By The Landlord
“Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” – Winston Churchill
“In Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being. No colour prejudice like in Mississippi, no colour prejudice like in Washington.” – Paul Robeson
“Russia! Russia ... Everything in you is open, desolate and level; your squat towns barely protrude in the midst of the plains like dots, like counters; there is nothing to tempt or enchant the onlooker's gaze. But what is this inscrutable, mysterious force that draws me to you?” – Nikolai Gogol
“Russia will not soon become, if it ever becomes, a second copy of the United States or England - where liberal values have deep historic roots.” – Vladimir Putin
“Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA - NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!” - Donald Trump
ривет всем! Privet vsem! Greetings everyone! And so then, what’s the most prominent event going on the world this week? Well, among other stuff, it's the eve of America swearing in a new president. So what has that got to do with Russia? A mere coincidence, surely. So why aren’t we doing songs about presidents, or indeed, erm, songs about the apocalypse? Well, those things have been done before, and here at the bar, we never like to do the obvious. Also I’ve just had a big consignment of expensive vodka out the back of a lorry for a very cheap price from my friend Sergei. Say no more, matey, we’re good.
But as Trump takes his oats, sorry oaths, are we in some way taking the piss out of the new Republican leader of the ‘free’ world? Nyet. Not at all. Because word has it, there’s apparently been more than enough Ural-related urinary action going on already, involving a certain American, at a Miss Universe event in Moscow in 2013, alongside a whole series of dodgy oil business, blackmail plots, the hacking and controlling of election results and US foreign policy. What will the new president do about this as his golden moment of taking office arrives? Will he take Steppes? But of course that’s all just a trumped up dossier, totally made up, fake news, of course. Although it is from numerous intelligence agencies and trusted sources, but of course there’s no way that could be true, could it? It sounds like a parody. But who can tell these days?
But, cleansing ourselves of such images for a moment, as they are running things, let’s get down to things truly Russian, and take a wider look at the largest country in the world by area, matched with such a rich cultural heritage, focusing on its music. So this week we want to examine works written about as much as from that vast land, inspired by its great cities, its people, and its achievements. Don’t speak Russian? Don’t let that stop you. Let the music to the talking, but if you want to check lyrics, there’s plenty of translate resources, such as Google, to help you.
So when you think of Russia, what are its associations? Toughness, military might, cold war, corruption, hardship, violence, mafia, sub-zero temperatures and big black bears? Of extreme oppression and revolution? A country that, as an ally to Britain, lost 20 million people in the second world war? How about high intelligence, extraordinary talent, ingenuity, warmth, humour, creativity, generosity, romance, and a varied and beautiful landscape? Peter the Great? Catherine the Great? Or the great Andrei Sakharov, a nuclear physicist of true genius, who then became a Soviet dissident, an activist for disarmament, peace and human rights.
All of the above, and what makes Russia even more mysterious is the mixed reception it has had around the world. One man who found it extremely positive was the great Paul Robeson, singer extraordinaire, civil rights activist, and hero to the oppressed, who, as mentioned above, sung its praises. Here he is being welcomed in Moscow in 1958:
First then let’s look at some of the contrasting styles from within Russia itself. Perhaps one of the best great traditional songs is Kalinka Malinka, Ivan Larionov’s 1860 lighthearted ode to the snow tree. Here’s one version but there are many others, including some by western bands and artists:
Trees are clearly important in Russia’s often harsh landscape. There was also a birch tree in a field:
And of course, the same goes for fruit. ‘Hey! Little Apple!’ also has many versions, this one in the form of a sailor dance. The conventional lyrics include “Hey, little apple, but where are you rolling to? You will get in my mouth – and will never come out!”, but there are many dirtier versions in which there’s a worm or two of innuendo slipping in:
Physical activity, not to mention many a drinking song, has always been important in Russia. Another popular one includes the lyrics: “The ice brotherhood combats hard / And we trust in courage of daring guys/ Real men play hockey / No coward plays hockey!” The great Eduard Khil did a version in 1979:
But he’s far better known as the guy who did this wonderful lounge number, with multiple versions and parodies, including on Family Guy:
In Russia men are certainly men, and big strong voices are a theme. Here’s Leonid Kharitonov & the Red Army Choir (1965) doing ‘The Cliff’. And what a voice indeed:
So is Russia all about machismo? Not always. Let’s take a look at Vitaliy Vladasovich Grachov, better known as the superstar Vitas. He certainly redefines Russian masculinity, but if you wait for a certain magic moment within the first minute, you’ll see why his vocal dexterity gets the ladies excited:
Rich in folk and classical traditions, Russia was perhaps slow to take up the mantle of pop music, but after the iron curtain came down, during a new period of instability, uncertainty and change, it naturally spawned a huge variety of male and female artists who may not be familiar to many in the west, but are huge within and around the Russian region, all worth investigating and discovering, including Igor Nikolayev, Natasha Koroleva, Na Na, Tatiana Bulanova, Leonid Agutin, Oleg Gazmanov, Valery Meladze, Dmitry Malikov, DDT, Lyube, Sektor Gaza and later Valeriya, Anita Tsoy, Blestyaschie, Ruki Vverh, plus the massive selling 70s group Veselye Rebyata and sexy girl band Serebro.
A rich seam for your music inspiration will also be from the classical genre, with endless treasures to choose, from Mikhail Glinka to Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, César Cui, Aram Khachaturian, Sofia Gubaidulina, Shostakovich (my favourite composer), Prokofiev, and Rachmaninov. And perhaps exemplifying the glorious majesty of such music, we can also dip into work of the great film-makers, from Andrey Konchalovskiy to Andrei Tarkovsky, but above all innovator of them all, Sergei Eisenstein the master of montage. Best known for Battleship Potemkin, let’s instead feast on an excerpt from Battle on the Ice from Alexander Nevsky (1938), decorated by Prokofiev, with Yuri Temirkanov conducting the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra:
Russia is also rich in opera and theatre. Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is an extraordinary work. And then there is the great Anton Chekhov. The doctor/playwright is seen as a writer of tragedy, but look carefully at his work, and you’ll see there’s much humour behind the twitching curtains of sisters and other repressed characters longing to go the Moscow.
Go to Moscow? Yes, this city, and St Petersburg has inspired many songs. And there’s no need to get lost in Russia, because this topic is as much about how others outside Russia viewed its culture. There are many gems to be found by looking for songs about Moscow or other key places. Here are a couple of examples. First up, Blondie causes no shortage of excitement in this live version:
Fancy a disco? The Vibrators will take you there:
Now then, as the bar fills up, not only with vodka, we’ve plenty of visitors eager to talk about Russia: First up Ronald Reagan cracks a joke. “My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you I just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever. The bombing begins in five minutes.” Yeah that was hilarious, Ronnie. “The secret of politics? Make a good treaty with Russia, retorts Otto von Bismarck. Really?
And here’s Putin himself: “Indeed, Russia and the US were allies during the two tragic conflicts of the Second and the First World Wars, which allows us to think there's something objectively bringing us together in difficult times, and I think - I believe - it has to do with geopolitical interests and also has a moral component.” Absolutely. The irony, the irony …
Another irony about Russia is just how far ideals can go awry. Here’s Tony Benn on Russian communism. “The Marxist analysis has got nothing to do with what happened in Stalin's Russia: it's like blaming Jesus Christ for the Inquisition in Spain.” True that, Tony. Cup of tea?
“Russia does not want confrontation of any kind. And we will not take part in any kind of 'holy alliance,” adds Vladimir. Talking of holy, what have British 70s girl punk band-inspired activists Pussy Riot got the say about it?
So what do musicians and other artists have to say about Russia? “In Russia all tyrants believe poets to be their worst enemies,” says Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Now we’ve got some western artists waiting to have their say too: “The way the business things work in Russia is you have to meet people, you have to go through a certain amount of etiquette and business things are done just simply by a shake of the hand and whether they like you or not,” adds Marc Almond.
Who’s this staggering in now? It’s only Johnny Ramone! “'Rocket to Russia' is, I think, my favourite Ramones record. We reached our peak at that point.”
“I'm big in Russia, but no one's quite sure why.” Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Good for you, Sophie.
So what is Russia really all about? It’s confusing, and contradictory, and that’s why it inspires great music. According to the great documentary maker, Adam Curtis, Vladimir Putin’s chief adviser, and media operator, Vladislav Kurkov likes to put out mixed messages both for and against his leader, just to confuse people, so no one knows what’s gong on. Sounds familiar. It's a sign of the times. It’s all a game of clever chess. As Garry Kasparov tells us: “The real political life in Russia unfortunately is not in the parliament but on the streets and in the media.”
But let’s finish, on the eve of a huge conspiracy, I mean new alliance, with a beautiful moment where east meets west. In the early 20th century Eisenstein was pictured shaking hands with Mickey Mouse, so let’s accompany that with a beauty piece of ballet, featuring Rudolph Nureyev at the Muppet Show, leading another merry dance.
So then, place you songs from and about Russia in the ballot box of comments below. No hacking will occur. Songs from former Soviet countries are also relevant when it also relates to the topic. Deadline is Monday 11pm UK time, after which there will be a vodka lock-in for song title puns. And it gives me great pleasure to announce that stepping up this week’s cultural Kremlin is Commandant EnglishOutlaw, who will greet your tanks as they pass by, and salute your offerings in time for playlists published next Wednesday. Ура! давайте начнем революцию! Let’s start a musical revolution.
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.