Rock the Kremlin: Pete Mitchell on the Russian music scene

The Absolute Radio DJ talks to the lead singer of Blast Unit Moscow about rock 'n' roll in Russia

It’s not every day you get the chance to talk to the singer of a Russian rock ‘n’ roll band. This is the first time in 25 years of conducting radio interviews and I am very excited at the prospect. Calling Moscow to talk to Nash Tavkhelidze, the lead singer of Blast Unit Moscow, seems dangerous and almost covert.  

Advertisement

Will someone else be monitoring our conversation, will I be cut off mid-sentence, will men in grey suits come knocking on my door? I do hope so.

As a kid I always fancied myself as Michael Caine’s character, ace spy Harry Palmer in the Ipcress File. He was a better spy than James Bond.

The actor recently learnt that Russian leader Vladimir Putin used to watch his films in the late 1960s with his comrades in the KGB.

Caine said, “A friend of mine met Putin when he was head of the KGB, and he passed on a message to me, ‘Tell Mr Caine we used to watch those movies and laugh because he was such a clever spy and we were never that clever.’”

Vladimir may be listening to my interview and he may learn a few things.  

Reuters recently described Blast Unit Moscow as the first real rock ‘n’ roll band to come out of Russia. The group are about to release their new album Krisis of Genre and their new single Rollercoaster Ride is released next week.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SAVpDFbX27w

Produced by Youth — who has twiddled the knobs for the Verve, Killing Joke, Primal Scream, and Fireman with Paul McCartney — and recorded in Spain, it’s a wonderful slice of Ramones/Clash type punk. He has described them “as a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale and stagnant rock scene”.

In their native Moscow they have played alongside Blur, Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs and Deep Purple. They have recently been hailed as the “Godfathers of Vladrock”.

The rise of Russian rock ‘n’ roll began in the early 60s after the Beatles became a global brand. Up until that pivotal moment all music in the USSR was released on the state owned Melodiya record label. Western music was beginning to seep into Russia, smuggled over the borders by racketeers and subversives alike and the music of the Fab Four began to erode the foundations of Soviet society.

They were the first international band to open up the Iron Curtain. The Beatles broke down so many cultural and political boundaries and influenced a tidal wave of Russian tribute bands.

Recently we have heard of the trials and tribulations of feminist punk collective-turned-cultural-phenomenon Pussy Riot.

Based in Moscow the band became a real thorn in the side of the Putin regime and a provocative guerrilla performance in their brightly coloured balaclavas in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, elevated the group on to the world stage.

They were tried and convicted of hooliganism and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. Band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said in her closing statement that she was the “spirit of Soviet dissidence”.  

We can be shocked and outraged by this case but similar treatment was handed out to John Lydon of the Sex Pistols in the mid to late 70s. 

John was derided and provoked by those that felt threatened. He was attacked on the street (stabbed on more than one occasion), debated in the Houses of Parliament and he and his band made front page news being described as The Filth and the Fury.

Lydon was the “spirit of British dissidence” the voice of the disaffected youth and he managed to escape without a prison sentence. So this battle between dissidents and power is nothing new — in fact it’s old hat.

I must investigate the matter further. I am acutely aware that I have to tread carefully, I would rather not be implicated in the potential imprisonment of a Russian musician, sent to Siberia never to be seen again. 

All thoughts of the Cold War dissipate as I hear from Blast Unit Moscow’s chirpy lead singer Nash in the centre of Moscow — he can even see the centre of Russian power from his lounge window. “I live only ten minutes from the Kremlin,” he says enthusiastically.

So what is the current state of Russian music?

“It’s pretty tough. There is Russian pop, which is not worth talking about and heavy rock that is very much based on poetry. The underground scene is very healthy and there a lot of great young Russian bands making some great music.” 

How difficult is making making music that is generally considered to be subversive in Moscow?  

“There is no problem with the authorities. The main problem is getting our message across, as there are only a couple of radio stations that play our kind of music. We have lots of freedom now compared to the past and there are a number of Russian bands that need to be heard.

“We even hold an international music festival here called Blast Fest, which we host, where the likes of Supergrass, Beady Eye, Suede and Bloc Party have all played. All these bands have a huge following with the Russian kids. There is an amazing energy here.”

So what about the recent Pussy Riot controversy that has caught the attention of the worlds media?

“To be honest I’m just a rock ‘n’ roller and I believe that people have the right to say what they want without fear and Pussy Riot should not be in jail.” 

I say goodbye to my Russian comrade and I hope to see him perform with his band in his native Moscow in September. I wonder if Harry Palmer would like to join me?

Advertisement

Pete Mitchell talks to Nash Tavkhelidze this Saturday at 10pm on Absolute Radio —  absoluteradio.co.uk/listen