My summer of love and lust: I fell for a Ukrainian rocker – but was I just a groupie?

<span>‘This was a Meat Loaf situation: I would do anything for love.’</span><span>Photograph: Courtesy of Viv Groskop</span>
‘This was a Meat Loaf situation: I would do anything for love.’Photograph: Courtesy of Viv Groskop

‘Everyone knows you would do absolutely anything for him. You can do this, surely?” In 1993, I was living in St Petersburg in the former Soviet Union for a year as part of my university course, studying Russian. I had fallen wildly in love (by which I mean in lust) with the lead guitarist of a Ukrainian punk rock band, Colney Hatch. And here was the band’s manager asking me to do just this one little thing: break the band in the west.

It was true that this was a Meat Loaf situation: I would do anything for love. Still, the only music industry names I had even heard of were Stock, Aitken and Waterman. When the band’s manager sensed reluctance – based on the fact that I was a clueless 21-year-old, had no contacts in the world of rock and had been to London only once, to go to John Lewis when I was eight – he said: “You want them to succeed, don’t you? Or are you just a groupie?”

It was the ultimate insult. Who wants to be just a groupie?

I had met the band in a nightclub where they had a monthly residency. The guitarist was sitting opposite me, using his cigarette packet to tap out the drum beat to Ace of Base’s All That She Wants against the table. The terrible song was on repeat everywhere that year. As he looked up and our eyes met, I said out loud to the friend next to me: “I am sitting opposite a God.” With long hair and high cheekbones, he was handsome in a kind of Whitesnake-on-MTV way that suggested an invisible wind machine followed him everywhere he went. I could not believe that he would talk to me, let alone let me be his girlfriend.

If that’s what I actually was. I spent a lot of time fretting: “Are we actually having a relationship? Am I being taken seriously?” When you are a hanger-on, you know it. And it’s kind of humiliating. But, at the time, it also felt empowering. The band was named after a Victorian asylum (“because we are crazy guys”) and they described themselves as “Ukraine’s answer to the Red Hot Chili Peppers”. They were going places. I could be instrumental in them hitting the big time.

Most of their gigs took place in dive bars and dingy nightclubs in Moscow and St Petersburg. There was a scene that had flourished since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, a mishmash of post-Soviet prog rock, folksy protest singers and bands with a lot of hair doing Pink Floyd covers. (The mangled lyric “smile from a whale” from Wish You Were Here is for ever lodged in my brain.) This was a chaotic era, so audience attendance was unpredictable. Sometimes, the gigs would be sweaty and packed, with dozens of kids in stone-washed bartered Levi’s crowding to the front to scream Colney Hatch’s most memorable refrain in their cod English: “I’m not drunk / It’s only fucking funk.” At other times, I would be virtually the only one in the club and certainly the only one on the dancefloor, swaying with imaginary sophistication, a bottle of Baltika beer in my hand, watching my shadow in the disco lights.

The band did need me badly for one thing: trying to make sense of their lyrics, which they had written with the help of an ancient dictionary. They didn’t really speak English, but they wanted to sing in the language of the Red Hot Chili Peppers so that they could make it big in the west (unlike other bands at the time, who made a point of creating music in their own language, for domestic consumption). In the summer, we travelled south through Ukraine to a music festival in Odesa, arguing during the entire long bus journey over whether it is possible to say: “They suck their stinking crosiers.” (Me: “No native English speaker will understand this.”) I tried and failed to reform their on-the-road diet, which consisted of cheap bottles of “konyak” (fake cognac) and beer (which they claimed to be a soft drink). And I tried and failed to get the guitarist to drink less and love me more. More than 30 years on, I wish I had just concentrated on having fun and embraced the label “groupie”.

But the tag itself is still as divisive as ever. Last week, a documentary about Anita Pallenberg opened in cinemas. Pallenberg was an Italian actor, model and artist who met the Rolling Stones backstage at a gig in Munich in 1965, when she was 23. She later had three children with Keith Richards and used to say: “I feel as though I’m rather like the sixth Rolling Stone.” Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg, narrated by Scarlett Johansson, is intended to move Pallenberg away from any association with the dreaded word “groupie”. Its directors – Alexis Bloom and Svetlana Zill – have said the film is “an act of historical reclamation: putting the female perspective back in the official narrative of rock’n’roll”.

Meanwhile, Pamela Des Barres – who was part of the entourage around the Byrds, the Doors, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and more in the 60s and 70s, has championed the cause of the groupie. Just the other week, at 75, she hosted a Hollywood tour of the locations from her bestselling 1987 “groupie bible” I’m With the Band.

But while she may embrace the term, being a groupie was never a feminist role. Coined in the mid-60s, the word was a tacit acknowledgment that women would be around these new rock’n’roll groups but never in them. Sylvia Patterson’s memoir I’m Not With the Band: A Writer’s Life Lost in Music, shortlisted for the Costa biography award in 2016, tackled this tension head-on; it’s obvious that the word “groupie” made life difficult for female journalists, producers, technicians, indeed any woman with a job to do who was not with the band.

Today, there is an understanding that we are past these primitive things: not only would no one want the label, but it would also be cancel-worthy for band members to treat anyone as a groupie. At a gig in 2022, the 1975’s Matty Healy checked a fan’s ID after she held up a sign in the crowd asking him to be her first kiss. He was heard saying: “You better not be 16,” before she handed over her driving licence and he kissed her. To be a groupie now involves admin.

But while everyone now knows it’s bad to be a groupie, the awkward truth, as I know myself, is that sometimes you just feel like a groupie about someone. My experience was coloured by the fact that I was a language student and a geek: I hung on to their every word not because I wanted to soak myself in the greatness of rock or the lore of punk, but because I literally wanted to pick up their language. And I was dizzy about the guitarist in a way that was less about music or fame and more about the fact that he was obscenely good-looking. There is also a big difference between being around a group who already have their name in lights and being the bag-carrier for a band who are struggling to get booked.

Some groupies were indeed lost souls, sometimes underage, who were exploited. But others were clearly passing through, wanted fun and went on to other things. (This was me. I was a tame groupie and caught nothing stronger than head lice.)

Others were what the author Elizabeth Winder describes in her book Parachute Women as unpaid stylists, unofficial managers, providers of inspiration and emotional support and co-collaborators. Published in 2022, Parachute Women is about the influence of Marianne Faithfull, Marsha Hunt, Bianca Jagger and Pallenberg: “the women behind the Rolling Stones”. These accounts are odd in some ways: they want to foreground the talent and agency of these women – to banish the word “groupie” because it’s undeserved – but everything they do is seen in relation to the men.

Few cultural “moments” survive the glare of satire. In 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap, the ridiculous Jeanine Pettibone (played by June Chadwick) marked the beginning of the end for groupie culture. A Stevie Nicks lookalike and girlfriend of the lead singer, David St Hubbins (Michael McKean), she has her own ambitions beyond being “the girlfriend of”. Armed with astrological charts and the catchphrase “I am a reality that will not be denied”, she becomes the band’s interim manager, much to the disgust of everyone except her boyfriend. Chadwick has said that the film was only greenlit when her character was introduced; tensions over Jeanine’s role were what gave Spinal Tap its narrative arc.

But the final nail in the groupies’ coffin came in 2000 with the release of Almost Famous, set in the early 70s and depicting a group of teenage girls who are always hanging around a band called Stillwater. These “Band-Aids”, as they are known, are led by the greatest groupie of them all, the fictional Penny Lane (played by Kate Hudson). They are gorgeous and stunning in the first half of the film, the sheen of their glamour distracting you from the nagging question of their age.

But then it all comes crashing down with the sobering sensibility of the 21st century. Some of these girls are barely 16 and even though the guys in the band aren’t much more grownup, they treat them like currency. In the second half of the film, they are literally traded, with one band handing “ownership” of them to another. The party is fun until someone turns the lights on. I watched this film when I was in my 40s, years after my backstage era. I felt maternal towards Hudson’s character and sorry for my naive younger self, yet nostalgic for that self at the same time.

Accounts of the groupies of the 60s and 70s now read more uncomfortably with every passing year. Bebe Buell, the model, author and mother of Liv Tyler (by Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler) has argued that she “considers groupie a sexist term”. But she has also said: “I think every little girl would like exclusivity, but that wasn’t how it was. If you had a jealous streak, the 70s wasn’t your era. And I figured if he was going to date, I would date, too. I had lovely boyfriends. For your first three boyfriends to be Mick Jagger, Todd Rundgren and David Bowie, I don’t think anyone would have a problem with that.”

If you dig into any of these accounts of that time, you find women arguing about which of them were the “baby groupies” (with a lot of vagueness about who was underage when) and which were the “serious” muses. Few people want to be told that they were victims when they don’t see themselves like that. Des Barres has said: “I was the muse and I don’t care what people say about that. Groupies enhanced these people’s lives in a huge way. And if it weren’t for us, they would not be who they are.”

As for me, I was a lousy groupie and a poor imitation of Jeanine Pettibone, even though I was very into horoscopes for a bit. Colney Hatch’s manager – a gruff, bloodshot-eyed beefy type with quiffed hair, always dressed in a turquoise-and-pink ski anorak zipped up to the top – explained to me at length what A&R was and said that I should push the “Ukrainian Chili Peppers” angle. I dutifully went through the Yellow Pages back at my parents’ home in Somerset, trying to find the addresses of record labels. I copied cassettes and sent them in the post, accompanied by handwritten letters. Replies never came. The would-be Peppers of Perestroika broke up the following year. I was supposed to assure the future of post-Soviet punk rock in the west. And I would do anything for love. But I couldn’t do that.

• One Ukrainian Summer by Viv Groskop is published on 23 May (Ithaka Press, £16.99). All author proceeds go to Pen International for writers at risk. To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at