St. Petersburg (or Leningrad) has always occupied a special place in the world of Russian music. Famous for its rich classical traditions, especially at the Mariinsky Theater, in the second part of the twentieth century St. Petersburg became the epicenter of underground and experimental music.
In March 1981 the first rock-club was opened in Leningrad. It was unlike clubs in the west and looked perhaps more like a Soviet House of Culture. But it was the first stage where rock-musicians were allowed to perform legally.
In 1986, Russian rock music was released in the United States for the first time. The brainchild of California musician Joanna Stingray, the album Red Wave: 4 Underground Bands from the Soviet Union included songs by Leningrad bands like Aquarium, Kino, Alisa, and Strannye Igry (Strange Games).
In 1984, when she was 23, Stingray travelled to Leningrad, where she fell in love with underground singers and artists. Later, she smuggled their recordings to the US and, thanks to Red Wave, 10,000 copies of forbidden Russian music were brought to a Western audience.
This March, the Leningrad Rock Club celebrates it 35th anniversary. But who are the city’s new bands and stars, the ones worth listening to? Here are five recommended bands, with videos to help you get a taste for what they have to offer. There’s something here for every rock taste.
Leningrad. This scandalous and energetic ska-rock band has become one of the city’s symbols. It was formed in 1997 by Igor Vdovin and Sergei Shnurov, who originally played bass-guitar and later became the main singer, songwriter and charismatic leader of the band.
Leningrad songs always have two things: obscene language and humor. They make fun of almost everything – women, money, politics, consumerism and show-business. They became very popular in the aughts in Russia, have released 19 albums, and can still fill stadiums.
In 2002 their Moscow concert was cancelled by then Mayor Yury Luzhkov, but the same year they went on their first US tour and released their iconic song “WWW”. It features a drunk guy who don’t remember where he lives, telling the policeman and taxi driver that his address is simply www.leningrad.spb.ru
The latest Leningrad clip, “Display Exhibit” (“Exponat”), had more than 60 million views in two months. It tells the story of young lady who would like to impress her potential husband with fake Christian Louboutin stilettos, but it ends in a fiasco.
Billy’s Band describes their style as “romantic alcojazz.” Heavily inspired by Tom Waits, lead singer Billy Novik changed his career from doctor to jazz and blues artist. Founded in 2001, Billy’s Band has four members: Billy sings and plays contrabass, while the others play guitar, saxophone and bayan. Billy’s Band performs in both Russian and English; they have toured several times in the US and in 2010 were the first Russian band to play at the Montreal International Jazz Festival.
Billy Novik is also passionate promoter of jazz culture in St. Petersburg: he opened the bar “The Hat” in 2013. If you are want to explore the city’s local jazz scene, you can tap into a live broadcast from The Hat here.
Marksheider Kunst breaks the stereotype that Russian music is full of melancholy and grief. Formed in 1992 by geology students (in German this specialization is called markscheider), the band mixes ska, reggae, rockabilly and Latino sounds.
They sing about sun, rum, summer, Jamaica, Cuba and the Hawaiian Islands – things rather foreign to most residents of St. Petersburg, which only has 72 sunny days per year.
Four of their songs were included in the soundtrack of the lyrical comedy Piter FM.
The film is a must see for anyone who wants to get acquainted with the atmosphere of White Nights. Or try out “Kvasa Kvasa”:
Splean is for those who DO want some of that thoughtful and melancholic Russian rock. The band was founded in 1994 by singer Alexander Vasiliev and his friend and bass guitarist Alexander Morozov. Although the band’s name is closely connected to the word "spleen," in the sense of depression and despair, Splean has many ironic songs, for example “Sugar Free Orbit,” which tells the story of a girl whose heart was so broken she wanted to hang herself, but then, after a bit of time she decided she was fine and just chewed her bubble gum.
In 2000, one of Splean’s songs was used in the soundtrack to the über-popular crime thriller Brother 2, which was partly filmed in Chicago. The band skillfully mixes guitar, percussions and flute in its sound, and often makes references to their native city – inserting the Neva river, Nevsky Prospect and other local landmarks in their lyrics. In April, Splean will tour to six US cities.
Jenya Lubich adds her lyrical voice as a counterpoint to St. Petersburg's largely male rock-scene. A graduate of Bard College in New York, she sings in Russian, English and French. Originally, she was the singer for the French band Nouvelle Vague, which she joined in 2008 after she gave a copy of her recordings to the band during one of their concerts in St. Petersburg. In 2010 she started a solo career and released an English language song “Russian Girl,” [“I’m just a simple Russian girl, I’ve got vodka in my blood”] which explores the most popular stereotypes about Russia.
Last spring she released her second album, Morse Alphabet. A video with the same name was filmed in an abandoned mansion in St. Petersburg, where Jenya Lubich dances with a young star from the Boris Eifman Ballet Theater.
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