Billy Joel's landmark tour on the big screen

Billy Joel performs during the Elton John/Billy Joel concert at Wrigley Field, July 16, 2009, in Chicago, Illinois.
Billy Joel performs during the Elton John/Billy Joel concert at Wrigley Field, July 16, 2009, in Chicago, Illinois. MCT

Twenty-five years ago, American music icon Billy Joel set out on a history-making tour of the Soviet Union.

His experiences behind the Iron Curtain, which included swapping harmonies with Georgian singers, bonding with Russian circus clowns and performing for sold-out crowds in Moscow and St. Petersburg, are chronicled in the documentary “A Matter of Trust: Billy Joel in the USSR.”

United Way of San Luis Obispo County will screen the 75-minute film Wednesday as part of a fundraiser celebrating the 1987 tour and the 125th anniversary of the national organization.

“Going to the Soviet Union gave me hope,” said county United Way CEO Rick London, who was part of Joel’s management team for about a decade. He’ll share his memories of the trip at Wednesday’s event.

For Joel and London, who grew up during the Cold War, visiting the Soviet Union held huge personal significance.

“When we were kids in school … we were told that the Soviet Union was our enemy and if they drop the bomb, you go down into the basement or the shelter, you put your head between your knees and you basically kiss your butt goodbye,” Joel, 63, told The Tribune. “We lived with this fear almost our entire adolescence.”

By the time Joel traveled to Cuba to participate in the historic Havana Jam alongside Rita Coolidge, Kris Kristofferson and Stephen Stills, the relationship between the United States and its Communist foes had thawed considerably.

“The Cubans were amazing people — great musicians, warm people, friendly as hell,” said London, who accompanied Joel to the music festival, held in 1979 in Havana.

The success of the Havana Jam — coupled with the 1985 election of Mikhael Gorbachev as leader of the Soviet Union, which ushered in a new era of political and economic reforms — eventually paved the way for a Soviet tour.

On May Day 1987, Joel announced his plans to become the first big-name American rock act to perform behind the Iron Curtain.

Followed by a film crew, Joel and his band would play July 26, 27 and 29 at the Olimpiyskiy Sports Complex in Moscow, and Aug. 2, 3 and 5 at what is now the Petersburg Sports and Concert Complex in St. Petersburg. 

 “As a performer, I was thinking, ‘Is this going to work? … Is the audience going to like what we do? Are they even going to know what I do?’ ” said Joel, noting that tour organizers had no way to gauge his Soviet fan base. “We had no idea whether they’d be familiar with us.”

Indeed, early planning revealed a cultural disconnect, with Soviet officials initially insisting that organizers restrict sound levels to under 85 decibels — the sonic equivalent of heavy traffic — and keep chairs off stadium floors. Crew members were eventually forced to truck in 400 folding chairs from England.

“They had never had … the full-bore rock ’n’ roll treatment,” Joel recalled. “It’s supposed to be jarring. It’s supposed to be unsettling and loud and crazy.”

London, who made five trips to the Soviet Union as tour manager, also worried about Joel’s ability to perform at his peak. He had just finished a yearlong tour promoting his 1986 album “The Bridge.”

“Billy and the band were pretty tired, and I was worried about going into the Soviet Union exhausted,” recalled London, who also worked as a road accountant for the Eagles and Boz Scaggs. “Everybody rallied to the cause.”

When Joel and his bandmates finally stepped on stage in Moscow, they were struck by how quiet and attentive the audience was.

“I look down, and there’s all these grim, bureaucratic-looking gray people ... holding their ears, looking at each other like, ‘This is loud.’ And they started to leave,” Joel recalled, allowing more enthusiastic fans to move to the front. “And then all of a sudden, we had a real rock ’n’ roll show.

“Even the security people didn’t know what was happening to the audience,” Joel added with a chuckle. “They saw people jumping around and dancing and waving their arms and just being in a rock ’n’ roll frenzy, and they thought it was some kind of medical condition.”

Joel got rowdy as well. During one concert, upset that his film crew kept shining bright lights on the audience, he smashed a microphone stand against the stage and knocked over a small piano.

Over the course of the tour, Joel performed many of his most popular hits, including “Angry Young Man,”  “Only the Good Die Young,” “For the Longest Time” and “New York State of Mind,” as well as The Beatles’ “Back in the USSR.”

The song Soviet fans connected to most was “Honesty,” London said. “I don’t think they thought that their government was honest with them.”

Although the Soviet tour garnered plenty of publicity — the final concert was broadcast simultaneously on 300 television and radio networks throughout the United States — Joel stressed that he “never perceived this to be a profit-making venture.”

“Our nickname for the Russia trip was ‘Into the Red,’ said Joel, who donated all concert proceeds to Armenian earthquake relief.

According to London, the two films shot on tour — an HBO concert film, which earned a CableACE Award, and “A Matter of Trust,” which aired on ABC — covered the direct costs of the tour, which totaled about $3 million, including salaries, transportation and production costs.

Joel also released a live tour album, “Kohuept,” in October 1987. (The title is Russian for “concert.”)

For Joel, whose countless achievements over the years include six Grammy Awards and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the 1987 goodwill tour remains one of his proudest accomplishments.  

“That tour had to be one of the highlights of my career — not just as a performer or an artist, but as a human being,” said Joel, who has no tours planned but performs occasionally. “I really felt we made a major breakthrough between our two countries. It was an incredibly gratifying (experience).”

See the movie

United Way of San Luis Obispo County celebrates 125 years of promoting education, income stability and health with a fundraiser on Wednesday. The event kicks off at 5:30 p.m. with a reception at King David’s Masonic Lodge in downtown San Luis Obispo, featuring wine, appetizers and music by Mark Burnes. It’s followed by a screening of “A Matter of Trust: Billy Joel in the USSR” at 7 p.m. at Downtown Centre Cinemas. Tickets are $50, and can be purchased by visiting www.unitedwayslo.org.