‘A folkloric hallucination’: Zvuki Mu, Soviet Russia’s most glorious band

The death of frontman Pyotr Mamonov to Covid-19 marks the end of a group whose ordinary looks and extraordinary performances showed Russians the richness of life

Zvuki Mu frontman Pyotr Mamonov in the film Taxi Blues. Zvuki Mu frontman Pyotr Mamonov in the film Taxi Blues. Photograph: SPUTNIK/AlamyZvuki Mu frontman Pyotr Mamonov in the film Taxi Blues. Photograph: SPUTNIK/Alamy

Aron Ouzilevski

With a receding hairline and sporting a plaid blazer, a man in his late-30s growls the lyrics to a song sung from the perspective of a pigeon into his mic. “I may be the most dispensable, disgusting, shit – but at least I know how to fly!” run the monotonous Russian words, bellowed across the stage. To accompany the singing, the man spasms and contorts his body and face with the clumsy precision of a broken marionette.

The year is 1987, and the Soviet rock band Zvuki Mu (Sounds of Mu), at the dawn of their musical career, are performing a concert airing on official state television. The audience members smile and bob their heads, some bewildered, and others comforted by this bizarre showman whose familiar appearance more closely resembles a neighbourhood tram conductor than a rock star.

The performance and song typified the Moscow-based band Zvuki Mu, whose stream-of-consciousness, absurdist lyrics satirised the mundane elements of late Soviet existence – a time when Soviet citizens were losing faith in utopian communist ideals. That contortionist frontman was the revered Pyotr Mamonov, who died last week of Covid-19 complications at the age of 70. To his right, strumming a bass, was the band’s co-founder Alexander Lipnitsky, who also died earlier this year at the age of 68, in a skiing accident. This past week, Russians took to social media to lament these losses, that bring the final curtain down on a band unlike any other in the country’s history.

Pyotr Mamonov performing with Zvuki Mu.Pyotr Mamonov performing with Zvuki Mu. Photograph: Sputnik/Alamy

As the borders between the Soviet Union and the west grew porous in the late 1970s, and Mikhail Gorbachev implemented Glasnost, the “openness and transparency” policy in the 1980s, a fresh cultural environment gave rise to Soviet rock. Performances were at first in secret, in apartments, but soon shifted to Soviet Palaces of Culture, often under the oversight of the KGB. It only took a few years for the Soviet public to elevate its rock stars to the cult status of Russia’s 19th-century authors. But much like their literary predecessors, Soviet rock bands emulated their western counterparts, in musical composition, lyrics, and visual glamour. If 19th century Romantic poets Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov found solace in the verses of Byron and Shelley, popular Soviet rock bands such as Akvarium and Kino found their muses in Bob Dylan’s cadences and Robert Smith’s makeup.

Zvuki Mu, however, stood out from the rest, in looks, music, and their desire to engage with audiences. “The members looked like Soviet engineers; Mamonov and Lipnitsky were well into their 30s when they began to perform,” says Russian cultural critic Yury Saprykin . “Mamonov in particular resembled something of a lumpen-intellectual,” he adds, referencing the frontman’s refined yet lowbrow appearance (lumpen, initially a Marxist term for the naive members of society’s lowest strata, was a word that Soviet citizens used for its typically male alcoholics, vagrants, and prisoners). The musician Sergey Ryzhenko described the band’s first concert as a “Russian folkloric hallucination”. And it was this very ordinary appearance, coupled with mundane and simplistic lyrics, that made them so beloved and recognisable to the Russian public.

One popular song eulogises a “juicy lula-kebab,” a Soviet dish commonly found in cafeterias. Zvuki Mu’s lyrics are often repetitive and contain few words, sketching out the everyday situations that their languorous heroes find themselves in. Another hit song, Crimea, makes no mention of the glimmering sea or ancient architecture synonymous with the peninsula. Instead, it features a man who is sweating and overheating in a telephone booth, begging a relative back home to wire him more money for his alcoholic escapades.

Mamonov’s childhood neighbourhood was Bolshaya Karetnaya, notorious for its criminality and alcohol addiction during the Brezhnev years, likely cultivated the frontman’s aesthetic. As a young adult, Mamonov worked a series of odd jobs which, according to Zvuki Mu’s biographer Sergei Guryev, offered him a “kaleidoscopic and encyclopaedic” insight into Soviet life. He worked in a boiler room, operated an elevator, lugged wine caskets, and at one point, translated Norwegian literature into Russian.

Meanwhile, his closest childhood friend was former classmate Sasha Lipnitsky, who came from privilege. Lipnitsky’s stepfather was Viktor Sukhodrev, Leonid Brezhnev’s personal translator, and a renowned music connoisseur, who would bring home records from his travels. From an early age, Mamonov and Lipnitsky had unparalleled access to western music from various decades, which played a formative role in their band’s development. Mamonov was particularly fond of the authenticity and rawness of American soul music – Ray Charles, Ike & Tina Turner, and Chubby Checker ranked among his biggest idols. “‘Black’ America happily won their hearts over British ‘cultured’ rock‘n’roll,” writes Guryev. In Mamonov’s raspy voice and the band’s instrumentation, listeners can also find traces of Captain Beefheart.

The musical partnership between Mamonov and Lipnitsky did not flourish until two years into Mamonov’s songwriting career. At one point, Mamonov tried to recruit a troupe of local street alcoholics to sing choruses over his verses, but soon acknowledged that it was a pipe dream. For a short time, Zvuki Mu consisted of Mamonov and his step-brother, Alexey “Lelik” Bortnichuk, before Soviet authorities imprisoned Lelik for “social parasitism” – the official indictment for those who refuse to work – following a spat with his boss at a boiler room. Mamonov’s earliest performances took place in Lipnitsky’s apartment, a bohemian oasis, where members of the Leningrad and Moscow rock scenes shared wine and praise, and forged creative partnerships. During the two decades of its existence, the band underwent multiple iterations, shedding members for a variety of reasons. Some, like the renowned music journalist Artemy Troitsky, were too good-looking for the band’s cretinous aesthetic. Others were too technically trained or lacked the discipline to match the band’s prolific output, such as Sergei “Afrika” Bugaev, an actor and artist who joined Zvuki Mu aged just 16. Mamonov even tried to teach his wife how to play bass, before eventually inviting Lipnitsky to pick up the instrument.

On 28 January, 1984, some 300 schoolchildren packed into the theatre of Mamonov and Lipnitsky’s childhood school to witness the debut performance of Zvuki Mu. Present in the audience were Soviet rock stars Sergey Kuryokhin, Boris Grebenshchikov, and Andrey Makarevich. The evening was marketed as a high-school reunion so as to not attract the ire of the KGB. Two years later, Zvuki Mu would go one to play their first, officially sanctioned concert in Moscow’s Kurchatov Palace of Culture. As the venues grew in size, the performances grew in frenzy. Mamonov would drag various props on to the stage – cubes that he assembled and then jumped off, cots that he would lay in and flail. In 1988 the band released their first album, Ordinary Things.

Having completed several tours across the Soviet republics, Zvuki Mu were now setting their sights towards the west. In the autumn of 1988, Artemy Troitsky helped set up a meeting in Poland that would elevate Zvuki Mu’s success to heights never before experienced by any Soviet rock band. The meeting was with Brian Eno, who upon conversing with Mamonov, described the Russian frontman as “a wondrous and terrifying type, like something from the dark ages”. Zvuki Mu immediately struck a deal with Eno which saw the release of two albums under the English label Opal Records. But, for whatever reason, as Sergei Guryev notes in his biography, Mamonov distrusted Eno, barring him from any meaningful contribution to the album’s production. Mamonov expressed his desire to instead collaborate with Frank Zappa, or even Brian Ferry, Eno’s former bandmate from Roxy Music.

As part of the deal Zvuki Mu would go on to perform two tours across the US and UK. During the tours, which Warner Brothers partially funded, Zvuki Mu shared a stage with Pere Ubu, who were so awestruck by the performance of their Russian colleagues, that they stalled for 30 minutes before playing a follow-up set. In later tours, Mamonov would meet two of his idols, David Byrne and Peter Gabriel, who he once described in an interview as kindred spirits, “ordinary, yet intelligent men”. Throughout the next two decades, the band dissolved and reassembled in various iterations, recording a total of 13 studio albums. They also filmed a music video for their song Harsh Sunset, which was so novel that US band the National produced a like-for-like tribute in 2013.

Mamonov remained at the centre of it all, and beyond his stage performances, he translated knack for facial and bodily expressivity to the screen. In 1990, he starred as an alcoholic saxophone virtuoso – a character not too dissimilar from himself – who forges a tumultuous relationship with a hateful and racist cab driver in Pavel Lungin’s film Taxi Blues. In one scene, a nude Mamonov plays the saxophone while facing a window; the camera slowly closes in on his bare back in a highly entrancing shot of a man who has full command of his body and lacks all inhibitions, like his real life counterpart. In 2006, having spent nearly 10 years as a Russian Orthodox convert living in a small village, Mamonov starred as a Russian Orthodox monk in another Pavel Lungin film, the award-winning The Island. “It is no coincidence that he played this role,” says Yury Saprykin. “With Zvuki Mu he projected the image of a lumpen-intellectual, but in his later years the public saw him as a Yurodivy type character – the holy fool of Russian Orthodox scripture.”

Though he spent his later years in spiritual isolation, Mamonov’s love for performance and music never ceased. He continued to offer concerts and tours as a solo performer well into his final years, moving quite unlike an ageing individual. And in all the performances, he continued to embody the ethos of Zvuki Mu: a fervour for life that one can only arrive at by embracing its absurd nature.

“Their concerts were a shamanic ritual designed to drive out the demon lying in the Soviet consciousness,” writes their biographer Sergei Guryev. For his compatriots, who lived in a society encumbered by authoritarian politics, passivity, and cynicism, Mamonov was a sight to behold. In one interview, Mamonov tells the audience to take a look at their index fingers under a magnifying glass: “There is so much there: nerves … everything is moving – you can only take awe in what your body is capable of … so many nuances … life is a grand thing.”


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