Underground sound: Alexander Kan’s favourite tracks from 1980s Leningrad
In advance of a live music performance of the utygon, organised by Calvert 22 Gallery in London next week, cultural historian and BBC broadcaster Alexander Kan takes us on a tour of the underground music scene in 1980s Leningrad with classics from Soviet post-punk band Kino to hard rock outfit Alisa
The underground art scene in Leningrad in the 1980s was relatively small, extremely tight and interconnected. It proudly called itself “the second culture” — as opposed to the first, official one — and it developed an infrastructure of its own, complete with exhibitions, concerts, festivals, literary journals, films and even television. Everybody knew everybody and everybody worked with everybody: musicians painted, artists played music and so on.
The ties between the New Artists — the key underground art movement of the time — and music were especially close. So close that sometimes you could not see the division line between the two. Timur Novikov, the main founder and the leader of the New Artists, was listed as the “official” artist of Soviet post-punk band Kino. Utyogon, the invention of Novikov and another member of the group, Ivan Sotnikov, was premiered at one of musician Sergey Kuryokhin’s concert. The members of Kino — Victor Tsoi and Georgi Guryanov — regularly exhibited with the New Artists. Based on the pattern of the New Artists, Timur encouraged two young musicians: Igor Verichev and Valery Alakhov to start the group New Composers. Sergey Bugaev “Africa” was shuffling around between them all.
Along with the Necrorealists, another group, born with The New Composers, they were all members of Kuryokhin’s Popular Mechanics, a multimedia performance-cum-orchestra which brought together everything: jazz, rock, art, classical, folk even a circus and a zoo.
The movement inspired Sergey Solovyev, a distinguished official filmmaker, to make his full-length feature ASSA which introduced the scene to wider Soviet audiences and is rightly considered one of the precursors of perestroika.
This selection of clips takes us into the unique world of art and music in Leningrad of the 1980s.
Kino - Anarchy
An early Kino song, heavily influenced by the Sex Pistols. Visually it’s an eclectic, even chaotic collage of everything that seemed important at the time: from the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s to the rock of the 1980s.
Aquarium - 212-85-06
An important Aquarium song with art collage as the main method of musical material organisation. The clip is not nearly as expressive.
Aquarium - Old Man Kozlodoev
Another seminal song from Aquarium: a sardonic, bitchy attack of the young on the old. This is not the original Aquarium version but a scene from the film ASSA where the song is performed by assorted group of actors and musicians from Kino. Sergey Bugaev “Africa” who played the leading role in the film is lip-syncing to the voice of Moscow rock musician Sergey Ryzhenko.
Kino - Kamchatka
Kamchatka here is not a Pacific Ocean peninsula on the eastern edge of the USSR, but a boiler room in Leningrad where the Kino singer/songwriter Victor Tsoi worked as a stoker in the 1980s. The clip is an expressive collage of Leningrad cityscapes in the style of underground photographers Boris Kudryakov and Boris Smelov (Grand Boris and Petit Boris).
Alisa - Experimentator
The song propelled Alisa to underground stardom in 1985. The clip was shot by Joanna Stingray (she is seen in the first frame with Alisa founder Slava Zadery and singer/songwriter Kostya Kinchev), an aspiring American pop singer who was a frequent visitor in Leningrad in the early- and mid-1980s and who eventually released Red Wave, a double LP, with four underground rock bands from Leningrad.
Strange Games - Metamorphosis
One of the four bands (along with Aquarium, Kino and Alisa) featured on the Red Wave album. The song is one of their best but the clip, also filmed by Stingray, has in fact very little to do with the group. Only two of the four people madly running around Leningrad in winter are actually from the Strange Games: brothers Viktor and Grisha Sologub. The other two are Georgy Guryanov from Kino and Sergey Kuryokhin. Very characteristic of the incestuous nature of the scene.
New Composers - Precisely Today and Precisely Now
One of the early music-collage numbers from the New Composers. Visually the clip is just a boisterous wild peace of performance art with not only both members of the duo (Igor Verichev and Valery Alakhov) but the ubiquitous Georgy Guryanov from Kino, the artist Vlad Mamyshev-Monro and many others.
New Composers - I Want to Dance
Musically the New Composers were increasingly moving to dance music. Visually, however, the clip is very inventive, heavily influenced by the new tendencies in Timur Novikov’s aesthetics: his transition from the radicalism of the avant-garde of the 1920s to the neo-classicism of Soviet and German totalitarian art of the 1930s which eventually brought him to the New Academia.
Sergey Kuryokhin - Donna Anna
A clip from the film Mr Designer, directorial debut by Oleg Teptsov, with stunning music from Sergey Kuryokhin.
Popular Mechanics - Postoi Parovoz (Slow Down, Locomotive)
One of the very last performances of Popular Mechanics, with Sergey Kuryokhin giving a hilarious and heart-breaking rendition of a blatnyak (a traditional, Russian criminal song) immortalised by a very popular 1960s Soviet comedy.
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