Excerpts From

"Rock in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia"

Author: Artemy Troitsky
Date: 1988.

"A Soviet New Wave"

[The Noginsk-II rock festival, scheduled for the autumn of 1979,] was canceled two days before it was to start. … Colleagues from the magazine Student Meridian helped organize an alternative site (a 300-seat conference hall on the 20th floor of the Young Guard Publishing House) and quite unexpectedly, this ceremony of mourning for refugees from the-festival-that-never-was turned into one of the best rock concerts Moscow had ever seen. The carefree capital saw and heard what it hadn't even dreamed existed – a Soviet new wave, in the form of Aquarium and Sipoli.

Aquarium's appearance at the festival happened like this. Since all the more or less famous Leningrad groups at that time were pretty awful, I asked [Time Machine frontman] Andrey Makarevich if there weren't any unknown but original bands there. (Time Machine traveled to Leningrad almost every month.)

"Probably only Aquarium," he answered. "They play pretty, acoustic songs, with a flute and cello. The lyrics are interesting, kind of philosophical."

I can't say this recommendation inspired me much, but I called Aquarium's leader, Boris Grebenshchikov, on the phone, and asked him straight, "What do you play?"

He began listing some of his favorite musicians and mentioned, among others, Lou Reed. It was the first time in my life I had heard Lou Reed's name from the mouth of a Russian rock musician. Velvet Underground were unknown here. I was intrigued and the issue was decided: "OK, Boris, buy your tickets."

Onto the stage stepped six musicians, aged 25 to 26. Boris with guitar, a rhythm section, cello, flute and bassoon. They were dressed a bit ragged, in faded jeans, T-shirts and wrinkled jackets. Their stage manner was loose, laughing and chattering among themselves. When the singer put on thin black glasses to tune his guitar, the audience sat up straight – all this seemed to resemble the notorious punk rock!

"Our group belongs to the Dom Kulturi of a metallurgical factory. We play for workers, and they like our music."

So began their concert, and I began counting the influences in their music. Dylanesque talking folk rock and soft songs in the style of Cat Stevens; monotone rock à la the Velvets, and one remarkable, melodic medieval ballad to the words of Thomas Malory (Morte D'Arthur) that Steeleye Span would have been proud of.

Here was a band of knowledgeable rock fans, and I immediately accepted them as soul brothers, because their frank eclecticism was so much more inspiring than the rigid conservatism of most of our rock groups. Aquarium was opening a new world of influences to the many people (including musicians) who had barely a hazy idea of what rock music beyond the familiar confines of Beatles-Led Zeppelin-Rick Wakeman-Chicago.

But even more important were the lyrics. On the one hand, they were written with a talented poetic touch – as good as Makarevich – and pretty images, such as:

It seems I recognize myself
In the little boy reading verses.
He grabs the hands of the clock
So that the night won't end,
And the blood flows from his hand.

On the other hand, they were closer to rock lyrics as I understood them, i.e., down to earth, ironic, with simple conversational language. The first song Aquarium played was "Simple Man's Blues":

Yesterday I was walking home,
Spring was everywhere.
I met him on the corner,
But couldn't figure him out at all.
He asked me, "To be or not to be?"
I told him to go get …

Grebenshchikov's semi-rude slang sounded to my ears like a chorus of angels. Finally I was hearing in Russian what I'd heard for so long in English. Of course the influences (Dylan, Reed, Morrison) were fairly transparent, but they were the right influences! Aquarium finished their set with, "Did You See the Flying Saucer?" with the final line:

 

If I were the saucer,
I'd never fly over Petrozavodsk.*

Such was the debut of Aquarium, the group that has largely set the tone of Soviet rock in the '80s. … The crowd was perplexed. A group of relieved colleagues from Noginsk walked up to me and said that they would have had troubles if Aquarium had played at their festival.

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* A Soviet city north of Leningrad where UFO sightings were reported at the time.

 

"Aquarium's Finest Hour"

Aquarium won no laurels at the [Tbilisi-80 Festival*], but managed to create their own scandal in the concert hall …. The group played one of the best concerts of their career; there was more electric rock than in their Moscow concert, and several excellent new songs appeared:

Give me my piece of life,
Before I'm gone from here
–"Piece of Life"

Sometimes I think we're heroes,
Backs to the wall,
Afraid of no one –
Sometimes I think we're just dirt.
– "Heroes"

And "Minus 30," probably my favorite from Aquarium's repertoire, a mid-tempo number built on a hypnotic riff and ritualistic vocal build up influenced perhaps by the work of Jim Morrison and Patti Smith:

Today there's snow on the street.
It's minus 30, if the announcer's not lying.
My bed is cold as ice,

But this is not the time to sleep.
Only the dead could sleep in this place.
Forward, forward!

I don't ask for good, and don't seek evil.
Today I'm among you again,
In search of warmth.

The girlfriend I was with at Tbilisi at the time knew little about rock music but was knowledgeable about theater. The concerts were fairly boring for her, poor thing, but Aquarium caught her eye. "This is almost Brecht," she said approvingly.

And when I stand in the Saigon**
People come in on their own two wheels.
The big shots come in big cars
But I don't want to be one of them.

Against the background of our relatively respectable rockers, Aquarium looked like a real band of rebels. When Boris began stroking his guitar against the microphone stand and then lay down on the stage holding his (borrowed) Telecaster on his stomach and clanging on the strings, the entire judging committee stood up and demonstratively left the hall, as if to say, "We bear no responsibility for the performance of such hooligans."

The concert, meanwhile, carried on. The cellist Seva hoisted his instrument atop the still supine Boris and began hacking with his bow while the bassoonist circled them, gesturing with his sinister-looking instrument as if shooting the entire outrageous deformity. Georgia hadn't seen the likes of this before; half the audience applauded furiously, while the other half whistled in indignation.

All this, though, was nothing compared to the goings-on in the lobby. For some reason, the Philharmonic's directors were calling the scene on the stage a homosexual demonstration.

"Why did you bring those faggots here?" a despondent Gayoz asked. Their complaint was completely unexpected.

"Why faggots? They're normal guys. That's just their stage show. A bit eccentric …"

"Normal guys?! One lies down on the stage, the other gets on top of him, the third joins in too. They're degenerates, not musicians."

The next point in the indictment against Aquarium concerned the song, "Marina," which has these lines:

Marina told me
That it's clear to her
That she is beautiful,
But life is useless,
And it's time for her to marry a Finn.***

Grebenshchikov decided that the last line was a bit too bold, so instead of "to marry a Finn" (Finna) he sang, "to marry Eno" (Ena), which preserved the cadence and rhyme. But the judges, naturally, didn't know who Brian Eno was, and to them it sounded like "to marry her son" (sina), which, naturally, was taken as another manifestation of sexual perversion.

At first the organizers wanted to expel Aquarium from the festival on the spot, but they softened after lengthy "clarifications" by Boris and myself. The group even played a second concert, in the town of Gori in a spacious, freezing circus hall located 100 meters from the birthplace of J.V. Stalin. This show was filmed by a Finnish TV crew and segments were included in their 40-minute film of the Tbilisi festival called "Soviet Rock," which likewise included clips of Time Machine, Magnetic Band, Autograph, Integral and a jazz rock group from Turkmenistan called Ganesh.

The real problems began for Aquarium on their return to Leningrad, where their rivals in the local rock Mafia had already rushed to brief leaders of the city's cultural establishment on the Tbilisi epic, suitably embellishing the details. After which Aquarium lost its rehearsal space and Grebenshchikov lost his laboratory job.

The legend began to grow.

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* Arguably "the most important event in Soviet rock history," according to Troitsky.

** Nickname of a popular café and hangout in Leningrad.

*** In order to leave the country.

 

 

"Noble Naiveté Was Their Trademark"

Since Aquarium are one of the most significant as well as unusual and influential groups in the history of Soviet rock, it's worth talking about them in more detail.

Aquarium didn't present itself to the world as a rock group, but more as a kind of family or commune (their philosophy stemming partly from that of their beloved Grateful Dead) living is their own, isolated world. That's how they explain their name: you can see them (and they can see you), but they have their own separate environment.

The Jerry Garcia role in Aquarium is played by Boris "Bob" Grebenshchikov – a somewhat mysterious, but thoroughly friendly and peace-loving poet-singer-guitar player who spends most of his time at home over tea, reading fairy tale fantasy literature (Tolkien and others) and western music magazines. He's a fairly self-indulgent but democratic guru.

Vsevolod "Seva" Gakkel (originally von Gakkel, as was recently discovered), descendant of one of the first Russian aviation designers, plays the cello and once upon a time graduated from music school. Seva is one of the brightest and most irreproachable individuals I know – calm, disarmingly unselfish, with a gleam in his eyes and the smile of a saint. He usually plays softly, providing a harmonic background for Aquarium, but I have one tape from a raucous Moscow concert during the hot summer of 1981 when Gakkel played such a soul-piercing solo that I get chills just recalling it. And it was on one of Aquarium's most enduring songs, "The Good Dilettante":

 

She's afraid of fire, you're afraid of walls.
Shadows in the corners, wine on the table,
Listen, do you remember why you're here?
Who are you waiting for here?

She cries at night, you can't help,
After each day comes a new night.
Here you met those more unhappy than you.
Is that who you waited for?

We know a new dance, but we have no legs.
We went to a new film, but someone cut off the power.
The Good Dilettante is on his way to the grocery.
Is that what you waited for?

I didn't know it was my fault.
I just wanted to be loved!
I just wanted to be loved!

Whereupon begins the nerve grinding cello solo …

Andrey "Dyusha" Romanov (no relation) plays flute and sings backup vocals. A generous, sociable guy who likes a drink and a chat – especially a chat about Aquarium. It was to none other than Dyusha that Boris dedicated his song, "My Friend the Musician," which ends with the words, "To the glory of music, we'll begin today with cognac." Dyusha is the most touching, helpless and, in a certain sense, "Russian" component in Aquarium (despite his ever-present Jethro Tull T-shirt). As to his background and education (probably college-level), I have no idea, although we've been friends for years.

Finally, there's Mikhail Vasilyev – bass player, percussionist and Aquarium's main channel of communication with the outside world. He's a computer programmer and the only one in the band with a career outside Aquarium. (The others all work as janitors, night watchmen and the like, so as to have more free time.) He also performs all the administrative and financial functions for the band, though not very effectively if one takes into account the fact that from 1972 (when the group began playing together) until the present, they haven't managed to save enough money to buy equipment and instruments. Mikhail likes to portray himself as a realist, a pragmatist if you will, but in fact he's the same kind of harmless lag as the rest of the band.

That's the basic foursome; various guitarists, drummers and a bassoon player have joined them at one time or another.

In Leningrad, Aquarium were not popular. In the late '70s, they played several times as support for Time Machine and, in the words of Kolya Vasin, "the audience suffered in agony, wondering when the boring, pretentious crap would finally cease." (Up until their "punk" phase of 1979-80, Aquarium played meditative folk rock with countless esoteric influences). Fame and glory came to them in Moscow, but on the banks of the Neva they began to score points only in 1982 when electric guitarist Alexander Lyapin and drummer Piotr Troshchenkov were recruited.

Lyapin was a virtuoso blues guitarist who had been in professional bands and had played jazz but wound up disenchanted and came to Aquarium seeking an outlet for his extraordinary and highly emotional style of playing. (If not in his sound, then at least in his feel and loose mannerisms, he was closer to Jimi Hendrix than any other Soviet rock guitarist.) Lyapin injected into Aquarium that which it had never had before – a powerful rock sound and tight, technically proficient playing. But his relationship with the group was complicated and even traumatic.

On the one hand, Boris needed him as a bridge to the rock audience, while on the other, he envied Lyapin for the riveting solos and awesome stunts he performed in concert (playing with his teeth and behind his back, etc.) which shunted the leader into the shadows and won laurels for Lyapin. In addition, Lyapin was "just a musician," and among Aquarium's artful mystics came off as something of a simpleton who didn't fit their otherworldly image. At times, Lyapin would take offense at the supercilious attitude displayed toward him, but he was basically a jovial man and easily appeased and so he just kept on playing. And in time he became, for all practical purposes, the second most popular member of Aquarium, despite his actual status as a hired hand.

As for the drummer Piotr, he was much younger than the rest, played reliably and behaved modestly. In evenings where there were no concerts, he would play in restaurant bands.

With the arrival of these two new players, Aquarium took a sharp turn from acoustic reggae and folk ballads toward mainstream rock, with episodic excursions into ska and funk. The culmination of their new electrified program were two songs written under the obvious influence of The Doors – "Rock 'n' Roll's Dead (But I'm Not Yet)" and "We'll Never Grow Older." The latter (imagine something like a cross between "When the Music's Over," and "Decades" by Joy Division) contained these lines:

I didn't know it was all so simple,
I've even grown to a new height.
But in these rivers there's water
That I drink up without waiting for a toast.

We drank that pure water,
We drank that pure water,
And we'll never get older.

From other bands, this might have been mere sloganeering, pretty but empty. From Aquarium it was genuine. Noble naiveté was their trademark – for its sake Aquarium have suffered, but thanks to it Aquarium have won victories. They may have seemed somewhat infantile, feeble and unfinished, but at the same time they had made no compromises and hadn't sold out. The pure water of rock idealism had cleansed Aquarium in a fundamental way.

Sometimes they bored and even aggravated me – one wanted actions in place of preaching, broken glass instead of crystal. But I would find myself sitting around the table with them again and see those transparent, childlike expressions through the cigarette smoke and all my anger would disappear. After all, who of us over 30 didn't drink that pure water?

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