Czechmate: The Frustrations of Sharing a Party Line (Chris Bohn)
In 1980, writing for the New Musical Express, Chris Bohn travelled to Czechoslovakia and Hungary in a “Journey through the Curtain to the Forbidden Zones of Eastern Rock”, and wrote a two-part piece called “Trans Europe Express”.
This is the first part, dedicated to the Czech scene, and it was originally featured in NME’s 10th January 1981 edition.
Reprinted with the permission of Time Inc. Special thanks to Keiko Yoshida and Chris Bohn.
“Not all that is not forbidden is allowed here” – Czech judge, 1967
THE gaunt Ostbahnhof station in Berlin’s Russian sector is a sombre introduction to the East, but its Third Man gloom is offset by the bustling companionship of travellers waiting for the Prague-Budapest express.
Westerners, me included, can’t hide an aura of uneasy anticipation that manifests itself in nervous glances from the clock to the train indicator; not that there’s any real threat – just a feeling brought on by the sudden, alienating loss of colour on crossing the wall. Eventually relieved by the train’s arrival, I enter a compartment full of young army conscripts, who inquisitively look me over before continuing their raucous replay of Chaplin’s Modern Times screened on East German TV the night before.
They were really tickled by the scene in which Char-lee is nailed by the cops for political agitation when all he did was innocently pick up a red flag fallen from the back of a lorry. And just when they’re looking forward to next week’s The Gold Rush, someone dampens their spirits by reminding them of a parade the same night…
Exit soldiers, enter a sailor and his friend heading for a week in Budapest. Why Budapest? It’s a lot more relaxed there, they reply, the next best thing to travelling West.
“East Germany one big jail”, murmurs one sullenly. And for young people it’s a long term sentence (until retirement when you can finally leave the country) rendered all the more frustrating by their ready access to West German media. Eager to talk music, the duo regularly watch the West German marathon Rockpalast, which brings them as close as they can get to live gigs by the likes of Patti Smith and The Police.
Leaving the cocoon-like confort of the compartment, I say goodbye to the Germans and whisper a tentative hello to Prague.
ON the surface Prague has remained unshaken by the momentous events that have unsettled its citizens since the war. Neither the uprising against the Nazis in 1945 nor the Communist takeover three years later did much damage to the city, and whatever scars were left by the Soviet led invasion of ’68 have long since healed.
Which is probably why it’s difficult to equate this beautiful medieval city with its status as a capital of one of the most repressive regimes inside the Eastern Bloc (directly behind East Germany in terms of its loyalty to Moscow). The feeling persists in the city’s well stocked shopping centres. No lengthy food queues or empty shelves here. Bohemia as always been a wealthy, industrious province and its economic status hasn’t changed much.
If the Czech communists have learnt one thing, it’s that a well-fed nation is easier to control than a hungry one – as events in Poland attest. More fruitful then, as one Czech dissident pointed out, to play Big Sister dispensing sugar-coated pills than Big Brother waving a heavy stick; but the essence is the same: COMPLETE CONTROL.
And the mistake Alexander Dubcek, Party First Secretary and inspiration behind the short-lived thaw, was allowing it to slip away; or so Moscow interpreted the increased freedoms he gave the Czech people.
Today Dubcek’s name has been scrubbed from the tourist guide’s book and he’s never mentioned officially.
One of the more open manifestations of Czechoslovakia’s short-lived “liberty” was a beat boom that echoed Western Europe’s. Likewise it blossomed into psychedelia, with bands like The Primitives leading the way. When the authorities started showing interest, their guitarist Josef Janicek left to form Plastic People, Czechoslovakia’s most notorious band, who helped form a bond between the rock and intellectual movements in the dissident artist group Charter 77.
The music’s uncontrollable nature inevitably meant the clampdown, thereby forcing any worthwhile bands underground. (All this is well documented in the superb booklet accompanying Plastic People’s western-produced album “Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned”.)
Plastic person Josef Janicek
The authorities acknowledge youth demand for music by licensing their own bands, but they’re predictably awful. And naturally the kids aren’t fooled – I mean who could take any band seriously which sought party approval, thereby allowing them to dictate song content, onstage behaviour and even the running order of records.
The reverse side of the coin is, obviously, that musicians want to work and the more purely instrumental bands aren’t likely to upset the authorities anyway. Consequently jazz rock fusion music was popular for a while in the 70’s, until new wave shot some vigour into the best of the older bands.
The official Czech label Supraphon does license a few Western records, like Elton John, Santana and fusion bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report – but only after Czech emigres Jan Hammer and Miroslav Vitous, respectively, moved on.
With practically nothing worth listening to on the official scene, kids naturally look elsewhere for entertainment. And only when you join them in the search do you realise the depth of repression in Czechoslovakia – and just how vital a media pop music is. Otherwise why are the authorities so frightened by it? Why should owning a Plastic People album mean trouble? How come bands unwilling to cramp their expression in official channels risk persecution and imprisonment?
In the West pop music might have been irretrievably corrupted by the twin figureheads of trash aesthetics and commerce, but behind the Iron Curtain playing it is something akin to a mission. And going by all accounts hundreds of bands do, only they’re forced so far underground they’re practically impossible to find.
SUNDAY is a sacred day in Prague. It’s the day when some workers, who’ve spent the week conserving their energy, earn twice as much doing private jobs at black market rates. It’s also a good day to go shopping. Blindfold yourself, spin round three times and hey presto! The record mart.
Stretching along a muddy ledge in one of the city’s suburban foothills, up to a 1000 people meet here weekly to buy, sell or swap Western Records. It’s almost a family outing and a carnival atmosphere surrounds the morning. Parents root out illicit jazz or James Last records; young kids display pop posters from Western magazines; their older brothers and sisters check out the week’s disco, heavy metal or Europop bargains.
Name your poison and someone’s likely to have it.
There’s always a brisk trade in Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart records (two important formative influences on the Czech rock scene), Lou Reed and Velvet Underground are popular too, as are freeform and experimental albums, and – yes, it’s spread this far – heavy metal and pomp.
These days there’s always a bunch of eager hopefuls waiting for new wave and punk records. Someone I met had bought PIL’s “The metal box” in its original canister, and coming up the road is someone with albums by The Stranglers and Wire to offload.
The market is largely a meeting place for people selling or exchanging unwanted or taped records sent by Western relatives. But there are of course plenty of opportunists who, through illicit currency dealings, collect the marks and dollars necessary to make bulk mail order purchases, subsequently to sell the records at heavily inflated prices. Similarly, other traders lower the market’s innocent standing by selling jeans and watches.
They’re the people the police first pounce on first during their periodic raids. But sensing perhaps the secret police or informers in the crowd, the market like as not shifts to a new location before everyone is busted. And unless anyone’s foolish enough to be caught with a handful of the same album, the police usually let casual buyers go.
Maybe it’s their idea of a safety valve…
Western records are a valuable source of information to be referred to, not to be copied. Czechoslovakia has established over the past decade rich, vital traditions of its own anyway, so anything new from the West acts more as a spur than booty. If you need any proof look to Plastic People.
Back in the 60’s when psychedelic bands spouted magic without really understanding it, PP, and their forerunners The Primitives had the advantage of living in a city with a much more powerful magical presence than San Francisco. Alchemists occupied a street of their own, Golden Lane, winding down from the castle where, incidentally, Franz Kafka lived for a while. (The useful official guide denies the street’s magic connections.) The famous European magician Paracelsus passed through Prague, too.
It seeped into the city’s music, any airy leanings counterbalanced – in Plastic People’s case – by their love of The Velvet Underground’s raw-edged guitar. Their first album was written with the 47 year old poet / writer Egon Bondy, who has been a constant thorn in the establishment paw for decades.
A by all accounts bizarre figure, he reinterpreted the philosophy of the world from a Marxist viewpoint in six volumes. But his views were too extreme for the official party line.
Additionaly, his challengingly heavy scatological lyrics, which confronted orthodox puritanism head on, helped earn Plastic People an almost sub-human reputation with the authorities, who called the band pigs and animals as part of the campaign which led to the arrest and imprisonment of some members and followers.
I met of of these “pigs”, Josef Janicek, for a short conversation. A quiet, introverted man, our discussion is hampered by my lack of Slovak and his poor English making it difficult to stick to the agreed subject of music. Understandably, Janicek and the band are pissed off that they’re always treated on a political level, often leaving their music untouched.
But it’s impossible to talk round the realities of their persecution. Even as we’re talking, the police might be checking to see if he’s at home.
He tells me about the last concert Plastic People played almost a year ago. “We found a house in the country, about 150km from Prague, and maybe about 200 people showed up. We started playing at 10pm and it was over by 1am and everybody went home to Prague. The police didn’t find out about it until two weeks later, and when they did, they destroyed the house. They said it was too close to a power station and it posed a security threat, but that wasn’t true”.
He adds optimistically: “but there are plenty more houses”.
The authorities’ persistent harassment of the Plastic People highlights their fear of music. “They’re afraid of art that isn’t under their wings”, Janicek concurs. “They know that culture has a very big influence on young people”.
The accumulative effects of arrests and busts manifested themselves in the far more introverted “Passion play”, their second album released in the West. Its deeply rooted pessimism contrasts heavily with the joyous, liberating music of their first album. But, as one observer points out, it’s difficult to criticise it on that basis unless you’ve run the same gauntlet of experiences.
He says “Continually oppressed by the police and ignored by most of society, The Plastic People transferred the sacrifice of themselves into the Easter story of the Crucifixion of Christ. Their genuine hurt appeared on the record and lots of friends outside Czechoslovakia said the record was too depressive. But they should compare it to the reality of PP’s situation.
“The radical left is mostly theory” he continues, “and if these radicals got in touch with this system, they might feel as beaten and as down as the Plastic People of this period”.
Fortunately, these days Josef is more content, his interest in music rekindled by the unlikely pairing of punk and Irish folk music.
THERE’S a popular joke in Czechoslovakia that goes something like this:
Policeman: Hey, chief, I just found this penguin on the street, what should I do with it?
Chief (exasperated): Well, take it to the zoo.
(Later on his way home, the chief sees the man still has the bird)
Chief: I thought I told you to take it to the zoo!
Policeman: I did Sir, and now we’re going to the movies…
The state’s unnaturally large police force is the butt of the sort of stupid jokes English people make about the Irish. But in this case deservedly. However, the joke can get sour…
Walking through Wenceslas Square, a policeman stops me for a spot check, asking for identity papers. When I start talking English he waves me on with a smile. Other people, I’m told, have spent 24 hours fretting in cells for not having their papers with them.
At least you can see the uniformed variety. Not so easy to spot secret policemen or informers in public places, though.
One lunchtime I go into a pub with friends met over in Prague. Suddenly, my drinking partner’s face blanches and he abruptly ushers us out again. “What’s up?”, I ask. “I just recognised a secret policeman” he replies. There’s no problem, he insists, but it’s safer not to be seen in the company of strangers.
Laughed at and reviled though they may be, they’re also feared. Their unpopularity can work in favour of would-be-victims, as most everybody is unwilling to cooperate – excepting loyal party members and their ilk.
It is help not so much volunteered out of compassion for the victim, as also looking after number one.
Czech people, I’m repeatedly told, are wary of signing anything that commits them to a point of view which might be used against them later – be they council officials asked to support their belief in an artist, say, on paper, or a police witness asked to sign statements. Who knows when the wind might change direction? The rash of executions which followed party purges in the early 50’s are not yet forgotten.
PUBLIC TIMIDITY combined with friendly co-operation saved one band called Extempore from a similar fate as Plastic People. The police intended to nail them at a concert, but they couldn’t get any reliable witnesses to press complaints against them – a popular one being bad language or lewd stage movements.
Extempore were lucky that time, but living under constant fear of prosecution hasn’t done their sanity much good, as their leader Mikolas (saxist, vocalist, guitarist and writer) states. “Sometimes I feel like I’m walking on the edge between lunacy and laughter”.
Describing themselves as a rock and jokes band, with a strong dada base, their music is in the Czech tradition of merrymaking balanced by passionate soloing and a sardonic line in cutting lyrics. All in their late 20’s, the band admit that the scarcity of gigs – a dozen a year is rarely reached – tends to turn the music in on itself.
But new wave / punk influences checked their more introverted moments and their latest set – based on a song cycle called “15 dreams of the city inhabitant” is an exhilarating fusion of tense thrashes, chants and sweet, controlled moments. The songs, according to an English speaking colleague of the band, are “grotesque… full of blak humour, absurdity, blasphemy, anarchy and… cryptograms”.
Extempore’s drummer Mirko
They preview the concert to an audience of one – me – in a bedroom that serves as a rehearsal room. His rapturous description proves right. Check the horrible surrealist passage from “Under the tram”: I want to vomit / When I look at myself / I have neither arms nor legs / I am completely helpless”.
It’s not one for the watchdogs of socialist realism who demand greater respect for the human condition; in this messy torso they’re not likely to see a metaphor for modern man in Prague.
Extempore are eager to be heard by anyone and one evening my presence constitutes just the audience they need to run through their set as if they’re playing a concert hall. Despite the cramped surroundings of the bedroom, the music pours out of them, like water from a burst dam. The “concert” over, they feel as if all those months rehearsing haven’t been in vain.
Yet even here in their own home they are not totally secure. “Someone might call the police to complain about the noise”, one says. It’s a common enough occurrence for bands in England, but when such a call could be used as an excuse for searching the place, bands must treat their neighbors a little more warily.
THE COMMUNIST revolution in Czechoslovakia didn’t so much do away with class differences or inequalities as reverse them. Thus, in education children of traditional working class parents would have a better chance at winning a place in further education than the children of intellectuals or the likes of school teachers – whatever their respective qualifications. Similarly people find themselves promoted less on the basis of ability than their loyalty to the Party, which leads to a whole new set of antagonisms, especially in the cultural field.
Someone told me that the head of West Bohemia’s biggest library used to be a tin miner who probably hadn’t read anything outside party manuals. While there’s an element of bitterness in what he said, imagine how a band would feel auditioning before a committee as equally well qualified.
But education poses a thornier problem. As in the West colleges turn out even more graduates unable to find suitable work. Yet because unemployment doesn’t officially exist in Czechoslovakia, they’re forced into intellectually unsatisfying jobs, where they grow increasingly despondent. Classed as intellectual invalids, they’re lumped together with the malcontents and vagrants as potential troublemakers. Some are forced into action, to join dissident groups like Charter 77; others just give up.
But the strongest bond between workers and intellectuals is forged by their common enemy. Thus, the union of rock and roll and the intellectuals of Charter 77 has done more to break down distinctions than an unfair education system. One observer perhaps put it more succintly: “Plastic People’s music describes equally the feeling of intellectual invalids and workers living outside society. Rebels are always beyond class – isolation always breaks down barriers between people”.
OF PRAGUE’S three known punk bands, Zikkurat, Dog Soldiers and Energy G, I only got to meet the students of the last. From a strong middle class background – three of their fathers are architects – I sense some resentment towards them. “Well, in Czechoslovakia there are only a very limited number of people playing electric instruments, because they’re so expensive”, says a critic. “So if you have a rich father, it’s naturally easier to get hold of one”.
More importantly perhaps, they have easier access to information and it depends on how they use it.
They might argue – and in fact they don’t – that they’ve got more to lose through their involvement in music. As it is, they formed the band last April as a hobby and they were invited to play a few gigs two weeks later. “We forgot everything we learnt”, says singer Krystof. “It was terrible. They turned the electricity off after two numbers”.
The night I catch them rehearsing in a deep basement that, like the truly subterranean underground train system, will double as a bomb shelter in an emergency, they gamely run through a set composing of Brit-Punk derivatives and a version of “Ulster Boy” that would have put some Sham performances to shame. “I know what you’ll say” anticipates Krystof, “You’ve heard it all before.” Didn’t say a word.
“Well, we have plans for the music to change this winter. I know that we’re only playing very fast, very hard punk now, but before this group some of us had never played”.
Punk is nevertheless a suitable medium for channeling the frustrations of living in a harsh, totalitarian state, and they do enliven it all with a touch of humour – especially when Krystof starts reeling off the band’s subject matter: boredom; Prague being a very dirty town; the easiness with which people accept their lot – all figure strongly.
It’s as he’s suggesting they have more of a reason to protest than the punks of Western Europe, and in a sense he would be right. It’s impossible to take seriously the rantings of our Oi! brigade. Protesting about boredom actually means something when most of your gigs are played in a basement. At least their music is charged with the energy and conviction to support their statements…
Later, on the streets again, their drummer – true to form, a class clown – yells out “George Davis is innocent!” Slowly, he turns to me and asks “er, who is George Davis?”
Forget George Davis, friend. You’ve got more worthwhile campaigns at home.
ANOTHER NIGHT, another basement, another dress rehearsal. This time I’m taken on a tour through Prague’s narrow, winding streets past the secret police HQ to see The Classic Rock and Roll Band. On the way we meet a gangly, lank haired youth proudly clutching a new horde of records. Furtively looking over his shoulder, he pulls back the bag to reveal Joy Division’s “Closer”, “Stations of the cross” and The Plasmatics record. An unlikely mixture, but it’s nice to know that tribal barriers have yet to be erected here.
The Classic Rock and Roll Band are ironically a contemporary outfit some 20 years too late. Rock and Roll is relatively new to Czechoslovakia. They were still suffering from the rigours of its most brutal Stalinist period when Elvis Presley scandalised the Western world. Little chance of him getting any exposure in the Eastern Bloc then, in the pre-satellite days of easier media manipulation.
The Classic Rock and Roll Band
Predictably denounced as fascist in the 50’s, rock and roll got lost in the noise of big beat during the more liberal 60’s, only to resurface in 1968 with the Classic Rock and Roll Band. It took them some ten years and the loss of their founder / singer – who defected during a Spanish holiday – to really break through, but these days they enjoy both a semi-legal and alternative status.
Good rock and roll performed with the authenticity that Shakin’ Stevens brings it, if not with his flair, always finds a market, especially in one so starved as Czechoslovakia’s.
I ARRIVE in Prague in time for one of its periodic clampdowns, meaning even the licensed bands are having problems getting gigs. Worse, the annual Autumn Prague Jazzdays concert, which was to feature Western bands like This Heat, was frozen out by impossible conditions imposed by the cultural authorities.
All bands had to supply lyrics, running orders, between song patter and a description of their stage act beforehand, while semi-pro or amateur bands had to find sponsors. If the conditions weren’t met the organisers would have to answer for them. Naturally, they called the whole thing off, so the sum total of Western bands who have played in Prague in the 70’s still stands at Nice, Blossom Toes, Colliseum, The Art Bears and Suzy Quatro.
Conditions are bad already to kill promising careers. I heard of one musician who got so disillusioned with the effort he sold his guitar and bought a car instead. An art school styled duo have fashioned an album’s worth of material and designed a sleeve, knowing that neither will ever get published.
Other pioneering groups of the 70’s have since split or broke out. Plastic People contemporaries DG307 lost their lead singer to Sweden. Another band, Kilhets, achieved a swift notoriety with their performances between ’78-9. Like many Czech groups their concerts featured aspects of performance art; they all wore masks, but partly for security reasons. They used to open their sets with ten minutes of silence – “A natural form of expression for me” claims their leader Peter Krecan. One night he was irritated by the docility of the audience and started calling them animals. Unfortunately, the police heard about it, and when Krecan got the wind of the news he fled to Munich. He’s not at all happy in the West, but we’ll go into that in a future issue.
A name constantly cropping up in musical conversations is middled-aged accordionist Jiri Cert / Jim the Devil, who apparently writes extraordinary proletarian songs which he performs with stunning compassion accompanied by heart-rending accordion playing.
Hundreds more bands will inevitably go undocumented; most will remain unknown to Czechs, never mind us. But no matter how tough the authorities get, regardless of victimisations, more and more will keep popping up.
In Czechoslovakia both the spirit and the flesh are willing.
While rock exists there the regime will never feel totally secure. The only sleep a totalitarian state gets comes after all alien ideas have been crushed; the very foundation of totalitarianism is a purity of thought unsullied by anyone else’s. If you don’t think music has any political value, just look at the effort such states make to stamp it out. They might succeed in driving it underground – and consequently strengthening it – but they’ll never snuff it out completely. Rock’s importance in the East is its ready accessibility.
Prohibited books, one observer tells me, are typewritten, beautifully hand-bound and illegally circulated in necessarily limited numbers. A good rock song, however, takes a matter of minutes to communicate its message, and it’s easy to tape and pass on. That’s why some Czechs were amused by the inference in a NME headline that they’d never heard Plastic People (Yes, it is read in Czechoslovakia).
Rock will never topple a totalitarian regime but in Czechoslovakia it sure as hell keeps it on the run.
PRAGUE is not an easy place to leave, but it’s still a relief to be aboard the Budapest-bound train. Three Polish students sitting in the next seats have brought their own spirits with them – vodka included. And naturally one fuels the other.
“POLISH STRIKE GUT!” shrieks one at the complacent beer-drinking czechs sitting behind them.
“COMMUNIST PARTEI SCHEISSE!” he continues, ramming home the point.
The czechs, their security suddenly ruffled, throw back a few hostile gestures. But the young Pole needs a whole lot more vodka before he finally falls asleep. Later at the Hungarian border a Czech guard rouses him to check his visa. He drowsily comes awake a bit too slowly for the guard, who gives him two thudding slaps on the back of his head to speed up the process.
My, its really touching to see how some Eastern folk treat their own.