The History of Soviet Rock: From the 70s Underground Rock Scene, to Soviet Punk & New Wave in the 1980s

“As long as you’ve got a pack of cigarettes,” sings Viktor Tsoi, the Soviet Union’s biggest ever rock star, “life can’t be all that shabby.” When Tsoi died in a car crash in 1990, Please Kill Me writes, “it was, to a young person in the Soviet Union, as if Bob Dylan, James Dean and Muhammad Ali all died simultaneously.” When Yuliya Abasheva, born in the year of Tsoi’s death, first heard him sing, “I was thrilled to the core of my being. I literally fell in love with his music, and I immediately realized that I didn’t want to listen to any music but Kino.”

What, you’ve never heard of Viktor Tsoi? Or Kino? Or Soviet rock? Well, you’re in for a treat. The two-part series on Soviet rock from Bandsplaining featured here covers all the big names from the scene, bands who first came together in the 1970s and exploded into legitimacy in the 80s, thanks to the KGB, ironically, in 1981, when “some Communist Party genius decided to open a number of rock clubs around the Soviet Union to control and treat the rock mania from within,” Auckland-based Moscovite Anastasia Doniants writes. “For the first time since the early 1930s, the cool kids had a place to socialize openly, but still under the watchful KGB eye.”




Foreign jazz and rock had circulated in samizdat form throughout the country since the 1950s, some of it on repurposed X-Ray film. And Russian hipsters, known as stilyagi, had developed their own underground style and tastes. But forming a band and performing for an audience is a major step beyond listening to illicit records in secret. It simply couldn’t be done at scale without official sanction—with no radio play, commercial recording studios, or paying gigs. Once said sanction arrived, bands like Kino, Akvarium, Time Machine, and Autograph took off.

But it was hardly a smooth transition from underground to mainstream. “The vast authoritarian government would seem to constantly backpedal,” says Bandsplaining, “allowing some artistic freedoms, then taking them away. Numerous bands were popular one moment, then banned, censored, or even jailed the next.” Accused of being dissidents, rock stars like Tsoi were also accused, as recently as just a few years ago, of being “CIA operatives trying to destabilize the Soviet regime.” While the claim may be far-fetched, it is not off the mark entirely.

The U.S. was keen to use any cultural means to undermine Soviet authority. But a “rock subculture,” Carl Schreck writes at The Atlantic, “had been percolating in the Soviet Union for decades by the time Gorbachev came to power in 1985.” It was entirely homegrown and spread—as it was everywhere in the world—by disaffected teenagers desperate for a good time. Learn more about this passionate scene and its subtly subversive music in the two-part series above. Find tracklists of all the bands featured on the documentary’s YouTube pages.

Related Content: 

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The Soviets Who Bootlegged Western Music on X-Rays: Their Story Told in New Video & Audio Documentaries

Rare Grooves on Vinyl from Around the World: Hear Curated Playlists of Arabic, Brazilian, Bollywood, Soviet & Turkish Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” & Bach’s “Prelude in C Major” Get Turned into Dazzling Musical Animations by an Artist with Synesthesia

Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.

—Wassily Kandinsky

We may owe the history of modern art to the condition of synesthesia, which causes those who have it to hear colors, see sounds, taste smells, etc. Wassily Kandinsky, who pioneered abstract expressionism in the early 20th century, did so “after having an unusually visual response to a performance of Wagner’s composition Lohengrin at the Bolshoi Theatre,” the Denver Museum of Art notes. He was so moved by the moment that he “abandoned his law career to study painting at the prestigious Munich Academy of Fine Arts. He later described the life-changing experience: ‘I saw all my colors in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.’”

Kandinsky never heard Coltrane, but if he had, and had access to 3D rendering software, he might have made something very much like the short animation above from Israeli artist Michal Levy. “Roughly 3 per cent of people experience synaesthesia,” writes Aeon, “a neurological condition in which people have a recurring sensory overlap, such as … envisioning letters and numbers each with their own inherent colour.”




Levy’s condition is one of the most common forms, like Kandinsky’s: “chromaesthesia, in which sounds and music provoke visuals.” Where the Russian painter saw Wagner in “wild, almost crazy lines,” Levy sees the “rollicking notes” of Coltrane’s Giant Steps as a “kinetic, cascading cityscape built from colourful blocks of sound.”

After visualizing her experience of Coltrane, Levy created the animation above, Dance of Harmony, to illustrate what happens when she hears Bach. During a maternity leave, working with her friend, animator Hagai Azaz, she set herself the challenge of showing, as she describes it, “the cascading flow of emotion, to make the feeling contagious, by using only color, the basic shape of circles, and minimalist motion, assigning to each musical chord the visual elements that correspond to it synaesthetically.”

It is fascinating to compare Levy’s descriptions of her condition with those of other famous synesthetes like Vladimir Nabokov and, especially Kandinsky, who in essence first showed the world what music looks like, thereby giving art a new visual language. Levy calls her synesthesia art, an “emotional voyage of harmony,” and includes in her visualization of Bach’s famous prelude an “unexpected elegiac sidebar of love and loss,” Maria Popova writes. Read Levy’s full description of Dance of Harmony here and learn more about the “extraordinary sensory condition called synesthesia” here.

via Aeon

Related Content: 

An Artist with Synesthesia Turns Jazz & Rock Classics Into Colorful Abstract Paintings

Jazz Deconstructed: What Makes John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” So Groundbreaking and Radical?

Deconstructing Bach’s Famous Cello Prelude–the One You’ve Heard in Hundreds of TV Shows & Films

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagnes

A Glass Floor in a Dublin Grocery Store Lets Shoppers Look Down & Explore Medieval Ruins

In South Korea, where I live, many recent buildings — the new Seoul City Hall, Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza — have incorporated the century-upon-century old ruins discovered on their sites. This makes literally visible, often through clear glass floors, the “5,000 years of unbroken history” about which one often hears boasts in Korea. But nor is Europe historically impoverished, and there the window-onto-the-past architectural technique has been applied in even less likely places: a new Dublin location, for instance, of German chain discount supermarket Lidl.

“Architects discovered the remains of an 11th-century house during the development of the site on Aungier Street,” says the video from Irish broadcaster RTÉ above. “The sunken-floored structure has been preserved and is displayed beneath the glass.” Archaeological site director Paul Duffy described the discovery as potentially having “functioned as many things, as a house or an extra space for the family. It’s a domestic structure, so you have to imagine that there would have been a suburb here of Hiberno-Norse Dubliners, who were effectively the ancestors of the Vikings.”




We’re a long way indeed from James Joyce’s Dubliners of 900 years later. But the new Lidl has put more than one formerly buried era of the city’s past on display: “A second glass panel near the checkout tills allows shoppers to glimpse an 18th-century ‘pit trap’ from the stage of the old Aungier Street Theatre,” writes Irish Central’s Shane O’Brien, pit traps being devices “used to bring an actor on stage as if by magic. Another working area under the building preserves “the foundations of the medieval parish church of St. Peter, which served parishioners for more than 600 years between 1050 AD and 1650 AD.”

In the RTÉ video, Dublin City Archaeologist Ruth Johnson frames this as a challenge to the speed-oriented construction model — “put up a hoarding, excavate a site, and then put up a development” — prevalent during Ireland’s recent “Celtic Tiger” period of economic growth. That and other factors have made the built environment of Dublin, a city of many charms, less interesting than it could be. In his recent book Trans-Europe Express‘ chapter on Dublin, critic Owen Hatherley writes that “contemporary Irish architecture is marked by a striking parsimony, a cheapness and carelessness in construction.” Looking to the past isn’t always the answer, of course, but in this case Lidl has done well to take it literally.

via Colossal

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Watch Ancient Ruins Get Restored to their Glorious Original State with Animated GIFs: The Temple of Jupiter, Luxor Temple & More

James Joyce’s Dublin Captured in Vintage Photos from 1897 to 1904

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Janis Joplin & Tom Jones Bring the House Down in an Unlikely Duet of “Raise Your Hand” (1969)

If you’re a fan of Tom Jones and you don’t care who knows it, then no one needs to justify the jovial Welsh superstar’s lounge-soul covers of pop, R&B, and rock songs to you. Certain purists have been a tougher sell on Jones’ act, including, in 1969, Neil Young, who joined Jones onstage once, and only once, on the This is Tom Jones show and immediately regretted it. But who cares about Neil Young’s cranky dislike of commercial television? Who is Neil Young to say we can’t enjoy Jones’ bravado vocals on Crosby, Stills, Nash & sometimes Young’s “Long Time Gone”? The audience sure got a kick out of it, as apparently did the rest of the band.

Janis Joplin didn’t have any such hangups when she went on Jones’ show that same year. Well, she had a hangup, but it wasn’t Jones. “God bless her,” Jones remembered, “she said to me when she came on, ‘Look, I don’t do variety shows; I’m only doing it because it’s you.’ So she saw through it. Then when Janis and I did the rehearsal for Raise Your Hand she looked at me and said, ‘Jesus, you can really sing! (laughs) I thought, thank God people like Janis Joplin had taken note.” If she outshines Jones in the televised performance of the song, above, and I think we can agree she does, he doesn’t seem to mind it much.

Jones may not have had much rock cred; he would never have been invited to share the Woodstock stage with CSNY and Joplin, but as a singer, he’s always earned tremendous respect from everyone, and rightly so.




“Tom held his own,” writes Society of Rock, “and kept up beautifully as he was swept up in the storm that was Janis Joplin’s stage presence, trading verbal licks and sending her into fits of joy when he let go and surrendered to her overwhelming energy. This wasn’t just your regular, run of the mill variety show but then again, nothing was ordinary after Janis was through with it.”

This includes any stage that had her on it, which she immediately dominated as soon as she opened her mouth. Hear her live version of “Raise Your Hand” at Woodstock from earlier that year, further up, and see her tear it up in Frankfurt on her European tour with the Kozmic Blues Band. “I make it a policy not to tell anyone to sit down,” she says by way of introduction. “That’s to encourage everybody to stand up.” Joplin’s death the following year deprived the world of one of its all-time greatest blues singers, but thanks to the internet, and Tom Jones, we’ll always have performances like these to remember her by.

Related Content:

Tom Jones Performs “Long Time Gone” with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young–and Blows the Band & Audience Away (1969)

Watch Janis Joplin’s Final Interview Get Reborn as an Animated Cartoon

Janis Joplin’s Last TV Performance & Interview: The Dick Cavett Show (1970)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

When Billy Idol Went Cyberpunk: See His Tribute to Neuromancer, His Recording Session with Timothy Leary, and His Limited-Edition Floppy Disk (1993)

Billy Idol has long evaded straightforward musical classification, being a full-on star but one fully belonging to neither rock nor pop. He may have come up in the 1970s as the frontman of Generation X, the first punk band to play Top of the Pops, but the hits he went on to make as an MTV-optimized solo artist in the 80s and 90s — “Eyes Without a Face,” “Cradle of Love” — sit less than easily with those origins. But as the end of the millennium approached and the zeitgeist grew increasingly high-technological, it seems to have occurred to the former William Michael Albert Broad that, if he couldn’t be a punk, he could perhaps be a cyber-punk instead.

As bad luck would have it, the biomechanical had already intruded onto Idol’s life in the form of a steel rod implanted in his leg after a motorcycle accident. This lost him the role of T-1000, the killer cyborg in Terminator 2, but it inspired him in part to record the ambitious concept album Cyberpunk in 1993. Like Pete Townshend’s Psychoderelict or Donald Fagen’s Kamakiriad from that same year (or David Bowie’s Outside from 1995), Cyberpunk is built on a dystopian narrative in which “the future has imploded into the present” and “mega-corporations are the new governments. Computer-generated info-domains are the new frontiers.” Thus speaks Idol in the album’s opening manifesto.

“Though there is better living through science and chemistry, we’re all becoming cyborgs. The computer is the new cool tool. Though we say all information should be free, it is not. Information is power and currency of the virtual world we inhabit.” Here, “cyberpunks are the true rebels.” This would have sounded familiar to readers of William Gibson, whose Neuromancer popularized the aesthetic and ethos of “high tech meets low life” — and shares a title with one of Cyberpunk‘s songs. In fact, as Gibson later recalled, Idol “made it a condition of getting an interview with him, that every journalist had to have read Neuromancer.” They did, “but when they met with Billy, the first thing that became really apparent was that Billy hadn’t read it.”

Whatever his intellectual investment in cyberpunk, Idol threw himself into what he saw as the culture surrounding it. This effort involved frequenting Usenet’s alt.cyberpunk newsgroup; reading Mondo 2000; and connecting with figures like Gareth Branwyn, author of cyberpunk manifestos, and Mark Frauenfelder, co-founder of Boing Boing. “We are merging with machines to become smarter, faster, and more powerful,” writes Frauenfelder in an essay included among the “multimedia” contents of the 3.5″ floppy disk originally bundled with Cyberpunk. “Are you going to ignore technology, turn your back on it, and let authority enslave you with it, or are you going to learn everything you can about surviving in the digital age?”

Cyberpunk constitutes Idol’s affirmative answer to that question. Much of his excitement about personal technology surely owes to the liberating possibilities of the professional-grade home recording studio. “I’d always really sort of worked through a team of a producer and an engineer,” he said in one interview, “and in the end I think really you felt like you weren’t getting as close to your ideas as you could be.” From his own home studio he witnessed the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which prompted him then and there to rewrite the song “Shock to the System” to reflect the turmoil roiling outside his door. (Filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow would explore at greater length that explosion of urban discontent’s intersection with cyberpunk culture in 1995’s Strange Days.)

Seeing cyberpunk as the latest manifestation of a broader counterculture, Idol cast a wide net for collaborators and inspirations. He invited Timothy Leary, the “cyberdelic” cultural icon who dreamed of making a Neuromancer computer game, not just to interview him about the project but participate in its recording. The album’s centerpiece is a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” and a dance cover at that. Though remembered as neither an artistic nor a commercial success (the reasons for which Youtube music critic Todd in the Shadows examines in the video at the top of the post), Cyberpunk set something of a precedent for mainstream musicians keen to use cutting-edge recording and production technology to go fully D.I.Y. — to go, as it were, cyber-punk.

Related Content:

Cyberpunk: 1990 Documentary Featuring William Gibson & Timothy Leary Introduces the Cyberpunk Culture

Timothy Leary Plans a Neuromancer Video Game, with Art by Keith Haring, Music by Devo & Cameos by David Byrne

William Gibson’s Seminal Cyberpunk Novel, Neuromancer, Dramatized for Radio (2002)

Discover Rare 1980s CDs by Lou Reed, Devo & Talking Heads That Combined Music with Computer Graphics

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Time When National Lampoon Parodied Mad Magazine: A Satire of Satire (1971)

I grew up on Mad Magazine. It was the one magazine I made sure my parents got me every month. I bought the Super Specials, the paperback reprints, the flexi discs, and even the board game. When we’d go to swap meets, I’d bring home older issues from the 1960s, and try to figure out the politics from a decade before I was born. It was why this eight-year old kid knew anything about politics, and knew that Nixon sucked, Ford sucked, Carter kind of sucked, and Reagan definitely sucked.

And then, I just grew out of it. Although the original Harvey Kurtzman-written issues from the 1950s still felt vital, the “Usual Gang of Idiots” felt, well, safe and boring. I wouldn’t have said a bad word against them if you asked, but I would not have told any of my teenage friends they absolutely needed to read it. Until its cancellation in 2019, Mad would be a friendly sight on the newsstand, but I’d never pick it up. Nobody *really* had a bad word to say about Mad, did they?




Apparently an unusual new gang of idiots at the National Lampoon did, back in October 1971. This 15-page satire on Mad is as vicious a takedown as they come, its veins pulsing with the kind of vindictive glee only a true former fan can muster.

The “What, Me Funny?” issue is a collective voice of childhood betrayed, with spot-on parodies of Mort Drucker, Don Martin, Dave Berg, Al Jaffee, Jack Davis, Paul Coker, and others, drawn by artists like Joe Orlando, John Romita, and Ernie Colon, among others.

The main charge: after publisher William Gaines and Harvey Kurtzman had acrimoniously split and gone separate ways, Mad magazine grew embarrassed of its comic book past, and sought out a more middle-of-the-road audience, with humor less “in a jugular vein” and more in a juvenile vein. Like Saturday Night Live for the last five? ten? twenty? years, it had forgotten what satire was and how it works.

That’s the heart of its centerpiece, a Drucker-style parody of Citizen Kane called “Citizen Gaines”. The dying publisher’s last “Rosebud” word is “satire.” Like in the film, an anonymous reporter goes in search of clues to the word’s meaning, interviewing current editor Al Feldstein, writer Gary Belkin, and the “usual gang of idiots” who say things like “I only draw what they give me”. But the Jedediah Leland character in all this is Kurtzman, who Gaines betrays in a similar Kane fashion…for the money and power.

Elsewhere, Antonio Prohias’ “Spy vs. Spy” gets a realpoltik update, Don Martin-style violence is used to illustrate police brutality, and Dave Berg gets assailed for being a wishy-washy liberal in a satire of his “Lighter Side” strip. In fact, years later a fan used exactly the punchline (“Boy, are you an asshole”) when he met Dave Berg at a convention. (Berg had no idea about the parody.)

Over the years the fresh faces at Lampoon would also lose their satiric edge and a company that called Mad “juvenile” would later churn out endless T&A straight-to-video comedies. All students eventually become the master that they once took down. It’s as much a part of nature as portzebie.

Scan through the pages of the National Lampoon parody here.

Related Content:

The End of an Era: MAD Magazine Will Publish Its Last Issue With Original Content This Fall

Every Cover of MAD Magazine, from 1952 to the Present: Behold 553 Covers from the Satirical Publication

When MAD Magazine Ruffled the Feathers of the FBI, Not Once But Three Times

Al Jaffee, Iconic Mad Magazine Cartoonist, Retires at Age 99 … and Leaves Behind Advice About Living the Creative Life

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.





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