On 12 August 1990, a crucial part of Russian pop culture fell silent in a roadside ditch in the Latvian countryside.
The death of Viktor Tsoi, frontman of Kino (“Cinema”), lost to a freak road accident aged just 28, was a tectonic moment for tens of millions of Soviets. He was an icon even before the tragedy; the untimeliness of his departure only added to the mystique.
Seven weeks previously, Kino gave an exhilarating concert at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.
Grainy footage reminds us of a group at the height of extraordinary powers. The venue’s Olympic flame, lit for the first time since the 1980 Moscow Games. A gun salute. Seventy thousand fans, hypnotically swinging to the group’s minimalist, post-Punk, poetic anthems, and especially to peremeni, “changes,” the protest song of the generation (and an even more recent one in Belarus).
*Our hearts need changes / Our eyes need changes / In our laughter and our tears / And in our pulse and veins.*
With the shell-shocked group breaking up after Tsoi’s death, the Luzhniki gig would for a long time be seen as Kino’s final act. Over the years, rumours of a revival came and went. They seemed as far away as ever after the 2013 death of Georgiy Guryanov, the group’s drummer and style icon.
Yet this week, after a hiatus of three decades, and a year’s enforced delay due to Covid-19, the three surviving members are finally set to take to the stadium stage once again in a highly charged reunion.
The shows, which are being produced by the frontman’s son Sasha, just five at the time of the crash, make no attempt to paper over the most obvious void.
A microphone will stand empty at all the gigs, with Viktor Tsoi appearing in original vocals, pulled from multitrack analogue tapes. He will also be present in a dazzling video backdrop featuring original footage, abstractions, modern animations, all synced to his famous lyrics of simple Soviet life: a full packet of cigarettes, the illness of a loved one, electric suburban trains.
Reunions are often awkward affairs, but this one feels different.
At rehearsals in St Petersburg a week before the first gig in Moscow, The Independent was struck by just how fresh, dynamic, enduring the sound is. Augmented by modern technology not available in the Soviet 1980s, the 2021 version of Kino is crisper, more accomplished than the original.
“We are playing as grown-up musicians now,” says Igor Tikhomirov, bass guitarist between 1985-1990. “This is the sound we actually wanted, but we couldn’t get it the first time around.”
“Yes. Less. S*****. Radio. Noise,” interjects guitarist Yuri Kasparyan, in his characteristic, cogitative, deep-pitched growl.
Kino were always cutting edge and provocative, looking and sounding in every way different to the wholesome Soviet crooner acts that went before them.
When the group started out in the early 1980s, playing rock was an essentially illegal — and unprofitable — activity. In Moscow, groups were routinely arrested. In then Leningrad, contemporary St Petersburg, the KGB offered musicians a regulated platform to perform — and be watched — at the soon-to-become-legendary Leningrad Rock Club on Rubenstein Street.
Alexander Titov, who played as Kino’s bass guitarist between 1984-1985, recalls the weird gigs, which would be attended by dozens of secret service agents, dressed in identikit civilian clothing.
One time, he tells The Independent, he found himself in the audience with Joanna Stingray, the famous American producer and Soviet rock fan, and briefly Kasparyan’s wife. She was filming the gig on an early camcorder.
“We noticed that the KGB guys were watching her particularly closely,” Titov says. “After the show she somehow slipped me the tape and I somehow managed to hide it in my underpants. Of course, she was grabbed as she left the club, and asked to hand over the video. ‘Oh,’ she said, feigning idiocy, ‘silly me for forgetting to put the tape in.’”
Stingray was involved in the many attempts to popularise Kino and other Soviet acts in the West. The music was well received by critics, and it attracted star producers like Brian Eno, but it ultimately never made the switch.
Language was the main factor, suggests Artemy Troitsky, the celebrated rock promoter and journalist who was responsible for organising Kino’s very first underground gigs in Moscow in 1981. But there was also a disconnect with the more poetic sensibilities of Soviet rock.
“There was an incompatibility on a very basic level,” Troitsky says. “Western rock and roll was always about sex, fun, feeling good and groovy, whereas Soviet rock was about serious poetry and deep philosophy. Sex and drugs and Dostoyevsky. Or rather: No sex, a lot of alcohol, and even more Dostoyevsky.”
At home, the shackles began to be lifted slowly from 1986-87, with the deepening of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of openness and perestroika.
Soon, money for gigs appeared and it became possible for musicians to make a living. Concurrently, politics, protest — and peremeni [change] — switched dramatically into the new mainstream. Gorbachev later even made a cringeworthy attempt to align himself with the group, claiming Kino’s ‘Peremeni’ had inspired his reforms (in fact the song was written in 1986, after they began).
Tsoi was never particularly enthused by the murky world of politics. Troitsky says the musician was much more interested in music and movies: “In Peremeni, Tsoi may have penned the Soviet Union’s most famous protest anthem, but it was largely an accident. All he did was catch the dramatic winds of change already in the air. Backstage, the group used to call the song pelmeni, or dumplings. I want dumplings. Our hearts need dumplings.”
Tikhomirov confirms the anecdote in a group interview in Moscow three days before the opening gig. “Sure, it was our folk nickname for the song,” he says. “But Peremeni was never meant to be a political thing. It’s actually the conversation of a young man who wants to change the direction of his life. Of course, we understand the song has taken on a new life of its own.”
Yuri Kasparyan says the group is “happy” about the way the anthem has recently taken on new significance in Belarus, as a cry of defiance against autocrat Alexander Lukashenko. But that piquancy has put the group’s planned June 17 concert in Minsk in jeopardy. Negotiations with Lukashenko’s apparatchiks are ongoing, Kasparyan reveals. The men in Minsk want the offending song removed from the playlist. But the group is defiant: it’s peremeni or no Kino.
“We have a perfectly rational position,” the guitarist says.. “We are a band with ‘peremeni’ in our programme. If we are going to play a gig, will play this song. We’re still waiting for approval from the Ministry of Culture. Let’s see if we get it. Perhaps they are still on holiday.”
The differences between that situation and the wild, free, late Perestroika days of the group’s last major gig could hardly be more obvious. But the contrast is even more bittersweet at home in Russia. Kino’s last moment, in 1990, was one of increasing freedom in a previously closed society.
In 2021, Kino re-emerges in the context of an elderly regime acting in the reverse direction, closing off the last rabbit holes of self-expression.
“What is happening in our country is absolutely monstrous, utterly depressing,” says Tikhomirov. “Everyone understands that, and there’s no point in hiding it.”
But the long-awaited return of Kino completes a circuit in another, far more satisfying way. Thirty years after the tragic events of 1990, it will offer younger fans a chance to connect with Viktor Tsoi’s spine-tingling sound, rekindled with such skill and affection by his son and former colleagues.
Producer Sasha Tsoi says he was driven by the idea of hearing his father’s band live for the first time.
“The music stokes a complicated set of emotions, including sadness, sure, but it isn’t a memorial service,” he says. “It’s a celebration of music, creativity, art, and beauty ... and my father is there, here, with us in every way.”
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