When Billy Joel visited the Soviet Union for a series of historic concerts in 1987, he learned it was still rock ‘n’ roll to them — albeit slightly different.
On July 26, 1987, Joel and his band played at the Olimpiyskiy Stadium in Moscow to kick off a six-show “tour,” making him the first Western artist to take a full-blown stage production behind the then-wilting Iron Curtain. With three concerts each in Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), it was a triumphant and only occasionally troubled bit of international diplomacy, ultimately leaving Soviet fans dancing, twisting and shouting in the aisles in a manner not that all that different from what happened at Joel shows elsewhere.
“I’m glad we did that trip,” Joel tells UCR now. “I was very proud of that trip, and I think we helped kick the door in a little bit to open it up to Democratic stuff.” But he acknowledges that Russia now, at least at the political level, is not the same nation of Mikhail Gorbachev-led Glasnost that he played back then.
“I’m very disappointed,” Joel says. “I’m hoping the Russian people really get to know what’s actually happening, but I don’t know how much real information they get because they’re kind of in a closed media society. It’s a crazy world. It’s a different world now, between Trump and what’s going on with Russia and COVID and what’s going on with the economy. This is a hard time now.”
Joel first had the idea of going to the Soviet Union in 1979, after playing a successful concert in Havana, Cuba. “I thought, ‘If I can do that in Havana, why can’t I do it in Moscow?'” he explained to reporters during one of several press conferences he conducted in Moscow. But he felt a particular push to make the trek after his first daughter, Alexa Ray Joel, was born six years later.
“I thought, ‘What kind of world do I want her to grow up in?'” Joel explained. “I wanted it to be better. … It was kind of like, ‘What did you do in the Cold War, daddy?’ So my management said, ‘If you want to do it, we’ll do it,’ and they did.”
Watch Billy Joel Perform ‘It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me’ in the Soviet Union
Joel insisted that politics was not the focus of his visit. “I’m here as a cultural exchange,” he noted. “This isn’t some big peace mission. I want to get the music across. I’m just putting on a concert, playing music for these people. If anything happens after that, it’ll be great.”
The Soviet idea became a reality during the fall of 1986, while Joel was rehearsing to tour in support of his then-new album The Bridge. “When we started [the tour] he said, ‘Let’s do something we’ve never done before,'” production coordinator Steve Cohen told this writer at the time. “I didn’t know at the time he considered Russia.”
Russia was not devoid of Western pop music, of course. Elton John toured there in a duo with percussionist Ray Cooper in 1979, while John Denver and Roy Clark had also visited. Pat Metheny was there in 1987 before Joel hit the country, and the Doobie Brothers, Carlos Santana, James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt had performed at a July 4 festival in Moscow that was co-produced by Bill Graham.
Joel’s visit was made possible by the Agreement on Contacts and Exchanges in Scientific, Educational and Cultural Fields, signed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev at their 1985 Geneva Summit. The New York-based Citizens Exchange Council (CEC), a non-profit group that sent regular excursions to the Soviet Union, helped coordinate the tour. Cohen made his first visit in January 1987 and returned in May, coordinating details with the Soviet arts agency Gosconcert.
The Joel entourage would number more than 160 and cost about $2 million — guaranteed to lose money, although a documentary, a live album (1987’s Kontsert) and an HBO broadcast of the final Leningrad show would make up the difference. The massive endeavor marked the first time Gosconcert and the Soviet radio and television agency ever worked together on a project.
Cohen, meanwhile, learned that the Soviets had no concept of putting seats on the floor for arena-sized concerts like Joel’s. The Olimpiyskiy (aka Olympic Sports Complex) manager said he could only get 1,000 chairs for the shows, but after Cohen brought an additional 600 from London, the venue found yet another 1,000. “It was like a poker game — ‘You get 600, I’ll get 1,000,'” Cohen recalled.
Watch Billy Joel Play ‘You May Be Right’ Live in the Soviet Union
A promotional push was also engineered to educate the Soviet populace about Joel, who was known more by name than by music at the time. Soviet TV stations began airing Joel videos, and an interview was set up with national radio music host Andrei Orlov. On July 18, Soviet TV aired an unprecedented 75-minute special featuring nothing but Joel videos for an audience of 70 million. “The advertising campaign was very intense,” Orlov said.
Joel’s Soviet shows followed a run at London’s Wembley Stadium and included an unscheduled stopover in Tbilisi, Georgia, about 1,000 miles south of Russia. There, Joel, his then-wife Christie Brinkley, Alexa and drummer Liberty DeVitto were entertained in a local musician’s home, and Joel and DeVitto jammed at a 15th-century church and opera house in the town. Brinkley remembered one of her hosts taking her into a room, telling her she was too thin and force-feeding her some cake. She also gave Brinkley some of her mother’s jewelry to pass on to Alexa.
In Moscow before the shows, the Joel entourage toured the city, including the Kremlin Museums and Gorky Park. The family befriended a clown named Viktor Razinov, whom Joel remembered in the song “Leningrad” on his 1989 album Storm Front. Joel also visited the grave of Vladimir Vysotsky, the controversial Soviet singer-songwriter who died in 1980.
Joel dedicated his concerts to Vysotsky and had all the flowers thrown onstage in Moscow placed on the singer’s grave. “I went to his grave… and the lines going to see it were longer than the lines going to Lenin’s tomb,” Joel said. “I asked, ‘Why is this guy so loved?’ People said it was because he was honest, because he spoke the truth… and got in trouble for it.”
Vysotsky’s mother Nina attended Joel’s first Moscow concert. “It touched me very deeply that someone that successful could find the time to visit my son’s grave,” she said after the show. “[Joel’s] performance on the stage reminded me of that of my son’s — especially his energy.”
Watch Billy Joel Perform ‘Big Shot’ in the Soviet Union
Joel’s energy ultimately translated to the Soviet crowds, although it took a minute at the first Moscow show. He referred to the area of privileged Communist party insiders seated behind stage left as “an oil painting” and at one point even asked, “What are you doing here if you don’t want to be here?”
“You’d look at their faces and see them thinking, ‘I don’t want to be here.’ So… go!” Joel said during one of the press conferences. He also requested that anyone leaving give their ticket stub to one of the young people waiting outside so they could enjoy the show.
Joel also directed the crowd, with help from onstage interpreter Oleg Smirnoff, “Come on down to the stage. It’s OK. We like it.”
“It was unnerving at first,” Joel acknowledged during a session with Soviet reporters before the third Moscow show. I thought I was going down the tubes. In the United States, I’m spoiled; I’m used to playing to audiences who can’t wait to hear my music. They jump to their feet and cheer from beginning to end.”
The Soviet fans were doing that by the end of the first show, as Joel and his band ripped through rockers such as “A Matter of Trust,” “Only the Good Die Young,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me,” “Big Shot” and more, encoring appropriately with the Beatles‘ “Back in the U.S.S.R.” Some even tried to come down to the floor from the grandstands, pushing their way past Soviet soldiers. The pandemonium caught local officials by surprise, however, and there were tense discussions between Joel’s camp and Gosconcert before the second show the following night.
“We are pioneers on both sides,” agency spokeswoman Marina Mytarleva said. “For pioneers, it’s always difficult.” Tour producer Rick London wistfully added, “I envy the next band that comes here. We’ve taken a lot of lumps.”
Then there was The Big Incident. During the second Moscow concert on July 27, Joel was unhappy with how the film crew lit the crowd, feeling that it inhibited fans from letting loose. During “Sometimes a Fantasy,” Joel exploded, yelling, “Stop lighting the audience! … Stop it! … Let me do my show, for Christ’s sake!” He then flipped over his electric piano, making international headlines for his “tantrum.”
Watch Billy Joel’s Moscow Meltdown
“I was yelling at our people,” Joel explained after the show. “It was a real prima donna act, but I have to protect my show.” Speaking with Western reporters the next day, Joel said a young Soviet woman had approached him that morning to ask if he would “trash the equipment again.” He ultimately chalked it up to “the great tradition of trashing equipment on stage. … Rock ‘n’ roll is about being outrageous, making some sort of expression.”
Most of the kinks seemed to be worked out by the third Moscow show, a stomper that came after members of Joel’s band had jammed with Soviet pop star Stas Namin until 6 a.m. (Namin also joined Joel and the group for soundcheck, playing “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and the Rolling Stones‘ “Gimme Shelter.”) Joel carried Alexa Ray around the stage during “Uptown Girl” and welcomed a uniformed Soviet soldier up to present him with a handmade fan sign. The filmmakers also helped stack the deck, distributing tickets upfront to young people outside and even giving them American flags to wave.
“There should be more major concerts of this kind here, regular concerts,” Gosconcert director Oleg Smolensky declared afterward. His wish became reality, although Joel himself never returned. He did, however, preserve the memory with Kontsert, “Leningrad” and, in 2014, A Matter of Trust: The Bridge to Russia, which packaged the original 1987 live LP with previously unreleased songs and videos and a new documentary about the momentous undertaking.
“When we were done it was like… ‘Whoa!'” Joel told this reporter two years later while promoting Storm Front. “You never could have told me I’d be playing rock ‘n’ roll in Russia. I’m a baby boomer. I grew up with them as the enemy, the devil. To go there and meet them as real people, not cartoon Commies, was one of the best experiences of my life.”
UCR contributor Gary Graff was part of the media corps that traveled to the Soviet Union to cover Joel’s 1987 shows. He also wrote liner notes for the 2014 box set A Matter of Trust: The Bridge to Russia.
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