A few years ago, I went to see an exhibition devoted to the interplay between literature and pop at Latvia’s Museum of Literature and Music. The most striking exhibit was a bulky-looking electronic keyboard, its array of control knobs marked with hand-written labels reading such things as “Roulette”, “Poker”, “Parking Lot”, and “Napoleon”. It was the home-made synthesiser of Juris Kulakovs, keyboard player for legendary 80s Latvian band Pērkons (“Thunder”). Banned twice by a regime that considered their concerts to be frightening manifestations of youth power, Pērkons nurtured an aura of disobedience that fed directly into Latvia’s anti-Soviet revolution of 1987-91. Still treading the boards, Pērkons celebrate their 40th anniversary this spring.
I met Kulakovs several days after visiting the exhibition, and his synthesiser was the first thing I asked him about. Unable to buy a real synthesiser in early 80s Latvia (they were too expensive), he asked a friend to make one. “The labels were just a joke; an attempt to translate all those strange words [that you see on synthesisers] like ‘gain’, ‘attack’, ‘decay’, ‘filter’ into everyday language. I have been abroad many times, and have seen many keyboards, but that synthesiser made for me in Latvia by a Latvian technician is for me the equal of any Moog.”
Pērkons typify the challenges faced by Soviet-era rock groups that chose to stand outside officially-sanctioned showbiz culture. They had to improvise their own equipment, record their own LPs, distribute their songs by tape, and in many cases, perform under different identities in order to circumvent official disapproval. In a current age characterised by creeping authoritarianism, civil disobedience and protest bands like Pussy Riot, we arguably have a much to learn from musicians who suffered for their art in the Soviet period, and yet still managed to carve out an autonomous cultural space.
Pērkons played their first ever gig at the Riga Art Academy’s carnival ball in 1981. The first half of the performance was taken up by electrified versions of classical composers such as Greig, Khatchaturian, and Mussorgsky, followed by a second half of cacophonous rock and roll.
The band had an immediate impact on Riga’s students and high-school kids. “Seeing Pērkons for the first time was like coming home one day and discovering that there’s a room you never knew existed before, but which turns out to be your perfect world,” says Latvian music writer Klāss Vāvere, who saw Pērkons at the age of 17, shortly after their debut. “They performed this classical stuff during the first part of the gig. Which was OK for my intellectually-oriented teenage personality. But then came the second part, and suddenly everything was like never before. It was loud, hard, unbelievably exciting, with an energy level that you never saw on stage back then. There was lots of smoke and constant explosions. Their looks (strictly jeans and long hair) and their attitude were things I could immediately identify as mine. It was not especially adventurous musically; it sounded like basic hard rock. But with their energy, it sounded like punk to my ears.”
Although primarily driven by the keyboard skills of Music-Academy student Kulakovs, Pērkons were a band of many talents: the ethereal vocals of Ieva Akurātere and the soaring guitars of Leons Sējāns being two other crucial ingredients. For lyrics, they turned to young poet Māris Melgalvs, whose raw, direct verse struck a chord with young audiences. In the over-ideologised world of Soviet society, the metaphorical world of poetry was a popular means of escape for Latvian intellectuals. Pērkons’ eager appropriation of this tradition gave them added weight among disaffected youth. “Melgalvs’ poetry was poetry with attitude,” Klāss Vāvere explains, “l had never heard Latvian songs that spoke so directly and personally to me before.”
One Melgalvs-penned number, Balāde par gulbi (‘The Ballad of the Swan), with its morbid text about dying birds, was taken as a reference to the ageing Soviet leaders in the Kremlin — especially after the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982 and his replacement by someone who looked in even worse shape than the deceased.
Pērkons’ notoriety was sealed by their appearances at the Riga Railway Workers’ Club in 1983, when a season of six sold-out concerts was halted after two days by officials shocked by the audience’s brazen disregard for social norms. “This was a time when you were still not supposed to stand up from your seat at a concert,” says Klāss Vāvere, who was lucky enough to have tickets for one of the first of these gigs. “The occasion was grotesque even by Soviet standards. It was not a big venue, but it was really full, with militia and their dogs. They were reporting on their walkie-talkies in-between the songs, the dogs were barking, and honestly it was the first time in my life when I felt as if I was participating in some kind of anti-government rally.”
“Seeing Pērkons for the first time was like coming home one day and discovering that there’s a room you never knew existed before, but which turns out to be your perfect world”
According to Vāvere, Pērkons had the appeal of forbidden fruit. “It’s important to understand the context of the times. A youth culture that spoke to young people and dealt with their everyday reality was almost non-existent in Soviet Latvia. There was no rock music on radio or TV. If you were rich enough you could buy Western records on the black market, but it was almost impossible to get any recorded music by good local acts because the official record companies never released them. Not so long ago previously, people with long hair had faced the risk of being chased on the street by militia, and having their hair cut by force.”
Taken under the wing of an agricultural cooperative, Pērkons reemerged, somewhat improbably, as the Ensemble of the Soviet Latvia Collective Farm. They recorded two albums by improvising a studio in the suburban flat of Ieva Akurātere’s parents. The albums were circulated privately by tape; a form of samizdat that won many more fans, but did not earn the band any money.
Pērkons’s most notorious appearance came in July 1985, when friends arranged an outdoor concert at Ogre, 35km southeast of Rīga. The event was used by filmmaker Juris Podnieks as a key episode in his gritty (and widely acclaimed) documentary Is it Easy to be Young, a landmark of the Perestroika era that showed just how disenchanted Soviet youth had become. Pērkons fans trashed a passenger train on the way home from that concert, leading to prison sentences for the perpetrators.
The day after the Ogre concert, the band was due to appear at the seaside town of Saulkrasti. “Both the Latvian Minister of Culture and Minister of Defence came in their cars,” Kulakovs told me. “They spent the whole concert in their cars, surrounded by security. They didn’t stop the concert because neither of them knew which one was supposed to be in charge.”
It did not take the authorities long to react, however. The group were banned again, and Kulakovs was subjected to a personal dressing-down by party officials. “They told me I ought to leave the country.” Pērkons were, however, saved from further sanctions by the onset of Glasnost and the gradual relaxation of cultural controls. Remerging once again under the cover of an agricultural cooperative (this time they were the official band of a rural fishermen’s kolkhoz, or collective farm), they were increasingly given exposure by Latvia’s rapidly liberalising media.
The greatest political blow to the regime, however, was delivered not by Pērkons as a band, but by their singer, Ieva Akurātere. In 1988, she appeared live on TV singing an emotional ballad entitled Manai Tautai (‘To My People”), which went on to become one of the musical trademarks of the Latvian independence movement. With a newly formed Popular Front calling for democratic reform and the right to secede from the USSR, Akurātere and Pērkons found themselves cast as the musical ambassadors of Latvia’s national re-awakening. The band played morale-boosting outdoor concerts at the Rīga barricades in January 1991, when Soviet special forces were rumoured to be preparing an anti-independence coup.
For all of Pērkons’s notoriety, they aren’t always the easiest band for a non-Latvian listener to get in to. Give or take the odd classic like Pie Baltas lapas (The White Sheet), a mellifluous cascade of hooks that reveals Kulakovs’s genius as a pop composer, the bulk of Pērkons’s repertoire is a mish-mash of 70s rock.
Indeed, the true jewels of Latvian music may lie in the collective. The 1980s were a time of extraordinary creativity in the small Baltic republic, with a host of nonconformist bands refusing to go along with the stereotypes of Soviet mainstream entertainment. From the eclectic new wave of Dzeltenie Pastnieki to the synthi-pop of Jumprava, the experimental electronica of Hardijs Lediņš and the anthemic folk-rock of Jauns Mēness, Rīga was a city that sounded far closer to London than it was to Leningrad.
“There was some kind of oppressed energy that achieved critical mass back then,” says Klāss Vāvere, looking back at the 80s as a whole. “Not only in music, but in all areas of life. However it was in music that the coming changes first became visible. Musicians frequently got extra motivation from the very fact of their illegal or semi-legal status. Music was something you did because you really loved it. To my mind this led to a deeper, more idealistic energy than can be imagined today, when freedoms and opportunities are seen as granted.”