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Deeper Than Oil: Rocking Red Square

© RIA NovostiMarс Bennetts
Marс Bennetts - Sputnik International
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Some 20,000 people gathered just off Red Square, screams of passion and rage, a heavy police presence, an air of abandon…No, that’s not a description of an out-of-control anti-Putin protest, but a free concert by the English techno/breakbeat group The Prodigy in Moscow in 1997.

Some 20,000 people gathered just off Red Square, screams of passion and rage, a heavy police presence, an air of abandon…No, that’s not a description of an out-of-control anti-Putin protest, but a free concert by the English techno/breakbeat group The Prodigy in Moscow in 1997.

Looking back through old YouTube clips, it’s hard to believe that the authorities actually allowed The Prodigy to set up a stage within spitting distance of the Kremlin to perform songs with lyrics like “F**k them and their law,” “Smack my b**ch up” and “I’m a firestarter, a twisted firestarter.” (Of course, it could be City Hall officials lacked a sufficient knowledge of English, or perhaps they just didn’t pay attention.)

I wondered if Lenin, lying in state since 1924 on Red Square, could feel the bass. What if the Communist mantra of “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live!” was true? A vision of the father of the Bolshevik Revolution rising from his seven decade slumber to rock the house with The Prodigy’s frontman flashed through my head.

I’d been in Russia for less than a year, and Moscow for around three weeks when The Prodigy came to town. Of course, big name groups had been to Moscow before, but most of them were over the hill rock dinosaurs, cashing in on their faded fame in front of an audience who had been unable to see them the first time around.

But The Prodigy were at arguably the height of both their popularity and powers when they made the trip to Russia. And, unlike the rock dinosaurs who performed in stadiums and arenas, The Prodigy blasted out their music in the center of the city. For free, and in front of a crowd of hyped-up Muscovite and provincial youth. It was, as they say in Russia, kruto.

Sometimes, music, location and time come together in glorious synchronicity, and The Prodigy’s September 1997 concert was one of those moments. The group’s violent, frenzied, anarchic and at times bewildering music matched perfectly the rhythm and nature of life in Yelstin-era Russia.

As Mark Ames, then editor of the brilliantly acerbic, Moscow newspaper The Exile put it in an interview with RIA not so long ago, “Moscow in the 1990s was one of those special moments in history that they’ll be composing epics about for centuries to come. Dickens had no idea what the f**k he was talking about with his ‘best of times, worst of times’ line–that was Moscow in the 1990s.”

An ideal spot for The Prodigy’s mutant beats, then.

The group had a massive following in Russia and were undoubtedly responsible for a sudden passion for the English language among many of the country’s youth. I remember being asked on more than one occasion to help decipher/translate the group’s lyrics, and also hearing debates as to exactly what the band was banging on about.

The evening of the concert saw Russia’s notoriously no-nonsense riot cops, the OMON, swamped by hoards of hyped-up and out-their-faces teens, cries of “I’m a firestrarter, twisted firestarter!” and other soundbites echoing through the tunnels of nearby subway stations, fragments of The Prodigy’s lyrics bouncing off monuments to the not-so-distant Soviet past.

As the group performed, the whole of downtown Moscow seemed to sway in time, from the crowds on the balcony of the nearby luxury hotel to the youths packed all the way up Moscow’s main street, Tverskaya.

The group would later comment that the Moscow concert had been perhaps the most memorable in their career. They would return to Moscow again, but for more orthodox concerts, and when they were not quite so big.

Fifteen years have passed since The Prodigy rocked Red Square, and it’s hard to imagine today’s authorities permitting such a thing. It was the perfect Yeltsin-era gig. The Prodigy and Putin just wouldn’t mix.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

*
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 who has written about Russian spies, Chechen football and Soviet psychics for a number of UK newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times. He is also the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).

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