Archive | November, 2011

Olympic: Ikarus Blues (Supraphon, 1968)

26 Nov

Like Báječné místo, already included here, Ikarus Blues is a song on Olympic’s second LP, Pták Rosomák (The Wolf-Bird), and – like its predecessor – appears to hold a Prague Spring subtext that ensured its parent LP’s removal from circulation during the ‘normalisation’ period of Gustáv Husák. The lyric’s retelling of the myth of Icarus, whose aspiration to fly was thwarted by the Gods and too close a proximity to the Sun, is here freighted with political significance, subtle but fairly hard to miss regardless. Musically, with its wordless vocal passages (not reflected in this version), inventive studio guitar work and droning sitars, this is certainly among Olympic’s best songs: the Czech lyric can be read here and the song itself can be heard here.

Ikarus Blues (Icarus Blues)

(after Pavel Chrastina/Ladislav Klein, 1968)

A pair of wings is a wonderful gift –
Who forgot to give them to us?
The sun spoke, and – well, you know how it’s been:
we couldn’t bear to hear the words.
Who knows your name now? Everyone.
All say “Icarus is the sun”.
He took off, my friend, so long ago
the years between are filled with longing
for the wings Icarus always wore.

But maybe anyone here could fly?
All of us understand that desire,
born with fear of that first fall
as we toddled, barefoot and very small,
on rugs or waxed wooden floors
around our childhood homes…
Maybe now we will win our share,
feather our arms, glue our whole lives
with candlewax to this altar-stone.

But Icarus – he knows the long fall,
the dark night burned by the sun,
knows how capricious mighty gods,
queasy with ambrosia, can sometimes be.
Up there is the butter of soft red wax
as the sun melts human wings
and an ocean swirls, so far below
he is falling still. Will that crash be heard?
One day, the sound will frighten me.

Soon, perhaps, when the sea calms
we’ll find wool and feathers washed ashore.
Crowds of children pick them up,
take them home to weave hopes from.
Till then, you’d dream those fragments
sliding from the arms of a man who flew;
maybe catch a glimpse of better days
in that moment he stays, poised in the air,
free of all gravity, before the fall.

It’s my friend, Icarus, who sings this blues,
hero of men, enemy of distant gods
who’d prefer to fight among themselves.
A pair of wings is a wonderful gift –
Who forgot to give them to us?
The sun spoke, and – well, you know how it’s been:
we couldn’t bear to hear the words.
Who knows his name now? Everyone.
All say “Icarus touched the sun”.

But Icarus – he knows the long fall,
the dark night burned by the sun,
knows how capricious mighty gods,
queasy with ambrosia, can sometimes be.
Up there is the butter of soft red wax
as the sun melts human wings
and an ocean swirls, so far below
he is falling still. See his body, spinning down.
One day, Icarus might hit the ground.

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Olympic: Báječné místo (Supraphon, 1968)

17 Nov

Báječné místo (Wonderful Place) is a song on Olympic’s second LP, Pták Rosomák (The Wolf-Bird), which along with their debut, Zelva (Tortoise), found itself withdrawn from circulation after 1968, though the band themselves continued to release records and perform. Perhaps the explicit criticism of the authorities implied in songs like this – ostensibly an innocent address to a child about the fantasy nature of fairy tales and bedtime stories, but likely to have been read as a somewhat sarcastic comment on the nature of propaganda and the perfect world always promised for tomorrow – had something to do with that. Olympic’s main songwriters, Petr Janda and Pavel Chrastina, were already veterans on the Czech beat scene when their debut LP appeared, the band having originally formed in 1963 and played in many different line-ups (under both the Olympic name and as the backing band for a variety of singers) on dozens of singles before its release. Zelva is usually said to be the first LP by a rock group in Czechoslovakia and its appearance in early 1968 was certainly a landmark, but Pták Rosomák is considered their masterpiece, an album that covers many styles and retains its status as something akin to the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band of the Prague Spring. The Czech lyrics to Báječné místo can be read here, and the song itself can be listened to here.

Báječné místo (Wonderful Place)

(after Pavel Chrastina/Petr Janda, 1968)

And no, you can’t visit
the wonderful place
I lie about every night
when I sit at your bedside
before you sleep.

You know it well.
A country where nobody argues,
where one gives a flower
to another, who takes it,
smiles and waves.

A country where a woman
might give her life
to save her love, while he, in turn,
would sooner give himself
than go on alone.

You know it well.
A country where nobody argues,
where one gives a flower
to another, who takes it,
smiles and waves.

And no, you can’t visit
the wonderful place
I lie about every night
when I sit at your bedside
before you sleep.

Atlantis/Hana a Petr Ulrychovi: Odysseovo ztroskotání (Trezor, 1969/1990)

16 Nov

As noted previously, the debut LP, Odyssea, by Atlantis with Hana and Petr Ulrychovi was shelved in 1969, though completed and ready for release, and only appeared in 1990 after the Velvet Revolution. The record itself is something of a one-off, a concept album based on the voyage of Ulysses, beginning with the long, part-spoken, part sung narration of the song below, Odysseovo Ztroskotání (Ulysses Shipwrecked), and continuing through various stages of the Homeric material until the record’s final track, Za Vodou, Za Horou (For Water, For Mountains), evokes the landscape of a homecoming.  This opening song sets the scene, however, with ten minutes of material that draws on the Odyssey itself, giving voice to Ulysses in turbulent waters, as he, in turn, asks his listeners to place themselves into his own circumstances, as a traditional storyteller might. The arrangement is by Gustav Brom and the album was produced by Michael Prostějovský. The song can be heard here, and the Czech lyric is available to read here.

Odysseovo Ztroskotání (Ulysses Shipwrecked)

(after Petr Ulrych, 1969)

Mother, do you feel the cold extending from the forest?

On land, you are secure in a thousand ways:
it’s easy to plan, to do something good the same day.

It’s easy to talk the same language as your friends.
There’s warmth on land, food, women to love.

But now I’m floating on the deck of a battened ship,
my hand on this rudder in an open sea.

On land, you will never understand how fast
the ocean’s feelings change, from anger to anxiety.

Steamers pass, the aluminium shell of a pail is pierced.
Water leaks while wind argues with a churning sea.

You will never know that change, that anxiety,
when all the certainties you once found in books are gone.

Come night, you are still afloat. The stars hold their places
in the vast sky. In that silence, all feels good.

Even then you keep the life-jacket on, clutch the flare
like a talisman, consume ten pills to keep out cold.

You can’t relax. Is there a single moment you might be sure?
This battered boat can barely clear the waves

when the sea stays calm: what hope now it moves again?
Your lungs call out. You think of lifeboats, steamers…

imagine harbours, solid earth beneath your bare feet.
Each thought drowns in the thunder of wheels

from that engine room, in the whistles of inconsistent steam,
in the lightning and rain, in your useless prayers.

Planks creak. Plates spring leaks. Your teeth chatter.
Understand: no sense you’ll survive, beyond the hope, exists

even though your body knows, in every cell, it wants to live.
Iron birds close their beaks on the sky’s black hooks,

the sun absorbs all light like a funeral hearse
driving slowly through a dark forest of levers, wheels…

This is the way my mind goes, thinking of its journey home.
Iron birds fall from black hooks. There is water here.

Can I bring you water? There is abundant food…
I could sleep here forever, forget and forget.

This is the way my mind goes, thinking of its journey home.
May I bring you water? I’ll sleep forever. This is all.

Hana a Petr Ulrychovi: 13HP (Supraphon, 1970)

15 Nov

The title track from Hana and Petr Ulrychovi’s 1970 album 13HP is lyrically fairly slight, stretching to not much more than ten lines, some of these repeated. The gist of the piece is a kind of quirky folk song, revolving around a winter landscape, an almost obsolete car, and a view through the windows of a hall. The Czech lyric runs as follows:

Za teplým oknem vládne mráz a svítí jíní
má píseň vzpomíná když bloudí ztichlou síní
ze starých záclon spřádá lanoví lanoví lanoví
a příběh zašlých dnů vám nepoví nepoví nepoví

Podivný příběh starých brzd a zašlých pístů
podivných aut co jezdí k určitému místu
kde není slyšet skřípot soukolí soukolí soukolí
a chladný dotyk hlíny nebolí nebolí nebolí

Za teplým oknem vládne mráz a svítí jíní
má píseň vzpomíná když bloudí ztichlou síní…

The final version, however, is changed very substantially from this, which would more literally be translated as something like the following:

Hot and cold, the window foregrounds light hoarfrost.
The song remembers wandering in the silent halls
where old curtains are woven – tied, tied, tied –
where the story of bygone days is told, told, told.

The strange story… of old brake pistons, bygone
cars – strange themselves – that drive to a place
where you hear the screeching gears, gears, gears,
and the cold dirt doesn’t hurt, hurt, hurt.

Hot and cold, the window foregrounds light hoarfrost.
The song remembers wandering in the silent halls…

Perhaps in this case, though, the more literal approach was left behind when I came to develop the version here, as something at the heart of Petr Ulrych’s slight song seemed to hint at another layer beneath that strangely mixed surface. The end result is the version here, more loosely based on Ulrych’s words than the literal take above, but perhaps a happier fit with my own purpose of making an adaptation that allows the song to breathe a little, as a lyric to be read rather than sung, and as a construct in a different language and context.

In other words, this final version of the song has departed a good deal from its source, as many of these versions have, but maybe there’s a chance here – helped by the brevity of Ulrych’s lyric – to show how this process of remaking tends to unfold as the versions are added to this site: a kind of ‘showing the working out alongside the solution’, which I remember being required to do in Maths exams. The song itself, as arranged by Otakar Petrina, can be heard here.

13HP (Thirteen Horsepower)

(after Petr Ulrych/Otakar Petrina, 1970)

My song remembers wandering quiet halls,
windows facing light hoarfrost,
watching a story’s strangeness grow:
a car with stubborn brakes and gears
that drives to strange places
at the strangest hours,
wheels sliding in deep snow
yet muffled by the silence there.
We are behind cold glass, see hoarfrost
glitter on the world outside,
white woodland build a bright hall
where clouds, like curtains,
blink, shiver and reveal the moon.
And it’s strange to be here
at this late hour, cold and quiet.
I look out on bright frost,
hear songs echoing in quiet halls,
remember where that old car’s story ends.

Omega: Gyöngyhajú lány (Qualiton, 1969)

10 Nov

A track taken from the leading Hungarian band Omega’s oblique concept LP 10,000 Lepes (Ten Thousand Steps), first released in 1969. 10,000 Lepes was the band’s second Hungarian release (and third full-length recording: the first, Omega Red Star: From Hungary (1968) was recorded under the auspices of the Rolling Stones for Decca in London). Gyöngyhajú lány was written by Anna Adamis and Gábor Presser, best known as members of Locomotiv GT, perhaps the key songwriters (certainly the most successful in commercial terms) writing material for rock artists on the Hungarian scene from the later 1960s and through most of the 1970s. Gyöngyhajú lány was a hugely popular recording, with Omega themselves issuing alternate versions in German and as an instrumental for the international market: it has also been widely covered in the years since its first release, notably by Western rock band The Scorpions in 1995, albeit with rather ham-fisted English lyrics and a far more anodyne nineties studio production, making its general feel very different to the spellbound quality to be found in the Hungarian version of 1969. The original version of the song can be heard here, and a transcript of the Hungarian lyric can be read here:

Gyöngyhajú lány (A Girl with Pearls in her Hair)

(after Gábor Presser/Anna Adamis, 1969)

One day the sun was tired, fell asleep
on the green breast of the lake.
I tell you: people hurt in the dark.
She had pity, once, stayed among us.
I had this dream. Perhaps it’s true.

The sun’s hair is bright as pearls
strung between blue earth and sky.
The lake’s green was touched by light
and the sun stayed, once, long ago.
I had this dream. Perhaps it’s true.

At dawn, she was finished, went home,
saw the blue mountains shrink,
blue elephants then small blue flowers.
This was the story, a girl at dawn.
I had this dream. Perhaps it’s true.

I lived where the departing sun
dipped her long hair in a green lake,
lowered it, strand by strand, till
it touched sand, snared deep pearl.
I had this dream. Perhaps it’s true.

When alone, that girl might sleep,
a reflection between pearl-white
stars of ice, adrift in the water
among green currents, clear stones.
I had this dream. Perhaps it’s true.

I tried to wake her. She was long gone,
waits for us, somewhere, out there
between the heavens and earth,
behind mountains, or in the water’s sky.
I had this dream. Perhaps it’s true.

Did I dream? Perhaps it’s always true.
She is waiting for me somewhere
between heaven and earth,
hidden deep in mountains, water, sky…
I had this dream. Perhaps it’s true.

UPDATE: Since this was posted, Omega’s own English-language version has surfaced on YouTube. Thanks to Radoslav Košvanec for linking to this in the comments below.

Synkopy 61: Válka je vůl (Supraphon, 1968)

7 Nov

A song that on the surface appears to denounce war, while acknowledging the heroism of those who fought during World War Two, but under the surface there’s probably a more immediate concern with the Cold War itself, and the apparent willingness of rulers – in both East and West – to use what are these days euphemised as ‘weapons of mass destruction’. It’s also likely that the song’s disappearance from Synkopy 61’s sets after the 1968 invasion (and its reappearance and acknowledgement as one of their most popular songs when the band reformed in the 1990s) is not unrelated to this potential subtext. The song can be heard here, and the Czech lyric read here (though note that the original text is very short, with verses and chorus repeated several times: in this version, the core text has been expanded with variations, but hopefully remains within the spirit of the original lyric). The title could be literally read as ‘War is Bull’, though may also carry overtones of ‘ass’, ‘ox’ or ‘mule’, according to some sources: whatever the exact rendering chosen, the intended meaning is fairly unmistakable.

Válka je Vůl (War’s an Ass)

(after Oldřich Veselý/František Jemelka, 1968)

Scrawled on this old monument is a curse,
one simple inscription: War’s an ass.

You stand before the gallows’ spike
a hat in your hand and tears in your eyes.

There’s silence when you bow your head,
pray with me for those the war left dead.

We kneel, together, before the hangman’s pole
but do we yet realize war’s for fools?

I pray for those who’ve danced on that rope,
for those who won’t see war’s a joke.

Right there, on the gibbet, is etched a curse,
one simple inscription: War’s an ass.

It was written by someone I think I’d like
chalked on the side of a gallows’ spike.

So I’ll stand beside you at the hanging tree,
my hat in my hand, a tear in my eye,

observe the silence when I bow my head,
pray with you for those the wars left dead.

We kneel, together, before the executioner’s pole:
have we not yet realized war’s a hole?

There’s no excuse. We can read that simple curse
chalked on this gibbet: War’s an ass.