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Cockroaches, prostitutes and punch-ups: the 1989 Moscow Peace Festival

Moscow Peace Festival - press conference
L-R Richie Sambora, Gorky Park's Alexander "Big Sasha" Minkov, Nikki Sixx, Jon Bon Jovi, Tommy Lee
(Image credit: Ron Galella / Getty Images)

If the original 1969 Woodstock festival, with its gruesomely naked bodies, uninhibited drug-taking and unprecedented approach to crowd control – come on down, brothers and sisters, it’s all free! – had been emblematic of the countercultural ‘revolution’ of the late 1960s, then there can have been no better symbol of the money-grabbin’, drug-hypocritical, so-called safe-sex 1980s than the Moscow Music Peace Festival, held exactly 20 years – and what seemed like several lifetimes – later. 

Never mind Live Aid. More people may remember that but Live Aid, with its ultra-focused fundraising and dizzying global clout, was more of a handholding 60s throwback than it was a genuine expression of the age; a cultural aberration that deliberately traded on me-first 80s guilt to ram home its almost anachronistic message: feed the children, help the poor, pretend Thatcher and Reagan never existed (and while you’re at it, help revive my career). 

The Moscow Music Peace Festival, however, was a genuinely self-absorbed, glossed-over, height-of-the-80s, multimedia event; inspired by the deeply held desire of a convicted international drug-trafficker to avoid going to jail, and the fervent wishes of the famous bands whose careers he then guided not to be robbed of their Svengali, their bad daddy, their real money maker. 

In short, the only interests the Moscow Music Peace Festival really served were of the people on the stage, not the ones off it. 

Even the location for the event seemed bizarrely at odds with prevailing rock culture, certainly as it had existed up until 1989: since when had the Lenin Stadium in Moscow become a venue of choice for high-profile rock bands? 

Since Doc McGhee said so, that’s when. McGhee, lest we forget, was then manager of five of the seven big-name bands that would appear on the Moscow bill: Bon Jovi, The Scorpions, Mötley Crüe, Skid Row and local Russian outfit Gorky Park. 

While the only other big name acts appearing at the festival not connected to McGhee – Ozzy Osbourne and Cinderella – were both managed by people he’d worked with many times over the years (notably, Sharon Osbourne, on the Crüe’s breakthrough US tour opening for Ozzy six years before, and when Doc returned the favour by letting Lita Ford, then managed by Sharon, open for Bon Jovi on his 1988 world tour). McGhee was also a convicted felon.

Or as drummer Tommy Lee put it in the 2001 official Mötley Crüe biography, The Dirt: ‘Before [McGhee] met us, he was living a secret life that blew up on him when he got busted for helping smuggle 40,000 fucking pounds of pot from Colombia into North Carolina.

It wasn’t his only bust, because he was also being accused of associating with some well-connected madmen who had conspired to bring over a half a million pounds of blow [cocaine] and weed into the United States in the early 80s.’ The result, after he had pleaded guilty at the trial in North Carolina, was a relatively modest $15,000 fine, plus a five-year suspended prison sentence.

The reason he was able to get off with such a light sentence was his additional offer to put together an anti-drugs organisation, the Make A Difference Foundation, for which he would raise money the only legal way he knew how: via his music biz connections.

As Tommy said: ‘Doc knew that anyone else probably would have been in jail for at least 10 years for that shit, so he had to do something high-profile to show the court he was doing the world some good as a free man. And his brainstorm was to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Woodstock with the Moscow Music Peace Festival.’

But as Tommy ruefully concluded: "It was all bad from the moment we stepped on the plane… There was a so-called doctor on board, who was plying the bands who weren’t sober with whatever medicine they needed. It was clear that this was going to be a monumental festival of hypocrisy."

Not that I was yet aware of any of that as I stood there, sweaty and starving, at Cheremetyov airport in August 1989, waiting for the plane to land. I was still too flummoxed by Moscow itself to worry about what any of the bands might be thinking. I had arrived 48 hours before to find a city gripped by such a fearful heat that all the sensible (read: rich) people had fled the city for their summer dachas. Not that there was much to keep them there during the cooler months either.

Back then, before the Berlin Wall had fallen, the image Moscow conjured up in one’s mind was of a large, grey, unhappy citadel full of long faces and even longer food queues. The reality, however, was much worse than that. Rule number one, I discovered on my first night there, was There Is No Food. That is, nothing edible.

There were restaurants, of course, but mostly they were all closed. Usually for ‘cleaning’ which seemed to take place approximately six nights out of seven. Even when you did find a restaurant open it invariably wasn’t worth eating in. Learning to survive on the road means learning to eat anything. Fussy eaters are the first to throw in the towel.

As a result, over the years I had, at various trying moments, found myself eating smoked reindeer and bear-steaks in Helsinki; drinking the foul tap water of Rio de Janeiro; quaffing chilli-dogs and fries at fast-food counters all over America; and gorging myself on raw fish and cold rice in Tokyo.

But never in all my travels had I come across anything so frankly – or ironically – vomit-inducing as the Chicken Kiev in Russia. “Why do you think there are no dogs on the streets of Moscow?” whispered Dimitri, conspiratorially – one of the many official KGB-approved festival ‘guides’ and ‘interpreters’ – as I pushed away my plate again one night.

Rule number two: There Is No Such Thing As Russian Money. Well, actually, there was – it was called ‘the rouble’, but no self-respecting Russian trader would accept them as currency. Officially, a rouble was the equivalent of £1 sterling. But on the black market you could get up to 10 roubles for your pound.

Even then, however, they simply weren’t worth having. The only thing a stack of Roubles could buy you was a wooden doll and a big furry hat. The only real consumer goods available were on sale in the tourist-only stores, which took all major credit cards including American Express. In fact, the main currency in Moscow back then, spookily, was US dollars. And if you didn’t have the exact amount you could throw in a pack of Marlboros. For change, you might receive an assortment of dollar bills, 10- franc pieces and the occasional silver Deutsche Mark. For small change you might get handed a packet of orange-flavoured Tic-Tacs. No joke.

As for music… well, these days, no doubt, it’s as easy in Moscow to download your favourite emo codswallop from the internet as it is anywhere else. Back then, however, records and tapes were purchased almost exclusively on the black market. There was only one official record store in the whole of Moscow and when I visited it they were selling the sort of junk you might find at a car-boot sale – dusty Frank Ifield LPs and third-generation home-made cassettes of The Beatles.

Everything else was either banned or simply not available in the Russian market. The reason for this, as Jon Bon Jovi later told me, was that “they don’t pay royalties”. He said they’d actually let them release the Slippery When Wet album in the USSR, “but we did it knowing we’d never see any money for it”. If it hadn’t been for the fact that the album had already made $100 million throughout the rest of the world they’d never have been so generous. Along with most of the Western bands flying in for the festival, I was staying at a ‘five star’, £125 night shit-hole in the heart of Moscow, one block from Red Square and the imposing shadow of the Kremlin.

Fat, ugly prostitutes lined the entrance to the hotel, and dark-suited security guards with the thick necks and thicker accents of Bond villains checked the ID of everyone wishing to enter. Enormous black cockroaches clung lazily to the walls and ceiling of the lobby. In my room on the 16th floor I was advised by one of the advance crew to check for bedbugs before turning in for the night.

In my bathroom the water running from the taps was the rich brown colour of yesterday’s piss; in the soap dish there sat a decomposing apple-core. The only towel provided was hanky-thin and crisp as an old rag. Two cigarette stubs floated lifelessly in the toilet pan. I was truly baffled. What the fuck had happened back there when they’d had the Great Revolution? Hadn’t anybody come out on top at the end of it? And if they had, where did those guys go to eat – and sleep?

I had only been in bed 10 minutes when there was a knock at my door. I thought it might be the KGB. But when I opened the door a crack there was only one of the grotesquely overweight prostitutes from the lobby, asking if I’d like to buy champagne (“Only ten dollars, US,” she grinned uninvitingly) or perhaps more (“I keep you company, yes?” Er, no… thanks).

This happened every single night I was there. On the third night, already drunk and feeling emboldened after another day of dog-burgers and Tic-Tacs, I invited her in. She asked if she could bring a friend and out of nowhere an even larger, much uglier woman appeared. I gave them $20 and we opened a couple of bottles of champagne. It was so sickly sweet it made Asti Spumanti taste like Dom Perignon.

I sat there on the bed morosely, drinking it and asking them about Russia. They agreed that Russian life was “verrry bad”. Never mind, I said, Gorbachev was working on it, right?

“No!” they cried in unison. Gorbachev was “verrry, verry, verry bad!”

They said they’d preferred life under the old regime. At least then, they said, you could get meat and bread and didn’t have to queue for everything. I gave them another $20 when they left and went to sleep feeling worse than ever. Gorby may have been a huge hero to the West back then but apparently he didn’t mean shit to the ordinary whores and champagne guzzlers of Moscow.

I went to sleep thinking I understood but of course I didn’t. It goes without saying that the bands were even more nonplussed when they arrived. Walking through Red Square in the rain with Ozzy the day after he landed, he looked around glumly and summed up the general feeling surrounding the build-up to the festival when he said: “If I was living here full-time, I’d probably be dead of alcoholism, or sniffing car tyres – anything to get out of it. I can understand why there’s such an alcohol problem here. There’s nothing else to do.”

Vince Neil and Nikki Sixx from the Crüe were similarly downbeat when I ran into them backstage at the Lenin Stadium the day before the first of two shows.

“It might be an anti-drugs concert for some people,” said Nikki with a shrug, “but it’s not for us. It’s anti-abuse we’re talking about. That’s our belief. We’re not here to preach. If you tell a young kid not to do drugs, he’s gonna do it anyway. I know I did. We just say – if you cross the line between use and abuse, then that’s really tragic. I’ve crossed that line, many times. And I know from experience that it’s bad, and I try to tell kids not to cross the line. The rest is up to them.”

But then Ozzy and the Crüe were the only bands on the bill still struggling with ‘substance abuse’ issues of their own. Indeed, Ozzy would be arrested for attempting to strangle Sharon within weeks of returning home from Moscow, after drinking the case of Russian vodka miniatures he’d been presented with by the promoter. While Nikki, Vince and the guys were then famously fresh out of an enforced spell in rehab, riding a wagon they were still barely clinging to.

The Scorpions, the only band from the West on the bill to have played there before – 10 sold-out nights in Leningrad in March ’88 – were predictably more upbeat about the festival’s prospects for doing good, hamming it up during their soundcheck at the Lenin Stadium with an over-the-top version of Back In The USSR.

As vocalist Klaus Meine told me afterwards: “There’s everywhere a drug problem, all over the world. So I think it’s good that the bands stand together on one stage and give a message to the kids in the world: forget about the drugs. The best drug is music.”

In the end, it was left to the ever-more earnest Jon Bon Jovi to talk up the festival and put it into some kind of historical perspective. Driving around town with Jon one afternoon in the back of a Russian-made Zil limousine, I listened patiently as he waxed lyrical about Nelson Mandela, Bob Geldof and the impossibility of obtaining a cold beer in Moscow. The two major issues, said Jon, were “money and awareness”.

After the “production costs” all proceeds from the two concerts were clearly earmarked for various drug and alcohol ‘rehabilitation centres’ and ‘substance abuse awareness’ programmes, specifically in the Soviet Union, where until the onset of Gorby’s perestroika it was not officially admitted that a drug or alcohol problem even existed.

The extra “icing on the cake” was being able “to do something no other rock band has yet done”. Live Aid had been about helping the famine-victims of Africa; Moscow was about helping the kids closer to home.

“You know, at this stage of the game, it’s like you ask yourself, ‘What can we do that Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones or the Beatles didn’t already do?’ And being here is it. Not only do we get to come over in a good cause, we also get to put on the kind of rock show never before seen in the Soviet Union.” Meine peered out the window through his shades at the rain sleeting down then added: “People are always ready to question the motives behind why a bunch of rock stars would want to get together and do something like this. And, sure, inevitably you get a clash of egos occasionally. It’s not exactly the easiest thing to organise in the world, we sure found that out! But at the end of the day, I look at it like this.

"I wouldn’t have known about Nelson Mandela’s situation like I do now had I not been drawn to it because of the artists on Amnesty. Or I don’t think that I would’ve ever known about Ethiopia the way I do now if it wasn’t for Bob Geldof. So there is a wonderful icing on the cake. You get to see all these big performers that I enjoy too, but there’s ultimately a cause behind it. And that’s what raises your awareness.”

All of which was true. And yet behind the scenes several spectres still loomed. Not least that of Aerosmith, who not only pulled out of the event at the eleventh hour but also insisted their contribution to the official Make A Difference album (a version of The Doors’ Love Me Two Times) be lifted from the final pressing, after privately expressing concern over where exactly all the money was actually going.

Then Ozzy threatened to pull out of the event the night before the first show when McGhee suddenly changed his placing on the bill from third to fourth, upgrading Mötley Crüe to the slot above Ozzy. McGhee took the threat seriously enough to return Ozzy to his original placing on the bill, just below the Scorpions and Bon Jovi, and Ozzy kept his promise and did the show.

What Mötley Crüe thought of this was only made clear 12 years later when The Dirt came out. According to Tommy, "Doc had told each band something different in order to get them to do the show. Jon Bon Jovi thought it was just another stop on his world headlining tour, while we thought it was supposed to be a small-scale, reduced set. Then the production manager broke the news to us that we’d been demoted. We were on before Ozzy and The Scorpions, I was fucking livid.

Doc was supposed to be our manager, looking out for our best interests, and he was favouring one of his newer clients, Bon Jovi, over us and the Scorpions, who, in Russia, were massive. 'Fuck you, Doc,' Nikki said to him. 'We didn’t fly all the way to Russia to be an opening act while Bon-fucking-Jovi gets to headline for an hour and a half. What’s up with that?'"

After the show was over, Tommy says, he ‘hunted Doc down and found him backstage. I walked right up to him and pushed him in his fat little chest, knocking him over onto the ground like a broken Weeble. As he lay there, Nikki broke the news: “Doc, you lied to us again. This time you’re fucking fired!”’

The last time I saw Jon Bon Jovi on that trip he was in Red Square, still looking for a cold beer.

“Have you discovered any of the night life here yet?” he asked me hopefully.

I shook my head. We stood there on the steps of St. Asille’s Cathedral in Red Square, along with all the other out-of-towners and tourists, waiting to watch the changing of the guard at the gates of the Kremlin. I don’t think either of us knew what difference any of it really made…

It’ll be alright on the night…

Amid all the backstage chaos, just how did the Moscow shows go down? 

Despite the behind-the-scenes bickering – Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee even punched out promoter Doc McGhee when he realised headliners Bon Jovi were to use pyrotechnics, something all the bands had been told was strictly off limits – music-wise the Moscow Music Peace Festival was a triumph. 

Against all the egotistical odds, each band finally took to the stage and played six songs. Skid Row stormed through a set that featured The Sex Pistols’ Holidays In The Sun, Ozzy Osbourne mixed his own solo material (Shot In The Dark and Suicide Solution) with a couple of Black Sabbath classics (Sweet Leaf, Paranoid) to a huge response. 

Cinderella were at the height of their powers – turning in a set that included high-voltage versions of Falling Apart At The Seams and Coming Home, while Mötley Crüe channelled their anger into a ball of punkish energy with a ferocious set that featured Girls Girls Girls and Wild Side

The Scorpions were given a huge reception – they were arguably the most popular band on the bill back then – and Gorky Park held their own. 

Topping it off, Jon Bon Jovi showed his prowess for courting popularity with the locals by wearing a Russian army coat and hat as the band tore through a show that included Blood On Blood, Wanted Dead Or Alive and Lay Your Hands On Me. Both nights finished in a memorable jam session; members of all the bands joined by drummer Jason Bonham took on Elvis’s Hound Dog (first night), Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally (second night) and Led Zeppelin’s Rock And Roll (both nights).