Red Wave: An American in the Soviet Music Underground
By Joanna Stingray and Madison Stingray
416 pages, 150 black and white illustrations.
September 2020. Paperback.
Ebook also available.
$26.95 | 9781733957922 (pb)
The story of the American musician who opened the clandestine world of Leningrad punk and rock n’ roll to the West
When Joanna Stingray’s New Wave music career stalled after a Studio 54 performance and record release, she traveled to Russia in 1984 with the name of one musician to meet if she could sneak off her state-sanctioned tour. That fateful, shadowy encounter with the now-legendary Boris Grebenshchikov opened the rabbit hole for her tumble into Soviet underground culture and decades-long devotion to Russian rock. In 1985 produced Red Wave: 4 Underground Bands from the Soviet Union with music that she had smuggled out of the U.S.S.R. to the West. This is her incredible story of youthful fortitude and rebellion amidst the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of the Cold War.
Interviews with musicians and Stingray’s extensive collection of photographs fill out her inspiring and poetic book.
The muse of the Soviet musical underground.
– Forbes Russia
Joanna Fields was born in California brought up to mistrust Communism, so as soon as she could, in 1984 she went to the Soviet Union. She met underground rock musicians like Boris Grebenshchikov and his band Akvarium, banned from releasing music or playing official concerts and thought someone should get their music out to the West. Joanna has now written an account of her tape smuggling years as she shuttled across the Iron Curtain and released a groundbreaking double LP called Red Wave, featuring four underground bands and music that many in the West simply thought didn’t exist. Of course she needed a code name. She chose Stingray.
– BBC Newsday, Rock ‘n’ roll through the Iron Curtain, listen to full clip here.
At home in California, Joanna Stingray [works in] real estate with two additional jobs. But in Russia, the 58-year-old American is a near-legend, feted by rock fans and musicians for her fearless championing of Soviet underground music during the Cold War. “You are the mother of Russian rock!” a fan shouted as Stingray promoted her new autobiography at a Moscow bookstore. … The California musician aroused the suspicions of the KGB and the FBI as she bravely championed the Soviet underground in the 1980s. The Red Wave LP, released in America in 1986, introduced western audiences to Russian rock and helped end the Kremlin’s censorship of homegrown groups.
– The Guardian, Joanna Stingray – the woman who smuggled punk rock out of the USSR
A memoir by an American who almost single-handedly introduced Soviet rock to the free world…[Red Wave] captures her daring amid an atmosphere of liberation and fear (David Bowie and Molly Ringwald each wanted to adapt her story), and she’s a study in moxie and enthusiasm….[an] engaging tale of an unlikely rock-world champion.
– Kirkus Reviews
It’s hard to find a more drab and yet more romantic period in the history of the Soviet Union than in the 1980s. Life as people knew it was falling apart and yet there was also a growing hope that something new and exciting would rise in its place. That sense of cognitive and emotional dissonance was perfectly captured by the underground music of that time, produced by young non-conformist musicians in what was then the city of Leningrad. What was it like to live and make music in that period of hopeful despair?
– Russian Television, Rock in a Hard Place? Watch the full English-language interview with Joanna Stingray here.
The music on Red Wave – which ranges from the ska-tinged pop of Kino to the brooding, introspective songwriting of Grebenschikov – was recorded mostly in cramped living rooms transformed into home studios with borrowed two-track and eight-track equipment. The lyrics, sung in Russian (a translated lyric sheet is provided), are not overtly political. But veiled reference to politics shine through, as does a keen awareness of progressive Western rock.
– Rolling Stone, 1986
Thanks to a resourceful Los Angeles singer and songwriter who heard – and liked – their brand of Russian rock, the bands are now playing to a faraway audience. […] The album is the brainchild of Joanna Stingray a.k.a. Joanna Fields, 25, who has been exploring the Soviet Union’s unofficial and unheralded rock world since 1984.
– Newsweek, 1986
Some rare footage was gathered by Joanna Stingray, an American musician and producer who traveled to the Soviet Union in 1984 and ensconced herself in the world of Leningrad’s most popular rock musicians. Stingray would go on to befriend artists at the vanguard of the Leningrad scene, including Boris Grebenshchikov, the front man for the band Akvarium, and Victor Tsoi, the late Soviet rock icon accused recently by Russian State Duma member Yevgeny Fyodorov of collaborating with the CIA.
– The Atlantic
Joanna Stingray’s appearance in St. Petersburg in the early 1980s must have been God’s response to our unconscious prayers. Her naive bravery, curiosity and generosity created a kind of a lifeline for us rockers: she brought in things we needed to play our music, and took out not only our recordings but the very message of our existence. Had it not been for her and her Red Wave it would have taken Aquarium many more years to have official records on Melodiya and for Kino to start touring Europe. This fearless maiden broke through the siege that looked hopelessly unbreakable. She threw a life-saver into our waters and she changed everything. No matter how many times we thank her — it’s never enough.
– Boris Grebenshchikov (Aquarium)
As one of the first American musicians to break through the Soviet scene, and one of the few women to be seen as an equal amongst Leningrad’s pantheon of rock superstars, Stingray’s perspective on the development of late Soviet rock is truly one of a kind. This memoir is probably the single most important source for researchers who want a birds-eye view of late Soviet youth culture, and Stingray’s stories are as entertaining as they are relevant and illuminating. Stingray has managed to capture both the atmosphere of the final decade of the U.S.S.R., and provide a lively contrast to the Western music industry that will be referenced and appreciated years to come. The importance of this work cannot be stressed enough.
– Alexander Herbert, author of What About Tomorrow: An Oral History of Russian Punk Rock and Punks Around/Punk in a Foreign Space
Stephen Stills and I performed in Moscow in the late 1980s, and we did our best to encourage and help local Russian bands. It was there that I met musician and songwriter Joanna Stingray, who showed great passion about how music could ‘change the world’. She instinctively understood the power that rock and roll music brings to people. The audience in Moscow craved the music and what it represented.
– Graham Nash
What an adventure Joanna Stingray’s life has been. Red Wave is wild and vivid — a rollicking memoir of romance and rock ‘n’ roll in an era of upheaval and transition. From Los Angeles to Leningrad and back again, Joanna’s story is borne along by her infectious, headlong enthusiasm. It’s quite a ride.
– Patrick Radden Keefe, award winning staff writer at The New Yorker and author of Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland
Joanna was like a tornado. Just imagine someone could drag Tsoi, Kuryokhin and Grebenshchikov into her vortex and like a tractor pull the Russian underground to the West. A breath of fresh air and bright hopes — it’s all Joanna!
– Yuri Kasparyan (Kino)
Red Wave became the deus ex machina that played a crucial role in making Soviet rock music legitimate and accessible by the media and society. Its release forced the Soviet authorities to hastily lift all barriers and restrictions that had kept Russian rock bands in their underground reservation.
– Dr. Anna Kan, Soviet Union culture historian, London
Joanna Stingray went to Leningrad in search of herself. And there she found not just herself but a few other very important people in her life. She became their prophet in the West. But Soviet people traditionally trusted prophets only from outside of their homeland. The Red Wave stirred by Joanna came back and brought well-deserved attention to its heroes. These memoirs strike you with their openness, straightforwardness and, most importantly, their honesty. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know how it really was.
– Konstantine Ernst, Director of Russia’s Channel One
Rock is for young people. It’s an opportunity to open up a road into the future and breathe deeper. And all thoughtful people understand that it’s not just young people fooling around. They are captivated by this music. If some of our rock bands like Aquarium and Kino were released in the West on the Red Wave album in June 1986, why shouldn’t they have been released in Russia?
– President Mikhail Gorbachev, 2019, reflecting on his decision that led to the Red Wave bands being allowed to become “official” by 1987
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Joanna Stingray is an author and musician from Los Angeles, California, who lived for many years in Russia. In 1984, while touring in the Soviet Union, she met and befriended Boris Grebenschikov, a revered musical poet (who many Soviets called the ‘Russian Dylan’) and soon became the first American producer of underground Russian rock n’ roll when she released the double album Red Wave — 4 Underground Bands from the U.S.S.R., a compilation of music smuggled out of the U.S.S.R. by Joanna in 1985. A frequent traveler in and out of Russia, Joanna was interrogated by the KGB and FBI (both thought she was a spy) and in 1987, she became an enemy of the State — her visa blocked to keep her from entering the Soviet Union to marry Leningrad guitarist Yuri Kasparyan. After months of intervention by the U.S. State Department, she returned to Russia, married Yuri and in the early ‘90s became a television host, a recording artist, and well known rock personality throughout Russia. She has published several books in Russia about her time in the music scene as well as much of her photo collection. Her video diaries and interviews of bands and their musicians is the only archive of this clandestine, bygone world.
Stingray’s Red Wave is, in fact, credited by Russians for helping pave the way to the cultural opening that collapsed state control. Months after it appeared in the United States, Mikhail Gorbachev decided the Red Wave bands should be allowed to become “official,” launching the bands to notoriety by 1987.
“FREE TO ROCK,” the 2017 documentary exposé directed by Jim Brown and narrated by Kiefer Sutherland, features interviews with Joanna Stingray, prominent American musicians who toured the Soviet Union, and several important Russian musicians. It reveals to the world the dismantling socio-political effect of “soft power,” and discovers how American rock n’ roll and the release of Red Wave during glasnost (“cultural opening”) contributed to the ending of the Cold War.
Madison Stingray expresses herself as a storyteller. She has written songs, poems, short stories, and now two full length books, the common theme of all her work being a strong female narrative and an attempt at human solidarity. She graduated from Georgetown University magna cum laude and received her Master’s degree in Archaeology from the University of Cambridge in England. Growing up, the Leningrad Underground Rock days were stories that became her fairytales, and her contribution to putting those adventures in print is to inspire others that extraordinary things can happen to anyone who fights for something. Her first album,”Stingray — In Your Eyes” is out on iTunes, Spotify and others. Check her out on iamstingray.com.