Rock ’n’ roll in red

CATHERINE REDDEN September 7 1987

Rock ’n’ roll in red

CATHERINE REDDEN September 7 1987

Rock ’n’ roll in red


The packed concert hail was buzzing with energy. Suddenly, deafening applause broke out as the

lead singer of the hard-rock band Stayer strutted out before close to 1,500 waiting fans. With his pink skintight trousers, studded leather belt and blond hair spiked with fashion gel, he displayed the daring sexuality typical of a top-of-the-charts rock star. Amid the euphoria, two dozen teenagers rushed toward the stage—when a heavyset man in civilian clothes appeared from the wings and ordered them to sit down. The scene resembled

a concert in Toronto or Chicago—but the bouncer was no bodyguard to the glamorous star. He was a Soviet concert official. And Stayer’s charismatic Anatoly Alyoshin had no private limousine to sweep him away at the end of the concert. He got a lift back to the Moscow suburbs—where he lives in a modest tower-block apartment—in a friend’s small Soviet-made Zhiguli automobile. Alyoshin does not own a car.

The June concert at Moscow’s Olympic Village complex would have been almost unthinkable two years earlier. That event, and others like it, are among the most unusual symptoms yet of the Soviet government’s recent policy of glasnost, or openness. Certainly the 1950s fervor in Eastern Bloc countries for experimental jazz musicviewed by Communist leaders as sub-

versive—is easily rivalled by the thriving present-day black market for new heavy metal, rockabilly and synth-pop music by British and American artists. But the new tolerance in Moscow under the two-year-old Communist regime of Mikhail Gorbachev has yielded unexpected benefits for Alyoshin and other rock musicians.

Frequent events like the Stayer concert—with tickets at $6 apiece—receive official endorsement. Records by such long-banned groups as the Beatles have been made widely available for sale. And a few Soviet bands

have even signed recording contracts. “Without glasnost,” said Igor Ignatiev, 18, standing in line outside one Moscow heavy metal concert, “it would not have been possible.”

Some musicians say that the Gorbachev regime’s endorsement of rock ’n’ roll is an alarming attempt by bureaucrats to defuse rock’s rebellious rallying power. But for such musicians as Alyoshin, the state gesture means more places to play, wider audiences— and more money. For their part, many Soviet rock fans say that the new tolerance may not last. “It is a step forward,” said 18-year-old Grisha Nikolsky of the new approval of rock music. “But it is a very big step. Maybe the improvement is temporary.”

The stamp of permissiveness has quickly become visible in Moscow streets. On a Saturday night in the

Blue Bird Cafe, skinny youths with slicked-back hair, tapered trousers, red socks and pointed shoes can be seen energetically doing the twist to the 1950s beat of “retro-rock” groups such as Meester Tveester. They are known as “rockabillies.” Other retrorock fans call themselves steelyagi, a 1950s slang term for nonconformist youths, and dress in Etonian collars, narrow dark glasses and secondhand double-breasted jackets.

Heavy metal “Rockers,” meanwhile, wear black-leather motorcycle jackets—if they can afford them at 700 rubles, about $1,450. And metallisty, or metallists, the best known heavy metal gang, openly favor T-shirts from the West bearing the logos of such groups as Iron Maiden, skull-and-crossbones earrings, and metal spikes made after hours at tool factories.

“Gorbachev’s a fine fellow,” said 20-year-old Pavel Kuznetsov, a Rocker. “He has given more freedom to young people.”

According to singer Sasha Sklyar, however, life as a rock musician is still not easy—even with the new permissiveness. Sklyar is the lead vocalist of VaBank, a group whose music he described as “rhythm and punk.” VaBank’s look is eclectic: bassist Alexei Nikitin typically wears military breeches and a billowing white shirt with a hammer-and-sickle motif. Drummer Sasha Malikov dons the frills of a 19th-century Russian dandy, and lead guitarist Yegor Nikonov apes the look of a Soviet anarchist. The whole image, according to Sklyar, is deliberately Russian. “If we do not have national characteristics,” said the singer, “it is impossible to talk of Soviet rock.”

Va-Bank’s existence can be partly attributed to Gorbachev. When official disapproval of anything but the tamest pop music eased after he came into power, Moscow bands joined together and founded the Moscow Rock Laboratory, a concert hall and official headquarters for amateur groups. Meanwhile, Sklyar left a job as a diplomatic clerk in North Korea and formed VaBank. At first, Sklyar said, “you could not make money,” because, as a gesture of Communist Party disapproval, rock bands were classified as amateur, and few rock musicians were admitted

as members of the district Soviet musicians’ unions. In recent months, however, amateur concerts have begun to charge admission, and Sklyar and the other members of Va-Bank have earned 7.50 rubles each for a performance—the equivalent of about $15. “This is very little,” said Sklyar, 29. “We cannot live on it.” As a result, he added, each member of Va-Bank has a second job.

Sklyar is particularly fortunate: he, his wife and their baby son have a two-room apartment all to themselves. “For a young person;” he explained,

“that is not very usual.” Bassist Nikitin, for one, shares a three-room apartment with his wife, child and inlaws. Said Sklyar, tapping the thin wall separating his tiny kitchen from the bedroom: “It’s hard for all the members of our group, if a child is sleeping and a drummer wants to practise.” At home, when playing his Japanese-made electric guitar (obtained through diplomatic connections), he wears earphones so that his family and neighbors will not hear the instrument. Nikitin and Nikonov both own Czech-made guitars but, Sklyar said, they long for Western-made guitars and amplifiers. “The level of our electronics is far lower than the world level,” he explained, adding that for any musician a foreign instrument means a high price tag and a long wait.

There is little doubt that the new Soviet openness to rock ’n’ roll may

be a highly effective way of addressing the aspirations of the country’s 25 million young people. At the first official Soviet media conference on rock music, held in Moscow in January, 1987, Alexei Kozlov of the rock group Arsenal said he believes that heavy metal music in particular has become an emotional outlet for underprivileged and unemployed youths. Said metallisty Igor Ignatiev: “A year ago it would have been considered fascism. Without glasnost, it would not have been possible [to play it openly].”

There are indications, however, that some members of the rock music community—particularly Leningrad’s experimental rock musicians—are concerned about glasnost. According to Sklyar, they see the sanction of popular music as a move to render the young powerless. “Leningrad used to be more revolutionary than Moscow in rock,” explained Sklyar. Groups in Leningrad, he added, have always had sharper lyrics, with more social themes, than Moscow groups. “Maybe not all Leningraders like what has happened,” Sklyar admitted. Indeed, with the official blessing of rock concerts has come the shadow of censorship: all bands for large concerts are required to submit their lyrics ahead of time to the government Artistic Council.

Still, most young people are taking full advantage of the reform. But for Va-Bank, the most desirable prize—a contract with Melodiya, the state record company—may also be the most elusive. Among the bands to have released such a record is Aquarium, one of the few Soviet groups to have visited the United States. But there is little hope for Va-Bank. “As amateurs,” said Sklyar, “we cannot have records made. This hurts, because any good group wants it. But I do not think the situation will change.”

Meanwhile, Sklyar and Va-Bank perform live whenever they can. Western audiences, explained Sklyar, do not find many Soviet bands interesting because they seem like imitations of their own groups. “But if they see something new, then it will be possible to say there is Soviet rock,” said Sklyar. “If you can say Va-Bank is Russian, then our task will be fulfilled.” The name Va-Bank, he added, is the term for a poker play when a gambler wins the entire pot. “It’s all or nothing,” said Sklyar. “We are prepared to sacrifice all we have to achieve our aims.” Within the current climate of Soviet openness, the sacrifices made by Va-Bank may yield unexpected rewards.