Image credit: Camila Fernandez

Off The Beaten Track: The underground punk wave at war with the Soviet Union

World music reminds us of how culture follows a discourse. These days, the sound of the western mainstream is so vast and suffuse that the meandering undercurrent of narrative gets lost beneath the surface. However, around the world and throughout history, pockets of unified music scenes have pervaded. Behind them is a trail of how history, happenstance and the humans that propagate it arrived at the sonic precipice of their own backstory. In this ‘Off The Beaten Track’ series, we’ll be exploring music from all corners of the earth and marvelling at the remarkable tales behind the music. What better place to start than by celebrating the transcendent and subversive force that old resilient mutant we call rock ‘n’ roll proves to be. 

Live music is once again just around the corner. Soon it will return all around the world and, when it does, the inviolable sanctity that it offers up as a balm of triumphant alchemy will be vivified and re-energised by the grateful and gladdened grasp in which we figuratively clutch our golden ticket stubs. Thus imagine, if you will, what it must have been like to risk facing five years in the gulag for one night of underground rock ‘n’ roll?

In the former Soviet Union, western music was outlawed. The official line was akin to old pastors in the Mississippi Delta who yelled that blues was “the devil’s music” when emergent rockers began to divert donations away from the collection basket and into their tip jar. Except the USSR banned the sonic illness of western rock ‘n’ roll because it spread disgusting “capitalist and imperialist messages”.  

At first, the only way that those living under Soviet rule could hear the post-WWII expansion of western music was via the American propagandist radio stations Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty that were broadcast into the USSR from just outside the Eastern Bloc. Via this benevolent Cold War service, Soviets got their first crackling glimpses of rock ‘n’ roll. 

It didn’t take long for black market record trading to pop up in various places throughout the 22.4 million km2empire. The issue with vinyl, however, is that it was bulky and unmistakable. If a KGB officer caught you with a 180g 12” LP you could hardly just tuck it up to your sleeves and makes haste unless you had a jacket like Gandalf’s. 

The solution to this was genius and, frankly, ineffably cool. Some clever folks in St Petersburg and other port towns realised that you could press the vinyl’s onto X-ray film, making a discreet primitive flexi-disc. And the other benefit to this bounteous practice was that it was cheaper and even more discreet to press it onto used X-ray film sheets, thus the Chuck Berry records or whatever else had been smuggled into the country were etched onto sheets of cracked ribs and shattered shin bones. If that wouldn’t add an allure to the already endearingly dangerous oeuvre of western rock, then nothing would?

Aside from the obvious peril, consumers faced another issue. Inherently with the black market, you don’t get a receipt thusly some of these early X-ray records featured a sort of primitive ‘rick rolled’ situation whereby after a few bars of sweet rock music the valorous vigour would be short-lived as a laughing voice declared you a foolishly conned goon. For a while, this treachery and uncertainty stemmed the spread of western rock ‘n’ roll… and then The Beatles happened. 

Even the Soviet Union recognised that The Beatles and the movement that followed represented a seismic cultural shift that could not be surprised through might. So, at this juncture, they officially sanctioned rock bands. However, the bands sanctioned were State rock groups, like some nefarious Simon Cowell creation of the Eastern Bloc, everything about the bands was regulated. However, much like the quasi-independent ‘label owned’ western equivalents, this regulation was as transparent as a lying politician in a greenhouse on a clear blue day. 

Once this see-through catastrophe was foisted upon the masses the brazen youth culture movement truly began in earnest. Rock ‘n’ roll had broken down the front door of the Eastern Bloc and, even though the powers-that-be had seemingly cajoled it into the sedate lounge, some of it had escaped the lasso of control and crept down into the basement. 

At this stage, it was still simply locked away. If you weren’t a state band you were unable to officially do anything, and if you were found to be unofficial and against the State the consequences were dire. Therefore, the underground movement was still heavily controlled and manhandled by the hammer and sickle of the State. Oil had been tapped in the underground but the naked flame to ignite it was perpetually snuffed out. 

That is until the fateful demonstrations on the 14th of April, 1978 in Tbilisi, Georgia SSR. The Soviet powerhouse attempted to change the constitutional status of languages in Georgia to make Russian the official spoken tongue. They had overplayed their hand on this one and even the threats that the might of the State brandished was not enough to suppress protest en masse. 

The protestors were victorious and the constitutional change was vetoed, but the Soviet leaders had a far bigger problem on their hands. They had effectively pulled a pin on a hand grenade of dissident and mobilised youth, and they were still holding it. Almost overnight the underground expanded and where previously the subversive force of music was used subtly and tentatively, it now transmuted into an unmistakable snarl. 

To get the youth back onside, a music festival was organised. During which the prime crop of underground acts were officially allowed to play. One such band were Aquarium and, once their raucous on-stage actions were deemed homosexual, which was illegal and persecuted in the USSR at the time, they were banned and blacklisted. However, in an oversight that only a state power couldn’t foretell, anything that is banned in terms of arts immediately gains profound youth appeal. Underground music was now alive and kicking and it was here to stay. 

Perhaps the band that epitomised it most during this period was the early 1980s emergence of Vova Blue & The Brothers of the Mind. They were a band that makes the New York punk club of CBGB seem about as overground as the Space Station. They lived in a town that didn’t even appear on maps. Like something from Stranger Things, the two brothers were residences of a rural town centred around making A-bombs and seemingly underground New Order-Esque music. Their home recordings were placed on cassettes and these small reel-to-reel tapes spread through the country, with a legion of other bands following suit.  

The very fact that none of the musicians during this period were making any money from their work defines the movement as an assegai of artistry and, more importantly, its potential to eviscerate the hand of oppression via the extraordinary resilience of creative inspiration. 

The sound of this resilience was entirely unique in all of the world. Unlike a lot of unified cultural movements, each of the acts was actually very disparate. However, there are a few common traits worth touching upon. Evident amidst the melee of sound is a sort of mellowed yet raw Velvet Underground-esque melody, linked to the fact that at most of the semi-illegal gigs KGB officers would arrest anyone who “couldn’t control their emotions”, thus it was a much more considered raucous fanfare than you might expect. 

The music was also lyrically profound. This aspect was based upon the literary tradition of the country whereby authors of old risked the gulag to slip deeply subversive messages into their novels and, in the process, achieved some of the greatest literary feats in history, such as Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master & Margarita which traversed a treacherous path through troubletown to eventually evade the censors and ended up being adoringly devoured by the masses. This academic edge was simply too ingrained in Russian culture to be abandoned for the occasionally juvenile edge of western punk. 

The third factor was the brash New Wave sounds that often infiltrated production. This is also steeped in history, going back to the grand orchestration of composers like Igor Stravinsky. They didn’t simply arrive at the modern-day crazy shuffle of EDM inexplicably. Their music has always had an adrenalised edge to it because if you’re enduring the depths of deadly winter, you’re going to want to hear music you can move your feet to — if only to try to get some blood to your toes. 

This was the story of their sound. The hypnotic rhythms explore a vicious sonic slipstream of defiance, yearning and the perfunctory punch-up of underground punk. Sadly, it was a slipstream that once again led to peril. In November 1982, Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader who had softened up to youth culture, passed away. His replacements in power sought to regain cultural control and many of the underground acts were arrest, sent to labour camps, or in one or two cases they simply disappeared. It wasn’t until Mikhail Gorbachev took control in 1985 that the country would open up in earnest and the new age began. The band’s that had stood defiant were finally able to make money and play freely, however, their sound will always be a testament to the underground soul of rock ‘n’ roll and its coracle of sanctity amid an ocean of tumult; it was both beside the turmoil and floating on a plane above it. 

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