New exhibition treats communist oppression of 1980s Czech rock bands

28-03-2008

This sort of music may not make for the easiest of listening, and the title of the song ‘pal vodsud’ hajzle’ (something like ‘piss off, jerk’), might not sound the most welcoming upon first read. But, it is a good example of Czech new wave rock of the 1980s. The band? Jasná Páka – one of the best known proponents of the new wave in this country, and one of the communist regime’s biggest thorns in the side. Jasná Páka reunited this week for a one-off concert to open a new exhibition at Prague’s Pop Museum called ‘Nová vlna se starým obsahem’ (‘New Wave – Old Content’). It charts the secret police’s attempts to clamp down on rock bands of the 1980s – and the way that such bands struck back.

Aleš Opekar is the head of the Pop Museum. He told me about the conditions that rock bands of the period were working under:

“Each group had to have its own supervisor. They had to play in front of a commission which then asked them some difficult and uncomfortable questions, including some about their political beliefs. And then they received a stamp which said that they could legally play concerts. But the worst thing was that these bands were being constantly monitored, and they were constantly under pressure. They were always having to ask themselves if this or that word in their songs wasn’t a little bit too daring, and whether they would be banned from playing because of it. So bands looked for ways of expressing themselves between the lines.”

Was there something particularly Czech about the rock music being performed in this country during that period? Or was it just like the sort of punk music being sung elsewhere in Europe and America at the time? Again, Aleš Opekar:

“1980s new wave music was sung only in Czech here - whereas throughout the 1960s, English had often found its way into Czech rock. And so this reliance upon Czech, and Czech alone, in later rock music probably did lend the music a sort of national character. Because songs and music are linked to the language they are written in - the language gives the song its rhythm, after all.

“And as well, the musical instruments and sound systems people were using here weren’t maybe as good and expensive as those in the West. So the sound wasn’t as crystal clear, and as clean as elsewhere.”

At Wednesday’s opening there was a lot of long hair (so I fitted right in), and several underground rock music legends. I asked Aleš Opekar for a run down on who was who on the Czech rock scene at the time:

“In first place, I’d recommend Jasná Páka, who are going to play here tonight. They were never allowed to record legally, so we don’t have any official tapes of them. And then, I’d probably say Pražský vyběr, who do have one quality, professionally-recorded album. And then thirdly I’d say Mama Bubo, who had all sorts of projects going on the side, some minimalist-sounding things, some forays into reggae, some electronica. And then finally I’d mention Precedens, who were more into new romantic sounding stuff.”

Petr ‘Hraboš’ Hrabálek has a nickname which means ‘vole’ in English, and was one of the organizers of the ‘Nová vlna se starým obsahem’ exhibition:

If I wanted to get to know more about Czech rock of the 1980s, who would I listen to?

“Me. I was in one underground band called Křečový žíly – Varicose Veins in English.”

Lovely.

“I know. After Varicose Veins – this band split up – I formed a new hardcore band called Našrot. With this first band, Křečový žíly, we played only unofficial events. Technically, we didn’t exist, as far as the communists were concerned. And many of our members were taken for interrogation by the secret police. But Křečový žíly disbanded when we had to all go and do our two-year military service.”

As part of your exhibition, I saw that there was one wall dedicated to British artists and British punk music of the time. Did these British and American punk bands have an effect on the Czech rock scene?

“Yes, they had a big effect. Emigrants and people who traveled to the West sent back LPs, albums of such music, and young people in Czechoslovakia listened to this music and said ‘wow! This is not art rock, it isn’t hard rock!’ We tried the same thing with Czech lyrics and we saw – and the communists saw.”

But maybe you can tell me in which way being a rock star in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s was different from being Johnny Rotten or one of the Sex Pistols. Did Czech rock stars have different considerations and different things to think about from their British counterparts?

“They tried to be similar to these English rock stars and these English bands. They tried to dress up like them – these punk stars – and to make the same music. But, it is important, with Czech lyrics. They were getting the same information across, but in our language.”

There was a fair amount of nostalgia at the opening of ‘Nová vlna se starým obsahem’. But what about Aleš Opekar – does he think the 1980s were a golden age for Czech rock, which is now long gone?

“Well obviously the situation in communist Czechoslovakia was a very bad one as far as rock music was concerned, because there was no space for freedom of expression. And groups didn’t earn money by sounding good or being talented, but instead because they were opportunistic. You could only make money out of music if you were willing to pander to those in charge. So I don’t think that this was just such a wonderful time for rock music here.”

… But maybe the picture wasn’t as bleak as all that:

“But on the other hand it is true that these difficult conditions managed to bring out the sort of primitive essence of rock music. Even in such conditions, it was possible for bands to survive and express some sort of opposition to the regime. So rock music’s unaesthetic, and un-commercial, purpose was fulfilled here during this period. The music really did stand for something, and it was made by people who didn’t care if it would make them money or not. People made this music for their own personal reasons, and really communicated with the public in this way. So, from that point of view, this era is a very interesting one. There were a lot of groups, a lot of good groups, and the conditions they were working in forced them to express themselves honestly.”

Bands like Jasná Páka may not have been free to write and play as they wished throughout new wave’s heyday in the 1980s, but somehow the band still managed to become a household name, and a favourite amongst many Czechs who look set to visit what seems to be becoming a very popular exhibition indeed.

28-03-2008

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