By Joe Tash
Valery Saifudinov clearly remembers his first exposure to rock and roll music. He was 10 years old and walking down the street in his native Riga, Latvia (then part of the former Soviet Union) when he heard “Rock Around the Clock,” by Bill Haley & His Comets blaring from a window.
“I was standing there and I couldn’t move,” said Saifudinov.
That was around 1960. Just a couple of years later, Saifudinov, now 63, and an Escondido resident, launched what one Russian rock critic has called the first Soviet-era rock band, The Revengers.
Later this year, a documentary called “Free to Rock,” will be released, which tells the story of Saifudinov and his early efforts to play rock and roll music in spite of a government ban. The documentary — which Saifudinov conceived with Del Mar musician and venture capitalist Nick Binkley, founder of PSB Records, and a third friend, Doug Yeager — also makes the case that rock and roll helped end the Cold War and hasten the downfall of the Soviet Union.
A clip from the film will be shown May 6 at a CD release party at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach. The party will celebrate releases by Saifudinov’s band, Elektrik Tank, Binkley (100 Parts of Heart) and Mark Hart. The event begins at 8 p.m. (with doors opening at 7 p.m.).
Rock and roll records could not be sold in stores or played on the radio in the Soviet Union of the early 1960s, but Saifudinov and other youth were able to trade for vinyl discs with sailors who visited Riga’s port. They also listened to pirate radio stations, Saifudinov said.
“The effective polity of the Ministry of Culture of the Soviet Union was no rock and roll,” said Binkley, 68, who co-produced the documentary along with the director, Jim Brown, who is based in New York. “They discovered that kids were learning English by listening to and playing rock and roll.”
That was a problem, because Soviet officials wanted the entire Soviet Union to speak only Russian as the official language.
Rock music also became a form of “soft power” in subsequent decades, which helped change the hearts and minds of Soviet citizens, and erode the government’s control of the population, Binkley said.
“We believe rock and roll infected the youth of the Soviet Union and it spread like a virus,” Binkley said. “There was no going back.”
The two men spoke in the control room of Saifudinov’s Escondido recording studio, which he has run since the mid-90s.
Although authorities tried to quash rock and roll music, enterprising youth used their ingenuity to circumvent the ban. Young people exchanged “bone records,” which were recordings made on used X-ray film that would only play four or five times before wearing out. They also made electric guitars using plywood, old acoustic guitar necks, and pickups made from parts purloined from public telephones. The practice was so widespread that in major cities such as Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), it was difficult to find a working pay phone, Saifudinov said.
Saifudinov said the band made a bass guitar using piano strings that were so rough, they caused the bass player’s finger tips to bleed, until he taped up his fingers.
By the mid-1970s, Saifudinov had had enough of Soviet repression of his chosen art form, and he emigrated to the U.S.
The documentary, which was originally called “Rockin’ the Kremlin,” features a number of prominent politicians and musicians from both the U.S. and former Soviet Union, including Mikhail Gorbachev and Jimmy Carter, Billy Joel, the Beach Boys’ Mike Love and Andrey Makarevich, founder of the Russian rock band Time Machine.
More than $1 million was spent making the film, including a $550,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and his own private funds, Binkley said.
Recent tensions between Russia and its neighbor to the west caused Saifudinov’s band to scuttle plans to perform in Ukraine this spring. The tour was being planned by Del Mar resident Sasha Alex Bach, Elektrik Tank’s drummer.
More than 50 years after his first encounter with rock and roll, Saifudinov remains an ardent fan and practitioner of the genre. His band’s new album, “Go Go Boom Boom” features 11 original compositions.
“It was fresh, it was new, it was exciting, it was incredibly powerful,” Saifudinov said of his early impressions of rock music. “We owned the place. Let people work and build socialism, but we wanted to have fun.”
For more information on the May 6 event, visit www.bellyup.com.
For more information on the artists, visit www.nickbinkley.com, www.elektriktank.com and www.markhartmusic.com.