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Rocking the system: how Led Zeppelin inspired dissidence in the Soviet Union


Rather paradoxically, rock music has always been more important in communist countries than in the West. As Goran Bregovic, the frontman of Sarajevo rockers White Button put it in 1989: “We can’t have any alternative parties or any alternative organised politics. So there are not too many places where you can gather large groups of people and communicate ideas which are not official. Rock ‘n’ roll is one of the most important vehicles for helping people in communist countries to think in a different way.”

Since the formation of the Soviet Union in 1922, governmental powers had done their utmost to ensure the erasure of western cultural and political influence. That quest was made much more difficult when Beatlemania swept through the communist bloc in the spring of 1964. The official press quickly began comparing the youth’s infatuation with the Liverpool quartet to a disaster on the scale of a plague or a hurricane. In Poland, the Communist youth paper described how The Beatles had “overpowered 400,000 Warsaw youth faster than the Asian flu”. Observing the enthusiasm of young fans when A Hard Days Night premiered in Warsaw, the paper wrote: “The cinemas are besieged, and absenteeism in schools is rampant.”

The Soviet Union feared rock music because it threatened to subvert the political order of it and its satellite states. Rock and roll’s startling ability to seep through the cracks in state bureaucracy undermined the authority of the Union and humanised the West, making it much more difficult for the state to convince its young population that communism was the way forward. Arguably, the cut-through appeal of rock ‘n’ roll bands like The Beatles, Cream and Led Zeppelin alienated an entire generation from communist ideals, sparking a revolution of the mind.

Young people’s hunger for Western rock music quickly became a topic of concern for the Soviets. In the mid-1960s, the Soviet Union’s communist youth league released a report claiming that young people were spending more time on the dancefloor than they were on the athletic field. Rock music was spreading like wildfire around the eastern bloc, and this worried the Central Committee. Soviet countries blamed rock ‘n’ roll for the moral degradation of their populace, labelling the music of the West the key driving force behind the rise in vandalism, sexual violence, alcoholism and, above else, juvenile delinquency. Soviet officials quickly turned on rock ‘n’ roll. Police units broke up rock concerts, long-haired youths were pulled off the streets and forcibly shaven, and rock musicians were imprisoned for everything from tax evasion to political subversion.

As Russian dramatist Vladimir Sorokin observed in a 2010 New York Times piece about the music of Led Zeppelin, the Soviet bloc’s attempts to quash the influence of rock music did nothing to quell the ferocity of its youth. Sorokin begins by painting a picture of his musical upbringing, which he described as being “rather commonplace — childhood plus piano, the normal Soviet routine: Schumann’s ‘Merry Peasant,’ Bach’s ‘Rigaudon,’ ‘For Elise,’ ‘Moonlight Sonata Part I'”. But when one of his fingers was broken, Sorokin’s affection for classical piano music dissolved. “The piano still gave pleasure; keys warmed by the sun gave off a cosy smell and felt good to the touch, as did the yellowed pages of music. But there was no kick.”

The dramatist continued: “That happened one pleasant September afternoon in 1972, in the apartment of my classmate Vitya, who that summer became the world student table tennis champion and brought back from unattainable Stockholm three records: Led Zeppelin (II), Deep Purple (Machine Head) and Uriah Heep (Look at Yourself) I was 18, and not entirely pop-illiterate: the ‘Beatli,’ the ‘Rollingi’ and the Monkees were always seeping out of friends’ tape recorders, opening up new, unknown sounds and spaces. But all that was anticipation; it was as if we were being prepared for something big, something that would make the blood curdle in our veins. And curdle it did when Vitya pulled the new Zeppelin LP out of what at the time was a mind-blowing sleeve and put it on, and ‘Whole Lotta Love’ rose up with a beckoning howl. Corks formed of cloying Soviet music flew out of our ears. And a young man’s brain experienced irreversible biochemical change. It was the unforgettable lesson of freedom. It was probably on that very day that I spontaneously became a dissident.”

It wasn’t just Sorokin who was radicalised by rock music. In the autumn of 1977, the state’s cancellation of a planned rock concert sparked a brutal confrontation between rock fans and military units in the small town of Kdyně, in what was Czechoslovakia. A wave of enraged youth swept through the town, setting fire to cars, smashing windows and throwing bottles and stones at police. The arrival of army units did little to pacify the crowd. In fact, the military commander was so afraid that the riot would turn bloody that he called a truce, by which time the young people had already managed to demolish the local railway station, burn a railway car to the ground and overturn three armoured cars. A similarly violent outburst swept across East Berlin two months later. Police had forced their way into a huge crowd of rock ‘n’ roll fans with the intention of breaking up a concert. When they attempted to do so, the young fans turned on them, beating the security forces, stripping them of their uniforms and setting them on fire. According to a report of the incident, one police officer was stabbed to death, while another recieved a broken skull from a fan wielding a case of beer. All in all, four police officers and nine music fans were killed during the confrontation.

Such incidents confirmed what the Soviet Union feared: Western rock music was undermining the state in its attempt to control its citizens. Sure, communist leaders could order the railways to be rebuilt, the windows re-framed and the rioters imprisoned. But how were they supposed to combat the revolution happening inside the minds of Soviet youth? All over the eastern bloc, young people were trading the political ideologies of Lenin and Marx for the music of John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Robert Plant. It was already underway: music was rocking the system to its very core.

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