The Red Army Choir

A piece from the vaults, summer 1999, marginally amended

Well that’s three thousand words knocked off today, so I think I deserve a drink. Off to Villeneuve-sur-Lot for une pression underneath the arches. In fact, it isn’t underneath the arches, partly because there isn’t a bar there and partly because I find I am subject to the Lightning Seeds at full volume. I register with relief that the song is not Three Pints Down My Shirt. An England football anthem played publicly in rural France would be beyond satire.  

I have no objection to listening to the Lightning Seeds, it’s just that I don’t want to hear them in Villeneuve-sur-Lot. At first I think they must be coming from a car stereo. (It is a unique achievement of the French to pedestrianise their town centres and fill them with cars, just as it is to ban smoking in their restaurants and fill them with smokers, or to attract visitors to their green valleys and build nuclear power stations there. Anyone who thinks that the rural idyll in France has much to do with environmental friendliness has got it badly wrong.) But the Lightning Seeds are not coming from a car stereo, nor from what passes for a fashionable boutique in Villeneuve-sur-Lot, but from municipal speakers strategically situated at all corners of the arcade. The Lightning Seeds are followed by the Bee Gees. I sense Chris de Burgh coming on and leave.

How can a country that boasts of its incomparable cultural heritage, has fits of attitude about the invasion of McDonalds, bans linguistic impurities and turns its considerable nose up at any hint of Anglo-Saxon contamination – how can such a country put loudspeakers at every corner of a medieval town square and blare foreign music at the populace? It cannot be for the tourists; the whole pleasure of being a tourist in France is not to be treated as one.

On leaving the arcades to look elsewhere for my beer, I pass a poster that stops me in my tracks. Had I been here last night (last night! I missed it by only one night!) I could have seen the Red Army Choir live in Villeneuve-sur-Lot. I check my diary. Yes, this is 1999, just as I thought. There’s been no Red Army for, what, eight years? So how the hell is there still a Red Army Choir?

What happened? Did a group of brave Trots defect from Russia at the moment of revolution and make a perilous dash from Freedom? Or are they not the real Red Army Choir at all, but a group of impostors compelled to play the minor dance halls of Europe like a Soviet version of the Drifters? Or maybe they are the real thing. Maybe they got caught in Cleethorpes when Gorbachev fell and were refused re-entry visas. Maybe they are the true Soviet-Army-in-exile.

A closer inspection of the poster dispels these fantasies. ‘Les Choeurs de l’Armée Soviete’, it seems to say. But what it actually says, if you look very closely and have a microscope to hand, is ‘Les Choeurs de l’ex Armée Soviete’. The song has gone, but the melody lingers on.

Now I get the picture. We are talking brand marketing here. There you are: not much use with a thermo-nuclear device but with a good voice. So they take you off latrine duty and let you join the choir. Then you’re a star. I mean, then you’re really mega.

You get to play the biggest May Day gig in the world. You go on world tours… Korea – ‘The Rolling Thunder tour’; Vietnam – ‘The Devil’s Domino tour’; Prague – ‘The Khaki Kafka tour’; Afghanistan – ‘The Desert Storm tour’. (Or was that something else? I tend to confuse the names of rock tours with military operations.) You don’t get paid much, but you travel in Zil stretch limos and there are all those devotchkas at the stage door each night offering… well never mind what they’re offering. Lots anyway. Then what happens? Communism collapses, the Red Army disappears and suddenly you’ve lost the lot.

The brand name. You’ve got to have the brand name. Vladimir & the Vladivostoks? It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. What about the Dead Army Choir then? No. Better red than dead, and anyway eminent new-wave Muscovite lawyers advise that this could be construed as passing-off.

So the ex-Red Army Choir it is, now touring in Villeneuve-sur-Lot on the same bill as ex-Buddy Holly, ex-Jimi Hendrix and T-Rex. And they still don’t read the small print on the contract. The last time 99% of the earnings went to the Soviet-Libyan World Peace Congress; now it’s 99% to Vodka Vlad. ex-Allan Klein is said to be on the case.

Postscript:    I am pleased to report that in 2015 the ex-Red Army Choir toured Romania, Switzerland and France. (Not Villeneuve-sur-Lot, sadly, but I could have caught them in Toulouse. Drat.) This year they have been in Italy. No. Hang on a minute. That was the MVD Academic Ensemble Red Army Choir, not recognised by the Alexandrov Ensemble, which considers itself the true heir to the Red Army Choir. Happily, the Alexandrov Ensemble will be appearing in Prague in 2017. Good choice of venue, guys: I’m sure the Czechs will have forgotten all about the Red Army.

I understand that the Alexandrov Ensemble adheres to the Marxist-Leninist interpretation of song and dance, whereas the MVD Academic Ensemble Red Army Choir has embraced Trotskyite deviations. A full dialectical analysis of the ideological differences between the two choirs may appear in a later blog.