Jan Šesták was a music-obsessed mega-fan of Radio Luxembourg, tuning in every evening, despite the risks, in communist Czechoslovakia. Tony Prince was a top DJ on the Europe-wide station, which regularly reached tens of millions of listeners. This is the story of how the two met when Prince performed in Šesták’s native Brno on a 1970 tour, starting a friendship that continues to this day. It is also a story about the power of radio.
When I meet Jan Šesták in Brno, one of the places he takes me to is the city’s Kounic student dorms. As we stand in a quiet courtyard, Šesták takes out a photo of his father standing by a gallows in that very spot in the immediate post-war period.
During World War II, both of Šesták’s parents had been interned by the Nazis at the facility, where around 800 people were executed. The couple were arrested after Šesták’s uncle absconded, eventually to reach the UK.
Šesták shows me notes in extremely tiny script that his mother and father smuggled out of the notorious prison in the latter’s shirts.
“He was known as the Postmaster, because he used to do it for other prisoners as well. He put even 20 pieces into one shirt [to smuggle them out].
“But unfortunately later, through an informer, the Nazis discovered it. It cost my mother almost three years in Ravensbrück concentration camp.”
For his part, Šesták’s father ended up in Dachau. The couple both survived and, as we will hear shortly, Šesták senior returned from the notorious death camp with a “souvenir” that was to play a big role in his as yet unborn son’s life.
And remarkably – fast-forwarding many decades – Šesták was himself to regularly perform as a music DJ in the bar at the Kounic dorms, which by then had reverted to their original function.
You could hardly meet a bigger music fan than Jan Šesták. He lives and breathes music. As a teenager and young man, his lifeline to the latest Western rock’n’roll, rock and pop that he couldn’t access in communist Czechoslovakia was Radio Luxembourg. The hugely successful commercial station broadcast around the continent on medium wave and could be picked up in some parts of the Eastern Bloc, including across Czechoslovakia.
“After a whole day in the communist milieu in Czechoslovakia… on the radio those crazy Communists were saying their stupid things, in the newspaper you just took the last page with the sport. There was nothing to read.
“And then at 7:30 pm, This is Radio Luxembourg, your station of the stars, the Tony Prince Show… you just knew that you were not lost. That you can touch the stars, or touch the free world.”
Šesták’s favourite DJ Tony Prince, nicknamed the Royal Ruler, was only around half a decade older than him. But Prince had grown up in another world, in Oldham in the north of England. And he too had caught the Radio Luxembourg bug at a young age.
“Like kids across Europe, I became a devout Radio Luxembourg listener at quite a young age. Like most of Europe the UK had no daytime radio station playing pop music, just like in Czechoslovakia, actually.
“The BBC played six records a day, if we were lucky, so we all waited for 7.30 at night when we tuned in to 208, the station of the stars, with pop music all night long, all covered in the most annoying static.
“It was awful, but we didn’t think it was awful, because it was all we had.”
“In 1965 I joined Radio Caroline South, off the south coast of the UK, before going to Radio Caroline North.
“On the south ship I met the Emperor Rosko, who became both an influence and a lifelong friend; we’re still pals today.
“When I moved to the north ship, off the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, I started referring to myself as ‘the Royal Ruler in the Prince’s Palace of Peachy Platters where nothing else matters but the good times!’, platters being another word for records.
“Many of us had crazy nicknames: ‘Daffy’ Don Alan, ‘Baby’ Bob Stewart, Jerry ‘Soopa’ Leighton, etc., etc.”
As we shall learn shortly, Jan Šesták and Tony Prince – one a Czechoslovak railway worker, the other used to hobnobbing with the likes of Elvis and Paul McCartney – were eventually to become great friends, despite being from different sides of the Iron Curtain.
But first let’s hear about how Šesták initially developed the love of radio that sustained him through the communist years – starting with his first receiver.
“It was a Philips radio that my father brought from Dachau concentration camp.
“After it was liberated by the American Army the Nazis of course got away and some things remained there. He was working in an electricians workshop, so he had a chance to take it.
“Under the Communists there was what was called a one-wire station. You couldn’t dial anything and could only receive the one official channel.
“We were rich in the sense in that we had a Philips radio where we could dial other stations.”
Backing up a bit, Jan Šesták says his father and fellow Dachau prisoners could have paid with their lives for their dedication to radio.
“He was very lucky that he found one of his friends in Dachau and he got him into this electricians workshop. It was very amazing, because they constructed a secret radio station there.
“You needed antenna at that time and as antenna they used electric wire on the roof, but of course then they didn’t have electricity. So they took electricity from underground, from a greenhouse that was very close.
“But it was very dangerous, because if somebody had learned about it they would have been killed immediately.
“At the end of the war it got better, because Nazi soldiers – even though it was not permitted – were bringing their own radios to this workshop to be repaired.
“So [the prisoners] kept telling them they needed more time to repair them and were catching all the news from the BBC and other stations on these better radios that were brought there by the Nazis.”
Šesták was a small boy when he himself first experienced the thrill of hearing an international radio broadcast.
“We used to go every summer to the Beskydy mountains. And there was one boy, Ivan Kulišťák… I was five or six, very small. He used to listen to Radio Luxembourg – I learned later it was Radio Luxembourg.
“They had a house in the valley and there was a mountain stream, nothing else. And it played through the whole valley, because there was nobody else there.
“I had this connection: This beautiful nature, these rock’n’roll songs, though I, of course, didn’t know what rock’n’roll was, it all got into my brain as something beautiful.
“And when I was 10 or 11 or 12, I started to search myself. And I discovered Radio Luxembourg.”
Šesták’s parents were themselves anti-communist. But still they had some concerns about the fact that he was listening illicitly to Western broadcasts.
“My parents knew that people died for listening to foreign radio during WWII, that they were sent to prison when the Communists took power.
“Even though it got better with time, they were still afraid that I could have problems. And they were not too happy if I was listening to Radio Luxembourg too loud.
“The biggest danger was that if you applied to study at secondary school or university, somebody could say about you, He listens to foreign radio. It was just one proof that you are not a reliable person.”
As well as listening to the station known to Czechoslovak fans as “Laxík” to keep up with the latest sounds, the teenage Jan Šesták would try his best to note down the lyrics of Western hits from Radio Luxembourg broadcasts
Sometimes he caught just a few words during one listen and waited impatiently for another play so he could decipher more of a song.
Many of his friends were musicians and used his transcriptions as the basis for Czech versions of UK and US hits that were as faithful as possible.
Eventually Šesták’s life was transformed by a Sonet Duo radio and tape recorder in one that cost an arm and a leg by the standards of communist Czechoslovakia.
“There was this little microphone and you put it against the radio.
“Of course this Philips radio, a pre-war construction, had no connections, etc. But because of all the static that we were used to on Radio Luxembourg…
“All we wanted was to understand the lyrics, to catch the lyrics. The difference in quality was not that big if it was only from a microphone.
“For us it was still a miracle: Now when we listened to Back in the USSR we could listen to it several times, a hundred times if we wanted, and not to wait two days or one day before they would play it on Luxembourg once again.”
Like members of his generation around the world, Jan Šesták was blown away by The Beatles. Managing to bunk into a one-off screening of A Hard Day’s Night at Brno’s Moscow cinema as part of a “week of UK film” was a huge moment for the teenage music fanatic.
After all, unlike his counterparts in Western Europe or the US, he had extremely little access to information about the Fab Four. For a long time he didn’t even know what they looked like.
“It took, I don’t know, one or two years before they wrote something about them in Czechoslovakia.
“Even if they mentioned them in newsreels, they only mentioned them as a crazy group, making their screaming fans go so crazy that you can’t understand them.
“Of course they didn’t add that if bought a record you could listen to them [laughs] without the screaming, because you couldn’t buy their records in Czechoslovakia.
“In those days there was a newsreel during the time of the British elections and they [the communist media] mentioned that the Beatles were smart because they supported the Labour party [laughs]. So they started to tolerate them.
“Then of course also, in the mid-1960s, things got better in Czechoslovakia, so the first pictures emerged.
“But when we saw in Brno the movie A Hard Day’s Night, before it we didn’t know any difference between John, Paul, Ringo and George. They were all the same.”
Eventually, Šesták managed to finally acquire his first proper Beatles record. Entitled A Collection of Beatles Oldies (But Goldies), it came out under license on Czechoslovakia’s Supraphon label in 1969, seven years after the release of the band’s first single, Love Me Do.
However, not long afterwards, in July 1970, Šesták was to meet an idol that for him was on a par with the Beatles: Tony Prince, his favourite DJ on his lifeline to the outside world, Radio Luxembourg.
Unlikely as it may sound, almost two years after the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia had begun, Prince was booked to do a tour of the country in the summer of 1970. The DJ explains.
“I made discotheque appearances across Britain and Europe and Scandinavia, and it was always a thrill to be invited to entertain the kids in countries that I had not visited before.
“I received a call from Pavel Černocký, who worked for a Prague entertainment agency. He invited me to do three shows in three cities: Karlovy Vary, Brno and Prague. He explained that although I would be paid in Czech currency, it would be worthless in the West.
But it turned out some things were more liberal in Czechoslovakia than in many parts of the West, recalls Prince.
“I arrived in Czechoslovakia in a silver Jaguar Daimler Sovereign, a beautiful car, and I thought the roads might kill it before the journey was completed!
“In Karlovy Vary we stayed in a baronial style hotel which had its own nightclub, complete with strippers. We couldn't believe that these strippers took ALL their clothes off!
“Accordingly Christine wouldn’t let me go to any of these shows after the first one, unfortunately [laughs].”
Prince dressed like a rock star and would have stood out anywhere.
“You can see their reaction on the Prague photos that were printed in magazines in England at the time, where I’m on a tram. I think the older people thought I had escaped from a zoo or something!
“I was quite used to this, even in Luxembourg wearing Carnaby Street fashion, 1960s fashion, people would stop and stare.”
The jaws of passers-by may have dropped, but the young people who came to his Czech shows couldn’t have been more enthusiastic.
“The welcome wasn’t unlike being a Beatle. But the Czechoslovak kids’ passion for music was far greater than the kids in the West, because the kids in the West had everything on a plate.
“At a gig a girl bade me come to her, she was crying like a baby. I bent down to hear what she had to say and, holding a pile of bank notes towards me she said, I’ll give you all my Deutschmarks for Beatles record!
However, while Western kids were used to such DJ sets, Prince’s audiences in Czechoslovakia were more reticent when it came to cutting a rug.
“I played the best of the 60s and a few floor-filling rock’n’roll records. They wanted the Beatles, the Stones and the Kinks. But I seem to recall people didn’t so much want to dance. They were keen to see the famous DJ who had brought them so much great music every night.”
Nobody was keener than Jan Šesták and his music-obsessed buddies, who had managed to book Tony Prince for a nightspot they had started in Brno, the Bav club.
“Tony’s Daimler was parked here. It was crowded inside, crowded outside. Thanks to Tony we could feel for a couple of hours at least what the Swinging Sixties looked – full of life, freedom and music.”
Šesták says getting the chance to see their Western radio hero up close was a particularly powerful experience at that moment in time. The hope of the Prague Spring period had been crushed and Czechoslovakia’s grim normalisation period had begun.
“And now, after the Soviet invasion in 1968, and after the Czechoslovak People’s Militia and the State Security were shooting our people in 1969, finally we got a little bit of freedom.
“Because now we had somebody normal from the free world, for at least some hours. Radio Luxembourg came alive to Brno thanks to Tony Prince. I think nobody who lived outside can understand it – it’s not possible…
“For years, you’re listening to the only radio station with music. Because if you are young, you want music. And now it becomes real for one evening, coming to the Bav club in the person of the most beloved DJ, Tony Prince. You go wild!”
While the whole crowd went crazy, Šesták was the envy of all his friends as he got to serve as a guide for the DJ and his wife, Tony Prince recalls.
“Jan called me in my hotel room in Brno. He was appointed my chaperone, because he spoke the best English.
“He became speechless for a moment when I answered the phone and when I came down to meet him and his friends I think they were all surprised that I was actually a human being.
“Jan looked after Christine whilst I was on stage, and I knew he was the envy of the guys there because Christine was a cool mini-skirted English rose. Jan looked proud as punch.”
Tony Prince was the first native speaker of English that Šesták had ever had a conversation with. And the two hit it off right away, says the Brno man.
“Just like he was a friendly, down-to-earth figure on the radio, it was just like if a relative had come. He was just like a relative. We began to understand each other immediately.
“Manfred Mann came here, as did even The Beach Boys in 1969, and maybe one thing they [the communists] were afraid of, or why they didn’t invite DJs, was because Tony’s visit was much more dangerous for the regime.
“The Beach Boys were on the stage and then went away. But Tony Prince met face to face some 500 people or even more and that was much more dangerous, because those people who were here on that night had a very close contact with Western culture through Tony Prince.
“I have often said that we remembered his appearance for the 20 years that remained until the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was like Christians have their God, and we counted the time from Tony’s visit to Brno [laughs].”
During those years before the Velvet Revolution, Šesták, who had been barred from attending university by the Communists, worked on the railways and as a night porter in a hotel.
He also managed, finally, to get the licence needed to DJ in public – and still spins records in Brno to this day, though obviously official permission is no longer required.
After Tony Prince’s 1970 show in Brno, Šesták wrote to him for a while. However, he eventually stopped for fear the secret police might have got hold of their correspondence.
Toward the end of the 2000s, one of Šesták’s old Bav club pals had the idea of inviting Prince back to the venue (now called Šelepka) to mark the 40th anniversary of the show that had meant so much to them. The DJ agreed and flew to Brno from the UK in 2009.
Šesták says he and Prince once again got on like a house on fire.
“Immediately, immediately. We took him to his hotel and then came here. And it was swinging already inside! Just like all those years before, everybody was eager to see Tony again. It was a very touching moment.
But it didn’t end with that meeting. Prince suggested they write a kind of joint autobiography, telling their life stories side by side. The book The Royal Ruler & The Railway DJ came out earlier this year. Prince recalls its genesis.
“After the people had left we had a couple of drinks and were talking and exchanging memories. I was so moved by their stories of deprivation that I asked Jan if he’d like to make my autobiography into a double autobiography.
“I knew that the people in the West had never fully understood the impact of the Russian invasion, Dubček’s brave attempts to escape the Communist clutches and what it was like being a kid in a country where no one knew what the Beatles looked like, or indeed how to spell ‘Beatles’ correctly.
“I suppose I wanted to show a comparison between my life as a DJ in the West and that of a music mad wannabe DJ in the East. It took five years to complete.”
While that process was ongoing, Tony Prince invited his Czech pal to a huge Radio Luxembourg reunion in 2015. It was attended by many of the other now veteran DJs who had also provided music sustenance to Šesták over the years.
“First of all I brought Jan to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg when we were having a DJ reunion. Here he met some of the legends he had only ever heard on his radio.
“We partied for three days and his biggest thrill was standing at the front entrance to the Villa Louvigny, which had housed his favourite radio station. It’s now a council office.
“Then we had our book launch at the Luxembourg embassy in London, where he met almost every surviving 208 DJ and Petula Clark was our guest of honour. This was followed by a DJ party at the London Hard Rock.
“Jan’s big ambition was always to visit Liverpool, so the day after the book launch I drove him from London to the birthplace of the Beatles.
Naturally Jan Šesták loved every minute of that trip of a lifetime to the UK. But he looks back with particular fondness on the Radio Luxembourg reunion in the Grand Duchy.
“It was so nice because I met people like Mark Wesley, Mike Hollis and Ollie Henry.
“And above all I got to see the sacred ground of the Villa Louvigny, where Radio Luxembourg was until 1992. So I could see the very place which served us with music. It was very touching.
“If somebody had told me in the early 1960s that one day I would be with Tony Prince in Luxembourg, I would have said [laughs], Shut up, let’s not talk about fairy tales [laughs].”