear Viewers of my book, please here is a link to the official site of preservations of these Jams, warning, the quality is not as we are used to today in Spotify or Apple Music:

https://x-rayaudio.squarespace.com/x-rayaudiorecords

You click on the record of your choosing and just listen.

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X-Ray films were collected from dumpsters or bought from hospitals, and the music was pressed onto them using a modified record player. The results flexi-discs that Western pop magazines used to distribute with their issues, but with the ghastly images of broken ribs and dislocated joints imprinted on the plastic. Fans called these albums variously as “bone music”, or “rib recordings”, or “music on ribs”, or “jazz on bones”.

The X-Ray discs, which carried music only on one side, often sounded terrible and the records itself could be played only a few dozen times before they became unplayable. But they were cheap, costing only about one to one and a half rubles each on the black market, in comparison a “legal” vinyl record can sometimes be as expensive as twenty-five rubles (the average salary at that time was 180 rubles).

Because the films were thin, the grooves were also shallow and the music it produced sounded feeble. Some were virtually unlistenable. But it didn’t matter— “even the tiniest thread of melody, of this forbidden sound, was so exciting”.

Credit to the Photos of X-Ray Records: https://www.x-rayaudio.com/
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Living in the Eighties

As we move forward into the roaring Eighties era in the Soviet Union, we see a shift, both in government tolerance towards Rock music and also Western music in general.
Maybe our teaching course with Mel is finished in 1980, but due the Moscow Olympics, the Invasion of Afghanistan, and then “Glasnost” (Openness) and “Perestroika” (Rebuilding) campaign of Chairman/President Mikhail Gorbachev, I can’t afford to end our journey back to the U.S.S.R with such a cliffhanger.

First thing first, War. War never changes, in 1979 the U.S.S.R have entered to a wasteful war with Afghanistan to protect her interests there, at that time, part of the Brezhnev Doctrine. In order to not get into History, this war was a catastrophe, a lot of my mom and dads friends and classmates were sent over there and didn’t return alive, the youth wanted peace and not fight a war for political agenda, much like two decades earlier with the U.S invasion of Vietnam, the wind of change is becoming apparent.

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Olympics and War

Due to Soviet Invasion, U.S and her western allies made sanctions and did not attend the Moscow Olympics of 1980. Nevertheless, the Olympics were a success, and foreigners had a glimpse of the Soviet empire, and the soviet people saw a bit of western culture, with their Adidas sport jackets, drinking Coca Cola and start to understand what they are missing out.

With it also came some musical instruments, and with the “backing” of the war, a new underground rock scene grew a bit to the small audience of the first “official” rock club.

There people could meet and jam along, and with government approval, vent their thoughts and let out the everyday frustrations of working in a factory or just grab a cold beer and listen to sweet distorted guitars without the fear of losing their workplace.

Here came along one singer, a son of a Russian mom and Korean mom, Viktor Robertovich Tsoi, with his group “Кино” – Film/Movie Theater, the song is from his autobiography film.

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Wind of Change – For You and Me

In 1985, 6 years of bloody war, 3 dead Chairmen within a window of 2 years, the Soviet empire needed to reform itself if she wants to survive. Change couldn’t come from the people, they were too busy within themselves, scraping by and trying to live their lives the best way they could.

The change came from within, after burying the hatchet with the last Chairman, Chernenko, came to power a more young and open minded persona, his name was Mikhail Gorbachev.
Gorbachev believed that in-order to prevent the full-blown collapse of the Soviet empire, reforms must be made and he launched two campaigns to make sure this will do; Firstly, “Glasnost”- Openness, which meant to open the U.S.S.R to the west on one hand, and o the other, to openly critic the soviet regime, via newspapers or just not to lose your job for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Secondly, “Perestroika” – Rebuilding, which meant to rebuild the soviet system from the inside, to clear it out of corruption and to build trust not thanks to your seat in the Communist party, but through your work and achievements.

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Back In the U.S.S.R – Music behind the Iron Curtain by Alexander Zelinsky - Ourboox.com

Moscow Peace Festival 1989-90

Thanks to Gorbachev, a new wave of change came to the Soviet empire. Here you can see the poster of this breathtaking festival. Organised and backed by the Soviet regime through the “war on drugs and alcohol” campaign, 6 of the most known rock band in that time came to Moscow to support the youth and remind them, that drugs and alcohol is not the way to escape the harsh everyday life, it’s rocknroll and heavy distorted guitars (quite ironic).

Bon Jovi, Cinderella, Motley Crüe, Ozzy Osbourne, Skid Row and Scorpions. The same bands that were banned 3 years ago now piercing their fans ears and hearts. The festival was a colossal success, with numbers varied from one to two million people attending, legally or illegally, for the bands performing there. The show was amazing to the point that in the next year, they did another one, in 1990.

I can’t imagine how they felt performing to such an amazing, hungry and thirsty audience. (I wonder what happened if someone needed to go to the bathroom).

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The Last Hero
Последний Герой

As the Soviet empire became more and more flooded with Western media, the continuous war in Afghanistan dropped the morale of the soldiers even more, the nation with her reserves emptied and with no allies anymore, the clock was ticking like a bomb and we needed a hero.

Unlike Bonnie Tyler, the hero that was needed here, is not strong physically, he is not that fast and will not be here until the end of the night.

The hero was none other than our dear Viktor Tsoi, from the underground of the Leningrad Rock Club, he rose through and breached the mainstream, without any airplay on the radio and starring in one film after Gorby’s reforms, he was the voice of every soldier in the field and every student wanted to shout against the government, he was truly the last hero of the soviet youth, and we all know from History, the revolutions come from the young and brave.

At the same place a decade ago the Olympics were held, he preformed, his would be, last performance, an Olympic arena filled with now Russian flags, with a guitar in his hand and a cry of Change, Love and Peace. He was truly the last Hero.

(It was also the name of the song he performed here)

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