A Public Past and Private Future: The Akvarium Tribute (Part Three)

Sergei Shnurov, Leningrad

An online archival project from Lenta.Ru and Kroogi, designed to celebrate the "4,000th[!] Anniversary of Aquarium," continues to grow. Arguably Russia's most famous and consequential rock ensemble, Aquarium are being honored in a special way. A wide range of modern outfits, representing an array of styles and locations, are currently being asked to submit cover versions of classic tracks from Aquarium's catalog. This is the third time we've looked into the celebrations, since the tributes keep appearing. The number of submitted and published compositions now stands at more than sixty: they are all available at a special website.

If you've recorded an Aquarium cover version, send it to us! (Lenta.Ru)

Of late - in fact since we last wrote - a couple of things have changed. Firstly, the age of many contributors to this project has increased. In other words, the tribute recordings were seemingly established in order to show how texts and tunes from the late Soviet period have an enduring relevance - for men and women young enough to be Aquarium's own children. In the last few weeks, however, more and more performers are offering interpretations from a generation old enough to recall the songs in the original.

Secondly, Lenta.Ru seems willing to accept multiple versions of the same songs. Here, by way of illustration, we offer two new - and very different - interpretations of the Aquarium staple, "Rock 'n' Roll's Dead" (1983). A song of personal endurance from the eve of perestroika has different significances for different people today. In short, the importance of this ongoing anniversary is growing both chronologically and generically. 

Surganova and Orchestra (Saint Petersburg)

The sense that Aquarium's discography has genuinely widespread, if not ubiquitous relevance is wonderfully illustrated by the silence of some contributors. In other words, not all of the cover versions are accompanied by an explanatory text. Some of our modern bands and artists simply submit a song to Lenta.Ru and retire in silence - as if nobody needs, perhaps, to be told why a given track is meaningful. It's common knowledge...

For example, one might suggest the 1987 work "Train on Fire" (Poezd v ogne). That date and title alone would - correctly - imply a text of great social seriousness, and yet the brand-new variation by Sergei Shnurov and Leningrad is now available with no supporting context. That, in turn, might imply (wrongly!) that a respected composition is being treated with appropriate gravitas and as part of some timeless, unassailable heritage. Instead, a rollicking ska/pub-rock singalong sounds forth. Not everybody is pleased.

Basic profanity...

"This is sheer mockery of a great song - and nothing more! Why even publish it?";  "It's basic profanity..."; "What a shame. One of Boris Grebenshchikov's most beautiful songs is being completely defaced here..." In brief, this kind of feisty debate - especially when set against the spiraling dimensions of Lenta's track-listing - shows clearly that the discography of Grebenshchikov and Aquarium still matters a great deal.  

If one prefers straight-faced respect and a related majesty, then the submission by Svetlana Surganova might be more appealing and appropriate. One of the founders - in 2002 - of Saint Petersburg's seminal rock band Nochnye Snaipery, Surganova would subsequently leave the band and establish an equal reputation as a solo artiste.

Animal Jazz (Saint Petersburg)

That transition from unemployment to widespread respect was accomplished very fast, as a result of which Surganova remains an important northern conduit for the classic traditions of those such as Aquarium. She continues to handle rock in a quintessentially Russian manner - as a poetically consequential vehicle for social issues. 

In actual fact, she today tells Lenta.Ru that her very first encounter with the songs of Aquarium was through a school friend who used to imitate the confrontational vocal delivery typical of bands at the Leningrad Rock Club. Surganova's grand interpretation of "One More Time" (Eshche Odin Raz) - a very recent Aquarium work of 2008 - comes from her conviction that it "displays an amazing sense of scale and [social] relevance." Grand themes and a(n unwaveringly) grand tradition deserve an equally impressive treatment.

An amazing sense of scale and [social] relevance

St. Petersburg's Animal Jazz were founded two years before Nochnye Snaipery. They're represented here in two forms, since the band's side-project Zero People also sent in a track for consideration. The reasons for doing so were sketched by vocalist Aleksandr Krasovitskii. He recalls first hearing the songs of Grebenshchikov when visiting his sister in a Saint Petersburg student dorm. "That was the time in my life when I first began drinking vodka, too..."

Slot (Moscow)

This connection between late Soviet daring and private challenges - between public and private forms of change - is what endures for many of the tribute bands. The songs of Aquarium, coming from a period of huge civic transition, nonetheless help today's young romantics to handle various tricky shifts within their own, minor experience. Metaphors of alteration, transformation, and possible failure work well on an individual scale, too.

For that reason, no doubt, the Animal Jazz and Zero People tracks have gone down very well with listeners. Students and subversives have much in common. "This is one of the best covers in the project. Thanks, guys, for your work. Lots of people rate it highly!"; "These versions work especially well. (Nobody spoiled them!)" The song chosen by Animal Jazz refers, in fact, to the experience of an entire generation of "sweepers and night watchmen," i.e., those poets and performers who took on any employment in order to survive creatively. Since those sacrifices may have been forgotten today, one of the comments at Lenta calls these new interpretations "a kind of cover version for the U2 generation." 

Cover versions for the U2 generation

A dignified heritage is vivified.

Should even more volume be needed to wake up today's social slackers, Moscow's alt-metal kingpins Slot do a very good job. Band member Cache looks back, once more, to a 1983 song from just before the time of his own youth. What has endured from that prior generation - and how? Cache admits that a certain "meditative" air continues to stand out from Grebenshchikov's original material - but that needed to be "turned upside down" for a younger audience in 2012.

I Drug Moi Gruzovik (Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine)

Modernity, having forgotten the risks and challenges of young people during an imperial collapse of the 1980s, needs now to be shaken from its slumber. The Aquarium texts are just as relevant: they simply need to be amplified and accelerated. Styles prove themselves to be relatively fickle; the impact of Grebenshchikov's poetry lasts much longer. 

Slot's vocalist Nookie concurs: her first encounter with the band came via a music teacher at high school. "Despite the [advanced] age of these songs, they've not lost their relevance. Rock music's just as vital and challenging as ever! Grebenshchikov's texts are still strong stuff..."

Grebenshchikov's texts are still strong stuff

One might argue that the textual, poetic thrust of Aquarium is best preserved this time around by the Ukrainian trio I Drug Moi Gruzovik, whose vibrant melange of rap and funk from Dnipropetrovsk is designed to keep witty verse foregrounded - from start to finish. Anton Slepakov from IDMG recalls seeing Aquarium first on Soviet TV of the 1980s, when state media toyed nervously with the potentials - and dangers - of a youth audience. Little by little, rock music started to reach national audiences around the USSR. Slepakov's first impression was that of complexity: he had trouble understanding the band's intricate texts and obscure musical references. Those same references were, of course, deliberately designed to foster a healthy complexity amid ideological platitudes. 

They respected - and flattered - an audience's intelligence.

Zero People (Saint Petersburg)

It seems fitting, therefore, to end here with a couple of opposing covers: although they represent two very different styles - fueled by guitars on one hand and a laptop on the other - they overlap philosophically. More specifically, we mean the interpretations from Saint Petersburg's excellent Torba-na-Kruche and Moscow's equally fine Mujuice (Roma Litvinov). The former composition emerges from an enduring respect for rock's heritage, while the latter filters a forty-year tradition through a wide range of bedroom software. Nonetheless, they both return us to the aforementioned themes of youth and school. 

Aquarium's "complex" songs, designed to investigate a troubled social fabric, are seen by many of today's bands as a reflection of private, equally worrying issues. Stories of private dignity amid civic woes have continued to mean a great deal to young men and women facing the hassles of adulthood - in a very different society. "Perestroika" need not be an ideological process. And so we look back - once more - to the record collections of schoolboys and girls around Russia.

All those fairytales and BG's beautiful allegories

The frontman of Torba-na-Kruche, Max Ivanov, remembers swapping Aquarium tapes with a schoolfriend - and, in time, the amazing visit by the band to a small provincial airport near his hometown. "There were things I needed to know during my youth - in order to have some self-confidence. Those issues were closely tied to the songs of Aquarium. Grebenshchikov's texts were especially important for me. I mean the sense of his words - all those fairytales and his beautiful allegories. It was a kind of verbal lacework... one that 'BG' continues weaving to this day."

Max Ivanov, Torba-na-Kruche (Saint Petersburg)

As for Mujuice, he more than anybody in this current overview transforms a forty-year tradition into something electronically fashionable. Whatever those differences or discrepancies, though, the schoolboy connections endure - from another city and another generation. Songs of social rebellion suit the anxious experience of a detached youth. And so Mr. Litvinov looks back to his teens: "Aquarium wrote the soundtrack to my schooldays. Their music played constantly at house parties - and would unavoidably pop up in our mp3 players..."

That closing media reference takes us swiftly away from the times and traditions of vinyl or cassette tapes.

Aquarium wrote the soundtrack to my schooldays (Mujuice)

The reactions to Mujuice's version of "Rock 'n' Roll's Dead" have been both positive and peevish, which is no surprise. Commenting upon the comments(...), one individual at Lenta.Ru recently chipped in, playing himself upon the song's original lyrics as he did so: "The people leaving these remarks seem so up tight." In the light of those subjective debates, it seems fair to say that the catalog of Boris Grebenshchikov and his colleagues may have spawned a tribute project of this size due to its social relevance, but that same scale is built upon intensely private experiences. A universal importance is spun from a wealth of subjective differences - as a result of which, these ongoing spats and disagreements can only be cause for celebration.

They're proof that audiences still care.

Moscow's Mujuice (Roma Litvinov)


Torba-na-Kruche – Back to Arkhangelsk
Animal Jazz – Generation of Sweepers and Watchmen
Zero People – Gosudarynia (Sovereign)
Mujuice – Rock 'n' Roll's Dead (1)
Slot – Rock 'n' Roll's Dead (2)
Leningrad – Train on Fire

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