I Came For The Eastern European Surf Music… But Stayed For the Gulag Tunes
I’ve really been getting into what I call “global surf music” lately, or surf music from bands who aren’t from the United States. There’s a lot of great full compilation albums on YouTube and I had found this one, Surfbeat Behind the Iron Curtain, a compilation of surf and instrumental songs by Eastern European bands from back in the 1960s.
To give you a brief overview of how awesome this concept is, here is the short review of the album (which you can find in the description of the YouTube video) by Richie Unterberger:
Just when you think you’ve heard it all, along comes this compilation of ’60s surf/instrumental rock from behind the Iron Curtain — a scene that was barely even known to have existed, and whose bands were rarely given the opportunity to even record. Actually, the title is a bit of a misnomer, as 11 of the 24 tracks are actually from non-Communist countries, including West Germany, Japan, Italy, Holland, and the U.K. It’s all still damn rare stuff, and surprisingly good, especially when you consider that when the Iron Curtain bands recorded, they usually had to do so on state-owned labels. This nonetheless holds up pretty well against the better instrumental guitar rock from the era, and is not so much influenced by surf music as by the Ventures, the Shadows, and the Tornados. The production (particularly for the Eastern European bands) can be primitive, but the playing can be hot, especially from the Japanese T. Terauchi, the East German Die Sputniks, and the Romanian Sincron. Acts from Poland and Czechoslovakia are also represented; the Czech Slava Kunst Orchestra has to be the weirdest (and most ridiculous) of the lot, with their berserk hybrid of twist rock, nonsense vocals, and wedding dance-band music. That track aside, this is actually a respectable compilation that’s not solely of novelty value.
Some of my favorite tracks on Surfbeat Behind the Iron Curtain include the first track, “Pe Linga Plopii Fara Sot Leader” by Sincron, “African Guitars Leader” by The Thunderbirds, “Corso” by The Klaus Lenz Sextett, and “Javalins Rock” by The Javalins.
This album is awesome, but it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. I was expecting more of a surf sound since it literally has “surfbeat” in the title, but I have to remember that these bands were not as influenced by people like the Ventures, the Shadows, and the Tornados as bands from the United States were, as Richie Unterberger said in his review.
Now, what really interested me was a video that was recommended for me on the side. It was from a band called Gulag Tunes and the album was entitled, “Мелодии и ритмы Гулага” which translates to something along the lines of “Melodies and Rhythms of the Gulag” according to Google Translate (I don’t read or speak Russian).
Researching further on the Internet, I found a free download of the full album and the Russian Wikipedia page for the album (however, the track listing on the free download seems to be out-of-whack with the Wikipedia article). By right-clicking the pages and translating them, I was able to find out that this album is Gulag Tunes’ (a conceptual music project from Moscow by Mikhail Antipov of the Vivisectors, a Russian surf band) first album. According to the English translation of the album’s Wikipedia page, “the album presents the famous Soviet songs in chanson style, executed in the style of surf-rock and inserts from movies, Место встречи изменить нельзя, Операция «Ы» и другие приключения Шурика, and others.”
So, basically, this entire album is modern surf renditions of old Soviet prison/Gulag songs with some Russian movie quotes thrown in there. The songs are happy and sunny enough to sound like any other surf songs you would hear in a Spotify playlist (or a Quentin Tarantino movie), but once you begin translating the song titles, things take a turn for the macabre.
For example, some of the song’s titles, which all sound cheery and “pop-y” enough to be surf songs, roughly translate into English phrases such as “Lanterns“; “Black Raven“; “Migratory Birds“; “The Tundra“; “Do Not Make Noise, For God’s Sake, Hush“; “Pigeons Fly Over Our Area“; “From Odessa Kichmana” [according to Wikipedia, “Odessa is a frequent subject in blatnaya pesnya, and the city took on a mythical role as the cradle of Jewish gangster culture”… see the full article here]; “Ripened Cherries“; and “Spinning, Spinning Blue Ball.” We can only imagine the kinds of things that the prisoners singing along to these originals of these songs must have experienced…
Gulag Tunes’ 2006 album Мелодии и ритмы Гулага is completely unique – I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a beautiful surf album, horror story, and a history lesson all in one. I wish there were more surf tributes out there like this one. It is easily one of the best and interesting concept albums I’ve ever come across in my life. Don’t forget to check out the free download mentioned above.