While the death of the Soviet Union may have caused untold hardship for the people of the world’s first socialist state, it did at least bring them pleasures of Western rock and pop. The result, as the West’s guitar and keyboard heroes were filtered through Soviet-educated minds and ears, was a wondrously mutated pop culture that continues to thrive in modern day Russia.
The 1970s-1980s had seen recordings of Western groups smuggled into the country and handed around illicitly as magnitizdat, the musical equivalent of the samizdat utilized by banned Soviet writers to get their works to a larger audience. The subsequent meeting of Soviet ideology and Western rock music was a genuine culture clash, as Communist Party officials attempted to both analyse and categorize the punk, rock and disco groups they considered a threat to their homeland’s stability.
I recently stumbled upon an internal document that was circulated to discos in the late 1980s. The communiqué listed a range of forbidden Western performers, giving the reasons for their unsuitability for Soviet youth next to each.
Some that caught my eye were –Julio Iglesias (neo-fascism), Judas Priest (anti-communism) and Black Sabbath (religious mysticism). Many groups, the Clash, Sex Pistols etc, were simply blacklisted for the ideological crime of “punk.” It is also interesting to note that while Tina Turner was banned for “sex,” Donna Summer of “I Feel Love” fame was merely censured for “eroticism.”
Was there perhaps a committee tasked with determining the exact degree of artists’ wantonness?
Interestingly, some bands met with official approval, notably Boney M of “Ra-Ra Rasputin, Russia’s Greatest Love Machine” fame, who became the first group ever to be permitted to film a video on Red Square. Unconfirmed reports suggest that well-known disco fan Leonid Brezhnev personally invited the group to the Soviet Union.
In a clear sign of the contempt and hatred the Soviet regime felt for its own people, Elton John was also allowed to perform in the late 1970s in Moscow and Leningrad.
Given this warped view of Western culture, it is unsurprising then that when the walls finally did come down, Russians were left with a somewhat unique view of Western rock and pop music. Groups like Germany’s Scorpions, who were entering the twilight of their fame in the West, were effectively able to re-launch their careers by catering to this thirst for Western sounds.
But one of the best examples of this shadow culture is the barely believable story of the northern English glam rock group Smokie, virtually forgotten in their homeland, but musical giants all over the former USSR.
“What’s your favourite Smokie album?” a new acquaintance asked me back in a St. Petersburg club in 1997, my first year in Russia.
“Who are Smokie?” I answered.
“You don’t know who Smokie are?” came the incredulous reply.
“Are you sure you are English?’
Smokie, for those of you as unhip as I once was, are a British 1970s glam rock band from Bradford best known for their 1976 hit ‘Living Next Door to Alice’ and its mid-1990s remix, ‘Who the F**k is Alice?’ featuring comic Roy Chubby Brown.
However, while the group are hardly a household name in the UK, all across the vast territory of former Soviet Union, Smokie are big, able to pack out venues from Moscow to Kazakhstan, from Latvia to Uzbekistan. In late 2007, in an indication of the standing they enjoy in the region, Smokie were one of the headline groups at a concert to mark Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s presidential inauguration. Smokie were also reported to have been paid some $40,000 to play for then Russian president Vladimir Putin and his wife on New Year’s Eve 2003.
What are the exact reasons that led to Smokie’s lasting fame in the post-Soviet space? Is there perhaps something that binds their brand of northern English glam rock to the mysterious Russian soul?
Or is their fame down to the fact that their biggest hit in Russia “What can I do? sounds uncannily like “Vodku naidu” or “I’ll find some Vodka” – especially when sung in a Russian accent?
The perfect example of Russia’s “shadow” Western culture, the group are just one of a number of rock dinosaurs that continue to enjoy great fame in the region. Indeed, despite often frosty Anglo-Russian ties, British hard rock, from Deep Purple to Smokie themselves, is extremely popular with many of the country’s political elite.
Russia’s current president, Dmitry Medvedev, has spoken openly of his school-day experiences of collecting Deep Purple recordings, saying, "The quality was awful, but my interest colossal.”
“I can boast that I have all Deep Purple’s albums,” the Kremlin’s resident rocker said. “But what is special is that they are not reissues, but the original LPs…If you set yourself a goal you can achieve anything,” he added.
Does hope for British-Russian relations perhaps lie in the dusty vinyl collections of Medvedev and his colleagues?
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, BBC Russia, New Statesman and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.