The Leningrad Rock Scene, in Five Albums

[Originally posted on Facebook]

Though largely unknown in the West, Leningrad in the 1980s was a center for Soviet underground rock music.

Rock music existed in the Soviet Union ever since the first Western bootleg tapes were smuggled across the border, but two pivotal events in the early 1980s enabled the Leningrad scene to break out: the 1980 Tbilisi Rock Festival, in which the Leningrad band Aquarium’s outlandish stage antics turned them into Soviet counter-cultural celebrities overnight; and the 1981 opening of the Leningrad Rock Club, under the watchful patronage of the KGB.

Leningrad rock groups existed in a fickle and uneasy peace with the authorities. They could attract huge crowds at the Leningrad Rock Club, but their lyrics were strictly controlled. In 1984, Chernenko ordered a crackdown on rock music, accusing musicians of “moral sabotage”, while the next year, Gorbachev’s perestroika offered rock musicians unprecedented freedom. Even then, freedom came with a price, as bands coming out of the underground were accused by diehard fans of selling out.

As a result, Leningrad rock musicians had to grapple with a whole host of contradictions. How could they stay true to Russia’s musical traditions while absorbing the influence of the Western rock music so easily accessible across the Finnish border? How could they write lyrics that reflected the feelings of their contemporaries without catching the attention of the authorities? And how could they get the benefits of official music-promotion channels without earning the ire of longtime fans?

Here are five of my favorite albums (in chronological order) by Leningrad rock bands, highlighting the breadth of the scene, from folk to punk to prog. Each of these bands came up with their own solution to these contradictions, and established a unique style in the process.

45 (1982)

by Кино [Kino / Film]

The Album: Kino would go on to become the iconic Soviet band of the 80s, with their frontman, Victor Tsoi, becoming a cult hero. But you could hardly tell from listening to their unassuming debut album, featuring just Tsoi and guitarist Rybin, augmented by several musicians from Aquarium and a drum machine.

The Sound: Tsoi’s goal was a “synthetic” rock sound, which Kino would end up perfecting on their later albums. But due to lack of personnel, 45 instead ended up with a heavy folk sound, with sparse guitars and vocals reminiscent of the countercultural Russian folk artists known as the bards.

The Lyrics: Earnest depictions of the lives of urban youth (“Lots of time, but no more money and no one wants to let me in”), that occasionally veers into metaphor (“I’m planting aluminum cucumbers / On a field of canvas”). [English translations here.]

Highlights: [1] “Время есть, а денег нет” (“Lots of Time, But No Money”), [2] “Просто хочешь ты знать” (“You Just Want to Know”), [6] “Бездельник 2” (“Layabout #2”), [12] “Когда-то ты был битником” (“You Were Once a Beatnik”)

See also: Aquarium’s 1982 Акустика (Acoustics), another folk-inspired rock album from the same year, featuring many of the same musicians in a vastly different context. [Spotify] [iTunes] [Youtube] [English lyrics]

Радио Африка [Radio Africa] (1983)

by Аквариум [Aquarium]

  • Listen: [Spotify] iTunes Youtube
  • RYM tags: New Wave / Psychedelic Rock / Art Rock / Experimental Rock / Sound Collage / Field Recordings

The Album: Aquarium bribed the engineers of a Soviet mobile recording studio and enlisted a who’s-who of Leningrad avant-garde musicians to record Radio Africa, their first concept album. It proved to be such a sensation that the Soviet record label, Melodiya, issued an official, albeit censored, version of it a few years later.

The Sound: Progressive rock meets new wave meets world-music-before-there-was-world-music, in tracks with colorful titles like “Captain Africa” and “Tibetan Tango”, stitched together by the sounds of radio static.

The Lyrics: All over the place, ranging from sincere ballads to complete nonsense, and frequently a mix of the two (“There are books for the eyes, and books in the form of a pistol / Sit by the window and listen to the noise of great ideas / But if you are young, then you are a fierce opponent of light / This is another plus to the songs of exhausting people”). [Some English translations here.]

Highlights: [2] “Капитан Африка” (“Captain Africa”), [3] “Песни вычерпывающих людей” (“Songs of Exhausting People”), [6] “Рок-н-ролл мертв” (“Rock’n’Roll is Dead”), [10] “Время Луны” (“Time of the Moon”)

See also: Aquarium’s follow-up album, Aquarium’s follow-up album, День серебра (Silver Day), which moves away from sound collage and goes into a more old-fashioned psychedelic rock in the vein of Sgt. Pepper. [Spotify] [iTunes] [Youtube] [English lyrics]

Переезд [Pereyezd / Move-in] (1983)

by Nautilus Pompilius

The Album: Several years before they moved to Leningrad, Nautilus Pompilius kicked off the “Ural rock scene” in Sverdlovsk with this album, a collection of various recordings from ‘82 and ‘83.

The Sound: The first side, recorded in 1983, is mostly lush and melodic, with overlapping guitar lines and passionate falsetto vocals. The second side, recorded in 1982, is noisy and punky, at times reminiscent of the Velvet Underground.

The Lyrics: Imaginative and conceptual, in the art-rock tradition. There are songs about hawks, about flying ships, about the opera, and even a song entitled “Battle Against the Tycoon”, which is about what you’d expect. [Some English translations here.]

Highlights: [4] “После и снова” (“After and Again”), [7] “Летучий фрегат” (“Flying Frigate”), [9] “Ястребиная свадьба” (“Hawk Wedding”), [10] “Анабасис” (“Anabasis”)

See also: Nautilus Pompilius’s 1986 breakout album Разлука (Separation), which sees them confidently adopt a synthpop aesthetic and features a number of their mid-career hits, such as “Chained Together” and “Alain Delon”. [Spotify] [iTunes] [Youtube] [English lyrics]

Ночь [Noch / Night] (1986)

by Кино [Kino / Film]

The Album: Noch was the first album of Kino’s “classic” (‘86-’90) lineup, which saw the band completely sever its ties to Aquarium and go off into its own direction. It was this album, along with the band’s appearance in the cult film Assa the following year, that placed them into the cultural mainstream.

The Sound: With Noch, Kino finally achieved the post-punk sound that Tsoi envisioned, with funky bass lines and guitar rhythms by turn menacing and danceable. Think Joy Division, but more upbeat.

The Lyrics: Relatable lyrics about contemporary life, ranging from playful (“We have cigarettes and matches, and a bottle of wine / We saw the night, we walked all night long) to cynical (“You go to the kitchen, But the water here is bitter, / You can’t sleep here, and you don’t want to live here. / Good morning to you, our last hero!”). [English translations here.]

Highlights: [2] “Фильмы” (“Movies”), [3] “Твой номер” (“Your Number”), [6] “Последний герой” (“The Last Hero”), [11] “Мы хотим танцевать” (“We Want to Dance”)

See also: Kino’s iconic 1989 album Звезда по имени Солнце (A Star Called the Sun), a gloomy post-punk masterpiece recorded by the band at the peak of their popularity and shortly before Victor Tsoi’s tragic death. [Spotify] [iTunes] [Youtube] [English lyrics]

Песня о безответной любви к Родине [Song about an Unrequited Love for the Motherland] (1991)

by Ноль [Nol’ / Zero]

The Album: Nol’, one of the youngest bands in the scene, skyrocketed into prominence with this topical album of nostalgic folk-punk, released just as the Soviet Union was about to collapse. Their popularity was short-lived, however, as their frontman, Fyodor Chistyakov, was imprisoned the following year for the attempted murder of his girlfriend.

The Sound: Imagine the sound of classic rock’n’roll, but with the guitars largely replaced by accordion and mandolin. Basically, Leningrad’s answer to the Pogues.

The Lyrics: Themes include post-Soviet depression (“Instead of a blue sky, there’s a grey ceiling”), coping strategies (“Having smoked hashish / Life is becoming beautiful”), and the ever-present legacy of authoritarianism (“You ask me why sometimes I’m silent / Why I don’t laugh, why I don’t smile / … / It’s just that I live on Lenin Street / And I freak out from time to time.”) [Some English translations here.]

Highlights: [1] “Этот русский Rock-n-roll” (“This Russian Rock’n’Roll”), [3] “Улица Ленина” (“Lenin Street”), [5] “Иду, курю” (“I Walk and Smoke”), [9] “Человек и кошка” (“A Man and a Cat”)

See also: DDT (ДДТ)’s 1989 album Я получил эту роль (I Won This Role), a cynical hard-rock album also grappling with the imminent fall of the Soviet Union, full of song titles like “Don’t Shoot!” and “Revolution”. [Spotify] [iTunes] [Youtube] [English lyrics]

Sources & Further reading

  • Leningrad rock in general
  • Individual bands
    • Аквариум [Aquarium]
    • Кино [Kino]
    • Ноль [Nol]
  • Key events


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