The Falcons: Russian beat circa 1966

You were ready to give your soul
For Rock'n'Roll
Taken from an x-ray plate
Of someone's diaphragm
Once upon a time, you were a beatnik

- Viktor Tsoi

Formed in 1964, Sokol (The Falcons) belonged to the earliest generation of rock music in the Soviet Union. Only one other band came before them, Estonia's Revengers, formed in Riga in 1961. With the possible exception of the Polish student band Tarakani (The Roaches), also from 1964, or their own earlier incarnation as The Brothers, Sokol was the very first rock group in Moscow. They most definitely were the first to play original compositions and the first to write a popular rock hit in Russian, "Solnce Nad Nami" ("The Sun Above Us"). The band took their name from the Sokol station of the Moscow Metro, which was their home turf. They were a true underground legend, an uncompromising rock group at a time of total censorship and oppression. Renowned for the virtuosity of their lead guitarist, Yuri Ermakov, Sokol pioneered the big beat sound and were tremendously popular in their day. Their original songs inspired many Russian musicians to start writing rock music in their native tongue, while their spirited covers of Western hits by The Yardbirds, The Animals, The Rolling Stones and The Shadows were a breath of fresh air at a time when these recordings were banned and could not be bought in the USSR.

In the West, a band like Sokol would have been stars. They would have been as famous as any of their Liverpool or London contemporaries. Instead, denied a chance to record by the Soviet bureaucracy and forced to disband in 1969 following the arrest of their manager, the music of Sokol is completely lost to us today. The manager, Yuri Eisenshpis, spent 17 years in prison for his black market dealings to obtain otherwise unavailable equipment for the band, and Sokol was silenced, destined to forever remain in the distant memory of the 1960's.

I have discovered Sokol when I heard a short intro they recorded as a theme for a cartoon called "Film, Film, Film" in 1968. Immediately, I wanted to find out who these musicians were and to hear more of them. What a tragedy it was to learn that this little piece of cartoon music is all that survives from the greatest Russian rock group of the 1960's! Not even a single photo from those days could be found. My mother, who was a teenage student in 1960's Moscow, remembered Sokol. She told me she never cared for Alexander Gradsky, or the early Time Machine, or any of the other local rock heroes of the day, but at the time she thought that Sokol were better than all of them. But recordings? Photos? No, nothing like that. In vain I scoured the Internet, in vain I leafed through every rock history or music encyclopedia ever published in Russia, in vain I asked everybody who knew anything about the early history of Russian rock. I may as well have been searching for lost recordings and unpublished photos of Charlie Patton or Buddy Bolden.

Of course, the more something is denied to one, the more it is desired. I became obsessed with this legendary band that existed only in people's memories. And then one day, while leafing through some old magazines, at long last I found it. Like all great discoveries, it turned up by complete accident where least expected. Not in Russia, not in any rock-related work, not in any fan's archive. But there it was, in a copy of Newsweek from 1966, a photo of Sokol in action, playing a dance at the Moscow Molodezhnoe (Youth) Cafe! A mere throwaway snapshot in an article that had nothing to do with Russian rock, casually taken by a visiting American reporter for a broad coverage of contemporary Russia. Only a short tagline, "Moscow youngsters 'monkey' to the big beat of the Falcons". But that's enough. Thus history is preserved, by sheer chance, through a single snapshot that might have just as easily not been taken.

And so, the legend finally has a face. As far as I know, this is the ONLY photo of Sokol on the Internet, and this is the only page specifically created as a tribute to the first Russian rock group. And there they are, crowded on a tiny bandstand, surrounded by dancers with mod hairdos like my mother used to wear. Ermakov is playing an extremely early version of the East German Musima Eterna, which must have cost several months' salary and may well have been the only one in the entire city. This model was brand new and state-of-the-art at the time, and was still considered prestigious into the early 1980's. Igor Goncharuk wails on a hollowbody bass that was made from a converted Czechoslovakian archtop guitar, using piano wires for strings. There was no such thing as a bass guitar in Russia until a few Czech models were brought in the following year. Yuri Gavrilov is on second guitar, an unknown single-pickup European model. Victor Ivanov is behind them on drums, with a set of hi-hats that look like they were left over from some 1930's Swing band. The band is singing through those primitive little blue microphones, totally underpowered and inadequate, but the energy is unmistakable. I would have given a lot to have been there that night.

Here it is, a little glimpse into a long-gone 1966, when history was made with a couple of foreign guitars and a lot of courage. Russian rock begins here.


(c) 2004 All rights reserved, including the rights to this exclusive scan. The photo originally appeared in the May 2, 1966 issue of Newsweek and remains the property of its author.

2007 UPDATE:

I chose to leave the above article unedited, because it retains its impact as a historical document. But since it was originally written, a lot of new information has come to light. Some of Sokol's recordings have surfaced on the Web, in predictably atrocious quality, and some photos of the band were published in Vladimir Marochkin's book "Musical Anatomy Of The Generation Of Independents". Marochkin, a leading rock journalist, has interviewed Yuri Ermakov for his book. After my conversation with Marochkin, it became clear that the band in the above photo cannot possibly be Sokol. The Newsweek journalist who took a snapshot of "The Falcons" has obviously been mistaken. Perhaps he saw more than one band and confused them, perhaps he didn't have a reliable source to ask. Or perhaps while he indeed saw Sokol, the editors simply published the first available photo of a Russian rock band to illustrate the article. However, the image retains its historical importance. All photos of such early Russian rock groups are impossibly rare and of great interest to historians.
But the mystery remains: just who is the band in the photo? Having conferred with Marochkin and several other Russian rock historians, we now believe that the band is Mirage, with Severin Kraevsky (Seweryn Krajewski). Kraevsky, of course, would later return to Poland and become a star with his new band, Czerwone Gitary. We are still not 100% sure, however. So if you know for a fact, please contact me!

And here is an actual photo of Sokol, courtesy of Vladimir Marochkin. Yury Ermakov is on the left, playing a Musima Elgita. The bassist has a matching Musima V/2.


(c) 2003-2023 All rights reserved.