In 2010, a label called Secret Stash dropped a record called Soviet Funk Volume 1. It was a previously unheard collection of funk tracks “recorded by Pavel Sysoyev in Abakan” – the capital city of Khakassia, a Russian republic near the Mongolian border – between 1971 and 1976.
In the obsessive world of vinyl collectors, there are people who specialize in this sort of thing and these sorts of records from these sorts of places. Most of them have some familiarity with the Russian language in addition to a fetish for the sepia-toned era captured by so many East German-manufactured Praktica cameras. None of them had heard of this supposed hotbed of Soviet Funk in Khakassia. Upon inspecting the record, they noticed that the names of many of the artists and titles listed on Soviet Funk were a combination of obscene words referring to genitalia and politically unsound references to fascism. The record was exposed as a hoax, though I don’t know if it’s ever been revealed who created it, if it was a huge practical joke (albeit one with a profit margin involved) or a bizarre cash grab at the expense of novice collectors.
But there really was a Funk movement in the Soviet Union, and one for Disco, and an electronic music movement too, both official & above ground and underground and somewhere in between.
There are four main currents of Soviet electronic music. The first we might call “academic” – these are people from the wider tradition of classical music and they’re not making songs so much as “compositions”. These and many other “serious” electronic musicians in the USSR often found a career in Mosfilm, creating spacey soundtracks for cosmonaut films and cartoons.
After seeing so many examples in so many countries, you have to wonder if man’s need to communicate and tell stories in song is surpassed only by his desire to make crazy-sounding shit with electricity.
Then there’s the “outlaw” tradition. These were people building their own synthesizers and noise machines, often from the cannibalized trash of the Soviet military industrial complex. A recent documentary, Elektro Moskva, focuses on this small subculture of synth freaks and circuit benders. After seeing so many examples in so many countries, you have to wonder if man’s need to communicate and tell stories in song is surpassed only by his desire to make crazy-sounding shit with electricity.
The third group are traditional artists that experimented with electronic instruments in a rather “traditional” and familiar structure – folk ballads with synthesizers and so on.
Then there were the really obscure artists – people between the academic and the outlaw, the conservatory and the hobby shop, the bureaucrats and the madmen. Unlike the outlaws, they sometimes managed to get their records made through luck, through compromise and sometimes through subterfuge.
And from this rich tradition of Russian electronic music that began with Léon Theremin and continues to this very day, what I really want to talk about is Soviet exercise music.
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FOR MORE THAN A DECADE NOW, collectors have been traveling around the world to source deeper and more obscure samples or obscure vinyl records for their sets. You can’t crack on the hustle: these are people who see the vast majority of DJs sourcing their sets from Traxsource, Beatport and SoundCloud edits, and put in the legwork (and sometimes serious cash) to get unique material to help them stand out from the crowd.
There’s one international record label, however, that these diggers typically find more a nuisance than a motherlode. The most prolific record company in the history of Earth, “Melodiya” was founded in 1964 as the official mass producer and distributor of music in the USSR. Imagine it: one major label for a nation of nearly 300 million people (though I suppose it’s not much better having, like, three). Melodiya released thousands upon thousands of records, from jazz to folk, classical to propaganda LPs. Melodiya records are ubiquitous, and sifting through a pile of them in search of anything remotely useful to a DJ is about as exciting as watching drywall molder.
But through persistence or blind luck, a few interesting records pertaining to Disco and electronic music did get released by Melodiya. Zodiac was a band from the now-independent Soviet republic of Latvia. Zodiac’s first record, Disco Alliance, was released in 1980, featuring a fairly cheesy take on Space Disco but with a heavy synth sound that some still have a fondness for today. The record was apparently a smash; though it’s hard to verify demand in a command economy, Melodiya certainly pressed enough copies of Disco Alliance that even today they’re dirt cheap and ubiquitous. Zodiac released a couple of follow-ups to Disco Alliance which moved closer to a modern rock sound before disbanding.
Argo, from the neighboring republic of Lithuania, had roots in a more conventional, more organic Disco sound. Their 1980 album Discophonia (with cheeky artwork of a zipper descending, only to release a rainbow from some guy’s trousers) managed to get a Melodiya release. It’s a charming record, though people familiar with Disco are not liable to be too impressed with a funk guitar strum, ray gun sounds and a heavily-accented man shouting DISCO! every six seconds. It’s uncreatively derivative, but not unpleasantly so. Like Zodiac, future Argo records slid into a cringeworthy cheesiness and after their last album in 1986, Argo too disbanded.
After reading some things I’ve written about Stefano Pulga, Kano and Alexander Robotnick, a reader sent me a few mp3s with the message that they represented “authentic Soviet Disco” – a great notion if there ever was one. Please, tell me more.
I was wary, given the bizarre hoax behind the Soviet Funk record. But they were legit. It was a series of very short tracks, primitive fossils of Soviet electronic music from the ’80s that had been ingeniously and absurdly disguised under cover of “exercise records”.
It’s not clear who came up with the idea for this – whether it came from the musicians (some were well-known engineers and producers under pseudonyms) or from Melodiya itself. Whoever sold it, they also managed to get the cooperation of not just the staff at Melodiya but also the “USSR Sports Committee” which envisioned these records as a sort of robot replacing athletic trainers. I don’t know if bureaucrats dream, but if they do, I can imagine them envisioning of a whole nation of comrades in legwarmers, rhythmically jogging and touching their toes in time with some of the most fascinating Italo-sounding tracks of the era.
Released in 1984, the first album is called simply Aerobic Exercises. The influence of Italo is obvious. They even abide and generally adhere to the superficial but abiding principle of Italo – that it’s less important what words mean compared to how they sound.
This is certainly true when it comes to the best track on Aerobic Exercises, “Safari”. Credited to “N Sokolov”, “Safari” was actually the work of one of the most prominent Soviet recording engineers of the era. “Safari” is simple, primitive, and not deceptively so – just replaying a classically-inspired synth melody over and over until the break. And here’s where the song’s Italo roots are exposed: a harsh female voice begins chanting in a commanding tone, almost like a drill instructor. It was only later and with the assistance of a Russian-speaking friend that I understood she was chanting “Left! Right! Left! Right!” in the manner of an exercise trainer.
I don’t want to oversell these records – there’s some outright putrid music here – but this is how it happened that many of the most invigorating examples of electronic music of the 1980s wound up as a musical prop for the Soviet equivalent of the Jane Fonda Workout.
Apparently, Aerobic Exercises did pretty well, because Melodiya launched an entire series of records in the style of the album called Sport and Music. Melodiya again collaborated with the USSR Sports Committee for the series, which had an even more uneven quality than Aerobic Exercises but with a few startling gems scattered over the four LPs (not to mention the cover art, which must rank among the most quintessential examples of 1980s graphic design ever created.)
The first edition, Pulse 1: Computer Music is the best. Each record narrowed the list of contributors from the multitude on Aerobic Exercises; the second volume, entirely composed by Zigmar Liepins and featuring some kind of competitive skateboarder on the cover, is pretty dreadful Hollywood Lite incidental music. By the third volume, former jazz musicians were beating out 3rd rate riffs with vaguely electronic-sounding overtones.
Thankfully, you don’t need to worry about paying extortionate collectors’ prices for only a couple of worthwhile (or even just “interesting”) tracks. Melodiya’s massive pressings means that records from this set are plentiful and cheap. Not one of these records are rarities, and the whole set can probably be had for less than $20. Truly music for the masses.