Rock 'n' roll came late to Russia. Long after Elvis first swiveled his hips on primetime American TV and the Sex Pistols had comprehensively dissed the British national anthem, frustrated rockers in Brezhnev-era Leningrad were still politely playing requests in restaurants or going through the motions at wedding receptions. Fighting the system wasn't an option.
But these days the city has cast off more than just its Soviet-era name; gone, too, are its musical inhibitions, and St. Petersburg is now home to a vibrant scene that is literally, if no longer metaphorically, underground.
The unlikely spark for liberation came from the same bureaucratic mind-set which meant that for decades music venues were the preserve of state-affiliated philharmonics. Music could not be made organically or spontaneously; if you wanted to play, you had to be organized. So, in 1982, the Russian Rock Club was formed in a backstreet amateur theater in Leningrad, providing the city's first platform for alternative music. The club drew together disparate artists and bands and by the end of the decade had more than 100 musicians on its books.
In 1990, three musicians calling themselves Dva Samolyota (Two Planes) joined the club, playing unusual ska-Latino fusion accompanied by lyrics sung in quasi-African gibberish (the band claimed they were singing in Swahili until savvy listeners cottoned on to the gag). Sixteen years later, the St. Petersburg "underground" still revolves around Dva Samolyota.
It seemed appropriate that my first meeting with one of the band's members took place 6m below street level. In fact, it was in a nuclear bomb shelter, minutes away from St. Petersburg's main artery, Nevsky Prospekt. Dva Samolyota's drummer, Sascha Sindalovsky, bought it in 1996. "All we had was the old shelter and a lot of friends," he says. "We knocked down the walls and invited the artists in. Everything was homemade. We just kept on building and building."
Now in its 10th year, Griboyedov (Ul Voronezhskaya 2a, griboedovclub.ru) has taken over from the defunct Rock Club as the base of all things alternative in St. Petersburg.
The complex sprawls from the bottom of a single flight of stairs through a bar area, a performance space, and a string of sofa-lined cubbyholes. On my first night, a demure, befringed local singer pouted her way through an impressive electro-punk set. On my second visit, I had my first experience of Russian hip-hop (not bad, actually), before a DJ took to the stage to pound out house music for the rest of the evening (and morning).
Checking out the band's other projects on my third night was a punishing experience, alcoholically speaking. After a few warm-up beers in the bar of what was once the squat where Dva Samolyota were based in the 1990s (Pushkinskaya 10, fishfabrique.spb.ru), I headed to Datscha (Dumskaya Ul 9), an intimate bar in the city center set up in 2004 by bass player Anton Belyankin and his Hamburg-born wife, where vodka-fuelled messiness is a nightly event.
Two doors down from Datscha is Fidel, established by Belyankin earlier this year after he relinquished ownership of Datscha to his now estranged wife. Here I stumbled my way through an uproarious crowd swaying towards a stage at the back where a local ska band churned out hyper-speed versions of old Russian classics.