Aquarium: Rock ‘n’ Roll – Soviet Style

Author: Naomi Marcus
Scholastic Update
March 25, 1988

How are Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies changing the lives of Soviet musicians, artists, and writers? UPDATE visits a rehearsal of Aquarium, one of the Soviet Union’s top bands. Its members are learning that stardom brings mixed blessings.

Sebastian Gakkel, the cellist in the rock band Aquarium, is quitting the group for the 100th time. It is January, and the group—one of the Soviet Union’s most popular—is rehearsing for a tour.

"That’s it," he announces passionately. "I’m through with you guys. I can’t play with you anymore! You are all singing off-key as usual." He turns to the group’s leader and most famous member, guitarist and singer-songwriter Boris Grebenshikov.

"And you, since you came back from your trip to America, you’ve turned into an American. All you think about now are practical matters, like money. What about art?"

The rest of the group exchange glances and put down their violins, flutes, and guitars. Portraits of Tchaikovsky and other Russian composers glare sternly at the long-haired musicians from the rehearsal-studio walls on the fourth floor of a "culture palace" in Leningrad. (Culture Palaces are government-sponsored recreation clubs where classes are held in music, dance, and art.)

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s new policies are dramatically changing the lives of Soviet artists, musicians, and writers. Over the past year, the members of Aquarium have found themselves in new and unaccustomed roles. They have become stars. This new status is creating tensions among the members of the group, most of whom have played together for more than 12 years. For most of that time, they played without government approval. Their music was known only through underground cassettes that were copied and passed hand to hand among their young fans in Moscow and Leningrad.

The members of Aquarium came together in the early 1970s, bound by a common love for the Beatles, the British rock band. "When I first heard the Beatles, it changed my life," says Boris, 34. At the time, most Soviet pop groups imitated the Beatles and other Western bands. "I looked around and asked, where are the Russian songs that talk about our lives and loves? Well, I decided I’d have to be the one to do it."

Boris’s lyrics are unique in contemporary Russian music for their use of simple, unexpected metaphors and the way they turn Soviet daily life into comic fairytales. Aquarium’s music reflects a range of influences, from reggae to Irish jigs, from the Beatles to the blues. The band’s fame rests on its lyrical acoustic sound, and on the weaving harmonies of the group’s classically trained string players.

Now, however, with their increasing fame, the group is plagued by squabbles. Still, the band members aren’t too upset at the temper tantrum from Sebastian, the cellist. He has pulled this many times before.

"Okay, okay," Boris says softly. "Let’s take a break." He and Sebastian go out into the corridor for a chat. As they brush past a crowd of autograph-seekers gathered outside the door, Boris holds up his hand in a gentle warning to leave him alone.

All the attention and arguing shows how far the group has come from the simpler time when they played only for the sheer joy of making music. Then, they played free concerts in parks, factories, and schools. Meanwhile, they supported themselves by working at odd jobs—nightwatchman, furnace stoker, handyman.

About a year ago, the government record company, Melodiya (the only recording company in the country) finally recognized the group’s underground popularity. Melodiya pressed one of Aquarium’s tapes into an album. The record sold over 300,000 copies within two weeks of its release, and sales soon topped a million.

Big Sales, No Money

Aquarium’s richly melodic music is now known across the 11 time zones of the U.S.S.R. , is played constantly on radio and television, and has been adapted for film scores. Yet none of the group has received any money from their album sales.

"When our record came out," recalls Peter Troshenkov, the drummer, "we weren’t even sent a complimentary copy. We all had to go out and stand in line at record stores to buy copies for our friends and families."

Peter looks up at the large red banner that hangs over the rehearsal studio. The banner proclaims, "GLORY TO THE GREAT OCTOBER REVOLUTION." He sighs. "I wish Sebastian would time his tantrums earlier in the day. I’m going to be late for work." Peter makes extra money playing drums in a restaurant show for tourists.

A British film crew has arrived to film Aquarium for a special on Russian rock. As the crew rolls in cameras and lights, the band pays no attention. Their fame has allowed them to get instruments they never could afford before, and their new marimba has just arrived. They wander over to the crate and start unpacking it.

Finally, Boris and a calmer Sebastian come back in. "Hey! Guys! Let’s get started." Boris is impatient now. Several fans have taken advantage of the chaos to slip in and sit on the floor, practically underneath the grand piano. Boris looks at all the people in the room. "Starting tomorrow I’m announcing a period of Red Terror," he says. "Nobody will get into rehearsals. I’m telling you people, it’s going to be Red Terror. I’m going to be ruthless." But even as he speaks, more people are stealing into the room. Boris throws up his hands and goes to his guitar.

The Music Begins

"Listen to what I’ve been working on," Boris says. He plays a short melody line on his guitar and looks up questioningly at Riusha Reshetin, the violinist. "Can you kind of go in and out of this melody, like this?" He hums a tune, and the violinist picks up his bow. Sebastian unpacks his cello and chimes in as well.

After a while Misha Vasiliev, who plays percussion and manages the group’s bookings, puts down his bongo drums and takes out his notebook. "Listen now, all of you," he says. "We are playing two weeks in Moscow, at the premiere of a film.

Then we are going to Baku and play six concerts in the central stadium there. Any of you can’t make it?"

"Look, Misha," responds Sasha Titov, the bass player. "I don’t like to spend so much time away from home. What is the financial deal? How much?"

The others nod in agreement. Fame and glory are fine, but most of the band’s seven members have wives and young children to support.

"I knew you all would ask, so I am happy to report that in Baku they are promising us 100 rubles (about $200) each, plus expenses. They say they can swing it with the local authorities." Misha looks very pleased with himself.

"Well, I can’t go," says Riusha, the violinist. "I’ve got exams this month at the conservatory. Sorry."

"Me too," says Ivan Voropayev, the violist.

Boris shrugs. "They have to graduate, right?" he says. "So we’ll have to play those two dates without them."

He strums his guitar and starts singing one of his biggest hits, entitled "The Art Of Being Humble." In a soft, expressive voice, he sings, "Take me to the river. Lay me in the water. Teach me the art, the art of being peaceful. Oh, lead me to the river."

The other members sing with him, accompanied only by Boris’ guitar. The day’s arguments and differences drop away as they sing, "Teach us the art, the art of being peaceful," and for those few moments at least, everything is in harmony once again.

Aquarium’s music may soon be available here. CBS Records has signed Boris and several members of his band to record an album in the U.S. They are set to arrive in New York in late May or June, and spend several months recording. CBS has invited Western rock stars such as David Bowie and Iggy Pop to play on this record, making it the first joint U.S.-Soviet-British rock-and-roll record. No date has yet been set for an Aquarium tour in America, but stranger things have happened!

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