This month wanna introduce you to a real Russian rock’n’roll icon. He’s one of the most famous guitarists in Russia and has been on the r’n’r scene for nearly 30 years.
He’s Oleg Ivanin and is most famous for his role as lead guitarist for the one and only Great Pretenders, one of the greatest Rockabilly bands in Russian history. He’s played in other groups too and still does. I interviewed him recently to find out more about his illustrious career as well more about the history of Russian rock’n’roll through his own personal experiences.
I believe my summary of the interview (below) will help give you more of an insight, not only about Oleg, but into the history of Russian rock’n’roll.
I began by asking him when and why he first got into rock’n’roll. He advised he’d always enjoyed this style of music and began his career as a guitarist in 1987 playing in an independent rock band named ‘Meeting On The Elbe’. The Band was successful, he joined the ‘Moscow Rock Laboratory’ (an organisation which united the best rock bands of that time), planned to release their first album, etc. They had one number called ‘Meeting On The Elbe’ – it was the first rock’n’roll song he ever performed. He realised in hindsight that he played the song too “jazzily” ! In 1988 due to disagreements with the leader of the group (who wanted to play more pop music) he left the band and was invited to join another group called ‘That’s All Right, Mama’. This band played rockabilly and their vocalist, Oleg claims, had a voice similar to Elvis Presley and looked almost like Mick Jagger ! The bass guitar player was an old friend of his whom he hadn’t seen for 9 years, so that was a nice surprise for him.
I asked Oleg who were the big names in Russian rock’n’roll when he began his rock’n’roll career. He recalled a few performers; Pete Anderson, ‘Mister Twister’ and Denis Mazhukov’s ‘Off Beat’.
I already knew about Anderson’s legendary status in Soviet rock’n’roll. For sure, the name Pete Anderson does not sound very “Soviet” – it’s the name he adopted for himself. Under Communism, Western radio broadcasts were often “jammed” and Western rock music was discouraged through varying degrees of censorship, as well as being criticised in the communist controlled media. Music records and books brought in by travellers from the West were often confiscated at the borders. But through all this, pioneers like Anderson continued to perform and play rock’n’roll.
Here’s a true story about him, with a UK link:
In a previous Russia’n’Roll article, I did a piece on the London Rock’nRoll Show in 1972. It was an iconic event in British r’n’r. All the big names performed at the Show, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Bill Haley, you name it they were all there. So was I ! Well, full credit to the organisers of the event, they also invited Pete Anderson to perform at the Event. It would have been a momentous happening. As I mentioned, in 1972 in the Soviet Union examples of western culture like rock’n’roll were officially discouraged and cracked down on. So the fact that Anderson had had the guts to openly adopt and play rock’n’roll was commendable. Plus he was a really good performer. But here’s what happened. On hearing of this official invitation to Pete to perform in London in 1972 at such a prestigious and public event, the Communist authorities banned him from leaving the country to attend it, so the momentous happening never happened. Anderson still has the official invitation letter from the show organisers, framed and displayed in his house ! Anyway, well done Pete, you were one of the pioneers who kept the flag flying for rock’n’roll behind the Iron Curtain in those early days.
Of the other 2 names Oleg mentioned above, Mister Twister and Denis Mazhukov, both are still performing after all these years. Mister Twister are not quite the power-house they were in those early days, but Mazhukov sure is. I’ve already written about him in “Russia’n’Roll” – he’s the king of Russian rock’n’roll !
I asked Oleg what he thought were some of the most important events in Russian r’n’r history. He referred again to the importance of the Moscow Rock Laboratory that organised concerts in the late 1980s, which enabled bands to become popular in Russia. The Laboratory played a key part in developing and popularising the music.
Oleg is a good friend of mine and, not during this particular interview but a few years back, told me something about the early 1990s in Russia after the fall of Communism. At that time the antics of what can only be described as real gangsters were much more prevalent than they were before or since. Here are some facts:
Some members of bands were killed by gangsters in shoot-outs, one was even killed on stage. This lawlessness was not confined to the music business but was part of society generally for that brief period. Things settled down and now such outrages are a thing of the past (with very very few exceptions). But those who lived through those times understandably haven’t forgotten. My response when Oleg told me this was – Thank goodness for Vladimir Putin and law and order !
About the changes in Russian rock’n’roll over the years, Oleg’s analysis is that the repertoire hasn’t changed much, but the quality of the performances has, drastically, due to better commands of the instruments (some Russian rock’n’roll guitarists of the 1980s and early 90s made too many mistakes during the gigs, irritating the audiences). The quality of the sound is much better now, due to good musical instruments being available nowadays in Russia. There are good reasons for this: It was very difficult to buy a professional guitar in the 1980s in the Soviet Union and was extremely expensive – prices for American guitars were comparable to the prices of new cars back then. And it was difficult enough to buy a car in the Soviet Union even if you did have enough money. So Oleg’s conclusion is that the advent of Capitalism has been good for Russian rock’n’roll !
I was particularly interested in Oleg’s role in the Great Pretenders. I’m a big fan of the group and have been following them during the 10 plus years plus I’ve been in Moscow. I asked him what were the reasons for their success and their longevity. Oleg’s assessment is that their repertoire is good – they cover only one version of each song, sorting through dozens of options, plus they play their own stuff, trying to be diverse. He said they’ve been performing for such a long time because they “like to play this wonderful and positive music and just cannot stop doing it !”
I was hoping to get some juicy anecdotes from him about personal differences between members of the Pretenders over the years, so asked him if there had been any difficult periods for the band in this area. Alas, he replied they’d been lucky so far, all members of the group have always been nice guys. What a shame ! But he was able to provide me some amusing anecdotes about his history of working with double bass players with the Pretenders. Here they are, as told by Oleg:
“We had difficulties obtaining double bass players, due to the general shortage of such musicians on the rock’n’roll scene. So we asked one guy to play with us at the gig. He played well but the stand under the strings of the instrument jumped out so he had to stop to fix it, then he calmly tuned the bass and continued to play very confidently but .… played the wrong part of the song. After several minutes all this was repeated, then it happened again and again. I was in shock but the audience was excited, thinking that it was part of the show !
Shortly after that we found another bassist and invited him to the rehearsal before a gig. And he disappeared ! It was minus 27 Celsius in Moscow and we were very nervous for him. He arrived almost at midnight with a double bass split into parts. We had to perform the next day ! Everybody was in shock. But he managed to glue the instrument together and played quite well. Richard, it was Vadim, you remember him maybe ? [yup, I do!] So the Great Pretenders have always had great adventures with their bassists.”
And here’s another one from Oleg worth a listen. It doesn’t involve the Great Pretenders, but does include another bass player:
“In the mid-1990s I had my own project where we played instrumental numbers composed by me, plus pop, rock and rock’n’roll covers. Our drummer was a very famous musician but on one occasion he got fed up waiting for the beginning of the gig. So he entertained himself along with the bassist for an hour or so with two large bottles of vodka and two apples. We performed a very fast song ‘Wild Little Willie’ and couldn’t stop because the drummer continued to play, though he used to tell me that he was too old to play fast numbers ! After five unsuccessful attempts we finally stopped. Our vocalist said to me afterwards that it was a shame and he had never been so upset at a gig before. However my friends came to me after the concert and told me excitedly that the best part of the show was the number where we couldn’t stop ! Nobody was aware that this part of the show had been directed by alcohol !”
Of his rock’n’roll heroes, Oleg again referred back to Pete Anderson. Oleg’s biggest musical inluences ? “Chuck Berry, Shakin’ Stevens, Bill Haley, Gene Vincent, Brian Setzer”. All time favourite rock’n’roll performers ? “Elvis Presley, Brian Setzer”. All time favourite song ? – “These Boots Are Made For Walking”.
Oleg is optimistic about the future of rock’n’roll in Russia, because he says so many people in Russia don’t know the music yet. Many friends of his often tell him after the concerts that they couldn’t even imagine beforehand how great rock’n’roll is ! He says “the music is easy to perceive, energetic, very positive – almost everybody likes it.”
The photos you can see comprise the interviewee and the interviewer, plus Oleg performing with the Great Pretenders.
Thankyou to Oleg for a quality interview. Keep playin’ the Great Music, mate !