Perestroika Rebels – Take Two !

Hi Folks, Welcome once again from good old Russia ! This month is the second part of my article about the Russian rock’n’roll movement in the 1980s centred on St Petersburg, the country’s second largest city. Last month I set the scene by describing the history of Russian rock’n’roll up to and beyond the 1980s. This month will focus on the personal stories of those who were part of it all. 

The 1980s were wild and revolutionary times in Russia. They were the final days of the old Soviet Union and tremendous social changes were taking place, including the culture of rock’n’roll. The word in the title, perestroika, refers to the Russian word for these huge structural changes. The following are the lives and reminiscenses of the young Rockers from St Petersburg. The following material was collected by my friend Sergey Kuteynikov, leader of the legendary Russian rockabilly group the Great Pretenders. This was the result of personal interviews he conducted with the guys from St Petersburg. So the text below is Sergey’s, with a few amendments from myself. Remember these are interviews conducted with the wilder guys from the 1980s. I guess the nearest equivalent to them in the UK would be the original Teddy Boys in the 1950s. So hang on to your hat, for a wild ride !

This is a story about the real Russian rockabilly subculture pioneers from Saint Petersburg.

Two of the first guys to join this rockabilly movement were called Oreh and Komar. Oreh was converted after hearing Elvis and Stray Cats records. Komar became interested in USA rockabilly from an early age in the early 1980s, listening to Elvis and other original rockabilly artists. Soon more joined this rockabilly community – most living not far from the Kupchino district of St Petersburg. There were well known characters amongst them in the Russian rockabilly world like Tross, Dan, Credit, Adolf, Farid, Lazy One, Gapon, etc. 

These men didn’t like some other subcultures existing at the time, especially the Stilyagi [Richard’s note: As advised in my article last month, the Stilyagi were the first real youth rebels to appear in Russia, beginning in the late 1950s. Their musical tastes included jazz as well as rock’n’roll]. I can put it this way, that the rockabillies beat the hell out of them whenever they could. One of the things they liked to do to the Stilyagi guys was to take the shoes they were wearing. These shoes were called ”rats” and were a popular style amongst the Stilyagi. The rockabillies would then throw them some cheap sneaker sports shoes in return. These rats shoes were popular among the rockabillies as well. In addition they could also sell them later and make a bit of money.

At the same time some newer lads on the rockabilly scene wearing leather jackets could also be in trouble sometimes. They would be approached and challenged about how tough they were, by the original rockabillies. If the newer lad in question would show any fear he would lose his jacket. On the other hand if he stood up for himself there was no problem; hands were shaken and that was that. In other words it was a practical test for the new “recruits”.  

Later on, when the famous Russian group Bravo performed in Saint Petersburg, a bunch of Stilyagi were beaten up at the concert by them. At the same time as they were causing such mayhem, ironically many of them became good friends with the band members of Bravo, who were known amongst the youth as a Stilyagi-style group. [Richard’s note – Some of you will remember the articles I wrote about the legendary singer of the Bravo group, Zhanna Aguzarova. Bravo were possibly the most famous band in Russian rock’n’roll history]. There were photos of some of them, like Komar and Oreh, dancing on stage while Bravo performed at the Leningrad House of Youth in 1986. They talked to the band members and became good friends.

On one occasion, the American country music star Roy Clark was performing in Saint Petersburg in 1988. At this concert Oreh jumped up onto the stage and wrapped the American flag around Roy Clark. As a result he was locked up in a Soviet prison for 15 days – although about to collapse, in 1988 the Soviet Union wasn’t quite finished and this 15 day jail term was a reminder of those stricter times ! 

Most of those individuals guys from the 1980s are still around today, still enjoying the rockabilly music and life style. For example, one of them nick-named Credit is now a biker and a successful tattoo and weapon inlay artist. Another one, Dan, became a successful radio host, as well as at some point a front man for the famous Saint Petersburg band called Stunning Jive Sweets. Others have become successful businessmen. A young man from Finland (which neighbours St Petersburg) who associated with this rockabilly crowd later became the Minister for Foreign Affairs in Finland. Sergey Tross, referred to above, became a businessman in the milk business in Saint Petersburg in the 1990s and employed some of his rockabilly friends – This outfit eventually became known as the “Milk Cowboys”. They went to rock’n’roll gigs as the Milk Cowboys, still engaging in a bit of the old ultra violence.

Like I said, these were wild times. Here’s another example:

One of the rockabillies had his wedding in the city and of course all his rockabilly friends were there too. Everything was going smoothly until a man whom none of the crew knew started behaving anti-socially, bullying many at the reception. Unfortunately he chose the wrong crowd – first it was Lazy One (referred to above) that laid the bully to the floor, continually beating him and pushing him under the table. Lazy One’s friends joined in and threw the unfortunate chap out the door of the restaurant where the wedding reception took place.

Here’s a story from 1987. Mister Twister was the very first Russian rockabilly band and was very popular in the 1980s. One evening they performed at the Youth Palace in the city. The Stilyagi crowd came as well as the rockabillies. After Mister Twister started to play, the rockabillies attacked the Stilyagi and a massive fight started. The concert was disrupted and the band had to stop playing. The militia (the police force of Soviet Union) took the rockabillies outside. The band members of Mister Twister also went outside, to try and persuade the rockabillies to settle down. The group had a kind of history with them and did succeed in helping to calm things down. 

There must be some of you readers out there who can relate to some of the above personal stories. When we were young, we did the things that young folks do, before we got a bit older and settled down a bit ! 

Thankyou Sergey and also to those veterans from the 1980s who contributed to the article with their remiscences. Long live Russian Rock’n’Roll !