Rock n' Roll Revolution in Post-Soviet Uzbekistan
In 1995 my brother brought home a borrowed vinyl of Metallica's Black Album and created a rock n' roll revolution in our little Soviet Hrushchovka apartment. The album looked and felt like something out of this world. A two-fold piece with song lyrics, that barely noticeable snake print and the "Metallica" sign against the pitch-black background. Cool on top of cool.
Just like us, our Soviet vinyl player "Akkord" has never seen anything like this before. Its needle, virgin to heavy metal, touched the record (please don't scratch, we thought, the vinyl is borrowed) and we heard the epic opening riff of "Enter Sandman" with that bass/drum buildup and Kirk Hammett's wah guitar effect setting the stage for the break-in of James Hetfield's distortion-smothered intro. We were positively shocked.
"There may have been no sugar in the store, but there was plenty of rock n' roll on the shelves of underground recording studios."
The vinyl had to be returned and was longed for in the years that followed, but we managed to get some pirated cassette tapes with more Metallica and many other gems - Nirvana, Cinderella, Juliette, Guns n' Roses, Aerosmith, Ozzy, Iron Maiden, Scorpions and many, many others. Some of the mega bands, such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin were allowed to enter the Soviet music scene back in the 1980s, during the perestroika. How and why these other bands and records like Nirvana's "Nevermind", for instance, entered the country is still a mystery to me. You certainly need to try very hard to find any such music in Uzbekistan today, but in the mid-1990s this was surprisingly easy. All you needed to have was the most scarce item on the market - money. There may have been no sugar in the store, but there was plenty of rock n' roll on the shelves of underground recording studios. These recording studios did not actually record any bands or singers, in spite of the epic and misleading name. What they did was mass produce music. They would take one licensed vinyl or cassette and, akin to divine miracles, turn them into hundreds of thousands of pieces for the masses. There was even a xerox copy machine - a wonder of the world of its time - and terrible quality album covers were included for an extra payment.
"The rock n' roll enthusiasts of our home town of Namangan were as rare as a smile on Soviet family photographs."
A copy from the recording studio with the xeroxed album cover was considered factory quality in our circles. We got to enjoy copies of the copies. All the money that we managed to save up would be spent on blank cassette tapes and then we would borrow music from friends and make a copy at home on the cassette tape stereo. Due to the limits of blank cassette tapes, we needed to make the tough choices of what bands to copy. God forbid you accidentally press that "record" button and screw up someone's precious possession. So many fears and barriers on the path to getting music.
"As the society around us was rediscovering religion and inventing the new national ideology, we were having our rock n' roll revolution."
You need to understand what period of time this was in Uzbekistan. The Soviet empire crumbled and the transition period was filled with ubiquitous crime, poverty, depression, substance abuse, shortages of everything and absolute uncertainty over what tomorrow would bring. People were on the run. Everyone who could was returning to their historical motherlands in search of a better life. An average apartment could sell for as low as 200 USD. The rock n' roll enthusiasts of our home town of Namangan were as rare as a smile on Soviet family photographs. We stuck together, we helped each other find new music, we played guitars and taught each other new riffs. We wore headbands, chains and rings. We pierced our ears using sewing needles. As the society around us was rediscovering religion and inventing the new national ideology, we were having our rock n' roll revolution.
"The world outside was in flux, it felt like it was made of spider web - it was uncomfortable, sticky, limiting, and yet fragile."
When our grandmother died, my brother and I occupied her apartment and covered all the walls in posters of the abovementioned idols of ours. We made xerox copies, we sought the originals in magazines, we traded, we improvised, we were driven by the universal force of rock n' roll. The world outside was in flux, it felt like it was made of spider web - it was uncomfortable, sticky, limiting, and yet fragile. The apartment was a different universe. We would put the amplifiers on the windowsills and we would blast "Smells like teen spirit" or "Stairway to Heaven" or "Unforgiven" and we escaped. In many ways, rock music helped us manage in this transition period. We had no desire to drug-up or drink. We enjoyed the music. This music transported us to distant places filled with concerts, carelessness, joy, free love and all other good stuff.
P.S. The years went by, and I got to see Metallica and Scorpions in concerts in the US and in the Netherlands. As I looked at the stage, I would mentally transport into that little apartment in Namangan and those walls filled with posters, and those cassette tapes. The people I am looking at and listening to, used to seem so distant to us as if they were some mythical creatures from fairytales. And now, years later, that little apartment and those rock n' roll enthusiasts of Namangan seem like a distant dream, something from our previous lives. Something that will never return.