Communist Rock’n’Roll

This text is a version of a talk given on April 9, 2010, as part of the programme of public events around the Star City exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary. Communist Rock’n’Roll set out to explore three different strands of musical activity in Communist countries. Polly McMichael  looked at underground rock in the Soviet Union, Robert Adlington at the influence of Cuban models on a group of Dutch avant-garde composers (including Louis Andriessen) who collaborated on an opera about Che Guevara. My own contribution focused on a broad range of popular music from Poland, Hungary and Czechoslavakia during the 1960s.

FIRST PART: Western influences on Polish Beat in the early to middle 1960s.

The first beat band in Poland is generally thought to be Czerwono Czarni (the Red and Blacks) formed in 1958, at a social club in Gdansk (whose club colours gave the band their name). Their first recordings were not released until 1962/3, as far as I know, so it’s not clear how ‘beat’ they were initially – generally the pattern was as in the UK, with bands beginning in jazz, folk and skiffle, then picking up influences from blues, American rock’n’roll, and eventually the first wave of the beat boom, the Beatles being only one – if very significant – model. (For many in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, the first big impact was made by The Animals, not the Beatles, and we should perhaps recall that the Beatles learned their trade in Germany, which like Holland had its own strong scene and influential local bands at an early stage).

What is obvious from recordings is that the early Polish beat bands are accomplished and sound familiar, for the most part, once the language is taken into account. The differences start to become more apparent  once artists begin to move from covers of standard songs and versions of styles (like Czerwono Czarni’s Lucille and Karin Stanek’s Autostop) into more original material. By the mid-sixties, in Poland, this music was being promoted as ‘The Big Beat’ to distinguish it as home-grown. Another early Polish band, Niebiesko-Czarni (the Blue-Blacks, or Black and Blue Band), came up with (or were obliged to promote) a motto of Polish Music for Polish Youth, singing mainly in Polish rather than English and drawing heavily on both native jazz traditions in Poland (going back to the 1930s, and given new impetus by figures like Krzystof Komeda – who scored Roman Polanski’s early films in the 1960s) and folk melodies. This can explain the slightly odd flavour that often permeates Polish beat material, which has a highly distinctive feel. In this first clip, we’ll hear Helena Majdaniec (one of several vocalists linked to Niebiesko Czarni, as well as a solo artist) the track recorded around 1965:

Helena Majdaniec –  Juz Raz Bylo Tak (It Was Once So):

It is a time when even you do not lack opportunities,
there are days when I like you just as you are
days and nights when love has power over us.
It had already been so, ah, it was already time
that has changed the color of the world but does not change us.

While effective as beat music by any standards, songs like these often have far more poetic lyrics and more conventional singalong melodies than some of their Western equivalents: it seems this was partly political, as the ruling Party wanted to minimise Western influences, and pressed ‘beat’ bands to perform more mainstream and accessible material alongside the bolder songs. We need to note, also, that this was not invariably a monolithic state apparatus but rather a complex bureaucracy in which different factions had different agendas, often being pursued at the same time. Forms perceived as American, like jazz and beat music, were undoubtedly held in distrust by many in the ruling elites, but also variously acclaimed as the voice of the underdogs in Capitalist countries (one reason why jazz proved resilient under Communism was its identification with Black America and its roots in collective composition). Equally, bands like the Beatles could be – and were – seen as working class voices, making their influence (at least sometimes) compatible with the aims of socialist states.

This music could also be seen as new way for the ruling Party to win youth support, and – as in the West – ‘official’ messages and values were frequently wrapped in packaging designed to win young listeners over: thus, we hear a great deal of ‘folklore’ blended with the beat and soul on records by Ali Babki and classical inflections in the folk of Marek Grechuta. These complexities go some way to explaining the unique mergers of soul, jazz, beat and folk that can be found on many Polish records. Even at its most straightforwardly ‘Westernised’, as in this second clip from Niebiesko-Czarni, with Adriana Rusowicz on vocals, Polish beat music could have mainstream currency. Nie pukaj do moich drzwi is a track from the 1967 LP Alarm! that was also featured in Mocne Uderzenie, a 1966 romantic comedy set in and around Warsaw’s music business – the opposite of an ‘underground’ phenomenon (much of the film’s humour comes from its satirical take on the machinery of fame). The key here is that it could hardly be more obvious that the Beatles have become a primary influence, and the state was distributing the results through its mainstream entertainment media, on records as well as this entertainingly silly ‘swinging Warsaw’ film comedy.

[Play clip 2: Niebiesko Czarni: Nie pukaj do moich drzwi  from Mocne Uderzenie (1966)]

SECOND PART: Beat in Hungary/Marta Kubisova and the Prague Spring

As we saw in that clip from Mocne Uderzenie, the gentle mockery of the military officials in the crowd near the end suggests that at this point – 1966 – Poland had become at least a little more tolerant of criticism, perhaps (as in the West) going with the flow of this new youth culture as a way of winning over the young. In America, during the same period as this relative ‘thaw’ in many of the Warsaw Pact states, when Khrushchev’s leadership attempted to shed the vestiges of Stalinism after the later 1950s, the so-called ‘kitchen debate’ took place, as Nixon and Khrushchev took the Cold War onto the new territory of consumerism: in both the United States and USSR, the Cold War developed a cultural front. The CIA selectively financed ‘dissident’ and intellectual enterprises: tours of Abstract Expressionist painting, heavy promotion of Beat writers, and lavishly supported magazines like Encounter in the UK. There seemed to be an awareness that the pursuit of ‘soft power’ went hand in hand with the development of military strength and industrial capacity, and both sides moved to build resources in the cultural arena.

In the Eastern Bloc at this point, we see what looks like a similar process in motion, with greater degrees of challenge to authority tolerated and a real (if limited) loosening of controls over cultural production. One example of this comes from a film made in Hungary around 1966/7 (where the 1956 uprising had been brutally suppressed barely a decade earlier, and created a generation of expatriates). While Ezek a Fiatalok is a fascinating document throughout – showing artists like Illes, Metro, Koncz Szusza and others in quasi-documentary settings – the most revealing clip shows Sarolta Zalatnay performing (with Metro) a song whose lyrics translate as “all the time, more and more persecution/what are we accused of?/What’s the charge, what’s the charge…”. Referencing the authorities’ harassment of young people, and comparable to similar sentiments about the ‘man’ in British and American songs of a similar vintage, it’s perhaps surprising that the clip comes from a mainstream film and, like Mocne Uderzenie, the excerpt makes much of the officials’ discomfort in the crowd scenes.

[Play clip: Sarolta Zalatnay & Metro: Mostanában from Ezek a Fiatalok]

Yet we know that this relatively tolerant phase did not last. Perhaps the emblematic figure in the reversal is Marta Kubisova, who by 1967 had become the most popular female performer in Czechoslovakia, both as a solo artist, and as one of the Golden Kids, alongside Vaclav Neckar (who some of you may know as an actor, for his role in Jiri Menzel’s film Closely Observed Trains) and Helena Vondrackova. Kubisova’s versatility was extraordinary – she sang jazz, ballads, show tunes, covers, beat, soul and much else besides, but she is at her best on the material she began recording around 1966/7, with its blend of deep melodies, heavy drums, fuzz guitars and soulful horns, creating a hybrid that sounds unlike anything else being made at the time, in Czechoslovakia or elsewhere. To get an idea of her range, the next clip – never released on vinyl, having been recorded for Czech TV in 1967 or 68 – shows her merging dark balladry and frothy Nancy Sinatra-style showbiz almost seamlessly.

[Play clip, Marta Kubisova: Ale a Musim Jit, from Pribeh DVD]

The title translates roughly as ‘But I Have To Go’, and while any subtext is oblique in this instance, much else in Kubisova’s work at this point could be taken – and often was taken – as directly political. During the 1968 invasion, she went underground, performing on illegal radio broadcasts, and had already made a point of meeting Alexander Dubcek , surrounded by cameras, publicly declaring her support for him. She released a song – Modlitba Pro Martu (Prayer for Marta) that spoke of a government being stolen. Tajga Blues ’69  referenced the arctic region – known as the place to which Soviet dissidents were sent into exile – and uses a richly layered imagery of ‘guards’, ‘wolves’ and ‘long night’ to express the idea of awaiting release. By 1969, knowing the ban was coming, she instructed her sound engineers to cut the tape short on a late recording session, for a song titled Tys bejval mámin hodnej syn (You Were Once A Good Mother’s Son), allowing the brassy melody to fall into silence before it ended. The abrupt conclusion of the single released in 1970 is deeply symbolic.

For around a year after the invasion, Kubisova recorded and released records that were almost instantly withdrawn from circulation (suggesting a delayed shift in official policy, perhaps even a struggle for autonomy between the State label and the authorities in the immediate aftermath) before, in 1970, being banned outright from performing or recording. Not on political grounds, but on the pretext of falsely planted press stories about involvement in sexual scandals and pornographic films: a classic smear to thinly veil the real reason for the ban. Until 1989, she remained a dissident – a friend of Havel and key signatory of the first Charter 77 document. When the Velvet Revolution did arrive, she was sent for, and brought to the balcony to sing to the crowds in Wencelas Square. Her records were almost immediately reissued, and concerts followed. The only mystery is why it’s taken another 20 years from that point for her 60s material – at its best, some of the finest recorded anywhere – to find its way to the West: the first collection of her work to be released outside Czechoslovakia since the 1960s appeared on a Spanish independent label in 2009.

THIRD PART: The Aftermath of invasion and revolution 1968/1989

There’s a Czech film – shot during the Prague Spring, but only completed after the invasion, in 1969 – called The Road That Leads Nowhere. As a capsule of the excitement, energy and optimism of the time, expressed in music, it’s without parallel. Nearly every notable Czech or Slovak band of the time appears, their performances interspersed with skits and what we’d recognise as ‘Pythonesque’ silliness, the whole thing presented as a cod-silent film. It’s well worth watching, even without subtitles. It begins and ends with Hana and Petr Ulrychovi’s Atlantis, opening with the upbeat Julie Driscoll/Brian Auger style Don’t You Break It Again, and closing with a poignant song about lingering fragrances: “I know that I will come back/Do not rely on the scent of this girl/I will invoke more than a field of roses/and the barrier that divides us breaks down…/I know that you will come again to love …”. The song, in its filmed version, ends with a very sixties kind of parade, as it halts in mid stride, and takes a bow to the camera:

[Play Clip – Atlantis: Vune (1968)]

In many ways, the aftermath of the 1960s behind the iron curtain played out in a way not dissimilar to the process elsewhere: perhaps, instead of taking the usual clichéd references from Woodstock at the height, and Altamont as the beginning of the end of its ambitions to transform the world for the better, we might better think of the 1968 invasion, and the crushing of the Prague Spring, as the first of the reactions that increasingly overtook the optimism and spirit of what we now tend to think of as ‘the 1960s’. In the Eastern Bloc, the years after 1968 saw a reassertion of quasi-Stalinist models of control under Leonid Brezhnev, while in the West, Richard Nixon’s presidential win in 1969, and a comparable economic and political chill came to end what had seemed a time of rising affluence, expanded horizons and freedoms.

One reason that the music I’m talking about and playing tonight fascinated me from the moment I first discovered it – largely by accident, about 12 years ago – was the way it cut across most of what we’d been told, growing up during the 1980s, about the nature of everyday life under Communist regimes, and about the nature of opposition to Communist rule in these countries. There’s an instructive film showing Marta Kubisova performing Ring-o-Ding, a sweet, folk-based song, while walking through a garden full of portraits: Freud, Einstein, Plato and Marx, but also Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Che Guevara and Bobby Kennedy: a pantheon largely shared by leftists and students in the West at the same moment. Kubisova was banned outright: others adapted to the new circumstances, drawing on folk or escapist pop, abstract jazz and progressive rock. Many, like Vondrackova, lapsed into middle of the road material of the kind widely seen on mainstream 70s television in Britain.

Some left their countries, and music, altogether – Helena Majdaniec was one, the wonderful Czech singer Yvonne Prenosilova another – while others stayed and continued their careers, their music becoming more instrumental and oblique (Czechoslovakia’s Blue Effect became a progressive jazz-rock hybrid, Poland’s Czeslaw Niemen moved from early beat and soul influences to explore experimental soundscapes and electronic keyboards, Hungary developed an appetite for heavy rock with oblique lyrics) and the story did not end with the sixties – both Poland and Hungary created renowned punk and post-punk scenes, for example. Much was suppressed, but enough found its way onto officially sanctioned releases to make this an area that could furnish material for a whole other talk by itself.

[Play clip of Marta Kubisova: Ring-O-Ding]

As noted briefly a bit earlier, the implication of the clip accompanying Kubisova’s Ring-O-Ding is that the dissidents of the Eastern Bloc’s 1960s were pushing against their regimes not as prototype free market advocates or nascent neo-liberals, but from the same non-ideological left-leaning perspective as their counterparts in the US, UK and elsewhere in Western Europe. The views dismissed as proto-Communist by many in the West were also, ironically, much the same views held by the anti-Communists of the East. It was also, of course, precisely this strain of dissidence that was pushed aside when the free market ideologues took power after 1989, with hardline Party apparatchiks among the first to switch their allegiance, wholesale, to the newly revised terms on which the gaining of wealth and power were to be pursued.

The fall of Communism after 1989 saw Kubisova’s previously banned songs, the Ulrychovis’ unreleased Odyssea LP and material by many others – like The Rebels, Olympic and Prenosilova herself – reissued and rediscovered in their own countries. But the process of their achievements being heard elsewhere remains slow. We should certainly remember that ‘giving the people what they want’ (the credo of the free market) is not as far removed from Communism’s former claim to be ‘serving the people’ as we’d like to think, especially when the market is capable of erasing voices and ideas with an efficiency no less worrying than its more actively censoring counterpart. Just because we have thriving popular cultures and the freedom to express our dissent today doesn’t mean we can afford to be complacent about the degrees to which our societies are likely to progress, or remain free, should circumstances change.

8 Responses to “Communist Rock’n’Roll”

  1. Kevin Pearce November 8, 2011 at 9:42 am #

    Thank you for sharing this. It’s a fascinating topic, and YouTube has been so important in helping to reveal the amount of great music made in difficult circumstances.

  2. Alessandro November 14, 2011 at 11:29 pm #

    Hello I’m currently in the process of writing a book (in Italian) about the music in the 60’s and 70’s in the eastern block. Anybody who wants and can help can write me at als.pmp@iol.it. Thankxxxxx!!!!

    • wayneburrows November 15, 2011 at 3:33 am #

      Hi Alessandro,

      Sounds like a great project: I’ve been trying to gather information on artists, too, and (on this site) attempting to document interesting releases, and create some translations of the song lyrics in English. Be good to hear more about the book: are you interviewing the artists? Must be some amazing material to be uncovered on all this…

      Wayne

      • Alessandro Pomponi August 26, 2015 at 2:47 pm #

        Hello the book should be out in early 2016 I will let you know😀 Alessandro

      • wayneburrows November 2, 2015 at 9:06 pm #

        Cool. Don’t read Italian but would be interested in getting a sense of it, in case some kind of UK translation were viable at some point. Keep me posted!

  3. Janos June 13, 2012 at 12:19 am #

    hi! does any one know the name of this album?
    http://imageshack.us/photo/my-images/703/secretalchemiststyle291.jpg/

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