Wednesday, July 3, 2013

How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin by Leslie Woodhead

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I will confess when it comes pop culture and music, I often take an American-centric point of view. If a band suddenly drops of the radar, I might assume they broke up or fell out of favor with their label, forever relegated to sixth-billing at state fairs. It may not occur to us that certain musical acts sell well in other countries. I know somebody who co-wrote a song that became a number one hit in South America. The US market is important, surely, but it's not the only game in town.

One can imagine what kids in the USSR did for entertainment, and if they even heard of The Beatles during the band's prime. As it turns out, the Fabs managed to breach the Communist bloc, serving as unofficial ambassadors of the West. Filmmaker Woodhead, responsible early in his career for one of the first clips of the Beatles in action (which you can view on the author's website), would discover the group's impact on Soviet youth as he filmed documentaries. His interactions with fans and stories of government-approved (and illegal) acts influenced by the Beatles are compiled in How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin.

If there's one appealing thing I found about this book, aside from the Russian perspective of The Beatles, is the author's honesty from the beginning - many Beatle books I've read are authored by fans...die-hards. Woodhead doesn't claim a high level of fanaticism, and I like that it lends an objective voice to this first-person narrative. Woodhead takes us through the Soviet Union, then later Gorbachev's post-glasnost Russia, to meet some of the more avid Beatlemaniacs of the East. Where my aunts could easily buy the Capitol-released albums at any store in South Florida, these comrades waited for contraband records to come in via various sources (sometimes first through port towns, though the children of the privileged class were able to get their hands on the music). Many learned English via the Beatles, and took up instruments in an attempt to keep the music alive behind the Iron Curtain. Then there's the guy with the Beatles shrine (the pictures included in the book likely don't do it justice) whose admiration of the band certainly rivals that of the most fervent comrade's devotion to the Party.

What you won't find in this book (aside from personal experiences relayed by the author) are stories of interactions with actual Beatles. McCartney's historic concert is covered, and serves as a bittersweet coda for those denied the opportunity to see the entire band and follow them as the rest of the world did. The true stars of Kremlin, however, are the fans who closely guarded their admiration for the Beatles in an unaccepting atmosphere. When I recall reading stories of "Beatle burnings" in certain American communities in reaction to John Lennon's "more popular than Jesus" remark, I find it interesting how people in the Soviet Union probably would not have had the opportunity to choose to burn a record - the government would make that decision. Yet, despite an ever-present government and rules, the Beatles managed to sneak through, proving nothing short of immortal (or divine) is impenetrable.

How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin is for the serious Beatles scholar, a fascinating history lesson about the power of music gradually chipping away at oppression. When you begin to read, you may get the impression you're in for some dry reading, but it is the enthusiasm of the Russian fans with whom Woodhead interacts that helps the book come alive. Fifty years after those four young men rocked the Cavern, they continue to rock the Kremlin, the British Isles, the States, the Internet...and that enthusiasm keeps the music alive. Sometimes, all you do need is love, and I know one place to find it.

An advanced review copy was provided by the publisher.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively is the author of the Rock and Roll Mysteries featuring Lerxst Johnston: Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop, and of the collection of short stories, The Girl With the Monkee Tattoo.



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