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Russian Rock Takes Two Steps Forward, One Back : Signs of Counterrevolution Back in the U.S.S.R.

February 08, 1988|WILLIAM J. EATON | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Soviet rock music, on a roll for a year or more in this Gorbachev era of glasnost , has become a politically divisive issue.

In ever stronger counterpoint, conservative critics, using language that strangely echoes the hysterical anti-rock sentiments heard in the West, have charged that the popularity of rock is a threat to the nation's moral fiber and possibly even a plot by anti-Communist strategists in the West.

Rock musicians scoff at the allegations. They contend that their supporters are energetic advocates of change, in tune with the party line enunciated by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who is pushing for glasnost , or openness, throughout society.

Alexander (Sasha) Lipnitzky, bass guitarist and manager of the band Zvuky Mu, said in a recent interview that rock groups deliver a social message in their lyrics but also exemplify a new era.

"Rock is the most progressive part of Soviet life," Lipnitzky said. "It's the first public movement for freedom. It's a peaceful movement."

His view was challenged recently by a half-page article in Pravda, the authoritative party newspaper, which described rock music as being as addictive as narcotics. It said rock drives young people slightly crazy.

The author of the article recommended, as an antidote, more traditional Russian folk music.

On an even more apocalyptic note, Mikhail Dunayev wrote in an ultraconservative journal that rock was the devil's work, morally corrupting, anti-national and ideologically subversive.

Western strategists, according to Dunayev, want to sap the Soviet Union of its moral strength and culture by promoting music developed from ancient African rituals for its spellbinding effect.

Another writer for Rabochaya Gazeta attacked heavy-metal music with these phrases: "imported obscurantism," "anti-humanity incarnate," "lack of culture and dissipation."

But a Soviet "metalist" replied by letter: "Thousands of heavy-metal fans have made their choice and will be true to the end."

So the debate rages, with Old Guard conservatives entrenched in the Ministry of Culture trying to block the rock upsurge while younger, more sympathetic counterparts in state radio and television speed its advance.

The cross fire started after rock was rescued from ideological oblivion and some of its underground stars received a nod of approval from the Kremlin.

Rock was never really obliterated in the Soviet Union, but a renaissance began two years ago, getting its real push forward coincident with Gorbachev's coming to power.

In the past, a few rockers had come in from the cold of unofficial status to perform at state-sponsored concerts. They included such groups as a band led by Stas Namin, a grandson of the late Soviet leader Anastas A. Mikoyan, Time Machine, and Avtograf, which is currently on tour in the U.S. and performs at the Roxy tonight (see accompanying story).

Last year, however, rock hero Boris Grebenschikov of Leningrad, leader of the widely popular band Aquarium, agreed to do an album for the state-run record company, Melodyia.

Two hundred thousand copies of Aquarium's first official disc sold out within hours, without a single advertisement. In the preceding decade, Grebenschikov's band had released 10 albums on tape cassettes, which were copied and recopied until they made their way across all 11 time zones in the Soviet Union.

Once the band got the stamp of approval from the Ministry of Culture, it played six sold-out concerts in Leningrad's 6,000-seat Jubilee Hall last autumn.

Aquarium, which once had to skulk around Moscow's smaller clubs disguised as a group called Radio Africa, suddenly found itself in the embrace of the state. For some of its fans, it was too much.

"If you make an official record, some people think it can't be any good," said Grebenschikov, 33, a blue-eyed man wearing his long, brown hair in a ponytail.

Despite the state's blessing, however, Aquarium was barred from playing at the first Soviet-American rock concert last July 4. There was no public explanation; another rock band, widely regarded as inferior, was substituted at the last moment.

Yet, in another remarkable sign of official favor, Grebenschikov was allowed in December to visit the United States, where he communed with rockers in New York, Washington and Los Angeles and discussed making a record for an American firm.

Furthermore, the official news agency Tass announced last month that Soviet and American rock musicians would record an album in Russian and English to mark the 30th anniversary of cultural exchanges between their countries.

Grebenschikov said that Western performers such as Michael Jackson, Dave Stewart and Iggy Pop agreed to cooperate on the project when he talked with them during his visit to America. He added that Aquarium is preparing for a concert tour of the United States later this year.

For years, Grebenschikov added, Soviet rock was influenced by Western, particularly British, music but "now it has grown into something original."

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