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MEANWHILE Back in the U.S.S.R.

September 03, 1989|ROBERT HILBURN

MOSCOW — Alexei Belov, the blond lead guitarist for the Soviet rock group Gorky Park, got up early enough on his first morning home in months to make the 45-minute drive from his parents' apartment to Lenin Stadium by 10 a.m.

Belov, who speaks English well, seemed a bit self-conscious when he found himself almost alone in the huge, 100,000-capacity stadium, which was built in 1955 and upgraded for the 1980 Olympics. The first sound check for the Moscow Music Peace Festival wasn't scheduled for another four hours.

When asked about his early arrival, the somewhat shy, 31-year-old musician mentioned something about wanting to make sure that the band's equipment had arrived safely from the United States, where Gorky Park had spent the last several months recording an album that was just released by PolyGram Records.

After a few minutes, however, it became clear that the real reason Belov had come early to the stadium was that he wanted to savor every minute of what he felt was an historic weekend.

To Belov, the festival--starring Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osbourne and other rockers in the most ambitious display of Western hard-rock ever staged in the Soviet Union--was more than just the East/West cultural breakthrough that was being hailed in the media. It was the most graphic and emotional sign yet of change in his country: a change that had helped renew his long submerged rock 'n' roll dreams.

Belov's story offers a compact guide to the obscure workings of Russian rock. For years, Belov was a "forbidden" musician here, unable to perform on radio, television or on records--not because of anything politically subversive in the lyrics of his old band, he said, but because the group, Moscow, was causing its young fans to become too excited.

"That band was a very exciting time for us," said Belov, whose long black coat, black shirt and black pants gave him a stark, aristocratic aura. "I had been in other bands, but they were 'approved' pop bands . . . not really the music I loved.

"Moscow was a band that played music like we heard from the West. And it was wonderful to have the audience screaming and excited, but the officials said it was too wild . . . too passionate and we had to stop. I think they thought it was too Western . . . thus anti-Communist."

Heartbroken and frustrated, Belov was forced for the next few years to play "wild clubs"--the Soviet equivalent of the "buckets of blood" dives in the United States. They were clubs where people come more to fight and drink than to hear music--places that authorities apparently didn't take time to monitor.

Finally unable to take the violent environment, Belov turned his back on rock 'n' roll. He put down his guitar and began working in recording studios, helping other bands on arrangements and concepts.

Then came Gorbachev and perestroika and glasnost, and Belov thought again about making music. Just as things started loosening up in other areas of Soviet life, musicians were given more freedom and, eventually, allowed access to the West.

The band Gorky Park was pieced together by Stas Namin, an early Russian rock performer and the grandson of a former chairman of the Supreme Soviet Presidium. Thanks to some contacts he had made in the West, Namin got Gorky Park a U.S. recording contract with PolyGram and helped put together the Moscow Music Peace Festival where the band and two other Namin-connected Soviet groups shared the bill with five Western entries: Bon Jovi, Osbourne, Motley Crue, the Scorpions and Skid Row.

After the years of disillusionment and doubt, Belov seemed awed by the dramatic changes in his life.

Standing on the field in the vast, empty stadium, he said, "This is unbelievable. This is a place for the Olympics . . . for soccer. Who ever thought there would also be rock 'n' roll here?

"We played in Leningrad with the Scorpions last year, but they wouldn't allow the show in Moscow. Officials were scared. They thought something bad might happen if this many young people got together. Now, they realize that things must change . . . that you can't deny people things that are important to them, like music, forever. I'm just glad it came in time for me."

Alexley (Kozlov), Andrei (Makarevich), Stas (Namin) and Alexander (Gradsky) are some of the famous first names from the early days of Russian rock, but the most important rock names to Russian fans have always been John, Paul, George and Ringo.

Like their counterparts around the world, Soviet teen-agers were caught up in the fresh, exuberant sounds of the Beatles in the '60s. They tried their best, within the limits of available clothing and social pressure, to look like the Fab Four, and they cherished tapes or records smuggled into the country by friends and soldiers after visits to the West.

Stas Namin, grandson of Anastas Mikoyan, Presidium chairman in 1964 and 1965, was among those enthralled with the sounds of records like "A Hard Day's Night" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

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