Billy Joel’s historic Soviet concert tour

The year is 1987. The iconic red telephone has been on Gorbachev's desk for two years, and Glasnost is just getting into gear. America isn't quite the enemy it used to be, and new freedoms mean that American rock music is suddenly not just cool, but almost accepted by the old timers in the Kremlin.

Soviet music lovers who had grown up on a diet of bootleg Beatles were keen to see their heroes in the flesh. The question was, who would be the first hero to come and visit?

billy-joel-leningrad-soviet-concertStep forward our hero – Billy Joel, who stumped up $2.5 million of his own cash, and became the first American rock star to tour the Soviet Union with a fully staged show.

In all, Joel played six concerts – three in Moscow, three in Leningrad. Each concert played to a packed house, but not all of them went exactly according to plan as confused and subdued audiences took a while to warm up to the sight of Joel bouncing around the stage to his high energy music.

The problems were partly because many in the audience had no idea how to behave at a rock concert. In the early concerts, especially, tickets were given away to Communist Party functionaries, as a perk, rather than to rock fans. Unsurprisingly, with much to lose and not quite sure how to behave, many stayed awkwardly seated at first.

The technical crew’s decision not to turn down the concert hall lights didn’t help, either. They had a good reason – they were filming a documentary of Joel’s tour and wanted him to look good on screen – but the harsh lighting served only to intimidate the audience into staying firmly in their seats.

A frustrated Joel dealt with the problem in true rock style. He tipped over his piano and trashed the stage.

Other Western rock stars had been to the Soviet Union before, notably Elton John in 1979, and Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Santana, and the Doobie Brothers who had headlined the joint Soviet-American ”Summit” concert held in Moscow earlier in 1987. But Joel was the first to tour with a fully fledged, American style rock show.

Joel sunk $2.5 million of his own money into making this tour happen, and needed it to be a big success – not just in the Soviet Union, but in the rest of the world too. So the tour was hyped up mercilessly. In an attempt to recoup his money, the concerts were simulcast on radio around the world, a live concert album was released, an HBO special was aired, and a documentary of the tour was released on video.

Joel reportedly never made back all of his $2.5 million, but the impact in the Soviet Union was huge. It inspired future cultural exchanges – Russian rockers Boris Grebenshchikov and Gorky Park were inspired to release albums in America – and inspired regular Soviet citizens. Just take a quick look at the excitement shown in this archive US news footage (sorry, embedding for this video has been disabled, so you’ll have to visit Youtube directly).

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  • Hey Billy- I just wanted to say that your last concert in Leningrad was one of the best concerts I have ever been to. I was visiting Russia/ the Soviet Union on student embassary program. Just out of High School a few of us students got tickets the day of the concert, when we promised to help take down the set. If you watch the video footage, I am the black kid cheering on my friends shoulders. I will never forget the experience. Many thanks- Tim Miller