Friday, October 8, 2010

"How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin"

According to Tristan Mattelart, "in order to understand piracy, we need to move away from the approaches which criminalize it and to consider the various possible social, economic and political reasons for its rise" (311). Though this particular article focuses mostly on video, it can be applied to music as well. In some countries, the underground distribution of banned media allowed it to play a political, subversive role, representing alternative world views.
During the Cold War, the Soviet government banned much of Western music. Alienated youth became disillusioned with communism and the Soviet government, particularly after 1964 during the Era of  Stagnation.

An underground movement developed in which people made copies of records and distributed them.  One such method was “rock on bones” (or "records on ribs") where bootleg records were made by recording short-wave radio (from Radio Luxembourg) or buying copies from tourists, then using exposed X-ray film to create fragile, one-sided records that could last up to a few months. These were then distributed in urban centers or through the mail (Martin and Segrave, 84).

Artemii Troitsky, a well-known Russian DJ and music critic, described this “ribs” technique:

“These were actual x-ray plates–chest cavities, spinal cords, broken bones–rounded at the edges with scissors, with a small hole in the center and grooves that were barely visible on the surface. Such an extravagant choice of raw material for these ‘flexidiscs’ is easily explained: x-ray plates were the cheapest and most readily available source of necessary plastic. 

“People bought them by the hundreds from hospitals for kopeks [pennies], after which grooves were cut with the help of special machines (made, they say, from old phonographs by skilled conspiratorial hands). […] The quality was awful, but the price was low—a rouble or a rouble and a half [roughly $2-3]” (19).

This method is also mentioned in "How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin," a documentary by Leslie Woodhead on the influence of the Beatles in communist Russia during the 1960s. (The process is illustrated at about 11:15.) 

One fan says: "George Harrison once put it very well. 'We gave people hope. We gave people the chance to have fun. We gave people the chance  to forget boredom.' Boredom and other such crap. Stupidity of all kinds: political stupidity, cultural stupidity, spiritual stupidity. The Beatles made us forget all that."

Soviet Beatlemania was huge. Young men and women risked arrest to buy bootleg records. They got Beatles haircuts and were occasionally forced to shave their heads. And if a college student were caught with a Beatles record, he or  she would be automatically kicked out of school. 

Regarding copyright, music producer Andre Trupillo says: "I support not copyright, but copyleft," because of the significant role played by bootleg records in the 1960s. "Musical piracy was the key to freedom in Russia. To have free information." This is in line with Mattelart's discussion of video piracy as used to bypass state controls on communications media. (Interestingly, by the 1970s the Soviet government was making a profit off of its own bootleg copies of select Beatles tracks, released as anonymous "folk music.")

According to journalist Vladimir Posner, "the Beatles did more to undermine the system than any anti-Soviet literature that was passed from hand-to-hand underground." (The documentary is currently available online here.)

Martin, Linda and Kerry Segrave. Anti-Rock: The Opposition to Rock’n’Roll. New York: Da Capo Press, 1993, p. 79-84.

Mattelart, Tristan. "Audio-visual piracy: towards a study of the underground networks of cultural globalization," Global Media and Communication 2009 5: 308.

Troitsky, Artemy. Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia. Winchester, Massachusetts: Faber and Faber, 1987.

1 comment:

  1. I was not aware of the role the Beatles played in the Soviet Union. I found it interesting that the government eventually took an, "if you can't beat 'em join em" (or make money off 'em) approach to bootleg music. I wonder if this notion could be applied to piracy today. Do you think that an international regulatory body or private company could take a similar approach? The creative commons took an innovative position: as long as the law says you can't download media, there will always be problems; but if you remove the laws or create new alternatives, than there is no problem and media can be used by everyone.