The Null Device


Word of the day: "roentgenizdat": pirate copies of Western pop records made in the Soviet Union, using used X-ray plates as a medium:
Owing to the lack of recordings of Western music available in the USSR, people had to rely on records coming through Eastern Europe, where controls on records were less strict, or on the tiny influx of records from beyond the iron curtain. Such restrictions meant the number of recordings would remain small and precious. But enterprising young people with technical skills learned to duplicate records with a converted phonograph that would "press" a record using a very unusual material for the purpose; discarded x-ray plates. This material was both plentiful and cheap, and millions of duplications of Western and Soviet groups were made and distributed by an underground roentgenizdat, or x-ray press, which is akin to the samizdat that was the notorious tradition of self-publication among banned writers in the USSR. According to rock historian Troitsky, the one-sided x-ray disks costed about one to one and a half rubles each on the black market, and lasted only a few months, as opposed to around five rubles for a two-sided vinyl disk. By the late 50's, the officials knew about the roentgenizdat, and made it illegal in 1958. Officials took action to break up the largest ring in 1959, sending the leaders to prison, beginning an orginization by the Komsomol of "music patrols" that later undertook to curtail illegal music activity all over the country.
Crackdowns on illegal music copying? I guess some things never change.

And via this piece, a fascinating paper on the historical political development of Soviet rock music, and how the Communist state alternately shunned, attempted to coopt and suppressed rock and other popular music, ultimately coming off second-best:

Another problem the youth confronted when beginning to form groups to play rock 'n' roll, was the shortage of instruments and equipment. Electric guitars were almost non-existent in the USSR until the early sixties. Most instruments were manufactured in Eastern Europe and sold in the USSR in small numbers. The most notable were ten guitars that appeared in an East German-sponsored instrument shop in Moscow in 1966. All ten of the guitars were bought in the first hours that the shop was open and immediately resold at twice the price of purchase on the black market. Many groups were forced to make their own instruments or purchase copies of Western guitars that were produced by unofficial manufacturers. One of these manufacturers in 1969 managed to publish in a popular mechanical magazine a technique of converting an acoustic guitar into an electric one using a telephone voice coil, and shortly therafter there were reportedly no functioning public telephones in all of Moscow.
The Kremlin had very high-level meetings on how to approach the youth and address their cultural tastes with socialist didactics. It seemed that the Party was beginning to consider concessions to the youth, meaning to establish control over the musicians and fans. A "Beat Club" was established at the Melody and Rhythm cafe in Moscow, offering many activities to its musician membership, and applications which requested lots of personal data, flowed in by the hundreds. The club promptly closed down after receiving these applications and handed them over to the Soviet secret police, who now had dossiers on hundreds of Moscow's rock musicians.
At this point appeared the Vocal Instrumental Ensemble. The VIAs, as they were known, were required to register with the Ministry of Culture and "were urged to write and perform songs on topics wuch as space heroes or economic achievements." They followed the philosophy of Khrushchev's commentary on socialist art, "We are for music that provides inspiration, that summons people to exploits on the field of battle and in their work." The VIA represented on one hand, official Soviet recognition of rock as an art form, but on the other hand, a return to Socialist Realist didactics. The bands were named in accordance with the intended positive nature of their work, such as 'Singing Guitars,' 'Songsters,' 'Blue Guitars,' and 'Happy Guys,' harkening back to the Socialist literary prescription for 'positive heroes.' Comparing these names with those of some "unnofficial" groups of the late 60's renders an interesting contrast: Hairy Glass, Little Red Demons, Soft Suede Corners, Russo-Turkish War, Witchcraft, Fugitives from Hell, Midnight Carousers, Symbols of Faith, The Economists.
The best known of the VIAs was Happy Guys (Veselye Rebiata) who were "amply supplied with the best equipment through official channels, but [were] often instructed to add deadwood to the ensemble, giving jobs to the sons of cousins of official persons" who simply didn't plug in their instruments in performance.
An interesting phenomenon happened with the rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice; "Jesus Christ Superstar." It was smuggled into the USSR immediately after its release in USA in 1971, and immediately banned after its production in Vilnius in 1973. The opera was inspiration for many rock groups, and millions of fans despite its being banned, because unofficial rock groups performed much of the score at their shows. Performances occurred throughout the 70's and by the end of the decade, the signature theme song was adopted by the Soviet television news program "Vremya." A popular, religious rock opera had more weight than the dictates of the Soviet cultural bureaucracy.
In Estonia the situation was unique. Tallinn was a sort of Mecca for the Soviet hippies, and though there were Estonian VIAs, the number of unofficial rock groups did not drop significantly. Estonia gave Soviet rock as many talented musicians as Leningrad and Moscow combined. The Estonian branch of Melodija, being autonomous from the Moscow branch, even recorded some unofficial groups. Finnish television had been responsible for bringing televised music programs to the Estonians, whose language is similar to the Finnish language, and yet quite unintelligible to most Russians. The language barrier made possible the lyrics of many Estonian groups that were often anti-Russian. In later years this led to an enormous nationalist movement in Estonian rock, that republic being the first to declare national sovereignty in 1985.
Then disco made its appearance in the USSR, and a form of pop culture was much more readily accepted by cultural officials than ever before. The rhythm and inocuous lyrics apparently lulled the crowd and had little of the countercultural undertones and hooligan followers for which rock was notorious. Discotheques were seemingly ready made venues for both benign music and socialist indoctrination. Though this seems to be the ulimate in bad taste given the contemporary Western attitude toward the 70's disco, a national effort was made to assess the possibility of socialist didactic programs being mixed with the musical fare. Moscow registered 187 officially sponsered discotheques by 1978. Saturday Night Fever was released 1979, and John Travolta's character in the movie was appealing to the ideologues who were always looking for 'positive heroes' for the youth culture. At this time, Western recordings were being issued on Melodija, with the tremendously popular Swedish band ABBA being the first, with a manditory counterpart release in the West of a Soviet group.
In the early 80's Baltic punk rock was surfacing as another import from the West. Latvian discos became scene of unrestrained violence. Much of the vehement protest of the Baltic punks was against the inordinate amount of soldiers taken from those republics to fight in the war with Afghanistan. The independence movement there had some inauspicious beginnings, but their case was historically justified in their eyes.

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