It’s Wednesday evening, and Robin Campbell has just told the 12,000 people packed into Moscow’s Luzhniki Arena that he isn’t going to introduce the members of UB40 tonight. “I’m going to say instead,” he tells the audience, “that I find it an amazing thing that such a big, strong country as this one is so afraid of a few people having a good time.”
Soviet MC Alexander Voronkoff, also onstage, smiles. “Robin would like you to know,” he translates, “that in this big country of ours we’re having a good time.”
Welcome to UB40’s Soviet tour.
Rewind to day one: Monday, October 6th, Leningrad. Twenty-year-old Helen Sorokoletova, a student of English at Leningrad University, is sitting in the fourth row of the sold-out 8500-seat Jubileini (“Jubilee”) Arena. In front of her, a large stage is flanked by two red banners that say UB40 CCCP in black letters. Taped reggae booms from stacks of speakers.
“I always hoped that British groups would come to our town sometime,” she says. “It was only a hope, but I was optimistic. I think these groups will come to us now. Such events make me believe that everything will be better and better between countries. I think that political leaders will understand each other one day.”
The house lights dim, and MC Voronkoff, a balding, rotund man, appears onstage and begins talking. He says that UB40 is a progressive group, that the band members stood in dole lines in their native Birmingham and then named themselves after a British unemployment form. He says that this is the first socialist country the group has played in and that the youth in Western countries understand UB40’s songs especially well because they deal with the themes of drugs, alcohol and unemployment. The band just completed a major U.S. tour, says Voronkoff, and some of their songs, he claims, were not so well received — such as “Rat in Mi Kitchen,” the title cut from UB40’s new album, which he describes as an antiwar song.
Voronkoff disappears. The eight-member band and four auxiliary musicians file onstage and waste no time kicking into a seamless reggae groove, pumping out “All I Want to Do,” a song from Rat in the Kitchen. Lead vocalist Ali Campbell wears a black shirt with UB40 CCCP printed on it in white letters. Across the stage, his brother Robin squints into the spotlight and plays guitar. Astro Wilson skanks in place, dreadlocks flying. Behind the stage, the names of the songs, translated into Russian, are projected on a screen.
After a rousing fifteen minutes of UB40’s customized reggae — music born in Trench Town, Jamaica, but raised in Birmingham, England — Robin Campbell approaches the mike. Voronkoff appears again. “That was a song called ‘Watchdogs,’ ” says Campbell. “It’s about the perils of censorship and the people who think they are watching over us for our own good.”
“That was a song about censorship in capitalist countries,” says Voronkoff.
“We’d love to see you dancing,” says Campbell.
“The band likes movement,” says Voronkoff.
Leaving the concert after twelve songs and three encores, Helen Sorokoletova is smiling. “It’s the best concert I’ve seen on this stage,” she says. “I hope they come back.”
Located just off Red Square, the Rossiya Hotel is the biggest hotel in Europe. To enter any one of its four main entrances is to risk hours of wandering through dimly lit corridors and down gray marble steps, past the occasional small desk with a row of hanging keys and an attendant with no clue as to what room is where.
Robin Campbell is seated in one of many dining halls along the way. He is quietly fuming. “There’d have to be some pretty strong persuasion to make me come back here,” he says. When the members of UB40 accepted an offer to tour the Soviet Union, Campbell says, they weren’t quite sure what they were getting into.
They did know it would be one of the first big tours of the country by a major band from the West, with six gigs in Leningrad, six in Moscow. It would also be the first time musicians had brought their own equipment into the Soviet Union: three trucks full of sound and lighting gear, as well as a mobile studio, all of it manned by an entourage of fifty-two people. They would lose money, the band members reasoned — some $75,000 — but they would make a portion of that back from the eventual live album and from the concert film, to be directed by UB40 sax man Brian Travers. Besides, it would be a Historic Event.
But now, after six concerts in Leningrad and three in Moscow, Campbell’s temper is frayed. The shows have been flooded with walkie-talkie-equipped security men wearing red armbands. Dancing has been effectively quelled for most of the Moscow gigs and half of the Leningrad ones. And the MC, whom the band hadn’t wanted in the first place, is twisting Campbell’s words when he translates them to the audience.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” says Campbell. “We have to have a four-hour argument before every show just to keep the security at a reasonable level of ruthlessness.”
It hasn’t all been bad. A record deal was made with Mezhdunarodnaya Kniga, the Soviet licensing organization, to distribute Soviet-made pressings of Rat in the Kitchen throughout the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe. One-third of the proceeds from the deal would be donated to the Chernobyl fund to help victims of the nuclear disaster.
And UB40 did tear the roof off the hall at a few of the Leningrad concerts. On Wednesday night, says Campbell, “almost everybody was up. The security was trying to stop everybody, but it was pure weight of numbers pushing through.
“At the end,” he continues, “there was a rank of about twenty-four soldiers that were all dancing to the music. And their officer came up and was hitting them, going, ‘Stop it, stop it.’ We could all see it; it was brilliant. We said, ‘Yeah, we’ve got their fucking Red Army dancing!’ “
Day ten: Friday, October 17th, Moscow. Word has been getting around Moscow about the events at Luzhniki Arena: Some anarchist band is playing there, openly discussing censorship and the abuse of power. The group has been hammering at the authority of the Druzhinniki — the volunteer security forces that patrol the concerts — from the stage and filming the whole thing.
On Thursday night, Campbell angrily stopped the band. He pointed a finger into the crowd. “You with the red armband,” he said. “People are allowed to dance. Stop forcing them to sit down.” A spotlight, detached from the stage, pinned the hapless Druzhinnik in a beam of white light. Cheers filled the stadium.
At the U.S. embassy, an American diplomat describes witnessing a group of about fifty people talking animatedly outside of the arena. They were circulating a petition protesting the treatment of people who wanted to dance. It was to be submitted to the Communist-party newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.
“Clearly, people were rather upset,” the diplomat says. “They were saying things like ‘It’s obvious that people in the rest of the world can dance at concerts. Why can’t we?’ ” Back at the Rossiya, Alla Nemodrouk, a representative of Gosconcert, the official concert organization that invited the band to play in the U.S.S.R., explains the situation. “Being not very experienced in admitting this kind of band,” says Nemodrouk, “we didn’t foresee some things. We have a very distinct line here between disco and concert.”
There is no tradition of public dancing in large arenas in the Soviet Union, she continues, and there are very strict fire and safety codes in place to protect people. Ninety-two people died once, she says, after the crowd got out of hand at a sports match in 1982. The next time a band comes from the West, says Nemodrouk, different arrangements can be made; dancing can be facilitated.
Why was UB40 invited to the Soviet Union? “It was a very quick decision,” she says, “which is very unusual.”
Half of the reason, according to Artiom Troitsky, a Moscow-based rock journalist, is because of a gradual loosening of cultural policy under Mikhail Gorbachev. The other half is UB40’s politics. When he was approached by Gosconcert officials in early July and asked for his opinion of the band, Troitsky knew just what to do: “I told them that they were very good, very progressive, very left-wing — and unemployed.”
“They’re not just progressive,” added the U.S. diplomat. “They’re almost anarchistic. They’re antiauthority. I don’t think anybody has come in here and really taken it to the Soviets the way they have.”
Nevertheless, sources close to Gosconcert report that the organization remains interested in bringing in more performers from the West. The door is open. Day twelve: Sunday, October 19th, Moscow. Backstage at the Luzhniki, there is a hum of industrious activity; it’s UB40’s final Soviet gig. Outside, black-market tickets are going for sixty rubles, approximately one-third of an average worker’s monthly salary. Inside, MC Voronkoff pulls up a chair in the small backstage buffet. He has several things to say.
First of all, he is not a translator, and not an interpreter. “I am an MC. It is my show also,” he says. “And I don’t want to give UB40 the possibility to fail.”
This is the beginning of a major experiment, Voronkoff stresses. Soviet youth want to see major bands from the West. It’s very important, therefore, that things run smoothly. Incidents like the one on Wednesday night, he says, are the result of “momentary excitement.”
“Why should I throw the success of the event under the wheels of this momentary excitement?” he asks. “I really want success for the band. I really want the band back in the U.S.S.R.”
Later, onstage, Robin Campbell approaches the mike. Voronkoff appears. “That was a song called ‘Watchdogs,”‘ says Campbell. “It’s about censorship. Despite what we are told there is censorship everywhere.”
“That was a song about censorship,” translates Voronkoff. “Despite what we are told, censorship does exist everywhere.”