Paul McCartney in Red Square
A & E TV, 18 September 2003
By Tony Copple
You won’t remember this if you were born later than 1950, but we feared the Russians. As the immediate post war generation in school, the only way our teachers could rationalize the terrible events of the previous decade was to cast all people from the USSR as enemies. How things change, even in people’s hearts. A stage in the process was the film “The Russians are coming” which used humour in an attempt to return people to rational thinking. Maybe in 15 years time the Taliban will seem like teddy bears.
Anyway, we knew that the government of the USSR had created a state where everything we in the West liked was banned, particularly popular music. And most banned were the fruits of American culture.
I went to a party in 1963 and danced all night to Please Please Me, the Beatles first UK LP. I was dancing with the lady who became my first wife, and the experience bound us together, and we got engaged. The night of Beatles music imprinted them on my brain where they have been ever since.
The Beatles conquered the USA, and much of the rest of the world, but not behind the Iron Curtain. But in the same way as John and Paul had been influenced by records from the USA brought in to Liverpool by sailors, Russian sailors were bringing home Beatles records. The Russians knew good music when they heard it and the rush was on to get the Beatles sounds, by fair means or foul. And it had to be foul since it wasn’t long before the government expressly forbade the fab four in any format.
Because there was a news blackout between Russia and the West, no one knew until relatively recently what then went on among the younger generation - who are now the generation in power - in relation to rock’n’roll, and the Beatles in particular. A forthcoming book by Yury Pelyushonok from Ottawa tells the whole story. You can read a chapter of the book on the Ottawa Beatles site, beatles.ncf.ca here
The influence of the Beatles was so vast that some credit them as being a factor in demolishing the grip of communism in Russia. The Beatles never played in Russia, although there is a legend that they flew in to an airport en-route for Japan, and paid a concert on the runway.
In May 2003 Paul McCartney was invited to St. Petersburg (where there is a street called Lennon Street) to accept a doctorate of music from the university that gave one to Tchaikowsky, and also to meet President Putin, and play a concert in Red Square.
Red Square! For rock music?! “Come on,” said some. “Terrific!” said others. The others included the president and the minister of defence.
Bearing in mind the events recounted above, this was a stunning historical event. Just imagine for a moment the significance that Paul must have in the hearts of Russians today. Some of those who lived through it all spoke movingly in the film, confirming that the Beatles had indeed been a catalyst in the fall of the old regime. Paul speaks not just with Putin, but also with Gorbachev, who triggered Russian democracy. When Paul sang, it was as if he was liberator, not just national troubadour. There were tears, and patriotism of the right kind. This liberator was one of them, and he said so. Putin and his colleagues walked to their places in the Square, with everyone else around and sang along with “Hey Jude” and "Back in the USSR." Gone was the distrust between people and ruler, brought together by the songs of a generation ago that a generation ahead will surely still sing.
What to me was equally remarkable were the young folk in the huge audience that filled Red Square, indicating how the parents had kept the faith and passed the new legend on to the children. And this legend was true and really did play in Russia.
The concert? It was excellent, as Paul always is. Well designed, well played, our youth regained again. Songs that are so powerful that with them in the hearts of the people, rulers take notice and fix the problem. Power to the people, and all you need is love. Get the DVD when it comes out. You will feel part of it.
The next day I expected everyone (or at least the newspapers) to be talking about this historic milestone of closure for the people of Russia. But nobody was. I shouldn’t complain; this and the 22-country satellite broadcast of David Bowie’s new CD were the only items I had had time to view in months, so I guess we are all too busy for history.