Western pop and rock played their part in the fall of the Soviet superpower, seducing citizens, but in turn, both the USSR and Russia have inspired artists on this side of the world, a drive with motivations ranging from homage to the cultural totems to the ideological sympathy, going through the panic to the giant or the morbid. We go through ten themes that reflect that influence over the years.
‘Moskau’, Dschinghis Khan (1979)
This German group created to participate in Eurovision-78 (with the song titled, precisely, ‘Dschinghis Khan’), here declared their love for the then Soviet capital with a disco-pachanga hit with a Cossack-inspired dance. The theme became a clandestine hit in the USSR, and state television dared to broadcast a 15-second clip that cost its director his job. Bold version in Spanish by Georgie Dann: “Moscow, Moscow / like acrobats / taking magical leaps / Alone in Moscow”.
‘Nevsky Perspective’, Franco Battiato (1980)
The ill-fated Italian songwriter paid a heartfelt tribute to the most stunning avenue in St. Petersburg at a time when it was not yet a pasture for mass tourism. He imagined it “at thirty degrees below zero”, with the blessing of Nijinski, Stravinsky and Eisenstein, aiming at utopias with surreal slips: those images of “urinals placed under the bed at night”. Understandable or not, it is one of his most beautiful compositions.
‘Preemptive Strike of the USSR’, Polansky and the Ardor (1982)
Classic of the ‘movida’, spurred on by the terror of the nuclear holocaust in times of Reagan and Brezhnev, he handled reckless rhymes in the voice of Víctor Manuel Muñoz: “No, no, no, no, I don’t have a girlfriend / and I don’t like the Warsaw Pact / That man has a cat for me / and I don’t like the NATO treaty”. Despite its appearance closely linked to an era, the theme has had other lives in the versions of Amphetamine Discharge and Eric Fuentes.
‘Russian Women’, Alaska + Dinarama (1983)
The Russians, again, as a threat hovering over our placid Western existence: “there are a hundred Russian women / in outer space” who “are seeking the annihilation / of the states of the union”, Alaska and Carlos Berlanga sang in this giddy exponent of the new wave and the ‘movida’.
Russians, Sting (1985)
In those cold war rattles (although this was not known), Sting noted that Russians and Westerners “share the same biology, beyond ideology”, and expressed the wish (we understand that rhetoric) that “Russians love their children too.” He plays with quotes from the suite ‘El Lieutenant Kijé’, by Prokofiev, and a video by Jean-Baptiste Mondino. A few days ago, Sting declared that ‘Russians’, a song removed from his repertoire, was once again in force as a “plea for our common humanity”.
‘Leningrad’, Billy Joel (1989)
Billy Joel was one of the first pop stars to tour the Soviet Union (performing in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Georgia’s Tbilisi). That was in 1987, and from there came this song that draws parallels between the lives of the New York singer and the Russian clown Viktor Razinov, with references to historical episodes (post-war, witch hunt, missile crisis in Cuba) and a brotherly hug conclusion. Like so many other Russian-inspired songs, it contains a classic quote, here to the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Violin Concerto’.
‘My October Symphony’, Pet Shop Boys (1990)
After the fall of the socialist camp, a veteran Russian composer is overcome by nostalgia and wonders if it is time to rewrite his symphony in honor of the October revolution, perhaps changing the dedication: “from revolution to revelation?” slides with a view to the advent of capitalism. One of the most sublime songs of the duo, with nods to Shostakovich, insinuating house base, Balanescu Quartet strings and wah-wah guitar by Johnny Marr (The Smiths).
‘A Russia’, Antònia Font (2001)
Russia, as a mental state associated with an imaginary, remote land, in which he makes “an insurmountable scratch” and spreads a languid sadness. Song watered with dreamlike images, in which looking for literal parallels with reality is risky. Joan Miquel Oliver opens the doors of a cathedral and finds himself in the Eurasian country, there where “hi viu sa gent amb zero graus / they freeze and hold on”.
Moscow, Rammstein (2004)
Til Lindemann, singer of this German industrial metal group, was born in Leipzig (former Democratic Republic) and, as he has stated, the USSR was part of his sentimental imaginary. In this issue he looks at turbo-capitalist Moscow as the beautiful and sophisticated old lady who corrupts and prostitutes herself. A painful declaration of love to the city, “the most beautiful in the world” despite her “red spots on her forehead” since she “undresses only for money”.
‘Panzerkampf’, Sebaton (2008)
The martial Swedish metal band takes a step forward to defend the honor of the USSR in its role as a firewall from Nazi Germany in this song inspired by the battle of Kursk (1943), one of the most massive in history, with more of a million soldiers involved. The refrain does not hide sympathy for the Red Army’s deed: “Oh, mother Russia / Union of lands / The will of the people.”
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.