MOSCOW — Alexei Belov, the blond lead guitarist for the Soviet rock group Gorky Park, got up early enough on his first morning home in months to make the 45-minute drive from his parents' apartment to Lenin Stadium by 10 a.m.
Belov, who speaks English well, seemed a bit self-conscious when he found himself almost alone in the huge, 100,000-capacity stadium, which was built in 1955 and upgraded for the 1980 Olympics. The first sound check for the Moscow Music Peace Festival wasn't scheduled for another four hours.
When asked about his early arrival, the somewhat shy, 31-year-old musician mentioned something about wanting to make sure that the band's equipment had arrived safely from the United States, where Gorky Park had spent the last several months recording an album that was just released by PolyGram Records.
After a few minutes, however, it became clear that the real reason Belov had come early to the stadium was that he wanted to savor every minute of what he felt was an historic weekend.
To Belov, the festival--starring Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osbourne and other rockers in the most ambitious display of Western hard-rock ever staged in the Soviet Union--was more than just the East/West cultural breakthrough that was being hailed in the media. It was the most graphic and emotional sign yet of change in his country: a change that had helped renew his long submerged rock 'n' roll dreams.
Belov's story offers a compact guide to the obscure workings of Russian rock. For years, Belov was a "forbidden" musician here, unable to perform on radio, television or on records--not because of anything politically subversive in the lyrics of his old band, he said, but because the group, Moscow, was causing its young fans to become too excited.
"That band was a very exciting time for us," said Belov, whose long black coat, black shirt and black pants gave him a stark, aristocratic aura. "I had been in other bands, but they were 'approved' pop bands . . . not really the music I loved.
"Moscow was a band that played music like we heard from the West. And it was wonderful to have the audience screaming and excited, but the officials said it was too wild . . . too passionate and we had to stop. I think they thought it was too Western . . . thus anti-Communist."
Heartbroken and frustrated, Belov was forced for the next few years to play "wild clubs"--the Soviet equivalent of the "buckets of blood" dives in the United States. They were clubs where people come more to fight and drink than to hear music--places that authorities apparently didn't take time to monitor.
Finally unable to take the violent environment, Belov turned his back on rock 'n' roll. He put down his guitar and began working in recording studios, helping other bands on arrangements and concepts.
Then came Gorbachev and perestroika and glasnost, and Belov thought again about making music. Just as things started loosening up in other areas of Soviet life, musicians were given more freedom and, eventually, allowed access to the West.
The band Gorky Park was pieced together by Stas Namin, an early Russian rock performer and the grandson of a former chairman of the Supreme Soviet Presidium. Thanks to some contacts he had made in the West, Namin got Gorky Park a U.S. recording contract with PolyGram and helped put together the Moscow Music Peace Festival where the band and two other Namin-connected Soviet groups shared the bill with five Western entries: Bon Jovi, Osbourne, Motley Crue, the Scorpions and Skid Row.
After the years of disillusionment and doubt, Belov seemed awed by the dramatic changes in his life.
Standing on the field in the vast, empty stadium, he said, "This is unbelievable. This is a place for the Olympics . . . for soccer. Who ever thought there would also be rock 'n' roll here?
"We played in Leningrad with the Scorpions last year, but they wouldn't allow the show in Moscow. Officials were scared. They thought something bad might happen if this many young people got together. Now, they realize that things must change . . . that you can't deny people things that are important to them, like music, forever. I'm just glad it came in time for me."
Alexley (Kozlov), Andrei (Makarevich), Stas (Namin) and Alexander (Gradsky) are some of the famous first names from the early days of Russian rock, but the most important rock names to Russian fans have always been John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Like their counterparts around the world, Soviet teen-agers were caught up in the fresh, exuberant sounds of the Beatles in the '60s. They tried their best, within the limits of available clothing and social pressure, to look like the Fab Four, and they cherished tapes or records smuggled into the country by friends and soldiers after visits to the West.
Stas Namin, grandson of Anastas Mikoyan, Presidium chairman in 1964 and 1965, was among those enthralled with the sounds of records like "A Hard Day's Night" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
"I heard them on tapes and on the radio and I immediately wanted to play the guitar," said Namin, who operates a recording studio and stages concerts at his own theater in Gorky Park, an area of Moscow described as roughly the equivalent of Griffith Park in Los Angeles.
Namin, who also speaks English, formed his first group in 1965 and became part of the first wave of rock in Russia.
"The music was officially 'forbidden' because it was thought of as rebellious," he said, sitting in a production office at Lenin Stadium on the morning of the first day of the festival. "They thought it would drive the young people too wild and make them (identify) too strongly with the West.
"But you could still play it in little clubs . . . underground rooms. We weren't (frustrated) because it was impossible to imagine that rock 'n' roll would ever be official in this country. We didn't think about ever playing in the U.S. or Britain or have those bands come here because we didn't think (personally) about going to Venus or Mars either. It was just a different world."
Namin, who is now in his early 40s, built a considerable following, moving back and forth between the two categories in the country's complicated--and now apparently less pervasive--system of "amateur bands" and "professional bands."
In his book "Back in the USSR," Artemy Troitsky describes the difference between the two kinds of groups. Members of the "amateur" groups are not allowed (officially, at least) to earn money. They are expected to have regular day jobs and receive no state support, and in turn don't have to deal with official cultural agencies.
With "professionals," music is their main job. They belong to an official, state-affiliated concert organization that books shows for them throughout the Soviet Union. The group must present itself to an artistic council for approval. This council can cancel an act's approved status, thus rendering the band "forbidden."
Professionals, Troitsky writes, enjoy several advantages, including wages, the opportunity to tour and play large venues, free musical equipment and the right to appear on radio, TV and records. The amateur groups have just one advantage: greater freedom in expressing themselves. Authorities, Namin said, didn't seem to worry about the latter groups because their shows were fairly underground, restricted to small rooms rather than large halls.
Like Belov, Namin was eventually declared "forbidden" after forming a band, Flowers, that also seemed to stir too many Western-style passions. Besides, Namin said, the cultural officials thought the group's name was too closely identified with drugs and American flower-power sentiments.
But Namin--under the name Stas Namin Group--continued to perform and by the '80s was granted "approved" status again. Soon after the arrival of glasnost , Namin accepted an invitation to do some shows in the U.S. and, later, Japan.
He returned home and began building a music organization that manages bands and sponsors concerts.
Namin works with some 40 bands, representing styles ranging from new wave and hard rock to jazz-rock. He said he chose Belov's group, Gorky Park, to promote first in the West because he thinks the first "Soviet super group"--as he terms it--should be "a positive band with classic rock overtones, strong masculine voices and vibrations of the land."
But, he says, he has many bands of equal quality in the wings. "Gorky Park is just the beginning," he said. "You will be hearing a lot in the '90s from our bands."
Belov was born in the center of Moscow, right behind the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. He remembers hearing his parents' recordings by Bill Haley and other '50s stars of rock as a child, but it was the Beatles who first made him want to be a musician.
"I couldn't understand any of the words, but I didn't care," he said, sitting with the four other members of the band in a stadium dressing room the day before the festival. "I just loved the sound.
"The funny thing is we had no idea that they were popular all around the world. We just loved the music. All of a sudden, a lot of people my age were playing guitars. We all wanted to be the Beatles. I saved some money and bought an acoustic guitar and taught myself how to play."
While attending architecture college, Belov played in amateur bands, performing original tunes and versions of songs by such groups as Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple.
The records by these bands weren't sold in the state shops because the government frowned on rock and because the state label, Melodiya, wasn't willing to pay royalties to the Western artists. Still, he said, it was easy to acquire them through friends who traveled to the West and in "unofficial" stops that were apparently allowed to operate on a sort of black market basis by the government.
Despite a promising future in architecture, Belov opted for music--even though he realized that in Russia he would probably never be able to enjoy either the financial or artistic rewards rockers in the West received.
Belov joined a "professional" band when he was 18, earning the equivalent of $100 to $200 a month--roughly the average salary in the Soviet Union at the time. Though the first group sometimes played before crowds as large as 15,000 to 30,000, Belov eventually became frustrated because the music was more pop-oriented than the rock he loved.
The group, Belov said, played each night from a list of songs filed with the state cultural committee. Though tempted, the band never tried to sneak in other favorites because there was always the fear that "someone could be around and you could be suddenly stopped one day and not allowed to play any more."
The guitarist then formed Moscow, a band that leaned more toward rock. He was thrilled--until the band got so popular that the government closed it down. Recalling the period, he said, "When they declared us 'forbidden,' I felt like I had almost been killed . . . that I was dying."
Belov had offers to play in several pop-oriented, state-sponsored bands, but he described them as "very, polite, very safe, very boring." He opted for the nerve-wracking "wild clubs" until he was drained.
The road to Gorky Park began when Namin returned from performing in the U.S. and began assembling his new band, which also includes singer Nikolai Noskov, bassist Sasha Minkov, drummer Sasha Lvov and guitarist Jan Ianenkov. With their previous groups, the musicians had collectively sold more than 10 million albums in the Soviet Union.
Able to operate outside of the old "approved/forbidden" system, Belov declares the band as absolutely independent.
"Being in this band is like being reborn," he said. "We were playing real rock 'n' roll again, and kids liked it very much. We played festivals for 25,000 people almost immediately and then we began thinking about America."
The bridge to America and PolyGram Records came through Namin's link with New Jersey-based manager Dennis Berardi. With the help of a good word from Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora, a long-time friend of Berardi, Gorky Park got signed by PolyGram Records. The group, which is expected to tour here late this year, is already getting exposure on MTV.
"We realize the Russian thing is going to get the band a lot of attention in the beginning, but that only lasts for a couple of weeks," Berardi said backstage at Lenin Stadium. "After that, the band will have to prove itself."
The Moscow Music Peace Festival, which was given extensive coverage by MTV and was shown on a pay-per-view basis in the United States, was Gorky Park's first big chance to state its case--at least electronically--to a Western audience.
Though the Western acts, especially Ozzy Osbourne, drew the most cheers, the Soviet bands, too, were warmly received. Dozens of fans waved Soviet flags as Gorky Park went through some of its own songs in English and topped its 50-minute set both days with a version of the Who's "My Generation."
But the group's performance was shaky during the first day of the festival. Though the music has some bite on record, it seemed rather dated live--much like a replay of the "corporate rock" sound of such '70s best-sellers as Journey.
Lead singer Noskov didn't help by wearing lace pants that made him look more like Lita Ford than a rock hero. Things were sharper musically the second day, but the band's movements still seemed stiff and a bit old-fashioned.
Belov acknowledged before going on stage here that most Russian bands are way behind the times, but he feels that greater exposure to the Western rock world will help the groups update their presentations.
The atmosphere at the festival was loose and relaxed, much the way the city itself seemed. Visiting here 10 years ago, a reporter was struck by the way people on the street seemed uncomfortable when approached, and especially when an interview was attempted.
But now they tended to speak much more generously, seeming even eager to express their feelings to visiting reporters about the changes in their country and the changes they feel are still needed.
Both Western and local participants in the concert--including Bon Jovi manager Doc McGhee and Stas Namin--spoke of the festival as a sort of Soviet Woodstock. But fans, too, spoke in terms of a cultural breakthrough. Some in the crowd had traveled as long as four days by train from Siberia to be on hand.
The biggest prizes of the day were concert T-shirts, which were sold from the back of two giant trucks just inside the stadium's outer gates. The festival sponsors had flown in 30,000 T-shirts and they were reportedly all sold (despite a fairly hefty $40 price tag) within 90 minutes. Fans lined up 10 and 12 deep the entire time at the rear of the truck.
The enthusiasm wasn't all out of love for rock 'n' roll, pointed out one local resident, who said he runs a one-man black market operation. He said the T-shirts--like the much-publicized Paul McCartney album of oldies that was released only in the Soviet Union--are like currency. The man, who appeared to be in his early 20s, said he somehow got 1,000 of the McCartney albums straight from the factory and now trades to Soviet citizens or sells them to tourists for much valued U.S. dollars.
After Gorky Park's set, Belov and the other members of the band walked out among the crowd. This was no time to stay isolated in the dressing room. Just as he had been moved by the empty stadium a few days before, he again seemed moved by seeing it filled with rock fans.
"For years, people here thought about the day when things would be better, but finally it got to a point where they no longer believed it," he said during the festival weekend. "I think Gorbachev realized there was no way we could live like that any more. It was time to give people more freedom and, for me and all the people here, part of that freedom was rock 'n' roll."