May 11, 2009


Within the galaxy of windows lit in the night, imagine brave souls listening to banned music, recording copies of tape cassettes and vinyl records with homemade jackets. Like a scene from Persepolis, friends out after curfew around a small speaker- their imaginations lit by music, sparks of human expression from across the planet. Messages from another world. For some behind the Iron Curtain, the distance probably seemed as intraversable as the moon. I recently explored two documentary films about music behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War that I believe Spy Vibers will find interesting. Today I'd like to highlight Paul McCartney in Red Square. 

I imagine it’s difficult for those of us who grew up with complete accessibility to mass communication and to the Arts to understand what it might have been like to have only known a prescribed menu of sound and vision that echoed the official policy and voice of the state. “Ah, look at all the lonely people. Where do they all come from? Ah, look at all the lonely people. Where do they all belong?” So wrote experimental/pop artist and songwriter Paul McCartney in 1967. The Beatles had escaped live performance for the deeper, artistic experience of sound recording a year earlier. McCartney developed the concept that their studio selves, a virtual band on vinyl (dubbed Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band), would tour the world as proxy. Freed from the stress and monotony of stage appearances, The Beatles discovered a new level of expression and set a new standard of what could be achieved in the studio, and in the form of pop music itself. The album was a multi-track epiphany and an international event that bridged cultures, generations, and musical genres.

The heavy bass and drum sound of The Beatles had echoed privately among sub-cultures behind the Iron Curtain for years, though their music remained banned in the sense that Beatles records were not officially available. Industrious fans printed discs and tapes, and long before the grass-roots power of MySpace, The Beatles’ message spread and inspired many musicians and thinkers to dare enter the subversive world of Rock and Roll. For them, the music of The Beatles represented the courage to fight for creative and political freedom. McCartney made a special album of R&R standards, Снова в СССР, for Russian release in 1988. In 2003, Russian fans, including then-president and former KGB man, Vladimir Putin, finally had a chance to see McCartney perform live in Red Square- an event that Paul would never have dreamed possible back in the days of the Cold War.

The film is an excellent window behind the Iron Curtain as Beatles fans talk about their experiences growing up in that climate and about their emotional and political relationships with Beatles music. These interviews are interspersed between footage of the concert and taped experiences from Paul’s journey during the tour. For years I hoped to make a documentary film about the preservation and power of Beatles culture around the world (I have great footage of a live band in Tokyo), and Paul McCartney in Red Square achieves a very valuable and moving part of that story.

Learn more about Paul McCartney
Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now by Barry Miles
The Unknown Paul McCartney: McCartney and the Avant-Garde by Ian Peel
McCartney Paintings by Paul McCartney

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