The average length of an American pop star's world tour may soon start to get a little longer, if the Soviet Union allows the trend toward glasnost -rock--as seen in two new cable TV specials, "Billy Joel From Leningrad, U.S.S.R." (premiering tonight at 7 on HBO cable) and "A Rock 'n' Roll Summit" (Sunday night at 7 on Showtime cable)--to become a regular occurence.
Both programs claim to have captured firsts: Joel's Leningrad dates, filmed in August, "marked the first time an American pop music star had brought a fully staged rock show to the country," according to HBO.
Meanwhile, the "Summit" show by Santana, the Doobie Brothers, Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor, taped on July 4, was "the first-ever joint Soviet-American rock concert in Moscow," according to Showtime.
(Of course, Elton John managed the biggest "first" of all by touring the U.S.S.R. in 1979, albeit without a full band.)
Anyone planning to watch either special to learn something about the Soviet Union will have wasted an hour. But Joel fans, at least, will find much to be captivated by in his concert, which has been captured with almost no extraneous documentary footage of the visit--other than the numerous crowd shots of the very Western-looking audience.
In performance, it's easy to see why Joel is such an obvious choice for a pop ambassador: He's spunky and feisty enough to represent the freedom and spontaneity that America is supposed to represent, but not maverick enough to do anything truly worrisome or dangerous.
He's also the quintessential American ham. Even the more serious numbers get a little hammy--like "Goodnight, Saigon," which features helicopter sound and lighting effects. At least Joel has the sense to say that it "is not a political song."
Would that the makers of "A Rock 'n' Roll Summit" were equally eager to keep politics out of their show. But the makers are, in fact, The International Peace Walk. And the special ends up serving as a nice home movie for the peace marchers who made the trek from Leningrad to Moscow, but is likely to seem thuddingly dull to anyone else, aligned with the cause or not.
The walk climaxed in a concert with four American rock acts identified primarily with the '70s, each appearing for one or two songs from that era when the producers aren't interrupting with the plentiful documentary footage--which lets us in on such amazing insights as the fact that "music is the international language" (no!) and "people are pretty much the same everywhere."
The latter accusation is well borne out by the appearance of Soviet rock band Autograph, proving that Communist hard-rock can be as hoary and unlistenable as the domestic brand.
Though one of the narrating marchers point out that "that very first night in Leningrad, we encountered rock 'n' roll," and is quick to make note of all the Soviet rockers they ran into, no mention is made of the distinction between state-sponsored rock bands and the unsanctioned, independent bands who risk their freedom by playing pop. Don't worry--this earnest peace "Summit" doesn't muss itself with that kind of politics.