This is a quick post to highlight, for the statisticians among you, two tails of fame.

My pictures below show an informal but nervous event in which a few hundred people fought and crammed their way in to see Viktor Tsoi and Yuri Kasparyan play a few songs. Their fame was clandestine. The video at the end shows what had happened to them (as Kino) in four short but tumultuous years in the late stages of the Soviet empire. It’s the difference between The Cavern and Shea Stadium, Russian style.

Things used to take a long time to set up in the Soviet Union. And that was as true of an underground concert as anything else. As I recall, there were a few technical problems before and during that 1986 concert; had there not been, I doubt I would have felt comfortable getting up and snapping. The artist is on the stage getting the unreliable equipment working, while the audience mills around after a very un-Soviet crush to get in. I don’t know if anybody had to pay – I certainly didn’t because Viktor and Yuri had invited me and the language-course crowd along as their guests.

The contrast with the later footage could not be more stark. There was a distinct absence of anything official in spring 1986, given how many people there were congregating in such an enclosed space. There’s a polite restraint amongst the audience, as if they’ve come to a favourite author’s signing session at the local bookstore. Nobody wants to embarrass themselves by looking too enthusiastic once through the door! But by 1990 a real hysteria has set in. As Viktor arrives for his last concert at Moscow’s huge Luzhniki Grand Sports Arena*, just a couple of months prior to his death, the streets leading up to the Olympic stadium are lined with scores of Russian police.

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A little translation for the video: the titles about halfway through, as a hand menacingly covers the lens, read “Luzhniki Grand Sports Arena 24 June 1990″ and then “The Last Concert of Viktor Tsoi”.

Boy, would I fight to get into a room with them now!

*For soccer fans, the stadium is due to host the 2008 UEFA Champions League Final on May 21.

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I hope that this’ll be a first on the internet.

As previously reported, I sold a blonde Fender Telecaster to fund my 1986 language trip to Leningrad. How sensible of me! I came back with a huge weight of Russian poetry (books and records), iconography reference works, and some opera records — the glue in those record sleeves emitting some of the worst smells I’ve ever owned.

Oh, and I came back with lots of pictures of Viktor Tsoi, thanks to my Nikon FM and the fact that I’d loaded up with a decent amount of cheap, quality film courtesy of the geeks in the university Photography Society.

Well, there comes a time in every blog’s gestation that it attempts to monetise, and here is mine. In a lot of other blogs you’ll see the option to leave a tip, buy a coffee, a beer or a cocktail. I can take care of those on my own, thank-you. But what I really need is to get my Fender Telecaster back.

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This is more than a simple loss. The guitar I sold in 1985-6 for £190 was an early ’70s vintage maple-necked beauty, and quite possibly older, though definitely not pre-CBS (if you know what I mean).

Where I live, there is a problem for the middle-aged man, and it is a shop called Vintage & Rare Guitars. I’m finding genes are switching on that I thought I either did not contain or that were well under the control of some higher moral fibre. But I know myself too well. I also know that ownership of a Fender Telecaster is probably going to mean not playing it much. So, yes, this is an entirely materialistic vanity project. Rather than keep it to myself, like a sensible mid-lifer should do, I thought I’d share it and engage you all, my small readership, in my quiet, hopeful quest.

Crowdsourcing is the new new thing. And while I’m not expecting you, my readers, to give me anything, by six degrees of separation I think some of you might know someone who might know someone who knows a Russian hedge fund millionaire, metals/oil oligarch or football club owner of a similar age who would have been a Kino fan in his youth, who owes his non-linear wealth in no small part to the freedoms that Tsoy and friends struggled for. Or, better still, some young Russian who owns a search engine, assuming using such a term won’t lose me friends or credibility ;-) . If we can just prevail on their guilt for long enough to get their wallet out, they might toss a small sop into my PayPal begging hat that, for a little while, I’m going to embed in the posts and in the sidebar of the blog. It’s an experiment, you know.

It’s good to have an excuse to present an iconic image, and the Fender Telecaster (like my Nikon FM) is an iconic object. It was the first solid-bodied electric guitar. Launched in 1950-1 as the Broadcaster, it was the AK47 of the garage musician. When Chris Anderson talks in his book The Long Tail about the electric guitar democratising music for the pop revolution, and in effect randomising the path from musical obscurity to fame and success, I imagine it is the Telecaster more than any other guitar — even Fender’s possibly more iconic Stratocaster — that he is thinking about.

Now, mine originally cost me £210, on which I made a loss. If I wander into Vintage & Rare Guitars today I can find one similar, although in rougher condition, for just short of £4,000. Ouch. If I indulge in a little fantasy and think mine was really a late ’60s model (possible, though less likely) I’m out of pocket more than £6k; the one below sold recently from an advertised price of £6,850.

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What’s more, I made the mistake (due to lack of funds and too much homework) of not buying a real amp for the thing, which is why I never really got round to playing it much. Vintage & Rare have an extraordinary find which I must ask them about: a 1966 Fender Deluxe Reverb amp that has never been used, so the website says. As you can imagine, you have to inquire for the price on that one.

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Well my current ambitions are somewhat more modest. The top pictured guitar can be had for less than £500. And I was surprised to learn that on a discount at my favourite tech store, Digital Village, a Standard Tele retails new for £275. That’s less than they were when I was growing up, I think. (Don’t worry, I know only too well that they are not the same.)

As anyone who has ever sent a cow or an African school or other gift through Oxfam etc will know, anchoring is important as a cognitive bias, so I’ll start small:-

34p buys a plectrum

£4 buys a set of strings

£10 buys a strap

£20 buys a stand

£22 buys a guitar lead

£55 buys a case

£279 buys a Standard Telecaster

£479 buys a Highway 1 Telecaster (top picture)

£549 buys a Vox AC-30 (but not the one below. Again, I could not dream of what that is worth.)

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Of course, if you bought a Fender Telecaster in 1985-6 in Kettering for around £210 — blonde, white scratch plate with a slightly loose G-string — I’ll give you £210 for it. Do the right thing, won’t you?

I’m feeling rather guilty about this conspicuous begging, even though it happens to be my birthday today. Still, at least there are three links in this post to genuinely good causes. And you can’t blame a guy for not wanting another set of G-clamps.

Photo credits: Top Digital Village Rest: Vintage and Rare Guitars

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It’s funny why we recollect things. Grief triggers lots of odd-assorted memories, as I’m now re-discovering (sadly, not for the first time). But it seemed entirely random that Kino and my meeting with Viktor Tsoi were called back to mind after laying dormant for so many years.

Last autumn, as I was shuttling across Wessex to visit my dying father, I discovered the Flaming Lips. In particular, this lyric from Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots stuck in my mind:-

Her name is Yoshimi. She’s a black belt in karate.
Working for the city, she has to discipline her body. Cause she knows that it’s demanding to defeat these
evil machines. I know she can beat them.”

I think it was the concept of working for the state (as, in effect, most Soviet citizens did in 1986) that conjured up memories of Viktor; he was a specialist in martial arts too. He clearly possessed a particular sense of purpose when I met him; yet, despite USSR-wide fame by the time of his death in 1990, he continued with his job as a boiler-worker in a Leningrad apartment building. Check out the documentary footage below for a flavour of that.

For those awaiting more of my Kino pictures, or some more detailed explanation of my acquaintanceship with Russia’s most iconic rock star, I’ll start with the latter. I met him for only a few weeks in one of those weird moments of Russian history when things were thawing and it was both safe and dangerous at the same time. From this vast distance of a couple of decades, it feels a little over-the-top to describe what occurred over those few days as a friendship, but I don’t have a better word for it.

It was April 1986. I was on Easter vacation from history studies at Oxford and had taken advantage of a Russian language course. Just a month earlier, Mikhail Gorbachev had delivered his first glasnost‘ speech to the 27th Congress of the Communist Party. Even though there was some expectation in the air that things were changing, at the centre of the state apparatus was the KGB still, and even for the casual visitor they didn’t appear too far away; one or two of our Soviet friends were arrested late one night for mixing with us. Continue reading ‘viktor tsoi battles pinko robots’

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Kino’s Viktor Tsoi

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