Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rock's Notes From Underground

ST. PETERSBURG -- Adult men in their 30s sit around a table and, equipped with glue and scissors, stick photo covers on boxes of reel-to-reel tapes. No, not grown-ups reliving their kindergarten years, or a therapeutic labor scene from prison. This is Leningrad in 1983, and the men are members of the Soviet Union's then most popular underground rock group, Akvarium, working through the final stages of their masterpiece album, "Radio Africa."

Until the 1990s, there was only one record company around - Melodia, which released nothing but classical music, Lenin's speeches, children's fairy-tales and officially approved pop music - some of the best of the latter being an occasional compilation featuring Tom Jones or the delights of Gloria Gaynor. At-risk bands like Akvarium had no choice but to find alternative means for producing their music.

"Radio Africa" is just one of the uncensored "underground tape albums" covered at length in a recent book by Moscow rock writer Alexander Kushnir - a 400-page volume lavishly illustrated with rare photos called "100 Tape Albums of Soviet Rock, 1977-1991: 15 Years of Underground Recording." The book, which costs around 300 rubles ($12), is available in Moscow music stores.

Kushnir, who wrote a similar work about underground rock publications entitled "Golden Underground: The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock Samizdat (1967-1994)" in 1994, also acts as the press officer and official biographer of one of Russia's top bands, Mumii Troll.

His latest book - compiled from over 300 interviews with rock musicians, producers and distributors - is full of underground lore. One story tells how the now-defunct Sverdlovsk band Nautilus Pompilius, while recording in the mid-1980s, covered its vocalist with a blanket so that his singing wouldn't disturb his kommunalka neighbors in his thin-walled Khrushchev-style building.

Another story tells how St. Petersburg's pioneering rock producer Andrei Tropillo, the man largely responsible for the 1980s Soviet rock revolution, provided an electrician with liters of cognac to gain access to a 24-track mobile studio at night to Akvarium, Stranniye Igry and Manufaktura. (The state-of-the-art British-made studio van came from Moscow with the official aim of recording symphony orchestras, and was parked by the Shostakovich Philharmonic Hall - in dangerous proximity to KGB agents watching visitors to the nearby Europe hotel.)

A sadder story - but just as much a real part of history - is the tale of the religious rock band Trubny Zov, who tried to cross the Finnish border on skies, record an album in a Western studio, and come back. They were spotted by a border guard helicopter and the band's leader found himself in a prison for "attempted violation of the state border."

The underground recording business brought musicians national fame and some pocket money - enough for cigarettes and maybe some alcohol at best. "I quote [Akvarium's photographer Andrei] Usov in the book, who says how Boris Grebenshchikov ... sat at nights making tapes of the seminal Akvarium albums 'Treugolnik' and 'Taboo' to make ends meet," Kushnir said. "If you think about it, the funny was often interwoven with the sad, and sometimes even the tragic."

The bigger distributors of underground tape albums, such as Moscow's so-called "Union of Writers," dealt with bigger sums - the master tape of a major underground rock band used to cost around 200 old Soviet rubles (about a month's salary for an engineer), but their role was more risky. They invested most of the profits into equipment, and even corrected some of the original recordings' flaws.

Despite their heroic history, it is difficult now to listen to most of the recordings the book deals with, since much of it is musically and technically naive - a relic of a bygone era. "It's understandable that all this was improvised," Kushnir said. "However strange it seems, more than half the albums in the book were re-released on CDs - but it's true, few of them sound up-to-date these days."