A Conversation: Mapping Out the Territory of Star City (Spring 2010)

1 Mar

Halina Frackowiak: Geira (Muza)

I recently found this transcript of an early discussion between myself, Robert Adlington and Polly McMichael when we were mapping out the territory each of us would cover during the Communist Rock’n’Roll event at Nottingham Contemporary as part of the programme around the Star City exhibition that Spring. It’s presented here unrevised and unedited, as I try to answer various questions (mostly off the top of my head) put by Robert Adlington at one of our various meetings in preparation for the talk. The more formal finished version of the talk appears here, but this looser exploration touches on many aspects that had to be omitted from the event itself, as it took place at the gallery on April 9th, 2010.

Soviet Nostalgia – being re-interested in the groups and styles of the Soviet era. (Is this similar to our embarrassing fascination with the eighties? Or is it something else?)

In the satellite countries I’ll be focusing on, there’s no real Soviet nostalgia that I’ve noticed, but certainly a strong sense in the Czech Republic, say, of the lost possibilities before the 1968 invasion: the Dubcek era seems to be remembered as a good time before the ‘forgetting’ of standardisation/normalisation set in after 1969. In a way, it’s not dissimilar to the fond memories of the 1960s in England, though obviously the forced cut off (echoed very deliberately on Marta Kubisova’s final recording, which stops dead before finishing) makes the sense of the lost possibilities of the era even more pronounced: there was no long disillusion as the 60s went sour, and humourless extremism and the conservative resurgence got underway (as in West Germany, Britain, the US, etc, with oil shocks, recession, Nixon etc having a notable chilling effect on the similar optimism of the west), just the guillotine of the invasion. In Poland/Hungary both the optimism and the aftermath were less stark…in Hungary, for example, a band like Illes were silenced for around a year in the late 60s after giving interviews in the UK critical of the regime, but this seems to have resulted in their profile rising on their return to performing: in Hungary and Poland, the kind of progressive rock music that saw the Czech Plastic People of the Universe arrested in 1977 (resulting in the foundation of Charter 77 – signed by Kubisova, incidentally – by this point an active dissident) was still being released on State labels – certainly up to around 1975/6 in Hungary, when the climate shifted, and for somewhat longer in Poland (where there was a fairly well-regarded punk/new wave scene that was being put out on the state labels at least until the post-Solidarity Martial Law kicked in during the early 80s)…

The means of censorship. How was music suppressed and was there a certain level of turning a blind eye by the government? If so, why was this?

Total inconsistency through the period on this: much was censored, musicians were refused licenses and opportunities to perform and record, and the ground shifted regularly between hardliners and more liberal elements within the machinery: Kubisova is barred from recording several times before 1970, but finds a way back; Illes in Hungary are ‘punished’ for their interviews overseas (though had been allowed to go overseas to tour before that); Omega release LPs on Decca in the UK, Eva Pilarova has American singles released, Sarolta Zalatnay is part of a reciprocal licensing deal with a British commercial record label (and records songs in English, both translations of her Hungarian material, and things like Janis Joplin’s ‘Move Over’) …all are also out of favour at other times, so the State machinery between 1965 – 1972 (earlier in Czechoslovakia) moves in fairly mysterious and often unpredictable ways. Most of the musicians seem to be variously discontented with the regime, but the State also seems at times to realise that allowing expression to these discontentments buys it favour among the young – at other times, it suppresses them outright, much as I suppose the West’s media and judiciary did also (tales of awful experiences at the hands of the authorities can be found in the US as well as the Eastern Bloc – Roky Erikson, John Sinclair, The Weavers’ blacklisting, etc). The stakes are much higher under the Communist regime due less, I suspect, to greater intolerance – though there certainly was much intolerance – than to the lack of checks on abuses of power: this makes falling out of favour a more dangerous business all round, where personal contacts are key.

The State Label. Is this akin to the BBC? Was there such a thing as a top of the pops in the USSR? Was the State Label similar to something like Motown with session musicians and if so was there cult of personality that followed certain ‘state Rock and Roll musicians’?

The main State labels I’ll be looking at are Polskie Nagrania in Poland (the main imprints were Muza and Pronit), Pepita/Qualiton in Hungary and Supraphon in Czechoslovakia; we’ll touch a little on Amiga in the DDR as well. Each was a big State run institution, nominally independent, but (like the BBC) certainly subject to a lot of political pressure to be ‘on message’ with the Party in each country. As with censorship, at different times these labels might be run by more hardline or liberal factions, and as with the BBC (or indeed any big bureaucratic corporate institution – say, EMI in 60s England, or CBS in 60s America) factions within them could be pursuing different agendas at the same time. In Hungary, for example, Illes were controversial, but actively supported by the Party as part of a programme in the 60s of ‘small liberties for the people’ – not as liberal as Dubcek’s regime in Czechoslovakia, but part of a similar thaw. Others were tolerated rather than supported, some promoted internationally to showcase the regime’s cultural achievements, some barred from travelling (Illes met both fates; Kubisova went to Paris, where she met Aretha Franklin, before the climate changed after the invasion; Polish figures like Michal Urbaniak and Krystof Komeda recorded in the UK and US, while US figures like Stan Getz and Gabor Szabo went to Poland and Hungary to record with the jazz musicians there, etc). Generally, each label had a roster of bands and musicians, who were independent of one another – discrete units like Czerwone Gitary, Breakout, Niebiesko-Czarni, Skaldowie, Metro, Golden Kids and Olympic – but a band like Metro or Illes would also be the backing group for a singer (eg: Sarolta Zalatnay, Koncz Szusza) or Breakout would perform sometimes with Mira Kubasinska as their vocalist, sometimes under her name, with Breakout as her backing band, and SBB did similar work with Halina Frackowiak. Vocal groups like Partita and Alibabki appeared with everyone from psychedelic soul-rocker Czeslaw Niemen to the most MOR cabaret acts, and jazz musicians would both run their own groups and play with rock or folk bands…there are parallels with the London session scene, as musicians like Alan Hawkshaw, Barbara Moore and Johnny Hawksworth, and writers/arrangers like Pete Moore, John Keating, Nick Ingman and Keith Mansfield (incidentally, Mansfield and his various proteges like Salena Jones and James Royal were popular in Poland, being released in reciprocal deals with British CBS – who in turn issued records in the UK by Michal Urbaniak) moved between their own contract recordings, music for TV and film, backing visiting stars and teaming up with new talents, often running from one session to another – doing a session with Shirley Bassey in the morning and recording their own experimental rock and jazz instrumentals for the KPM or De Wolfe libraries in the afternoon. The difference is that the State label bands/musicians were known in their own right, while the London and US session musicians (the US had its own stables, such as Hal Blaine’s ‘wrecking crew’ in LA) were not widely known outside the business – their pictures wouldn’t be on the record sleeves as it were.

Sampling. What are the key methods by which elements of soviet rock and roll now bleed into our awareness? Hip Hop sampling? Other ways?

This material began to emerge into the West after the wall fell, so certainly in the early to mid 1990s German DJs and collectors were starting to compile mixtapes and use samples of material from Poland and the former DDR, and these reached the US and UK a little later, where information on the things to look out for began to filter along the networks: by the late 1990s (aided by the spread of the internet, and international selling outlets like GEMM and ebay) people were building up a broader picture of what was out there in the West: this was in turn aided by programmes of reissues and CD releases of older music in the former East – Poland had already reissued much of its 60s/70s catalogue as part of a ‘Beat Archive’ series in the later 1980s, Czechoslovakia began repressing records that had disappeared from shops after 1969 (and in some cases, such as Hana & Petr Ulrychovi’s Odyssea LP, records that were recorded during the Prague Spring, but shelved and never released after 1970) most notably Marta Kubisova’s ‘Songy a Ballady’, which had appeared, then been censored, before she was banned outright after 1970…this appeared in 1990, and Kubisova was brought onto a balcony in the midst of the Velvet Revolution (alongside Havel) to sing ‘Modlitba Pro Martu’ (Prayer for/of Marta), which had been something of an anthem during the invasion (“in the government of my affections, you must return what you have stolen…”) to the crowds in Prague: her return to concert performing followed very soon afterward. So it’s a combination of Western interest – first among record collectors and dance music/hip-hop producers seeking samples, then more broadly – and a return to this material in the East itself. Even so, it’s still taken almost 20 years for the process of releasing these musicians in the West to properly begin: the first compilation of Kubisova appeared in 2009 on a small label (compiled by German DJ Lou Kash), while a retrospective of Hungary’s rockscene and compilation of material by Sarolta Zalatnay appeared on the Manchester based independent Finder’s Keepers only a year or so ago (this is run by enthusiast, sample-based artist/remixer and Badly Drawn Boy discoverer Andy Votel and colleagues – they also run B-Music nights around the country to promote Czech, Hungarian, Turkish, French, Spanish, Pakistani, Iranian and other lesser known music and film scenes). The process goes on…

How was the rock and roll packaged? Were albums made or is this more of a singles market? Was there a marketing machine, videos, to promote music?

Very much so: promo clips were made (of which I’ve sourced many, often from Youtube), bands featured in popular films (eg: Illes in Hungary’s ‘youth scene’ movie Ezek a Fiatalok or Skaldowie and Niebesko-Czarni in the Polish comedy Mocne Uderzenie, and many jazz artists contributing to Czech and Polish new wave film soundtracks, the best known being Krystof Komeda’s collaborations with Polanski on all his films up to and including Rosemary’s Baby), both albums and singles were made and widely sold (and had great cover art, comparable to the better known Polish film posters much admired by Western designers today). Though some releases were sabotaged by censorship, others were very popular, so degrees of scarcity vary widely.

Was Rock and Roll considered a rebellion of youth or an embracing of Western mores? Depending on how this rebellion was considered by the authorities were the penalties of some musicians much stricter than others? Were they persecuted for their music?

I think I’ve touched on this above – I think in Polly [McMichaels’] words regarding official attitudes to The Beatles in the USSR, it’s complicated. Some were supported by the various Communist Parties, some actively repressed, and the same bands or musicians could undergo both not just at different times, but sometimes at the same time: Kubisova, for example, was Czechoslovakia’s most popular singer from around 1965/6 till her final banning in 1970, but was at various points not allowed to record – yet her earlier recordings would still be broadcast. The Golden Kids TV show, Micro Magic Theatre, is an example: Kubisova was not allowed to record with her Golden Kids colleagues Helena Vondrakova and Vaclav Neckar when the soundtrack of this TV show was being made, so the producers simply used her existing recordings to fill the gaps.

Did this Rock and Roll spread throughout the USSR or was it quite cloistered within each of the countries so that there was a specific flavor of music for each soviet country?

Don’t know about the USSR specifically (though my impression is that certain groups had stronger followings or identifications with particular regions – eg: Pesniary’s drawing on Bylorussian folk on their records?) but Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia all have quite distinct scenes, and quite distinct styles and approaches. Very broadly, Poland seems to have been the most consistent – from jazz and skiffle groups in the later 1950s, to Komeda’s ‘Astigmatic’ in 1965 (a key recording) and on through the move into beat, rock, r’n’b, amplified folk and progressive rock over the next 5/10 years, the pattern in Poland is akin to that in the West – a decline in quality through the 1970s but not especially related to political pressures (except as it was in the west also). By 1979/80, with Solidarnosc and Martial Law, things became very safe, but until then there’s a notable consistency. In Hungary, the mix of folk and beat pioneered by Illes developed into a very strong rock scene, represented by Omega, Skorpio, Zalatnay and Locomotiv GT, with poppier/jazzier material by Kati Kovacs and more traditional songs by Koncz Szusa also immensely popular (though so strong was the rock influence, both did a lot of rock material too). Czechoslovakia was most extreme – the most open and Westernised scene prior to 1968, the most repressive after it. In all three countries, the material I’m looking at was generally properly popular – played on radio, featured on TV, and still in heavy circulation on ‘oldies’ stations and TV channels today, much as The Beatles and Motown are on TV and radio in the US/UK – so these are not the more obvious dissident or underground things, which, almost by definition, weren’t released on vinyl by the State labels and – as far as I know – aren’t available elsewhere, either. There was a good deal of traffic between the various eastern bloc countries, and a surprising amount between these and the west at certain points, so popularity did spread beyond particular borders: I understand that mostly (within the eastern bloc states) that this would take the form of concerts and import/export of records rather than fresh pressings for each new market, though there are Czech pressings of Polish LPs, for example, but they’re comparatively scarce. The biggest project in this kind of cross border activity I know of was the DDR’s bringing together of bands from all over the bloc to re-record songs in German for a series of compilation LPs called ‘Hallo’ – 12 volumes, on which bands like Czerwone Gitary remake Polish songs for the DDR market alongside music from well known DDR bands like Panta Rhei, Electra Combo and others.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: