The Beatles and the Collapse of the Soviet Union

taken from Sheffield Doc Fest

“Music is prophecy,” says Jacques Attali, in his book Noise: The Political Economy of Music. “Our music foretells our future. Let us lend it an ear.”

* * *

A history teacher of mine once told me that “it was those damn Beatles that ruined America.” Although he was joking, there was no doubt that he was, in many ways, correct. The Beatles weren’t intentionally creating subversive music, and their goal wasn’t to push forward drug culture or the sexual revolution–no one could be that ambitious. But with the angst broiling under the seemingly genuine “Leave it to Beaver” mentality that lingered from the 50’s, and John, Paul, George, and Ringo’s impulse to push rock music to its limits with every album, the country had no choice but to crumble within its ideals and push the limits themselves.

In the U.S.S.R., however, it was different. The Beatles were not permitted to play in Mother Russia, their records were banned, and the group essentially became a modern legend for the youth of Russia. In the A&E documentary, Paul McCartney in Red Square, viewers are shown Russia’s excitement of having a Beatle visiting their country for the first time, nearly forty years after Beatlemania. Within that documentary, author and former director of the Salzburg Global Seminar, Timothy Ryback provided an explanation as to why the Beatles were forbidden:

Marxism, Leninism–the very foundation for the Soviet system–said that the economic structure, the basis of a society, affected what he called the “super structure”–which is everything: religion, music, the way people think. And there was something called the dialectical relationship, which meant the way people thought affected the way the economy functioned, and the way the economy functioned affected the way people thought, and therefore you needed censorship to control the system.

X-Ray Record–taken from Liverpool Echo

Ryback essentially explained that the Beatles were a major threat to the super structure, and when one effected the super structure, it would bring about change. It can also be assumed that when something is not permitted, the people will crave it more.

Eventually, the Russians figured out ways to distribute the Beatles’ music. According to Leslie Woodhead’s article, “How the Beatles Rocked the Eastern Bloc,” “Beatles tracks [were] copied from illicit tape recordings and inscribed on to old x-ray plates.”

Russian music critic Artemy Troitsky, in the same A&E Documentary, explained that “the Beatles started a whole, huge movement in the Soviet Union.” He went on to further say that the movement “involved millions of young people” who still “lived in the Soviet Union in their body, but mentally and spiritually they were somewhere else.” The foreboding prophecy that the Soviet Union would soon collapse began to loom over the Motherland’s head.

For one group to influence an entire generation to seek beyond the limits, within a country that held an iron shield over itself, is hard to fathom. But it brings up the question, what will today’s music foretell?

In a time where hardly anything makes the Western world blush, I don’t believe music has the power it once had. Simon Reynolds sums it up well in his article “Noise,” writing that:

The problem is that, with any drug or intoxicant, tolerance builds up rapidly. . . As the barriers in the head get broken down, the noise buff becomes kind of a hip vegetable, by a process that paradoxically combines both brutalization and weakening. To be shocked requires that the individual be immersed to some degree in a culture or value system. But noise hipsters have uprooted themselves so successfully from their parent culture, they can cope with absurd levels of outrage/dissonance, and therefore require extreme after extreme in order to feel stimulated/mindblown. Burnout approaches.

Has too much noise been created? Is it possible that society is burned out?

  1. jrdacula said:

    I really enjoyed this. Using the Beatles as an example of music as prophecy was an excellent choice of topic. Your question towards the end is haunting as well: “what will today’s music foretell?”

    The Russian’s determination to have Beatles’ recordings in spite of them being banned at the time, and their success in doing so seems to interestingly correlate to music’s development from being a luxury to the bourgeoisie to being a sound for the masses. If certain people are restricted to do or say or obtain something in life, rebellion seems to be the inevitable outcome of that. We see this with the Beatles and Russia, with segregation and the dismantlement of the Jim Crow laws, and even in the risk-taking pop stars to continue to push the envelope to desensitize what the public might have previously thought as shocking. So is this music’s prophecy today? Could the fact that mainstream music appeals to the masses and is obtainable by all connote a future in which everything’s a free-for-all, essentially? Or, as you and Reynolds point out, a “burnout?”

    Great post. It really had me thinking.

    • You really captured the academic tone in this piece, but still kept it very clear and to the point. I think it is interesting to show how the beatles really effected the people of Russia at a time when everything was banned.

      Though, I do believe that we have sort of spiraled into this era of not caring about music as much as we once did or not having music be as powerful as it once was, I just can’t fully believe that this is what we have to look forward to. I think in history there have always been lulls and now may just be our lull, before the next big movement or innovation comes. The thing is we really cannot compare ourselves to past generations and past decades because things in general have changed so much from then that the world is a completely different place. The way music is produced, recorded, distributed and listened to is completely different than ever before. The situation today is completely different than the 60’s. For this basic reason, and many because I am a dreamer at heart, I still believe that there is some power left in music. Look at how people have been fighting to and finding ways to download music off the internet. We desire the consumption of the music, so we still have some fight in us! That is the first step. When we stop caring enough to consume the music, then we will have to worry about the problem of being completely burnt out.

  2. 7ashis said:

    While I can’t help but to hope that what kristenhimmie said is true, and that society is not burned out, the realist (or maybe cynic) in me can’t help but shake my head sadly. Think about it, we not only live within our society’s ideology, but we know we live in it and don’t do anything about it! We are taught, and know we are taught to follow and live in our society and we do so with our eyes wide open.
    The top three songs on MTV’s list for 2011 are Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass,” and Rihanna’s “We Found Love.” So, I find it doubtful that we are heading for any kind of revolution. And if our future is foretold within these songs, I guess I should go find love, lose it, take a lot of drugs, and care about money….oh, the future is looking bleak.

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