An exciting happening took place last month in Russia. The first film devoted exclusively to Russian rock’n’roll was released here in Moscow. It’s an important in the history of Russian rock’n’roll and I’m glad to report the movie lived up to expectations.
The movie is titled, “Rock’n’Roll Behind the Curtain”, referring to the old metaphor of the Iron Curtain in the time of the Cold War. The Director is Aleksey Fetisov, a long time and active member of the rockin’ community over here. His film tells the story of Russian rock’n’roll from the 1990s to the present day. I’ll let Aleksey tell you his story below. But before that, as Russian rockin’ history dates back to the 1950s, I’ll briefly tell the story from the 50s to the 90s, then let Aleksey take over.
During the 1950s in the USSR some people were playing rock’n’roll records, but mainly at home. Then in 1957 the Soviet authorities organised a huge youth and student festival in Moscow. They invited musicians from the USA to come and play, comprising mainly rockabilly, rock’n’roll and jazz bands. The influence of this festival on some young Russians was immense. It kick-started a significant youth culture movement in Russia, centred on St Petersburg and Moscow. I have written in a previous article in some detail about this iconic festival.
But some young Russians paid a price for this festival. Some of the young Muscovite women tried to get to know more about this exciting culture by chatting to the American musicians during the festival and the American men and the Russian women exchanged their experiences in their respective countries. Later the authorities singled out these women and the Militzia (Russian police) arrested them. Their hair was cut and their dresses torn. In other words they were publicly humiliated. It was a clear signal from the Communists that while they were happy to allow a one-off festival, fraternising with the “class enemy” was still forbidden.
After this festival some of the youth refused to be intimidated and began a youth culture of their own. Foremost in this Movement from the early 60s was the Stelyagi (based on the Russian word for “style”). They were more or less the first real rock’n’rollers in Russia. Their style was not 100% rock’n’roll – they also listened to and followed other brands of music such as jazz – and this was also reflected in their style of clothing. But it was close enough to establish them as the original Russian youth rebels.
Then in the early 1960s Russian Leader Nikita Krushchev, even though the “Cold War” against the West was in full flow (this was the time of the Cuban missile crisis), allowed greater relaxation in cultural activities at home, including rock’n’roll. But later on in the 1960s the new Russian Leader Leonid Brezhnev, while not banning it completely, clamped down more on this “Western decadence”.
But a section of the youth from the early 60s onwards refused to give up and continued to rebel by staying with and adapting their own culture. This culture displayed shades of mod, rockabilly, rock’n’roll and other influences. Again it was the Stelyagi, certainly in the 60s, who were in the forefront. This rebellion continued up to and into the period of Perestroika which began in the mid-80s (Perestroika being part of the momentous changes in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev).
During the 1980s, both before and during Perestroika, the violence between these youth groups escalated. There had been trouble before dating from the 1960s. But by the beginning of the 80s gangs of Stelyagi, Teds, punks and bikers became more organised and the aggro between them developed into real gang warfare. While not wishing to idealise violence, there is one interesting aspect to this “warfare”. It was a code of honour amongst the gangs that no weaponry such as guns, knives, etc., was permitted. And this code was adhered to ! This was deeply rooted in Russian culture, something along the lines of “you defend yourself by yourself alone” with no unfair advantage. That’s not to say there were no deaths; there were, from beatings and the like.
From the above one can see the importance of the Stelyagi in the history of Russian youth culture. In the 1980s their numbers markedly increased (as did the numbers generally in this youth “rebellion”). Many movements sprang from them, for example Teddy Boys in the early 1980s. The Stelyagi had some rockabilly influences – later in the 80s and even more so in the 90s another group established itself, decidedly more hep cat in style. They were more clearly identifiable than other Stelyagi as being rockabilly, with regard to their clothes and the music they followed.
OK, that’s a brief resume of the history up to the beginning of the 1990s. Now Aleksey will take over, as his movie covers the history from that time.
Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Aleksey Fetisov, a rock’n’roll enthusiast. First off, I’m not a journalist nor a film-maker in the professional sense. The film that I’m sharing with the public today is my first try, and so I’m asking for viewers to look at it as an amateur movie.
I’ve been captivated by this music since childhood (I loved listening to it) and at 14 I saw the film “Great Balls of Fire,” about the great pianist Jerry Lee Lewis. This changed my life a lot. Rock’n’roll captivated me and occupied all of my thoughts. It forced me to take up a musical instrument and then to create the rockabilly trio “Jack-knife” with like-minded friends. During this time we eagerly absorbed any information on our favorite genre. We listened to any recordings we could get. We watched rare films and TV interviews and we listened to radio broadcasts about rock’n’roll. The internet as we know it today didn’t exist then. I then turned my attention to those musicians and music groups in our country who performed the same kind of music that appeared in the US in the middle of the last century, but on a very high professional level. It was entirely natural for us, as young musicians, to look to those with more experience and who had already reached a certain amount of success in their music (after all, they had to put up with the same conditions as we did; in contrast to, let’s say, American and British performers). It turned out that there wasn’t much information about the r’n’r scene in Russia. It was fragmentary and largely mythologised. And so came the idea of organising a story about how a particular musical culture, that was born on a different continent, overcame (many believe broke) the “Iron Curtain” and then appeared in our country.
If you decide to devote your life to succeeding in something, then you know that your fate is driven by like-minded people with similar interests. And we, after getting some stage experience, started to meet artists who served as an example for us at the beginning of our own career. This inter-action helped us to compile a more coherent history of the appearance of English language music within the former Soviet Empire, since our interlocutors were often witnesses and participants in this process. I want to share some of their memories with you.
When the idea to make a film finally took hold, I ran into a problem. The topic seemed to be extensive. Embracing the immensity of it all was a really difficult task for just one rock’n’roll fan ! I invited the charming Marina Shakleyna into my team as an operator (I love her photo work and she loves anything to do with music) and then a decision was made to show what, in our view, was most important and interesting.
Today it’s known that the first major green shoots of American r’n’r started appearing in various parts of the former USSR as early as the 60s, but documentary evidence (photos, movies, audio) that could have been presented in a movie were very rare. Firstly, the technical means for recording at that time in the USSR were less available, and secondly the KGB regularly directed “wayward” citizens towards the “right” direction of development. It seemed to me that the best person to talk about this would be someone who many rightly call a pioneer of rock’n’roll in the USSR. His name is Pete Anderson (Riga, Latvia). Unfortunately we have yet to talk with him personally and his story certainly deserves its own film. Many participants in my film mention him as a hero, as one of the first rock’n’roll artists in the USSR. I’ll only add that the vinyl recording by Pete Anderson and his group “Archive” was released by the record label “Melody” in 1989 and it was the first American-style rock’n’roll album in the USSR. And today Pete and his group perform American r’n’r in various parts of the world. His record “Rock’n’Roll behind the Curtain” has lyrics which talk about the 1980s, at the dawn of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika, when rock’n’roll groups started appearing in the capital of our country like mushrooms after the rain. There were really a lot of them !
We spoke with those who are the most well-known participants on our rockin’ scene and who’ve received recognition. There’s Valeriy Lysenko, who’s an unchallenged leader, and he shares his own memories. There’s the drummer of the rockabilly group “Mister Twister” Robert Lents. Also we feature the singer of the groups “Quiet Hour” and “Mess Age” and currently the lead singer of the very popular band “Bravo.” Sergey Voronov also appears, who’s been the leader of the “Crossroadz” rhythm’n’blues team that for the past 25 years and has been a constant presence on the music scene over here. And there’s the virtuoso pianist Dennis Mazhukov, the Russian King of Rock’n’Roll. The well-known UK rock’n’roll Teddy Boy, based in Moscow, Richard Hume appears: He’s an expert – as well as organising rock’n’roll events and jive dance classes, he’s also a journalist, who writes for the UK’s top rock’n’roll magazine every month, about the life of rock’n’roll in Russia. Then there’s Dmitriy Kazantsev, who’s a musician (the leader of the Moscow group Dr. Nick), musicologist and owner of a huge vinyl record collection. I should say that all of those whom we requested to take part in the film immediately agreed, sharing in our boundless enthusiasm. I can say the same about the owners and art directors of the clubs and studios, who provided us with conditions for shooting. Such a relationship compels us to believe in ourselves and creates a sense of a team working toward one common goal, for which I’m entirely grateful to all who helped in making this film. The photos you can see show some of the stars in the movie, as well as Marina and myself.
Funny things happened during shooting. Me and Marina are getting invaluable experience in cinematography, although her camera doesn’t want to shoot more than 5 minutes of video ! We apologised often to the people we were interviewing because of this. After re-loading, the common question then was, “where did we leave off ?” As a result, during the editing process I had an opportunity to pick scenes, to delete bits where our interviewees used the same phrase – invaluable experience !
The interview with Richard Hume was done in English – he speaks Russian but I felt he could be more expressive in his native language. It also gave me the opportunity to “bone up” on my English. After I told him I was using the magnificent Moscow musician-guitarist and translator by trade Yuriy Novgorodskiy (Russia is rich in talent) to dub his voice in Russian, he joked by asking me to make his “Russian” voice more sexy. I transmitted the request from Richard to Yuriy who appreciated the joke, but I think he pulled it off. Should Yuriy play the role of a radio personality or an artist on the scene ? I don’t know. But I take exceptional pride in the image of Richard Hume – a real “Teddy Boy” from England – speaking in the sexy voice of Yuriy Novgorodskiy !
I really love movies about music – feature films and documentaries. I really appreciate the works of Martin Scorsese, Bob Smith, Bill Waymon, Hugh Lori and many other directors who carefully preserved the history of this music. I hope that our amateur film is just the first step and that after the next step there will be an even wider audience screen version of the history of rock’n’roll in Russia, that the majority of the Russian population will get to see. It will involve the setting up of a team of professional cinematographers. After all the topic, as I wrote earlier, is quite extensive and very interesting. Today it’s possible to say that this is part of our musical culture. Just visit one of the rock clubs in Moscow and you’ll see for yourself. And don’t forget, to quote from a song popular here in Russia, “Rock’n’Roll in English is the same in Russian too.”
Thankyou Aleksey, for your words above and above all for your terrific unique film about Russian rock’n’roll. And as he mentioned above, the film would also not have been possible without the involvement of the hugely talented film operator Marina Shakleyna. So, Thankyou both !