Last weekend, I was looking for interesting music to (legally) download when I found myself thinking about Boris Grebenschikov. For those who don’t know, Grebenschikov is a Legend of Russian Rock, the ‘Russian Bob Dylan,’ a mega hippy who got his start playing underground concerts in 1970s Leningrad and was the first Russian rock star to release an album in the West- 1989’s long forgotten Radio Silence.
Now, as that execrable LP demonstrates, not everything Grebenschikov does is good, or even listenable, but if you were to pick the best songs he has recorded over his 30+ year career you could make at least one decent album. The site I was looking at had two records- an experimental duet released on an obscure Russian label, and the other a ‘best of’ compilation put out by Naxos.
It was surprising to see Grebenschikov on a Western label again- Naxos is German- since his first experience was so disastrous. Radio Silence was released in 1989 during the heady days of perestroika, when soviet culture was fashionable.
Unfortunately for Grebenschikov the idiots at his record label decided to remove everything that was unique about him. They hooked him up with Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, who produced the album in a cheesy 80s pop rock style. Then they made the “Russian Dylan” sing in English, only his lyrics sounded absurd in translation. A brief appearance on Letterman and BG was gone. He recorded demos for a follow up, the even more appalling Radio London, but after that it was back to the Motherland.
The fact that Grebenschikov bombed has not prevented other Russian music stars from attempting to make it big in the West. In 1997 the brick-faced soviet diva Alla Pugacheva was Russia’s entry for the Eurovision Song Contest. She rasped out Primadonna with gusto but nevertheless came 15th- a major humiliation for a performer revered as a demigoddess across the former Soviet Union. Two years earlier, Pugacheva’s husband, the Bulgarian man-poodle Philip Kirkorov, had done even worse, finishing 17th.
Now, in my opinion both Kirkorov’s and Pugacheva’s songs were rotten, but I don’t think that’s why they fared so badly: Eurovision is, after all, celebrated for its awfulness. Rather they were singing in the idiom of Russian pop, which is notable for its old fashioned, variety show cheesiness. The style just didn’t translate for a global audience.
So what is a Russian pop star to do? Go American like Grebenschikov and fail? Or go Russian like Pugacheva and fail? Well in 2000 a singer named Alsou, the daughter of a billionaire oil magnate, went Europop with a track called Solo. She came second. Buoyed by her near triumph she promptly cut an R n’ B disc recorded entirely in English and then watched it sink without trace everywhere except Russia. In 2008, Dima Bilan actually won Eurovision with a track he co-composed with a U.S. producer. Wikipedia claims he then started recording LPs in Spanish and in English, seeking global superstardom. I haven’t seen much of him, have you?
But this litany of failed attempts at global success omits the one great mega hit to have emerged from Russia. I am speaking of course of Tatu, whose Ya soshla s uma was re-released internationally as All the Things She Said, briefly winning them global notoriety. When that song came out in Russia I immediately knew it was as a work of cynical pop genius. I was not surprised when it climbed the charts worldwide.
But even Tatu faded away, or at least, returned to Mother Russia. Ah! Mother Russia. She welcomes all her failed pop stars back, forgiving their temporary disloyalty in pursuit of bigger paydays and greater fame. But will any of them ever sustain a career abroad?
Well this brings me back to Grebenschikov. The compilation I downloaded was very interesting. Anyone familiar with his work will know that he loves to mix genres: blues; white man’s reggae; folk rock; psychedelic Beatles homage… he even recorded an entire (terrible) album with the Band, who once backed Bob Dylan. And yet all of this stuff- which references Western music- was missing from the Naxos compilation. Instead there was a lot of accordion. And fiddles. And covers of classic Russian singers such as Bulat Okudhava and Alexander Vertinsky. In short, it sounded really, really RUSSIAN. But Russian in the way that a foreigner imagines Russia: lots of trees, men with beards, mysterious. Possibly this was the sound of a riddle wrapped in a puzzle etc. The strange thing is: I suspect it stands a much better chance at winning over foreign listeners than his pseudo-American efforts. Foreigners don’t want to hear a Russian aping Dylan, or worse, Dave Stewart. They want him to sound RUSSIAN.
Or maybe not- because this record didn’t exactly set the charts on fire either.
What does the world look like to a man stranded deep in the heart of Texas? Each week, Austin- based author Daniel Kalder writes about America, Russia and beyond from his position as an outsider inside the woefully - and willfully - misunderstood state he calls “the third cultural and economic center of the USA.”
Daniel Kalder is a Scotsman who lived in Russia for a decade before moving to Texas in 2006. He is the author of two books, Lost Cosmonaut (2006) and Strange Telescopes (2008), and writes for numerous publications including The Guardian, The Observer, The Times of London and The Spectator.