Viral video gives Soviet crooner an unlikely comeback

Shaun Walker reports from Moscow on the revival of a 1970s favourite

When Eduard Khil steps on to the stage at a Moscow nightclub tomorrow night, it will be a concert like none other he has ever given. Until a few months ago, Khil, a Brezhnev-era crooner long forgotten by most Russians, mainly gave small recitals for war veterans in dingy townhalls. Now, thanks to the internet, the 75-year-old singer, known online as Mr Trololo, has become an international sensation. Tomorrow, he will take to the stage in front of hundreds of young adoring fans at 16 Tons, a Moscow venue better known for hosting rock bands and international DJs.

The video that went viral, catapulting Khil to the status of an unlikely internet icon, is a 1976 recording of a song called "I'm Very Glad, Because I'm Finally Returning Home". The clip, which has been viewed several million times on YouTube, is at first confusing and then strangely mesmerising.

An orchestral arrangement begins with the camera focusing on a yellow background and metal gates, before Mr Khil strolls into the shot with an inane grin, lip-synching a tune with just "la-la-la" for words. He sports a brown double-breasted suit, a chunky mustard yellow tie and an off-white shirt, the back collar of which is overlaid with a carefully combed mullet. For three minutes the strange noises go on, la-la-las and lo-lo-los to a tune that is remarkably catchy.

It is unclear who initially uploaded the video, which was shot when the singer was a household name in the Soviet Union and regularly appeared on television. The singer himself can't even remember where it was filmed. But the clip's popularity snowballed, and soon there were fan websites, petitions and even T-shirts dedicated to the strange Soviet singer because of the lack of lyrics in the song.

Remixes and cuts of the clip began to appear, as well as dozens of parody versions, uploaded to YouTube by fans who had recorded their own take on the song. The video's popularity took another leap when, hours after picking up an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Quentin Tarantino's film Inglourious Basterds, Hollywood actor Christoph Waltz performed his own take on the clip on a popular US television chat show.

Khil, who lives in St Petersburg, told The Independent that he first found out about his new-found fame from his grandson. "I was in the kitchen peeling potatoes, when my grandson came running in humming my song. He said, 'Grandad! You're famous in America!'" he recalls. "I came to look and he showed me the video. I was absolutely amazed."

He says that the song, written in 1968, was originally meant to be about a cowboy galloping across the prairie, racing back to his home where his belle was waiting for him. But he and songwriter Arkady Ostrovsky were worried that such controversial lyrics would never make it past the Soviet censor, and so decided to record it as a "Vokaliz" – a vocal arrangement.

"It's a very difficult song to sing. It ranges over three octaves. You have to be in absolutely top form to sing it; these days I can only manage it on days when I'm feeling really good," says Khil. He promises, though, that it will form part of the set at the upcoming Moscow concert.

Inspired by the hundreds of emails he has received from across the world, he also released a video message to his fans, challenging them to come up with lyrics to the song. "We'll all get together some time online and sing it together," he says in the message, which was posted online.

Now a cheerful pensioner, Khil seems to be enjoying the attention. He laughs and jokes down the telephone, often bursting into song. He says the concert in Moscow is nothing special. "I give concerts all the time, it's just that this one has been very well advertised," he says. "Just the other week, for example, I gave a concert for veterans of the Siege of Leningrad. Though there aren't many of them left now."

But, in reality, he had fallen a long way from the height of his popularity in the 1970s, when he was known and loved by millions of Russians, gave concerts at the Moscow Conservatory, and toured across the Soviet Union and even abroad. In the early 1990s, he even had a stint singing in a Russian restaurant in Paris to make ends meet. But now, there seems every chance that he will rise back to his previous heights of fame, or even higher.

"Mr Trololo" joins a growing group of Russian performers who have achieved cult status over the internet. Also notable is Peter Nalitch, who in 2007 shot to fame with his home-made video of "Gitar" a jokey pop song of the singer sitting in a Lada, with lyrics of love sung in pidgin English. Nalitch has gone on to become a fixture of the Moscow concert scene, and this year will represent Russia at the Eurovision Song Contest.

For Khil, it seems the sky is the limit. There are even plans for a tour of America to reach his new fans, though there are a couple of obstacles to that. "There has been some interest – one man called about going to America, but I couldn't understand him as he didn't speak Russian," he says. "My wife says I shouldn't go there, that America is Enemy Number One. But of course things are different now."

Other unlikely stars

Susan Boyle

Piers Morgan and his fellow judges may have looked surprised when Susan Boyle began to sing "I Dreamed a Dream" at an audition for Britain's Got Talent, but it was what followed that was the real shock. As the clip made its way online, her performance started attracting worldwide attention and it has now been viewed more than 100 million times. She has since become an international star.

Lin Yu Chun

He has been dubbed the Taiwanese Susan Boyle, and it is not hard to work out why: like Boyle, Lin Yu Chun (nickname "Little Fatty") does not look like a pop star, but his incredible voice has brought him worldwide fame, at least for the moment. A clip of him singing Dolly Parton's classic "I Will Always Love You" on Taiwan's Super Star Avenue talent show has been viewed almost six million times.

Justin Bieber

With his wholesome appearance and huge fan base amongst tweens, 16-year-old Justin Bieber may be a record company's dream but the Canadian star started out by uploading videos of him singing on to YouTube when he was 12. The clips of him performing cover versions led to him being spotted, and he already has a No 1 album.

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