Before the 1960s, rock music in the Soviet Union was banned for being a symbol of the Western world, but that didn’t stop Russian underground bands from forming. Starting in the mid-’60s, rock music became more tolerated by the Russian government until finally bands were allowed to release records officially, kickstarting the “Golden Age” of Soviet Rock and bringing the future of Russian rock with it.
Lying low in the underground rock scene of Leningrad was Kino, a post-punk band headed by songwriter, lead singer and guitarist Victor Tsoy, who was later to become one of the pioneers of Soviet Rock. Originally formed in 1981 under the name of Garin i Giperboloidy (Гарин и Гиперболоиды), Kino only became known nationwide after the release of the unfinished fifth album Noch’ (Ночь/Night) in 1986, which sold 2,000,000 copies in Russia. The band’s poetic songs, often idolizing freedom and exploring the themes of love, war and suffering, have left a legacy in the world of Russian rock, whilst Tsoy remains a renowned cult hero.
Watch: Kino – Peremen! (Changes!)
With a history spanning over 40 years, Aquarium is one of Russia’s most successful bands. Since 1972, when the band was first formed, there have been several changes in the band lineup. It was an obscene gig which made the name Aquarium so well-known in Russia: at the 1980 Tbilisi Rock Festival, because of a change of lyrics and the guitarist lying down whilst playing and making provocative movements, the band was banned from the festival under accusations of promoting homosexuality, incest and general indecency. Tragic and unfair though this may seem, especially for a band of such musical complexity and with such varied lyric themes, it was exactly these events that made Aquarium so huge in the Soviet Union.
Watch: Aquarium – Adelaida
Юрий Морозов (Yuri Morozov)
Yuri Morozov (1948 – 2006) was a multi-talented artist who did not fit in with the conventions of the Soviet Union. This musician/singer/songwriter/sound engineer/producer was to become a pioneer in the world of religious rock in Russia after exploring several other genres to create his own sound, such as psychedelic rock, progressive rock, experimental music, folk and jazz. Aside from releasing his own albums, Morozov played an important role when working with other notable bands, such as Chizh & Co, Aquarium and DDT. “The Cherry Orchard of Jimi Hendrix” is one of his more famous albums, but he also wrote works that were never released officially, such as the album “The Inexplicable”, which is also worth listening to.
Named after a pesticide, DDT is another Golden Age favorite. Founded by Yuri Shevchuk in Ufa, Russia in 1980, DDT has maintained its fame over the years and remains an active band, although has mostly new members. Their songs have been inspired by many different genres over the years, including rock and roll, folk, blues and industrial music. As for DDT’s lyrics, the band never labeled themselves as political activists, but Shevchuk believed in addressing the positives and negatives of the government, even though this was rather dangerous during the Soviet era and led to some of the group members to appear on the KGB watch list early on in their musical career, forcing the band to go underground.
Alisa, one of the most, if not the most, influential bands in the Russian rock scene was founded in 1983. With the name Alisa become more and more widely known, the number of fans began to grow, until a whole fan community, called the Army of Alisa, was created and which was itself known for hooliganism at concerts. Later Alisa started creating heavier music, but it was their lyrics that took a more noticeable turn. Originally, their lyrics were typical of Russian rock of the time, centered around themes such as social protest and the hype of rock and roll, but from 1990, Christianity, patriotism and nationalism became important to the band members and were often featured in their songs.
Watch: Alisa – Rodina (Homeland)
Moscow is the home city of Aria, a highly influential heavy metal band formed in 1985. Early on this band, which used lyrics written by professional poets, was often compared to the contemporary great metal bands from the UK and has even been called the Russian Iron Maiden; however, in the USSR, there had never been a band quite like them. Over the thirty years of the existence of Aria, there have been many changes made to the lineup of this iconic band, leading to slight alterations in their style, although always keeping its metal roots.
Король и Шут (Korol’ i Shut)
The year 1988 saw the forming of the band Korol’ i Shut , a punk rock band originally made up of four school friends in Saint Petersburg. Korol’ i Shut became one of the most widely known Russian bands in the nation, known for their mismatched costumes and for their upbeat songs, the lyrics of which were inspired by old folk stories, legends and Slavic tales but which generally have a comic twist. Mikhail “Gorshok” Gorshenyov, the charismatic lead singer of the band died in the summer of 2013, bringing a sorrowful end to Korol’ i Shut. However, the band’s creative music and iconic image left a mark in the world of Russian rock and will always be remembered.
14 musicians in total make up Leningrad, a punk/ska/rock band from Saint Petersburg. Their songs revolve around what the artists consider important topics – vodka and women; the band itself has become well-known for the open use of mat (Russian profane words that are generally still social taboos). Despite the fact that the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov (in office 1992 – 2010), had a huge dislike of Leningrad and thus strove to and succeeded in preventing the band from performing in public venues in Russia’s capital, Leningrad still managed to gather crowds of fans rebelling against the conventional (for Leningrad also enjoys mocking Russian pop and politics).
When Military Jane had little success as a band from Saint Petersburg with English lyrics, founder and lead singer Ilya Kabengof (stage name: Ilya Chyort) decided to reincarnate his band in 1997 and rename it Pilot. Now using Chyort’s new-found unique voice and clever Russian lyrics, Pilot’s popularity grew in the country, and so the band began to perform alongside other great Russian bands such as Alisa and Korol’ i Shut. The band’s notable sound is partly due to the use of violin, rarely used in the standard modern rock band. With lyrics generally focusing on the every day events, especially in their earlier recordings, Pilot is a band that the audience can easily relate to.
Watch: Pilot – Rock
Having started in 1996 as a cover band from Ufa without an official name of its own, Lumen is a band that quickly grew to be the most famous alternative Russian band of the 21st century. Very much concerned with politics, human rights and freedom, Lumen are not afraid to speak out against injustice in the world, taking inspiration from current affairs, both in Russia and elsewhere as well as from the members’ personal experiences.The music to accompany these heartfelt lyrics has varied over the years from soft rock to hard punk. The members making up the band, which has won several music awards, have been clear that they are not concerned with labels and prefer to experiment freely with their work.
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