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Let’s say right off that the real history of Aquarium is beyond description in numbers and facts. The most precise chronicle of biography may serve as some kind of guide, however it’s still nothing but a myth. The real history of Aquarium is found in the songs. It’s all there. Aquarium was formed in Leningrad in 1972. Under the dominant and ruthless Soviet political system, which called for all people to live under the same ideology and constrained culture, rock music was like a breath of fresh air. Rock’n’roll became an attractive substitute for the Soviet way of life. However, it was virtually impossible to play Rock’n’roll because it was directly opposite to the system – it was banned from radio and television.
However, change gradually began to take place… something new was in the air. Although not everyone felt Rock’n’roll’s pull, there were others who were drawn by an internal need to play Rock’n’roll and Boris Grebenshikov was one of them. At that time, he studied Applied Mathematics at Leningrad University. Together with his close childhood friend, Anatolii Gunitskii (nickname “George” due to his similar looks to George Harrison) – a playwright and a poet-absurdist, Boris Grebenshikov formed the rock band and named it Aquarium. Gradually the number of band members evolved. Andrei Romanov (flute, piano), Vsevolod Gakel (cello), Michail Fainstein-Vasiliev (drums) and Alexander Alexandrov (bassoon) joined the band. George left the band and pursued a career in the theater. However, over time, his lyrics were used in many songs. The first years for the band were “a time of vague mythology, wandering in the Engineer’s Castles of this world with a guitar, a flute and a cello.” (B.G.) [Translator’s note: The “Engineer’s Castle” was originally built in St. Petersburg by Emperor Paul I, the son of Catherine the Great, and named St. Michael’s Castle. It was later used as an army engineer’s school and renamed as the “Engineer’s Castle”. And on the very steps to the castle Aquarium rehearsed and George’s amateur plays were performed.]
Despite the “official” isolation of the Soviet people from western culture, western music always played a significant role in Aquarium’s music. Boris Grebenshikov once said: “…I grew up listening to recordings and the radio, and without a doubt Rock’n’roll was a magical combination of sounds coming out of the speakers.” A solid knowledge of English enabled the leader of the band easily to navigate through the sea of western music. The bar set by the Aquarium was at the world performance level. It all began in 1980 when rock music was active but underground. The authorities could not help but notice the interest developing in rock music and gradually began to allow musical events to take place. On one hand, if concerts were permitted, it allowed the authorities to monitor the musicians and fans. On the other hand, it offered the musicians the opportunity to perform publicly and increase their exposure. This marked the beginning of the legalization and legitimacy of rock music in the Soviet Union. Rock music became officially legal later on, despite the establishment of a rock club in 1981 in Leningrad. A famous rock festival took place in Tbilisi, in the Georgian Republic in 1980. Aquarium performed there. The band, which at that time played punk music, caused a big controversy among the jury at the festival. The band never officially opposed the government but lived in a different world (a well-known notion which proclaims “Aquarium – is a way of life” (B.G.)). It was obvious the band’s free way of life was entirely too free for the “official” point of view. As a result of his performance, Boris Grebenshikov was terminated from his job as “an engineer for 100 rubles” [lyrics found in song 25 to 10 from the ‘Acoustic’ album] and was expelled from the Komsomol [translator’s note: the Komsomol was the political arm for the Soviet youth which was the stepping stone to success and membership to the Communist Party.] These changes in life only minimized his chances (according to the Soviet code of political ethics) to get back on the “right track”. He started working as a security guard and continued playing his music.
The underground musician and the underground recording of his music went hand in hand. Recordings were extremely valuable… they were copied repeatedly, dozens of times and up to now, have been carefully preserved by witnesses who lived during those times. There were very limited opportunities for professional studio-quality recordings and it was difficult to record a full-fledged album (although Aquarium managed to do it). However quality music studios did exist and one of them, perhaps the most famous studio was Andrei Tropillo’s music studio, where all the legends of Russian rock recorded their music. Many of Aquarium’s albums were recorded there as well. They are “Sinii Albom” [Blue Album], “Treugolnik” [Triangle], “Akustika” [Acoustics], “Elektrichestvo” [Electricity], “Taboo” [Taboo], “Den Serebra” [Day of Silver], “Deti Dekabrya” [Children of December]. In the ‘70’s and ‘80’s Aquarium’s concert venues were apartments. These concerts were unique Russian phenomena, brought about by the underground musicians. They were usually “unplugged”, as noise would cause the neighbors to alert the authorities. The chamber like atmosphere fostered intimacy with the group and its audience, listening with baited breath; and perhaps someone recording it on a simple tape. The authorities usually broke up these mini concerts. In spite of all dangers involved in supporting a prohibited music even by simply attending a forbidden “apartment” concert the numbers of Aquarium’s fans were growing. Aquarium was becoming more and more popular as it always stood for freedom. It wasn’t about fighting for freedom. It was free. This gave the audience the new perception of itself and the sound of the band was always as unexpected as it was various. In the sounds of Aquarium you may find reggae and blues, punk and jazz, and a rich variety of ethnic motives ranging from Irish to Oriental, both a heavy electrical sound and a transparent acoustics. Aquarium was always a part of the world culture. It’s grounded in the world rock-n-roll tradition and has profound Russian roots. 1983 album “Radio Africa” is an example of harmonization of these backgrounds.
Moreover, these songs, which many consider as philosophical confessions, are always beautiful and diverse. The band’s broad style ranges from reggae to blues, punk to jazz, “heavy” electrical sound to translucent acoustics and includes a whole slew of various ethnic and folklore influences – from Irish to Asian. Clearly Aquarium is part of the world music culture with its deep Russian roots and inseparable contemporary worldly Rock’n’roll tradition. Aquarium’s very nature is eclectic and diverse, and fuses together in harmony all forms of music styles, trends and techniques. A good example is the album “Radio Africa” released in 1983, which became a big benchmark in the history of Russian music. It was a step forward, to a higher level as far as content, originality and the quality of the recording. With the divine assistance, Aquarium did everything possible and impossible to record albums, living on a penniless existence, and leading a semi legal and sometimes completely illegal life, Aquarium continued its deprived existence until, finally, things began to change. The mass media in particular, began at first somewhat cautiously and timidly to cover rock concerts. In 1984 and in 1986 Aquarium took part in the televised show Musical Ring, which was shown on National state-run TV. A plethora of shows, TV and press interviews followed later on. The band’s popularity was immense at that time. Its fans, dreaming about seeing their favorite musician, were always in the entrance and on the stairs leading to Boris Grebenshikov’s apartment in Leningrad. As Aquarium toured, their concerts were always sold out and drawing record attendance. “Since the fall of 1986 moving from one stadium to another, hearing such loud accolades, it was as if we had abolished Soviet power ourselves.” (B.G.) Aquarium recorded and released a series of remarkable albums: “Den Serebra” [The Day of Silver], “Deti Dekabrya” [Children of December], “Desyat’ Strel” [Ten Arrows]. In 1987 the band recorded “Ravnodenstvie” [Equinox].
Aquarium had been evolving with a variety of different musicians playing in the band. This noticeable flexibility enabled the band to have the right musician at the appointed moment either in the recording studios or at concerts. Top musicians worked with Aquarium, for instance, Sergei Kurekhin – an excellent pianist, a man with a unique musical worldview. He occasionally played with the band and had a great impact on the music. The genius electric-guitarist, Alexander Lyapin, the brilliant bass player Alexander Titov, the violinist Alexander Kussul, whose violin brought the music to a higher unsurpassed level and many, many other talented professionals played in Aquarium. A double album ‘Red Wave – 4 Underground Bands From the USSR’ was released in 1986 in the USA. It included six songs by Aquarium. Meanwhile, the country had been experiencing unprecedented changes. The solid wall, which had separated the USSR and the West, was gradually being chipped away. Different international music and art related contacts were imperative. A Russian-Western music project came about with Boris Grebenshikov selected as the Russian representative, “…it looked like, since 1917, I turned out to be the first free Russian to travel abroad”. In 1989, while in the US, Boris Grebenshikov recorded the album “Radio Silence”(the first album in English). Well-known rock musicians, mostly from the band Eurythmics, took part in the recording of the album. The album turned out to be exceptionally interesting – it differed from Aquarium’s previous works as far as sound. Boris Grebenshikov toured Russia introducing the new album “Radio Silence”. In 1990, in London another English album was recorded entitled ‘Radio London’. During this trip abroad Boris Grebenshikov met a variety of famous western musicians. He would include them on future records. Meanwhile some of the Aquarium band members, while their leader was away, worked on independent projects.
Upon his return to Russia, Boris ardently began to play his new songs. However, the band was reinvented and renamed BG-Band. New faces joined the group: the multi talented instrumentalist and musicologist Oleg Sakmarov, the genius accordionist Sergei Schurakov, the guitarist Alexei Zubarev, the violinist Andrei Reshetin, and drummer Petr Troschenkov to name a few. This group had, according to Boris, “a different mission”. The songs from that period, which most of them were included on the ‘Russian Album’, became, on one hand, precise and pressing manifestation of the new changes in Russia, and, on the other hand, they reflected the roots of Russian life, which has existed for many centuries. The changing times always grant equal opportunities to both spiritual sides, the uplifted and the corrupt. The‘Russian Album’ is penetrated by a feeling of instability; it has tones of hopelessness and with each song as prayer as Boris addresses God. Then the “return” of the Aquarium came about. In 1993 the magical album was released - “The Favorite Songs of Ramsey IV”, followed by consecutive releases (from 1994 to 1996) of three remarkable albums, which composed a unique music series: “Kostroma Mon Amour”, “Navigator”, “Snow Lion”. In them, there are waltzes with typical Russian melodies; tunes that make you hum; and good moods. Again Aquarium demonstrates its love for the eclectic with great influences from Asian music and philosophy. Everything in these three albums possesses entirely specific spirit: very Russian, very rural, the very best of the real Russian heartland. Aquarium has always been adept at playing subtle, chamber music. Possibly, it is the impact of countless apartment concerts, which brought about the wise and meditative style, that special tone of the tête-à-tête conversation vs. a dialog with a large crowd. Flawlessly recorded songs, the albums are not as much about rock but more about a completely peculiar and original style and form of unique music.
In 1990 Aquarium continued to play practically the same role as in the 70th and the 80th serving as an alternative and breaking through the barriers. To be more precise it was demonstrating an alternative and carrying the most valuable current information. For instance in the early 1990s, there was a movement to return to God, which was manifested in the ‘Russian Album’; during the fall of the system, in which the instability and commercialization of the society took precedence, the country needed Pushkin enlightenment, the soul and love from three albums of the “Russian Period”. After that time, Russia’s atmosphere and general mood underwent significant changes. In 1997 a very deep mythological album was released – “Hyperborea”, a brilliant, Western influenced album “Lilith”, recorded with guest performances by Western musicians from Bob Dylan’s “The Band”. If we are to draw parallels, the songs contained on the album “Lilith” are closely related to mythology and the relationship of the poet and the One, called the Muse which can be found in genuine poetry. Boris Grebenshikov has performed other musicians’ songs as well. In 1994 an album “Songs of Alexander Vertinsky” was released, and in 1999 – “Songs of Bulat Okudzhava”. Both albums were very authentic, had an original spirit of the songs, but at the same time each of the songs was uniquely BG. Moreover, other very exciting projects were being undertaken, for instance, recordings of the instrumental albums and also the fabulous album ‘Refuge’, which features Tibetan mantras, recorded along with Gabrielle Roth and The Mirrors. And the album Bardo with same musicians was recorded in 2002. The album on Anatolii Gunitskii’s poems “Pyatiegolnyi Grekh” [Pentagonal Sin] was released in 2001. Boris has also written music for the theater and movies (the movies by Sergei Soloviev and for Sergei Debizhev’s movie Two Captains – 2). "Y" album released in 1999 is very much unlike all previous records. The 2002 album “Sister Chaos” (or the 30th anniversary of Aquarium) was as strong as it was various and called many of the current events their proper names. The sound of “Sister Chaos” is dramatically different from everything recorded earlier. This album is all about the rhythm.
Aquarium today consists of Boris Grebenshikov and includes the stellar lineup Boris Rubekin – keyboards, Andrei Surotdinov – violin, Vladimir Kudryavtsev – bass, Albert Potapkin – drums, Oleg Shar – percussions. 2003 album “Fisherman’s Songs” was recorded in Russia and in India with Indian musicians. The album also includes some jazz arrangements. It’s very much unlike “Sister Chaos”. There’s nothing monumental or strained about that album and the songs are very light and cheerful. BG is currently performing with excellent musicians: Boris Rubekin on keyboard, Andrei Surotdinov on violin, Vladimir Kudryavtsev – bass, Albert Potapkin – drums, Oleg Shar – percussions, Alexander Berenson – trumpet, Igor Timofeev – saxophone, flute, Fedor Kuvaitsev – clarinet. In spring '05 the Zoom Zoom Zoom albom was out - 10 songs, written on the coast of Mediterranean, recorded in England and Russia and infused with African rhythms. So far nobody knows what the new currently recorded album going to be like. But the old albums are still as far as ever from becoming outdated. So the motto “Rock-n-roll’s dead and I’m nor yet” from the “Radio Africa” hit song keeps us contemplating the nature of the art.
Maria Golikova - 2003
Home page: www.aquarium.ru
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