“Surveillance? I knew we were in the Soviet Union when this guy just barged into our hotel room in Belgorod, said ‘Electricity!’, made this funny little adjustment to each of the light bulbs then walked out again. That’s when I knew we were in the Soviet Union.” – Steve Jameson, bassist, World Domination Enterprises.
In April 1989, with Mikhail Gorbachev having been President of the Soviet Union for four years – “a man we can do business with”, according to Margaret Thatcher – with policy slogans such as glasnost (openness, transparency) and perestroika (reconstruction), a thaw was taking place which saw a significant trickle of Western groups entering Russia to play. Running simultaneously with my own trip to the country, on the road with the raggedly brilliant indie guitar trio World Domination Enterprises, was a tour featuring The Edge, Annie Lennox and Chrissie Hynde under the Greenpeace banner. Rock/dance crossover group Nasty Rox Inc were also in Russia, while Paul McCartney had recorded an album of rock’n’roll standards specifically for the Russian market. The Wedding Present, meanwhile, had visited Ukraine, and that, back then, to the geopolitically semi-informed likes of me, counted as Russia. Glasnost? Glasnostbury, more like.
World Domination Enterprises’s trip, however, was billed as “the first major tour of the Soviet Union by an independent band”. Except that wasn’t strictly true, as Benny Profane had previously toured. Still, it was quite a remarkable cultural incursion. World Domination Enterprises, led by Keith Dobson on guitar and vocals, were not “indie” in the sense that the rather small, grey, constipated and tepid likes of The Wedding Present and other doyens of the C86 movement were indie. They were anarchic, incontinent, generated a huge, toxic, billowing sound whose swaggering, rock’n’roll excess, as on “Asbestos, Lead Asbestos” parodied the emissions of waste which were slowly choking the planet.
They were affiliated with mid-80s movements like skip culture – recycling and retrieving discarded materials for radical new creative ends – and the group Mutoid Waste Company. When I first interviewed them, in 1987, at their West London squat, they were slightly sweaty, having just returned from a game of five a side football with their Mutoid mates, including one Ivan Tarassenko. Ivan never made it home, having travelled via Kings Cross, perishing in the fire that had started under a wooden escalator at the station, which claimed the lives of 31 people.
World Domination Enterprises name was, of course, lacquered in irony as they were peripheral, well to the left of indie’s left field, critically feted but potless, ragged trousered, living off scraps and fruit discarded from the nearby markets. And yet, they had sufficiently registered as a phenomenon of sufficient cultural importance to merit a trip to the Soviet Union to play an organised, official series of concerts to make benefit Russian workers. I had to tag along, writing up an account of their adventures on the Moscow and Leningrad segment of their tour for Melody Maker.
Gorbachev may have been in charge but this was still the USSR, the Soviet Union, still a very different mode of living from that to which I was accustomed. That should have been theoretically obvious to me from the outset and yet, on arriving in Moscow, I experienced one of the most profound culture shocks of my life. I had learned, from a young age, to disdain the banality of advertising; its banal, false promises, its gaudy hoardings. And yet, after just a few minutes of being transported from the airport to our hotel, I was chastened to realise that I missed, desperately missed, the sugar coating of Western life and felt its sudden deprivation. “Giant boulevard after giant boulevard of nothing at all,” I wrote at the time. And by “nothing”, I meant the absence of neon, corporate logos, competing hoardings lightening the urban gloom. Having checked in, we went for a walk, down streets, streets full of nothing, to nowhere. I asked our tour manager if we might find somewhere to go for a beer, or a coffee. No, he replied.
Even Keith, as leftist as they came, admitted to feeling a little ‘fazed’ back at the hotel. I went back to my room and dived into a bag of Walkers cheese and onion crisps, shamefully secreted in my luggage (as I’d suspected that, as a vegetarian in particular, there might not be anything to eat in Russia). The crisps had been reduced to crumbs under the stress of the trip. Miserably, I chewed on handfuls of crumbs.
Our hotel, the Ukraine, was rather grand and for our first meal, they had gone to some lengths to ensure that we would have more to eat than the table mats. But this merely meant well-arranged plates of “cucumbers which tasted like they’d been boiled; a symmetrical cluster of bread rolls that clatter if you drop them on the floor and, on a lovely silver platter, apples so bruised I wouldn’t dare present them to a horse and a plate of cold, grey, boiled potatoes.” All of this, however, was washed down with copious amounts of vodka and a strange, Georgian version of coca-cola, which resembled the “real thing” in its black-brownness alone.
If all of this was disappointing, it was with something approaching horror that Moscow’s youth greeted the members of World Domination themselves on their arrival. They openly expressed their dismay, having expected a Western rock group to be more Billy Joel-like in their sartorial outlook. They were especially put out by the holes in their trousers. Keith retorted, “How can you be hurt by nothing? They’re holes!”
In terms of political and outlook, there were one or two crossed wires between ourselves and our hosts. No one, absolutely no one had a good word to say about Gorbachev. Marias, our tour manager, was a proud Lithuanian. He never went for more than a few sentences without mentioning his beloved Lithuania. I was puzzled at this. For me, this was like the brother in law character in Prick Up Your Ears, the biopic of Joe Orton, who is obsessively, uncritically patriotic about his home town of Leicester. How utterly naive of me.
Marias declared that his two favourite groups were Einstürzende Neubauten and Dire Straits. He favoured the Green Party but since they were likely to make negligible headway in the Soviet Union, opted instead for Ronald Reagan. His two heroes were Billy Bragg and Margaret Thatcher, though he wished Billy Bragg would lay off the politics. Keith nearly choked at the mention of Thatcher. “You should go and live in Britain for six months and you’d understand how much she’s fucked up our country!” But Marias merely half-smiled as if to say, “you? You think you live in a fucked up country?”
Still, we all agreed on Einstürzende Neubauten, with Steve leading a toast to Blixa Bargeld and a singalong of “Fütter Mein Ego”.
The first gig in Moscow had an air of lecture-hall formality about it. However, the moment the ragged trousered philanthropists hit the stage, that was dispelled. WDE were avant garde a la Suicide in their relationship to rock’n’roll – elemental, bringing the genre back to its first principles rather than its hoarily familiar roots. They replicated the Big Bang energy of Little Richard, The Beatles in Hamburg, adjusted according to modern sonic expectations and conditioning. The Moscow crowd were down from the get-go, a good deal more, I suspected, than a UK audience of indieheads unfamiliar with the band might be. No one was fazed by WDE’s “depth-charged noise funk, the thrash haemorrhage, dub craters, the radioactive trail of of after-images left by Keith’s guitar.”
After one encore, the kids switched from delirium mode to filing out of the auditorium in a curiously quick and orderly manner. Backstage, however, vodka-soaked euphoria reigned, strange energies were unleashed. A bearded man insisted on regaling drummer Digger with a raucous a capella version of “Yesterday”, with Digger eventually joining in. A veteran of the Afghan war took off his military belt and began thwacking it in mid-air, a technique he tried to get Keith to master. “Nightrider”, a genial Hell’s Angel, regaled us with tales of doing nocturnal battle with the police, with chains and padlocks. Two small boys trudged the corridors in search of Keith to secure his autograph, their eyes lighting up like those of children in a Michael Jackson Pepsi advert when they found him. I was besieged by a clutch of music fans, whose very ordinary attire belied their eagerness to learn the whereabouts of Beki Bondage, if A Witness intended to make another album and did I own any records by seminal 70s folk outfit Hedgehog Pie. I fell pitifully short of satisfying their curiosity on any of these fronts.
Onto what was then still, only just, Leningrad. Dour Moscow had had its fleeting moments – the Eternal Flame marking the Tomb of the Unknown soldiers adjacent to Red Square, to which a continuous stream of newlyweds would come and pay formal homage. Leningrad, however, this city that still exists, no longer exists, was, I felt, among the most beautiful in Europe. Its architecture, its boulevards cried out for cafes on every street corner. Well, there were cafes. And, with an optimism I suspected would be misplaced, our hosts suggested we go visit one for a coffee, or beer. We tried three in succession, all bustling with customers, despite none of them serving any coffee or beer; “We have run out,” the latter patron announced almost triumphantly. I noted how older people in particular were fond of dispensing the word “niet”, especially when directed at the young and uncouth-looking. Finally, we found a place with the charm of a prison canteen, for a hot drink of sorts and porridge.
In Leningrad, I noticed the stark contrast between young, regular and irregular people – their enthusiasm, their warmth, their generosity – and their petty, conservative elders, those in charge of enforcing petty rules, exercising their discretion against the unkempt-looking. In Belorograd, Keith later told me, the local Communist party had had a committee meeting in which their conservative members had decided that World Dom should only be allowed to play for 15 minutes, offer no alcohol to the audience and certainly drink none themselves.
“Well, half way through I dived into the crowd with a couple of bottle of beers. We were the first rock group to play in the city in years, so there was a lot of adrenalin. They cancelled the next gig. But they didn’t want to say anything outright to us because they were afraid of being seen as anti-perestroika.”
Could it be that these elders, these conservatives, were all too aware of the effects of glasnost, and how it might sweep away their morsels of authority? By contrast, our younger hosts were paragons of generosity. One young man insisted on giving me his national service army uniform; it passing from him to me, out of Russia, was a symbol of Soviet demilitarisation and forthcoming peace between East and West. I self-consciously fished out my wallet and handed him my last tenner, as, er, as a symbol of Capital flowing from the west to Labour in the East. He did not look insulted. A young woman insisted on plying us with badges, books, calendars of various sorts. All I could offer her, with great sheepishness, was a bottle of mineral water. She was extraordinarily pretty, a little tearful when we had to say our goodbyes. We kept in touch for many months, by letter.
“It was so bad, people who had nothing to give were giving us things all the time,” said Steve, later. “I gave away my leather jacket in the end. And my denim jacket was stolen. People were so brilliant.”
The second day in Leningrad saw Keith, in Dennis The Menace t-shirt, interviewed for a local TV station, as was I. “Burn your Elton John records!” I had planned to exhort the populace. But I was cut short. The item was sandwiched between one on rising productivity levels in the coal industry and a review of a ballet.
That evening, the concert was cancelled and so we spent it at an artist’s house, watching a series of videos of Russian rock bands, Keith’s opinions being eagerly solicited. There was no shortage of attitude – one act going by the name John Lenin, and song titles such as “The Wanker”. I bit my lip. Most of these bands brought back memories of that Georgian “coca-cola” the first night in Moscow but my precious aesthetic qualms felt somewhat irrelevant.
The venue for the gig the next night was an all-seater and, once again, looking at the audience mix, it felt as if they were there for an amateur production of an Anton Chekhov play, something culturally nutritious for all the family. For there were families, men in bearskin hats, as well as younger people. It was hard to gauge their hopes and expectations. Would there be riots, a la the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring? As it happens, the chaos was outside the venue, as a bottleneck had formed, with some officious elderly woman refusing entry to all and sundry, including bassist Steve and myself. Snorting with indignation, I donned an invisible bowler hat and – in the manner of Captain Mainwaring requisitioning a lorry from Warden Hodges “in the name of the King” – bellowed something along the lines of “I’m English and I demand to be let through!” Extraordinarily, this worked, though not for those behind me, who, I later heard, complained that I had faked an English accent in order to gain access. I am both very proud and very ashamed of this act.
The gig rocked the house. “You have the energy of a young Rolling Stones,” one young woman told Steve. He ostentatiously blanched at the idea. This was 1989. The Rolling Stones were as uncool as Elton John. Or Paul McCartney. Or David Bowie.
I returned home after a week, my green overcoat festooned with badges, wearing a bearskin hat. I’d gone a little native. My ex-wife had made me a pasta meal, the sort I would have slobbered up in three or four gulps in my first two famished days in Russia. After a week of Soviet cuisine, I found I couldn’t finish it. It was too rich. Too … decadent. And those cucumbers in the salad, was she sure they’d been properly boiled?
Almost 20 years later, I revisited what was now St Petersburg. A Russian Facebook friend had invited me to deliver a talk on my book Mars By 1980, a history of electronic music. At the same event he would perform a piece, an excellent live remix of Steve Reich’s Different Trains, which was proof in itself of the global reach, the saturation of contemporary musical forms, electronica in particular, with all of its myriad local permutations.
St Petersburg had, expectedly, changed. The McDonalds was an obvious sign but generally, there was no trace of the want, the bleak otherness of St Petersburg in 1989. With its abundance of malls, restaurants, shops, it felt like a prosperous, functional Northern European city. It didn’t feel quite so enchanting. Still, wandering along the boulevards was fascinating, to experience a city characterised by the triple hegemonies of Tsarism, state communism and the “shock and awe” of deregulated, free market capitalism, aggressively assisted, unforgivably, by America during the Clinton era.
My host apart, I did not make friends. The talk went okay, except for a mix-up with the slides, but I wasn’t sure the audience were taking everything I said on board. One blonde woman did smile appreciatively. I wondered if it was the young woman from the Leningrad trip. But she disappeared after the event.
I hung out at the exhibition – of which my talk was a small part – left to my own devices. I went back to the hotel, had a chat in the bar about football with a local, checked in on Facebook, my emails, entirely apprised of what was going on back in the UK. The next day, alone, I took in the grander sites, the Winter Palace and the surrounding area, my soundtrack a reconstruction of Arseny Abraamov’s Symphony Of Sirens, performed across the city of Baku in 1922, featuring the foghorns of the Soviet flotilla in the Caspian sea. Massed choirs, artillery and machine guns, hydro-airplanes, the piece conducted by a team of conductors using flags and pistols. It was composed and presented in a brief corridor of time, Stalin’s early years in which the Russian avant garde Futurists worked in tandem with the state to extol the ideals of the proud young Soviet Union, before the avant garde fell entirely out of favour, supplanted by the grimly figurative banality of Socialist realism, crushed amid the crushing reality of Stalin’s murderous terror. I flew home.
In 2022, Putin, that wretched, reactionary, nationalistic specimen, that ulcerous personification of wounded Soviet pride, invaded Ukraine, an act of evil that is on him practically alone; tactically inept but brutal and bloody in its outcomes. Despite his having been feted by the likes of Tony Blair and Bono in his early years – a man we could do business with – he had been an unscrupulous, murderous, nationalist megalomaniac from the outset. Now, however, the world could no longer look the other way. He had encroached too far. Russia was now a pariah state.
I loathe Putin but feel for Russians, especially the ones I came into contact with (generous, inquisitive, pacifist, people who simply wanted to live well, culturally). Since I doubt I will ever visit Russia again, I can only wonder what’s become of them. Perhaps they have fled Russia – as I write, there are stats that more Russians have fled Russia than Ukrainians have Ukraine – waiting it out in countries like Turkey. Sanctions have been imposed on Russia, but sadly, as Russian pollster Valery Fedorov has observed, the ones most likely to be affected by the sanctions will be those most anti-Putin, deprived of Apple, Netflix, decent cheeses. Meanwhile, 70% of the population, those who do not own passports – indeed barely know that passports exist – may feel no extra pinch.
I hope wherever they are – my young, now older friends – that they are well and that the memory of World Dom reverberates with them still. As for World Dom themselves, I’ve not heard from Keith in many years. Steve Jameson, he of the cable-like, heavy duty bass sound & who embraced the Soviet adventure with such vivacity, sadly died in 2019. Drummer Digger recently messaged me – he has embraced Christianity. I owe him a reply. As for World Domination Enterprises’ music, not only has it not dated but in its blast and excess exposes the palsied, postmodern datedness of most of last week’s new releases.
(With many thanks to Kaz Alexander)