Our humble attempt at English translation of Alexander Kushnir’s book 100 Магнитоальбомов Советского Рока (100 Tape Albums of Soviet Rock) (subtitled “1977-1991: 15 Years of Underground Sound Recording / 1977-1991 – 15 лет подпольной звукозаписи”). Thanks to everyone supportive of this venture.
First of all, what the hell is the магнитоальбом mentioned in the original title of the book? To put it simply – it’s a magnetic tape. In the Soviet Union rock music was a) largely forbidden for its (presumably) rebellious nature and hence had no way to be recorded officially and distributed on vinyl (Аквариум [Aquarium]’s Равноденствие being one of the most important exclusions) b) not known by the majority of population.
It was recorded mainly on four-tracks “studios” by musicians themselves or with a helping hand of sound-engineers of that time (such as Andrey Tropillo – 2002’s English interview with him is available). – Vladimir Toss / mirddin
Instead of an Introduction
Boris Grebenshchikov: We Returned to the 80s Yet Again
Is there a need to explain to the current generation the sense of joy there was 30 years ago during the Woodstock era, or, say, 15 years ago, when our cassette culture blossomed? Right now there are other pleasures and to think of how good it was when we were young is silly. The most interesting thing is something else – the experience of sitting with someone in a kitchen when they read out loud, and for the first time you hear Brodsky poems. And that is Real. Stark contrast to all the fake decorations we were living amidst under Soviet rule.
And there’s no place for illusions that something has changed by now. Soviet rule used to be there and it still is. Its just that street stalls used to have a certain shape and now they got a different one. This culture is indestructible – plastic, fake, made somewhere at a secret Cheka factory or at a Chinese underground factory (same thing, really). Its still fake. And Brodsky is real. And Hendrix is real. And Miles Davis. And Bunuel. And the “Blow Up” movie. And whatever was made throughout our tape era was real as well. All of this have nothing to do with the way in which we were taught how to live and what to think.
When I was little I was bored stiff looking at the life my parents led. I thought “Was it worthy to be born in order to live like this? Guys, your lives are boring. I don’t want it that way. I’ll do anything to not live like this. To live the authentic life.” And when I entered the society of people that were doing something with culture I realized I was correct. The society around me was plastic, but everyone could, with a little measure of restrain, let their spirit soar anywhere they wanted.
At some point during the Khruschev Thaw there were illusions of gaining freedom within, what you would call, a society. But when the party was over, intelligentsia started to realize that affairs with Soviet authority aren’t going to end well. Those who could moved abroad and those who understood they’ll never leave formed their own country within the country. We ended up at the very center of this bizarre culture and were stewing within it until the end of the 80s, till we were able to get onto the big stage. From my point of view this culture was far more interesting than the one of beatniks or hippies in the US. In some way or another beatniks and hippies were tied to the country they lived in – and in some way they represented the flipside of the said country. As for us back then – we were merrily divorced from anything Soviet, precisely because we were trying to get as close as possible to the culture of humanity. Everyone went to the lectures about the art of Ancient Greece or we were just sitting down, drinking port, reading poems. And overall there was a feeling that the further we move down West or China, the more normal we feel. It was all so different that KGB or cops rarely bothered us; there was just no common ground. People were rarely getting out in the streets and if they were, they were usually dragged away for excessive drinking. And to drag someone away just for being able to recite Ovid from memory didn’t seem possible.
I loved this world in which musicians, poets, painters and even criminal elements crossed paths. Those were fantastically merry years! There was nothing to share, because we were in total isolation from the society – like partisans! Such is the partisan culture.
For that reason the music that was coming out back then is far more interesting than the one coming out now – due to an absence of common denominator. Every band existed by itself. No one could learn anything from anybody else and everyone was free to get as crazy as he wanted to. Everyone existed due to сonnection with a universal human culture, but that connection was different for everyone. Say, whatever Kino or Mike were doing never intersected with what Akvarium was doing. And technical part was fading into the background. I didn’t know how Mashina Vremeni studio worked up until a certain point – and, to be honest, no one cared. Say, here comes Mike who just recorded a new album. I’m going to listen with interest, but I’m not going to care how the drums were recorded there. I’m only going to care about his songs. Mike had individuality – no matter how badly you record him you’ll hear that it is Mike.
Notably, even though we drank together and even played together, my attempts to convince him that, say, a string quartet could be of use were met with total misunderstanding on his part. What strings? How’s cello different from tuba? Its not. But we had a total understanding at the human level. I.e. “I found a new recording by Bowie – whoa, lets listen!’ Back then it was insanely interesting.
I clearly remember the first brand-name record I held in my hands. It was a Canadian version of “Please, Please Me” – think it was called “Twist and Shout”. Beatles shook me with all the overwhelming energy and positive that seemed completely unattainable. Later on I got Penny Lane single – four songs that blew my mind once and for all. It was impossible to imagine this music before then – not the sound, not the feelings. For a long time I tried to figure out how they achieve it: there was no common ground between chords on my guitar and chords of, say, Rolling Stones or Beatles.
For when you plug a Soviet electric guitar into an amp this is what happens – “dzyn” and that’s it. And they have the real “whoa-whoa” coming out of it! I couldn’t understand that phenomenon back then and forgot about it. And then, many years, Lou Reed showed me how to do it. He led me to his guitar pro who is putting together old amps. And the guy says “Want me to show you something?” He gives me an electric guitar and says “Play a chord”. I play it and my jaw drops: the sound that comes out is that of Elvis Presley. How come and why? Turns out it was AC-30 amp that Beatles used back then in combination with Rickenbacker creating this sound. And since its impossible to reproduce something similar on Soviet guitar – and we all understood we can’t play guitars anyhow – we were sitting at home and recording all kinds of idiocy. Hitting things, yelling, we tried to push idiocy to the highest forms. And we were recording everything to the tape player just to see how it will sound.
That was the foundation of nearly everything we did with sound recording – as if we were saying “with spirit on our side we can do anything”. With total freedom from templates and norms. And then it turns out that rock’n’roll in US and England was exactly the same. If anyone thinks that living Liverpool in the 60s was fun, it wasn’t – they had sovok of their own. Same one that Beatles were able to get away from. For every сultural phenomenon represents a departure from standard, utterly fake society. Fake not because people are bad, but because they can’t be themselves. And that is impossible in the absence of freedom. 95% of human population don’t need freedom, but 5% do want it. And out of those five, one percent can achieve it. And I always thought its possible to achieve freedom on your own and help others around you to achieve it…
Whatever the sound recording was revolving around back then and what do we now are one and the same, I’m sure of it. A couple of years ago we could allow ourselves to spend 50,000$ to record Navigator album. And today even a thousand dollars is a huge problem. By now we returned to the 80s yet again. And today it turns out that the skills we gained back then are very much in use. Because today we can sit here and record about the same way we did 15 years ago. And then we can make money to hit the road, go to London and mix everything. Back then Tropillo was mixing everything, right now its Kendall. But the relationships remain the same – “I like you and that’s why I’m ready to work with you for free”. Nothing changed.