Monday, November 22, 2010

How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin (BBC, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

The show was actually a quite interesting one: it was called How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin and offered the theory that the Beatles did more than any other social or political force, including the internal dissident and samizdat movement, to bring down the Soviet Union and its cult of conformity. What made it even more compelling than it might otherwise have been is that the director was an old BBC hand named Leslie Woodhead, who in 1962 did the documentary The Mersey Sound about the Beatles themselves -- well, them and two other, lesser known groups from Liverpool -- which has become legendary because the footage of them performing "Some Other Guy" from the Cavern Club appears to be the earliest extant audio-visual record of the Beatles performing. (Interestingly, in the clip -- which inevitably appears here -- Paul McCartney is readily recognizable but John Lennon still has his hair cut Teddy-boy short, though his nasal voice singing lead on the song is instantly obvious.)

In the 1980's he began to explore the cultural influence of the Beatles on Soviet and subsequent Russian and Ukrainian culture (since virtually all the major cities in the former Soviet Union were in either Russia or Ukraine that makes sense) and ultimately came up with a film that offers some fascinating perspectives on the breadth of the Beatles' influence even though he doesn't really get into why the Beatles, of all cultural phenomena from the West, should have struck a responsive chord with repressed Soviet teens. One interviewee mentions that in the early 1960's the Soviet Union actually seemed "cool" to its young people -- Yuri Gagarin had become the first man in space and the ruler was the charismatic Nikita Khrushchev, whose "thaw" had expanded the range of cultural alternatives (though not all that far where pop music was concerned -- most Russian pop music was based on native folk music and featured ensembles with accordions and balalaikas and adenoidal singers who would have been considered hopelessly square even by Lawrence Welk's audience in the West) as well as acknowledging at least some of the sins of Stalin and his regime.

Then, just as the Beatles' first flush of popularity was cresting worldwide, Khrushchev was overthrown and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev and a far less exciting group of geriatric cadres -- and the Russian young people wanted a more dynamic and stimulating form of culture. They found it on the BBC's Radio Luxembourg service, which beamed the Beatles and other British rock sounds over Western Europe and was surreptitiously tape-recorded by Soviet fans. The fans found a way to make Beatles' records available by using disc-cutting booths -- readily available in the Soviet Union so people could send audio letters to their soldier relatives, lovers and buddies -- and cutting home records from the bootleg tapes onto discarded X-ray films from hospitals, then selling these discs (since they were flexible you could put them in your sleeve) on the street like illicit drugs -- they were called "ribs," reflecting both their origins in medical photographs and how they were stored by the people selling them.

Eventually the Soviet state record company, Melodiya, realized how much money they were losing by not making the Beatles' music more or less legitimately available -- so, without bothering to pay royalties either to the Beatles themselves or to EMI, Melodiya issued a three-song EP from Let It Be in 1970 (about a decade earlier than this show would have it) and followed it up with a succession of Beatles' LP's. One of Woodhead's most fascinating interviewees was of a man who started as a consumer of Beatles' "ribs," then worked his way into a position at Melodiya and managed to get virtually the Beatles' entire catalog issued in the U.S.S.R. -- and paid himself an odd tribute by inserting his own photo into the cover of the Russian edition of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

There was also an account of some of the more bizarre urban legends surrounding the Beatles in Russia, including the one that they actually performed there -- supposedly, while they were flying to Japan for their 1966 tour, their plane had to stop at a Soviet military base to refuel and while they were there they got out acoustic guitars for an impromptu jam on the wing of the plane -- and ones that had John Lennon visiting a Moscow hotel and other Beatles turning up in the Soviet Union. (The stories seem to have been sparked by the Beatles' song "Back in the U.S.S.R." -- though more sober-minded Beatles fans in the West heard that song as the parody of the Beach Boys' "California Girls" Paul McCartney admitted he intended, Russian fans couldn't believe the Beatles would have recorded a song called "Back in the U.S.S.R." if they'd never been there in the first place.)

Ironically, while the attempts by Soviet authorities to suppress the Beatles' music (including a bizarre anti-Beatles propaganda film the Soviet government commissioned in 1965, which took out-of-context bits of Beatles trivia -- like the stoned-out performances they had once given in Hamburg, dressed in nothing but underwear and with toilet seats around their necks, and their manager, Brian Epstein, being a "London [sic] fairy" -- to tell Soviet youth how awful and decadent they were, which probably only further publicized the Beatles and led young people who hadn't been especially interested in them before to check them out) are a running theme of this film, virtually no Beatles music actually appears in it: all we get is that early BBC clip of "Some Other Guy" from the Cavern Club and a couple of clips from Paul McCartney's 2003 and 2008 concerts in Moscow and Kiev, respectively. Apparently a force even more effective than the Soviet state, the Western copyright regime, kept Woodhead from being able to use the Beatles' actual recordings; instead most of the Beatles' music we hear is from Russian cover bands, whose thick accents (though at least one interviewee says he was inspired by the Beatles to study English and make his career as a linguist, most of the groups that perform Beatles' music in Russia seem to have learned the words phonetically and probably know no other English) and musical sloppiness are endearing and campy (and ironically Woodhead extensively features Russian covers of "Rock and Roll Music," which of course isn't a Beatles original at all -- it's a Chuck Berry song the Beatles themselves covered).

Needless to say, Paul McCartney's actual appearances in the former Soviet Union make the inevitable climax of the film -- while Western culture has largely moved beyond this veneration of the Beatles (when I interviewed the satirical folk duo the Prince Myshkins, member Rick Burkhardt lamented that when he was growing up you had to have a favorite Beatle, and now culture-history professors have to explain to their students just who the Beatles were), it's still very much alive and well in this part of the world, to the point that Beatles tribute concerts and festivals draw not only people who were teenagers when the Beatles were all alive and a working band but younger people as well. One worm-turning sequence appears when the adenoidal crooner whom the Soviets were pushing in the 1960's as the approved culture hero they wanted their young people to like turns up at a Beatles festival and sings "Hey Jude." Though it's hard for me to accept Woodhead's conceit that one rock group (albeit the most popular and influential one of all time) could have brought down a superpower, How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin is still a fascinating little movie and an engaging slice of cultural history.