Showbiz, Soviet Style

Article by by David Sinclair

The Times, Arts Section, Monday, October 3, 1988

It looked for a moment as if the centre piece of Big Country's contribution to "glastnost" was going to end up as a fiasco. Over a weekend when Mikhail Gorbachov was teaching the Politburo to sing a new song, the Amglo-Scottish band was performing the second of five concerts at one of Moscow's Palace of Sports, an 8,000 capacity ice skating rink called the Palace of Wings. But a voltage regulator, essential for protecting the group's sophisticated guitar electronics from the extreme fluctuations in the Moscow power supply, had been disconnected and the band was forced to give up half way through the first number, while the road crew searched for the fault.

Half an hour later later the musicians bounded back on. "Let's do it properly," said the vocalist and leader Stuart Adamson. They lasted less than eight bars before a related problem prompted them to leave the stage again. The lights went up and a bemused Russian crowd was left waiting for another half an hour.

Although audiences are still trying to get a fix on the various stylistic and behavioural co-ordinates associated with rock, the market for the music in the Soviet Union has already been revealed as one of massive potential. This show was not sold out, but in a society where there is virtually no adverti- sing, approximately 5,000 people had nevertheless turned out and paid 5.70 roubles each for the privilege of seeing a group whose music most of them had never even heard before. The trickle of acts which started in the early Eighties, with mainstream pop artists such as Cliff Richard, Elton John, Abba and Boney M has swollen, since "glastnost," into a steady flow of rock bands, including in recent months UB40, Status Quo, Public Image Limited, The Scor- pions and Uriah Heep.

However, Big Country is the first Western act to have set up its concerts through a promoter independently of the state-run Goskontsert agency. The shows have been organized by the Russian former pop star Stas Namin, who now runs a music school.

Big Country's records are not available in the Soviet Union, where there is only the one state-run record label Melodiya, and no copyright law to enable collection, let alone payment of royalties. During a lengthy career, the aforementioned Stas Namin is reputed to have sold 40 million albums in the Soviet Union, but has never earned more than the basic wage for a musician.

But, if Big Country receives nothing from this visit in terms of income generated within the Soviet Union, the band's record company, Phonogram, is detirmined that the rest of world will get to hear about these shows, and Big Country's otherwise unremarkable new album: "Peace In Our Time." The company flew more than 230 people from the media in the UK, Europe and North America, to be at this concert: a junket that will long be remembered in such circles, not least because it looked for a while as if the group was not going to play.

The days have long passed when Big Country was routinely classed as the equal of bands like U2 and Simple Minds and, predictably, new material such as "Broken Heart (13 Valleys)" and "Thousand Yard Stare" was not a patch on the oldest songs such as "In A Big Country". Nor could the audience be relied on to know numbers like "Steeltown" and "The Seer", which lack instant appeal, whatever their merits.

It was intriguing to see so many Red Army conscripts in their dark green uniforms, some with their hats on, dotted about the crowd, not as security but as excited members of the audience.

"I think this is an important event in the spirit of 'glastnost'," said drummer Mark Brzezicki after the show. "It's obviously a promotional launch of the album, but at the same time it springs from a genuine desire to play over here. People who know the band know our intentions are genuine, but of course there will always be those who read the worst into any situation."

The Amnesty International tour featuring Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel has not been granted permission to visit the Soviet Union, where Amnesty remains a banned organization, and the scope for participation by Western rock musicians in the Soviet Union remains limited. Nevertheless, one can only admire the spirit in which this and similar events have been undertaken.

Transcribed by Todd Oberly (

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