John Jastremski, Yury Pelyushonok, Al Findlay

Songs from "Strings for a Beatle Bass" Listen now


The Beatles, communism and the BBC:
their Ottawa connection

A British filmmaker is here to capture the story of Yury Pelyushonok, as part of a documentary about the band's role in the fall of the U.S.S.R., Alana Toulin reports for The Ottawa Citizen.

When British documentary filmmaker Leslie Woodhead started work on his latest BBC film, he didn't expect to come to Ottawa.

After all, his film is about the unexpected way the Beatles helped bring down communism in Soviet Russia. But then he found out about Yury Pelyushonok on the Ottawa Beatles Site. The 50-year-old Russian-born Beatles superfan has written a book on the subject, Strings for a Beatle Bass: The Beatles Generation in the USSR, and has recorded an album of Beatles-inspired tracks about how pervasive (and subversive) the Fab Four's influence was on Russian youth. The old Soviet leadership was probably not wrong to try to shut down rock and roll, said Mr. Woodhead.

"They knew not only that it would be socially disruptive, but it would also challenge something about their authority," he said.

Mr. Pelyushonok, who was a medical doctor in Russia, but drives a school bus for a living here, said young people behind the Iron Curtain could feel something was changing.

"It was something interesting and something powerful," he said. "Parents didn't like them, authorities didn't like them. No one liked them, but we just felt this was something that was connected to us." Mr. Pelyushonok said despite a language barrier, Beatles music helped him and an entire generation of Russians understand there was more to life than "artificial" communism.

Mr. Woodhead said he was skeptical when a Russian friend first told him about the Beatles' role in the fall of communism. He asked another "very hard-edged journalist" friend in Moscow to confirm, and was surprised by the answer.

"I expected him to laugh. Instead, he said, 'That's absolutely true.' And this guy is like the Ted Koppel of Russia." His curiosity piqued, Mr. Woodhead set out to find out more. Ottawa was his first stop in making the film. The rest will be shot in Russia.

"We came here because of Yury. His book opened my eyes even more. It's full of eye-popping detail and wonderful stories," said Mr. Woodhead, who added that the Ottawan will feature prominently in the documentary, the working title of which is How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin.

By "chance and good luck," Mr. Woodhead said he got to work on the very first film ever made about the Beatles, at a jazz club called the Cavern in Liverpool. He was working for a local TV station.

"Someone told me about these kids who were making a lot of noise, so we went down there," he recalled yesterday. "It was indescribable. It was so viscerally exciting what they were doing that night. I had to stop my car on the way back to Manchester and be sick in a ditch, it was so exciting." Gathered with a camera crew in Mr. Pelyushonok's Hampton Park backyard, Mr. Woodhead filmed Mr. Pelyushonok (who plays bass) and a group of other musicians as they performed The Yeah-Yeah Virus, an original song. Among the lyrics: "Every Russian schoolboy wants to be a star/Playing Beatles music, making a guitar/Teachers looked upon all this as if it were a sin/We were building Communism, but the Beatles butted in."

The Golden Disc: a story from Strings for a Beatle Bass.

Short video

Both the book "Strings for a Beatle Bass" and the CD of the same name are not readily available at this time, having been published only in limited editions. If you are determined to track down copies, check e-Bay or send your request in the first instance here.

Randy Innis

Lesie Woodhead
and Ottawa Citizen Reporter Alana Toulin

Special credit to Olga Sansom, Yury's wife, who so brilliantly translated "Strings for a Beatle Bass" from the Russian.
Alan Chrisman, whose influence caused all this to happen, beginning with the Ottawa Beatles Conventions '95 & '96

Photos: Tony copple