One day I asked my Canadian friend what he knew about Soviet rock music.
“About as much as I know about of the Soviet soccer,” he answered.
That meant nothing. Soviet soccer doesn’t exist as far as the Western world’s concerned.
So here’s my attempt to introduce Soviet rock music to all of you…
1. Vladimir Vysotsky
Ok , he never sang rock, but whatever. Vysotsky was not just a singer, songwriter, actor, director, he was a phenomenon in USSR culture – bigger than the Beatles in England or The Doors in the USA. Vysotsky was the quintessence of the Soviet Man. Vysotsky was a mix of Jewish, Russian and other bloods. Vysotsky sang to everyone about everyone. He sang about the miners, doctors, scientists, artists, prostitutes, and bandits. About war, peace, love, etc. etc. Vysotsky’s songs were listened to all around the USSR, by alcoholics and by the secretaries of the Communist Party who controlled the culture of the USSR; by the main staff of the KGB and by Soviet dissidents. Whenever a film starring Vysotsky was showing in a movie theatre you couldn’t find a ticket for it. Vysotsky was way more popular than general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – Breznev. Vysotsky was married to the French actress Marina Vlady. For him the Iron Curtain was open: he could travel in France, America, Canada, all around the world at a time when the average Soviet citizen couldn’t even visit socialist countries. At a time when it was impossible to buy even a Soviet car, Vysotsky drove around in a Mercedes. If you insulted Vysotsky you could get yourself beaten up. Vysotsky was an icon, a sacred cow. Still, during his lifetime not one Vladimir Vysotsky album was released, nor a a single book of his poems. The Soviet press did not write about it. His songs were almost never heard on Soviet radio and TV. He didn’t get a role in the movies he wanted. About Vysotsky’s death the Soviet press was mum.
Today I want to say “Volodia, thank you for your songs!”
I think the number two spot should go to a rock band, even though it was more a folk band: Pesnyary from Belarus. Perhaps other Soviet groups were no less interesting but this group was the only Soviet rock band that toured in the United States. They toured the South of the USA together with the folk band The New Christy Minstrels. Pesnyary concerts in the USSR bore some resemblance to concerts in the West. There was always a crush, fights for tickets, the police, and many arrests. I was arrested myself at a Pesnyary concert for making a lot of noise, stamping and whistling. A police car took me to a suburb thirty kilometers away and I had to return home late at night on foot, which I did, singing Pesnyary songs. My favorite Pesnyary song is “Bird’s Cry.”
3. Jolly Fellows
Third prize goes to the group Jolly Fellows or Vesyolye Rebyata – but they mustn’t be confused with Jazz Comedy – a 1934 Soviet musical film directed by Grigori Aleksandrov, starring his wife Lyubov Orlova, a gifted singer and the first recognized star of Soviet cinema. The movie “Jolly Fellows” is the Soviet answer to Hollywood’s golden era. But the group Vesyolye Rebyata was the first ever to sing Beatles song on the Soviet scene. You could say they raised the Iron Curtain for the first time. They sang the Beatles hit “Drive My Car” – a song written primarily by Paul McCartney, with lyrical contribution from John Lennon. It was first released on the British version of the band’s 1965 album “Rubber Soul,” which inspired Vesyolye Rebyata to write their own version in 1971 – a complete rewrite of the poetic text with a slightly different musical arrangement:
It turned me on at the time and I began to listen to Western music. Vesyolye Rebyata still exists today but I’m afraid they still sound like they’re in the ’70s. In any case, I want to say thanks to Vesyolye Rebyata.
4. Pojushie Gitary
Number four on my list of musical groups is from St. Petersburg: Pojushie Gitary (The Singing Guitars). They were the Soviet Union’s first rock band to reach a phenomenal rate of success and popularity in the Soviet Union. The group first introduced me to the famous hit 70’s “Yellow River”:
I’m not sure whether this song is popular in the West but in the countries of the Soviet bloc, it was a mega hit. Pojushie Gitary was the first band to sing it. Here’s the the Russian language version:
The text is entirely different: the hero is not a soldier as Christy sang it but Karlsson of the children’s book “Karlsson on the Roof.”
5. Yuri Antonov
I give to the singer\song-writer Yuri Antonov. He never sang in English but he stole at least one musical part from The Beatles. You merely have to listen to find out.
The Beatles “A Day In The Life
Antonov “U Berez I Sosen”
Paul McCartney – Ram on
I forgive Antonov for this because the Beatles were there in order for other groups to steal their music.
At any rate, in my view Yuri Antonov wrote the best love ballad in all Soviet rock music: “Net Tebya Prekrasne.” (No one more beautiful than you)
Moreover, he wrote many hits that helped me make money at parties and make love to young girls. It is a well-known fact that from all Soviet rock music Paul McCartney has mentioned only the name of Yuri Antonov. I believe if Antonov had been born in England he would have liked Elton John.