Why British music is best in Russia

In clubs from Moscow to Rostov, if you want to attract the coolest kids only UK music will do – but you'll have to step back in time.

Jenny Pashkova
Friday 18 January 2008 01:00

Time waits for no man. But in Russia perhaps, it stands still. The popularity of British music from the last half-century has been steadily gathering momentum over the last two years among the Russian youth. And the number of devotees is multiplying all the time. "It came about very quickly," says 21- year-old Julia Kowalski, a student and self-styled Mod. "Even a year or two ago, it would have been fairly rare to meet someone with the same musical tastes and dress sense as you, and who even knew what a 'Mod' was!" She rolls her eyes into her dark fringe. "But now you meet them all the time."

As the British Council is fighting to keep its nine regional offices within Russia open, young Muscovites are drinking themselves warm at British- music club nights in their droves. As the Russian authorities prevaricated over lending 120 paintings to the Royal Academy from their collections in St Petersburg and Moscow, girls and boys with blunt fringes were queuing to get a weekly dose of their favourite music. No amount of frost, ice or snow can stop them.

But it's not new British bands such as Kasabian and Franz Ferdinand, while popular among the mainstream, who are striking a chord with the cool kids. Krizis Zhanra ("Genre Crisis") in the centre of the capital is just one club that offers a quintessentially British soundtrack every weekend, alongside live bands. The bands play a variety of classic cover versions, ranging from The Kinks to Paul Weller. And they do so with a surprising amount of skill, having no doubt listened to the originals countless times.

"I only listen to The Beatles," says Roma Krasnov, a music promoter, going through his tape collection. "Call me old-fashioned, I don't care." His love of England and its music has gained him quite a reputation among his Moscow friends. Recently, he was almost beaten up at the England-Russia Euro 2008 Qualifier for waving an England scarf amid a sea of Russia supporters. But at the increasingly popular club nights in Moscow where they play exclusively British rock'*'roll, he feels right at home. His wardrobe is made up almost entirely of Beatles T-shirts. Indeed, you could make a fairly comprehensive timeline of Britain's bestselling artists of the past 50 years just from the T-shirts worn at the club. One regular, with a shaggy haircut, has gained the nickname "Gallagher" after his love of Oasis. There are rumours that he has travelled to England just to buy Oasis DVDs. No Russian music is worshipped like this.

England and its music seems as far away and exotic as it did during the Soviet era for the Russians. Even The Beatles records that started it all had to be smuggled in, more often than not by sailors in the Sixties. If caught, the record would be scratched to oblivion and smugly returned for souvenir purposes. But demand was high, and the risk was almost worth it. Now, as in the past, young people use music as an escape from their surroundings. Even President Putin has admitted that he likes The Beatles, and revealed his favourite song to be "Yesterday".

"It's the best music in the world," says Irina Pereponova of British music, who regularly travels to London to see her favourite bands. It's pretty safe to call her an extremist. "It's rock'*'roll and it started in England," she adds. "British music is real. There's something special about it. And you will never find it in Russia." Pereponova is also a regular at Krizis Zhanra. Like many others, her British fixation started with her father's collection of Beatles records. Her home is filled with signed posters, original records, and a remarkable talking John Lennon doll.

Sergei Shishkov, another admirer, also owes his obsession to his parents. "Ever since I was little, there has been English music in our house," he says, "My dad was a fanatic. He loved The Beatles, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. So I really couldn't get into much else. I tried to rebel," he smirks, "I listened to American hip-hop, but now I understand that my dad was right."

Joy Division strikes a special chord with Russian youth. Whereas The Beatles' optimistic and simple lyrics nurture positivity, Joy Division is their guilty pessimistic pleasure. Growing up surrounded by concrete, they feel that their country bears a striking resemblance to industrial Manchester. "I love Joy Division so much," says Shishkov with a tear in his eye, sipping vodka. "Let's not even talk about it," he adds, as "Transmission" begins to play at the club. "This is true love forever," he finally says. "Ian Curtis was a wonderful person. 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' is like a hymn to me, and I listen to this song when I make love to my wife."

Another clubber, Valio, says: "I never used to like English music, I liked American music. I never understood English music, and I hated The Beatles. Can you believe it? I used to think it was silly pop music. But I had an epiphany in my life when I went to England with my band, and I was immersed in the culture, and it all started to make sense. Suddenly English music seemed a hundred times more interesting than anything the Americans ever did. I started to understand where The Beatles were coming from."

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Post-punk is another new phenomenon to have hit Russian clubs, an evolution of their previous love affair with Britpop. "I think a lot of people who are now listening to post-punk probably listened to Britpop," says Luola Kapras, a music promoter.

One of the most famous Russian bands to have been influenced by British post-punk were Kino. With the vocal style of Curtis, and Morrissey's love of social commentary, the lead singer Victor Tsoi was something very different in Russia at the time. Although Tsoi died in a car accident in 1990 aged 28, memorials for him continue to surface in graffiti form all over the country.

"Kino was a huge influence upon Russian music, but unfortunately they were not of their time," says Kapras. "They emerged during perestroika, and the political atmosphere was an enemy to their music. They could have done so much more for music if they had come later." They did, however, bring the music styles of bands such as Joy Division and The Smiths closer to home.

The British connection is not only felt in the capital. "It is even more amazing when you get kids from towns like Rostov, and Ekaterinburg, deep in Russia, who love this music," says Kapras. The group Motorama from Rostov, north of the Black Sea, are blatantly influenced by Joy Division and The Smiths. With heavy guitars, deep bass hooks and heavy vocals, they are unashamed of their love of post-punk. "There are lots of Russians who are in love with English indie music. And lots of Russian indie communities and websites devoted to it," says vocalist Vlad Parshin. "Kino pushed us forward to make that kind of music."

In the clubs, there's an atmosphere of rebellion among the Russian youth who listen to English music, brazenly ignoring any Russian music, or labelling it "boring pop". "There's no interesting music in Russia," bemoans Parshin. "I can name only few good Russian bands." This sort of attitude is common. No one expects a Russian band to make good music so young people look to England for inspiration – just as Kino did 20 years before them. "We're always trying to introduce more people to the British scene," says Kapras. "We give them music to listen to, and they say, 'Why don't we have this in Russia?'."

At least now they can dance to it in the clubs.

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