Pataphysica Borealis

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December 27, 2017 by AK

What’s the principal connection between this song, which Juliette Gréco recorded in 1952 and sang at concerts for decades afterwards, and this 1984 number by the semi-underground Soviet-Russian band called Strange Games (Strannye Igry; here’s the same song performed live at a brief reunion in the mid-1990s)?

(Musical groups that failed to get or didn’t seek a stamp of approval from the Soviet “culture” bureaucracy were denied access to major concert venues and recording studios, which were all state-owned at the time. However, they were able to perform before small audiences and even record albums courtesy of sympathetic sound engineers such as Andrei Tropillo. Their legal status was precarious. I call them “semi-underground.”)

The connection is Raymond Queneau’s poem Si tu t’imagines (published in 1948), which serves as the lyrics to both songs – the original for Gréco and a Russian translation for Strange Games. One can clearly hear chto tak, chto tak, chto tak (pronounced shtuh tAHk, more or less) in place of xa va, xa va, xa va (that is, “qu’ça va”).

The band from St. Petersburg (then Leningrad, obviously) had an unusual approach to lyrics. Most unofficial groups were famous for their original poetry – some of the those songs remain popular to this day – but Strange Games turned to translations of post-WW2 French poets and songwriters. (The Soviet Union only joined the Universal Copyright Convention in 1973.)

Out of the eight songs on their 1984 album, Metamorphoses, three are based on poems by Queneau – Si tu t’imagines, Égocentrisme II & I – translated by Mikhail Kudinov (Shostakovich used his translations of Apollinaire in the 14th Symphony). Plus, one finds Air de ronde and Solipsisme by Maurice Fombeur and Métamorphoses by Jean Tardieu there, also translated by Kudinov. In addition, the album includes two complete remakes, where only the lyrics, translated, remain of the original song: La mauvaise réputation by Georges Brassens (my favorite, #6) and Il nous faut regarder by Jacques Brel.

Most Russian sources say Strange Games were the first Russian ska band. The group’s musical and stage style has been compared to Madness – reportedly, they used to do the Madness duck walk when getting onto the stage. This comparison amuses me greatly, placing Suggs next to Ray Q as it does, implicitly but inevitably. However, one of the band’s founders, Victor Sologub, painted a more nuanced picture of their influences:

I bought my first disc in 1972, in the eight grade. It was T. Rex, Tanks. I already knew and loved them and had been hunting for [their records]. Later, in the ninth grade probably, at a party somewhere, I heard Led Zeppelin on tape…

Strange as it may be, we all loved Led Zeppelin. Then there was this interesting Belgian group, Honeymoon Killers [Les Tueurs de la Lune de Miel]. By the way, we got familiar with UB40 before Madness… we first saw Madness in a video around 1983. We had been already listening to Depeche Mode then; I loved Joy Division very much. My brother [Grigory Sologub, the singer on Si tu t’imagines] was listening to Sex Pistols a whole lot. Speaking of ska and reggae, I – for one – only found out about Skatalites in the 1990s, about these granddads. For us, only Bob Marley and UB40 had existed before then. As for Madness, they seemed a tad “poppy” to us. My brother and I liked Stranglers much more… Our second album ended up more under the influence from the Neue Deutsche Welle, bands such as Trio.

For the interested and the tenacious, I would suggest the segments (1, 2) on Strange Games and its successor groups from Alexander Lipnitsky’s documentary The Pinewood Submarine.


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