Thirty years ago, in early June 1990, singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe and Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs performed at the summer cinema in Olomouc. The concert and surrounding tour – which could only really have happened at that specific moment in history – are still remembered with great fondness by many who were involved.
Billy Bragg recently used this photo from Olomouc in 1990 for this video of a previously unreleased song he recorded with Michael Stipe the following year.
“I recognised that these men were not from Olomouc because their clothes were colourful. They said, We have a concert here tonight – please come.”
On Thursday June 7, 1990, Daniel Hrbek, then a student of 19, was crossing the main square in the picturesque Moravian city of Olomouc when a couple of strangers caught his attention.
“There were two men on the square – and it was Billy Bragg and Michael Stipe. I recognised that these men were not from Olomouc because their clothes were colourful [laughs]. Colour was something that we didn’t know on clothes in socialism, because everything was brown and grey. I didn’t know who they were, so I asked them what they were doing in Olomouc. And they said, We will have a concert here tonight – so please come. I really didn’t know who Billy Bragg was, but I had some experience with R.E.M. For me it was like a miracle that Michael Stipe was in Olomouc.”
The story of how the two, along with Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs, Billy Bragg’s piano accompanist Cara Tivey and support band The Coal Porters, came to be in Olomouc had actually begun late the previous year, around the time that four decades of Communist rule ended in Czechoslovakia.
Journalist Petr Nosálek, who grew up in Olomouc, shares his memories of the time.
“My friend Mark Andrews from Wolverhampton in England, who had come to Olomouc in September 1989 as an English lecturer at the university, got this idea to invite some Western artists just after the revolution. Because he was an active part of the student movement during the Velvet Revolution. He had translated for Billy Bragg in 1986 in the GDR and still had his phone number, so he got this idea to give him a ring. He did so and Billy Bragg said, Yes, why not?”
Bragg, a left-wing, politically active singer-songwriter, had been a major name in UK independent music for the best part of a decade. He had performed in several Eastern Bloc states, but never Czechoslovakia – and not long before his first visit ran into some pals in the US.
“I had been in Washington, D.C., in April 1990 for the first big Earth Day celebrations. Michael Stipe had been involved with that and so had Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs. I had been friends with them for quite a while. They were quite excited about what was going down in Eastern Europe and I said, I’m going to Berlin in June, and then we’re going to do some shows in Czechoslovakia. And I think Michael said, How is it possible to do that? I said, Michael, you’ve got a passport, haven’t you? You get on a plane and get off in Berlin – there’s no problem with it now. And they said, Well, could we come? And I was like, Yeah, course you can. And we had an amazing time.”
While Billy Bragg and Natalie Merchant were known to many alternative music fans, Michael Stipe’s R.E.M. were even then filling indoor arenas around the world. The American group’s most recent LP, Green, was to sell four million copies.
The party’s short tour passed through East Berlin and Cottbus in what was then still East Germany before reaching Czechoslovakia.
By that time the organisers of the Olomouc show, having discovered who was accompanying Bragg, had added two more dates, one in the capital and one in Bratislava.
However, the first show, at Prague’s Výstaviště on June 6, 1990, was not an unqualified success. Billy Bragg explains why.
“I had an album out called The Internationale and I had recorded a version of the Internationale with new lyrics. The point I was trying to make with that was that, whilst the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War meant that we could consign totalitarianism to the dustbin of history, there were people trying to put our entire left-wing culture in there as well. And those things were worth keeping – they had a longer tradition, and we had to keep them. But obviously the Internationale has a different context in Prague than it does in London, and I wasn’t really aware of that. So I did get some flak for that, although my translator did try very hard to get across the case that I was making for me, and I respect that.”
Josef Podstata is today the director of Czech Radio’s studios in Olomouc and Ostrava. But in 1990 he was a recent medicine graduate, a friend of Nosálek and Andrews – and the chief organiser of the tour.
Podstata recalls explaining to Bragg that young Czechs associated the Internationale closely with the dreaded, recently-deposed Communist regime.
“I asked him, Please don’t sing that song in Olomouc. He said, I don’t want to be hypocritical – it’s a song with a history, and I know why I’m singing it. And I said, Well, I know why I am asking this of you [laughs]. So in the end he didn’t sing the Internationale in Olomouc.”
The musicians played for free and Podstata’s recollection is that they each received CSK 100 pocket money every day (tickets to the Olomouc show at least cost CSK 30). This was very much in keeping with the laidback, no-frills nature of the entire tour, Podstata says.
“It was nothing like you would expect from rock stars. Because in that moment they were not here in the position of rock stars.”
“For example, here in Olomouc at the venue, which is known as the Summer Cinema, there was no backstage, because the situation was like this. And here in Olomouc they stayed in our flats – we didn’t book a hotel. So it was nothing like you would expect from rock stars. Because in that moment they were not here in the position of rock stars.”
Billy Bragg has similar recollections.
“It was very un-rock’n’roll. Me and Stipey shared a room, which neither of us ever did on tour. But we kind of had to work out how to share the space, you know. I had never been to Czechoslovakia, so I was also in that sort of learning space. Everything was new to me about Czechoslovakia. And it had a completely different vibe to East Germany; I didn’t feel the uptight, Stasi vibe in Czechoslovakia.”
Billy Bragg performs The Price I Pay, from his 1988 LP Workers’ Playtime, at the Olomouc summer cinema.
Many Westerners arriving in this part of the world in the early 1990s – this author included – were constantly fascinated by the socialist designs still to be seen everywhere. Bragg says it was just the same for him and the R.E.M. vocalist.
“All the things were strange. I remember Michael picking up on things that he’d never seen, that stood out to him. It was odd things like the bags of sugar that you get with coffee – he had a pocketful of those. The consumer goods looked completely different. It was the look of them, the style of them, rather than what they actually were. And I think that’s what was strange. But architecturally, coming to Czechoslovakia was like the magic kingdom. All the architecture was still there, and you could see an affinity with the architecture I’d seen in Vienna and in Budapest. You got a little bit of a feel of that late 19th century thing that you didn’t get in East Germany, because everything had been flattened [during WWII].”
While Bragg and Stipe were taking in their novel surroundings, much was also new to the young organisers of their mini tour. This included producing posters for a rock concert, as Josef Podstata recalls.
“Everything was amateur. Six months after communism collapsed there was no capitalism here. It wasn’t possible to pay an agency for some graphics and to order the print of the poster somewhere. So with some friends, on a computer – or maybe even manually, because I don’t remember computers at that time – we made a simple poster saying only, Billy Bragg and hidden guests. A friend of mine, who at that time worked in a newspaper print building, managed somehow during the night, basically illegally, to print the posters. And in the same way – meaning illegally – we organised sticking up the posters all around the town.”
Podstata says that he learned a valuable lesson from Billy Bragg’s manager Peter Jenner, who had previously worked with Pink Floyd, when the issue of permits for the posters came up.
“I said – and this was six months after the changes, so I was really a childish and, how to say, post-communist young man – Well, it’s just a little bit illegal [laughs]. And he said, That’s not possible – either you have illegal things or legal things; either you are pregnant or you are not pregnant [laughs]. Which is completely right! I owe a lot to Peter Jenner, because he showed me a way of thinking, attitudes and such things.”
As for the Olomouc concert itself, it began – after a set from support act The Coal Porters – with Bragg and Tivey performing two of his songs. This was followed by the Englishman and Cara Tivey backing Natalie Merchant on a couple of numbers and then doing the same for Stipe (specifically on R.E.M’s Disturbance at the Heron House and The One I Love).
The three then performed some songs together before all of the musicians, including The Coal Porters, covered the wooden stage for a raucous rendition of The Only Ones’ Another Girl, Another Planet.
Fan Daniel Hrbek says he hasn’t enjoyed any gig more in the intervening three decades.
“I’m near 50 and I’m really happy that I had the chance to be there. It was the best concert of my life! I knew it after the concert, immediately, and it’s still the same. And I’ve seen a LOT of concerts and a lot of bands. I saw some concerts of R.E.M. after that, but this was something very different. We were about four metres from the singers. You could sing with them, you could go up to the stage, you could talk to them after the concert.”
Billy Bragg says his recollections of the actual show are a little vague. But other memories of that evening have stayed with him.
“We ended up in a lovely restaurant. It had a bit of Gypsy vibe to it, a bit of Romany vibe, and there was this massive cheese fountain of fondue, I remember. At some point during the meal me and Michael Stipe slipped away to have a walk around the town, because it’s a lovely old town, and there was nobody about. It must have been around midnight. Everything was closed up. And we came to a square where there was a plinth and on the plinth the figure had gone, but there were loads of balloons tied around it and they were gently moving in the breeze. And me and Stipey sat and looked at that and thought, You know, this is what change really looks like, this is history. This is not just art, this is actual history we’re looking at. It was quite an emotional moment for us both, or certainly it was for me. He was very taken with it all as well. It was a new experience for him, because obviously nobody knew who he was, really. It wasn’t like he’d walk in somewhere and everything would stop, which is what would happen in America. So I think he was really enjoying that anonymity.”
Neither musician was known to an old man they had run into earlier that day. A great photograph – which Bragg recently used to illustrate a video for an unreleased song he’d recorded with Stipe – shows the pair flanking the man on a bench in front of Olomouc Town Hall, complete with its (incidentally still intact) socialist astronomical clock.
The One I Love was at that point one of R.E.M.’s biggest hits.
“The old man spoke English – that’s why we’re talking to him. I think he heard us talking English and he came to talk to us, because he hadn’t spoken English in a long time. So that’s why we’re in conversation with him, talking about what we’re doing and what was happening in Czechoslovakia. That’s what’s going on. I don’t remember precisely what we talked about, but I do remember the excitement there was at finding English-speaking people just wandering around.”
However, the trip was not in vain. The first free elections held in Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution took place on June 8 and 9, 1990 and tour organiser Josef Podstata got to cast a ballot for the first time in his life.
Shaky but wonderful video footage, shot by Mark Andrews, shows the touring party clapping enthusiastically as a long-haired Podstata votes, before receiving a big hug from Billy Bragg.
“It was a really emotional moment. I remember Natalie Merchant crying and telling me, Josef – your first free election!”
“We found a polling station somewhere in Bratislava and we went there. And when we said to Billy and Michael and Natalie that we were going there they said, We must go with you. So the whole company, even with The Coal Porters and Peter Jenner – I don’t know, 10 or 15 British and American people – came with me and Petr Nosálek. It was a really emotional moment. I remember Natalie Merchant crying and telling me, Josef – your first free election! At that time I didn’t feel the moment in that way. For me it was something like, Yeah, we are free – for six months! – so it’s normal, I expected this. But now I remember it with the same feeling – a really emotional moment, and a really important moment.”
“The next day we went to Znojmo. My wife comes from this very nice historical town in South Moravia, so I thought that they might like it there, which was true [laughs]. Michael Stipe especially was enthusiastic about Znojmo – so much so that one or two years after the original trip he called me and asked if I could accompany his friend Laurie Anderson, the famous singer, because she had a concert in Vienna and Znojmo is only 80 or 90 kilometres from Vienna. So he asked me to do the same, to be her tour guide in Znojmo, because he really fell in love with Znojmo, I think.”
Nosálek also has an amusing story about Stipe, who did not eat meat, attempting to pay for food at a popular spot near the Moravian town.
“I was really amazed to see Michael Stipe paying for his portion of fried cheese with a gold or even platinum card.”
“When we visited the dam lake Vranovská přehrada we found a very cheap fast food restaurant. Obviously the only vegetarian food they served was fried cheese with potatoes and tartar sauce. And I was really amazed to see Michael Stipe paying for his portion of fried cheese with a gold or even platinum card [laughs]. It was an amazing moment to see Michael Stipe trying to use his credit card, because in Czechoslovakia in 1990 nobody used any credit cards – we didn’t know what they were. So [laughs] the lady at the cash desk was really amazed. And we probably had to pay for him in Czech crowns, in cash.”
Petr Nosálek was also tasked with finding some vegetarian food for Stipe for breakfast on his final day in Prague. He took the singer to a milk bar on Mostecká St. (which now houses a McDonald’s), a stone’s throw from Charles Bridge.
“I took him to an old fast food restaurant, which had already been quite famous before the revolution, serving sliced bread with cottage cheese or butter and nicely sliced hard-boiled eggs. They also had things like cold milk or hot cocoa with a thick skin on it [laughs] to drink. And at this old restaurant he said to me, over the bread and cocoa, Peter, I think I’m onto something – I have a very good song buzzing in my head for some time. And he started humming something, something I obviously didn’t recognise, and even murmuring some words. I could recognise only three words: Losing my religion [laughs] – R.E.M.’s biggest hit. He asked me, Peter, what did you think? I didn’t know what to say. But the next year, in 1991, I would have known what to say to him [laughs].”
Nosálek has interviewed the likes of David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen, but says the thing people ask him about most frequently is how it was showing Michael Stipe and Co. around in June 1990.
For his part the tour’s main organiser Josef Podstata says that spending time around the group of Westerners helped him develop as a person. And, naturally, it was fun.
This video by Englishman Mark Andrews features wonderful footage of the tour – including of Josef Podstata voting for the first time in Bratislava – from around the 18-minute mark.
“I remember it really as a nice trip with fine people. I don’t have any photographs from that time. We were concentrating on different things. Now, looking back, I’m a little bit nostalgic about that time. It was really fine to live it – and it’s really fine to remember it.”
Billy Bragg, now 62, says looking back today you suddenly realise that these events happened a full 30 years ago – and 30 years before that Yuri Gagarin hadn’t even been in space.
“You don’t often get the privilege of being present when something like that is happening, when a people are invigorated by change.”
But even though a few of the singer’s recollections are fuzzy he says he is glad to have come to Czechoslovakia in the momentous, possibility-filled days of 1990.
“It was a very special time for all of us. And we often talk about it when we get together, that that trip was something special, that we realised that real change was happening. You don’t often get the privilege of being present when something like that is happening, when a people are invigorated by change. I’ll never forget that feeling in Prague and in Bratislava.”