Before the beginning

"...Я до рвоты, ребята, за вас хлопочу!
Может, кто-то когда-то поставит свечу
Мне за голый мой нерв, на котором кричу,
И весёлый манер, на которм шучу..."

...I struggle for you till I vomit, people!
Maybe someone sometime will light a candle
For the raw nerve on which I shout.
And the happy way I joke...
-Vladimir Vysotsky

When Josef Stalin died in 1953, the people that he imprisoned in GULAGs (at least those that survived) slowly returned home. With them, they brought a whole new musical culture--it grew from the raspy voices of tired men around campfires at night, with guitar and samogon to help escape. The bards that epitomized this generation--Yuriy Vizbor, Aleksandr Galich, Bulat Okudzhava-- took much of their repertoire from these songs. The music the bards made was, perhaps, traditional--it incorporated the 'city romances', the war songs, the classic love-lost melodies. Some also went up to the line of being dissident, sometimes even crossing it--Galich was actively sought by the KGB.

The most remarkable of all these musicians was Vladimir Vysotsky. The best way to describe him would perhaps be as a mix of James Dean, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash. He had Dean's acting skill; Presley's fame and circumstances of death (although we are definitely sure Vysotsky is dead); and most certainly the mystique and poetic aura that surrounds Cash. It is difficult to listen to his songs without feeling at least respect for the man. In any case, his music and his underground status had a profound influence on future Russian musicians.

During this time, practically the only way to obtain Western recordings was through something called "music on bones". This, basically, consisted of recording vinyl records onto X-ray film, so as not to be detected as smuggling music into the country. The exact technique used is unknown to me; however, it still baffles my mind. Records smuggled in this way helped shape the Russian music scene of the next decades tremendously. The Beatles, for example, are literally revered--it is customary for musicians of all trades, from techno to metal, to name them as one of their inspirations.


Отныне время будет течь по прямой;
Шаг вверх, шаг вбок - их мир за спиной.
Я сжег их жизнь, как ворох газет -
Остался только грязный асфальт;
Но рок-н-ролл мертв, а я еще нет,
Рок-н-ролл мертв, а я;
Те, что нас любят, смотрят нам вслед.
Рок-н-ролл мертв, а я...
...еще нет.

From now on time will flow straight.
A step up, a step to the side--their world is behind us.
I burned their life like a pile of papers--
Only the dirty asphalt is left;
But Rock 'n' roll's dead, and I'm not yet,
Rock 'n' roll's dead, and I'm;
Those that love us watch us walk away.
Rock 'n' roll's dead, and I'm...
...not yet.

Russian rock'n'roll essentially started in 1972-73, when Boris Grebenschikov and a few friends decided to start a band. Their first notes resembled nothing if not what came before it--guitar and folk tunes, but the members of the band knew that what they were playing was rock. This wasn't the first Russian rock band; the others, though, quickly faded into obscurity.

Grebenschikov is an interesting man. When he started playing in Akvarium, he was only nineteen years old; he had only been playing guitar for 4 years when John Lennon's 60D gave him the inspiration to start his own VIA (Vokal'no-Instrumental'nyi Ansambl', Vocal-Instrumental Ensemble) and to write songs in Russian. Gradually, he met people, some of which had been playing in things like Doors cover bands. Already, he was a Buddhist; this was to follow him for the rest of his life. During the middle seventies, his band and its various camp followers were basically a floating Russohippie commune of 10-40 people. The late seventies marked further rearrangements of the band's musicians, and more mature sound. Later, Akvarium was to get more and more popular; what is important, though, is that it was the crest of the early-80s wave of rock.

Another band that rose up during the seventies was Mashina Vremeni. Mainly, they formed the lighthearted counterpart to Akvarium's seriousness. They stayed away from things such as politics and religion; their songs are about joy, and love, and etc. A most telling thing about them: I saw them live, thirty years after inception. The outdoor aerodrome where they performed was stuffed full of punks, metalheads, and various assorted music lovers. This was a music festival, at which both Akvarium and Mashina Vremeni performed. Akvarium was generally paid attention to only by a select group of self-important intellectuals, except when they sang their classics. Everyone sang along to Mashina Vremeni, even though their music is as far from punk or metal as humanly possible.


Электpический свет пpодолжает наш день
И коpобка от спичек пyста
Hо на кyхне синим цветком гоpит газ
Сигаpеты в pyках, чай на столе, эта схема пpоста
И больше нет ничего, все находится в нас

Пеpемен тpебyют наши сеpдца
Пеpемен тpебyют наши глаза
В нашем смехе и в наших слезах и в пyльсации вен
Пеpемен! Мы ждем пеpемен!

The electric light lengthens our day
And the box of matches is empty
But in the kitchen the gas burns, a blue flower
Cigarettes in hand, tea on the table, this blueprint is simple
And there is nothing else, everything is inside us.

Our hearts demand changes.
Our eyes deman changes.
In our laughter and our tears and the pulsing of veins
Changes! We need changes!

The eighties-early nineties indeed brought changes to Russia. The arrival of bands such as DDT and Krematoriy, not to mention Kino and others like it, made Russia a vibrant rock scene. At the same time, political turmoil was starting, with the late 80s bringing about Perestroika, Gorbachev, and the eventual liberalization of Soviet society, followed by the USSR's collapse. During this time, the various 'rock clubs', notably the St. Petersburg/Leningrad one, began to appear, bringing rock firmly into the mainstream.

DDT, named at first after 'Detskiy Dom Tvorchestva'(Children's Art Center--where the band was initially based), and then after the famous pesticide, was started by artist Yuriy Shevchuk and four acquaintances in the summer of 1980. It quietly existed, rather penniless, in Ufa, until the band gave a concert at the Ufa Oil Institute, where the authorities were unpleasantly surprised at the dissident tone of their songs. The band's story is marked with growing repression and obstacles put before them by the government, and parallel to that, growing popularity. Rodina, one of their canonical songs, expressed perfectly the confusion and darkness that ruled Russia in '92-'93-- "Oh God, how much faith is in the hands of the government's hangmen/Don't let them once again roll up their sleeves".Shevchuk is an intellectual man, and a clever one--but one who knows his people very well. When he performed at a large, several-day suburban Moscow festival in 2001, he came out on stage and said, "It looks like we've conceived quite a few children tonight. Well, I'm glad. And remember, kids, drugs are..." letting the audience finish the sentence. ("GOOOD!!!") DDT toured the US in the early nineties, with not a bad turnout.

Kino was perhaps the most-remembered band of the eighties. Its leader, a young man of Korean extraction named Viktor Tsoi, could be called the rock generation's Vysotsky. The slight accentedness of his deep voice made his thoughtful, sometimes hopeful, sometimes desperate, sometimes angry, lyrics all the more memorable. In the early eighties, Kino was a small, struggling group that would disappear, emerge, only to disband once more. In '84, however, the band was resurrected. They won many prizes; however, their popularity was fairly middling, until the late eighties. When the band released "Gruppa krovi"(Blood group), it was an immediate success, to be followed by a climactic appearance in the cult movie Assa. Tsoi died in a car accident in 1990; he was completely sober, but he apparently fell asleep at the wheel from sheer exhaustion. Just like Vysotsky in 1980, the country's young people mourned. Kino released a posthumous album of some studio cuts Tsoi made right before his death, and promptly broke up, lacking an engine.

Modern Times

Много дней грустил король,
Не знал народ, что за беда.
И кто-то во дворец привел
Смешного карлика-шута.
Карлик прыгал и кричал,
Народ безумно хохотал,
А шут смешить не прекращал,
На пол вдруг король упал!

Many days the king was sad.
Nobody knew what the trouble was
But someone brought into the palace
A funny jester-dwarf.
The dwarf jumped around and yelled
The people laughed like crazy
The jester wouldn't stop
Suddenly, the king fell down!
--Korol' i Shut

The nineties, for Russian music, meant that the scene could finally develop fully. Most of the old mainstays are still there; Akvarium, DDT, and Mashina Vremeni give regular concerts (although Grebenschikov has become a bothersome old geezer, like Mick Jagger, but with intellectual pretensions). A number of interesting new bands have sprung up, and the music no longer lacks for variety. Moscow, as opposed to St. Petersburg, is now the epicenter of the scene, and it looks like that will remain the case for the near future. In addition, alternative-type bands like Bi-2 and Splin have become popular, mostly due to their youth and utter lack of any special image.

An interesting case-in-point is the rather meteoric rise (not yet fall) of Korol' i Shut (The King and the Jester). They are punks, in both the musical and cultural senses of the word. However, in the West they would be considered a concept band, because their music is almost 100% composed of...various Russian fables and horror stories, usually with bad endings. Concept bands are not too popular; this band has a multimillion following, mostly gained in the last 4 years. The musicians are still young, and they help young artists with studio equipment and the like.

Some Characteristics

Russian rock tends to be significantly less heavy than Western. I do not know why this is; it is obvious, however, that even the metal bands have less drive than Western ones, and the same thing with punk. For some reason, this is only true of recordings: a live Russian punk band can easily blow one away, so when buying Russian albums guided primarily by volume, look for live ones. The lyrics also tend to take a much more preeminent position in the music, as opposed to the West. Often, you will find nontrivial humor and philosophy in a song, which happens in the West maybe in some Dead Milkmen or Radiohead music. Christianity is generally not confined to the smelly enclave of "Christian rock"-- in Russia, Orthodoxy is associated more with dissidence than conformity. The use of instruments besides the traditional drums-guitar-bass-keyboard is more common than in the West--things like saxophones, violins, and various ethnic pieces are widespread (Korol' i Shut has a violin). There are also more subtle differences; these are difficult to describe without both sides being exposed to the music.

A note on piracy and the RIAA affair: In Russia, music distributors take the more logical approach to marketing. They simply sell licensed copies for nearly the same price (maybe $4 vs. $3) as pirated, and it is generally harder to find pirated copies for this reason.

Interesting Artists

For an 80s style metal fix, try Aria. They have managed to capture the exact moment in the 80s when the genre was at its peak and before poodle metal set in. They do it well, too--their lyrics have more than sex and gothic fantasy.

Pilot is another band that has recently gained prominence. From their rather philosophical and quiet first albums, they have moved to philosophical and loud metal. The vocalist's real last name is Ch'ort, which means Devil; appropriate!

Krematoriy are a 20-year-old band that has lost none of its humor or vitality. Their lyrics are characterized by some degree of absurdity, intellectuality, and, usually, avoidance of any sort of current events. Highly recommended for those that can actually understand them...

Russia has a number of thriving punk bands. One of these is Purgen, which hates Yeltsin and Putin as much as Ann Coulter hates Bill Clinton. When it comes to anarchy, these guys are masters. Kind of an Anti-Flag, butall more wild and raucous.

5nizza(P'yatnitsa) is a recent project that touches rock only slightly. They can best be described as an analog cLOUDDEAD fronted by Bob Marley. Actually, it's just two guys: one plays guitar and sings, the other sings and makes funny sounds.

Aukzion is maybe like the Clash, but they take themselves far less seriously. They have their share of tracks that sound like they're made to take drugs to. They have many smart songs, and nearly all of them are ironic and/or humorous (Samol'yot comes to mind...)

Chizh and his various projects are excellent for fans of bluesy, drawn-out jamming. Not too much philosophy here, but he is undeniably a very good musician, especially on guitar. Seen him live a couple of times; very strong impression.

Of course, look at the bands listed in TAFKAH's writeup. Nearly all have something going for them.

Stuff easily found on Yandex.

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