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Articles » The story of rockabilly in Russia... how did it started?

The story of rockabilly in Russia... how did it started?
Date of Publication -29 December 2008
Topic - Lifestyle
Author of the article: kitti
Total Vote Count - (1 users gave their votes)

Looking through my archives I found a story written by a Russian rockabilly musician Kirill Prasalov. I asked myself: who else can describe rockabilly in Russian than a person, who belongs to this scene.

This story was created in 2002, so a lot of things have changed since then. In fact, rock'n'roll life is not that pessimistic any more. Some more contemporary rockabilly bands have appeared on the stages of Russian bars and clubs lately. Also most of them have an opportunity to play in Europe, back up European as well as American singers. Rockabilly fans have a chance to travel abroad to attend numerous festivals. Not only in Spain and Italy, but also in Finland this happy bunch of people can be easily recognized.

But history still stays the same, so have a pleasant reading!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Rockabilly is a music played by various musicians in a lot of different countries. Russian musicians are not an exception but in our country there is only a little part of musicians who are really familiar with rockabilly style.

I should mention that all the words I'll write below are related to the rockabilly life of my home city, St. Petersburg, wich has an unofficial status of the rockabilly capital of Russia. Nevertheless, St. Petersburg is not the only place where rockabilly music is well-known. Rockabilly culture in Russia grew up in a lot of places, from St. Petersburg in the west to Vladivostok in the east and from Arhangelsk in the north to Stavropol in the south. There are a lot of towns where one can find some rockabilly musicians or at least some rockabilly fans. The biggest problem of rockabilly in Russia is that the rockabilly musicians and fans here are distributed on a very wide area of our country. It's impossible, for example, for a rockabilly band from St. Petersburg (in the north-west part of Russia) to travel to Krasnoyarsk (it's in Siberia, yeah, you can find some rockabillies there too!) to have some gigs there because of the miles between previously mentioned towns. There are two centers of rockabilly in Russia. It's St. Petersburg, the 'rockabilly capital', and Moscow. The info on rockabilly in Moscow you can find on the page of Moscow rockabilly guy Sergey Karamaev.

It all started in Soviet Union in late 80's forced by the wind of so-called 'perestroyka'. It was a time when underground rock bands, that were under a suppression of Soviet government, became more and more popular. Most of these bands played cheesy music, so-called 'Russian rock' influenced by European post punk of the 80's as well as by 'folk' music of Russian criminals. They sang their songs in Russian with relatively low music playing skills. Nevertheless there were also some musicians who were interested in authentic American music such as jazz, blues and rockabilly because these kinds of music happen to be the roots for all the other genres in contemporary musical culture. Some of that musicians became the first generation of Russian rockabilly.

1988 was a year when rockabilly in St. Petersburg was born. First attempt to play rockabilly was made by two bands, the Stannin' Jive Sweets who played rockabilly with a touch of be bop jive, and the Swindlers who played more expressive music influenced by neo-rockabilly and even psycho. One should mention that in Russia the word 'rockabilly' does not mean only pure authentic style of the original artist such as Carl Perkins, Johnny Caroll, early Elvis etc. Most of so-called Russian 'rockabilly' fans are the fans of psycho, neorockabilly, punk, ska etc. Most of Russian 'rockabilly' bands are not pure rockabilly bands because their music is a fusion of many genres from rock'n'roll to punk and ska with only little influence of the authentic rockabilly. The music of such bands is called "a billy-related music" in our country. Well, anyway we are talking about pure rockabilly so I won't mention "billy-related" bands anymore.

Time rolled by and the Swindlers became a psychobilly trio and went outside of Russia to conquer the European scene. As for the Stannin' Jive Sweets, they became a jive band with brass section. Unfortunately the members of the Stannin' Jive Sweets were non-profeccional musicians because it's extremely hard to earn money for life for the rockabilly and jazz musicians in Russia. That was the reason why the Stannin' Jive Sweets split around the 1995. The frontmen of the Stannin' Jive Sweets, Dan Gutsenko, was a DJ on the local radio station where he managed a weekly rockabilly show called 'Old Suitcase'. That radio show was a 'digest' of the St. Petersburg rockabilly life from the 1992 to 1995 and it helped to turn people to rockabilly as well as to find the first promotion for some young rockabilly musicians. In 1993 Dan Gutsenko announced a competition for young rockabilly musicians. Its winners became the next generation of Russian rockabilly. They were the Sunstrockers (the winners in a nomination of the best feeling and sound of rockabilly), the Starlings (the leaders in a nomination of the best musician's skills) and a young guy Kirill Prasalov (yeah, it's me!) was granted with a status of the best rockabilly songwriter of St. Petersburg.

The Sunstrockers played an authentic rockabilly with a beautiful female vocals. Oksana Polyakovskaya, their lead female singer, had a strong and bright voice compared to the voice of young Brenda Lee. Other members of the Sunstrockers were two guitar players, an upright bass player and a drummer.

The music of the Starlings had a slight touch of jazz and boogie much obliged to jazz piano player Konstantin Eremichev. Frontman of the Starlings had a distinctive manner of singing, his name was Philipp Izvarin. Other members were a guitar player, an upright bass player and a drummer. Before the formation of the Starlings, their singer Izvarin and drummer Anton Kukhlin played together in a rockabilly band called the Filibusters. Unfortunately the Filibusters split because some of their members had big problems with drugs and it's hard to find any of the Filibusters demo recordings now.

About half a year after the end of previously mentioned competition there were some changes in the Starlings and the Sunstrockers. First of all, singer of the Starlings, Philipp Izvarin, left the band and went to Holland where he started his career as a solo performer known as Phil Friendly. His place in the Starlings took Oksana Polyakovskaya from the Sunstrockers. It was a breakdown for the Sunstrockers but it wasn't the end of their band. Their double bass player Alexandr Karnazov started to sing and the Sunstrockers continued their way in music.

Another event that helped St. Petersburg rockabilly musicians to accomplish their professionality was a visit of a rockabilly trio High Noon to our city that took place in 1993 as far as I remember. Yeah, the great High Noon played in St. Petersburg! Hell, I was a young boy, so my mother forbade me to go see them. The most part of St. Petersburg musicians visited the High Noon concerts, spoke with Shaun Young, Sean Mencher and Kevin Smith and were consulted how to play rockabilly and what kind of gear one should use to play this kind of music. The only problem was that the price of even budget set of gear (for example, Fender American Standart Telecaster and not too expensive tube amp) is about $1500 and it was extremely high for Russians because most of our people in that period of time earned only about $100 per month. One should say that now this problem has not been solved yet. Monthly income of an average citizen of St. Petersburg varies from $200 to $500 and rarely achieves $600 - $800. Anyway I'm a happy owner of a Fender American Deluxe Telecaster with Vintage Noiseless pickups but to buy it I was saving money for about a year.

In 1994 a noticeable event happened in our city. Daily working rockabilly club called 'Money Honey' opened its doors for St. Petersburg rockabilly fans. It became a chance for rockabilly musicians to earn money and for rockabilly fans to listen their favorite music. First performers in Money Honey were the Starlings and the Sunstrockers. Unfortunately it was the end of these bands's career in music. Musicians of the Starlings were students of various St. Petersburg universities. That was a time when their drummer Anton Kukhlin and guitar player Andrey Petrov graduated their universities and started to make careers in public relations and software development, respectively. Their double bass player left Russia to live in France and Oksana Polyakovskaya, the female singer, got married and was expecting. That is why the Starlings split. The Sunstrockers split too because one of their guitar players decided not to play music anymore and their drummer became the drummer of another rockabilly band called Mad Fish. Other members of the Sunstrockers needed to earn money so they quickly found a new guitarman, new drummer, invited one of their friends to sing (because it was hard for their bass player to sing while playing double bass) and finally formed a band called Rockin' Chair. The only goal of the Rockin' Chair was to play in local clubs for money so they didn't make any recordings.

As for Mad Fish whom I mentioned before, it was a new band for St. Petersburg rockabilly scene in 1995. They were formed by the group of young rockabilly enthusiasts leaded by singer Ivan George who had a deep low bass voice. It was a joke between St. Petersburg rockabillies in that time that one Ivan George sings like fifteen Johnny Cashes together :))) Another band that was formed in that time was a trio called Awaqua. Members of Awaqua were Dennis Dan, a guitar player of the Stannin' Jive Sweets, and an ex-rhythm section of one of the best Russian psychobilly bands called the Meantrators. Awaqua was the most professional band in Russian rockabilly music of that period and their members quickly became the 'gurus' for other musicians. Unfortunately it was also the first band who turned their faces from true rockabilly to a strange fusion called 'billy-related' music. One should mention that any member of Awaqua wasn't a rockabilly musician in a true meaning of this word. Dennis Dan was a kind of blues or maybe jazz player and other members of the band were typical psychobilly musicians. So they played rockabilly only for a few months and then they decided that rockabilly music is 'too easy to play' (but even in those few months one couldn't say that their music was a true 100% rockabilly!). Awaqua started to mix rockabilly standarts with some unusual for authentic rockabilly songs like reggae songs, ska songs, blues-rock songs etc. And because they were local 'gurus' many other musicians were influenced by Awaqua and started to lose a 100% purity of rockabilly style.

In 1995 some interesting things happened also to the youngest part of rockabilly musicians of St. Petersburg. Two bands were created that were mainly cheesy bands of newbie musicians, though some of these musicians played a big role in Russian rockabilly scene some few years later. First band was a hillbilly trio called Pink Cadillacs. Every member that played in this band in that time had a tattoo with a pink cadillac. A few months later after the band formation their name was shortened and they became the Cadillacs. The leader of the Cadillacs was an old friend of musicians of the Sunstrockers. His name was Sergey Shornikov. Since that time there have been many changes of musicians in the Cadillacs. Their first guitarist left the band because of problems with drugs and first bass player of the Cadillacs now plays ska and hardcore in various bands. In some periods Cadillacs played with drummer, in other periods they were a hillbilly trio. Sometimes they even tried to play with a steel guitar but anyhow Sergey Shornikov has been the leader of the band since then.

Second of previously mentioned 'young' bands was formed by Kirill Prasalov. This band called the Fireballs was the first rockabilly band in Russia half of whose song list was filled by original songs (all of mentioned above bands played mostly covers). But the Fireballs wasn't quite a succesful band. They played together for about a year and after that their drummer was invited to play with the Cadillacs. Kirill wasn't satisfied with his guitar playing skills and with the skills of his bass player so he didn't start to find a new drummer and the Fireballs split. Kirill was eager to improve his skills and to obtain a musical education in the field of jazz guitar playing. Since the end of the Fireballs he played in a lot of bands, in different styles, sttarting from dixieland to acid jazz and also he became a teacher of jazz and blues guitar playing. Only five years later he turned back to rockabilly music.

1996 was a rich year for rockabilly events. It was a year when rockabilly scene in St. Petersburg formed its today's shape. On the other hand it was a beginning of the decline of Russian rockabilly.

'Money Honey' was a commercially successful club, by then it became an example for owners of other clubs. So in 1996 in St. Petersburg appeared about four big and much more small clubs, where rockabilly bands were welcome to perform. It seemed good because for rockabilly bands it provided an opportunity to grow up commercially and to increase number of their listeners. But actually it was not so good. There were only a few rockabilly bands that could perform in such clubs. The Rockin' Chair, the Starlings (before the end of their career), Awaqua, Mad Fish and maybe the Cadillacs. Totally four or five bands. So they couldn't fill all of club gigs. Clubs were forced to invite to play some bands that were not true rockabilly bands. A lot of non-rockabilly musicians were glad to earn money so they formed bands with typical playlist that included songs like Johnny B. Goode, Tutti Frutti, Pretty Woman, as well as songs from the Pulp Fiction motion picture. And to 'freshen' their playlists they sang songs of the Beatles, the Doors, Shocking Blue etc. Most part of the crowd in St. Petersburg wasn't acquainted with rockabilly so mentioned above pseudo-rockabilly bands fit the clubs and the crowd very well. By the time pseudo-rockabilly bands conquered the club scene and left no chance for true rockabillies.

As for the rockabilly music, 1996 was the year of birth of two interesting bands named the Rattlesnakes and the Big Livers.

The Rattlesnakes were formed by the musicians of the Rockin' Chair. It was the end of the Rockin' Chair's career. Guitarman Oleg Hoodkin, base-player Aleksander Karnazov and drummer Aleksey Gubin invited Yuri Sutkovoi (who was an ex-leader of psychobilly band called the Attracards) to sing and play lead guitar. Together they made an interesting kind of music that was a fusion of neorockabilly, latin, blues, rock and with a big influence from pop music. The Rattlesnakes became the most commercially succesful band in Russian 'billy-related' scene and they even released two CD albums. But actually it was as far cry from a true authentic rockabilly as contemporary country music stars are far from the music of Red Foley, Ernest Tubb and Eddie Arnold, the people mentioned in Carl Perkins's 'Tennessee'.

Another band that was formed in 1996 is Big Livers. Singer and guitar player of Big Livers, Vitaliy Novikov, is an extraordinary person with an unusual musical life. Before playing rockabilly he played various genres like blues, classic rock and even neoclassic shred like Ingwie Malmsteen. One evening he came to Money Honey to spend some time and money, to drink Russian Vodka and to pick up a woman for a night. He heard the Cadillacs that performed that evening there. That kind of music impressed him. After the gig he talked to drummer of the Cadillacs, who was an ex-drummer of the Fireballs, and he gave Vitaliy Novikov a phone number of the ex-leader of the Fireballs, Kirill Prasalov. One of Kirill's friends, Aleksey Varlamov, was a double bass player and Kirill helped to establish a contact between Vitaliy and Aleksey. After some rehearsals Vitaliy and Aleksey invited Aleksey Volkov, an ex-drummer of Mad Fish, to play wih them (Mad Fish splitted a few months before because their singer, Ivan George, left the band and started his own jive combo called Jive Pipes). Professional skills of Vitaliy Novikov and Alexey Volkov were so high that the Big Livers became the best rockabilly band in Russia. They were the first band that played rockabilly as good as any American band I think.

I've already told you that 1996 was a 'grave' for Mad Fish. Also in 1996 the Starlings finally split. One year later, in 1997, it was the end for Awaqua. As I told before, members of Awaqua thought that rockabilly is 'too easy to play' (but I have never heard them playing rockabilly as good as it could be as they refered to 'simplicity of the rockabilly'). Musicians of Awaqua started to play ska, hardcore and alternative rock in various bands.

We should also mention some other band that appeared on 'billy-related' scene of St. Petersburg in 1996. The name of that band is the Barbulators. They played pop rock when their leader heard that a good money could be earned by playing 'pseudo-rockabilly' or 'billy-related' music in local clubs and bars. So the Barbulators turned to 'billy-related' music. They integrated into rockabilly more than other 'pseudo-rockabilly' bands and they even invited double bass player to play with them (it was an ex-bassist of the Fireballs Stas Boytsov). Their music was a strange fusion of Russian urban songs and psychobilly. I've never heard them playing rockabilly music but (I don't know why) they called themselves 'a rockabilly band'. It was a final step in disinformation of Russian music fans. Since that time in our country the word 'rockabilly' has been refered to something psycho-like or pop-rock-like (i. e. 'billy-related') or swamp-rock-and-surf-like (i. e. 'pseudo-rockabilly'). Difference between 'billy-related' music and 'pseudo-rockabilly' music is that 'billy-related' bands usually play some kind of original songs (but I can hardly consider these songs as true rockabilly) while 'pseudo-rockabilly' bands play mostly covers.

From 1996 to 2000 there were no noticeable events, news and changes in rockabilly scene of St. Petersburg. Nevertheless some rockabilly bands were formed in various towns of Russia. Sorry, did I say 'rockabilly bands'? No, they played mostly neorockabilly and psycho and I don't know why in Russia it's called rockabilly! The only true rockabilly band in that period of time was 15 Megatones from Petrozavodsk, a town on the north-west of Russia. A few years after their formation they left Russia to live and play rockabilly in Finland.

In 1997 a first compilation CD of Russian rockabilly called 'Delayed Action Mine' was released. It consisted of songs of St. Petersburg and Moscow rockabillies that were recorded at amateur recording studios from 1991 till 1997 plus two songs of neorockabilly band called 'Jukebox' from Voronezh and one song of Belorussian psycho band called 'Wanted'. Only a few songs on that CD could be regarded as authentic rockabilly, other songs were something 'billy-related'.

In 1999 a second compilation of Russian so-called 'rockabilly' was released by the Mikadox Records, a recording label from Japan. This compilation was called 'Splendid Seven of Rockabilly'. Most tracks on this CD were psychobilly or 'billy-related' songs with only a few rockabilly ones.

Do you remember the Cadillacs? The times rolled by and the Cadillacs' professionality only grew. Their permanent leader was a singer and a rhythm guitar player Sergey Shornikov. Other musicians changed from time to time. Shortly before year 2000 the Cadillacs became a hillbilly trio without drums and thus went back to their roots. Except Sergey Shornikov, other musicians that play in the band are Andrey Androsenko on the guitar and Aleksander Loginov on bass. The Cadillacs became the second 'high-end' authentic rockabilly band in Russia (as you remember, the first was Big Livers). The Big Livers sounds as an old LP from the 50's and they are similar to many old rockabilly musicians. The Cadillacs differs from the Big Livers because their music has gained some more contemporary sound. They established their own distinctive feeling and sound based on authentic rockabilly.

In 2000 something interesting happened in St. Petersburg's rockabilly scene. Do you remember Kirill Prasalov, the winner of the rockabilly competition in the nomination of songwriting and the ex-leader of the Fireballs? As I mentioned, after the end of the Fireballs he quit rockabilly and became a professional jazz guitar player and teacher. In 2000 he turned back to his rockabilly roots and formed a band called Neva River Rockets (Neva is the name of a river on whose bank St. Petersburg was built). Kirill's jazz colleague Nikolay Potapov became a drummer of the Neva River Rockets. Double bass player is Peter Mironov, he is an old Kirill's Internet buddy. After the Big Livers and Cadillacs they became a third best good sounding rockabilly band in Russia. They were a unique band on Russian rockabilly scene 'cause their playlist had 30% of original songs (they easily could sing more original numbers but it wasn't necessary to Russian scene).

In 2001 a third compilation of Russian rockabilly, CD called 'Rockabilly Girl' was released. I should mention that it was more rockabilly then psycho compilation. It has some 'billy-related' tracks too, but anyway there are seven rockabilly songs on it, two songs by the Big Livers, two songs by Neva River Rockets and three songs by the Cadillacs. This compilation has influenced some young rockabilly musicians. For example, in 2001 a rockabilly trio called Rock Fellers was formed in Krasnoyarsk (Siberia). I don't know about their music but I hope that they will record a demo CD soon and then I will have some more insight into their music.

In the end of 2001 - beginning of 2002 a dark period started for St. Petersburg rockabilly. First, the Cadillacs split because their leader, Sergey Shornikov, moved from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Next was Big Livers. Their drummer Aleksey Volkov decided to make a career in business. It seemed that the end of the Big Livers is near but it wasn't really true. Anyway the number of their gigs significantly decreased and as far as I know they are rarely performing in Money Honey saloon. The Neva River Rockets noticed that playing pure rockabilly wouldn't provide them a good job so they turned to more sophisticated tunes like country instrumentals in Chet Atkins style and Les Paul-like arrangements of the old jazz standarts of swing era. They thought that such tunes would let them have gigs in jazz clubs but the owners of jazz clubs didn't want to see a rockabilly-based band there. So Neva River Rockets were forced to stop their interesting project. Finally they split, Peter Mironov continued his career in business, Kirill Prasaleff became a software developer and Nicolay Potapov started to work as a salesman.

Year 2002 was also a breakdown year for the Rattlesnakes. As you might remember the Rattlesnakes were formed by musucians of the band called Rockin' Chair, Oleg Hoodkin, Aleksandr Karnazov and Aleksey Gubin who invited Yuri Sutkovoy to play and sing with them. From the beginning of the Rattlesnakes there was a disagreement between Yuri who wanted to play his own 'pop-latin-neorockabilly' songs and other members of the band who wanted to play traditional rockabilly. This disagreement resulted in leaving Yuri alone by other musicians in 2002. Oleg, Aleksandr and Aleksey formed a rockabilly trio named the Phantoms. It wasn't a problem for Yuri Sutkovoy to find some new musicians, so he did it and it turned out it wasn't the end of the Rattlesnakes. But at the same time the Rattlesnakes lost most part of their skills, experience and individuality and became an ordinary 'pseudo-rockabilly' band. The Phantoms are playing traditional rockabilly now. Unfortunately requirements for music playing skills at St. Petersburg local clubs now are very low. That's the reason why the Phantoms don't take care about their skills. The result is that the quality of their playing varies at times from very high to very low. Nevertheless I can say that members of the Phantoms are experienced professional musicians.

But the time is passing by and Russian rockabilly giants don't want to close their deals with rockabilly. As mentioned, Big Livers are alive now. The only problem is that they have lost the most part of their gigs. Sometimes after their 'end', the Cadillacs joined together again and now they are playing a few gigs in St. Petersburg once in a month. The main change in the Cadillacs is that they are now playing with a drummer. The Neva River Rockets recently have also joined again together, but comparing to the Cadillacs they don't have a drummer now. They have invited their friend Anton Kurakin to play the acoustic guitar. Today musicians of the Neva River Rockets have a period of strong rehearsals and are preparing new original songs and covers in rockabilly/western swing style.

Unfortunately classic rockabilly is extremely unpopular in today's Russia. It's a big problem for rockabilly musicians to find any gigs to play because rockabilly is a kind of music that falls down between such popular genres in Russia as jazz, classic rock, Russian pop-music. True rockabilly isn't a commercial music so that all rockabilly musicians here are forced to work various daily jobs and to play rockabilly after the job hours.

Copyright: Kirill Prasalov 2002

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