LIVIN' NEXT DOOR TO VLADIMIR; ... or the Extraordinary Story of How Mullet-Topped Relics of the 70s, Smokie, Played the Kremlin at the Personal Invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin ... and Are Simply Huge in Outer Mongolia

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WHEN John Wagstaff, the veteran manager of Seventies pop act Smokie, got a call from a thickly accented Russian who claimed he was passing on a personal invitation from Vladimir Putin, he assumed it was a bizarre joke.

But the voice on the other end of the line was insistent: the stony-faced Russian President wanted the band - best remembered for their 1976 hit Livin' Next Door To Alice - as special guests at his New Year party.

The former KGB hard man was an ardent fan, explained the voice, and wouldn't take no for an answer. Indeed, Putin had even drawn up a shortlist of his favourite Smokie songs he wanted them to play.

Four weeks later the band played perhaps their strangest concert ever in the Kremlin's vast, glass-ceilinged ballroom in front of an audience of 1,800 Russian politicians, businessmen, glamorous blonde consorts, highranking military officers and even, it was rumoured, former president Boris Yeltsin.

Smokie were received with the kind of reverence normally reserved for opera divas. There were none of the boisterous sing-alongs that the band's fans would normally engage in, only the muted sound of grey-suited security men muttering into their wrist mikes.

At the top table sat Putin himself, motionless and with not even the barest hint of a smile on his face.

Smokie frontman Mike Craft recalled: 'We were told Putin was one of our greatest fans. He really wanted us there. But he was expressionless the whole way through. I didn't see him move a muscle. The whole audience was very quiet and very polite. There wasn't much clapping, you couldn't even hear a murmur.' Terry Uttley, the band's only surviving original member, added: 'We got a nice round of applause at the end and the odd 'yeah'. But it was a very flat three songs.' DESPITE the continuing economic struggle in the former Soviet Union, President Putin likes to entertain on the sort of grand scale that would have done justice to the most extravagant of the Tsars.

Craft said: ' There were 30 acts - 29 lots of Russians and us. There was opera, ballet and even a fashion show. It was mad backstage.

There were stunninglooking ladies standing around looking bored, all these Cossacks frantically running about and one woman screaming her head off.'

Press reports in Russia suggested Smokie - whose other members are Mick McConnell, Steve Pinnell and Martin Bullard - were paid [pounds sterling]20,000 for the ten-minute set, which was wired into their London bank account before they even boarded their complimentary Aeroflot flight to Moscow.

There was, however, one condition. Uttley said: 'Before we left, we got an email asking us to do a duet with Putin's favourite singer, Vladimir something-or-other.

'We thought he was going to be an opera singer but he was a rock 'n' roll guy and we thought he was terrible. We got the sound engineer to fade his microphone down. Fortunately, he only sang one song with us. After the performance we were given some wine and told it was Stalin's favourite. It was horrible. We couldn't wait to get out. If I was invited again, I would definitely say no. It was no party and we were back at the hotel by 10.15pm for a Chinese.' Smokie might seem like an almost wilfully bizarre choice for a command performance in The Kremlin. Even when they were at their most successful in Britain - with a string of hit singles at the tail end of the Seventies - they were considered rather naff.

When they faded into obscurity in the early Eighties, they were unlamented and hardly missed. But Smokie did not just disappear. They went on to achieve huge success, particularly in former Iron Curtain countries: the crowd at one of their gigs in Kiev was 250,000.

Uttley explained how Putin, who was a KGB agent in Dresden, East Germany in 1985, might first have heard the band and become a fan.

He said: 'The East Germans could pick up West German radio stations that were playing our songs and they became fans. …