Your Heart Out 12 - From The Hip ...

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… your heart out ‘special editions’ present …

… from the hip in the Cyrillic script


A special edition of Your Heart Out, called Rewrite The Script, detailed a growing fascination with the pop music of the old Eastern Europe made in the the 1960s and into the ‘70s. It outlined the faltering forays which resulted in the discovery of so much exceptional and glorious music from Poland, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Rumania, and how the whole experience had turned existing ideas about pop and culture on their head. Leaving aside more philosophical questions about the vagaries of politics and the ignorance and complicity of the critical process, on a pure entertainment level the more I delved and the more I listened so the recordings of artists like Marta Kubisova, Lili Ivanova, Ana Rusowicz, Kovacs Kati, Phoenix, Josipa Lisac and so on became as much a vital part of my regular listening pleasures as any ‘60s soul or bossa nova or garage punk. And not in any novelty, kitsch, exotic or freak sense either.

At that stage I had not even come across the remarkable Ewa Demarczyk. Chancing upon Eva’s performances was typical of the whole process. Following links and clues on YouTube, I stumbled across astonishing clips of Ewa performing in the ‘60s. I knew absolutely nothing about Ewa or her work. I can’t even remember hearing or reading the name before. But I was mesmerised by the ferocity of her delivery and, it has to be said, her striking looks which pitched her somewhere in between Juliette Greco and the Lydia Lunch of the No Wave era.

Research showed that she was part of the Polish ‘sung poetry’ tradition, and from a detached standpoint it’s easy to read into her performances all sorts of romantic and rebellious meanings and symbolism, forwards and backwards in time, from the anti-Nazi resistance to the fight against what the Communist administrations became. In many ways the lack of readily available information about Ewa and all the artists that have recently made my own odd little world so much more interesting adds to the appeal. It is the stumbling and fumbling in the dark that can be such fun. The not having a pre-existing route to follow is exciting, but that joy can be tempered by a seething resentment at all the custodians of pop history who have perpetuated the lie that there was little of cultural interest in terms of pop music to emerge from the Eastern Europe of the Communist era. This is now so patently untrue. And there are so many stories surely to tell, theories to explore, and recordings to hear. Thankfully there have been some who have already joined the dots in some way, and have long since understood. Whether that be the patriotic souls who have miraculously preserved or salvaged pieces of film through turbulent times to share on YouTube, the labels like Finders Keepers and VampiSoul that have started to explore the pop heritage of Eastern Europe, and of course the illuminators who have posted pieces of lost vinyl on the web ready for when the enthusiastic amateurs like me seek further enlightenment. When the earlier special edition of Your Heart Out was put together the challenge of exploring the pop music of the Soviet Union seemed sort of daunting. Somehow the soul music that came out of Yugoslavia or the Polish funk seemed more accessible. I suspect it was the idea of exploring the USSR’s musical lineage that provided an obstacle. I knew about Dean Reed, for example, and the entertaining book Reggie Nadelson had written about her search for the story of the all-American rock ‘n’ roller who became a massive star in the Soviet Union. Yet as entertaining as clips of Dean singing Venceremos with a raised clenched fist for thousands of fans may be, the story itself did not inspire much hope in the pioneering spirit of Soviet sounds. Perversely I wanted to steer a little clear of the sort of funk/jazz grooves so beloved of crate diggers around the world (though in passing I need to mention that if you do explore the funk/jazz/prog interface in the USSR you will come across an outfit called Arsenal, who created some amazingly beautiful and challenging sounds. Ah that name, which I am sure has more to do with the film about the 1918 Kiev Arsenal uprising than the football club, but even so ...). So chancing upon the legend of Vladimir Vysotsky was just about perfect. And enthusing about the man, the myth, the poetry, the defiance, the romance ... well, that’s sort of where we were up to.

The odd thing is that while wondering why on earth I hadn’t come across endless references to the great man, who after all had a million or so souls turn out for his funeral, somehow I sensed his name was familiar. Then I found a secondhand copy of Nik Cohn’s 1992 book Heart Of The World. It was a bit like being reacquainted with a dear old friend. There had been a time when I had searched out Nik’s writings, and been obsessed with them, in the way Eastern European pop music now fired my imagination. Somehow I had lost his books along the way, and much else besides. It was while re-reading Nik’s quest to find the world on Broadway that I realised that of course that’s where I’d first seen the name Vladimir Vysotsky. And, of course, Nik caught the whole thing about Vysotsky perfectly in a sentence or two. “It must have been a Saturday, because there were lights on late across the street and you could hear the music behind the blinds, Vladimir Vysotsky, Volodenka, with his hoarse rasp like a rusty hinge and word-drunk ballads – Wild Horses, A Village Wedding. Songs as raw as a running sore, they made Lev cry in his cups.”

Wouldn’t it have been neat to make that connection between Vysotsky and Nik Cohn earlier? I have to confess it wasn’t the first time I’d missed an opportunity with The Heart Of The World. There’s another Russian related part where Nik is writing about his ‘guide’ and the gangs back home: “Only the titles were changed. In Moscow, the youth gangs that counted had all been named after English pop groups of the sixties, the more obscure the cooler. Wimp suburbanites chose the Beatles and Rolling Stones; inner-city stylists preferred the Yardbirds or Them. On Novokuz, which must always be the hippest of them all, prime icons included John’s Children, The Action, the Troggs ...” Now that would have fitted in perfectly with a little something I’d written just before The Heart Of The World was first published. Oh well.

As magnificent as Vysotsky’s performances may be they are not pop in the conventional sense. And it did prove surprisingly easy to find some real gems from the Soviet pop vaults on YouTube. The Singing Guitars were particularly eye catching, and perhaps something of a Joe Meek fantasy with their outfits that were a cross between the Red Army and The Beatles and a sound that mixed Shadows/Ventures-style twang with traditional Russian folk elements. There too perhaps was the overlap with the space theme. Indeed the great Yuri Gagarin and other cosmonauts did pop up in at least one clip of a Russian pop singer performing on TV. The one Soviet pop clip that really grabbed me was a performance by the group Pesnyary in I believe the Kremlin Hall of their number Ruczniki. As the poster pointed out the drummer puts in a remarkable performance, and certainly wouldn’t be fined by James Brown, but it’s the whole thing that is compelling. The group may not be easy on the eye, but the sound is startling. With that funky bedrock comes a fantastic arrangement of harmonies and addictive hooks, so that the whole thing seems somewhere between The Association and Rotary Connection, but that’s misleading because it sounds spiritual and devotional too. In fact there is a temptation to think of David Axelrod with the Electric Prunes as a reference point.

While there were other wonderful Pesnyary performances on YouTube I became really obsessed with the Ruczniki clip and tried to find out more. Sure enough the group’s 1971 debut LP was out there if you looked in the right places, and it too has become something of an obsession. In the pop context I don’t think I have ever heard anything as beautiful as the group’s astonishing harmonies. They really do sound like something in tune with ancient religious or folk forms, of the sort that mesmerised us on first hearing Les Voix Mysteres de Bulgares. Actually the name Pesnyary (or Pesniary as you may see it spelt) I believe translates as Folk Group. The group actually started out as a Beatles covers group, and the more you read about the impact of the Fab Four in the old Eastern Europe the more you begin to have a new perspective on the group’s powers. Having been one that’s always kicked against the way the West clings to The Beatles and uses their work against us, it is ironic I guess that East European outfits like Phoenix and Pesnyary have made me recognise all over again the (deceptively) simple beauty in some of The Beatles’ ballads where they too almost seem like devotional pieces. That first Pesnyary record is quite incredibly and hauntingly beautiful, and there are moments when the harmonies work together, the electric guitars crackle, and the tinny organ weaves patterns, that I have found myself thinking of some of the Everly Brothers’ almost accidentally beautiful mid-‘60s works when they covered contemporary hits like House of The Rising Sun in a way to make your heart melt. Apparently quite a number of Pesnyary’s songs used classic poems for their lyrics, and that naturally adds to the appeal for anyone who has been attracted to Russian literature. Of course those who are more tuned in to such things will immediately on seeing Pesnyary realise they are actually from Belarus. I have to say initially the impulse was to talk in terms of the Soviet Russia whole, ignoring so much of what has happened since in terms of independence and nationalism. But I have to concede there is a compelling case for looking at certain of the specific regions in terms of their music (and I dare say other arts and activities). I came round to this way of thinking through chancing upon some Estonian music. I suppose the argument is that regions like Estonia were only ever reluctantly part of the USSR. There are plenty who will know more about such things than me. And the first piece of Estonian film/music I chanced across was Marju Kuut singing the Teddy Randazzo/Little Anthony number Going Out Of My Head, which was wonderfully of its time. Taking this particular performance in isolation it becomes symbolic in many ways. On one level it is completely gorgeous, and that is really all you need to know. But during the whole Eastern Europe expedition I’d maintained the position that I would resist the heavy funk/psych thing, and stay true to my own

interests in something more classy and jazzy. And Marju Kuut’s performance, even in grainy black and white, was wonderfully elegant.

What I hadn’t realised stumbling on Marju’s performance was that there was a lot of interest in her work from the funky fraternity (she’s been featured in Wax Poetics, for example). While I know now she has recorded over 40 LPs, I still have only heard a small number of her recordings. But they appeal enormously in a ‘60s Dionne Warwick or Nancy Wilson way, and if you agree Jackie Trent is more important than Iggy Pop, then get fishing. Marju was described by Downbeat as the best jazz singer in the USSR, but many of her recordings were of pop hits of the day. Well, in that she wasn’t unique, even if recording in Estonia may have been more fraught than in the West. Marju is still very much active, and in that glorious way that some of the Eastern European greats (check out Lili Ivanova and Josipa Lisac) have she has aged wonderfully and still has something of an edge and attitude. Azerbaijan is another part of the USSR that seems to have had a strong jazz tradition. Being a dilettante and a fraud I am basing that on very little. But even a cursory listen to the jazz work of Rashid Behbudov, and some of his soundtrack work at the end of the ‘60s and in the ‘70s, will provide plenty of evidence to support that claim. There are some wonderful moments where traditional Azeri folk elements are incorporated in the sound, with at times that great quivery romantic vocal style, and others where one is reminded of the records Gary McFarland and Gabor Szabo made for Impulse!

Qaya was a legendary Azeri vocal group, and again from the little I’ve heard they could conjure up ridiculously beautiful vocal arrangements that would fit perfectly alongside some of the ‘60s bossa related Brazilian outfits like MPB-4 and O Grupo. Later recordings have more of a Les Humphries Singers vibe, and even then some of the settings are so spectacularly funky and much loved by Soviet groove fans. Interestingly if you were to do an internet search for Soviet funk the chances are you would be pointed in the direction of Muslim Magomaev’s Gord Moy Baku at some stage. The Azeri singer was a genuine superstar in the USSR, known as the Soviet Sinatra. But the great Frank certainly never recorded anything as alarmingly funky and punchy as this number. It’s a real John Barry Bond-style belter which seems to have some serious jazz fans sitting in on the session in the same way a lot of the best UK/US sounds of the time did. Muslim seems to have been something of a dandy romantic figure, more in keeping with what you imagine from an Italian singer. In fact the Italian influence (Mina, Morricone, etc.) seems to have been particularly strong throughout the old Eastern Europe, and there do seem to be areas of overlap with the folk/opera dramatic elements. The same can be said of the French chanson tradition. I guess there is an argument that suggests influences away from the US/UK axis would be more favourably received. If Magomaev was a figure from one of the regions that came to have a major impact across the USSR then the same can be said of Raimonds Pauls. Coming from Latvia he was one of the pioneering figures in Soviet pop music. While to some that might not be the greatest compliment, to others he is a significant figure, particularly for his ‘70s soundtrack work which are much sought after by the crate diggers of the world. Short of struggling blindly round a Latvian site or two there is little of this work readily available, but the nuggets scattered here and there certainly stir the soul. One of his earliest pop works included the track Ligotaji performed by Nora Bumbiere, and it really is special. I’ve seen it compared to Broadcast, and you can see where that comes from, with the spooky psychedelic folk thing going on. But it is far more emotional and intense and downright strange than anything that great group has done. The use of electric guitar and organ combined with the ghostly pure vocals is remarkable. And it just leaves you with an all-consuming urge to hear more, learn more. Not just from this soundtrack, but all the buried treasure out there in the Soviet Union, and indeed in all the different parts of the world.

Naturally as the ‘70s progressed the work of Raimonds Pauls became more and more funk/disco oriented. As ever there will be plenty more qualified than me to comment on why that format worked so well in the Soviet Union. And it’s easy to understand why the crate diggers are so into this stuff when you hear outfits like Modo, whom Raimonds Pauls nurtured back in Latvia. At times on the tracks I’ve heard they could fit in nicely with some of the Munich disco pioneers before the machines took too much of a role, and that’s a hell of a compliment. If in the West when we talk earnestly of American composers/arrangers such as David Axelrod, Lalo Schifrin, Oliver Nelson and Quincy Jones, who have at varying times had variable amounts of acclaim, we can at least now revel in the idea that while the Cold War was at its fiercest these guys had their kindred spirits in the USSR. Specifically in Latvia there was Raimonds Pauls and Imants Kalnins. Kalnins is particularly fascinating. As is often the case, he is a massive and symbolic figure in Latvia. And yet I only came across his name by chance when I stumbled across the song Dudievens (which apparently translates as Grey Wagtail) on YouTube. It’s an astonishingly beautiful and haunting number in a kind of off-kilter psych/folk vein (and I’m trying not to mention Broadcast but ...). I assumed at the time Imants Kalnins was the singer, but it is apparently Nora Bumbiere (again). Searching further for ‘60s Latvian connections I came across clips from the 1967 film 4 White Shirts (Celtri Balti Krekli) which visually were a real treat for those that love movies where the actors stand around looking cool and moody, staring meaningfully at one another. But it was there for its soundtrack which is something special if you have the wherewithal to seek it out. It’s composed by Imants Kalnins and

features the group Zvaigznote. I’m not sure if it is the same group that appears in the film looking spectacularly cool in an austere Factory minor characters early ‘80s way. The soundtrack is a gorgeous mix of jazz, beat and folk influences, and certainly compares with some of the brilliant scores by Johnny Dankworth or the early John Barry. I understand the theme of the film is the struggle for personal freedoms, obvious hugely symbolic during the Soviet era, and it has taken on special meaning for the Latvian people. I’d love to see the whole thing. But as ever tracking these things down is easier than done, but I guess part of the thrill is the rooting around and seeking out.

Kalnin’s own work in the ‘rock’ context was frowned upon by the Soviet authorities, despite or because of his incredible popularity. At the end of the ‘60s I believe he played in the group 2xBBM, and again if the brief fragment on YouTube is anything to go by then they were something special in a strangely Velvet Underground way. Perhaps it was a case of difficult circumstances and limited budgets/facilities working FOR the artist. It would certainly be fascinating to hear more of Kalnins’ rock work. I believe, for example, the group Menuets recorded a lot of his compositions. The search is on. Kalnins’ own background, like Raimond Pauls’, was in classical and orchestral works before his head was turned by The Beatles. And it is here he took refuge after his rock work was ‘suppressed’. One other series of clips on YouTube is from the early ‘70s Latvian film, Blow Wind Blow or Blow Ye Winds as it seems to translate. There is a particularly charming pair of posts where a cratedigger proudly shows off his EP of the soundtrack by Imants Kalnins where the gorgeous orchestral score is intermittently punctuated by crackles of fuzz guitar, showing solidarity with the ‘rock’ tradition.

I guess in circumstances where certain sorts of expression are curtailed then opportunities are seized in ever more imaginative ways. And certainly incorporating ‘rock’ elements into classical works was one outlet at the time. Other artists in the old Eastern Europe used traditional folk forms in the same way, such as the Belarusian group Pesnyary and the Romanian outfit Phoenix. So Imants Kalnins used classical composition to shroud his ‘rock’ tendencies. His 1972 Symphony No. 4 certainly in the first movement incorporated elements of a song that had been outlawed, and his public knew and relished the fact. With the Eastern European pop music there has been a wonderful tradition of audience complicity, which equates to a knowingness which acknowledges limitations but which has a gift for drawing extra meaning from something seemingly innocuous. It is something Marju Kuut mentions, how when words are closely scrutinised then every little thing ‘allowed’ has to take on much more in the way of meaning. And before we get too superior then remember it is not that long ago every play in the UK was carefully censored by the Lord Chancellor’s department, and I guess that is exactly what prompted the Queen of the Music Hall Marie Lloyd to sing Every Little Movement Has A Meaning Of Its Own. The audiences understood. Interestingly it was the fourth movement of the symphony that agitated the authorities. They did not approve of Kalnins’ use of elements of (beat) poetry by Kelly Cherry, and it would be many years before the words were reinstated and the symphony performed as the composer meant. Through a chain of events Lan Shui, musical director of the Singapore Symphony orchestra, became aware of the work, hence the recording in 1999 which is the only one of Kalnins’ works readily available in the West. Which is where we came in and why on that sunny Spring morning the stirring sounds of the symphony were washing over me, with me imagining strange echoes of the Velvet Underground in the use of rhythm and repetition and wondering where all this will lead. And while sometimes there is a nagging feeling that it would be easier to remain on safe ground and enjoy more familiar sounds, there always seems something new to discover, as though the more you learn the more there is to know …


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