Gashead's Blog Wonders

12May/121

Way Back In The USSR

From Precious Things

A very long time ago, the late 70s to be a bit more precise, I was a student of Linguistic And International Studies or Russian as I told women before utterly failing to impress them at parties. The University of Surrey way was to send people out on an industrial year, the problem with Russian was the lack of collective farm combine harvester placements available to foreign students from The West. Failing that a month of study in Moscow was available over the Easter holidays, so no holiday, no Easter eggs, sounds pretty crap...it wasn't.

Regular readers will know how long it took just to get there in 1978 and as promised this is a collection of tales from when we finally made it. I went again in 1979 and some of the adventures may have taken place then, forgive my vagueness.

Our base was the Hotel Tsentralnaya on Gorky Street, about half a mile up from Red Square, a comfortable old fashioned hotel staffed by an army of women of equal height and waist measurement with Dairylea blonde hair and expressionless faces. The daily routine was lectures in the morning either in the hotel or at an institute followed by an intended afternoon's research in The Lenin Library for my dissertation, yeh yeh! So I did the mornings as required. If it was an external venue there would be a speaker at the front with the inevitable sinister person at the back, usually taking copious notes and wearing a raincoat and dark glasses, unlikely to be a student. One morning we went to The House Of Culture where various groups treated us to scenes from Chekhov or Pushkin's poems, unfortunately they asked us if we could perform something in return. In this instance I took the initiative and it was agreed we all knew the lyrics to Jilted John. On to the stage we went and launched into "I've been going out with a girl, her name is Julie" rather more football terrace than a capella. In my role as artistic director sticking it up to Brezhnev with the tail end of punk I felt it went rather well. I had my eyes fixed on a particularly attractive girl in the front row so, from the stage, asked her what she and her comrades thought of the song only to get the reply "we're from Leeds!" Oh bollocks.

As for the afternoons researching my dissertation, OK I went to the library once but as I didn't even start my dissertation proper until two years later about a fortnight before the deadline using what appeared to be a pre-revolutionary Cyrillic typewriter on Banda stencils during a heatwave with a desk facing the sun my heart wasn't really in it. Instead I would dress up in the dourest possible clothes and walk the streets trying not to look like a westerner lapping up Soviet austerity and boy was it austere. There was no branding anywhere, shops did exactly what they said on the sign, chemist, bookshop, repair of watches and not a western brand or product to be seen anywhere beyond the European butter mountain going for extortionate prices in Gastronom #1. The bookshops were good however, apart from Shakespeare, Robert Burns and Jack London it was all local authors but they did a cracking line in political posters that would take up an entire wall in the hall of residence. An enormous one of Lenin with the slogan "Lenin Lived, Lenin Lives, Lenin Will Live" was a must to impress the cleaning lady with when I got back. They also had lifesize and handily doorsize Lenin posters with Pravda poking out from his jacket pocket, only to be replaced with The Sun back in Blighty.

In GUM, literally state universal shop, there was a record shop selling the state-controlled Melodiya (as in the record shop in Clockwork Orange) works but crucially Beatles and Rolling Stones EPs. They had picture sleeves but no cheeky mop tops, certainly no Mick Jagger, just various trees in full blossom. Either way I bought every one I could find though the real bargain was a 12" single of the Soviet national anthem at 2p. The biggest problem with shopping was that you had to pay in advance, get a receipt then take it to the counter in the hope the item hadn't sold out by the time you had negotiated the two long queues. They were very quick at adding the prices up on an abacus then punching the total into a very modern Sweda till to produce the receipt. They could have used the till but that wasn't the Soviet way. Other purchases were a Communist Party membership card holder which looked very impressive when brandished and endless badges of a political or sporting nature. I trust my set of 21 badges for each of the 1980 Moscow Olympics events in a cardboard presentation folder will recoup me a fortune on eBay one day.

The alternative to walking the streets was going on various trips arranged by Intourist to monasteries, castles and other dostoprimechatelnosti (places of interest to tourists apparently!) Unfortunately they smiled when I asked the price in roubles, it was pounds or dollars only. Roubles I had a long position in but not sterling. I took 5 punk EPs with picture sleeves bought from the reduced bins at home for around 10p each and sold to a black marketeer stood literally in front of the armed guards at Lenin's tomb for £15 but in roubles of course. Spare jeans again attracted £50-60 having been bought from Dickie Dirt's for a fiver, but again in roubles. So I wasn't short of cash, just the right kind of cash.

The first period in Moscow I was picked to join a group of other students either learning Russian on a one year crash course diploma or doing a 4-year degree, both from zero knowledge of Russian whatsoever. This seemed a bit odd as I had been studying Russian for 6 years at school and was now refining it in my second year at university, but they said they were making a film so why not hey? The concept was to enhance learning by giving people scripts and audio tapes of a play for us to learn then improvise around, the improvisation supposedly removed formality and we would learn quicker. We went on regular trips to a top floor penthouse at the Hotel Rossiya with an amazing view of The Kremlin and Red Square where they would film us acting out the scenario of the day. Unfortunately I wasn't too keen on the morning shave and they refused to film me whenever I had stubble! On a couple of occasions we were taken to MosFilm up in the Lenin Hills overlooking Moscow. Around us we saw uncharacteristically beautiful, well dressed people in the studios, these were big stars we were told. This may have been the Soviet equivalent of Hollywood but in the toilets they used cut up sheets of Pravda in place of toilet roll, I kid you not! The finale was an event in front of an audience of academics, again filmed, at the main Moscow TV studios. They were impressed with our progress considering we knew so little Russian when we started, I was a complete fraud but it was fun. A couple of years later some friends went to see a popular film in a cinema in Moscow on their study trip and were astonished to see my picture in the adverts outside for the scientific-educational B-movie. They said they laughed throughout, I have no idea why!

One day a friend of mine asked if I would like to go along and have a drink with some Russians, he had been approached in the street as an obvious foreigner and asked discretely if he could post a letter when he got home. I was in there, Adventuresville, USSR. That was when I met Yura, Tolya and Zhenya. In the weeks that followed we met up every night and again the following year...well apart from Yura who had been called up to the military, didn't fancy it so disappeared into the background. It was a great symbiosis, they knew places we didn't know but equally they knew that only by being associated with our passports would they get in. There was an unlikely looking underground club called Sinyaya Ptitsa where our passports got us through the long queue to discover a den of spoiled Politburo kids drinking Soviet Champagne and dancing to Boney M. Next up was The House Of Actors which stayed open beyond the standard 11pm curfew, OK so we were making a film but again it was their blag and our passports that got us in. Slightly less exclusive was the beer hut in Gorky Park they took a few of us to. The beer was very cheap, the locals very drunk, every now and then a fight would break out and police would appear from behind the trees and escort the pugilists away. A particularly memorable evening was when they took us what seemed like miles across Moscow to see a film they insisted we would love. It was in black and white and around 5 minutes in I realised it was the same film I saw four years previously when the school took me to Leningrad, except it was in colour then. But I laughed along as the lion ran across the square outside The Winter Palace, hilarious no doubt.

One Sunday Zhenya invited a group of us out to his flat where he lived with his parents. At the time there was, I believe, a 30 kilometre limit beyond which foreigners were not allowed to go. This seemed much further. We asked about train tickets but Tolya just laughed and pulled me away from the machine, nobody in their right minds buys train tickets, OK. If somebody asked us where we were from we were to say Lithuania as their version of Russian was roughly equivalent to ours and the accents similar, or so we were told. There were signs everywhere on the train for no smoking and no drinking of alcohol, Zhenya cracked open the first bottle of beer and insisted I share a cigarette with him. There then followed a series of Russian jokes which I followed well until, every time, the punchline. One I recall which he had to explain involved what would they do when Leonid Brezhnev died? They would paint two dots over the E on Lenin's tomb and place him there. OK so this would change the pronunciation to Leonin and apparently that was a popular diminutive used for Leonid in certain rural areas, it was the way he told them! A couple of beers later my bladder was troubling me, unfortunately this suburban train had no facilities so I was directed to the area between the carriages. Having left an obvious trail up the wall and lighting a cigarette a policeman approached me. "Have you got a light mate" or words to that effect and we stood there smoking together, me on the point of needing a more robust toilet facility, fortunately he wasn't an inquisitive man.

We made it to the local station where Zhenya lived and were asked to speak nothing but Russian and speak to nobody who approached us. We walked through an apparent wasteland, very unlike the immaculate streets of central Moscow, in between high rise blocks that all looked exactly the same. Approaching the entrance to Zhenya's block we were asked to say nothing whatsoever until we got up to the flat, neighbours got jealous if people had foreign visitors and reported them to the police or the local party officials. As soon as the door closed, a very thick door, things changed and the party started. Considering the food supplies and the cost of anything decent what we were offered was the equivalent of a Soviet banquet. Zhenya's mum and dad made us very welcome despite the risks they ran having us round and we talked into the late evening about England, Soviet bureaucracy, music, the war and the price of fish. Zhenya pointed out a lump in the snow below, it was where his car was parked under a tarpaulin from around October to April when the snow cleared. He had no job but his black market activities appeared to stretch to a car. As we left we were all presented with elaborate lacquered wooden spoons, such wonderful people.

One evening Zhenya turned up with a surprise. My room was particularly large and I had a full sized reel to reel tape recorder for the tapes we used as part of the film making. Zhenya had gotten hold of reel to reel tapes of Pink Floyd's Ummagumma along with some Rolling Stones and Bad Company. For the rest of the month my room became Party Tsentral. Gastronom #1 was just up the road and had a particularly well stocked off licence by Soviet standards i.e. not much and no alcohol could be sold beyond 6.30pm. So once the tapes had arrived I would head up the road every teatime with my room mate carrying a couple of sports bags to stock up on the evening's wine and beer. Some nights there would be no wine or very little beer but we always got enough for ourselves at least and selected friends. But as the cut off point arrived and the other customers saw our bags filling up with precious stocks shouting would start from those unfortunate enough to be behind in the queue facing an alcohol free evening. Oh those Moscow nights, as the month went on less and less of us seemed to make breakfast the next morning and lectures were missed but our heads were filled with Interstellar Overdrive and bad Georgian red.

Late obe evening my friend Jackie and I decided to treat ourselves to two finest Havana cigars. My one day of library research had turned up the fact that the USSR's exports in military and agricultural equipment to Cuba were almost exclusively paid for by sugar and cigars and the cigars were resold at a very attractive price. As we walked down the street in the snow an old lady clocked us and shouted "young lady" to Jackie "don't smoke cigars in the street!"  We carried on regardless but people were not averse to stating their opinions in public. Whistling in public places was equally likely to attract denunciation. The military and police kept their uniforms on off duty and being a military centre it was very common to see generals on the underground. All tube trains had bench seats and the passengers had no adverts to distract them so they would stare straight ahead, it was rather disconcerting to have a general staring straight into my face for the entire journey. Had I committed another breach of social etiquette?

One particularly interesting fellow student was a mature man by the name of Paul. He had been banged up prior to taking the one year diploma in Russian, supposedly over drugs. He told tales of traffickers who went in transit through Moscow, were forced to go through customs and ended up in gulags. In another tale he had been part of a fake Tour De France team travelling from Morocco through France to Britain with bicycles on the roof and the kind of drugs even the competitors would have turned their noses up at. One night he told me how he managed Pink Floyd in the early days, being a bit anal on the subject I mentioned Peter Jenner "oh yeah, I worked alongside Peter" but copious research through my Floydian literature back home never turned up his name. But back to the subject and Paul had a large sum of roubles with just one day to go before we returned home and they could only be changed back to sterling with official receipts from the Soviet banks for an earlier exchange into roubles. Paul had been selling his sterling at 4-6 times the official rate but bizarrely had also got a job when he was out there, or so he said, translating for the English language Moscow News. His Russian was poor but when he said he would host the mother of all leaving parties in my room I didn't question it.

The plan was hatched. On each floor of the hotel the floor keepers (dejournayas) had samovars which were used for heating up warm water to pour onto Balkan tea leaves. We sourced four of them along with a catering bag of dried fruit and several bottles of vodka. All that was needed for the final kick to this Moscow Mule was around 30 bottles of red wine, 30 bottles of white and beer for the lightweights. Up we went to Gastronom #1, Paul with his fistful of roubles and me with two extra large Adidas sports bags. The staff, to say nothing of the queue behind, were highly pissed off with us for cleaning out their wine supplies but they didn't dare refuse to sell to people with foreign passports. As we walked back to the hotel an apparently sensible looking man looked into my bag and said "I didn't know there was a shortage of wine" and rushed off to the Gastronom, everything my economics teacher told me about Soviet panic buying was completely true it seemed!

It was one hell of a party, memorable even to those incapable of remembering it. The next morning one of my lecturers told me I had spoken my best Russian ever that night in my drunken state, rather disproving the film makers' theory that improvisation was the way to develop linguistic skills, the only way was alcohol. As I returned to semi-sobriety one of the Leeds students with sideboards like Mungo Jerry and Engelbert Humperdinck combined with well rotted manure was unconscious on the floor of my room. Six of us took a limb each and a couple of other bits and carried him up to his room. he was very heavy and we stopped for a breather in front of one of the floor keepers. Next thing she was on the phone to somebody saying there were some English with a body on her floor and the Dawn French Lookalike Society appeared from all other floors to investigate. I think the warm urine over his jeans convinced them he was not a statistic. We got him back to the room, I nipped back for my rarely used shaving kit, returned and removed those awful sideboards. On the coach next day a well shaven man was heard muttering "bastards" repeatedly while nursing a banging headache.

One last surprise was a visit by Zhenya with a large bag. He knew I wanted a proper leather Soviet Army belt rather than the cheaper linoleum type they sold at Voentorg (Army & Navy). He apologised for his lack of success but proceeded to give me an officer's hat, shirt with two pips on the epaulets, a beautiful pair of leather jackboots and a full length First Leningrad Rocket Regiment greatcoat complete with badges and shiny buttons. Thank God I wasn't one of those searched leaving the country. Back at Heathrow I got changed at baggage retrieval and walked through customs looking like a one-man Soviet invasion. I was not stopped.

From Precious Things

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3Jan/103

Being There : The Stranglers University Of Surrey 19th October 1978

First week in October 1978 I returned to Guildford for the 3rd of 4 years of my degree in Linguistic And International Studies (Russian). I was a rich man, £120 a week washing pots for 3 months at The Grand Hotel, Stockholm tax-free because I was also studying Swedish went a very long way, even if I blew £100 in Virgin records the day I got back.

The buzz in the Upper Bar, my first port of call, was that The Stranglers were playing in the hall for the BBC Rock Goes To College series. At long bloody last, we were moving into modern times. I went to most of the gigs, 8 or so a term, much of which we now call Dad Rock. John Martyn, Roy Harper, Steel Pulse and Osibisa probably the best but it was as if punk had never happened. I had to go to the Civic Hall in Guildford to see Stiff's Live Stiffs and Eddie And The Hot Rods with guest appearance by Rat Scabies even if the band didn't appear to want him on the stage.

"So how much are the tickets and where do I get them?"

"They're free and you don't!"

"Que?"

"They gave them all out in Fresher's Week!"

"Do what John?"

Whose bloody stupid idea was that? Part of the fun of gigs at the university was the mixture of fresh-faced kids, old hippies, Iraqi Mech Eng. students, locals from the town and pissheads not quite sure who it was up on the stage but recalling Clapton and Harrison lived nearby and might turn up, like. But this threatened to be a hall full of mummy's boys wearing John Craven jumpers wishing they were watching post-Peter Green Fleetwood Mac or Peter Bloody Frampton. I was outbloodyraged!

The next day after I had calmed down a bit I encountered a young lady I had enjoyed an evening with in Moscow earlier in the year, I was obviously in her favour but more importantly she was on the Entertainments Committee and wondered if my copy of Borras and Christian's Russian Syntax was going begging as I had completed the exam and the bookshop had sold out. A less worthy man might have suggested carrying on where we left off but dyed blondes not normally my type. Subtle enquiry established she had a spare Stranglers ticket to offer above and beyond the fiver to complete the transaction, deal done!

Cometh the hour, cometh The Meninblack. On the day of the gig I was up in my room playing my pink vinyl import 7" EP of Hanging Around + 3 when I looked out my bedroom window facing the amphitheatre at the side of the concert venue and saw the band having a drink and a fag. I quickly grabbed two picture sleeve singles, breathed deeply then walked down to where they were sat trying to look cool and punkish but in reality heart pounding and sure my voice would rise several octaves the minute I opened my mouth. I went up to Hugh Cornwell and Jean-Jacques Burnell and asked very nicely if they would sign my singles (Jet Black was too scary and Dave Greenfield seemed to be on another planet). Hugh said he would sign one and as he took it asked me if I was going later, having said yes in an only slightly silly higher than normal voice both he and J-J looked into my eyes and asked where I got the ticket from. I told them the story about the book and how pissed off I was. They told me how pissed off they were and it certainly showed. The Stranglers are a Guildford band with a substantial fan base in the town going right back to their beginnings. They had been told Bonaparte Records which normally distributed University gig tickets had been given none, this was not what they had agreed with the BBC, their fans were pissed off, the band were pissed off. Had I had a ticket but no singles in my hand I suspect they would have turned me to stone on the spot. I gradually sloped off to avoid petrification but with "I slept on Guildford campus - Hugh Strangler" and "Jean-Jacques Burn...." duly signed.

I spent most of the rest of the day pinning people to the spot, telling them of my encounter with fame and expecting to be taken out to dinner regularly on the strength of it. On the evening the hall filled up, surprisingly most of the regulars who loved all live music whatever the genre, style or attitude had got tickets somehow or other but there was still an element of Noel Edmonds jumper types with a distinct whiff of Brut belying the term Fresher. The girls with Laura Ashley style blouses were just plain wrong, this wasn't Steeleye Span.

On came BBC Producer Mike Appleton all hearty and talking as if it was a scout meeting in a church hall. The plan was that The Stranglers would come on stage, play three or so numbers to warm up and let the sound and camera people ensure everything was right, then he would give us all a sign and the recorded programme would start. Jolly D old chap, top hole. The band walked out, not quite rock and roll "Hello Guildford", still simmering as they were earlier, appearing to check us out. In between songs various things were said designed to make us feel unworthy, taking the piss, pent up anger. But hey, this was punk, that's what they were supposed to do. At one point they asked if anybody was there from the town. The reaction was like Alexei Sayle shouting "Let's bomb Tunbridge Wells" at the Tory Party Conference, barely a handful of cheers. But the performance was amazing, venomous songs sung with venom as it should be, they really went for it. Strange thing was they appeared to be singing all their best songs, putting in 100%, what would be left for the recording? On came Mike Appleton and made the signal, the recording was live during Hanging Around, played with the evening's great sense of urgency and menace :

Watch this video on YouTube.

At the end of the song Hugh Cornwell (William Ellis School, Highgate and BA in Biochemistry, Bristol University) announced "Guildford University never represented Guildford, we hate playing to elitist audiences so fuck off" and off he went with Jean-Jacques Burnell (Royal Grammar School, Guildford and BA in History at Bradford University). Dave Greenfield appeared to disappear while former ice cream van magnate Jet Black added a very rock 'n' roll touch of drama to the walk off by doing unspeakable things to his drum kit.

Oh dear, was it something we said? The nice boys in jumpers all booed, their decency outraged, while I managed to raise a small chorus of "no more Stranglers any more" to the tune of Heroes. On came a very upset Mike Appleton, he spoke through tears about how the band had been leading up to this all day and how very sorry he was and all that stuff. From where I was standing it was entirely the fault of the Ents Committee giving out all of the tickets in such a meat-headed way but equally it was a fantastic evening, the best 15 minutes of live music ever!

Later on back at the Upper Bar Frank Dowling the Students' Union President was telling everybody how he had rung up Fleet Street and the NUS with the message The Stranglers should be banned from everywhere for telling us to go away in a nasty manner. It was all a bit silly, very middle class student attitude blaming the band without even considering his people had caused it through their ticketing policy and either communication with the BBC was lacking or somebody cocked up. It made the papers, nobody banned The Stranglers even for writing much nicer, radio-friendly MOR hits. A year later the BBC returned and we had a fantastic evening of The Average White Band who were still big news playing to 800 of us in the hall, just to make up and that, but this was the real night to remember.

April 2011. For some strange reason this post is suddenly picking up views 15 months after I originally wrote it. The Meninblack website is obviously very active. This is, of course, flattering. I believe in cutting the crap and double-speak and getting to the core of issues, much like Wikipedia. If anybody out there has different interpretations or memories of that night, or the causes of that night I would love to hear them and would happily include them in this article. I get few comments so pop your thoughts in there and I will try and include them and credit you.