In a league of his own Remembering some of Pyotr Mamonov’s greatest recorded performances
On July 15, musician and actor Pyotr Mamonov passed away at the age of 70 after several weeks in a coma, attached to a ventilator, at Moscow’s Kommunarka hospital. Mamonov founded “Zvuki Mu,” an avant-garde Moscow rock band whose fame reached beyond the borders of the USSR, garnering attention even from Western listeners. He also was a prolific Russian actor, playing memorable roles in “Taxi Blues,” “The Needle, Dust,” and “Tent-Show.” Mamonov wrote one-man plays too, including “Is There Life on Mars?” “Chocolate Pushkin,” and “Mice, The Boy Kai, and The Snow Queen.” Tragically, Zvuki Mu co-founder Alexander Lipnitsky also died this past March. To memorialize these legendary musicians, Meduza looks back at some of the most memorable performances by Pyotr Mamonov and his band.
Zvuki Mu, “Gray Pigeon”
Mamonov’s band seemed out of place in drab Soviet life, and they stood out even among the ascendant Russian rock scene of the 1980s, then in its golden age. Zvuki Mu and its progressive punk and New Wave influences gave the group an unrivaled sound — their music channeled the fiery stream of consciousness of an alcoholic Soviet intellectual.
Such a band should have been banned in the Soviet Union, but Zvuki Mu persevered, moving beyond bootleg records distributed among enthusiasts to the small screen of Soviet television. One of their first appearances occurred in 1987 during a Moscow-Leningrad competition between each city’s rock groups. Zvuki Mu lip-synced one of their hits — a song about a wayward and despicable gray pigeon, whose saving grace is his capacity for flight. Replete with Mamonov’s erratic dancing, the performance roused the audience and raised his band’s profile.
Zvuki Mu, “Musical Ring”
Mamonov and his group shook the rock scene once more with a televised performance in 1989 on the “Musical Ring” competition. Despite being derided as preachy and seldom amusing, the show played a pivotal role in legitimizing Russian rock as a worthy genre. Mamonov’s unrestrained performance demonstrated his eccentric style in full, treating listeners to his distinctive expressions, hypnotic dance, and inscrutable winks at the audience.
Zvuki Mu, “Coarse Sunset”
By the late 1980s, Zvuki Mu had already toured in Europe with Kino and Auktyon and attracted Westerners who were captivated by life and culture behind the Iron Curtain. With such acclaim, Zvuki Mu even fascinated renowned producer Brian Eno, who sought out the band above all others in the USSR. Mamonov responded with characteristic obstinance, accepting Eno’s collaboration but not his counsel — they would record an album together but not one of Eno’s suggestions made it onto the record. When it was done, moreover, Mamonov disbanded Zvuki Mu.
In the early 1990s, Mamonov assembled a new set of musicians for Zvuki Mu and they recorded “Coarse Sunset.” Decades later, The National recreated the song’s iconic music video in “Sea of Love.”
Pyotr Mamonov, “Sleeping, Not Sleeping”
Mamonov’s one-man plays were a separate species of art, and he spent more than three decades churning them out. Always sold out, his plays were seldom produced but always popular. Fortunately, many of Mamonov’s monologues were recorded and published digitally. For example, here’s a memorable excerpt from Mamomov’s 2005 play, “Mice, The Boy Kai, and The Snow Queen,” where he narrates his protagonist’s on-again, off-again insomnia.
Pyotr Mamonov, “Earth-Air”
“Earth-Air,” a TV show from the mid-2000s, featured lengthy interviews with the musical stars of the day. The clip below with Mamonov is a master-class in interacting with the press. Some of the journalists have a genuine love for Mamonov, while others struggle to understand him. But Mamonov remains nonchalant, wise, and dignified.
Pyotr Mamonov, “Leisure Boogie”
Another one of Mamonov’s widely-known hits, and one that many of his contemporaries covered. When performing solo, Mamonov had a penchant for ridiculing popular Russian hits, cheekily parodying their lyrics, and performing them provocatively. This clip from the 2011 “Rock on the Volga” music festival (in front of more than 100,000 fans) is a testament to how Mamonov’s oddball charms withstood all his years of stardom.
Entirely New Zvuki Mu, Neznaika’s Adventures
The play “Neznaika’s Adventures,” produced with a group of young musicians, was one of Mamonov’s final major projects. Performed at the MadSound festival in 2017, the play’s defining scene depicted Mamonov strumming a single guitar note for 10 minutes while simultaneously reciting Nosov’s prose by heart. For the entire 10 minutes, it’s virtually impossible to take your eyes off him.
Cover photo: Igor Mukhin