Rock Star Tours Behind the Iron Curtain

As the Cold War progressed in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, Western music and culture became more prevalent in the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union. Popular Western forms of music such as Rock and Jazz became more popular in the Eastern Bloc and eventually were conditionally accepted by the Soviet authorities. In the nineteen-sixties, popular Western acts such as The Beatles became popular with the youth behind the Iron Curtain. After Détente between the United States and the Soviet Union in the early nineteen-seventies, the consumption of Western music in the Eastern Bloc continued to rise and by the later years of the nineteen-seventies prominent American and English rock artists such as Elton John, The Beach Boys, and Santana planned tours in the Soviet Union. These tours were scrutinized and sometimes even canceled by Soviet authorities. Russian youth was enthusiastic about these concerts and rock music in general and as a result, many rock bands were formed in the Eastern Bloc who took inspiration from Western rock music and challenged the status quo of the Soviet Union. Rock music, though cautiously accepted by the Soviet government, became an outlet of rebellion towards the status quo in the Eastern Bloc, and tours by prominent musicians in the Soviet Union, such as Elton John, began to open up the Eastern Bloc to Western music and culture.

            Western rock music caught the ear of young people living in the Eastern Bloc during the nineteen-sixties. In cities across Eastern Europe, the hippie subculture took hold among young people as they were influenced by their counterparts in Western cities such as San Francisco.[1] Western music and the ideas and social movements surrounding it became popularized in Eastern European cities such as Wrocław and Lviv where a separate but similar hippie counter-culture was formed.[2] Those involved in the hippie movement in these cities were often at odds with the authorities and police and faced harassment on account of their drug use and long hair.[3] This period represented the underground beginning of public interest in Western rock music in the Eastern Bloc and the popularity and acceptance of Western culture in Soviet society would soon change drastically.

            In the early nineteen-seventies, the tension that existed between the Eastern Bloc and the West was relaxed in what has become known as Détente. The talks between the poles of the Cold War led to increased trade and cultural exchange between the East and the West. This led to a massive increase in the consumption of Western cultural products by the youth in the Soviet Union.[4] The consumption of modern Western music was justified by the youth as embracing socialist modernity and that rock bands such as The Beatles had songs that were “anti-capitalist” in nature and therefore should be a component in the development of a “socialist young man.”[5] Rock music had become a hot commodity among young Russians during this period. In cities such as Moscow, there were hundreds of garage bands and the city was said to be “shaking with a rock music epidemic.”[6] Western rock and popular music were seen as “cool” by the youth of the Eastern Bloc in this period.[7] The popularity of rock music among the youth was troubling to Soviet authorities even as the official policies of the Soviet government at the time allowed for Western music and other parts of Western culture to be shared with the Soviet Union.[8] The cultural exchange between the West and the Eastern Bloc led to rock music becoming popular in the Eastern Bloc especially among the youth. This burgeoning demand for Western rock music in the Eastern Bloc was the precursor for the rock tours that were to arrive in the latter half of the nineteen-seventies.

            In part due to the rising popularity of Western music in the Eastern Bloc, authorities came to accept rock music and began allowing for selected artists to even tour in the Soviet Union. The leadership in the Soviet government had changed its attitude towards rock music by accepting the fact that rock music was going to stay prevalent and that it would be regulated and controlled by the state.[9] This conditional acceptance of rock music would allow state-sanctioned artists to have their music published and eventually played live in the Soviet Union. In 1978, a concert was planned for the city of Leningrad that would have featured Santana, The Beach Boys, and Joan Baez. The New York Times reported on the concert and stated that it was the “first time that major American rock and folk-rock performers have appeared in the Soviet Union.”[10] This concert was canceled however due to worries that the combination of Joan Baez’s politically charged music alongside the frenetic psychedelic guitar playing from Santana would rile up the Soviet youth.[11] The cancellation of this concert led young Russians to take to the streets in protest.[12] This demonstrates the popularity and excitement young Soviet citizens had for Western rock star tours and how it led them to challenge the decisions brought on by the government. The demand for live rock music persisted and several prominent Western tours and concerts did materialize. In late 1978, the Disco-Reggae group Boney M. was invited to play in Moscow and went on to tour the Soviet Union in a highly successful tour. In May of 1979, the famous British rock star Elton John performed in Moscow and Leningrad. These artists were deemed more “nonthreatening” to the Soviet regime and therefore were allowed to tour.[13] These successful tours would soon be cut short however due to the Soviet Union again changing its position towards rock music.

            The Soviet government began censoring performances of rock bands that were not sanctioned by the government. The state used the criminal code to prevent non-sanctioned bands from performing and recordings from being distributed.[14] This practice ended however due to the new policy of Glasnost implemented by Mikhail Gorbachev and the reforms brought forward by the Soviet government. By the late nineteen-eighties, Western rock stars resumed touring the Soviet Union. In 1987 Billy Joel, another famous American rock star, performed in the cities of Moscow and Leningrad. The New York Times writes that “Mr. Joel would be the first American pop musician to bring a fully staged show to Russia. He would also be the first rock performer to visit the Soviet Union under the renewed cultural exchanges agreement signed between the United States and the Soviet Union.”[15] As the Soviet Union reformed, Western rock musicians were once again able to tour in the Soviet Union and a more open cultural exchange between the United States and the Eastern Bloc resumed after a period of tension between the West and East.

            The spread of rock music and the subsequent rock star tours in the Soviet Union represented a cultural influence that the West had on the Eastern Bloc. Once the Eastern Bloc opened up to Western popular music, Western ideas often followed. Youth in the Eastern Bloc often used rock music as an outlet of rebellion towards the status quo either by participation in counter-cultures such as the hippie movement or by protesting the censorship of music by the government of the Soviet Union. Rock star tours also served to spread Western cultural influence to the Eastern Bloc. The popularity of rock music arguably contributed to reforms implemented by the government of the Soviet Union that allowed for greater artistic expression and for cultural products such as popular music to be distributed to a greater degree. The tours and concerts of famous Western musicians and groups such as Elton John, Boney M., and Billy Joel helped to spread and solidify Western cultural influence on those living in the Soviet Union. Soviet authorities were often resistant to the disbursement of Western popular music throughout the Eastern Bloc. They accurately believed that by spreading Western music and culture, the dominance of the state ideology would be diminished. Efforts by the Soviet government to control rock music and Western music more broadly were not successful as the cat was already out of the bag. The popularity of Western rock led to resistance whenever the music was restricted. In this way, it can be argued that the spread of rock music and Western culture more broadly in the Eastern Bloc helped contribute to its’ downfall. Western popular music influenced young Russians in becoming more rebellious and skeptical of the status quo in the Eastern Bloc. Rock star tours throughout the Eastern Bloc helped to promote the rock music that was popular among the youth and helped to cement rock music as a cultural institution in the Soviet Union. Even though the Soviet government only allowed artists who were deemed nonthreatening to perform in the Soviet Union, the popularity of Western music and ideas were still spread by these tours. Whenever tours were canceled there was a public outcry from rock fans in the Eastern Bloc and these fans were likely to regard official Soviet narratives with skepticism. In this way, rock music and tours helped spread dissent among those in the Eastern Bloc and to promote Western culture and ideas.

[1] William Jay Risch. Youth and Rock in the Soviet Bloc: Youth Cultures, Music, and the State in Russia and Eastern Europe. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2015. 82

[2] Ibid, 84

[3] Ibid, 88-89

[4] Ibid, 117

[5] Ibid, 119

[6] Troitsky, Artemy. Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock In Russia.  

Boston: Faber and Faber, 1988. 30

[7] William Jay Risch. 122

[8] Ibid, 122-124

[9] Ibid, 256

[10] Rockwell John, U.S.S.R. Rock Concert. The New York Times, June 14, 1978, 71

[11] Risch, 259

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, 260

[14] Ibid, 261

[15] Billy Joel Plans Tour Of Two Soviet Cities, The New York Times, May 1, 1987, 92

Kino – Russian Post-Punk/Alternative Rock Band

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