Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Back, Back in the USSR!

How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin – the Untold Story of a Noisy Revolution,” by Leslie Woodhead, 2013

The thesis of this book is that the “Bitles” overthrew Communism in the USSR. As explained by Soviet fan after fan, hearing their music in the 1960s undermined bureaucratic propaganda about the bad “West” and promised something every young person wanted – ‘freedom’ and maybe even - joy.  Of course, the Beatles delivered this to westerners too. This book tells the story of Soviet rockers, promoters, techies, journalists and fans whose lives permanently changed because they heard the Beatles – creating a Soviet Beatles generation that suffered severe repression to listen to the music.  It created a ‘mythical world’ in the West that young people wanted to be part of.  Clothing changed, hair lengthened, musical tastes veered away from the dull, stodgy folk,chorus and pop of Soviet culture.  Many describe themselves as becoming ‘strangers’ in their own country due to their love of this underground sensation. 

Woodhead travels to Leningrad and Moscow over a period of 20 years, interviewing prominent rockers, attending Beatles commemorations and nightclubs, filming a McCartney concert in Kiev, a secret band get-together in Minsk in Belarus, an art show involving his original Beatles pictures in Vladivostok. Woodhead is a documentary filmmaker and a former young British spy.  He made the first film of the Beatles performing two songs at the Cavern Club in Liverpool way back in 1962.  He then hosted the Beatles a number of times on a local Liverpool TV station. Later film journeys took him to the USSR, and he realized that these two things – the USSR and the Beatles - were intimately connected.

Woodhead starts his book with the massive 2003 concert by Paul McCartney in Red Square – which was a pivotal moment for this generation – as it was the first time that a Beatle had played there.  When McCartney eventually played ‘Back in the USSR’ many in the audience cried.  It was an emotional high point for those who had been fans for years.

Of course, Vladimir Putin was sitting in the front row for the concert.  Even the Russian Defense minister was now a Beatles fan. Yes.

Woodhead retails the fascinating history of the official attitudes towards music – specifically jazz (‘dzhaz’) and rock – after the Bolshevik revolution.  I don’t think the story of the waves of repression and ‘openness” regarding ‘western’ styles of music in the USSR has ever been told.  Like many pro-capitalist observers, he equates Lenin with Stalin, and disappears Trotsky, but this is a minor issue.  The real story is how the bureaucratic view of culture undermined the workers’ states.  Decreeing what kind of culture is ‘allowed’ – a ‘proletarian culture’ or ‘Russian” culture defined from the top - is a formula for stagnation.  Yet this is just what the bureaucrats running the USSR did over and over again.  But after Khrushchev’s 1957 World Youth Festival, rock started sneaking into the USSR behind Chubby Checker’s “Twist” - and it never stopped.

Besides many of Leon Trotsky’s writings on culture (“Problems of Everyday Life,” “Art and Revolution,” “Literature and Revolution,” etc.), Trotsky, Diego Rivera and Andre Breton issued a “Manifesto towards a Free Revolutionary Art” in 1938 that declared that art in a workers state need not be based on a ‘police patrol spirit.’ This Manifesto was aimed at Stalin and his policies towards culture.

But in the USSR for the most part it was just that way. 

Woodhead notes that many of the original Soviet Beatles fans were youth from the upper Soviet strata who had more contact with “The West.”  Artemy Troitsky, a famous Russian musician, dissident and promoter, is his guide through the past.  Troitsky introduces Woodhead to various older Russian rockers and bands – Boris Grebenshikov and Aquarium;  Alexander Gradsky; Andre Makarevich and The Time Machine; Stas Namin and Flowers; Sasha Lipnitsky and Zvuki Mu; Igor Salnikov and The Oz; Yuri Pelyushonok and the Blue Corals. In the late 60s there were more than 200 rock bands playing in Moscow. All were initially inspired by the Beatles.  And nearly all of these groups are almost totally unknown in the U.S. – just as much good Russian writing has not been translated into English.

Namin now runs a complex of cultural entities – all because of the Beatles.  One fan, Kolya Vasin, has created a shrine to the ‘Bittles’ in his apartment and entrance, and wants to build a temple to John Lennon. Woodhead meets Andrei Topillo, a sound engineer who illegally copied millions of Beatles albums in the Soviet Union, spreading the gospel.  And Vladimir Pozner, Gorbachev’s spokesman for perestroika, who tells him that the bureaucrats smelled something about the music and hated it, but couldn’t quite put their finger on why.  So the bureaucracy supported a guy from the U.S., Dean Reed, as their substitute light-rocker for many years.  But even now, in a reflection of the old days, rock music is problematic in Belarus under its present dictator. 

In the pursuit of the Beatles, Russians learned English from the lyrics; created amps out of stolen telephone receivers or neighborhood loudspeakers; made hand-made guitars out of wood tables; wrote songs; bought rock records on the black market, or X-rays that had the songs secretly imprinted on them.  What made rock unstoppable was when tape reel-to-reel recorders arrived in the USSR - then people copied tapes for each other.  Komosol youth groups routinely roughed up or arrested people with ‘anti-Soviet’ music in their possession, or for playing it. They broke the records they seized or stole them for themselves.  Anyone making money illegally on the music was jailed.  At several points, guitars and saxophones were outlawed.  The KGB even tried to break up a birthday party because there were Beatles songs playing.  You could lose your job, be spit on, beaten by police, jailed and denounced in public.  Musicians had to register as ‘folk’ groups, get permission from some entity, and were mandated to have certain folk instruments in the band in order to be allowed to legally play.  So most played for free in hidden venues, similar to what we know of ‘raves’ in the U.S. 

What was quite shocking for some Russians who eventually made their way to Liverpool was how sad and rundown Liverpool was, similar to Moscow.  They were also surprised when they found out the Beatles were funny, and many of their early lyrics were light-weight love stories.  The Russians had always figured them to be serious thinkers before they learned English. 

Many Marxists and communists in the U.S. who grew up in the 60s and 70s were big rock and roll fans; soul, jazz and folk fans; and eventually even heavy and hair metal, or punk.  Which is why this story is so strange to many leftists in the ‘west.’  We paid a price for being hippies and rockers and punks – but nothing like they did in the Soviet Union and some other bloc countries. As my friend in Hungary calls their country at the time, the 'happiest barrack,' in the 'eastern' bloc, Western rock and jazz bands regularly played in Budapest's parks and venues.  This was a result of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, no doubt.  We might also recall the Czechoslovakia's Vaclav Havel's fondness for Pink Floyd, the Velvet Underground and the Stones.  Each country went through its own contortions over hippie music.

So did the Beatles ‘overthrow’ communism?  Woodhead makes a good case that the cultural import of the Beatles did significantly undermine the bureaucrats with youth – who one day grew up.  Teenagers in the 60s were in their 40s and 50s when the USSR collapsed.

But it can be said that, while the music of that period was great, and rock and roll is still alive, capitalism doesn’t necessarily oppose it if there is money to be made.  Now some rock, rap and pop are big business –corporate products that undermine no one.  Music is liberating and always will be.  But under capitalism it is merely another commodity to be advertised and profited from.  It is part of the commodification of everything.  The ‘peace and love’ of the Beatles will never be embraced by capital except as a product to be bought and sold.  Real peace and love?  Real music untouched by commercialism? Forget it. 

(See review of the play, “Rock & Roll,” by Tom Stoppard, which is related to this topic, and the great band, “Plastic People of the Universe,” below.) 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
September 17, 2013

1 comment:

The National Crackpot said...

I always thought of the Beatles as the most over-rated band in history. I mean, crapola like Yellow Submarine and Maxwell's Silver Hammer would never have gotten any attention if they weren't the Beatles. They put out a lot of really lousy music. But here's a new way of looking at it, I guess.