Venus – Shocking Blue (Shizgarah) 1970
Though our generation will probably recognise this song from the Venus razor adverts, this iconic hit holds a significantly higher value for the youth of 1970s Russia. It was originally by the Dutch group Shocking Blue and was later covered by Banarama – the version used in the adverts. The original was immensely popular in Russia in the unofficial underground music scene. For a youth desperately trying to access the forbidden rock music of the West, Venus almost became an anthem for an entire generation, inspiring covers from anyone who had a guitar. The name became distorted in Russian; it’s most commonly known as ‘Shizgarah’ (шизгара), from the catchy chorus line “She’s got it”. The song is so closely associated with the underground music scene that writer Sergei Soloukh named his collection of stories featuring characters of that era after the song. There have been multiple covers and variants, such as Alexandr Pushnoi’s “Nirvenus” – a combination of Venus and Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit.
Safe to say, this one is more popular in Britain and across the world. However, The Beatles really struck a chord in Russia. Something about the Fab Four chimed in with the feelings of youth across the globe, even penetrating the Iron Curtain. There is some debate over the authorities’ attitudes towards Beatlemania, with some accounts of arrests for having the Beatles ‘mop-top’ haircut, but the extent of the ‘persecution’ Beatles fans faced is unclear. Many consider the invasion of the Beatles to be the beginning of a watershed for the arrival of Western rock’n’roll in the USSR. This paved the way for names such as The Doors, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin to explode onto the Soviet rock scene, fuelling a counterculture movement. The Soviet record company Melodiia eventually released ‘Girl’ by the Beatles – without copyright permission from the record company. It was released alongside ‘[I Can’t Get No] Satisfaction’ by the Rolling Stones in what was marketed as a compilation of English people’s songs, attributed to ‘vocal and instrumental ensemble (England)’ in order to avoid giving any group names. Few Beatles records were available legitimately, so fans resorted to magnitizdat (copying records onto x-rays). Others smuggled them in, often from Yugoslavia which bridged the gap between the East and West. The documentary How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin and the subsequent book of the same name make a convincing argument for the destructive impact the Beatles had on the USSR’s failing culture and society.
Formed in West Germany with a mostly Caribbean line-up, Boney M was another English-language band that found a huge fanbase in Soviet Russia. The group is still popular now across much of Russia, and the living members continue to tour there (though rarely in Moscow or St Petersburg) – giving public performances but also private shows at conferences, parties and the like. Boney M were uniquely lucky, as their music was approved for sale in the USSR by the Soviet authorities. They were invited to the USSR for a promotional visit and concert in 1978 – one of very few artists to be accorded such an honour. The authorities did not allow Boney M to play their smash hit “Rasputin”. It is often presumed that this was due to its allusions to Russian history and the dubious figure of Rasputin. However, it was actually due to the fact that the lyrics were too sexually suggestive – “lover of the Russian Queen” and “Russia’s greatest love machine” being deemed inappropriate. Their unique position as Western music permitted by the authorities gave them enormous appeal to the masses, who saw them as symbols of Western culture and freedom.
The famously flamboyant and proudly gay artist may not be the first pop superstar you’d expect to be popular in traditionally conservative Russia, but the singer has a surprising connection with Russia and the Russian people. Like Boney M, he was permitted to perform there in 1979 on his “To Russia… With Elton” tour, amidst Cold War tensions (you can watch most of it on Youtube). It was actually his distinctive difference which made him appeal to the Russian public; unlike similar traditionally reserved countries, some consider that Russians relish this departure from the prescriptive norm. This contributed to the sense of rebellion which made rock’n’roll so appealing to teenagers, both in the Soviet Union and in the West. This link to the country may help explain the bizarre news stories from last year about the Russian radio presenters who prank called Elton John pretending to be Putin and his subsequent invitation to discuss gay rights in Russia with the President.