Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Rock Monologue (Рок Монолог)

“Rock music caught me on the head when I was sixteen and it never let go.”

Russia has a huge ‘bardic’ tradition, with a sub-strand of singers who fearlessly speak against authority on behalf of the people.

Ideally they should be careless of material success; difficult to the point of eccentricity; widely known but paradoxically impoverished, and forced to work underground, using guile to get their message across: a message that is universally understood and yet tolerated by the authorities that it criticises.

Pushkin (and, after him, Musorgsky) put one at the centre of Boris Godunov: the yurodivy, the ‘holy fool’ who refuses the Tsar grace and accuses him of murdering his way to the top, but who nevertheless enjoys his protection.

In later times rock musicians began to take on some aspects of the role, one of the most famous (in Russia) being Yuri Morozov (1948-2006) a composer/multi-instrumentalist/producer/sound-engineer.

Pop and rock, like jazz, were strange beasts in the USSR. While they were so popular they demanded some official recognition, their Western influence had to be curbed. Hence they became charged with a meaning even beyond that in the West. Imagine Elvis being put in a mental asylum on the basis that his music is …. well …. anybody who’s sane can hear that it’s just wrong, can't they?

Rock Monologue, Vladimir Kozlov’s portrait of Morozov, attempts to tell something of his life, concentrating on his struggle. Unfortunately Morozov died during filming, so his interviews are framed by friends’ posthumous thoughts, supplemented by Gennadi Zaitsev’s archive film.

But it starts with the regulation counterpoint of official Soviet events (Red Square parades et al) with Morozov’s darker songs about dreams (a recurring theme in his work), dissatisfaction, and how everyday smells and noises block out everything of value. In Zaitsev’s home movies Morozov and his friends horse around, as they occasionally fled the city to the dacha, trying out different personae, dressing up in costumes (or wearing nothing at all) and prancing around the forest, filming and photographing each other.

Back home, he filled his flat with a Heath-Robinson recording set-up or used downtime in the studio to record his music, often multi-tracking himself. Since using state equipment for personal profit was illegal, he embarked on a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities, duping them by duping his songs: repeatedly cross-recording them, so the KGB wouldn’t believe that such poor quality could come from professional equipment. Alvin Lucier’s greatest hit, I Am Sitting in a Room, uses the same technique to brilliant, if very different, effect.

As for the actual music, Morozov drew on heavy metal, prog rock, psychedelia, jazz, musique concrète, '80s synth-pop, Russian folk music and anything else that came to hand, pushing it through tape effects and weird concoctions of string-and-sellotape synthesisers. A couple of album covers give some sense of the range: the Genesis-surrealist Jimi Hendrix's Cherry Garden (1973), and the near Ultravox-ish The Exposed Feeling of Absence (2005! - obviously being fashionable was not high on Morozov's list of priorities).

Oddly, for all this experimentalism and official disdain, Morozov was immensely popular. Given the number of his albums in circulation he should have been a multimillionaire, as they were widely (if secretly) circulated: apparently most of the Soviet submarine fleet had copies.

Outside Russia Morozov’s music is still pretty difficult to track down – though the web, a sort of latter-day magnitizdat (the audio equivalent of samizdat) has come to his aid. I’ve found a few mp3s to link to (there are others), though with around sixty albums to his name, plus production credits for a host of other bands including DDT, Akvarium and Chizh and Co, it’s hard to feel that anything but a substantial chunk would only be a snapshot.

Though the 1977 song Dream (Сон) starts as a fairly inconsequential bit of sub-Deep Purple, the guitar solo briefly branches into something a bit weird before it pulls itself back together. The song’s title is rather more romantic than that of the album from which it’s taken: The Cretins’ Wedding (Свадьба кретинов).

The title track from the album Странник Голубой звезды (Blue-Star Wanderer, 1980-81) begins like a cheapo-synth folk song, but finishes off with a weird theremin-ish fluttering.

Weirdest of all is the title track from the 1981 album The Legend of May (Легенда о Майя). Obviously a post-Day-in-the-Life/Dark-Side-of-the-Moon production, it leaves them in the dust for sheer unsettlingness, with its Dada-esque combination of pretty much anything, including karaoke-ing over the Beatles.

You can download five more (equally strange) songs from The Cretins’ Wedding here. Sadly the titles came out (for me) as a series of question marks so you may need to identify them from my descriptions.

The title track is pierced by a series of almost blindingly bright guitar chords, while the middle section features a Cale-ishly moaning violin.

Я смеюсь над часами (I Mock the Hours)
The slow-mo guiro under the flowers-in-your-hair folk-pop at the start is slightly disconcerting but when something more akin to industrial noise breaks in…

The relentlessly bleak Черный пес (Black Cur) combines massively over-fuzzed guitar and detuned pub piano under a throat-mangling vocal line. The end of the song gets even stranger…

The relatively ‘normal’ Кретин (Cretin) features Morozov’s sneering over a heavy metal riff, to make one of the less sonically-interesting tracks here, though they lyrics (“I feel the stars: they are as slippery as human brains”) are typically dark and poetic.

Конформист (The Conformist). Again, after the intro’s wailing electronic would-be violin, the surface initially seems, well, conformist, despite the lyric (“In muddy waters, swim flowers and rubbish”) but soon the background stuff starts to break through and various strange noises leap from speaker to speaker.

It’s quite obvious that Morozov needs some serious advocacy in the West. Kozlov’s documentary is a start and it would be good to see more screenings following on from the one at the recent Russian Film Festival. But unfortunately it concentrates on Morozov’s more conservative output. That’s odd given that it also stresses his ‘outsider’ status, admitting that he was difficult to work with: more than once he denied the existence of his wife and his increasing religiosity may have caused some problems. But he inspired adoration from some of those who worked with him. He himself excoriates the compromises of Dylan (his honorary PhD), and McCartney for his knighthood (“that’s got nothing to do with music.”) Lennon was his hero, though there’s a feeling that it’s as much for his political statements as anything on his late-60s avant-garde albums. But for a Soviet artist the two sometimes became intertwined.

In the meantime, here are the first few few minutes from Rock Monologue (in Russian, subtitled in French):


Kozlov Vladimir said...

Спасибо за Вашу статью.
Жаль плохо читаю по-английски.
Где Вы видели мой фильм?
В кинотеатре Аполло?
Пишите, пожелаете:
Благодарю Вас и всего Вам доброго,
автор фильма "Рок-Монолог",
Владимир Козлов

Anonymous said...

Hi, thanks for these Morozov tracks. Although 'The cretin' is, like you say, one of the less wild and overall interesting tracks the main riff is so infectious.