Music News

Perestroika Pop

If it's true that Mikhail Gorbachev's liberal policies have made a burgeoning Soviet rock scene possible, why is it that we've heard so little of this rocknost in America? How come, for example, most of us wouldn't be able to tell the premier Soviet rock star, Boris Grebenshikov, from Bullwinkle's arch nemesis Boris Badenov if our lives depended on it? Grebenshikov, who's just released the world's first Soviet/American rock album, explains that the reason Americans are so ignorant when it comes to Soviet rock 'n' roll is that glasnost and perestroika only now are making the stuff accessible.

"Things are just beginning to open up," claims Grebenshikov in an interview prior to his show last Monday at After the Gold Rush. "A record like this would not have been possible even three years ago."

The singer's album, Radio Silence, which was recorded in London, Montreal, New York, and Los Angeles with producer Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, is evidence of Gorbachev's "openness" policies in action. But the record is just one example of the growing westernization of the Soviet music scene, where rock 'n' roll is filling the airwaves and concert halls. Glasnost has even spurred an unofficial exchange program between American and Soviet rock forces: Billy Joel and Bon Jovi recently toured the USSR while Grebenshikov brought his Soviet pop to the states this summer. (Did the Soviets get gypped in that trade or what?)

Just how much freedom does the former evil empire now grant its homegrown rockers? Grebenshikov brags that he didn't even need to get the official Kremlin okay before embarking on his current U.S. tour. "I think the Soviets understand that we'll be making them some money, so they're quite willing to let us out," smirks Grebenshikov.

During the Tempe show, the third-to-last stop on his American tour, the road-weary singer sleepwalks through a surprisingly tepid set. In his black jeans and motorcycle boots Grebenshikov may look the part of an international rock star, but his brusque stage demeanor makes him come off more like he's been hanging out with the KGB. Still, the vocalist's adrenaline-free performance doesn't seem to faze the enthusiastic concertgoers who flood the dance floor several times during the show.

The joyous pure pop of "Radio Silence" proves to be the high point of the Gold Rush gig, just as it is on Grebenshikov's LP. Besides the title track and the lovely, Beatlesque "Fields of My Love," the record also benefits from an occasional oddball cut like "Death of King Arthur," a section of the Sir Thomas Malory legend that the singer subtly orchestrated.

Bigwig back-up vocalists Chrissie Hynde and Annie Lennox pop up rather pointlessly on several Radio Silence cuts, but luckily their presence is mostly unobtrusive. Too bad you can't say the same thing about producer Dave Stewart, who overwhelms some of the intricate music with his pulsating, electronically programmed style. Reportedly, even Grebenshikov hated Stewart's mix when he first heard it. Asked now about the work of Stewart, whom the singer calls his "liege and friend," Grebenshikov is only slightly more diplomatic. "Let's just say that I don't think anyone can really disagree with Dave," snickers the vocalist.

Many of Grebenshikov's Leningrad peers are calling his ultraslick American debut--for which he supposedly received a hefty sum from his label, CBS--a sellout. Some have accused the singer of pandering to American tastes with an album that has all the authentic Slavic flavor of a watered-down bottle of Russian dressing. Grebenshikov doesn't dispute the criticism of his comrades.

"They're absolutely right," admits the vocalist. "But if I had done the LP with music that they're doing in Russia, I think CBS would have run away scared. After doing sixteen albums of the kind of stuff they're doing in Russia, doing a commercial album is kind of an avant-garde thing for me."

Call Radio Silence a profit-minded product all you want, Grebenshikov still thinks it's more interesting than most of today's "alternative" rock. When asked for his thoughts on modern American rock 'n' roll on a recent David Letterman Show, the singer offered this pithy assessment--"It's trash."

Grebenshikov stands by that verdict. "For me, 95 percent of recent American music is boring," sniffs the vocalist. "I think anybody can agree with me. When people are doing music for money or for fame or whatever, it's not really music--it's prostitution. Music should be done just because the heart demands it, because your soul makes you do it."

Or maybe because CBS offers you a deal you just can't refuse.

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John Blanco