The First Rock Band of USSR

The first rock band of USSR gathered in the Yerevan Polytechnic Institute from students of architecture faculty in 1967. The leader of the group was singer, poet, composer and guitarist Artur Meschyan, who already had some fame for his student years song Ուր էիր Աստված(“Ur eir Astvac”, English: ”Where Were You God”), dedicated to the Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Turkey.

The single has been rewritten, passed from hand to hand on bobbins, the most accessible kind of information carrier at that time. Overwritten and worn out films were sometimes in such bad quality that it was impossible to make out the words, but the ones of Ur eir Astvac still reached to everyone.

The student period was quite productive for the group which did not have a name yet. Initially, it was called simply a group of the architectural faculty. In addition to the leader of the band Arthur Meschyan (vocals, guitar, keyboard instruments) Levon Melikyan (bass guitar) and Grigor Nalbandyan (drums) were the members of it as well.

Another interesting thing about the first rock band of USSR is that they sang in their native language, Armenian, while it was a common thing to imitate British or American music.

The group, of course, was under the vigilant control of the Komsomol unions and other known government organizations of the time. It is easy to imagine the hatred of these figures towards a group of students who interfered with their measured lifestyle.

That was the time when representatives of the Armenian cultural elite died of unknown reasons in various accidents, such as the Armenian poet Paruyr Sevak or world-renowned artist Minas Avetisyan, who perished in a car accident after his workshop had burned down for some unknown reason. Every nation of the Soviet Union has its own list of victims, an endless one.

And on this waves a group of “some new-found apostles”, as they were squeamishly called by sleek Komsomol workers, dared to play rock, and even in their own language. Witty Arthur Meschyan picked up this idea: “Why not? We are Apostles!” That’s how the name “Apostles” (Armenian: “Առաքյալներ”, “Arakyalner”) got stuck to the group.

In early seventies “Apostles” wrote the first rock opera of USSR “The Insane Asylum” which also was performed in Armenian during trip-tours to Moscow and Estonia. It was exactly there the rock-music of USSR arose.

In 1971 the band was invited to Poland for a music festival of socialist countries, but only Arthur Meschyan was allowed to travel there, accompanied by Komsomol activists. Nevertheless, the performance took place and was a great success.

In 1972 group members graduated from the institute. This was a difficult period for the leader of the group Meschyan, who graduated with honors from the institute.

For two years, because of his “unreliability,” he has been having problems with finding a job, though after getting one he even participated in the designing of Yerevan’s Zvartnots Airport.

He simultaneously performed in church choir, where he met the Catholicos of All Armenians Vazgen I. The Catholicos was very sympathetic to the musicians and the leader of the group Meschyan in particular.

Towards the sexagenary of the Armenian genocide the group has started to work on a requiem. The text was taken from banned West-Armenian poet Mushegh Ishkhan. The group recorded and in 1975 in Etchmiadzin, with great difficulty, presented their project titled “Requiem”, written with band’s own finances and with direct support of the Catholicos.

But it was impossible to record such a project in the rest USSR. In US the recording and publishing broke down due to the fact that “Requiem”, without knowledge and permission of authors, has already made it in US in 1975, and many songs of it were performed in disfigured form in Californian restaurants by petty, thieving singers.

Meschyan haven’t performed anything from “Requiem” for many years, but later, giving in to persuasions of friends and fans, included some songs of “Requiem” in somewhat reworked, instrumental form into albums released in early 90’s.

Turns out that the “Apostles” did the impossible. It shed some light on a forbidden direction of music, poems of banned poets and the undesirable topic of the Armenian genocide and not only did not give in, but also opened a way for such musicians as Gevorg Mangasaryan, Ashot Adamyan, Vigen Stepanyan, Gevorg Zhangulian, Movses Muradyan, Ashot Egikyan, Stanislav Bunatyan, Rostom “Sand” Ohanyan and Grigor Balayan.

Artists among them became widely known outside Armenia and USSR. Whole festivals gathered around them, although they performed just for fun or to collaborate with other artists.

I have had fortune of being present at one of those occasional meetings with bands “Jolly Fellows” and “Flowers” in my distant school years. That was an unforgettable scene. And the catalyst for these parties was “Apostles”, the first rock band of USSR.

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