Rock enthusiasts at the original Lituanika festival

Lituanika rock festival – the USSR’s Glastonbury

On 12-13 September, 2015, the Lituanika rock music festival will return to Vilnius for the first time in 26 years.

Going under the banner of “Lituanika 30“, the event marks the 30th anniversary of the festival’s beginnings in 1985 in the capital of the then-Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic (LSSR).

Firstly, how did a rock music festival manage to take place in the relatively isolated Soviet Union, the world’s only Marxist-Leninist state?

Secondly, how did the Soviet Union and the LSSR become key vehicles for music export?

The Lituanika 30 logo

Thank Mikhail Gorbachev and his reforms for that…

March 1985, the month Gorbachev assumed leadership of the USSR, represented a major turning point in the former superpower’s history.

His administration’s socioeconomic reforms of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring, or reform) peeled back the mask of the “beautiful Soviet reality” to reveal the corrupt, bloated, dystopian country it had become since its foundation in 1922.

The transparent nature of Perestroika also highlighted the technological deficit the USSR was running compared to the West. The flaws in its stagnating economy were exposed. The centre was losing control.

Little surprise then, that in the run-up to the USSR’s eventual collapse in December 1991, the 15 Soviet states making up the then-world’s largest superpower began to question the legitimacy of their homelands’ incorporation into the territory of the Soviet Union; its citizens, as a result of Glasnost and Perestroika gathering momentum, were starting to find their voice.

Openly criticising and questioning the top-down rhetoric they had been fed decade-after-decade from the Soviet nomenklatura was now permitted – fear and paranoia had been replaced by courage and determination among ordinary people across the USSR.

Lithuania, a Soviet satellite state from 1940-to-1941, then once again from 1944 to 1990-1991, was no exception.

By March 1990, the plucky Baltic State had fully shaken itself free from almost 50 years of oppression through people’s will, determination, and courage.

While Lithuania’s drive towards independence is one side of a remarkable story of the human spirit, the musical events that took place between 1985 and 1989 in the LSSR were also little short of astonishing.

Kino performing at Lituanika festival

Popular Soviet rock-band, Kino, played at the original Lituanika festival.

The bedrock of Lithuanian rock music can be found in Kaunas. Sort of. And The Brits got involved…

Amidst the uncertainty and food shortages of the Perestroika era, in Vilnius, some 960 kilometres from the hub of Soviet power in Moscow, a vehicle for music export was slowly gathering momentum in the form of the Lituanika rock music festival.

The liberalisation of Perestroika provided Lithuanian musicians with the opportunity to export their work to Western markets. They did. However, an affection for rock music had existed in the LSSR since the Khrushchev-era of the early 1960s.

The country’s second city, Kaunas had held a number of rock concerts during the ‘60s. Organised by the Soviet youth organisation Komsomol, state sanctioned music groups, otherwise known as VIAs (vokal’no-instrumental’niy ensemble – vocal/instrumental group) were the Soviet way of answering The Young Folks calls for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

According to the former hippy community in Kaunas, Western music arrived in the USSR during the 1960s via illegal recordings from banned radio stations such Radio Luxembourg.

Their young audiences then made magnitizdat pressings of the records and distributed them through underground networks.

Irrespective of whether they understood the lyrics or Soviet authorities liked it, one fact remained – The Kids wanted to dance. The Kids wanted to rock.

By way of natural progression, the magnitizdat movement, and enthusiastic young rockers, the rock genre found its way to Vilnius via enthusiastic young rockers. By the mid-to-late 1970s, the OPUS rock festival, organised by Komsomol, had become an annual fixture on the city’s music calendar from 1979 to 1982.

By the time of the final OPUS festival, the USSR was headed by the increasingly authoritarian Yuri Andropov, a former KGB chief and a figurehead in the Soviet interventions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan.

The USSR strikes back…

With rock music’s narratives of freedom and independence flying in the face of the Soviet leadership, concert organisation was returned to Moscow.

Officially, non-state sanctioned rock music was banned. Despite the underground magnitizdat culture still thriving, enthusiasts not wishing to incur a KGB crackdown were only “legally” able to listen to the state sanctioned VIAs.

Ageing, and suffering from poor health when he took over the leadership of the USSR from Leonid Brezhnev in 1982, Andropov died in 1984.

He was replaced by the similarly ageing and ailing Konstantin Chernenko, who lasted just another year in the role of Soviet leader.

Lituanika Festival '88 front page

Lituanika ’88 – Making front pages in the LSSR.

Gorbachev frees things up, Lithuanian rock enthusiasts take the initiative – then Björk rocks up…

When at the comparatively youthful age of 59 Gorbachev assumed power in 1985, the Vilnius Komsomol and Interclub organisations took advantage of the Perestroika reforms.

Both bodies worked together to revive the popular OPUS events, albeit under a different name – Lituanika. The first event, however, was a pan-Soviet affair featuring acts exclusively from the USSR.

In parallel with the increasingly liberal political atmosphere in the Soviet Union, a number of new-wave rock bands appeared between the years 1986 to 1988. Bands that are still loved today.

BIX and Katedra for example, emerged during this period thanks to their embodiment of the Perestroika-era zeitgeist of freedom and self-determination. Little surprise, then, they were asked to play at the original Lituanika festivals by the organisers.

By the time the final Lituanika festival was held in Vilnius in 1989, the event had reached such a level of popularity, its managers managed to attract Western artists, with Björk and the Sugarcubes playing what had become known as “Vilnius Rock ’89”.

Despite the 26 year hiatus, Lithuania, a country that made the successful transition from ex-Soviet republic to fully fledged European Union and NATO member in just a decade and a half, has once again decided to re-ignite its rich history of rock music though the revival of this weekend’s Lituanika festival.

Lithuania creates a successful music export during its Soviet-era

In the run-up to Lituanika 30, Music Export Fund was able to speak to Saulius Urbonavičius, aka Samas, BIX’s charismatic frontman.

As proof of BIX’s enduring popularity, they even played Loftas Fest 2015 in Vilnius at the end of August. According to the MXF Music Scout in attendance, Samas and the four other band members “were kicking ass.”

Why, then, did we choose to sit down with Urbonavičius and not any of the other original Lituanika performers?

Lituanika 2015

BIX, pictured, were one of the Soviet-era rock bands to taste success in the west, following their performance at Lituanika ’87.

The reason can be found 28 years ago, with a nervous young Samas standing in the middle of a stage in the now disused Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports on the north-bank of the Neris river.

He was clutching a lightbulb, and about to start BIX’s performance at Lituanika 87. For the first time in the musical history of the USSR, the event was being filmed by a foreign television network, the United States-based CBS channel.

BIX’s energetic, ska-based rock resonated abroad, and the young band from Lithuania’s fourth biggest city, Šiauliai, rapidly found itself performing in front of Western European and ultimately U.S. audiences.

BIX, then, had become the USSR’s and ultimately, Lithuania’s first example of a successful music export thanks to the Lituanika festival.

Ahead of Lituanika 30, Urbonavičius opened up about the problems Lithuanian musicians face with exporting their music in 2015, recalling the story of when Nirvana — yes, THE Nirvana — opened for BIX, and why the band refused a contract with Virgin Records during one of their U.S. tours…

Urbonavičius on…

Whether he agrees the Lituanika festival was the original vehicle for music export from Lithuania…

Of course, because it was the first time we got to meet foreign bands in Lithuania, and talk about how the music business works.

• Nirvana opening for BIX at the Fall of The Wall festival…

At that time, it was nothing unusual for us. By that time, we had opened for quite a few bands, and quite a few bands had opened for us.

During this period, Nirvana was relatively unknown, and it was a couple of years later after the festival that they became internationally famous.

Today it’s a good feeling to know that BIX was, and still is part of international music history.

Whether Perestroika helped contribute to the success of the original Lituanika festival…

It contributed to a certain level, but I think the most important thing when talking about the success of the Lituanika festival was the courage, will, resolve and stubbornness shown by the people at that time…

• What Lithuania needs to do to fully join the Western music scene…

A lot! It’s actually really sad we don’t have a major label represented in Lithuania, but we have to get rid of our provincial way of thinking.

We need young, hungry, Western-thinking and educated managers for our musicians. We also need to invest in music.

However, the most important thing is to build a network with international decision makers in the music business – in this respect, we’re still wearing diapers…

Today in Lithuania, we are a musical backwater. We don’t have enough promoters and managers who are in contact with the international music scene. I would like to see this happen…

Lituanika 87 festival

Lituanika 87 – arguably the most famous Lituanika festival of all.

• Why BIX didn’t sign a contract with Virgin Records America

You’ve just reminded me of a painful moment in the band’s history, which happened during one of our tours in the United States.

We received an offer to sign with Virgin, but the conditions of the contract weren’t quite right, because it would have required us to have moved to the U.S.

Remember the band was then made of 7 people, so finding common ground was very difficult.

Two of the members had also just had kids, so we all came back to our wives and families…

ba. and Garbanotas Bosistas – the next Lituanika generation?

While BIX and their contemporaries performing at Lituanika 30 will undoubtedly re-invoke the sentiments surrounding the fight for today’s free and independent Lithuania, they will also be joined by compatriots from a different, post-Perestroika generation – the increasingly popular rock band ba., and psychedelic rockers, Garbanotas Bosistas.

Garbanotas Bosistas

Garbanotas Bosistas (Photo: Tomas Luksys)

In a parallel with BIX, the latter have also taken steps to export their music by recently signing an agreement with Australian publisher, Source Music.

However, in the original spirit of the festival, can Lituanika 30 provide both groups with the necessary platform to bring their music to a wider audience abroad – a question MXF put to Urbonavičius.

“If the organises can manage to make this festival appeal to the modern music industry – then yes, definitely,” he replied.

And to quote the Much Loved By Vilnius Frank Zappa, if Lituanika 30 becomes “a little nostalgia for the old folks”, you can forgive that.

After what Lithuania has achieved since independence, if you’re reading this, I’m sure you’ll agree it deserves it.

As Canada’s very own grunge-guitar playing hippie Neil Young once sang, “keep on rockin’ in the free world…”

More information:

ba. Soundcloud

Garbanotas Bosistas Soundcloud

(Additional photos courtesy of Lituanika Festivalis)