Thursday, January 20

‘A folk hallucination’: Zvuki Mu, the most glorious band in Soviet Russia | Pop and rock

WWith a receding hairline and sporting a plaid blazer, a man in his 30s growls the lyrics of a song sung from the perspective of a dove into his microphone. “I may be the most expendable and disgusting shit, but at least I know how to fly!” execute the monotonous Russian words, they shouted across the stage. To accompany the song, the man spasms and contorts his body and face with the clumsy precision of a broken puppet.

It is the year 1987, and the Soviet rock band Zvuki Mu (Sounds of Mu), at the dawn of their musical career, is holding a concert that is broadcast on official state television. Onlookers smile and shake their heads, some bewildered and others comforted by this strange showman whose familiar appearance more closely resembles a neighborhood streetcar driver than a rock star.

The performance and song typified the Moscow-based band Zvuki Mu, whose absurd and conscientious lyrics satirized the mundane elements of late Soviet existence, a time when Soviet citizens were losing faith in utopian communist ideals. . That contortionist leader was the revered Pyotr Mamonov, who died last week of Covid-19 complications at the age of 70. To his right, strumming a bass, was the band’s co-founder. Alexander lipnitsky, who also died earlier this year at the age of 68, in a skiing accident. Last week, Russians took to social media to mourn these losses, which lower the curtain on a gang like no other in the country’s history.

Pyotr Mamonov performing with Zvuki Mu.
Pyotr Mamonov performing with Zvuki Mu. Photograph: Sputnik / Alamy

As the borders between the Soviet Union and the West became porous in the late 1970s, and Mikhail Gorbachev implemented Glasnost, the policy of “openness and transparency” in the 1980s, a cool cultural environment gave rise to rock. Soviet. The performances were at first in secret, in apartments, but were soon moved to the Soviet Palaces of Culture, often under the supervision of the KGB. It took only a few years for Soviet audiences to elevate their rock stars to the cult status of 19th century Russian authors. But like their literary predecessors, Soviet rock bands emulated their Western counterparts in musical composition, lyrics, and visual glamor. If the 19th century romantic poets Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov found comfort in the verses of Byron and Shelley, popular Soviet rock bands like Akvarium and Kino found their muses in the cadences of Bob Dylan and the makeup of Robert Smith.

Zvuki Mu, however, stood out from the rest, in appearance, music, and his desire to interact with the public. “The members looked like Soviet engineers; Mamonov and Lipnitsky were in their 30s when they started acting, ”says Russian cultural critic Yury Saprykin. “Mamonov, in particular, resembled a lumpen-intellectual,” he adds, referring to the leader’s refined but vulgar appearance (lumpen, initially a Marxist term for naive members of the lower strata of society, was a word that Soviet citizens used to refer to their typically masculine men). alcoholics, vagabonds and prisoners). Musician Sergey Ryzhenko described the band’s first concert as a “Russian folk hallucination.” And it was this very ordinary appearance, together with worldly and simplistic lettering, that made them so beloved and recognizable to the Russian public.

A popular song praises a “juicy lula-kebab,” a Soviet dish commonly found in coffee shops. Zvuki Mu’s lyrics are often repetitive and contain few words, outlining the everyday situations his languid heroes find themselves in. Another hit song, Crimea, makes no mention of the glittering sea or the ancient architecture synonymous with the peninsula. Instead, it shows a man who is sweating and overheated in a phone booth, begging a relative at home to send him more money for his alcoholic escapades.

Mamonov’s childhood neighborhood was Bolshaya Karetnaya, known for his criminality and alcohol addiction during the Brezhnev years, probably cultivating the aesthetics of the leader. As a young adult, Mamonov did a series of odd jobs that, according to Zvuki Mu’s biographer Sergei Guryev, gave him a “kaleidoscopic and encyclopedic” view of Soviet life. He worked in a boiler room, operated an elevator, carried coffins of wine, and, at one point, translated Norwegian literature into Russian.

Meanwhile, his closest childhood friend was his former partner Sasha Lipnitsky, who came from a privilege. Lipnitsky’s stepfather was Viktor Sukhodrev, Leonid Brezhnev’s personal translator and a renowned music connoisseur, who brought home records from his travels. From an early age, Mamonov and Lipnitsky had unparalleled access to Western music for several decades, which played a formative role in the development of their band. Mamonov especially liked the authenticity and rawness of American soul music: Ray Charles, Ike & Tina Turner and Chubby Checker were among his biggest idols. “‘Black’ America happily won their hearts over British ‘cult’ rock’n’roll,” Guryev writes. In Mamonov’s husky voice and the band’s instrumentation, listeners can also find traces of Captain Beefheart.

The musical partnership between Mamonov and Lipnitsky did not flourish until two years after Mamonov’s career as a composer. At one point, Mamonov tried to recruit a group of local street alcoholics to sing choruses over his verses, but he soon recognized that it was a pipe dream. For a brief period, Zvuki Mu consisted of Mamonov and his half-brother, Alexey “Lelik” Bortnichuk, before Soviet authorities incarcerated Lelik for “social parasitism,” the official indictment for those who refuse to work, following a dispute with your boss in a boiler room. Mamonov’s first performances took place in Lipnitsky’s apartment, a bohemian oasis, where members of the Leningrad and Moscow rock scenes shared wine and praise, and forged creative partnerships. During the two decades of its existence, the band underwent multiple iterations, removing members for a variety of reasons. Some, like renowned music journalist Artemy Troitsky, were too handsome for the band’s cretinous aesthetic. Others were too technically trained or lacked the discipline to match the band’s prolific output, like Sergei “Afrika” Bugaev, an actor and artist who joined Zvuki Mu at just 16 years old. Mamonov even tried teaching his wife to play bass, before finally inviting Lipnitsky to pick up the instrument.

On January 28, 1984, about 300 schoolchildren flocked to the Mamonov and Lipnitsky nursery school theater to witness Zvuki Mu’s debut performance. The audience included Soviet rock stars Sergey Kuryokhin, Boris Grebenshchikov and Andrey Makarevich. The evening was touted as a high school reunion so as not to attract the ire of the KGB. Two years later, Zvuki Mu would go to play his first officially authorized concert at the Kurchatov Palace of Culture in Moscow. As venues grew in size, the performances grew furious. Mamonov dragged various props onto the stage: buckets that he assembled and then jumped on, cots on which he lay and waved. In 1988, the band released their first album, Ordinary Things.

Having completed several tours of the Soviet republics, Zvuki Mu was now setting his sights to the west. In the fall of 1988, Artemy Troitsky helped organize a meeting in Poland that would elevate Zvuki Mu’s success to heights never before experienced by any Soviet rock band. The meeting was with Brian Eno, who in speaking with Mamonov, described the Russian leader as “a wonderful and scary guy, like something from the dark ages.” Zvuki Mu immediately struck a deal with Eno which saw the release of two albums under the English label Opal Records. But for some reason, as Sergei Guryev points out in his biography, Mamonov distrusted Eno, preventing him from making any significant contribution to the album’s production. Mamonov expressed his desire to collaborate with Frank Zappa, or even Brian Ferry, Eno’s former bandmate at Roxy Music.

As part of the deal, Zvuki Mu would go on two tours of the US and the UK. During the tours, which Warner Brothers partially funded, Zvuki Mu shared the stage with Pere Ubu, who were so in awe of their Russian colleagues’ performance that they stalled for 30 minutes before playing a follow-up set. On subsequent tours, Mamonov would meet two of his idols, David Byrne and Peter Gabriel, whom he once described in an interview as soul mates, “ordinary but intelligent men.” Over the next two decades, the band disbanded and reunited in several iterations, recording a total of 13 studio albums. They also filmed a music video for their song Harsh Sunset, which was so novel that American band The National produced a homogeneous tribute in 2013.

Mamonov remained at the center of it all, and beyond his theatrical performances, he translated the ability for facial and body expressiveness to the screen. In 1990, he played an alcoholic saxophone virtuoso, a character not unlike himself, who forges a tumultuous relationship with a hateful and racist taxi driver in Pavel Lungin’s film Taxi Blues. In one scene, naked Mamonov plays the saxophone in front of a window; the camera slowly zooms in on his naked back in a very riveting shot of a man who is in full control of his body and lacks all inhibitions, just like his real life counterpart. In 2006, having spent nearly 10 years as a Russian Orthodox convert living in a small town, Mamonov played a Russian Orthodox monk in another Pavel Lungin film, the award-winning The Island. “It is not a coincidence that he played this role,” says Yury Saprykin. “With Zvuki Mu he projected the image of a lumpen intellectual, but in his later years the public saw him as a Yurodivy type character, the holy fool of the Russian Orthodox scriptures.”

Although he spent his last years in spiritual isolation, Mamonov’s love for performance and music never ceased. He continued to offer concerts and solo tours well into his later years, moving quite unlike an aging individual. And in all the performances, he continued to embody the spirit of Zvuki Mu – a fervor for life that can only be reached by embracing his absurd nature.

“His concerts were a shamanic ritual designed to drive out the demon that lay in the Soviet consciousness,” writes his biographer Sergei Guryev. For his compatriots, who lived in a society burdened by authoritarian politics, passivity and cynicism, Mamonov was a sight to behold. In an interview, Mamonov tells the audience to look at their index fingers under a magnifying glass: “There is so much there: nerves… everything is moving, you can only be amazed at what your body is capable of…. So many nuances … life is a great thing. “

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