Wild child Fyodor Chistyakov.

The big Zero

By Sergey Chernov

The work of a St Petersburg musician who lived a wild life, was thrown into prison and then a mental asylum before joining the Jehovah's Witnesses is now on general release. "Polundra" ("Stand from under"), the 1992 recording of the now defunct and much missed local rock band Nol, fronted by Fyodor Chistyakov, has finally found its way onto cassette and CD. Nol (Zero) was formed in the fall of 1985, making its debut at the Leningrad Rock Club in December 1986. By that time they had a home-produced tape called "Music of Rough Files," featuring styles varying from traditional rock and roll to art rock.

The group provided a striking contrast to St Petersburg's other leading rock bands. Most of them were dominated by 30-year olds, while the two original founding members of Nol were only 16. The trend of the day was to write philosophical and metaphorical lyrics, but Nol's songs were distinctly street-level. The band's leader Fyodor Chistyakov turned out to be the original folk poet, writing lyrics about what he saw around him at that time -- food shortages, over-populated communal flats and shameless Soviet propaganda. Still he was dealing with these subjects in his own very unique way. The song "A Fairy-tale About Sausage" explored the sexual dimension of this then much sought after foodstuff. "Tools Ahead!" again combined sex with workshop terminology. "School of Life" was a parody on military marches. Later Chistyakov moved on to write more mature and dramatic material. Chistyakov's singular and somewhat out-of-tune singing and the fact that he played button accordion -- an instrument totally ignored by local rock musicians at that time -- made the band stand out. The fresh folk-punk spirit of the resulting mixture has invited belated comparison with the Pogues, who originated at roughly the same time.

Controvertial - Chistyakov spent time in jail and then a mental asylum.

No other Russian band could really compete with Nol in terms of energy. Legend has it that at one concert Chistyakov played so vigorously that he tore his accordion in two. Performances given by Nol in the late eighties invariably attracted crowds of shouting fans. The band was featured in Western documentaries on Russian rock music and was invited to play in Germany, Ireland, France and Finland. The success of Nol led to the formation of several groups, which followed the same formula. The most interesting and popular is Ukrainian band Vopli Vidoplyasova (VV), which combines punk rock with Ukrainian folk music. And its leader, Oleg Skripka, also plays button accordion. Nol folded in 1992 when the fast living and excesses of his rock lifestyle led Chistyakov first to the infamous Kresty prison and then to a mental asylum. As was recently reported, Fyodor Chistyakov joined Jehovah's Witnesses, and has subsequently refused to have anything further to do with rock-n-roll.

"Polundra" CD and cassettes, as well as Nol's previous release, "Pesni o bezotvetnoy lyubvi k rodine", are available from local music shops and music kiosks.

© 1995 St Petersburg Press