From Liverpool To Russia With Love

Life – Terror. Ecstasy. Fight. Denial. Flight. Failure. PAIN. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Hope. Love. Peace – Death.

Children of Chernobyl Benefit Concert

The Children of Chernobyl Benefit Concert was held at the Dynama Stadium in Minsk, (Dynamo Minsk Olympic Stadium) BSSR on April 23 and 24, 1991, five years after the nuclear reactor’s meltdown.

The event featured bands from around the world and served to raise awareness of the terrible legacy of Chernobyl disaster as representatives from the United Nations and AEA met to discuss the causes and effects of the disaster with government officials. A documentary called Playing for Time (Let the Requiem Begin) about the concert and related issues was produced by Ian Stewart and narrated by Glenda Jackson.

Russian DJ Dimitri Korziouk became concerned about the aftermath of Chernobyl after visiting relatives in 1989. He solicited the help of Liverpool‘s Katharine Watford Cook, and together they came up with the idea to hold a benefit concert.

As UK Production Manager, Cook contacted a colleague who managed Guy Pratt and Gary Wallis of Pink Floyd (post Roger Waters era); they went to Belarus with Korziouk to present the idea to Stanislav Shushkevich, an official head of the Supreme Soviet of BSSR. Later an agreement was signed between MAAP International and the Belarus Ministry of Culture. At the same time, MAAP International and the Daily Express Newspaper began administering the UK’s Children of Chernobyl Charity.

David A. Stewart, Eurythmics served as the charity’s chairman, and the UK artists involved included Echo & The BunnymenChina CrisisLindisfarneMartin Chambers of The Pretenders, Sian, The Big Still and The Real East.

Bands from South Africa and the USA also participated, along with Russian stars, including Boris GrebenshchikovDDT and Igor Talkov. Religious charities from the United States were also present.

Those are the facts – however, who knows anything about the, previously untold, story of the unknown band from Liverpool The Real East who drove across Europe, over 1655 miles to play a gig for the benefit of those helpless Russian children?

1990 – The Real East were ‘enrolled’ on a government funded training programme for unemployed/self employed musicians – The Enterprise Allowance Scheme (EAS). Practically every scouse musician of that era was, at some time, enrolled on the EAS scheme. An allowance slightly more than standard unemployment benefits (£40 per week) but with bonus of no ‘signing on’.

This particular scheme was based out of St Kevins school, Kirkby, ran by local music industry entrepreneur, Tony Flannagan.

Tony was introduced to a crazy Russian DJ Dimitri Korziouk who had somehow found himself in Liverpool. In the wake of one of the worse man-made disasters in modern history Dimitri had this crazy idea that ‘every’ (active) Liverpool band available would fly to Russia to perform an incredible live gig, in an incredible venue ….what was going to be the Russian Live Aid!

Dimitri visited the training centre in Kirkby where many of the artists were regularly based. Tony, in turn introduced him to the Real East, who were on it immediately, typically scouse, cynical but very keen. The potential for a trip of a lifetime.

Things seemed to come together quickly, The East rehearsed solid for 3-6 months preparing for the gig, a mixture of original songs, punctuated by a couple of cover anthems, ‘Whole of the Moon’ and the chorus from ‘Games without Frontiers’ which the band learnt (to sing) in Russian.

Mike Quinlan (Keys) a mad ‘Red’ approached LFC for support. One of the planned activities, (outside of the concert), was a sponsored football match between  Russian artists playing against the bands from the rest of the world.

LFC were asked to provide an original Liverpool. first team football kit for the game.

They did.

That in itself is a story, who wears who’s shirt? I am a blue!

The only ‘red‘ shirt I agreed to wearing was Kenny Dalglish’s, number 7.

Before all my ‘blue’ mates kick off, Dalgleish was the best player (live) I had ever watched play. Those days I went ‘game about’ with my bessie Jeff, a ‘red’. For a 3-5 year period we went together to every LFC and EFC home games.

We had took possession of the shirts two weeks prior to the gig.

My young son also got to wear Dalgleish’s shirt along with Ian Rush’s. He wore them for family photographs and to school, where he was the envy of his young friends. I wore the No. 7 for the Russia gig and for the football match. Richey’s missus, Jane insisted he wear the John Barnes shirt…. IN BED!

We were impeccably rehearsed, totally prepared and literally ready to go when, with just a week to go, we received the news that the concert had been pulled!

We held a meeting in a café on the corner of Mathew Street, (just down the road from Hessy’s music store) in Liverpool city centre. The Children of Chernobyl benefit concert was going ahead but they did not have enough money to fly ALL of the bands to Minsk. From Liverpool – The Bunny men and the China’s were still on along with an unsigned band called ‘The Big Still’ who had heavy weight, management (money) behind them who were prepared to pay their own way.

We were devastated.

We had never worked so hard for this single live performance. We all agreed that we were still going and that was that! Somehow, we would work it out, we were going to Russia. We had a week to get everything sorted, fundraising, logistics, etc. A piece of piss!

The backline equipment was travelling overland, from Liverpool, straight thru to Minsk. We knew we could not raise enough money to fly. We would drive, in convoy, along with the backline truck.

Mikes brother loaned us enough cash to fund a minibus hire, ferry crossings from Hull to the Netherlands and a small float for ‘expenses’. Tony Flanagan, from the Kirkby EA ‘course’ also offered us a grand but, in the end, we did not need it.

We broke the news to the festival organisers, we were going, would we still be allowed to play, would we have accomodation? They were, at the very least, sceptical but they didn’t know us. We persisted… not to be fobbed off, we persuaded them, we were going and that was that?

Kathy Cook (production) introduced us to Will Savage (Truck Driver) and Phil Markey (Roadie) who were in charge of the backline. We spoke on the phone. At first, Will was very cagey, sceptical, he didn’t ‘know us’ either. We coordinated, matching their ferry booking and they agreed we could travel together in convoy. They had already worked out their route across Europe to Minsk.

Transport

Van Hire Company – ‘hello how can I help’?

Band ‘yes hi – we want to hire a van to drive to Russia’?

Fuck

Remarkably, once we fully explained the causethe reason for the journey, they were less dismissive. We had found a hire company who had agreed ….ish!

The only stumbling block was vehicle insurance whilst in Russia. We could arrange cover across Europe right up to the Polish-Russian border but not afterwards, across Belorussia to Minsk.

We blagged it.

We convinced them we would secure insurance ‘once at the ‘Russian border’ and we would bring (proof) of this back with us?

They went with it, they agreed!

We had a van, we had a ferry booking, we were going to Russia.

Chapter 2 – The Crazy Road Trip

We had borrowed a very special Simmonds electronic drum kit (via Colin Schofield) direct from their factory, Paul Stuart (drums) was playing stand-up drums for the gig as some of our tracks were sequenced/synchronised.

Home

I was leaving my wife, Gail with our young son Aubrey and younger daughter Perri , to travel overland 1600 miles without any visas, with very little money, to what was still the Soviet Union, Russia! A quick trip to a local flower shop, I made arrangements for a single rose to be delivered every day whilst I was away (well nearly every day, I could only afford 7 days).

The night before departing we were setting off the backline truck was loaded and hidden in a secret location to protect the valuable equipment. We collected our own hire van and dropped our backline off at the secret location, in Bootle, (Marsh Lane) where we met our travel companions, Will and Phil for the very first time.

By now, news that ‘a band‘ was travelling overland had spread throughout the Liverpool music community. Two of the original production crew, an interpreter and a journalist had also been cut (to save costs). We agreed that we would take them with us, non band members, Gareth (reporter) and Sarah, a University of Liverpool languages student. Studying Russian. Sarah was a fluent Russian speaker and had lived in Minsk for a year a couple of years back.

We received dozens of calls from many of the artists who had been cancelled and had heard about our plans, begging us for a place in the van. Sadly, we were now at capacity.

We set off early the next day collecting each band member in turn – Paul Stuart (drums), Richie Holmes (vocals), Mike Quinlan (Keys), John Reynolds (Guitar), Franc Hughes (Bass), Colin Schofield (Simmonds Technician), Sarah and Gareth. Amanda (singer) was our last pickup.

Amanda had not been told we were, no longer, flying. She had recently found a new ‘man’ in her life. He was more than a little weary of us, the band (‘males’) he was more than a little bit insecure about her music career in general? He was routinely possessive of her and we were afraid she (he) would not agree to the long drive overland. Technically, we (probably) kidnapped her. She sort of guessed we weren’t flying when we rocked up to the ferry terminal at Hull.

Paul was the (self elected) driver. He drove. And drove. And drove some more. He considered himself the ‘best’ driver amongst us (and probably the best driver amongst anybody)! 1655 ish miles – the overnight ferry Hull to Rotterdam, Berlin, Warsaw, Belarus – Minsk. With no satnav, we simply followed the truck.

Paul insisted on driving …. ALL the WAY!

It became a proper mission for him ‘a self-imposed mission’.

The vibe in the van was incredible, despite a couple of strangers, we quickly bonded, all of us on this crazy journey together, a unique shared experience. The Liverpool press and media had heard about ‘The Real East’ driving to Russia and the news soon spread to the international press even as far as Russia, where they were (now) eagerly awaiting us, keenly monitoring our progress. We had become ‘quite’ a story.

The customs people at Hull were totally uninterested in our adventure, but very interested in our van, as were their sniffer dogs. They had us unload EVERYTHING.

Nothing ‘sinister’ was found and a couple of hours later we were onboard and on our way. We had set off early, with little or no food all day. We didn’t have a lot of spends ‘for food’, any (spare) cash was spent on booze. We had no idea that breakfast (an all you can eat buffet) was included in the ferry ticket.

We arrived in the Netherlands 8.00am and departed without eating our FREE breakfast, already starving and we were only one day in.

We had been given a multipage document, an official letter in Russian. This document had been provided by the official office of the Belarus Leader Stanislav Shushkevich. We had been told that the letter was the permission that allowed us to travel ‘without delay’ across any and all Russian borders, from Poland into and across USSR to Minsk (and back). Our license to shit in the street.

None of us had Russian (nor any other visas), we were literally depending upon this letter, whatever it read/said, it would have to do? Would it be enough? When it came to ‘that time’ would our letter from Brezhnev get us across their borders?

Paul drove and drove some more.When we arrived in Berlin the vibe was really strange, different? The ‘wall’ had only recently come down. We stopped at the Brandenburg Gate, departed and played football, a kick around, as we walked thru the iconic gates. Once mobile again we drove a few hundred yards from the West into what used to be the East. It was all still very ‘East’ and ‘West’ a clear and obvious divide, the differences were still remarkable, stark.

We drove on thru (East) Germany to Poland, thru Warsaw which was impressive, spending maybe an hour ‘for a walk’ to stretch our legs.

The rest of Poland seemed like just one, very long, flat road! We stopped in the middle of nowhere for a piss, to refuel and to find food. I remember the owner of this small, family store staring in wonder at our ‘freak show’ from Liverpool as we literally devoured anything, and everything, edible on the shelves.

Somehow – we had acquired some local currency? I cannot recall how but I think we grabbed some of each countries currency, prior to boarding the ferry.

In reality there was very little ‘food’ available for us to buy, we bought it all anyway, everything edible in the store …for about £20 total.

Day turned into night, the same flat road. Paul still driving, the backline truck always within sight, ahead leading the way. We were heading for a (planned) Polish border, in order to cross into Russia. We found out it had been closed and we would have to divert to an (unplanned) alternative, much smaller, border crossing.

Will and Phil seemed to have this diversion under control. We continued, trying to keep up, following them, often blindly. Poland does not do Street/Road Lighting. Hours and hours. Pitch black then, suddenly, out of nowhere ‘blues and twos’, sirens and bright blue lights.

We had been pulled by the polish bizzies for speeding.

It was heavy, they had guns and were not friendly. They spoke no English whatsoever.

Paul, sleep deprived, didn’t help our cause, arguing and insisting he was not speeding.

They arrested him!

We quickly pulled together all our currency, Sarah spoke a little Polish, they wanted 60,000 zloty to allow us to continue (with Paul). We had it, just about. When we calmed down and eventually worked it all out this equated to less than £20! Back in the 90’s 1 zloty was worth 145 times less than now, in 2021.

After our narrow escape we convinced Paul to take an, inforced, break from driving, to get his head down for an hour or two. The rest of the night was like some kind of weird Si-fi movie.

We were travelling, passing thru small villages and towns, every 5-10 miles or so, now completely lost searching for a border crossing. We lost the truck several times but, somehow always managed to find each other.

It was now the early hours 2-6am. We would drive thru a town that was oddly, fully lit up, floodlights in a town square with lots of people on the streets?

They would spot us then move towards us, curious? Like the Walking Dead? What the fuck were they doing? It was surreal, spooky, frightening. We kept moving frightened to stall. Driving in circles, completely lost but too frightened to stop and ask for help? For directions.

Somehow we eventually latched onto a long queue of HGV’s many of which were open topped transporting vegetables, mainly cucumbers. We presumed they were heading towards the border crossing. There were dozens of trucks. Apparently, Russians love fucking Cucumbers! It was like ‘The Day of the Triffids’, the Donald Sutherland Si-Fi film? The one with the large cucumber ‘pods’. Clearly we were tired and very imaginative, trust me you had to be there?

We gambled, Paul, now driving again, drove straight to the front of the queue of HGV’s. We passed dozens of stationary trucks until we were halted by angry Polish border guards, guns raised stopping us in our tracks.

By now we were very close to the actual crossing. We could see it. Two sets of barricades 100 yards or so apart. We were at the Polish end ahead we could see the Russian side. Heavily Armed guards on both sides, armoured cars etc.

The Poles were less than impressed by our jumping the queue, heading straight to the front ‘typical British’ behaviour. They ushered us from the van into a small wooden hut along with any, and all, documents (passports) and basically told us to fuck off back to where we had come from. However, by now they had everyone’s passports and they did not want to give them back.

Sarah, who spoke a little Polish was trying to negotiate but was getting nowhere. She tried speaking to them in Russian but they (pretended) not to understand.

Paul was becoming increasingly aggressive….a bad move. The guards were also becoming agitated, aggressive but they had guns! Top trumps.

During the commotion, unknow to everybody, Sarah had slipped thru the Polish gate and had crossed to the Russian side. She returned with three armed Russian border guards who immediately confronted their Polish counterparts. Our Russian ‘God’ letter was produced and presented to the Poles who suddenly could understand Russian. The Russians clearly had top trumps in this seranio, and the letter was the clincher. 5 minutes later the Poles returned our passports and we were free to cross.

Our letter from ‘God’ had clearly done the trick.

We continued driving, relentlessly thru a dense forest for what was hours and hours with Paul, superglued to the wheel. I always had it in my head that it was ‘The Black Forrest’ on reflection, it was probably Bielaviežskaja pušča national park.

We were all (mostly) sleeping, including driver Paul. He would drift off and wake suddenly throughout the Pitch black even with full beam. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a spaceship landed on our van! Just like the Spielberg Movie, Close Encounters! Unbelievable, with the brightest light imaginable, EVERYWHERE.

We (all) awoke immediately, face to face with a large tank, its turret/gun pointed directly at us, blocking our passage. Either side of the tank there were two large pylon type, fully manned, machine gun posts. On the ground there were a couple of sidecar motorbikes, also with mounted machine guns and finally, half a dozen soldiers, with their machine guns raised in our direction, now approaching the van.

Paul was white. I mean WHITE!

We were all shitting ourselves.

Sarah, gingerly, stepped out of the van, holding the ‘letter’. She handed it to one of the Russian soldiers. Minutes later we were once again on our way. The letter had done its magic once again. There were several similar checkpoints along the way, each time with the same process and the same results. By now it was daylight and less scary each time.

After one such ‘stop’ we were joined by an escort, an unmarked Lada car with 4 huge KGB plain clothes officers. They had been waiting for us, in the middle of nowhere, for over 24 hours, they were smiling but we could tell they were pissed off.

‘Where have you been? We were expecting you yesterday’?

Four huge guys squashed into the smallest of cars led us to a Hotel in Minsk, the festival headquarters. The same hotel that featured in the recent, amazing Netflix Chernobyl drama …..it hasn’t changed much in 30 years!

Chapter 3 – Minsk       

We had finally arrived, exhausted and very emotional, it was a Thursday evening…. I think?

I remember the lift from reception up to our rooms, it opened on every floor to reveal clusters of musicians drinking from champagne bottles, playing acoustic guitars – Hotel California featured on several floors! It was like a sequel to Wayne’s World! Embarrassing.

We had been on the road for 70 hours. We later altered this to 69 hours. For interviews 69 felt much more dramatic than 70. The Russians had been expecting us 30 hours earlier and had more or less given us up! They were extremely relieved to see us, they weren’t that arsed about The Real East but no truck, no backline would have meant’ no gig?

The following day we had several press interviews, we were quite the cellebs! The Real East the crazy scousers who drove to Russia to help the chernobyl kids! 

The western ‘stars’ had been on the piss for a couple of days 24 seven. Local bubbly was around 30p a bottle! I am ashamed to say they had drank the fucking hotel dry in two days!

We were not a known band but because of the circumstances, our crazy journey, we were asked to be involved in activities that were originally reserved for the more famous bands – press/PR/visit the hospitals in Kiev etc.

There was a heavy security presence (plain clothed, armed KGB), positioned outside of each of our hotel rooms. Guards assigned as ‘liaison’ for our ‘information’. We were of particular interest as we had our own, (independent) transport, and a fluent Russian speaker amongst us. We literally couldn’t move, certainly not outside of the hotel on our own. We were only allowed to move (accompanied) to and from the hotel to the venue.

As soon as we arrived you could tell the ‘security’ had had already enough of the pretentious western ‘stars’. There was a clear and obvious tension in the hotel.

Serge, a young KGB officer, was in charge of security, a young (too young) very smartly dressed, intelligent looking guy, oozing charisma. Will (truck) quickly made friends with him, spotting immediately that Serge was ‘the person to know’. Serge was the chief KGB officer for the festival.

Will kept in touch with him afterwards, exchanging letters, writing to each other regularly but suddenly this stopped, when several of Wills letters were unanswered. Once the Soviet Union had collapsed, Serge fell victim to lethal retribution. His wife, eventually, wrote to Will, telling us that her husband had been shot dead, murdered in a reprisal killing after the soviet unions (official) demise.

Our own ‘chief’ guard assigned to the band (I cannot remember his name) became enchanted, besotted, with Amanda (vocals). He literally, never left her side. We spent most of our communal time in the Hotel bar. On one such occasion I remember him pointing towards the TV excitedly, (he had no English whatsoever). The bar man explained, there was a championship kick boxing fight showing on TV, in the bar.

It was a repeat broadcast from the previous weekend. ‘We’ didn’t think nothing of it until we realised it was him, our guard! He had won the fight. He was a national hero!

Despite his obvious skills and talents, he was a small guy, less than 5ft.5ins, with a slight physique. He wore a full length, black leather, trench-coat. He was constantly flirting, showing off, trying to impress ‘Manda’.

We were walking to the stadium to soundcheck for the gig, him walking aside Amanda, but facing myself, suddenly, he span in the air like a fucking ninja and kicked me, ever so slightly, on the back of my head! The faintest of skillful touches. He clearly had no intention to hurt me, he was showing off.

It snowed during sound check. Magical.

We had a kick around backstage on the Dynamo Minsk Olympic Stadium pitch, in the snow. The Olympic Stadium, a ground I have seen many times since, via the Champions League. We continued to play, in one of the Goals until we were stopped by a very agitated groundsman!

The drunken rockstar behaviour got worse and worse and you could see how the ‘security’ resented us. They were gagging to get into us! To teach us some Eastern manners? Paul had somehow managed to conceal some hash somewhere in the van. He was becoming more and more paranoid within the escalating, tense situation. He was convinced that all of our hotel rooms were bugged and had cameras in them, watching and recording our every move.

There were a few ‘working girls’ hanging around the hotel, prostitutes. One of the guys from Lindisfarne took a girl back to his room. He was halfway thru ‘the deed’ when his hotel room door burst open, several security guards entered and ruffly dispatched the ‘call girl’ and then gave him a bit of a slap.

You could feel the tension building, there was a real sense that it was going to explode and sooner rather than later? As we had arrived later than everybody else we had a different perspective and a more heightened awareness of the tension?

Chapter 4 – The Football match (The KGB v The West)

I cannot remember (exactly) when the football match took place, I think it must have been the Sunday after the final night of the festival or maybe even the Monday. The festival line-up had been severely cut so there weren’t as many bands to choose ‘teams’ from, with only a couple of Russian acts performing over the weekend, not enough to provide a full Eastern bands Team.

We ended up playing against a team of Russian KGB guards. Maybe this was always going to be the case? They were delighted as they now had their opportunity to get their own back on ‘the westerners’ to kick fuck out of us!  

We travelled a short distance to a pitch of sorts, sadly not the Olympic Stadium as that had a large stage planted in the middle of the pitch! The pitch we played on had no grass it was a ruff, ash-dirt pitch, ruff as fuck. We were all still pissed, from the night before (closing party)? The opposition were completely sober, and big. Most of them fucking kick boxing champions, weight lifters, athletes who had one shared goal, retribution! They were all out for revenge. They fucking killed us, no mercy, hurting us at each and every opportunity. Retribution in Spades.

5-0 down at half time and lucky to only be 5

Half time – we sobered up quite a bit from 45 minutes of hard, physical punishment. We rallied round, determined to put up a better fight in the next 45 – to win or at least draw the second half, scouse pride. Eddie from the China men played and Gary (China) filmed the match on his Cine 8 film camera (I think he still has the original film).

We had a far better ‘go’ at them second half, we had sobered up quite a bit by then. Mike Quinlan (a decent player) smashed a shot come cross into their penalty area hitting one of the big KGB grok centre half’s square in the bollocks! The guy instinctively put both hands onto his balls and dropped to his knees!

Mike screamed ‘HANDBALL’! An obvious joke? Remarkably, ‘the Russian ref’ awarded a penalty! Hand ball in the penalty area! Unquestionably the wrong decision, thank fuck there was no VAR.

Mike stepped up and squarely dispatched the spot kick. We hung onto our slender lead for the remainder of the half, winning the second half 1-0. Our scouse pride had been (partly) restored, 1-0 against the mighty Russian KGB. Final score 5-1.

After the game we licked our wounds, we were utterly destroyed, I remember Colin Schofield and the guy from The Pretenders, they were in the worse condition, cuts, friction burns and bruises all over their legs and bodies.

Most of us had a wound or two…… at least.

Afterwards, the Russians invited us to a ‘Russian Bath House’. Those with the steam, and massage facilities where they hit you with twigs and branches and shit! We were too afraid that it might be a ‘lets play mummies and daddies’ moment, we flatly refused. 

Chapter 5 – The Gig

We performed on the Saturday, late afternoon into early evening, pre the Bunnymen who were the Saturday headliners. As the stage was facing to one side, not all of the stadium was occupied. However we were told around 26,000 attended our performance with an additional ‘potential’ live TV broadcast audience of around 30 million plus! Lets face it there was fuck all else to watch on TV in Russia in the nineties!

The presenter, a Russian Celebrity, announced us onto the stage as ‘the crazy band’ who had drove all the way from Liverpool to perform for free. The crowd appeared already aware of The Real East, they had heard about us, our journey in their media. They were instantly enthusiastic, appreciative.

The first two rows were occupied by Russian Uniformed Soldiers. The crowd waived inflated condoms whilst we performed. There was a large moat between the stage and the crowd. Unknown to us, during soundchecks Richie (vocals) had practiced jumping the moat. Between one song he jumped across, a single impressive standing jump, straight into the Russian crowd (soldiers)! They loved it! The crowd went nuts.

We started well, relying on the sequencing and monitoring for Paul to play his stand-up Simmons drums. There was an official, high quality multi camera recording released of the festival with two of our songs which appeared on YouTube has now been taken down, sadly I no longer have a copy.

The two songs came across very well, one of which happened to have my guitar solo! I was made-up with it! I do remember the sequencing ‘sync’ slipping at one point of the set but we soldiered on, hoping for the best. The English bands who stayed to watch us seemed to like it! Our original songs were interesting (musically), quite percussive, rhythmic, a little too ‘clever clever’ on reflection but, overall, we went down well in the stadium.

The funniest moment was when Richey introduced the band including singer Amanda.

Placebo’ and then, arm outstretched, pointing in her direction he said just the one word ‘MANDA’! The crowd went fucking crazy!

We found out later that ‘Manda’ in Russian, apparently means CUNT! They thought Richie was a macho scouse bastard ……and they loved it!

Some of us wore Russian hammer and sickle ‘T’ shirts on and around the stage, I wore a Roto Sound ‘T’ as I had an ‘endorsement deal’ with them. We took our ‘T’s off mid set to reveal the official Liverpool FC shirts, or it might have been the other way round, LFC to Hammer and sickle as we transitioned into ‘Games Without Frontiers’ sung in Russian.

At that point they pulled the plug on us!

They left our stage monitors on but turned off all of the front of house PA!

The KGB had censored us

I don’t remember much more about the gig. It all happened so quickly,too quickly. 6 months of solid rehearsal, a 1655 miles drive for a 30 minute set that felt more like thirty short seconds! But WOW!

Chapter 6 – The Closing Party & Second Gig

Post gig we stayed for the Bunny Men who were immense.

We were then escorted back to our hotel and the after party began. We had a whole company meal the following day. Chicken Kiev of course! It was the first time I had eaten it, heard of it even.

Interpreter, Sarah had organised everything, and chose the menu. Compared to what we had been eating previous (cucumber and cucumber with cucumber) it was Michelin Star! Sarah invited her Russian friends, those she had got to know whilst studying in Minsk a couple of years previously.

Her friends had visited us earlier, coming to our rooms. They were nice enough but (all) very intense, serious. They were (falsely) convinced ‘we’ might be able to help them ‘get out’ of Russia? Intense – desperate. It all felt really uncomfortable.

I gave one of them a cassette of the band and a spare Walkman I had, to keep. I also agreed to writing a letter inviting them to the UK (a requirement for any Russian travelling abroad).

After the meal we had a Russian ‘disco’ in the large Hotel function room, where we performed other set (a gig) in the hotel. A more commercial set this time with a few, additional, covers, George Michael, Luthor Vandross, Whitney Houston etc. along with our original songs, largely acoustically as we had limited access to our gear which had remained on or around the main stage after the gig.

We were going down great until we started the Russian’ language bit.

They pulled us once more! This time turning the power off completely mid song!     

The night got friskier and tenser!

Our security started coaxing us into drinking games, shots of crazy home brewed vodka followed by arm wrestling. We noticed that we were the only ones drinking, they were pretending to drink, throwing their shots to one side.

This escalated to them asking for and then demanding any ‘spare’ US dollars, or UK £’s.

Paul’s paranoid nightmares had suddenly become reality!

There was one ‘agent’ the youngest but also one of the biggest. He was a big brash fucker, with a serious ‘young’ I’ve got to prove myself vibe. Pumped full of testorone and god knows whatever else.

He challenged Richie to an arm wrestling contest and Richie beat him fair and square. The guy was distraught, humiliated, he couldn’t believe it and couldn’t accept it. He demanded a rematch. Richie won again and then again, a third time despite the young Russian cheating during the third bout, using the table as extra leverage.

We were in uproar, calling him out, accusing him of cheating. His friends (colleagues) took the piss out of him relentlessly, ‘how could he allow himself to be beaten by a snot nosed ‘tiny’ Westerner!

He was fuming! Totally humiliated by us and his peers. Dangerous.

A fight.

It was inevitable, it went off.

Somehow we managed to avoid a full on bar brawl, just about. The Russians were ready to go, had been for days to be honest and after the ‘cheating’ and the blinding vodka shots, perhaps naively, so were we! I sensed another 5-0 mauling but this time with more serious injuries and consequences….we were 1600 miles away from home in a communist country. Luckily, there were still (enough) ‘reasonable’ people (on both sides) to avoid a full on International incident. Wills nurtured friendship with Serge paid off.

However, Paul was fucking gone!

I somehow managed to talk him down, I persuaded him to accept being dispatched to his room, for the rest of the night/morning . I escorted him there, when I left I heard him barricaded himself in, positioning a chair, wedged against his door.

The angry humiliated guard was also dispatched (elsewhere).

Richey, eventually calmed down. Normality was at least closer.

I hooked up with Sarah’s Russian friends, they invited me to their flat. We gave my guards the slip and I found myself in a taxi going to god knows where. We arrived at a high rise not that far (10 minutes drive) from the Hotel. Everything was pitch black. A Power cut.

They lived on the 15th floor, no power no lift! I was fucked by the time we got to their flat. None of the flats had doors, just curtains. Open house! My hosts all lived in adjoining flats on the same floor. I was ushered in, to sit on a small bed, the only furniture in the tiny, single room, a very small basic one room flat.

They wanted to play my cassette, impossible with no electricity? One of them, was very upset apologetic, embarrassed. She could not even boil a kettle to offer me a coffee?

Suddenly the curtain (door) was thrown open wide and another guy entered, not at the earlier party, her husband. I realised I was sitting on a bed (his bed) with his partner (wife)? Alone in a dark, candle-lit room!

He was fine….thank fuck!

He insisted that I accept his Army uniform in return for the cassette. The more I refused the more he insisted. He did not have anything else to give me! I guess it was an ‘honour’ pride thing, I didn’t want to insult him so I accepted his Russian army Jacket.

I made my excuses and asked if there was any possibility that I could get a taxi back to the Hotel? I left 20 minutes later saying my goodbyes along with the perfunctory line ‘if you are ever in Liverpool…..’? 

I was terrified in the taxi as I had no clue where I would end up.

Arriving back at the Hotel around 6.00AM, dawn. The party was still alive but dwindling. There were now very little signs of our any KGB security. I decide to make the most of this, and head into ‘town’ (Minsk), sneaking out the rear of the hotel. Finally alone, free to explore unaccompanied.

As I was walking along the main carriageway, now daylight, I noticed small queues outside what looked like lottery kiosks. On my return there were much longer queues. I discovered they were queuing for beer. Once every 6 weeks or so, with no warning announcement, wheat beer suddenly became available. For a short, limited period.

When this occurred, people would literally fill any, and all types of empty containers they could get their hands on with this fowl ‘bread’ beer. I saw one guy fill a plastic carrier-bag, the low quality 10p kind of paper-thin plastic carry-bag. Liquid was leaking everywhere from small holes all over the bag!     

Russians rise (and go to work) early.

Minsk, the city centre was fully open by 7.00AM.

Rows of grey buildings, zero advertising, no indication as to what any of the buildings were. Many were, in fact, large department stores. However, you had no way of knowing what they sold unless you opened semi-concealed doors and entered.

I bought a grey plastic School Satchel, a Russian children’s school bag complete with typical Russian motifs. It cost just pennies. There was very little else to buy.

I headed back to the hotel with my school bag and spent the remainder of my Russian cash in the hotel shop buying Russian Babushka Dolls for Aubrey and Perri (my children). Russian currency cannot be (legally) taken out of the Soviet Union on exit. 

Chapter 7 – The Return Journey

I don’t remember much about the trip home apart from the huge bond that had developed between us all. We chose to travel back via Amsterdam on the way to Rotterdam to catch our ferry to Hull. However, first we had to cross Belarus, Poland and Germany.

We had an escort out of Minsk, the four huge KGB guys who, again squeezed into the smallest of ‘Lada’ cars. We needed fuel more or less immediately. They took us to a tiny one pump shack and literally dragged an old women out of her bed in order to refuel our van. They, (she) refused any kind of payment. I’m not sure she had any choice.

Many driving hours later we arrived at our border crossing, this time a much bigger, busier border crossing. Our escorts allowed us, encouraged us to buy some souvenirs Stolichnaya (Chrystal) Vodka. They then performed a ritual goodbye ceremony on our behalf. Providing a large shot of their own ‘blinding’ home brewed vodka which we were forced to drink, from old tin military mugs.

We said our goodbyes. They seemed genuinely happy (to see us gone maybe?)

More and more driving, I remember nothing about Poland nor Germany. We eventually arrived, and parked up, in the ‘Dam’ around 2.00am. We had spent most of the day and night sleeping so we went for a long, welcome walk to stretch our legs.

We left the van parked on a quiet street, next to a canal, outside of a small Hotel in the centre of Amsterdam.

We had started slowly walking back to the van with the intention of heading straight off to Rotterdam. We had discovered (Will -Truck) that we were entitled to a free Ferry buffet breakfast and we were already fantasising about this. The food we had eaten in Russia was basic to say the least and always comprised something that included cucumber! We wanted bacon.

Breakfast – porridge with Cucumber!

Lunch dumplings with cucumber.

Evening, just cucumber. And cucumber for desert.

As we approached our van we noticed the back door was slightly ajar. Someone was inside. We were being burgled. None of us was in a great frame of mind. We pounced with a weird venom to find a 30 year old? Moroccan man inside riffeling our possessions. We grabbed him firmly, dragging him ruffly from the rear doors. He was wearing a long, raggerty coat, baggy shirt and trousers. Lots of (concealed) pockets.

Inside we could see our bags, open with the contents on the floor. He clearly though he had plenty of time, that we were inside the hotel asleep. He had been taking his time selectively choosing what to steal.

We frisked him finding a Walkman but very little else.

We discovered later his coat had many concealed pockets.

Franc (Bass) was the most furious of us all, wanted to kill him, to throw him in the ‘cut’ (canal). None of us were objecting. We searched him again and found a long stiletto knife! We immediately though, ‘what if just one of us had got ahead, got to the van before the rest of us and confronted him alone’?

We ALL wanted to kill him. He seemed remarkably calm, although he was sweating heavily, a ‘drugs withdrawal’ kind of sweating?

Rather than kill him, we elected to call the police.

Our robber suddenly became much more agitated. 10 minutes later, as the police were getting closer he started to reveal a multitude of items he had cleverly concealed, in his ‘Fagen like’ coat, including quite a bit of our English (£’s) cash.

The Dutch police arrived shortly afterwards.

A very young Dutch copper (he looked like a teenager), asked us if we would come with them to the police station to give statements. We did.

We were ushered into and left in a large open plan office, an operations room, with a notice board showing the preparations for a drugs raid at the docks. It was like something from a crime TV series, or The French Connection Movies.

The Dutch copper explained that – in order to prosecute successfully they had to have physically found our property on him (in possession) when arrested? Cleary, this is why he had suddenly decided to rid himself of it, just prior to the police arriving at the scene. Including a second knife.

The bizzie said ‘When we arrived we searched him and we found …… this this and that and tow knives’? That’s correct isn’t it? Yes, we agreed that is what happened and we all signed statements to that effect. He then winked at me, put on a pair of marigold, industrial rubber gloves and said NOW! And smiled as he walked away.

We left and drove to Rotterdam, where we pooled our resources for a final, group meal. We found a restaurant close to the terminal. I distinctly remember the toilets! They were the cleanest, fanciest toilets I had ever seen, completely out of place for the ‘docklands area.

We were all very much subdued during the return Ferry crossing. Our adventure was coming to an end. The ‘forward’ journey had been full of optimism (and a degree of trepidation), and ……. we were seriously all ‘on’ the Stella.

A round of 10 pints was costing just £5? Or even less? We thought it was a bazaar mistake but it was the same for every round, whoever was paying paid just £5 max and would still receive some change? Turns out the barman was a scouser and he was ‘looking after us’.

Next morning we were all up bright and ‘hungry’ ready for our ‘free’ hot buffet all you can eat breakfast. It was worth the wait. We all consumed a copious amount of bacon but Mike broke the record. His rind alone, removed from the bacon he ate, weighed 1lb on its own.

Chapter 8 – Home

It took me a week or two to ‘get over’ the gig, the journey the experience. I (we) all had massive withdrawal symptoms, van/tour withdrawals. We missed each other so much.

Turns out, after over 3000 miles driving the van was returned completely unscathed, despite our lack of USSR insurance which luckily was not required. When we returned the van we gave the ‘God Letter’ to the hire company, stating ‘this was the Russian insurance cover/policy’ document we had secured in Russia.

They were happy. They had also received some positive PR for their willingness to assist our noble quest. I really regret that, giving away the Russian god-letter, a piece of paper, that when read, would put the fear of god in anybody who read it? It would have been an amazing, unique keepsake.

We did a series of gigs to pay back Mikes Brother and we planned numerous reunions that never happened. We even did some additional Liverpool press and local radio.  

Paul (drums) always planned to write ‘the book’ documenting our amazing experience in full detail but he never did get around to it. Sadly Paul died suddenly soon after a gig, a heart attack. Paul will never write ‘his’ book about our Russian adventure, I thought I should at least try to,…… in his memory.

This account only scratches the surface of the story of the crazy scouse band who drove to Russia to do a gig to help some kids.

The story didn’t end there.

‘If you are ever in Liverpool ……..’ The cassette I gave the Russians had my address on it.

Well guess what, 12/18 months later, 4.00am there was a knock at our door in Garston. I get out of bed to find 4 Russians, complete with a huge ‘swag bag’ of valuable Russian Icons! The soldier (whos’ uniform I still have), his wife and a couple of friends.

They slept on the living room floor with my Boxer Dog Barney ‘keeping an eye on them’ I gave them cans of Stella (Barneys favourite) which they shared with  him throughout the night from their hands, they were afraid he would eat them if they did not.

Next few days, I introduced them to the guys who owned Calum Military in ‘Town’? Calum bought their valuable icons from them and they used the funds to move to London. Before they left I took them to the super club Golds’ (Tablet Land) in Speke which completely blew their minds!

Last I heard the soldiers wife was working as a taxidermist in London.    

This post is dedicated to Paul Conway Stuart (RIP), to the book you never wrote.

One final comment.

The rare Stolichnaya Christal Vodka I brought back remained in a cupboard for many years ‘saved for a very special celebration’. When that day came I found the bottle already open. My young daughter, Perri had removed half of the vodka topping the bottle up with tap water. She, and her friends, drank the vodka whilst on a school camping trip.

When discovered, she apologised promising to replace it only to find that it now cost (UK) £145 a bottle I could not say an awful lot, as I had done the same thing to my dad when I was 13, with a bottle of his finest Dimple whisky.

Like father like daughter.   

Thanks for Reading

Peace  RIP Paul

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Children_of_Chernobyl_Benefit_Concert

Published by Riff

Husband to my inspirational, (long suffering,) wife Gail, father to two, amazing (adult) children, Aubrey & Perri, teacher, former guitarist, recent 'granda(r) to my beautiful grandson Henderson, with another two on the way. I Love people. I love my family, my incredible friends, I have love(d) what I do (my Job), I love Music, Glastonbury Festival, Cars, Everton .... I love many things but, most of all, I fucking love 'life'.

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