Stuffography Radio London

Medium

Radio London

1990


Review

by Maik

RADIO LONDON: Crappy Album or Holy Relic?

Interviewer: What are you working on now?

BG: I hope you hear it.

Interviewer: Is that what you'll be playing on this tour?

BG: We'll be playing some new songs. We're recording demos … I never knew how to describe my music. I guess they'll be slightly more complicated and less orthodox…

Interview, RS Tour, 1989

“A spirituality runs through the dark, but ultimately optimistic tone of Grebenshikov songs such as “White Sail Burning,” an incantatory new song about seeking artistic expression in the West…He glistened on “The Quiet One,” a new unrecorded song combining a Led Zeppelin punch with a Middle Eastern influence…
Concert Review, The Boston Globe, 1989
CBS мёртв, а я ещё нет…
BG, Comment to author, 1998


In my recent reconsideration of Radio Silence (RS), I argued that BG—having been gifted with a once-in-a-lifetime shot at Western fame—decided to risk it all and go for the mainstream gold, rather than settling for mere critical admiration in some obscure folk- or world-music backwater.

He lost big: RS did a commercial nosedive, and the Western music industry moved swiftly on, leaving a shell-shocked Boris to pick up the pieces pretty much alone.

One moment, he was surrounded by a film crew; a media entourage; music-industry bigwigs; world-class producers and musicians; fawning retainers (“Don't make me paranoid, Kenny!”). He enjoyed financial backing from the East-West speculating firm Belka International, and had a record contract with a major American label.

The next moment, it was all gone: He'd blown it.

At this point, the standard account has a humbled Boris skulking back to Russia, tail between his legs, duly chastened by his failure in the West. He disappears into the Russian heartland like Christ into the wilderness…and miraculously emerges two years later with a career-reviving masterpiece that sounds like nothing he's ever done before: The Russian Album.

But surely it couldn't have been that simple. A good Bodhisattva has to wonder: What happened during those two silent years—that time in the wilderness, if you will—that turned the youthful, West-worshipping BG of canonical Aquarium into the mature, Russia-loving, Ginsberg-school-of-Buddhism BG of the brilliant post-Amerika period?

I believe that a significant part of the answer lies in the crude, muddled tracks of Radio London.

Radio London

Before we dive into those dark waters, let's get one thing straight: RL is not an album. It is a collection of raw sketches for an album that never happened.

The best account I've found of its genesis is contained in an essay by Olga Sagareva—a Bodhisattva of awe-inspiring yonitude indeed—in her nirvana-inducing sourcebook, Akvarium 1972-1992: Collection of Materials, (Alfavit, Moskva (1992)). Of the RL period, she writes (with apologies for my fast 'n' loose translation):

On July 1, 1990, Boris Grebenshikov flew [from Leningrad] to London, where he would remain for three months…In London, he spent an enormous amount of time in the studio, working on recordings for a projected English-language album to follow RS. No one uttered a sound about this project; most didn't even know it was happening. Boris did the majority of the work entirely by himself.
These sessions ultimately produced seven completely new English songs (the strongest of which were "Eloise" and "Heading for the Absolute One") and three in Russian ("Royal Morning," "Mountain Crystal" and "The Gay Janitor"). ["How Do We Get Home?" also emerged from these sessions. — Maik] The recordings were given the working title "Demos," and—very unfortunately—they remain virtually unknown even to this day [Remember, Sagareva wrote this five years before the release of RL. — Maik].
Unfortunately, because the English songs, for the most part, sound like nothing on RS—quite the contrary, in fact. From a technical point of view, of course, a demo shows rather little of a recording's hidden potential—but I think this material could have evolved very successfully into an album. Especially the feeling of apprenticeship so noticeable on RS has almost entirely disappeared—as have any residual attempts to produce Aquarium-type sounds and arrangements.

But the commercial secrecy surrounding the project succeeded all too well: The demos weren't even put on offer in Russia, where the public had pretty much lost its earlier interest in Boris' English-language activities. Nor did they arouse the hoped for interest from Western producers. In fact, many critics abroad actually made a point of mentioning their “disinterestedness” in BG.

Back in Russia, we shrugged: “Well that's their problem.” Which initial thought immediately led to another: “Hey, do you suppose it really is their problem? Could it possibly be true that we—who lag behind the West by all other criteria—actually surpass our foreign friends in matters of the spirit; in our understanding of such things?”

In principle, at least, the West's indifference to BG's attempts to make a “second English album” seemed a graphic confirmation of such theories. The commercial structures there had simply lost interest in him, turned their attention elsewhere, had no time to listen to his appeal [in “Eloise”]: “I just need some time to settle down, just need to get my feet on the ground, before I can dance with you…”

With Grebenshikov's return to Russia, the situation became finally and absolutely clear: His second album wasn't going to happen; his contract with CBS Records had been cancelled; Belka International had withdrawn their support for the project. The break forced the respective parties to pay each other various cancellation penalties and damages, and—that having been done—everyone was well out of it. Everyone, that is, except Grebenshikov, for whom the experience had been a source of considerable creative energy—which, although it never materialized in a second English album, was of absolutely vital importance to the artist…

The RS/RL experience was vital, I believe, because it brought Boris face to face with some extremely heavy demons, provoking a strong poetic response. The West had been BG's lifelong dream lover—finally attained only to be suddenly lost. The aftermath of this crisis ultimately pushed him further from the West and closer to Russia; further from Christianity and closer to Buddhism.

Are you still with me, Bodhisattvi? Hey, I ain't making it up! These themes absolutely pervade the lyrics of RL. But hold on—before we get to lyrical content, we've just got to address the issue of musical form. Because in that department, the collection is absolutely terrible.

The ‘Chucho' Factor

 RL's musical soundscape is—to the great misfortune of its listeners—dominated by the electronic doodlings of one “Cheesy” Chucho Merchan, whose canned synthesizer riffs and marimba beats range from the mildly hilarious to the patently irritating. The cumulative effect is off-putting at best, and ultimately makes it very difficult to take RL seriously.

So who the hell is this Chucho character?

Allow me to speculate: My guess is that Chucho was the best musician BG could afford in his relatively impoverished post-RS circumstances. Living in an expensive city, probably financing himself with whatever nominal hard-currency consolation package he ended up with after the CBS deal blew apart (and after the USSR Ministry of Culture had taken its lion's share of the spoils), Boris can no longer pay for premium backup musicians and studio time.

Dave Stewart—who obviously liked Boris, and possibly felt a twinge of guilt about royally screwing up the RS project—instructs Chucho (a Eurythmics programmer) to help Boris rough in a few new tracks at his (Chucho's) little home studio.

Chucho isn't a producer or an engineer. He isn't an Olle Romo, self-indulgently drowning otherwise clean tracks in superfluous synthetic noise. He's simply a third-tier studio musician whose boss has stuck him on “Russian rock star” duty—and, God bless him, he's making a workmanlike go of it.

Boris writes, sings and plays guitar—maybe occasionally brings 'round a stray tambourist from the Indian take-away—and Chucho dutifully sketches in the rest, in accordance with BG's instructions. And that's it. They're just demos. You'll find no Chucho bashing here today.

Beyond Chucho

But the net effect of the Chucho factor is that RL requires a very creative, proactive listening approach.

Remember how, in part one of this screed, I argued that the RS listener must “reverse engineer” the mix, mentally stripping away all the lousy production and Oil of Olle? Well, RL requires you to do just the opposite: You must create your own mix from scratch—mentally building on BG's musical sketches to see where he might have been going; what the ultimate sound might have become.

As the illustrious Sagareva points out, they would certainly not have sounded like RS. If you want some clues as to where they might have been heading, try listening to the four (ultimately completed) Russian songs that emerged from the Chucho sessions:

1. Голубой дворник (The Gay Janitor): The original Chucho demo of this song remains hidden from the public ear. But the finished version can be heard as the opening track of Library of Babylon. Now, you tell me, does it sound like Chucho?

2. Горный хрусталь (Mountain Crystal): The Chucho demo appears on Cabinet of Curiosities. A finished version is memorialized on Akvarium—25 History. Again, does it sound like Chucho?

3. Как Нам Вернуться Домой (How Do We Get Home?): The Chucho demo appears on Cabinet of Curiosities. When the finished version appears on Favorite Songs of Ramses IV, there are no Chucho DJ scratches to be heard.

4. Королевское Утро (Royal Morning): Same deal—the Chucho demo appears on Cabinet of Curiosities; the finished version appears on Favorite Songs of Ramses IV. No sign of Chucho.

So, do you really think BG would have kept the Chucho sound on the English songs? Have you so little faith in BG's artistic judgment? All right then. Now stop whining, and start imagining a world in which the second album had actually happened! Are you ready? Gospoda, I give you…SNAFU!

SNAFU: The ‘Second, Neizvestnyi Anglijskii Follow Up'

The evidence suggests that the hypothetical SNAFU track listing would have looked something like this: 1. Up in Smoke, 2. Голубой дворник (The Gay Janitor), 3. Eloise, 4. Heading for the Absolute One, 5. Горный хрусталь (Mountain Crystal), 6. Best Years of Our Lives, 7. Listen to the Quiet One, 8. Королевское Утро (Royal Morning), 9. Can't Stop Repeating Your Name, 10. Beautiful Blue Train, 11. Как Нам Вернуться Домой (How Do We Get Home?) 12. White Sail Burning.

Sounds pretty intriguing, huh? Twelve tracks, just like RS. But four Russian songs instead of just two (and pretty decent Russian songs they are). The final song is an anthem that doesn't appear on RL—the “White Sails Burning” mentioned in the Boston Globe review above. I've never heard that song—well, I might have heard it on BG's RS tour way back when, but I sure don't remember it. Anyway, I understand it was released as a bonus track on the Russian version of Cabinet of Curiosities. The remaining songs constitute Tracks 1-7 on RL:

1. Up in Smoke: The flow of this song, and especially its chorus, suggests “In The Dark”-era Grateful Dead. Am I nuts? Go ahead: Mentally kill the synth—can you hear it? Lyrically, as SNAFU opens, Boris is relieved that the heavy mantle of “Russian Dylan” expectations has fallen from his shoulders—but wary, because his “novelty” marketability has worn off as well:

Used to be a passenger—now they take me as their own;
Used to be a fisher-king, but now my cross is gone.

Without a contract, without financing, his dreamed-of cushy future as a Western rock star lying in ruins, he finds that his much-vaunted “spiritual” nature is also failing him: “I wish I had some faith,/ But all I do is talk...” And the seriousness of his predicament begins to sink in:

I wish I still could laugh, I wish it was a joke;
But life's a sweet thing, going up in smoke.

2. Eloise : In this very pretty song—still in a fairly primitive mix, unfortunately—BG addresses his poetic muse—“Something of the child,/ Something of the bride,/And sometimes just not there…” She served him well in Russia, but has apparently abandoned him in the West. So he rationalizes:

I just need some time to settle down,
Just need to get me feet on the ground,
Before I can dance with you…

And yet she keeps fading: “But now, I can't even see you now; /And she smiles and she turns,/And she says, ‘I know, I know…'” The imagery is slow, seductive—she's moving away from him—back toward Russia? It doesn't matter: Boris has no choice but to follow her wherever she may lead:

I've heard she is lethal for the likes of me;
Well, I can't really tell and I don't really care.

3. Heading For the Absolute One: Wisely abandoning his professional disappointments for the moment, BG turns to matters of the spirit. Over an upbeat, reggae-flavored arrangement, Boris opens with a burlesque of traditional Christian visions of heaven—St. Peter, pearly gates, fluffy clouds…and “lingeried ladies” (that last one is BG's personal addition to the iconography, I assume).

Then he gets to the point of all this foolishness:

Descriptions in the holy books leave me feeling rather stiff
For there is much more that my spirit has to give…

The song's closing lines could be construed as an abandonment of the Christian model, an abandonment of the West's promises…or both:

We played it perfect for the moon and the sun;
This story's over, the credit is gone—
So it's one for the road—
And I'm heading for the Absolute One.

4. Best Years of Our Lives: Though I can't find the clip now, I remember reading some article or interview in which BG described his RL sojourn as one of the most peaceful, idyllic, happy periods of his life—and, really, it's not hard to believe.

Personal and professional crises notwithstanding, the former Soviet kid had snagged himself a three-month summer vacation (no Kenny & Dave; no Aquarium; no wife and kids; no fan recognition on the streets) in one of the world's most charming, cosmopolitan cities. A photo inside RL shows a tanned, relaxed, fedora-topped Boris lounging shirtless in the sun by a table piled with spent bottles and full ashtrays.

And that's the basic mood of this quiet, tamboura-laced song, very rich with potential:

These are the best years of our lives— sweet and peaceful;
The best years of our lives—enchanted and fey…

This mood, however, gets skewed twice: Once when Chucho adds a incongruous military-snare-drum effect to the chorus; and once when BG intones what may be the all-time least-effective pick-up line for the Russian male abroad (care to comment, Dzhub?):

And I'm coming from a different world,
And I really don't know how it's done here,
And I would honestly ask you to help me, babe,
To work with me, trust in me,
And cover my ass—and then I'll look away…

Oh well. It's only a demo, right?

5. Listen to the Quiet One: Although at first it sounds disturbingly like that Phil Collins beer-commercial song, “Tonight,” BG adds in some Middle-Eastern flourishes that give this song much hard-rocking promise. The staccato lyrics, well suited to the music, seem to be “look within” Buddhism-influenced stuff.

6. Can't Stop Repeating Your Name: The tune here, though Chucho'd to high heaven, could really have developed into something nice. It's theme is Eastern religion again, specifically the power of meditations based on the repetition of a name of God: “The world inside of me was split and bored and fighting;/ But now it stands still, silent and amazed…”

In this state of heightened awareness, BG is apparently able to remove some of his self-imposed pressure to succeed, and put the temporary loss of his poetic muse back into perspective:

Words will come later,
They will surely come, if I need them still…

7. Beautiful Blue Train : Musically the least promising of the seven RL songs, the lyrics here—rather weak lyrics at that—are Buddhism-influenced again. BG is apparently guilt-tripping about his contemplated abandonment of Christianity for Buddhism, and God is telling him basically that all rivers lead to the sea. The word “home” in the final stanza could, again, be taken to refer to God, or to Russia:

He said, Do you really think I care where it is that you roam?
'Cause my beautiful blue train will take you home…

That's the end of the hypothetical SNAFU playlist. The remaining four tracks of RL provide us with a sorry glance backward and a hopeful look forward.

8-9. These two tracks—Annie of the Nightingales and Under the Good Sun—are the glances backward, and are, in my opinion, the weakest songs on RL. I believe they're outtakes from the RS sessions. Why? Their lyrics utterly lack the depth and wounded quality we hear in the Chucho songs; they were recorded at The Church, home of much RS material; and the drummer is given as Martin Chambers of the Pretenders, whose presence makes sense in the context of RS but not RL.

10-11. These final two songs look forward to the Russian Album and, in my opinion, are the true buried treasures of RL. They're attributed to “Aquarium '91,” which—using advanced carbon dating (and RA liner notes)—I have concluded is simply a retroactive renaming of the BG Band (it's probably Shurakov on accordion; and it sure sounds like Troshenkov on drums…). Druzya, I believe that what we have here is a pair of freak English-language outtakes from the RA sessions.

What an irony, then, that it is here—in the midst of his famous “return to Russian roots”—that BG achieves his all-time, English-language peak.

The Angel Calling is a lovely effort—brimming with almost-realized (but poorly mixed) potential.

But Promises of Eden is the real payoff. It's an absolutely beautiful song, in which Aquarium opts out of Russia's nascent capitalism just as thoroughly as they'd opted out of Soviet communism (as Boris ad-libs in Track 12's throwaway alt-take of “Up In Smoke”—“I'm just a renegade kind of bloke”):

We hail ye, Pretty Maidens;
Ye weary travelers—Hail!
Rest in peace, for there's no science
That can unfold the mysteries of our sails…

And while their wise men ponder
New ways to set us free—
We dance away, we smile away
From their promises of Eden…

BG sings with an organic ease and flow that's unparalleled in his other English work. The playing is rehearsal-quality—replete with awkward transitions, missed cues and sour notes—but just pretend it's one of A's patented zero-crowd-ambience live recordings, and you'll be fine for the song's leisurely, Russian Album-worthy six-minute running time.

And so Radio London ends—with God in his heaven, BG back in Russia (apparently reunited with his muse), and all well with the world. The brilliant “Post-Amerika” period has begun.


Original Review, 1998 Dzhon's positively glowing lingham spews: "A truly bizarre aberration, and BG knows it, as the liner notes caution 'All these recordings are Demos and should be considered as such.' Presumably an attempt to write songs that would appeal to a mainstream AOR audience in English speaking countries; he ends up sounding like Jackson Browne on Quaaludes, backed up by somebody strangely fixated on 4/4 tempos and Casio rhythm effects (marimbas, anyone?). Completists only...and a stretch even for them.



Boris Notes

A London interlude in 1990. Almost all of it was recorded in the home studio of the bassist for the Eurhythmics, Chucho Merchan, as a demo for a follow-up to Radio Silence.

I sang and played the guitar; Chucho programmed the computer and played the bass. Each song took no more than two days to record.

Gakkel came over to London especially to help out in composing the music; during the recording itself he kept his mouth shut, but every night when we'd listen to what had been recorded the fur and feathers flew. During days when we were free from work we'd wander about London, listening to any kind of antiquarian music or eating the bark of an Amazonian oak, etc. Luckily, I disagreed with the Japanese over the choice of a producer (the name Ray Cooper didn't mean anything to Sony, and I wanted to work specifically with him). The demo didn't end up being a finished record and Sony and I parted ways amicably like two ships at sea. One of the songs written during this wonderful period was “Elizaveta.” Still invisible to the naked eye, Russian Album loomed on the horizon.

In retrospect it's clear that Radio London, Akvarium's fourteenth album, did and said everything that it should have. While we galloped over times and distances, Akvarium, laughing quietly at all our fussing about, quietly kept about its business. We can't ever underestimate living beings, even if we believe that we made them ourselves.

Translated from Songs by Dzhon