The old Soviet Union had its appeal for pop and disco exoticists: from Telex and Moskow Diskow to Nina Hagen’s Russian Reggae to Manicured Noise and Moscow 1980 to The Lonely Spy by Lori & The Chameleons. But it wasn’t all one way traffic. The Soviet Union absorbed western disco music in its broadest sense and returned it with love and interest. For example, there are, quite rightly, those that swear by the recordings of the Latvian group Zodiac. Anyone hearing their early ’80 records now, for the first time, may understandably suspect an elaborate hoax. Their electronic rock fits almost too perfectly into the ‘space disco’ category, evoking what are already distant memories of Studio’s West Coast, Lindstrom, Prins Thomas and all those great tracks that helped spark a major resurgence of interest in disco sounds with a cosmic twist.
Zodiac’s first LP from 1980 was wonderfully titled Disco Alliance, though anyone anticipating a full-on dancefloor extravaganza may feel misled. Listening to this wonderful record it’s no surprise to learn that Magic Fly by Space was a massive success in the Soviet Union. It’s no surprise either to learn that there is a thriving market in vintage Soviet synths, but that’s another matter, especially as you sense Janis Lusens and Zodiac were outward looking and more interested in their ARPs and Yamaha keyboards. Zodiac’s second LP, Music in the Universe from 1982, was apparently very much inspired by stories the group heard from cosmonauts and this is certainly reflected in titles like The Mysterious Galaxy and The Other Side of Heaven. Both these LPs have been made available on CD in recent years, and YouTube has some fantastic footage of the group performing, in an early incarnation and somewhat later with appropriately a spinning disco ball in the background of the Russian TV set. Brilliantly one of the early Zodiac songs was called Provincial Disco which reminds me of ‘disco scholar’ Peter Shapiro describing 5000 Volts’ I’m On Fire as “somehow reminiscent of Cossacks dancing at a provincial disco in Staffordshire”. Withering put-down or irresistible selling-point?
The fourth Zodiac LP at the end of the ‘80s was a celebration of their Latvian roots, while at the start of the decade another Latvian pop outfit Eolika had celebrated their home on the fantastic LP Dreams of Riga. Piecing together Eolika’s story is a tricky business, but this record has some wonderful disco infused pop on, which will particularly appeal to lovers of the Silver Convention swish/kick sound, and that exquisite mix of the symphonic and the minimalist. Another track from the LP, Falling Stars or Zvezdopad, has groove collectors from around the world quite rightly drooling.
Another Latvian collective, Modo also captured the disco thing pretty perfectly, albeit approached from more of a jazz/funk direction. Zigmars Liepins, one of the group’s members, has made available some of the fantastic music Modo recorded via his website, and there’s a lot of fun to be had exploring the tracks posted from the Modo EPs, like the gorgeous Spele Vel from 1980. The tracks from Modo singer Mirdza Zivere’s 1979 solo LP are particularly recommended, especially the gorgeous Zozefino. The tracks from Zigmars’ own 1985 LP, Pulse 2, are also well worth investigating to get a taste of the Soviet take on electro (with a jazz rock/fusion imaginary soundtrack slant). That particular LP, part of a series on sport and music, also has one of the best covers ever.
Look up Eolika or Modo and the chances are you will come across a reference to Raimonds Pauls, the Latvian maestro and pioneering pop composer in the wider Soviet Union. His soundtrack work, such as for the score of a Soviet adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, is rated highly by crate-diggers and beat-seekers around the world that know a lot more than me about such things. And among the great Soviet artists his name is associated with is Alla Pugacheva, a singer who for once seems to suit the term diva and who has played a fantastically important role in Soviet pop history. She seems like one of those great contradictions whom the State sanctioned but grew increasingly wary of. Ironically in the West many of us will only have come across her name when 50 Cent’s people sampled her superb song Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and for that unlikely introduction I am enormously grateful to the rapper as it inadvertently led to a lot of pleasure rummaging around on YouTube among the old clips of Alla. And if the propulsive groove on those Soviet recordings sounds as tight and as metronomic as the finest Philly players then that’s because those guys could really perform with precision and flair. And I realise we are only aware of the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Soviet and Eastern European funk and disco sounds.
Another great Soviet composer associated with Alla Pugacheva is Alexander Zatsepin. Among the songs they recorded together in, I believe, the mid-to-late ‘70s is the phenomenally titled The Shaman’s Tambourine and some great numbers from films like The Woman Who Sings. It is worth scouring around for whatever fragments you can find of Zatsepin’s soundtrack work (and he was by all accounts an electronics enthusiast so there's lots of wonderfully odd effects!), and particularly recommended is the astonishing 31st June, a late ‘70s film about what happens when you mix futures and pasts, based on a J.B. Priestley story, featuring dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet and a wonderful and bizarre disco-infused soundtrack sung by among others the delightfully named Tatyana Antisiferova ...