RADIO SILENCE: A Reconsideration
The conventional wisdom in Aquarium-lovin' circles is that Radio Silence and Radio London just plain suck, and merit no serious consideration. For example, our very own Dzhon, says that RS “verges on the unlistenable,” and that RL is “a truly bizarre aberration.” Planet Aquarium's illustrious Maik Morozov, taking a more diplomatic tack, notes that the English albums are “generally considered to be technically inferior.”
But my revolutionary thesis is that a fair criticism of these albums has been hampered by (1) the knowledge that they were commercial failures; and (2) a not-insignificant dose of Russian-language snobbery. I will argue that these albums—while certainly not representing BG's best work—nonetheless deserve credit for what artistic merit they do possess.
Allow me to make a literary analogy: Why do fans of Ernest Hemingway bother to buy and read his later, inferior, often abortive or usually abandoned works, whenever they're posthumously released by his publisher? I think it's because even the most dismal failures of a great creative artist are inherently more interesting and worthy of serious study than the most stunning commercial successes of a mediocrity.
I'm happy with the fact that [RS] came out, that it was recorded. But we just had so little time. We only had basically four or five weeks to write the songs and record them and mix them. If we had more time, we could [have done] much more interesting things. – BG, 1989
You see, poetry has only one law. You can't describe this law, but it makes you do things a certain way. And it doesn't really depend on the language. Probably my English sounds less developed because, again, I had precious little time to write—I was in a hurry, and you can't hurry poetry—but still I was obeying the same laws that I was writing my Russian songs in. So they're basically the same. – BG, 1989
In Michael Apted's RS documentary, The Long Way Home (LWH), there's a scene where BG is trying desperately to describe to a mixing guy the sound he's looking for; a sound like, like … um … like Iggy Pop!
The sound engineer looks at him blankly and says, in his inimitable Cockney/Californian accent, "But he doesn't sound like IG-gy Pop a-TALL!"
Well, dear reader—in this exchange, I submit, you will find the essential key to understanding the fate—not to mention the rather confusing mix—of the project that became RS, of cut-out-bin fame.
Of course it's true: Glam-rocking proto-punk Iggy Pop does not sound anything like Boris—and Boris, as a most serious student of rock ‘n' roll, knew that.
But listen: In 1987, shortly before this whole RS saga began, Iggy had released a highly uncharacteristic—and absolutely brilliant—album called Blah Blah Blah. As one Iggy Pop fan site review notes:
Blah, Blah, Blah was polished, slickly produced and inevitably brought Iggy his two biggest hits to date: "Cry For Love" and "Real Wild Child." While the album may have been a disappointment to hardcore Iggy fans at the time ("too slick," they would say), Blah, Blah, Blah has aged remarkably well.
Today, many (myself included) consider Blah to be Iggy's finest work. It was produced by none other than David Bowie, an old pal of Iggy's from the days when both were living in Germany as expatriates during Bowie's experimental “Berlin period.” Now, however, experimental was out—Bowie had hit the commercial jackpot with his most mainstream album, Let's Dance, and now he was offering to share the wealth by employing a similar formula for Iggy.
Iggy was hesitant about embracing the synth-laden pop-oriented sound Bowie suggested, but he trusted his old friend's instincts—and, sure enough, the collaboration was Pop's biggest-ever commercial success. Boris, with his encyclopedic knowledge of Western rock, knew all about this development—and he wanted some of the action.
Don't believe me? Oh, ye of little faith! Check it out:
Gotta dance like a fool…
I gotta be a wild one,
Ooh yeah! I'm a wild one …
I'm a real wild child.
—Iggy Pop, “Real Wild Child”
I want to talk about the wild child
You know, that real wild one
Dancing alone …
—Boris Grebenshikov, "Radio Silence"
It's common nowadays to accept that BG was just being a jerk for wanting to dump his beloved Aquarium on the verge of his big Western breakthrough. But look at the evidence of BG's career—he's always surrounded himself with the very best musicians for the particular sound he's interested in achieving at any given time.
If you listen to Blah Blah Blah you'll hear the prototype for the sound BG was striving toward. But unfortunately, there were just too many variables involved: Boris' expressive tenor was, indeed, a very different animal than Iggy's campy, affected baritone. And though Dave Stewart certainly knew his way around a synthesizer, and had logged some huge commercial hits with Eurythmics, he lacked Bowie's creative imagination and sheer sonic genius. And he certainly didn't know Boris' modus operandi the way Bowie knew Iggy's.
This lack of understanding is perfectly reflected in Stewart's semi-famous quip from LWH about how critics would say he “ruined a perfectly good Russian folk album.” The thing is—as we can now understand—BG wasn't looking for anything like a Russian folk album (that would come soon enough, God bless him!). Consider this, from a 1989 interview (my italics):
I was very lucky to have met with Dave, because I was put exactly where I wanted to be put: in the mainstream of present-age rock 'n' roll. It may be good, it may be bad, but when you're in the middle of a mainstream, you can see people, and you can grow on the energies. And it's up to you, you can shape it into something that will mean something or you will just use it for anything. I think I used the chance I was given.
But BG, in Russia, had always worked (and still works, for that matter) by a complex process of absorption and assimilation, ably assisted by people of a similar background and mindset—like Gakkel and Romanov, and so on—who instinctively understand this very Russian, very underground approach to creating music.
Without them, Boris was a fish out of water: Lennon without McCartney, Jagger without Richard, Springsteen in a strange land without his E Street Band. And Dave Stewart was too busy preening his goldilocks and fucking members of Bananarama to either notice or care. He frustrated BG's artistic intention—(and whether that intention was worthy of BG or not is different matter altogether)—because he simply didn't understand it.
But as good bodhisattvas, we should be able to dig beneath the surface of lousy production, and—like a scholar looking for glimpses of frustrated intent in a tossed-off Hemingway manuscript—be able to find a few pearls of great price. So, let's go picking through some songs, shall we? And—in case any influential types are listening, or just for fun—let's agitate for a definitive remix and re-release.
1. Radio Silence.
This is the only song on RS that was written at Sofia Petrovskaya St., ground zero of the canonical Aquarium catalog. It's also, in all likelihood, one of the last songs BG ever wrote there. As far as I'm concerned, it beautifully evokes the tremendous sense of hope, renewal and possibility of that period when the Velvet Revolution swept Eastern Europe, and Russians first found the West opening up before them:
Suddenly, it feels like a new year
Like I'm a million miles away from here…
BG's liner notes to this song, “We kept the rough mix ‘cos we liked it.” Well sorry, boys, but it ain't rough enough. BG's vocals sound forced and somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer, dizzying noise of the album version. BG's original, acoustic version—which plays in its entirety over the closing credits of LWH —is a far superior rendering and should replace track one on the hypothetical re-release.
2. The Postcard.
Musically, this song has the same problems as “Radio Silence”: Too much synthetic sound and fury, but not enough substance. The semi-witty lyrics about sexual frustration can be a hoot, but do nothing to substantiate the hype that hailed BG as the “Russian Dylan.” With one notable exception: The line, “Once seven colors tried to make men blind” is an oddball little reference to a stanza in Lao Tzu's “Tao Te Ching”—a nice Aquarium-esque touch that suggests that the old Sofia Petrovskaya Boris is still alive in there somewhere.
Probably unrecoverable. Keep track as a dated, ironic monument to Stewart's folly.
3. The Wind.
Now tell me, what the hell's wrong with this song, huh? It's a very nice duet with Eurythmic's Annie Lennox—once again, with very Aquarium-worthy lyrics, English or not: “Your eyes are colored like Wind/The wind from the northern sea.”
Get rid of Olle Romo, whoever the hell he is, and get rid of his goddamn synclavier, and this song could bloody well fit into [dodging your slings and arrows and cries of “Heretic!”] Acoustics.
4. The Time.
This under-acknowledged gem is my favorite song on RS. As with all of the lyrics on the album, the English here is somewhat underdeveloped (what the hell were all of these Brits doing when they could've been proofreading?), but nowhere else is the feel of his Russian poetry so well captured in English. For example:
Sitting in a corner
In my castle made of single-malt and smoke
You're simple, as in ‘sacrilege'
And you're pure, as in ‘prayer'
There's only one way out of prison
Which is to set your jailer free
But then it's just another bunch of pretty words
That stand between the sailor and the sea
So forgive me, though I know you never will
Battered by your pride
And so I'm locked again within these castle walls
And you freeze alone outside.
Listen up, y'all: This is unadulterated, 200 proof Aquarium-grade Grebenshikov. Granted, he's capable of doing much more interesting and wonderful things with his native Russian language; but on a Russian album, I posit that this song would not be as overlooked as it has been.
Get rid of Stewart's annoying whine-guitar fade into the intro, and—once again, this is absolutely essential—send Olle Romo and his stinking synclavier packing. And, um, can we get better lyrics for the chorus?
Honestly, am I wrong to say that, with a little work, this song could also fit into Acoustics? Admit it, if it were in Russian, you'd love it. Lyrically, it's pure BG: “Days of apple bloom white/ Silver and steel”—you hear that? Silver and steel? If that's not Aquarium-grade lyricizing, what is?—“Tales of webs/Spun around a careless heart…” Okay? Are you with me? And musically, it's simply BG…
… and that fucking Olle Romo. Get him out of the mix!
6. That Voice Again.
Okay, I'll give you this one. It just all-around totally sucks. It fully deserves Dzhon's “unlistenable” label, and then some. The seizure-inducing synth beat would be annoying enough, but on top of it, you've got Billy MacKenzie's yowling, superfluous backup vocals. What the hell was Boris thinking? His notes on the album (courtesy of the illustrious Dzhub) indicate that BG felt something magical was happening in the studio when this song was recorded. Well, bad news, Bob: It got lost somewhere along the way. BG's lyrics also hit a real low point here: “Just this vision of a broken wing/And the raven cries in pain.” This is straight out of an oversensitive junior-high student's diary! Bringing to mind Morrisey's immortal lines: “Spending bright summer days indoors/Writing dreadful verse to a buck-toothed girl in Luxembourg.” Now, is that the sort of thing we want Boris to be doing with his time?
Irredeemable. Remove entirely, and replace with “She's My Drama,” which was recorded during the same sessions, but appears only on Cabinet of Curiosities.
7. Molodyje L'vy (Young Lions).
Another loser. Personally, I've never been much impressed with BG's rock anthems (“Volga Boatsman”, “Maksim the Forester”, i t.d.), ‘cause I think they tend to fall a little flat. All the more so when his backup musicians—Stewart and Romo; where's that Titov got off to?—have no idea what he's shouting about. Lyrically, it's okay, I guess, but way too wordy to give Westerners any idea of how good Russian can sound with rock 'n' roll (which, I presume, was the whole point of including a Russian song on this Western album).
Oh hell, keep it. If the Russian Album can survive “Volga Boatsman” and still be completely brilliant, what harm will “Young Lions” do to RS? None, methinks.
8. Fields of My Love.
A great little Beatles-esque romp, this song is essentially a reworking of “Partisans of the Full Moon”—listen closely to its structure; am I right or not? It sounds an awful lot like Aquarium, even though Titov is the only member who's playing here. Stewart doesn't play for a change, thank God, so we're spared his insipid guitar noise. Elton John's brilliant percussionist Ray Cooper (who shows up again on 1999's Psi) brings a refreshingly light and subtle touch to the mix, making it a sweet oasis away from Stewart's usually heavy-handed production.
Lyrically, I'd say this one's pretty much a throwaway—especially its second line, which is actually transcribed in the lyric sheet as “Mmm, mmm”…But BG has an interesting point to make about the song, which kind of speaks to his whole experience of coming West:
“Fields of My Love” is probably much more revolutionary than any political song, because [it] deals with human choices—the choices that everybody makes throughout their lives, and [that] mean something… “Fields of My Love,” as far as I'm concerned, it deals with [a] person [who] is given a victory, a triumph. But he's saying, “Well, it's nice to meet you, but bye-bye, I am going away, I'm not interested in this, I'm interested in something different.” Victory and defeat is all the same thing. Political songs are boring, all of them, and they fade really quickly. [But] stuff like "Sunny Afternoon" by the Kinks, it's still valid, it still stands …
None. This one's a keeper.
9. Death of King Arthur.
How can any true Aquarium fan dis an album that includes a clean, well-played, well-recorded version of Electricity's classic ballad, rendered convincingly in Middle English by BG? Especially when LWH gives us all that Stormin' Gakkel footage to commemorate its creation! Another added bonus: Stewart's nowhere to be found Mix suggestion:
Just one: Get rid of Olle Romo's freaking “boom-chucka-boom” synclavier introduction. Yo-moyo!
10. Real Slow Today.
This song does nothing much for me, musically or lyrically, but it's harmless enough, I suppose. I do like BG's lyrical response to the patronizing attitudes he got from some Westerners, who basically took him as a Russian rube abroad: “And these ladies are laughing at me/ Can I join the fun?/ I know I'm haunted; it keeps the flame bright.” Another interesting note: As we all know, there are a lot of English translations of BG's Russian lyrics wafting around out there; but so far as I know, Mike Morozov's English-to-Russian translation, “Vse Ostanovitsya,” on Planet Aquarium, is a unique vice versa. [No longer the case: BoB's own dubbear has since contribued a Russian translation of Radio Silence for this website. -Ed.]
Sure, keep it. Just–well, you know, the Romo thing…
After The Time, this is my second favorite song on RS. Stewart and Romo muddy the music as usual, but the backing vocals—especially Chrissie Hynde's—really stand out. Professor Ray Cooper makes another standout appearance on percussion, and—for all of you Sasha Titov fans out there—you'll hear some of his best-ever bass riffs on this track. And it's another of BG's better lyrical efforts on the album.
This city is on fire tonight
Sweet forest fire, silent and unseen
The sleepers awaken
Your eyes are open; I know you're smiling at me.
Calling Mother Russia “mischievous and holy” is also a nice descriptive. The rest of the song is a little anthematic for my taste, but overall it's a nice effort.
Drop or fade Stewart and Romo; you know the drill…
12. Kitai (China).
Ah, now we're talking. A beautiful, quiet Russian song to end a noisy, overproduced English-language album. Interestingly, the song that ended RS became the song that opened his next Western release, Boris Grebenchikov & Aquarium: 1991-1994. Coincidence? I have no idea. I will note that the “Vertinsky Songs” version, used on that compilation, is a better recording than the one on RS. But here, we see in retrospect that BG is already sowing the seeds of the brilliance to come.
Keep it, as a comparison version.
THE MORAL OF THE STORY: Radio Silence is not a great BG album; but it's not a bad one either. Especially if you “reverse engineer” your listening approach, you have a well-nigh-essential document of the most vital transitional point in BG's career. Okay?
Original review follows
Boris travels the world in search of that "Iggy Pop" sound. He sings in English. He drives Gakkel' so nuts that he has to quit the band for the 100th time. The Eurythmics sing and dance for him. The fruits of all this labor can be paraphrased as, "Boris doesn't go gold in the West, packs his bags, and leaves piles of this album in the used bins of America."
Dzhrew whipped out his shiny lingham to write this comment: I bought Radio Silence on vinyl for ten cents when I was in high school. I liked the rock hit "Radio Silence," and thought the rest was "eh." I recently re-heard it and was far less impressed with the rock hit and barely more impressed with the rest. I won't replace my vinyl copy with a disc, let's put it that way. But Semyon [note: he writes his name as 'Semen' in English] swears by it, and many other Vlad Russians (ok, I'm thinking of three total) swear by it. They just don't understand the lyrics, probably. The best thing Boris has come up with in English are: 'ya piu svoi wine, ya yem svoi cheese,' and a passing mention of single malt."
Dzhon parries and counterthrusts with: In a used CD store in Chicago I picked up Radio Silence for a few bucks. It in fact makes Radio London look good, and any Russian that likes it also probably harbors a secret Philip Kirkorov fetish. Late 80's synth-heavy Thompson Twins-ish schmaltz that verges on the unlistenable. [adding, years later] Gospodibozhemoi! It's worse than I remembered. Horrendous. A Marianas Trench of synthetic awfulness. God bless Maik for his beautifully-written review, but for me this album remains sheer, unadulturated torture. Proceed at your own risk, weaing a white biohazard suit and carrying a geiger counter.
We sat with Dave at the edge of the pool at his home/studio in Los Angeles, and he said, "For sure some critic will turn up who'll write, 'Stewart ruined what could have been a perfectly good folk-rock album.'" He didn't know how right he was.
Critics in Russia don't like Radio Silence because a) it doesn't sound like Aquarium; b) it didn't take as its main premise the absolute primacy of Soviet rock over all other forms; and c) in general it wasn't "po-mit'kovski" [kitch fake-folk]. They were right. They, as always, didn't get it.
Radio Silence was in fact a tribute to our own success (in the fall of '86, we'd moved from stadium to stadium with such violent ovations, it was as if we personally brought down Soviet power); it promoted Aquarium and brought us face to face with reality of existence in the rest of the world. Traditionally, Russia has always devised for itself a mythical "West" (based on translations of O.Henry, Dickens, and Francoise Sagan [whoever the hell that is -trans]), populated it with "dumkoffs," and has gone on living in peace, knowing that our Russian Soul is more complex, deeper, and closer to God—therefore, the dumkoffs can't understand it anyway.
From childhood, I've been less interested in reading fairytales than living them. So it goes. Upon examination, it became clear to me that the "dumkoffs" were merely a product of Russian ignorance; that the world in truth has few borders, and to divide it into "us" and "them" is simply suicide.
I will not lay out here the history of Radio Silence's genesis; it's enough merely to say that a certain less-than-ingenious inventor from New York by the name of Ken Schaeffer decided he would cozy up, single-handedly, to the draconian Soviet powers and then (with a little help from his friends) short-circuit them. Apparently, I turned out to be the first free Russian man abroad since 1917. But back to Aquarium.
By virtue of the aforementioned obvious truths, the fact that Aquarium, after 11 albums, would go to New York to record a 12th, doesn't seem all that strange. The meeting with Dave Stewart in Los Angeles formed the musical direction of my "American Album," the main reason being that the Eurythmics occupied an extraordinary place in my world at that time. A spark raced through us and the work began. The rest of the following year was one grandiose adventure, and it in no way resembled an "adventure of a Russian abroad." All of the songs (except for "Radio Silence" itself) derived from my situation and were a response to it. As things happened, they were vigorously captured by the camera of director Michael Apted, from which he made the documentary The Long Way Home. It's dull, because all the good parts were mercilessly edited out by dull American censors. During a break from all this, I came back to Russia, where Aquarium attentively listened through everything that had already been recorded.
The songs on Radio Silence were all—from lack of ability—fairly feeble, with the exception of those songs that were removed—and I'm happy that the album remains an indecipherable hieroglyph. It achieved its goals. The gods were behind the whole process, and they're the ones who'll have to answer for all that's been said.
All that's left to add is that one extra song was recorded for the album, "She's My Drama," which is almost never played, and which, as far as I recall, has never even been mixed.
P.S. London. Church Studios. Late at night. All day I've been recording with Rea, Annie, and Chrissie. Bill McKenzie of The Associates dropped into the studio—he'd been working on his soul album in a studio on the first floor and knew what we were up to. We played him the tracks for "That Voice Again"; after five minutes he was already singing.
Everyone in the studio fell silent (this part wasn't completely cut by CBS—it's on the eleven-minute version). Two dubs. He walked up to the mixer and said, "Good enough?"—and for a few minutes no one could say a word. Everyone sat bewitched, afraid to move.
Critics? My condolences, sir critics!
Translated from Songs by Dzhubchik