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Review: The Bootleg Band In the USSR: How The Beatles Rocked the Eastern Bloc  (BBC4/BBC iplayer)

10 October 2009

Cutting Your Ribs

It’s three o’clock in the morning and somewhere in Moscow a young man gingerly approaches a soldier’s kiosk. Checking to see if the plain-clothes policemen have gone off to their cars to sleep, the young man enters the empty kiosk. He takes an acetate disk from his pocket places it on a turntable. He then removes a small tape recorder from his bag. 

Carefully placing the needle on the acetate he presses play on the tape machine and begins to cut his disk. Only he’s not recording his own voice – as homesick Russian soldiers used to do – but the sound of four Liverpudlian apostles of a new faith singing ‘it won’t be long before I belong to you’. By that time, young Russians - despite impossible odds - did believe that the Beatles personally belonged to them. In those days it was more than likely that the young fan of the story was arrested soon after he left the kiosk. It would take several attempts and many more arrests to keep supply lines open of Russia’s favourite contraband. 

Watching the footage of those arrests from How The Beatles Rocked the Eastern Bloc (BBC4/BBC iPlayer) the thought crossed my mind that if the Russian police were just as corrupt as the western police – that contraband would be collected copied and sold on to people who would pay a better price. After all the police had work to do they couldn’t all lay about all night listening to radio Luxemburg or hang around hospitals all day waiting to collect discarded x-rays to use for an acetate recording.  Someone else was doing the hard day’s night time for collecting those X-rays and bootlegging the Beatles. Many got their ribs broken for trading in ‘ribs’ – the popular name given to those bootlegged acetates which were exchanged for spare kopeks on the back streets of towns and cities across the USSR.

The Last World Tour

These were some of the facts revealed by How The Beatles Rocked the Eastern Bloc, also of interest was the KGB anti Beatles propaganda film. This little film showed that part of the cause of this hoodlum phenomenon was a decadent Jew named Epstein (though they used a stronger insult than ‘decadent’).  That was probably aimed at garnering support among the sub-proletariat but what of the reformed workers? Well what they were to understand from the popularity of the mop tops from Merseyside was that they distorted peoples priorities – cue Klu Klux Klan scene. Didn’t people realise that while Russian youths were listening to the Beatles the KKK were still lynching people? 

There was one problem with that KGB point as the Time Watch documentary Beatlemania showed: – the KKK also wanted to lynch the Beatles. Well John Lennon certainly after he said, in throwaway line, that the Beatles were ‘more popular than Jesus.’  So while the young Russians were collecting and trading Beatles secrets, young American Christian fundamentalists were making bonfires of Beatles records. By 1966 and the end of that last World tour, the Beatles had managed to upset the Japanese Right and the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. Now they had added the unreformed southern states of America - quite an achievement that any respectable revolutionary group would be proud of!

But How the Beatles Rocked The Eastern Bloc wanted to have its Cold War cake and eat it too. For we were to understand that the Beatles were the best weapon that the West had in breaking up communism. A very bald and ludicrous claim – but it’s interesting to note that both this documentary and the anti-Beatles soviet propaganda film make the same point that it was the rock of the Beatles that succeeded in making Brezhnev roll over. If that were true then it would have been the Rolling Stones that would have put the USSR on its ear not the Beatles.

We always make too much of exaggeration – the book on the failure of the Beatles’ revolt has been written and rewritten many times. In the 1980s no self respecting rightwing critic was worthy of their salt unless they had written an anti counter culture tome which reserved most of its bile for John Lennon’s politics.  The anti Lennon misinformation and propaganda got a lot worse following Lennon’s death. Those were bad times indeed as Paul McCartney joined the pack and declared that the intensity of world’s grief following Lennon’s death in 1980 was unfounded for ‘Martin Luther Lennon’. 

An Irish Lament

This from someone who felt just as strongly about the Bloody Sunday shootings in Derry; McCartney’s single Give Ireland back To The Irish reached No1 in Ireland and Spain and the top 20 in US and UK – despite being banned by the BBC, ITA, and Radio Luxemburg. McCartney was told that it would be banned if it was released but to his credit he went ahead (Lennon followed this with two songs on his 1972 political album Some Time In New York City - Sunday Bloody Sunday and The Luck of The Irish).

It’s become fashionable for young (male) workers to say that they ‘preferred the Stones’ who were more strictly a rock band than the Beatles chiefly because aggression is seen as cool while to be seen as cerebral or like a thinker like the later Beatles is not. And if you look at the change in the counter culture that aggression became one of its dominate features. So it not surprising to hear Bob Dylan sing with real aggressive bitterness in Like A Rolling Stone about the people he knew who wouldn’t get any satisfaction from slumming it. And it’s not surprising that most of the best songs of Dylan and the Stones are about these people and the counter culture that has gone rotten. By the end of the 60s the theme of optimism, protest and celebration that we hear in the early songs is gone – as it had gone from the culture itself. 

Ireland in 1968 was not the England of Enoch Powell or the London of marginal revolutionary sects who in Lennon’s words ‘weren’t going to make it with anyone anyhow’. The sects had all tried and failed to turn London into Prague or Paris. The left in Britain really only grew in influence in the period 1972-1974 and John Lennon sought out the New Left - meeting regularly with Traq Ali and other activists and becoming involved in a whole host of radical campaigns.  His anger on Some Time In York City and on the two songs about Ireland is real and not just done for effect. But the key to why it was the Beatles and not the Stones whose songs were valued by the downtrodden lies with their connection to Ireland and its music.  It was this connection more than any other that gave them the ability to sing so convincingly about sadness, loneliness and loss, which moved millions and inspired thoughts of a better life.


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