WWith a balding hairline and a checkered blazer, a man in his thirties growls the lyrics of a song sung from a pigeon’s point of view into his microphone. “I may be the most dispensable, the most disgusting, shit – but at least I can fly!” perform the monotonous Russian words, bellowed across the stage. To accompany the song, the man contracts and contorts his body and face with the clumsy precision of a broken puppet.
It is 1987 and the Soviet rock group Zvuki Mu (Sounds of Mu), at the dawn of their musical career, gives a concert broadcast on official state television. Onlookers smile and nod their heads, some baffled and others comforted by this strange showman whose familiar appearance looks more like a neighborhood streetcar driver than a rock star.
The performance and song characterized the Moscow-based group Zvuki Mu, whose absurd and absurd lyrics satirized the mundane elements of late Soviet existence – a time when Soviet citizens lost faith in utopian communist ideals. This contortionist leader was the revered Pyotr Mamonov, who died last week of complications from Covid-19 at the age of 70. To his right, strumming a bass, was group co-founder Alexander Lipnitsky, who also died earlier this year at the age of 68, in a skiing accident. Last week, Russians took to social media to lament the losses, which raise the final curtain on a group unlike any other in the country’s history.
As the borders between the Soviet Union and the West became porous in the late 1970s and Mikhail Gorbachev implemented Glasnost, the policy of “openness and transparency” in the 1980s, a new cultural environment gave birth to Soviet rock. Performances were initially held in secret, in apartments, but soon moved to Soviet palaces of culture, often under the supervision of the KGB. It took only a few years for Soviet audiences to elevate their rock stars to cult status among 19th-century Russian authors. But just like their literary predecessors, Soviet rock groups emulated their Western counterparts, in musical composition, lyrics, and visual glamor. While 19th-century romantic poets Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov found solace in the verses of Byron and Shelley, popular Soviet rock groups such as Akvarium and Kino found their muses in the cadences of Bob Dylan and the makeup of Robert Smith.
Zvuki Mu, however, stood out from the crowd, with his looks, his music, and his desire to engage with audiences. “The members looked like Soviet engineers; Mamonov and Lipnitsky were well 30 when they started performing, ”explains Russian cultural critic Yury Saprykin. “Mamonov in particular looked like something of a lumpen-intellectual,” he adds, referring to the leader’s refined but low-key appearance (lumpen, initially a Marxist term for naive members of the lower strata of society, was a word that Soviet citizens used for its alcoholics, vagrants and prisoners). Musician Sergey Ryzhenko described the group’s first concert as a “Russian folk hallucination”. And it was this very ordinary appearance, coupled with banal and simplistic lyrics, that made them so loved and recognizable to Russian audiences.
A popular song praises a “juicy lula-kebab”, a Soviet dish commonly found in cafeterias. Zvuki Mu’s lyrics are often repetitive and contain few words, sketching out the everyday situations in which their languid heroes find themselves. Another hit song, Crimea, makes no mention of the sparkling sea or the ancient architecture synonymous with the peninsula. Instead, it features a man sweating and overheating in a phone booth, begging a relative at home to wire him more money for his alcoholic escapades.
Mamonov’s childhood neighborhood was Bolshaya Karetnaya, known for his criminality and alcohol addiction during the Brezhnev years, who probably cultivated the singer’s aesthetic. As a young adult, Mamonov did a series of odd jobs that Zvuki Mu biographer Sergei Guryev said gave him a “kaleidoscopic and encyclopedic” glimpse into Soviet life. He worked in a boiler room, operated an elevator, lugged coffins of wine, and at one point translated Norwegian literature into Russian.
Meanwhile, her closest childhood friend was former classmate Sasha Lipnitsky, who came from privilege. Lipnitsky’s stepfather was Viktor Sukhodrev, Leonid Brezhnev’s personal translator and a renowned music connoisseur, who brought home records of his travels. From an early age, Mamonov and Lipnitsky had decades-long unprecedented access to Western music, which played a formative role in the development of their group. Mamonov particularly liked the authenticity and rawness of American soul music – Ray Charles, Ike & Tina Turner and Chubby Checker were among his greatest idols. “‘Black’ America has luckily won its hearts over ‘cultured’ British rock ‘n’ roll,” writes Guryev. In Mamonov’s husky voice and the band’s instrumentation, listeners can also find traces of Captain Beefheart.
The musical partnership between Mamonov and Lipnitsky did not blossom until two years after the start of Mamonov’s songwriter career. At one point, Mamonov tried to recruit a troop of local street alcoholics to sing refrains on his verses, but quickly recognized that it was a pipe dream. For a short time, Zvuki Mu consisted of Mamonov and his half-brother, Alexey “Lelik” Bortnichuk, before the Soviet authorities jailed Lelik for “social parasitism” – the official indictment for those who refuse. to work – as a result of a quarrel with his boss at a boiler room. Mamonov’s first performances took place in Lipnitsky’s apartment, a bohemian oasis, where members of the Leningrad and Moscow rock stages shared wine and praise and forged creative partnerships. During the two decades of its existence, the group has undergone multiple iterations, eliminating members for a variety of reasons. Some, like famous music journalist Artemy Troitsky, were too good-looking for the group’s moron aesthetic. Others were too technically trained or lacked the discipline to match the group’s prolific output, such as Sergei “Afrika” Bugaev, an actor and artist who joined Zvuki Mu at just 16 years old. Mamonov even tried to teach his wife to play the bass, before finally inviting Lipnitsky to take the instrument.
On January 28, 1984, some 300 schoolchildren gathered in the theater of the childhood school of Mamonov and Lipnitsky to attend the first performance of Zvuki Mu. Soviet rock stars Sergey Kuryokhin, Boris Grebenshchikov and Andrey Makarevich were present in the audience. The evening was marketed as a high school reunion so as not to incur the wrath of the KGB. Two years later, Zvuki Mu will play his first officially authorized concert at the Kurchatov Palace of Culture in Moscow. As the rooms grew, the performances increased with frenzy. Mamonov dragged various props around the stage – cubes that he assembled and then jumped, camp beds that he stretched out and waved. In 1988, the group released their first album, Ordinary Things.
After making several tours through the Soviet republics, Zvuki Mu was now heading west. In the fall of 1988, Artemy Troitsky helped organize a reunion in Poland that would take Zvuki Mu’s success to heights never before seen by any Soviet rock band. The meeting took place with Brian Eno, who, during a conversation with Mamonov, described the Russian leader as “a wonderful and terrifying guy, like something from the dark ages”. Zvuki Mu immediately struck a deal with Eno which saw the release of two albums under the English label Opal Records. But, for some reason, as Sergei Guryev notes in his biography, Mamonov was suspicious of Eno, forbidding him to make any significant contributions to the production of the album. Mamonov has expressed his desire to collaborate with Frank Zappa instead, or even Brian Ferry, former member of Roxy Music’s Eno group.
As part of the deal, Zvuki Mu will tour twice across the US and UK. During the tours, which Warner Brothers partially funded, Zvuki Mu shared a scene with Pere Ubu, who were so impressed with the performance of their Russian colleagues, that they stalled for 30 minutes before playing a follow-up set. On subsequent tours, Mamonov will meet two of his idols, David Byrne and Peter Gabriel, whom he once described in an interview as soul mates, “ordinary men, but intelligent”. Over the next two decades, the band disbanded and reassembled in several iterations, recording a total of 13 studio albums. They also filmed a music video for their song Harsh Sunset, which was so new that US group The National produced an identical tribute in 2013.
Mamonov remained at the center of everything, and beyond his stage performances, he translated his talent for facial and body expressiveness on screen. In 1990, he starred as an alcoholic saxophone virtuoso – a character not too different from himself – who struck up a tumultuous relationship with a hateful and racist taxi driver in Pavel Lungin’s film Taxi Blues. In one scene, a naked Mamonov plays the saxophone in front of a window; the camera slowly closes onto her bare back in a very haunting shot of a man in full control of his body and without any inhibitions, like his real life counterpart. In 2006, after spending nearly 10 years as a Russian Orthodox convert living in a small village, Mamonov played the role of a Russian Orthodox monk in another Pavel Lungin film, the award-winning The Island. “It is no coincidence that he played this role,” explains Yury Saprykin. “With Zvuki Mu, he projected the image of a lumpen-intellectual, but in his later years, audiences saw him as a Yurodivy-type character – the mad saint of Russian Orthodox scriptures.”
Although he spent his last years in spiritual isolation, Mamonov’s love for performance and music never ceased. He continued to offer concerts and tours as a solo performer until his later years, moving quite unlike an aging individual. And in all performances, he continued to embody Zvuki Mu’s ethos: a lifelong fervor that can only be achieved by embracing his absurd nature.
“Their concerts were a shamanic ritual intended to drive out the demon that slumbered in Soviet consciousness,” writes their biographer Sergei Guryev. For his compatriots, who lived in a society encumbered by authoritarian politics, passivity and cynicism, Mamonov was a sight to behold. In an interview, Mamonov tells the audience to look at their index fingers under a magnifying glass: “There is so much out there: the nerves… everything is moving – you can only marvel at what your body is capable of…… so much. nuances… life is a big thing.