Boris Grebenshchikov in 2009
|Birth name||Boris Borisovich Grebenshchikov|
|Born||27 November 1953|
|Origin||Leningrad, Soviet Union|
|Genres||Rock, Reggae, Folk rock|
|Instruments||Guitar, Harmonica, Keyboard instrument, Metallophone, Tambura|
Boris Borisovich Grebenshchikov (Russian: Бори́с Бори́сович Гребенщико́в) also known as Boris Purushottama Grebenshikov, is one of the most prominent members of the generation which is widely considered the "founding fathers" of Russian rock music. Due as much to his personal contribution as to the undisputed and lasting success of his main effort, the band Aquarium (active since 1972 until today), he is a household name in Russia. Grebenshchikov is colloquially known as BG (Russian: БГ) after his initials. He is often called as 'Grandfather of Russian Rock'.
Early years (1953-1979)
Boris Grebenshchikov was born on 27 November 1953 in Leningrad. He co-founded Aquarium with a childhood friend, Anatoly "George" Gunitsky, in 1972 as a post-modernistic theater-centric effort that involved poetry and music. Gunitsky provided absurdist, highly symbolic lyrics to some of BG's earliest songs.
Despite an eventual graduate degree in Applied Mathematics, Grebenshchikov had always been a voracious consumer of culture, especially music. His school-years enamorment with The Beatles eventually extended to include a deep appreciation of Bob Dylan, which slowly transformed Aquarium into a low-fi electric blues band that moonlighted in acoustic reggae. The first song he managed to play on guitar was The Beatles' "Ticket to Ride"; his first public performance, in 1973, featured him performing songs by Cat Stevens.
The first six years of Aquarium's history lacked cohesion as Grebenshchikov and his various bandmates followed the Soviet equivalent of the hippie lifestyle: playing apartment jams, drinking the low-quality port wine available from the Soviet stores of the time, and intermittently travelling to remote gigs, even hitchhiking on rail freight cars.
Youthful philandering was heavily frowned upon by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union regime; decent recording facilities were out of reach because experiments in non-standardized self-expression were routinely suppressed as a matter of policy. The several homebrew 2-track recordings hacked out over those years (Temptation of St. Aquarium (Iskushenie Svyatogo Akvariuma), Count Diffusor's Fables (Pritchi grafa Diffuzora), Menuet for a Farmer (Menuet zemledel'tzu), and a motley crew of "singles") were of necessity extremely unprofessional, but already showcased the off-kilter wit, showy erudition, and a pervasive interest in Oriental thought and mysticism that eventually became BG's trademarks.
The year 1976 also saw the recording of BG's first solo album, On the Other Side of the Mirror Glass (S toy storony zerkal'nogo stekla), and a dual album with another prominent nascent Russian rock-n-roller, Mike Naumenko, All Brothers are Sisters (Vse brat'ya - sestry).
Classical years (1980-1988)
BG's big break (or, in retrospect, his and the band's "watershed" moment), however, came in 1980, when Artemy Troitsky, the first public Russian rock critic and the enabling figure in many a Russian rock musician's career, invited Aquarium to perform at the Tbilisi Rock Festival.
The festival was a state-sanctioned attempt to channel the then-burgeoning Russian rock music movement into a controllable ideological vessel. It featured a laundered line-up of government-approved rock bands, but also Kraftwerk, whose performance was accompanied by frisbees being launched into the public. Members of the jury (the occasion was officially an artistic contest) were not amused. A covert KGB-bound report pinned the shenanigans on Aquarium, which caused BG to lose his day job at a backwater design bureau (of a kind that employed the majority of technical specialty graduates in the Soviet Union; Russians called them P.O. Box (Pochtoviy yaschik) because their street addresses were never revealed), and membership in Komsomol, the Young Communist League, which was a career kiss of death for a Soviet citizen in 1980.
The band's underground profile, however, continued to rise sharply over the next 7 years, post-Leonid Brezhnev KGB-fueled reactionism and Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika notwithstanding. This was both due to talent, and the scarcity of supply - Western rock music was still officially banned at the time. Over the first five albums, the band attracted guitarist Alexander Lyapin, considered to be among the best rock guitar players of Russian origin, the pianist Sergey Kuryokhin, renowned for the impressive speed and virtuosity of his playing and boundless avant-garde experimentation, and Igor Butman, a world-class jazz saxophone player and one of the reigning kings of Soviet jazz.
The first Aquarium music available in the "west" was in 1986 when a double album entitled "RED WAVE, 4 UNDERGROUND BANDS FROM THE USSR" appeared in record stores in the U.S. Besides Aquarium, three other bands, Kino, Strange Games and Alisa were recorded on a four track machine, smuggled out of the country and released by a small record label from Hollywood, California. During this time, bands in the USSR were either officially sanctioned or were not allowed to play in public or record in professional recording studios. In 1986, when the record was released in America, Aquarium was immensely popular throughout the Soviet Union, but were forced to play at underground clubs and private gatherings.
By the time Aquarium disbanded amid internal squabble in 1987, they had 11 "official" records under their belt and were considered a living legend of Russian rock. BG himself was likened to Bob Dylan, not least because of his borrowing amply from Dylan stylistically in his earlier years. Railway water (Zheleznodorozhnaya voda) off the 1981 Blue album (Siniy albom), for example, is a spitting image of Dylan's It takes a lot to laugh off the 1965 Highway 61 revisited.
Going West (1989-1990)
Perestroika has ushered in a new era of opportunity for rock musicians; several of the more prominent ones got breaks in the West. BG's came from Dave Stewart (of Eurythmics fame). Stewart-produced Radio Silence was released in 1989, featuring covers of Alexander Vertinsky's China amid songs by BG, including a song written to Sir Thomas Malory's Death of King Arthur. Annie Lennox, Billy MacKenzie and Chrissie Hynde helped out, as did several of BG's bandmates from Aquarium.
The name of the album proved self-ironic in the extreme as it hasn't made so much as a dent in the charts. Part of the failure can be attributed to the fact that unlike the Anglo-American rock-n-roll culture, the Russian song tradition heavily emphasizes lyrical complexity over hooks or drive, which reinforces the not entirely fair comparisons between BG and Dylan.
BG issued another English-language album, Radio London, in 1990, which consisted of demos, but had some very appealing material to it.
Returning East (1991-1996)
Disillusioned in the possibility of exporting the Russian song-writing tradition to the West, BG returned to Russia and entered a phase of returning to his Russian roots. The year 1991 saw him come out with a Russian album (Russkiy al'bom), backed by an all-new, eponymous BG Band. The album featured a line-up of songs very "Russian" in both lyric and tune, and wasn't initially met with much public appreciation (in retrospect, however, it is considered by most critics one of his best records). BG was defiant, however, and went on record as having flipped a bird off the stage toward someone yelling demands for him to perform songs from the Classical period. His career since has proved time and again that he is not fond of rehashing the past, however glorious.
No matter the defiance, the Aquarium brand was too strong to eschew and even the next two albums, one mostly filler (Favorite songs of Ramses the 4th (Lyubimye pesni Ramzesa IV)) and one all B-sides (Sands of St. Petersburg (Peski Peterburga)), were released under the name Aquarium. By the time of 1994's Kostroma Mon Amour BG's mastery of folk melody and lyric has grown to new heights, and a new band lineup was going full steam.
The band's next three albums (effectively BG's solo albums published under the band's brand) - Navigator, Snow lion (Snezhniy lev), and Hyperborea - also have a stylized Russian feel. Navigator especially is widely recognized as a classic example of Russian songwriting, albeit with notable touches of blues and French chanson. The songs are melancholic bordering on heart-rending; the lyrics are either drenched in Byronic spleen, or full of BG-branded variant of Russian irony steeped in a sense of separation between self and the world.
And back to basics (1997-2008)
As of 1997, however, the Russian nationalism seems to have run its course for BG. His 1997 album Lilith is still mostly Russian in lyrical theme, but is recorded, by way of a chance meeting, with his idol Dylan's former backup band, The Band. In 1998 BG, who was by then settling into a cult classic status in Russia, played a one-man-and-his-guitar show of 1970s and 1980s songs to a small audience of fans in a San Francisco bar, and decided to return to reggae-n-rock-n-roll roots.
1999's Psi features just that, as interpreted through a post-modernistic lens with ample, highly inventive use of keyboard-triggered samplers. 2002's Sister Chaos (Sestra Haos), 2003's Fisherman's songs (Pesni rybaka), and 2005's ZOOM ZOOM ZOOM feature the same, painted by sparse touches of Armenian (Jivan Gasparyan on Northern Wind), Indian (the entire of Fisherman's songs) and African (some of ZOOM ZOOM ZOOM). Despite all of these having been issued under the Aquarium brand, it is recognized that by now Aquarium is "the people who play with Grebenshchikov".
In a very appealing touch of overcompensation, as technology and funds had begun to permit, sometime in the 1990s BG had become incredibly quality-conscious with his records. As the state of sound engineering in Russia left (still does) a lot to be desired, he had begun tracking in London's studios. Navigator, a predominantly acoustic album with a highly refined, "the-band-is-in-the-room" intimate soft of a mix saw BG sell his car and part of his guitar collection to cover tracking costs. The quality of his recent recordings may give the better of Western singer-songwriters a run for their money.
Since 2005 Grebenshchikov has an own weekly radio program on Russian radio station "Radio Rossii" titled Aerostat (Russian: Аэростат). It is presented as "author's program of Boris Grebenshchikov" and is created and spoken by him. His intention is to tell about the alternatives in music, about the music which nobody else plays in today's radio despite of its artistic value and originality. It is mostly independent music which, as Boris says, otherwise would not be played at all. The range of songs in Aerostat varies from 1960s and 1970s rock (The Beatles, Bob Dylan and many others) over reggae, new wave, alternative rock, electronica, and punk, to world music, jazz, classical and avant-garde. As of December 2008, almost 200 shows were created and broadcast, each approximately 46 minutes long. The track lists and the scripts of all programs are available at official site of Aquarium and BG. The theme music is "Prelude" by T. Rex from A Beard of Stars album.
Religion and mysticism
BG is also known as a student of religion and mysticism. He translated several Hinduist and Buddhist books for publication in Russian, travelled the Orient widely, and is friends with A-list spiritual celebrities. He is just as familiar with the Russian Orthodox tradition (Aquarium web site has had a call for discovery of Orthodox relics going for years), and used to mix them freely in his lyrics. Russian Nirvana (Russkaya Nirvana) off Kostroma Mon Amour, for example, is a dual-pointed send-up containing a reference to "sitting down in the lotus posture in the middle of Kremlin". His relentless promotion of Tibetan buddhism in the 1990s and his tendency to use buddhist-derived logic with touches of absurdism to avoid answering questions in interviews make him pretty distinct amongst other Russian artists.
BG also translated several Buddhist and Hinduist texts to Russian, including:
- Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche (son of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche) Bardo Guidebook - "source material for the Tibetan Book of Living & Dying also known as Tibetan Book of the Dead Bardo Thodol, in 1995;
- Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche Repeating Words of the Buddha - "the essential points of spiritual practice, inseparable from everyday life.", in 1997;
- Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche Rainbow Painting - "addressing the topics of practices of accumulating and purifying to facilitate unification of view and conduct", in 1999;
- Shibendu Lahiri Kriya yoga - "authentic teachings and techniques of Kriya Yoga", in 2003;
- The Katha Upanishad, Upanishad belonging to the Yajur Veda, in 2005.
Grebenshchikov's lyrics are often eclectic, and may feature Buddhism, Russian Orthodoxy, and alcohol consumption in the same quatrain. 1999's Psi switches from detailed references to samurai culture to mentions of a certain carpenter's son to data storage on hard drives, all the while maintaining tight lyrical cohesion.
Over the years of his career, he wrote more than 500 songs, most of which were recorded and/or performed publicly. There are 21 albums in the official discography, approximately 12 "unofficial ones", and about as many live records. Additionally, BG recorded cover albums on material from two prominent Russian-language songwriters (Alexander Vertinsky (1994's Songs of A.Vertinsky (Pesni A.Vertinskogo)) and Bulat Okudzhava (1999's Songs of B.Okudzhava (Pesni B.Okudzhavy))), two albums of mantra music with Gabrielle Roth and the Mirrors, (1998's Refuge and 2002's Bardo), and an album of electronica versions of Aquarium songs from late 1970s – early 1980s with the Russian duo Deadushki. He is also credited on records by the Russian bands Nautilus Pompilius, Mashina Vremeni and Kino, as well as the UK acts Shakespears Sister and Kate St. John.
- Songs by Alexander Vertinskii, 1994
- Chubchik, 1996
- Refuge, 1998
- Songs by Bulat Okudzhava, 1999
- Bardo, 2002
- Radio Silence, 1989
- Radio London, 1990
|US Hot 100||US Modern Rock||US Mainstream Rock||UK|
|1989||"Radio Silence"||-||7||-||-||Radio Silence|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Boris Grebenshchikov.|
- Tomi Huttunen: Russian rock: Boris Grebenschikov, Intertextualist
- Aquarium website
- This article borrows from the "Short history of Aquarium", which seems to be public domain.
- Boris Grebenshikov Concert - Site for Grebenshikov's concerts at the Royal Albert Hall.
- Aquarium Bookshelf with Buddhist materials translated to Russian by BG
- The Bodhisattvas of Babylon, an English-language fan site
- Boris Grebenshchikov at the Internet Movie Database