‘A folkloric hallucination’: Zvuki Mu, Soviet Russia’s most wonderful band

With a receding hairline and sporting a plaid blazer, a person in his late-30s growls the lyrics to a music sung from the attitude of a pigeon into his mic. “I would be the most dispensable, disgusting, shit – however at the least I understand how to fly!” run the monotonous Russian phrases, bellowed throughout the stage. To accompany the singing, the person spasms and contorts his physique and face with the clumsy precision of a damaged marionette.

The yr is 1987, and the Soviet rock band Zvuki Mu (Sounds of Mu), on the daybreak of their musical profession, are performing a live performance airing on official state tv. The viewers members smile and bob their heads, some bewildered, and others comforted by this weird showman whose acquainted look extra carefully resembles a neighbourhood tram conductor than a rock star.

The efficiency and music typified the Moscow-based band Zvuki Mu, whose stream-of-consciousness, absurdist lyrics satirised the mundane components of late Soviet existence – a time when Soviet residents had been shedding religion in utopian communist beliefs. That contortionist frontman was the revered Pyotr Mamonov, who died final week of Covid-19 issues on the age of 70. To his proper, strumming a bass, was the band’s co-founder Alexander Lipnitsky, who additionally died earlier this yr on the age of 68, in a snowboarding accident. This previous week, Russians took to social media to lament these losses, that carry the ultimate curtain down on a band in contrast to every other within the nation’s historical past.

Pyotr Mamonov performing with Zvuki Mu. {Photograph}: Sputnik/Alamy

Because the borders between the Soviet Union and the west grew porous within the late Seventies, and Mikhail Gorbachev carried out Glasnost, the “openness and transparency” coverage within the Eighties, a contemporary cultural atmosphere gave rise to Soviet rock. Performances had been at first in secret, in flats, however quickly shifted to Soviet Palaces of Tradition, usually underneath the oversight of the KGB. It solely took a number of years for the Soviet public to raise its rock stars to the cult standing of Russia’s Nineteenth-century authors. However very like their literary predecessors, Soviet rock bands emulated their western counterparts, in musical composition, lyrics, and visible glamour. If Nineteenth century Romantic poets Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov discovered solace within the verses of Byron and Shelley, well-liked Soviet rock bands similar to Akvarium and Kino discovered their muses in Bob Dylan’s cadences and Robert Smith’s make-up.

Zvuki Mu, nevertheless, stood out from the remainder, in appears to be like, music, and their want to interact with audiences. “The members seemed like Soviet engineers; Mamonov and Lipnitsky had been effectively into their 30s once they started to carry out,” says Russian cultural critic Yury Saprykin . “Mamonov particularly resembled one thing of a lumpen-intellectual,” he provides, referencing the frontman’s refined but lowbrow look (lumpen, initially a Marxist time period for the naive members of society’s lowest strata, was a phrase that Soviet residents used for its sometimes male alcoholics, vagrants, and prisoners). The musician Sergey Ryzhenko described the band’s first live performance as a “Russian folkloric hallucination”. And it was this very bizarre look, coupled with mundane and simplistic lyrics, that made them so beloved and recognisable to the Russian public.

One well-liked music eulogises a “juicy lula-kebab,” a Soviet dish generally present in cafeterias. Zvuki Mu’s lyrics are sometimes repetitive and comprise few phrases, sketching out the on a regular basis conditions that their languorous heroes discover themselves in. One other hit music, Crimea, makes no point out of the glimmering sea or historical structure synonymous with the peninsula. As an alternative, it encompasses a man who’s sweating and overheating in a phone sales space, begging a relative again house to wire him extra money for his alcoholic escapades.

Mamonov’s childhood neighbourhood was Bolshaya Karetnaya, infamous for its criminality and alcohol dependancy in the course of the Brezhnev years, probably cultivated the frontman’s aesthetic. As a younger grownup, Mamonov labored a sequence of wierd jobs which, in line with Zvuki Mu’s biographer Sergei Guryev, provided him a “kaleidoscopic and encyclopaedic” perception into Soviet life. He labored in a boiler room, operated an elevator, lugged wine caskets, and at one level, translated Norwegian literature into Russian.

In the meantime, his closest childhood good friend was former classmate Sasha Lipnitsky, who got here from privilege. Lipnitsky’s stepfather was Viktor Sukhodrev, Leonid Brezhnev’s private translator, and a famend music connoisseur, who would carry house information from his travels. From an early age, Mamonov and Lipnitsky had unparalleled entry to western music from numerous a long time, which performed a formative function of their band’s improvement. Mamonov was significantly keen on the authenticity and rawness of American soul music – Ray Charles, Ike & Tina Turner, and Chubby Checker ranked amongst his largest idols. “‘Black’ America fortunately gained their hearts over British ‘cultured’ rock‘n’roll,” writes Guryev. In Mamonov’s raspy voice and the band’s instrumentation, listeners also can discover traces of Captain Beefheart.

The musical partnership between Mamonov and Lipnitsky didn’t flourish till two years into Mamonov’s songwriting profession. At one level, Mamonov tried to recruit a troupe of native avenue alcoholics to sing choruses over his verses, however quickly acknowledged that it was a pipe dream. For a short while, Zvuki Mu consisted of Mamonov and his step-brother, Alexey “Lelik” Bortnichuk, earlier than Soviet authorities imprisoned Lelik for “social parasitism” – the official indictment for individuals who refuse to work – following a spat along with his boss at a boiler room. Mamonov’s earliest performances came about in Lipnitsky’s condominium, a bohemian oasis, the place members of the Leningrad and Moscow rock scenes shared wine and reward, and cast artistic partnerships. In the course of the twenty years of its existence, the band underwent a number of iterations, shedding members for quite a lot of causes. Some, just like the famend music journalist Artemy Troitsky, had been too handsome for the band’s cretinous aesthetic. Others had been too technically skilled or lacked the self-discipline to match the band’s prolific output, similar to Sergei “Afrika” Bugaev, an actor and artist who joined Zvuki Mu aged simply 16. Mamonov even tried to show his spouse easy methods to play bass, earlier than ultimately inviting Lipnitsky to select up the instrument.

On 28 January, 1984, some 300 schoolchildren packed into the theatre of Mamonov and Lipnitsky’s childhood faculty to witness the debut efficiency of Zvuki Mu. Current within the viewers had been Soviet rock stars Sergey Kuryokhin, Boris Grebenshchikov, and Andrey Makarevich. The night was marketed as a high-school reunion in order to not entice the ire of the KGB. Two years later, Zvuki Mu would go one to play their first, formally sanctioned live performance in Moscow’s Kurchatov Palace of Tradition. Because the venues grew in measurement, the performances grew in frenzy. Mamonov would drag numerous props on to the stage – cubes that he assembled after which jumped off, cots that he would lay in and flail. In 1988 the band launched their first album, Unusual Issues.

Having accomplished a number of excursions throughout the Soviet republics, Zvuki Mu had been now setting their sights in direction of the west. Within the autumn of 1988, Artemy Troitsky helped arrange a gathering in Poland that will elevate Zvuki Mu’s success to heights by no means earlier than skilled by any Soviet rock band. The assembly was with Brian Eno, who upon conversing with Mamonov, described the Russian frontman as “a wondrous and terrifying kind, like one thing from the darkish ages”. Zvuki Mu instantly struck a take care of Eno which noticed the discharge of two albums underneath the English label Opal Data. However, for no matter motive, as Sergei Guryev notes in his biography, Mamonov distrusted Eno, barring him from any significant contribution to the album’s manufacturing. Mamonov expressed his want to as a substitute collaborate with Frank Zappa, and even Brian Ferry, Eno’s former bandmate from Roxy Music.

As a part of the deal Zvuki Mu would go on to carry out two excursions throughout the US and UK. In the course of the excursions, which Warner Brothers partially funded, Zvuki Mu shared a stage with Pere Ubu, who had been so awestruck by the efficiency of their Russian colleagues, that they stalled for half-hour earlier than taking part in a follow-up set. In later excursions, Mamonov would meet two of his idols, David Byrne and Peter Gabriel, who he as soon as described in an interview as kindred spirits, “bizarre, but clever males”. All through the following twenty years, the band dissolved and reassembled in numerous iterations, recording a complete of 13 studio albums. Additionally they filmed a music video for his or her music Harsh Sundown, which was so novel that US band the Nationwide produced a like-for-like tribute in 2013.

Mamonov remained on the centre of all of it, and past his stage performances, he translated knack for facial and bodily expressivity to the display. In 1990, he starred as an alcoholic saxophone virtuoso – a personality not too dissimilar from himself – who forges a tumultuous relationship with a hateful and racist cab driver in Pavel Lungin’s movie Taxi Blues. In a single scene, a nude Mamonov performs the saxophone whereas dealing with a window; the digicam slowly closes in on his naked again in a extremely entrancing shot of a person who has full command of his physique and lacks all inhibitions, like his actual life counterpart. In 2006, having spent practically 10 years as a Russian Orthodox convert dwelling in a small village, Mamonov starred as a Russian Orthodox monk in one other Pavel Lungin movie, the award-winning The Island. “It’s no coincidence that he performed this function,” says Yury Saprykin. “With Zvuki Mu he projected the picture of a lumpen-intellectual, however in his later years the general public noticed him as a Yurodivy kind character – the holy idiot of Russian Orthodox scripture.”

Although he spent his later years in non secular isolation, Mamonov’s love for efficiency and music by no means ceased. He continued to supply concert events and excursions as a solo performer effectively into his remaining years, transferring fairly in contrast to an ageing particular person. And in all of the performances, he continued to embody the ethos of Zvuki Mu: an eagerness for all times that one can solely arrive at by embracing its absurd nature.

“Their concert events had been a shamanic ritual designed to drive out the demon mendacity within the Soviet consciousness,” writes their biographer Sergei Guryev. For his compatriots, who lived in a society encumbered by authoritarian politics, passivity, and cynicism, Mamonov was a sight to behold. In a single interview, Mamonov tells the viewers to check out their index fingers underneath a magnifying glass: “There may be a lot there: nerves … all the things is transferring – you’ll be able to solely take awe in what your physique is able to … so many nuances … life is a grand factor.”

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