With a receding hairline and sporting a plaid blazer, a man in his late-30s growls the lyrics to a song sung from the perspective of a pigeon into his mic. “I may be the most dispensable, disgusting, shit – but at least I know how to fly!” run the monotonous Russian words, bellowed across the stage. To accompany the singing, the man spasms and contorts his body and face with the clumsy precision of a broken marionette. – Guardian
This is Pyotr Mamonov, once a cult figure in 1980s underground rock as part of the band Zvuki Mu, which worked with famed producer Brian Eno. “I have never seen anything like it. This man is simply possessed,” Eno once said of Mamonov. Music critics claim that Russian punk grew out of Mamonov’s shows. On stage, his magical grace and raving temperament created a genre of absurdist one-man theater that played to packed audiences for years. – Russia Beyond
To the uninitiated, the initial encounter with Zvuki Mu might cause serious shock. What’s up with the herky-jerky movements and the strange facial expressions/tics/spasms of the lead singer? Or to put it bluntly:
What the hell is this?
As is often the case with punk and post-punk, the rawness and the ugliness of performance/music might mean that those missing the context might also miss the clever (if often sinister) lyrics and the great songwriting. Exhibit A – The Source of Infection:
Some wild guy told me
The fly is the source of infection
Believe me it’s not so
The source of infection is you
Hard to think of a subject less poetic and more mundane than a fly, yet here its the central character (as it is in songs by Wire and Jesus Lizard). And the list of less than poetic subjects tackled within Zvuki Mu songs goes on and on – army (Ditch), Russian history (Armored Train) and home makeover process (Renovation), to name a few, all coming equipped with enough wordplay to make Mark E. Smith bristle/blush.
The closest western counterpart to the band would probably be Talking Heads, yet to call Zvuki Mu a shameless rip-off of that band would be a mistake. The kind of absurdity that the band was soaked in also goes back to the early 20th century and writers Daniil Kharms/oberiuts as well as a concept of the holy fool.
Absurd/wordplay as a shield and a weapon against the often indescribably brutal reality of the daily living served as an inspiration to many a band that formed in the Soviet Union in the 80s (NOM, AVIA, Strannye Igry, DK, Auktsyon), but Zvuki Mu, in particular, took it as far all the way, getting weirder and weirder with every turn.
To paraphrase MES – “If its me and your granny on bongos, its Zvuki Mu”, as Petr Mamonov, indeed, was Zvuki Mu (to the great misery of other band members, its often said, as he would often break up his bands and move on to the next project with a speed of lightning). Chiefly known as an actor (mostly famously for his roles in Island and Tzar by Pavel Lungin) and his religious dedication later in life, to me it is Mamonov’s musical output that is of the utmost interest.
And much like The Fall, Zvuki Mu ended with the death of Mamonov (though reportedly there’s one last album that was recorded in 2020). And while death is permanent, the spirit/aura never truly dies, not unless we completely forget about someone.
Till we meet again.