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Joanna Stingray & Madison Stingray
Hannelore Fobo: After Red Wave.
Boris Grebenshikov: There and Back Again
Among the four groups from Red Wave, Joanna Stingray's commitment had the most noticeable result for Boris Grebenshikov of Aquarium, last but not least because Grebenshikov was fluent in English. Ten of his twelve songs from his solo album Radio Silence, released on the American label Columbia in 1989, had English texts. Produced by David A. Stewart of Eurythmics, it was recorded with mostly international musicians in New York, Los Angeles, London and Morin-Heights (Québec). With the exception of bassist Alexander Titov, the contribution of Aquarium musicians to Radio Silence was minimal read the interview with Alexander Titov.
CBS promo picture from 15 April, 1989, announcing the release of Boris Grebenshikov's album Radio Silence on 13 June, 1989, as ‘the first American-produced album ever released by a Russian pop artist’. The picture with musicians from Radio Silence (with the exception of Iggy Pop) was taken after Grebenshikov's New York concert. From left to right: Iggy Pop, Siobahn Stewart (ex-Bananarama), Boris Grebenshikov, Annie Lenox (Eurythmics), David Stewart (Eurythmics), Alexander Titov (Aquarium). Courtesy Alexis Ipatovtsev, Boris Grebenshikov‘s media manager.
The album was promoted in David Letterman's Late Night show on 14 July 1989, where Grebenshikov was introduced as ‘the first Soviet international rock star’ see documentation on YouTube. According to Newsweek journalist Alexander Gorbachev, Radio Silence
Alexander Gorbachev described Grebenshikov's music as a synthesis of ‘contemporary Western culture with his native Russian one, interpreting the foreign sounds in his own way and creating a unique sub-genre with his brand of highly sophisticated and metaphoric lyricism’. His text appeared in Newsweek on 25 May 2015, together with an interview he took with Grebenshikov after a New York concert. Grebenshikov is certainly one of the most internationally active Russian musicians of his generation, with fans all over the world, but if we are to believe Gorbachev, even Grebenshikov attracts primarily a Russian speaking audience. The Newsweek article begins with the following lines:
Taking into consideration that the breakthrough ‘didn‘t quite land’, Gorbachev asked Grebenshikov whether he perceived ‘this whole American experience as a career opportunity, or was it just an experiment?’ Grebenshikov answered
To be exact, the experience went on for another year. In 1990, after Radio Silence, Grebenshikov moved to London for a second album with CBS. Together with Columbian bassist Chucho Merchan – who played with Eurythmics – and two other musicians, he produced a demo version with his new English songs, but before the album was released, CBS was bought by Sony which stopped the production (Grebenshikov released the songs in 1996 as ‘Radio London’).
Why is this an important detail? Because after Grebenshikov had been working intensively with musicians coming from different cultural backgrounds, his Russian carrier continued with his much appraised folk-rock solo album ‘Русский альбом (Russkiy albom / The Russian Album), inspired by Russian mythology, folk tales and religious motifs. In the interview, Grebenshikov explained how his own cultural heritage started to play a significant role in his music:
You know, before I came here I had been in a cage. It was a nice cage, I can't complain; being in Russia in the 1970's and 1980's was great. But, of course, I wanted to breathe the air of the free world. Everything I recorded up to Radio Silence was basically a bridge between Russia and the West. When I got to the West, I felt the need to build a bridge back.
In the light of Grebenshikov’s statements, it might seem irrelevant to ask the question whether Red Wave could have had opened more opportunities than it actually did – were it not for the fact that David Bowie wanted to buy the rights of Stingray's story, wishing to play the role of Boris Grebenshikov himself. In her book, Joanna Stingray writes that she very much regrets having declined the offer, accepting instead what her friends and family suggested to her – that she could make more money with other companies. She did sign a contract promising more money, but in the end, no such film was ever made, which leaves us speculating about what would have happened in case Bowie had played Grebenshikov.On the other hand, becoming ‘the first Soviet international rock’ star was perhaps not of primary importance to Grebenshikov, who used the motif of bridges throughout the interview: ‘I have been trying to bridge between Western culture and Russia. As for everything else, well, I don’t really care.’
Boris Grebenshikov in concert. Picture by Oleg Hmelnits. Courtesy Alexis Ipatovtsev, Boris Grebenshikov's media manager.
Singing in English is no guarantee for an international career in rock or pop music, but it helps to get noticed. As always, there are exceptions to the rule, such as the immensely influential German band Kraftwerk, for which even a special genre was created – Krautrock. But an exception is an exception.
Although in the Soviet Union few people felt at ease speaking English, it was not completely uncommon to sing English songs.
It is worth making a short digression to look at the situation in the 1980s. In the first place we must make a distinction between interpreting someone else’s songs and singing one’s own.
Given the immense popularity of English and American Rock and Pop, hit songs were often played by local bands – or even school bands – at student clubs and similar places. Young people knew the songs through records available on the black market, or, more often, from tape copies. International hits were also licenced by Melodiya, sometimes with strange compilations of songs. The picture below is from a 1983 reel-to-reel album entitled ‘Melody and Rhythm. 23rd Edition‘, assembling, among others, Al Bano and Romina Power, Smokie, Julien Clerc, Pink Floyd, and Pussicat.
Melody and Rhythm. 23rd Edition. Back cover of a Melodiya reel-to-reel album from 1983 with an edition of 3000 copies, each sold for 8 rubles and 35 kopek. The song titles are translated into Russian. Among the songs: No 2 Al Bano and Romina Power: Felicità; No 3 Smokie: Now it's Too Late; No 4 Julien Clerc: Mangos; No 5 Pink Floyd: One of These Days; No 8: Pussycat: Just a Woman; No 9 Pink Floyd: Just Another Brick in the Wall; No 10 Al Bano and Romina Power: Il ballo del qua qua (Chicken dance).
Soviet bands played melodies, arrangements and texts by ear, and the results were not always satisfying, but that did not spoil the atmosphere at parties, where faithfulness to the original was not expected. Texts were frequently misheard. A famous example is Шизгара – ‘Shizgara’ for ‘She‘s got it’ from ‘Venus’ by Shocking Blue, which became a meme. Some other memes popular among children also became quite famous, among them кинь бабе лом, kin babe lom – the Beatles‘ song "Can't buy me love", with its variant ‘Ken Babilon, everybody tells me ton’.
Elitist venues required more professionalism. Thus, in the mid-1980s, Dmitri Pavlov, a composer and pianist who graduated from the Leningrad conservatory, joined some other highly qualified musicians to entertain guests at the luxury restaurant Okean. This promised the privilege of earning huge tips. To get a contract, musicians had to fulfil two conditions. The first was that they must bring along their own Western musical instruments – Pavlov possessed a Japanese Roland D50 synthesizer, one of two that existed in Leningrad at that time, which he used for his Concerto for Piano, Computer, and Orchestra (1987) more >>. The second was the ability to play the latest hits in such a way that they sounded equal to, if not better than the original.
Guests would pay to listen to their favourite songs, be it ‘Relax’ by Frankie goes to Hollywood, ‘Papa don‘t Preach’ by Madonna, or ‘Smooth Operator’ by Sade. The repertoire had to be kept up-to-date. While Pavlov wrote down notes and arrangements with ease, foreign restaurant guests had sometimes to be asked to check the lyrics.
Jazz was another genre that required a good command of English. During the Soviet period, the state showed various degrees of tolerance towards jazz music, but in the 1980s, jazz was an accepted genre, perhaps with the exception of free jazz. Interpretations of original songs were often very professional, and some jazz singers mastered phrasing and intonation superbly. Performances of Armenian singer Tatevik Hovshannisyan and of Larisa Dolina (born in Baku) at the Tbilissi Jazz Festival 1986 can be watched in the documentary ‘Dialogues’ more >>.
In all these cases, the original versions helped non-native speakers to achieve a better result. However, to perform your own song in English when English is not your mother language is quite a different question – even with a good translation. Although this was becoming an asset in the later perestroika years, Boris Grebenshikov was an exception. Yet, as we have seen, English songs also remained an exception in Grebenshikov's repertoire.
If we disregard all other arguments, including ideological ones, we can say that simply because Russian was the lingua franca within the Soviet Union, there was no reason why rock bands should have been singing their own songs in English – with a Russian accent.
In the Soviet Union, the only accents known where those of singers from the Soviet Republics or Socialist countries singing in Russian. A charming example is Bedros Kirkorov, a Bulgarian singer of Armenian descent, father of Russian pop star Filipp Kirkorov. YouTube has his interpretation of the Russian the song Мечта (Mechta – Dream, 1973). It sounds as if his nose was slightly blocked more >>. .
Kino‘s Early Vinyl Records
The second half of the 1980s brought the band Kino enormous popularity, and in 1988, Melodiya released Kino's magnitizdat album from 1986 Ночь – Noch or Night. Yet it was Kino’s magnitizdat album from 1988, Группа крови (Gruppa Krovi / Blood Type) that caused the band’s the definite breakthrough in the Soviet Union. In 1989 Joanna Stingray released it in the U.S. and Japan on Gold Castle Records.
The same year saw the release of the French album Le Dernier Des Héros (The Last Hero – Последний герой, Off the Tracks Records). An English version of Blood Type was to be included – the only song Viktor Tsoy ever recorded in English. Regrettably, Tsoy's English interpretation lost the vigour and vitality of the Russian original. This might the reason why Le Dernier Des Héros has the original Russian interpretation instead. In 2002, the English version became part of the so-called Last recordings (The White Album) [Последние записи (Белый альбом)], a compilation of songs not originally intentend for publication.
These three albums – Night, Blood Type, and The Last Hero – were the only long-play vinyl records produced before Kino dissolved in August 1990, after the tragic death of Viktor Tsoy. (1987 already saw a Melodiya single with two tracks on each side called Kino.) Besides, the tracklist of all three albums partially overlap.
Each of the companies had to decide on how to promote a Russian brand for the international market: there had to be some information in Cyrillic to keep it distinctly Russian, but enough information in English to attract a non-Russian speaking audience.
For Melodiya, which had its buyers within the Soviet Union, but could hope to sell the record to tourists as well, the answer was easy. The cover was printed in Russian, and the back cover was Russian and English. An interesting detail is the note to the song ‘Anarchy’: ‘a parody on Western punk group’. Added in brackets, it was a way to get the song around censorship.
Back cover of the album Группа Кино • Ночь – Group "Kino” (Cinema) "Night", Melodya, 1988. The album is a vinyl release of Kino's magnitizdat album from 1986 recorded at Andrey Tropillo's studio in 1985 / 1986. Like in the case of the first ‘Aquarium’ album, released by Melodiya a year earlier, the state company re-labeled Tropillo's studio as “Leningrad Rock Club studio”. more >>
The French album cover of Off the Tracks Record for Le Dernier Des Héros had the title in French and the band name in Latin and Cyrillic, while the back cover (without a tracklist) is in French, except for the instruments played by the respective band members, which are given in English. The cover sleeve has French translations of the songs, but not the original Russian lyrics.
Cover of the Kino album Le Dernier Des Héros (The Last Hero – Последний герой), Off the Tracks Records, France, 1989.
With Blood Type, Gold Castle Records is somewhere in between Melodiya and Off the Tracks Records. Thus, like the Melodiya album, the cover has the name of the band and the album title in Russian: Кино / Группа крови (Kino / Gruppa krovi), with ‘Red Wave Presents’ added in small letters. The back cover is entirely in English. It displays a fanciful transliteration of the title: Groupa Kroovy, which sounds like Groovy Group, as well as its translation, Blood Type. Since the tracklist is a translation of the original titles, a special ‘warning’ was added for the potential buyer: ‘This album is sung in the Russian language’.
Back cover of the Kino album ‘Blood Type’, produced by Joanna Stingray. Gold Castle Records, 1989
The liner notes have Alexander Kan's translation of the songs into English, but without the Russian texts.
The English translations of the songs from Blood Type were certainly helpful for reviews. Here is Robert Christgau's review of the album. Christgau, an influencial rock critic, calls himself the ‘Dean of American Rock Critics’. His text is undated, but we may assume that Christgau published it not long after the release of the Blood Type.
To call the lyrics ‘unobtrusively poetic’ might be appropriate when you read them in translation, but the same might be said about many English song texts, if we simply read them.
Here is a famous example:
Sweet child in time / You'll see the line / The line that's drawn between / Good and bad / See the blind man / Shooting at the world / Bullets flying / Ohh taking toll
Now let’s have a look at one of Viktor Tsoy’s songs from the album Blood Type in Marva's translation more >> The song is called Война, pronounced Voiná — War.
Show me the people who are sure that tomorrow will be
There are some people who love the dark night and light sun
The difference does not lie in the richness or novelty of images which are metaphors of war in both cases. The difference is that no one knowing Deep Purple’s song Child in Time will be able read the lyrics without ‘hearing’ it at the same time. The voice has become an integral part of the song, like the solo organ or the guitar parts.
But when reading a translation of Tsoy’s lyrics, one will only interpret the meaning, not enjoy their form. Otherwise said, If you can't sense the flavour of the words, their sound and rhythm, the way the voice creates the notes, it's like trying to describe colours in a picture converted to black-and-white: you will come to the conclusion that it lacks brightness.
As a consequence, Christgau‘s overall perception of the Blood Type album was that ‘solidly constructed tunes have a droll charm that's fresh if not new’ – like home cooking with a slightly exotic note, yet not quite original.
Blood Type has been re-released a number of times in Russia, as were all other Kino albums. Given the lack of response in the West, these albums have been produced for the post-Soviet market, which is large enough to be profitable on its own and serves the Russian diaspora in the West, too. Kino has long become a classic in Russia, and in recent years, Yuri Kasparyan has been touring successfully with ‘Symphonic Kino’ – symphonic concerts of Kino music.
Symphonic Kino with Yury Kasparyan playing solo guitar. Grand Concert Hall Oktyabrsky, Saint Petersburg, 2015. Photo: Hannelore Fobo
Modest efforts at self-expression?
Quite understandably, the West has perceived Eastern bloc subculture predominantly as counter-culture, that is, as re-action against the state, rather than as an action for art.
The large exhibition Notes from the Underground. Art and alternative music in Eastern Europe 1968–1994 was the first comprehensive project to show the ingenuitiy and diversity of these phenomena. It also established manifold cross-relations between different unofficial scenes and to Western culture currents. Curated by David Crowley and Daniel Muzyczuk, Notes from the Underground was presented at the Muzeum Sztuki, Lodz, in 2016 more >> and the Akademie der Künste Berlin in 2018 more >>.
14.03.2018. At the opening of the double exhibition UNDERGROUND + IMPROVISATION with Notes from the Underground. Art and alternative music in Eastern Europe 1968–1994, Akademie der Künste Berlin.
In the late 1980s, access to such information was still limited, but as the Soviet Union was acquiring a more positive image, curiosity from the Western side was doubtlessly higher than today.
In 1989, when the Western interest in Soviet underground culture reached its peak, Jon Pareles, who had written about the Leningrad subculture earlier – about Sergey Kuryokhin more >> –, published the article ‘Rock from Underground’ in the New York Times. The article mentions a number of Soviet-bloc bands touring or releasing their records in the U.S.: the Moscow band Zvuki Mu, Boris Grebenshikov, Kino, the Czechoslovak band Pulnoc (Midnight, ex Plastic People of the Universe), and Yugoslav band Laibach. Pareles also uses information from Artemy Troitsky’s book Back in the U.S.S.R.: The True Story of Rock in Russia.
Although Pareles article covers many important bands, his conclusion is similar to that of Christgau quoted in the previous chapter:
Pareles‘ assessment of ‘modest efforts at self-expression’ is not really surprising. For Soviet rock bands, being ‘professional’ was not an aim in itself, since ‘professionalism’ was associated with formal education, and formal education with curtailing creativity. Some even considered professionalism as being incompatible with authenticity, the latter being regarded as closer to feeling than to refinement.
Feeling was not necessarily a matter of performing with virtuosity. It was often conveyed through the lyrics. A distinctive feature of Soviet rock songs is that texts can be more important than melodies. They expressed feelings, thoughts, and individual positions. Pareles speaks of ‘attitude’:
But it may be more than attitude, it can be poetry.
In this respect, Soviet rock music followed the tradition of the older generation of Soviet singer-songwriters accompanying themselves on the guitar, such as Bulat Okudzhava and Vladimir Vysotsky, both ‘unofficial’ superstars in their home country. Alexander Bashlachev, who died in 1988 at the age of 27, became one of the new and influential voices of his generation, notwithstanding the small number of public concerts.
On the other hand, it was also clear that, as Jon Pareles concludes, ‘it's entirely possible that in the Western market, where almost everything is permitted and almost nothing makes a lasting impact, Soviet-bloc rock will be treated as a novelty with a short shelf life.’
How could the perestroika momentum be efficiently used to give Soviet rock a long shelf life outside the Soviet Union? After all, ‘Rock is homegrown music in the United States, evolved from blues and country and Tin Pan Alley, then bounced back and forth from Britain and elsewhere’ – we cannot but agree with Jon Pareles.
The examples given in this article make it clear that the momentum couldn't be used, one of the reasons being the language barrier. Outside the Russian-speaking world, we have never come to a point where the equal value of socio-cultural and aesthetic aspects is thought to hold true for Russian rock lyrics. Yet it is self-evident with regard to Russian literature and poetry. In other words, we can think of Joseph Brodsky as Nobel laureate in Literature for his poetry, but only of Bob Dylan as Nobel laureate in Literature for his lyrics.
The question is not whether Russian rock lyrics deserve being translated. The question is whether someone decides to achieve extremely good and singable English translations of such songs. They would, of course, have to be performed without a foreign accent.
Why not start with Viktor Tsoy? His name is not completely unfamiliar in the West. A renewed interest about Tsoy arose with Kirill Serebrennikov’s biopic ‘Leto’ (Summer), which had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, where it received the Cannes Soundtrack Award. An article about Victor Tsoy recently appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique: ‘Viktor Tsoï, le dernier héros soviétique’ (June 2019).
The example of a gentleman by the name of Artur Sedov demonstrates that good translations are possible. We can hear Sedov interpreting a number of Kino songs with his acoustic guitar on his YouTube channel, among them Blood Type more >>. Here is a comment by one of his fans: ‘Impressive. Not personally a big fan of Tsoy, but he is clearly an influential character on the scene of his time. I'd love to hear more of your interpretations. Actually no need to stick with word-by-word translation with lyrics of any kind - makes no sense.’
The next step would be the professional production and promotion of such English interpretations. This could only happen from the Russian side, as for the West there is no prospect of making money or gaining reputation through such activities. To start with, a competition of English interpretations of Tsoy's songs could be organised in Saint Petersburg or Moscow. It would be a clear message that the Russians want to share their culture with the rest of the world – and that they are not just waiting for another Joanna Stingray.
Hannelore Fobo, 10 June 2019
Postscript: On 21 July, 2019, during their concert at a packed Moscow stadium "Luzhniki", the American heavy metal band Metallica performed Viktor Tsoy's song Blood Type in Russian, accompanied by an enthusiastic audience of 80,000 fans.
Hannelore Fobo: Introduction to Stingray in Wonderland. >>
|Uploaded 10 June, 2019
Last updated 22 July 2019