It was 26 years ago this month that UB40 became the very first Western band and reggae band to be invited to perform behind the Iron Curtain. This was before glasnost and perestroika, and the eventual collapse of the Berlin Wall and it marked the gradual opening of Russia to Western bands and rock tours. Their watershed concert in Moscow was recorded and released the following year as "UB40 CCCP".
It is hard to imagine now how isolated Eastern Europe and the USSR was from music in the U.S. and U.K. in the mid-1980's. Indeed, the Soviet authorities who invited UB40 to play, saw them as a band of socialists whose critique of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan's form of economic and global imperialism would fit nicely into a Marxist world view. And while that may have been true, what they had not bargained for was the band's take on the power of personal politics and its importance to Soviet citizens. In fact, at the time, something as simple as standing, dancing and enjoying music was forbidden. An excerpt from Rock Around The Bloc: A History of Rock Music in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, 1954-1988 by Timothy Ryback highlights the small but important role that UB40's series of concerts in October 1986 played in confronting the Soviet government over the right of people to dance and enjoy music.
From Monday October 6th through Sunday Oct 19, 1986, UB40 performed six concerts in Lennigrad's 8,500 seat Iubileini Sports Arena and six concerts in Moscow's 12,000 seat Luzhniki Arena. UB40 were eight working class musicians from the industrial city of Birmingham who meted out harsh words for Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and seemed like the perfect cross between pop and politics. What Soviet officials did not expect was that UB40 would be as outspoken and uncompromising in Moscow as they were in England and America. In contrast to previous Western performers including Cliff Richard in 1976, Boney M in 1978, and Elton John in 1979, UB40 refused to enter into any compromises with their music or performance.
The Soviets did their best to temper the music and words issuing from the UB40 stage. When guitarist Robin Campbell expressed dismay that "such a big,strong country as this one is so afraid of a few people having a good time" following a performance of the song "Watchdogs" Campbell told the audience, "That was a song called Watchdogs, It's about the perils of censorship and the people who think they are watching over us for our own good." Translating Campbell's commentary for the Soviet audience, the MC explained "That was a song about censorship in Capitalist Countries." When Campbell tried to bring the crowd to their feet telling them "We'd love to see you dancing," The MC told the audience "The Band likes movement." Dancing, not lyrics became the major point of contention during the UB40 Tour. The local promoter Gosconcert, which forbade dancing at concerts, packed the arenas with security forces to keep fans under control. "We have a four hour argument before every show" Campbell complained, " Just to keep security at reasonable level of ruthlessness".
On Thursday October 16th, Campbell tired of the harassment of fans trying to dance, stopped the band. "You with the red armband" he yelled, gesturing towards a security man in the crowd -- "People are allowed to dance. Stop forcing them to sit down." As a spotlight from the stage singled out the security man who timidly withdrew the audience began to cheer. Despite the frustrations of the band and the harassment of the audiences, Soviet rock fans viewed the UB40 tour as a victory. A western band singing about censorship, decrying Police brutality and demanding the right for rock fans to dance, had delivered their message before tens of thousands of fans in Leningrad and Moscow. The change of mood in the Soviet establishment seemed confirmed when shortly after the UB40 concerts, Boris Grebenshehikov, who performed an increasing number engagements, was allowed to hold six sell out concerts in Leningrads Iubileni sports arena.But what about the fans who were lucky enough to get tickets to see the band? I was struck by the memories of a young Russian fan of the band posted on the UB40 web forum in 2006 during the 20th anniversary of the Russian tour:
"One gray October afternoon 20 years ago I got home from school to find my mother sitting by our old radio in the kitchen crying her eyes out… My first thought was that I missed the news that morning, and maybe Gorbachev had died? “What’s the matter, mum?” I asked. It turned out that she had been listening to a radio program about a group of eight unemployed musicians from England that came to Leningrad to perform. “They had such hard childhood” she kept saying, still sobbing… And THAT’S how I found out that UB40 were in town.
Perestroika was in it’s third year, the country was becoming more open, the eventual collapse of the whole system was only 3 years away, but old habits die slow. In their effort to promote the band in the Soviet Union, the authorities made the emphasis on the band’s political and social “struggle” against capitalism in general and Margaret Thatcher in particular. The first gig in Leningrad. There’s a black-and-while UB40 sign over a red background. This anarchist tri-color probably represented much better what UB40 were about than what Goskontsert people had in mind: a group of unemployed musicians who would be embracing Gorbachev-enhanced socialism with open arms.
Reggae as a music genre had not been widely known in Russia. Some might know the name Bob Marley, but nobody really knew any history of the music, anything about its roots, or religious or social significance.
UB40 were the first ever reggae band to ever perform in Russia. They were also the first Western band to ever perform there. I’m sure it was quite a culture shock for the band who had just flown from sunny Los Angeles and into a dreary “Russian winter”. But… we loved them, we loved them, we loved them, and couldn’t get enough of them!
I recently asked my friend Yuri who is the bass-guitarist of the first ever Russian reggae band, what he remembers the most about those Moscow gigs. “The sound”, he said right away. “I’d never heard anything like that before in my life”. The sound was overwhelming; I remember that I was completely blown away by the brass section. That was also the first time I realized how important percussion is.”