April 1988 is still seared into singer Klaus Meine's memory.
Less than a decade earlier, he and his bandmates in the Scorpions had conquered America; now, the German metal group was taking its brand of "decadent" Western rock to the heart of the Soviet Union.
And the locals loved it.
"They went totally nuts," Meine says. "In many ways, it felt like Beatlemania."
The Scorpions rode into Russia on a wave of openness inspired by perestroika and a growing detente with the West. Initially penciled in to perform five dates in Moscow and five in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), they ended up playing all 10 concerts in the latter location amid fears that the presence of these raucous rockers might cause havoc in the Soviet capital.
Russia's second-largest city, however, welcomed them with open arms.
The band packed out a Leningrad sports arena, playing in front of some 15,000 every night. After each show, Meine says, they sometimes had to rely on help from their KGB minders to get past the "hundreds of fans waiting for us in front of the hotel or surrounding our cars."
Given the frenetic atmosphere surrounding their time in Leningrad, the Scorpions didn't actually see much of the city, but they did manage one small cultural exchange that would long be remembered.
"One day, I guess the local promoter or somebody took us to this underground club," says Meine. He said the band "had no idea" what to expect.
"I think it was one off-day in the afternoon they took us there. We had to drive through a gateway or an arch to get through into some sort of courtyard area," Meine remembers. "It was not on the main street. There was no front entrance…and you wouldn't recognize it from the outside."
When they stepped inside the innocuous-looking venue, they were surprised to find themselves in a vibrant rock club, right in the heart of the city that had been the cradle of the Bolshevik Revolution.
"It was very exciting for us to get to see this, and hear some Russian bands playing in this kind of club," says Meine. "And it was very small. I think there might have been like maybe 150 people or something in the audience, maybe even less.… A very tiny little stage, with I think Lenin in the background and the flag with the hammer and sickle.… It was very 'Soviet Union.'"
After sampling the atmosphere and watching some Leningrad musicians strut their stuff, the Scorpions caught the buzz and also took the stage.
"Of course, we wanted to get up there and have a little session and play maybe a couple of songs and just join in with the local scene," says Meine, who recalls playing their classic hits Blackout and The Zoo in the cramped venue. "It was…just one or two, maybe three songs. That's all we did. Everybody standing next to each other, it was such a tiny little stage. But it was wonderful and very special in a way."
This "special" moment took place in the Leningrad Rock Club, a focal point of the city's burgeoning music scene, which had been simmering there for decades.
By the time Meine and his bandmates took the stage in the club's smaller hall in 1988, this "alternative" venue had become synonymous with the tumultuous changes sweeping through the country.
Ironically, it's believed that it was the KGB who ultimately sanctioned the establishment of this club, which opened 40 years ago, in March 1981.
Before the club arrived, rock concerts in Leningrad had been little more than small semiunderground gigs or music sessions in people's apartments. Nonetheless, this tiny but irrepressible underground music scene had gradually evolved into a nascent counterculture that became an irritant to the authorities.
'A Non-Soviet Life'
"Young people were living a truly free and 'non-Soviet' life," says Dmitri Konradt, a celebrated photographer who cut his teeth behind the lens documenting Leningrad's underground scene from the early 1970s onwards.
Konradt recalls the milieu he encountered back then as "an environment that attracted creative people in general, not just musicians."
"I had a strong feeling that there was something very radical in the aesthetics of this 'movement,' so I was keen on recording it somehow," he told RFE/RL in an e-mail interview.
Thanks to the efforts of "pioneering" producer Yury Morozov, a moonlighting sound engineer from the Melodiya state music concern, some of these musicians also managed to make high-quality bootleg recordings that could be passed around the underground grapevine.
Many of the groups and happenings Konradt photographed, such as Akvarium, Kino, and Pop-Mekhanika, emerged from this creative community of artists.
They often embodied the philosophy of "tusovka" -- a slang word that epitomized the grungy, "informal, crash-anywhere-play-everywhere spirit" of the Leningrad rock scene.
Not only was this attitude anathema to Soviet orthodoxy, these musicians adopted this "dangerous" Western music and put it to Russian lyrics, which often included social and political commentary that drew official ire.
Despite bans being imposed on even small music events, the scene persisted, and this might have been what prompted the authorities to consider the unlikely step of allowing the Leningrad Rock Club to open as an official venue.
By taking these potentially disruptive artists and musicians out of people's living rooms and into a more public forum, the authorities may have presumed it would be easier to keep an eye on them.
But they got more than they bargained for.
"When the Rock Club opened, the musicians finally got the opportunity to play without the fear of being arrested, and the fans could now see their heroes perform," Konradt explains. "Soon, there were more people eager to come to the Rock Club than it could accommodate."
"Many were actually afraid at the time that the authorities had successfully taken control of the free rock movement and that it would soon lead to its decline. But a year or two later, it became clear that the 'movement' was growing," says Konradt, adding that "it was harder and harder to control it."
"The official state media seemed not to take any notice of it at all. But it was obvious to me that this 'movement' was by far the most important and the most exciting thing that was happening in my city."
'A Raw Purity'
It was not long before the noise of the Leningrad Rock Club became loud enough to resonate beyond the borders of the U.S.S.R., thanks to a young woman from California.
Taking a break from a stuttering music career in the United States, aspiring pop singer Joanna Stingray accompanied her sister on a student trip to the Soviet Union in 1984. After "three dull days" in Moscow as part of the official itinerary, she says she decided to play hooky from the tour in Leningrad and instead called a number she'd been given thanks to a friend whose older sister had married a Russian émigré.
The man she got in touch with was Boris Grebenshchikov, and their subsequent meeting was to change the course of her life.
Although Stingray didn't speak a word of Russian, Grebenshchikov -- who was already an established figure in the Leningrad music scene as the driving force behind Akvarium -- spoke the language of rock 'n' roll.
"Most rockers knew some level of English because they were all influenced by the Beatles," she told RFE/RL in an e-mail interview.
Through Grebenshchikov, Stingray met "a group of crazy pirates," including Sergei Kuryokhin, a member of Akvarium who also came up with the influential Pop-Mekhanika performance art project, and Kino front man Viktor Tsoi. They introduced her to the local music scene, as well as the rock club, where she encountered other edgy Leningrad bands, such as Mike Naumenko's Zoopark and the overtly political group Televizor.
Although her own musical career had seen her play in legendary venues such as New York's Club 54, what Stingray saw in Russia was like nothing she'd encountered before.
"The rock in Leningrad was like rock anywhere -- energetic and powerful. But the Leningrad underground rock had a raw purity, an honesty to it," she says. "They were doing it simply because they felt it inside them. They made no money from it and could care less."
Stingray, who recently wrote a book about her experiences, says she was "mesmerized" by what she saw in Leningrad and "became devoted to spending as much time in Russia as I possibly could," traveling to the country on tourist visas every few months.
She quickly became an unlikely but prominent figure in the local rock scene, where she met her first husband, Kino guitarist Yury Kasparyan.
Over time, she says she became determined to bring this music, which was lighting up Leningrad, to a wider audience.
"I wanted to convince Americans that there was something cool happening behind the Iron Curtain, something we could identify with," she says.
With Grebenshchikov's help, she put together the notorious Red Wave LP, a record featuring songs by four of Leningrad's leading underground groups: Akvarium, Kino, Alisa, and Strannye Igry (Strange Games).
Not surprisingly, it was a difficult project to put together, but somehow Stingray managed to get the recordings that she and the bands made out of the country.
"I became creative and found ways to remove my boot inserts to hide lyrics and stuff a tape in the back zipper of my leather jacket," she says, adding that she "did have a little help from some of the foreign consulates in Leningrad…that were very into the bands."
Accompanied by homemade video clips to help promote the album, Red Wave caused quite a stir in the West when it was finally released by a small label willing to risk Soviet ire by turning a blind eye to the recordings' murky copyright status.
Although it may not have set the world alight in terms of sales, the album caught the attention of a select but influential audience. David Bowie got in touch and "was eager to help anyway...he could," such as providing the musicians with better-quality instruments and equipment. As word spread, other musical luminaries followed suit.
"Starting in 1986, Western bands started coming to play in Russia," says Stingray, who now lives back in California after returning home for good in 1996. "UB40, Billy Joel, and Pink Floyd all met the guys and were fascinated by them. Chris Cross from Ultravox met some of the guys and got on stage and played in a Pop-Mekhanika concert."
According to Stingray, the Red Wave LP attracted such international attention that it may have opened doors for these talented Leningrad musicians to find a wider audience at home.
"After the Red Wave album, the Russians wanted to quickly bring all the underground rock aboveboard to show I made it up, that these bands were official," she says. "In the late '80s and early '90s, the famous bands were rarely in Leningrad. They could now tour all over Russia and even Europe."
As the political climate relaxed in the 1980s, the raffish rockers of Leningrad were unleashed. They gave voice to the simmering discontent of their generation, and this voice was becoming increasingly louder.
By the time the Scorpions made their historic appearance at the Leningrad Rock Club a year later, the local underground scene had probably peaked, but the venue was still seen as a hotbed of cultural dissent and creative activity.
"It was very exciting for us to see that and be part of it," says Meine of his group's performance at the club, which he describes as a "crazy moment in time."
"And to see how the fans in front of this little tiny stage, how they went totally crazy, enjoyed the Western rock music," he says. "It was great to see."
Meine and his bandmates also managed to get "some kind of communication" going with the musicians they met there. Guitarists Rudolf Schenker and Matthias Jabs even emulated Bowie by giving some local performers better-quality guitar strings, which were hard to come by in the Soviet Union at the time.
Their encounters with other musicians in Russia also convinced Meine that something was in the air.
"They were not only just rock 'n' roll and, 'Hey, baby. Let's rock and have a good time,'" he says "They were much more political than we were. We were just a rock band from the West."
The cultural shift that the Scorpions had witnessed in Leningrad in 1988 rapidly gathered pace. By the time the band returned to play the legendary Moscow Music Peace Festival a year later, the Soviet Union was already a different place and "decadent" rock 'n' roll was now firmly embedded in the cultural mainstream.
"In this one year…we could see the changes," Meine says. "The wind of change was blowing in our face. You could feel it."
Nowhere was this more apparent than at the Olympic stadium in Moscow, where the Scorpions joined the likes of Bon Jovi and Ozzy Osbourne to play in front of more than 100,000 people. It's an event that's still seen as a watershed moment in the late perestroika era, and Meine himself was aware of the historic importance of the occasion as a whole generation nurtured on underground rock from Leningrad and elsewhere suddenly came together as one.
"For me, the biggest change was when we saw all the authorities -- all the security, Red Army soldiers, military -- in the stadium," he says. "We started playing. They turned around. They became part of the fans. They celebrated rock 'n' roll and they celebrated this Western rock…as much as the fans did. They threw their caps and jackets in the air and they were being part of the audience. And it felt for us like the world was changing in front of our eyes."
Conspiracy Of Change?
Meine was so inspired by the rapid developments he'd seen on his second trip to Russia that he penned the song Wind Of Change to commemorate the occasion. This potent power ballad would go on to carve its own niche in history by becoming the soundtrack to the momentous events that rocked Eastern Europe in the next few years.
Such was the perceived impact of the bands that emerged out of the Leningrad Rock Club, inspiring the heady atmosphere that Meine encountered in 1989, that there have long been persistent rumors claiming that the CIA was somehow involved. Some even suggested the spy agency wrote songs for Viktor Tsoi as part of a plot to destabilize the communist system.
Stingray is dismissive of the notion that the likes of Tsoi could have somehow been in cahoots with Western secret services in an effort to topple the Soviet regime. Instead, she suggests that these conspiracy theories are possibly rooted in paranoid propaganda generated by the Soviet old guard, which had long propagated the idea that rock music was "a subversive and decadent evil from the West."
Meine has found himself at the center of a conspiracy theory, too.
A popular podcast made waves recently by peddling the notion that Wind Of Change might also have been penned by the CIA as a soft-power missile aimed at taking down the Soviet Union.
Meine laughs off the idea as "one of the wildest conspiracy theories I've ever heard."
"If the CIA would have done that, it was bad timing," he says. "It would have been much better for us to play that song at the Moscow Music Peace Festival in front of so many people and half the world watching on television."
In a way, though, he seems heartened to think that so many people still believe in the ability of rock 'n' roll to actually bring about social change.
"Somebody comes to you saying that your song was just propaganda and it was all about bringing communism to an end, to stop this system," he says. "And my first thought was, if music can do this, it would just prove the power of music to me."