1987. The iconic red telephone had been on Gorbachev’s desk for two years, and Glasnost was just getting into gear. America wasn’t quite the enemy it used to be, and new freedoms meant that American rock music was 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?
Step 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.
“Remember, this was the Soviet Union in 1987, and they’d never had a major rock concert before. There was a film crew filming a documentary, and they turned very bright lights on the audience. The audience was having a good timeuntil they turned the lights on. They froze; they turned paranoid. There was a lot of anxietywhy are we being looked at? And whenever they turned the lights on, anyone who was overreacting was being pulled out of the audience by a security guard. I wasn’t yelling at the audienceI was yelling at the film crew. So I threw the piano, and that got their attention. Then they stopped lighting the audience, and everybody started rocking out.”
The New York Times, in a 1987 article, approvingly explained how Joel’s passion (combined with a well timed rendition of the Beatles’ Back in the USSR) won over the crowd.
The audience, as is often the case with Soviet rock concerts, was much more heavily weighted to staid Russian matrons and button-down men in their 40’s than to the young people who predominate in Western rock audiences. But at the end, the matrons were clapping and gyrating along with their children.
”Back in the U.S.S.R.,” Mr. Joel sang to them, after the chants of ”Bee-lee, Bee-lee,” brought him back for an encore. ”You don’t know how lucky you are, back in the U.S.S., back in the U.S.S., back in the U.S.S.R.” Soldiers Keeping Time
By the time that Beatles song had ended, even the soldiers were keeping time, the rhythmic bouncing of their knees looking oddly incongruous below their stern faces.
I said above that Joel was the first American rock star to tour the USSR with a fully staged show. That’s a true claim, but it has to be said, a hyped one, made by Joel and his entourage. 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).