… your heart out ‘special editions’ present …
rewrite the script
“THE LANGUAGE OF MUSIC IS KNOWN AROUND THE WORLD . I T’S A LANGUAGE THAT’S UNDERSTOOD BY PEOPLE EVERYWHERE . S OON YOU ’ LL HEAR THE TRUMPET BEGIN TO BLOW . A ND LISTEN TO THE TROMBONES PLAYING WAY DOWN LOW . W ELL EVERYBODY SEEMS TO BE PLAYING WITH A LOT OF SOUL ... “ B ERYL M ARSDEN , M USIC T ALK
This is a story about discovering wonderful pop sounds from the Eastern Europe of the 1960s and ‘70s. In other places it might be billed as a journey of discovery where myths are shattered, lies exposed, ignorance laid bare, injustices set right. That sort of thing. It is written with great enthusiasm, if from a position of relative ignorance. It is openly acknowledged that there are plenty of people out there who will know much more about all this than me. But who cares? The seeds of the Your Heart Out project were sown by the discoveries made online of lost sounds salvaged and shared by saints and sinners determined to shed light on musics we hardly dared dream existed. While many of these discoveries pointed in the direction of Brazil, Jamaica, France, Italy and Africa, there were increasingly and surprisingly signs that wonderful music had been made in the old Communist Eastern Europe. Those of us in the Capitalist West have been brought up to regard the old Communist East of the ‘60s as a ‘slave state’, as Ian Svenonius puts it in The Psychic Soviet where he mourns the passing of the old Soviet Union. The old Eastern Europe? We know what we are supposed to think. A cold, bleak oppressive block of countries where personal freedoms were limited, consumer goods in short supply, and popular culture was a laughing stock. You know, the image of Communist rock being the Plastic People of the Universe or whatever. Hippies gathering in secret locations to play extended free jazz inspired jams. That sort of thing. Propaganda prevailed. We should have known better. Even without personal political prejudices, Eastern Europe has long had an appeal. There was the space race and Yuri Gagarin perhaps. The stamps I inherited from a cousin with the beautiful Soviet designs. The 1970 World Cup was a real factor too. I diligently collected stickers and found the Eastern Europe teams wonderfully romantic. The Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, and Bulgaria. I particularly loved the Soviet names. I insisted for months on being called Vladimir. Then there was the teenage obsession with Subway Sect and the bootleg tapes and interviews I studied endlessly. In particular there was the song about East Europeans where Vic Godard seemed to sing about how we were scared of them. I seem to recall in interviews how the group would explain about how billboards in the USSR used quotations while we in the West were bombarded with advertising slogans for things we didn’t want, couldn’t afford, and so who had the best of it? The group too had the look of the old ‘60s films from Eastern Europe with subtitles that would be shown late at night on BBC2 where the young actors would look impossibly glamorous in a brutal black and white way without any of the Western gloss. Now with a supposedly endless choice of channels there seems little chance of seeing these films again apart from on an expensively packaged arthouse DVD. So too with the books. While it is only recently I may have come across writers from the old Europe like Sandor Marai, Antal Szerb, Victor Serge, Joseph Roth, and more contemporary things such as Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy and Alan Furst’s WW2 related adventures, it is all the old thrillers that helped shape an outlook. The tales of the Communist resistance in WW2, the Cold War spy stories where somehow sympathies seem to have been with what’s supposedly the wrong side. And then there’s been Ian Svenonius, in his time with The Make-Up and that mock defection in Blue Is Beautiful, the collection of essays in The Psychic Soviet, through to Chain and the Gang. So you might say that the door was open ...
What has made this voyage of discovery possible is the increased use of not-so-new technology. That is the world of blogs and YouTube, and the possibilities provided to share information in a way the official media channels choose not to. The interesting thing is that very often early users of new technologies are not the ones to make best use of it. So it is much further down the line that the important advances will be made. In this case the lost LPs uploaded and the forgotten footage shared. Quite often these acts of enlightenment are stripped of accompanying information too which somehow adds to the fun and the frustration. One of the early joys of exploring the online music-related blogs was discovering the diligence which the jazz dance community was applying to sharing sounds so often languishing in some collectorsâ€™ crates and available only for silly money. And that is jazz from right around the world, including Poland. There had already been a number of compilations from imprints like Crippled Dick Hot Wax exploring jazz and soundtrack work from behind the Iron Curtain. So seeing postings of Polish vocal jazz ensemble the Novi Singers seemed a logical next step. At the time this fitted in perfectly with a personal obsession with Brazilian bossa in particular and jazz vocal work in general. With their intricate vocal arrangements and hip persona The Novi Singers can perhaps be compared to vocalese exponents like Lambert, Ross, Hendricks or Les Double Six or the Swingle Singers, though there is a difference as each of the Novi crew was an accomplished musician too. I had missed a compilation CD that came out at the end of the â€˜90s (which is itself rare now) so the LPs appearing posted online were a revelation. A quote that was used from one of the singers, Ewa Wanat, is an absolute joy: â€œAbove all we found the human voice to be a perfect jazz instrument, and that the possibilities in sound, expression and interpretation were unlimited. We knew that there was still much to be done in the field we had chosen and so we decided to become real improvisers: to create music while singing. We resigned from lyrics, and began to scat. Texts are self-determining and make improvisation difficult, while we
want our music to be spontaneous, fresh and full of improvising expression and rhythmic dynamism that belongs to afro-rooted music". The fact that some of the Novi Singers vocal work seemed to come accompanied by hip jazz arrangements of a beat or bossa flavour seemed to make it all too good to be true. It was all such a wonderful surprise to discover this music. But it shouldn’t have come as that much of a surprise. I was familiar with Krystof Komeda ‘s soundtrack work, and in particular his scores for Roman Polanski, like Knife In The Water and Rosemary’s Baby, which had entered the hipster’s canon via the Stereolab/Broadcast retro-futurist scene. So it was the Novi Singers, and an at-the-time innocent enough search on YouTube for anything relating to them, that kicked all this off. As is so often the case, one thing leads to another. There were indeed a few old clips of the Novi Singers on the site, including the fantastic footage of them performing the jazz dance classic Torpedo with what looked very much like a Polish arthouse version of Pan’s People. Mesmerising. YouTube’s odd connections, sometimes in that seemingly random way, led to other Polish performers of the time. And so I stumbled on some clips of Krystyna Konarska which I fell in love with. It’s a delicate situation I know, but I have to confess it was Krystyna’s striking looks that caught my eye, but her performances were wonderful too. I was aware there were Polish Funk compilations in circulation, catering for the breakbeat/soundtrack fans, but Krystyna’s music was more in keeping with the beat ballad style which made French music of the 1960s so appealing. Indeed it seemed that Krystyna had tapped into the yé-yé market with some recordings as Cristina, which naturally appealed endlessly for a variety of reasons. It was then a short hop to Katarzyna Sobczyk, who had the beat girl or mod gamine look down perfectly, actually reminiscent of actress Jolanta Umeka in Knife In The Water which was an added bonus. Katarzyna’s clips oozed attitude and mischief, again in a way that fans of Stella and Pussycat on the French scene would approve of no end. Her track Kasia To WtaEnie Ja actually appears on the Finders Keepers’ BMusic compilation where her garage grrrowl fits perfectly, though I only realised this later. On a slightly heavier note I was very taken with the clips of the outfit Breakout with Mira Kubasinska on vocals which had more of a fuzzed-up Sharon Tandy with the Fleur De Lys feel, with some very funky drumming and nice flute touches at times. The propulsive groove and powerful female vocals and presence are actually quite a feature when you dig deeper into Eastern Europe sounds of the late ‘60s and into the ‘70s. And remaining in Poland visitors to YouTube will find much to enjoy in performances by Ada Rusowicz and Halina Frackowiak. Ada I adore. And Halina (and her work with Grupa ABC) is a real favourite with the breakbeat brigade, but equally as appealing are performances with the outfit Drumlersi. Their 1968 track Ballada Nie Byle Jaka is a real gem with its 5/4 groove reminiscent of Pentangle’s Light Flight. But then you stop and think that the Pentangle track came later. As wonderful as it is to find such great music, by chance, or by fate perhaps, there are downsides. I used to spend all the time saying context is everything, and it would perhaps be intriguing to know more about the people involved in making these records. What pressures were they under? What were their inspirations? What were their aspirations? What did success mean? Who bought the records? Who watched the TV performances? How have these performances come to be on YouTube? That last one is certainly an intriguing one given the upheavals the former socialist republics have faced. After all, think what’s been lost here.
I was reading recently about Egon, the legendary crate digger and man behind Stones Throw, and how he had become obsessed with tracking down old Persian psych and funk. He mentioned how he had been haunting all the Iranian exiles he could find, taxi drivers and so on, trying to find out more about the music and what records had survived since the revolution. Given the number of people in London from the former Eastern European countries perhaps similar tactics could be used? Hmmm. The strangest thing that the Polish explorations uncovered would have to be Alibabki’s Jamaican Ska, posted from a flexi disc of the time. Many years ago (early 1990s) the Twinkle Brothers made an LP called Dub With Strings where Norman Grant got together with the Trebunia-Tutka Family in Warsaw , mixing Jamaican reggae and traditional Polish folk sounds. It’s one of my very favourite records, but I had no idea it had a precursor. There is actually a four-track EP from 1965 of Alibabki with Tafjuny performing a unique take on Jamaican ska. The actual intricacies of this are bewildering and run counter to all we are led to understand about ‘60s sounds. I would guess that the astonishing success of Millie’s My Boy Lollipop around the world would be the catalyst for this but I couldn’t be sure. Alibabki seems to have been a female vocal ensemble, perhaps a Polish equivalent to the Vernon Girls with something of a strange folk twist just when you suspect things could be getting too saccharine. There are some real gems among the Alibabki performances posted on YouTube, and at times vocal-wise they sound similar to Kleenex. And pop trivia buffs will no doubt delight in the fact that Basia was a member for a few years in the early ‘70s before moving to the West and joining Matt Bianco. Given the sophistication of the Eastern European film clips, though it has to be said the beauty is actually usually enhanced by being in black and white with an often grainy quality, it is almost a disappointment when a post proves to be audio only. I have been frustrated in attempts to find any clips of the group Polanie performing, but if you are a garage/beat fan grab any chance to have a listen to their original compositions. From what I can gather they were one of Poland’s leading beat groups
and when The Animals came to tour and so the story goes Eric Burdon got the guys more into the roots sounds of black rhythm and blues. I believe they hooked up again later when both groups were playing in Germany, and Eric promised to arrange for Polanie to play with The Animals in the UK. Eric kept his word but the authorities in Poland made it impossible for this to happen. To show their disgust the Polanie guys toughened up their sound as a protest and put down some sneeringly mean sides that rate with the best of the garage genre. The auto destruction pop art feedback on Cibie Wybralem is a joy for freakbeat fans, though in fairness The Artwoods or Alan Bown Set might be a closer comparison at times. The searing brass work and crisp drumming with jazz suggestions on these tracks (which appear on the first side of Polanieâ€™s LP) is actually a recurring feature of a lot of the Eastern European gems. Again this poses some intriguing questions, which I suspect Tav Falco with his love for pipe and drum marching bands will have some thoughts on.
Streetnoise by Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger is one of my very favourite records. The track Czechoslovakia is a moving protest at the 1968 Soviet occupation and the enforced end to the Prague Spring. While over the years I have played the song many times and rate Julie right up with the very, very best I little suspected that her influence and style would consciously or coincidentally be of such significance in Eastern Europe. But thatâ€™s getting ahead of ourselves. Apart from discovering the Novi Singers, the most important event in opening up the world of Eastern Europe pop was chancing upon a blog where the host had posted compilations by Yvonne Prenosilova and Helena Bleharova. I just about worked out they were from Czechoslovakia, and the pictures suggested the 1960s, so I gave them a go. Just as well as this was the kind of blog that disappeared in the
clampdown (you know, the illegal sharing of neglected music is undermining the musical establishment ...). In part such sites were architects of their own downfalls by being a maddening mix of the hopelessly obscure and the bewilderingly obvious. A Jackie Paris or Mina set here, then a George Michael or Belinda Carlisle set there. But nevertheless an enormous debt is owed to these lost bloggers. Yvonne Prenosilova’s name at least I recognised, though oddly enough this was only from ‘60s Brit Girls sets, and indeed a Breakaways compilation, where her Tony Hatch produced recording of Lesley Duncan’s When My Baby Cries was a particular favourite. The compilation itself proved to have some real gems on too. From what I can gather Yvonne was one of the earliest champions or performers of rhythm ‘n’ blues in Czechoslovakia, and early recordings are most often likened to Brenda Lee, which is no bad thing. It’s the later recordings that are of interest though, where the soul and beat influences show more clearly. Anyone checking on YouTube is most strongly recommended to check out the film of her performing an interpretation of The Toys’ A Lover’s Concerto, which has a perfect symmetry to it when you consider the way Denny Rendell took a piece of Bach’s work and with his partner Sandy Linzer created pop perfection, only for it to look homeward with Yvonne. The Iron Curtain did move aside occasionally, and pop singers from the UK certainly visited Czechoslovakia. There are some great clips of Georgie Fame in the Prague of the 1960s for example. I don’t know too much about the circumstances behind Yvonne’s exchange visit to England in the mid-‘60s, and how all this worked. I understand that while in the UK she appeared on Ready Steady Go, but where in various sleeve notes it mentions she was a beat-girl-in-exile this didn’t happen until 1968 and the end of the Prague Spring when I believe Yvonne was one of the signatories to The Two Thousand Words reformist manifesto written by Ludvik Vakulik. The manifesto makes for fascinating reading now, with its passages like: “Parliament forgot how to hold proper debates, the government forgot how to govern properly, and managers forgot how to manage properly. Elections lost their significance, and the law carried no weight. We could not trust our representatives on any committee or, if we could, there was no point in asking them for anything because they were powerless. Worse still, we could scarcely trust one another. Personal and collective honor decayed. Honesty was a useless virtue, assessment by merit unheard of. Most people accordingly lost interest in public affairs, worrying only about themselves and about money, a further blot on the system being the impossibility today of relying even on the value of money. Personal relations were ruined, there was no more joy in work, and the nation, in short, entered a period that endangered its spiritual well being and its character.” The Two Thousand Words text, which was published in June 1968, is seen as a key event in the Prague Spring and was seen as inflammatory by many in authority. Yvonne was I believe the only singer to sign the initial petition. It is easy to imagine how as a prominent pop star on the state-run label this could be tricky. The authorities in the West might have been suspicious of long-haired rock ‘n’ roll stars being agitating communists, but the Socialist Republics would have viewed pop music with equal suspicion as a Western Capitalist corrupting phenomenon. So Yvonne went into exile, going to live in Germany where sadly she was not successful in making it as a singer. She did become a broadcaster on Radio Free Europe, but we were deprived of the opportunity to see how her music would have progressed. The Helena Bleharova compilation became a real favourite. Naturally the inclusion of a Czechoslovakian version of Nancy Sinatra’s Sugar Town was irresistible (and there is
a teasingly truncated clip of this on YouTube), but there was so much more than that. In record collecting circles there is a particular emphasis these days on funky breakbeats and heavy fuzzed-up guitar grooves, which is fine. But there are those of us that have a particular penchant for what I call the other side of Dusty. That is, inventive MOR sounds with hip arrangements, often of pop standards. Something sophisticated, where pop meets jazz. There are, in other words, those of us who prefer Vikki Carr to Neil Young, Jackie Trent to Iggy Pop, and like a bit of edgy elegance. One of the few mentions in English I have seen of Helena is a write up by jazzman Harry Francis who refers to a 1963 international jazz festival in Manchester where Czech orchestra leader Gustav Brom brought an ensemble featuring Helena as vocalist. Francis seems particularly taken with “the charming and stylish Slovakian singer Helena Bleharova who, judging by her version of Moonlight In Vermont, was a student of the great Ella.” It is this jazz background that makes Helena’s pop work so successful and elegant. Visitors to YouTube can see this at its best with the clip where Helena performs the great Clive Westlake composition I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten with such style and passion that Dusty would no doubt have leapt up and applauded. It is intriguing, actually, to trace using the evidence on YouTube the impact that Dusty seems to have had on female singers in Eastern Europe. It makes sense really. Dusty was of course herself very open to influences from elsewhere and incorporated elements of folk ballads and chanson and Italian drama into her own performances, so something reciprocal is appropriate and fitting. One of the standout tracks on the Helena Bleharova compilation is her Czech language version of Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released from 1970. I have no idea if the lyrics have a different meaning in Helena’s version, but given recent events in Prague Bob’s words would be striking: “Standing next to me in this lonely crowd is a man who swears he's not to blame. All day long I hear him shout so loud, crying out that he was framed. I see my light come shining. From the west unto the east. Any day now, any day now, I shall be released ...”
Fishing around rather later on YouTube I stumbled across a whole load of clips of Czechoslovakian singer Marta Kubisova which had me spellbound. At that point I had no idea that one of my favourite reissue labels VampiSoul had just issued a compilation of Marta’s work called Ne! The Soul of Marta Kubisova, a collection of the ‘roughest’ cuts she recorded from 1966 through to 1970 with the emphasis on those good old fuzz guitars and funky beats. It is a remarkable collection, and undoubtedly the best salvage operation of 2009. But it only hints at the magnificence of Marta. Even without words to provide context, the wonders of YouTube tell the story of Martha’s ‘60s in eloquent fashion, or rather the development from early perky Helen Shapiro pop covers through Dionne Warwick/Dusty sophistication to confrontational and strident siren with more than a touch of the Julie Driscolls. It is a transformation of remarkable proportions, even more dramatic than that of Catherine Ribeiro in France. What is also just as interesting is the progress made in the pop promo form. I suppose this should not come as a surprise to someone who sat up late watching Eastern European films on BBC2, but the West does have this incredible arrogance where it thinks it did everything first and best. The work of Marta Kubisova proves this not to be the case. So, while acknowledging that in Eastern Europe in the days of supposedly Communist rule the regimes were wrong, that personal freedoms were restricted (though it needs to be pointed out that in the 1960s it wasn’t all swingin’ London Blow Up-style parties in the UK), there remains the questions about why it has taken so long for the truth about how great some of this music was to emerge. Can it be attributed to propaganda? To ignorance? It’s intriguing. The simple act of people (often patriotic souls) sharing music and film clips, being able to transcend frontiers and editorial control, has made an incredible difference to our understanding. The value of this cannot be overestimated. The VampiSoul compilation it has to be stressed is an essential purchase, and a wonderful thing beautifully presented. And yet it is by no means comprehensive. There are perhaps only a few of the tracks from the LP she released at the end of the ‘60s, Songy A Balady. As the title implies it is predominantly a collection of ballads, and at times it is strikingly mournful and desolate, more folk than rhythm ‘n’ blues, which is perhaps where the Catherine Ribeiro/Alpes comparison comes in. The mood of the country is reflected in the record, and Marta’s performances on songs such as Mama and Magdalena are remarkably moving in a really spiritual way. It is easy to see why these songs struck such a chord with the Czechoslovakians and why the authorities grew increasingly uncomfortable with Marta’s presence as a prominent public figure. I don’t know that much about the politicisation of Marta. As someone on the verge of international stardom she had appeared abroad with some success, and was interestingly in Paris in 1968 when the student uprising was taking place. A quote I’ve seen though suggests she was just keen to get home. Again it’s not as though Marta was herself writing explicit protest songs. Nevertheless her performances are astonishing and bold in the post-Soviet invasion climate. The song of hers that became an unofficial anthem would be Modlitba Pro Marta, or in other words Prayer For Marta. To give a rough flavour of the words in translation I hope I am right in quoting: “Let peace continue with this country. Let wrath, envy, hate, fear and struggle vanish. Now, when the lost reign over your affairs, it will return to you, people, it will return. The cloud is slowly sailing away from the skies. Everyone is reaping his own harvest. Let my prayer speak to the hearts that are not burned by the times of bitterness like blooms by a late frost ...”
The song has a great story too. Roughly two days after the beginning of the occupation, the composer Brabec was going to the recording studio in Petynka where he was expected by Marta. Soviet soldiers had shot through the tyres of his car, and so there was no other option than to dictate the lyrics over the ‘phone. Marta then managed to sneak the words, hidden in the front pocket of her jacket, into the recording studios. The stuff of legend. The LP itself was big news on its release, and special films were made for TV of Marta performing the songs. Those of these that have appeared on YouTube are astonishingly powerful, and clips such as Mama are in terms of visual impact thinly veiled attacks on the new regime. Even The Beatles’ Hey Jude is transformed into an incredibly moving spiritual that would have Aretha applauding. So it’s little wonder the authorities clamped down on Marta’s activity and effectively banned her from performing and recording after 1970, which sort of suggests Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Marta did not choose to go into exile, and this ban endured until after the ‘velvet revolution’ of 1989, though even in the lead up to that she had been a spokesperson for the Charter 77 dissident movement.
Another piece of footage on YouTube I found particularly moving was a performance by Blue Effect of their ‘prayer’ Slunecny Hrub from 1969. I say ‘prayer’ because it just has that feel. It’s such a beautiful ballad, and at the start and the end over the spoken parts someone has superimposed images of the protests against the Soviet intervention in Prague to great effect. The group itself is enough to make you smile, looking so late ‘60s in a Pretty Things/Yardbirds way with their long hair and scarves. The singer Vladimir Misik, I believe, is clearly in debt to Mick Jagger despite being a long way from Dartford but it works a treat. Guitarist Radim Hladik is a big name in Czech rock history, though there will be those who know a lot more about the country’s beat and prog scenes. I like the fact that the group is quite defiant in that they should be known as “Blue Effect unambiguously.” And that any “other names were just a consequence of communistic pressure and its ‘cultural politic’.” The original name Blue Effect referred to being in possession of a Blue Book, which was a term for the certificate stating the bearer was unfit for the army. Later censorship from the authorities meant Blue
Effect concentrated on instrumental work, but their first LP from 1970 Meditace at times compares more than favourably with any blues-inspired excursion from the UK and US. In fact added jazzy brass and beautifully orchestrated strings adds considerable beauty and depth. Interestingly the tracks with English language vocals are less effective than the Czech ones. And it is an interesting feature of East European pop sounds whether the native tongue is used or not. Invariably where the vocals are not in English the end result is far more striking, even if the meaning is not always if at all apparent, which says something about language and expression. The beautifully blue Slucecny Hrub itself was from a slightly earlier set of recordings, available as a bonus on reissues of Meditace for those fortunate enough to find one.
I am a huge fan of the original Le Mystere De Voix Bulgares record which Marcel Cellier released in the West. The intricate web of sound created by the female choir performing old choral folk songs is exceptional. In the UK the record was released by 4AD which gave it the sheen of hipness which might otherwise have been missing and probably brought it to the attention of many who might otherwise have missed out. And yet despite the incredible beauty of the choir’s work I have always been a little uncomfortable at knowing so little else about the music of Bulgaria. I guess we might feel the same way in the UK for example if our pop music was judged on the work of Anne Briggs or in the US if only Jean Ritchie was known. Not necessarily a bad thing per se, but it hardly tells the whole of the story. So fishing around on YouTube for some clues to Bulgaria’s pop past I stumbled upon a treasure trove of Lili Ivanova clips posted by more of those patriotic pop fans. I really am not sure I am much the wiser now about Bulgaria and its popular culture. I do know, however, that Lili has been a huge star in Bulgaria for as long as I’ve been alive, and that judging by recent performances posted on YouTube (and official biographies quote her as being born in 1939 and while it’s not polite to dwell on a
lady’s age ...) she is still a striking performer of tremendous power. To put it simply, if I had not have stumbled across the footage of Lili I might have been tempted to invent her. There is little to add. The ‘60s footage speaks for itself. And there’s a lot of it. I suppose it helped that I struck gold straight away, with the wonderful beat ballad labelled as April Joke with great twanging guitars, soulful beat, and Lili looking perfect with her suede jacket and backcombed mod crop. The same song was also featured in a clip from Spanish TV, where Lili is wearing a matching leather waistcoat and mini skirt combo and looking very mischievous. It’s only later you realise that Spain at the time was under a fascist regime and would not ordinarily be friendly to performers from the Eastern Bloc. Odd. The same thing happens watching Lili in a 1968 Soviet New Year’s TV special performing the remarkable Adagio. A virtuoso display, but again it’s only when you calm down after Lili’s performance that you wonder about the sophisticated setting on the screen and think ‘hmm I don’t remember this being mentioned in any of the Smiley stories’. The closest comparison I can think of for Lili is Timi Yuro. In that ‘60s context the looks are certainly similar. And in terms of delivery there is the same awesome power and passion, with the ability to suddenly explode volcano like. But when you consider the lack of Timi Yuro footage from the ‘60s, and the fact that compilations refer to her as the lost voice of soul, then consider that Lili is very much a national treasure in Bulgaria and a feminist icon, you have to wonder what’s going on with the West’s values. And while there is a case to be made for Bulgarian pop of the 1960s as statesponsored light entertainment designed to amuse and divert the public, the emotional depth of Lili’s performances transcends any criticism. I have only been able to track down one of Lili’s 1960s LPs (and this was recorded for the Soviet market – again work that one out George Smiley) but there is enough of a rhythm ‘n’ soul influence on there to validate the Timi Yuro comparisons, including a cracking go at the Spencer Davis Group’s Gimme Some Lovin’ which I am sure Stevie Winwood would thoroughly approve of. But it is interesting too to track the French chanson influences and the dramatic latin ballad traditions. It would not surprise me if Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Rita Pavone, and Mina were great favourites in 1960s Bulgaria. Mind you I am sure I read somewhere The Flirtations toured there in the ‘60s, or at least appeared in a song festival. Now that fits perfectly when you watch Lili in action. As for other Bulgarian pop of the period, well the fishing expeditions continue. One thing that did catch my eye on YouTube was a film clip from the ‘60s of Yordanka Hristova singing Pesen Moia Obich Moia with some beautiful desolate beach settings and the singer’s wonderfully sultry presence. Fantastic song, too. If you look Yordanka Hristova up on the internet the chances are you will see plenty of places where her name is linked to that of Fidel Castro’s. They seem to have had at the very least a long-running mutual appreciation society. Yordanka still speaks highly of Fidel’s beautiful eyes and high ideals. Indeed she chairs the Jose Marti foundation, named after one of Cuba’s national heroes, to revive cultural links. Yordanka it seems became a real star in Cuba after her first visit there in 1967, and mourns the breaking of ties between Bulgaria and Castro’s administration after the collapse of the Communist regime. She is quoted as saying Castro’s Cuba has kept the positive aspect of communism, with a focus on education and health care. Her praise for Cuba as “a spiritual rather than a consumer, material society” is enough to agitate right wing commentators around the world. Is this relevant? Well, it adds useful colour to the clips you could stumble across on YouTube and perhaps put into perspective the seemingly Spanish or Latin American influences present.
Another Bulgarian singer who has stolen my heart is Pasha Hristova. She achieved this on the strength of the clip for Povey Vetre alone. It’s beautifully simplistic and strangely sepia-toned in its posting, and it’s a ballad that is proceeding along quite beautifully but then explodes into quite astonishingly emotional territory. That seems to have been Pasha’s trademark. One moment delightfully demure in a jazzy chanson way, then whaaam! Iantra is another favourite from the clips I’ve seen, though her interpretation of Dusty’s I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten is pretty special. Pasha’s singing career seems to have been tragically short, lasting from 1967ish through to 1971, when she was due to fly to Algeria where she would have performed. As the plane was taking off, it rapidly lost altitude, hit the ground headfirst, broke in half and its front exploded and burst into flames. There are apparently a number of conspiracy theories about sabotage, with one of the pilots being the alleged target.
Long ago and far away I was obsessed with the potential of Hurrah! Here was a group I thought that in the ’83-ish pop world could change things. The music was a fine balance between the soaring sounds of ‘60s folk rock/beat and the then recent post-punk explorations, and they played with astonishing passion and panache. The world wasn’t listening though, and their early singles and incredible live performances were cruelly ignored by an increasingly stupid music industry and indeed the public at large. For a time the group seemed relatively isolated. I recall, however, the group shrugging this off as they nonchalantly dismissed most of the trials and tribulations that came their way. Paul Handyside I can remember in an interview suggesting that maybe in Bulgaria there was another group like Hurrah! feeling the same way. I haven’t found that group yet, but fishing around on YouTube for Rumanian beat sounds of a ‘60s vintage I was reminded of that quote when I saw a number of clips of the group Phoenix. There was something in the group’s presence, the intricate harmonies and powerful sound that reminded me very much of that early (what I
called) secret sacred Hurrah! It was easy to imagine Phoenix slipping into versions of Celtic or Around And Around. There was something too of The Action and The Zombies in the Phoenix make-up. That in itself reminded me of that old Nik Cohn quote about the gangs in Moscow calling themselves after obscure UK ‘60s outfits and that therefore The Action was the tops.
Ah maybe that’s where all this started. The story of the Plastic People of the Universe has been quite well documented in the West, and I guess there is no denying they played a vital part in the opposition to the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia during those dark days. I still struggle with using that Communist term because clearly those administrations had as much to do with communism as our own Labour governments have had to do with socialism. Anyway, the Plastic People of the Universe was a cause celebre for liberal intellectuals in the West. For some of us though the constant references to Frank Zappa and The Fugs was enough to send us running for the hills or at least our Gillian Hills records. The story of Phoenix is as remarkable, though seemingly less well known in the West. They started out as a beat combo whose name translated as The Saints (and Hurrah! would have approved of that coincidence) until pressure from the authorities prompted them to change to Phoenix. Like many groups in the East they did time playing Beatles covers, and indeed the Beatles’ impact in the Eastern Bloc seems to have been as dramatic as anywhere else. Gradually Phoenix developed their own sound and there are a handful of clips on YouTube and indeed actual recordings that capture something very special. For those of us who worship at the altar of Love, The Association, and so on, these recordings hint at untold unrealised possibilities in the same way as those early Hurrah! singles. Phoenix’s story if you trace it through entails exhausting struggles with censorship, exile, members being smuggled out of the country inside Marshall speaker stacks, triumphant homecomings. The ingredients of a great film, no doubt. All the things we used to complain about, the pressures on our favourite groups to conform and fit in, sort of pale into insignificance when you consider the difficult circumstances great pop music has been made in elsewhere. Interestingly suspicion of Western influences led to the Communist authorities insisting Phoenix seek inspiration from Rumanian culture. As a consequence Phoenix investigated the country’s folk music traditions and tales, incorporating these aspects in to their work, using ancient instruments and so on. Their first LP from 1972 Cei Ce Ne-Au Dat Num captures the group during this
transition, and it is understandably a favourite among prog-folk fans. There is a wonderful irony here where hippies elsewhere in the world were doing something similar as a protest against their own materialistic societies. It is, however, those late ‘60s sides you need to track down like Canarul, Ar Vera Un Eschimos, Floarea Stincilor. Elsewhere from what it is possible to ascertain via the strangely refracted view YouTube provides on the past it seems again that French chanson and Italian pop drama, via Gilbert Becaud and Mina, seem to have been a strong influence, though highly emotive ballads naturally have a long tradition in the old Eastern Europe. Margareta Paslaru is one of the country’s big stars, and early clips of her are delightful in a real yé-yé /twist way. One very appealing thing is the clips of her appearing in the 1968 musical comedy Impuscaturi pe portativ, where in scenes with the group Sincron she appears very Chantal Goya-esque. Intriguingly the film also features French national treasure Nancy Holloway performing a couple of numbers, including Bonjour Bucarest where she is given a rapturous reception arriving at the city’s airport. I’d love to know how that one came about. Was it some communist critique of the USA for not valuing one of its own? Another Rumanian early yé-yé number featured on YouTube is Marina Voica singing Darling Twist (sadly audio only) which is pure Mina. In a wonderful twist, well over 30 years on, Marina is featured in gloriously outrageous form and striking leopard print catsuit performing Pulp’s Common People. How to age eh Cocker?
In his collection of essays, The Psychic Soviet, the great pop dissident and philosopher Ian Svenonius argues that: “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the most grievous psychological event in recent history.” He goes on to suggest that: “Though referred to officially in bourgeois society as moral fable and totem of God’s will, this calamity – the 1991 defeat of international socialism – has plunged the population of the world into a state of nihilism and despair.” You can see why this is a great work. Elsewhere among the essays he makes a case in favour of the Style Council, the conception of an “intellectual aesthete” watching foreign films, reading Sartre, drinking espresso and digging Italian furniture. He also praised the Style Council for the way it “casually propagated world revolution”. Neat. Anyone watching what happened to the former Yugoslavia after the collapse of the Communist Eastern Europe will have wondered what the price of progress was, and just what nationalism has ever achieved. I have no idea if those events are in any way connected with the lack of attention to and availability of the wonderful pop music produced in Yugoslavia during the 1960s and into the ‘70s. As far as I can tell the area’s pop history has yet to be explored. Odd. So fishing around on YouTube for clues I have to confess I didn’t have any idea where to start, but yet again struck lucky nevertheless. Taking into account the strange tangents it is possible to shoot off on within the weird and wonderful world of YouTube links it is entirely possible I have a perverted view of Yugoslavian pop, but that’s a risk I’ll have to take. The first thing that really caught my eye was a clip of Josipa Lipac performing with the group O’Hara (and that’s a wonderful name for a group if you are living in Yugoslavia) in 1967ish. Looking like archetypal pre-hippy ‘60s students they deliver an astonishingly powerful version of the Temptations’ You’ll Lose A Precious Love. My first reaction was to stand up and cheer for choosing such an unobvious number to cover. Fishing around further I found a wonderful clip of Bisera Veletanlic singing Barbara Acklin’s Am I The Same Girl? in her native tongue. She is surreally circled by cyclists, all the while dancing like mad, and again it just makes you grin like mad. While the song may have been absorbed via Dusty, rather than direct from the original, it is nevertheless a stunning choice of cover. Bisera’s version of the soul standard Sunny, incidentally, is the best ever, with her voice way down there. Then fishing around further, I came across Nada Knezevic singing Kraj, which was instantly recognisable as Garnet Mimms’ enchanting Cry Baby. And wow! Nada’s version would do Big Maybelle or Baby Washington proud. It just makes you go weak at the knees. So what is it about Yugoslavia and soul music? There’s a story to be told there, I’m sure. Oh you can suggest theories. Yugoslavia in the ‘60s and ‘70s was the most open to Western influences among the Eastern Europe countries. Indeed I believe it wasn’t really part of what we call the Eastern Bloc. As a consequence its artists perhaps travelled more, and certainly competed in more song festivals abroad and so on. But none of the Yugoslavian artists are household names, or even regularly dropped by the cognoscenti in the Western media, like the ‘banned’ Plastic People of the Universe. Work that one out. Anyway, yes, soul music. It’s interesting. Perhaps there’s something about the close proximity occasionally between the sweetest rasp of the soul sound in full effect and the Balkan brass band thing. I dunno. Maybe I’m making that up. I remember seeing the film Underground and being very taken with the soundtrack, thinking how at times it was so close to some of the funk outfits the guys like Jazzman Gerald,
Egon and Dante Carfegna would go on to salvage. So maybe there’s something there in the brass thing, people in the Balkans hearing Soul Finger and thinking wahey! Then maybe there is something about the area’s folk music tradition, the passion and power, the desperate emotion, the struggles, the injustices, and how it dovetails with black soul music and the blues. Or perhaps it’s just kids of a certain age hearing these records through whatever medium or channel and thinking this is for us.
The fact is, theorising aside, there is too much Yugoslavian soul music for it to be dismissed as a fanciful notion on the part of a mod romantic trying to rewrite history. I do feel cheated though. Who’s been hiding all this stuff? And I have to confess to being totally besotted with Josipa Lisac’s voice, and am on a bit of a mission to hear more. A 1970 single posted online is simply astonishing, with Zivot Moj on one side and Spustila Se Kisa on the other. I haven’t a clue what they are about, but both songs will appeal enormously to those who believe Dexys’ Keep It (Part Two) is what pop music should sound like. Josipa’s deep voice is amazing, and it should be said she is still very much active today. Indeed, as with Lili Ivanova in Bulgaria, Josipa is a big star in modern day Croatia and seems to have aged in a far more interesting way than her UK/US counterparts. Her 1973 LP Dvevnik Jedni Ljubavi has to be tracked down in one form or another. It will certainly find favour with fans of Brigitte Fontaine, Julie Driscoll, Linda Hoyle, and Christine Harwood. Among the ensembles Josipa sang with (in a Shotgun Express soul revue way) was Zlatni Akordi. They are one of a number of outfits from the Yugoslavia of the 1960s that developed from beat combo to occasional full blown swingin’ soul explosion. Another such combo would be Grupa Mi, whose singer Neven Mijat had clearly been paying close attention to Ray Charles and Otis Redding imports. Also working in the same arena was Elipse who somewhere along the way acquired a singer, Edi Dekenga, who was originally from the Congo. Quite a few of their recordings seems
to be straight ‘60s soul covers in the original language, though they do what I am pretty sure is a fantastic Yugoslavian version of Brenton Wood’s immortal Gimme Little Sign. Incidentally, the use of original American/English wording seems more pronounced in the former Yugoslavia than elsewhere in Eastern Europe, which is intriguing, but the stranger the language the better the sounds to these ears. Oddly Yugoslavia doesn’t seem to be as well represented on YouTube in terms of video clips in the way some of the other Eastern European countries are, but it is better represented on the web thanks to the sharing of lost records, which I sense in itself is an act of defiance. As ever this can give a distorted view, but some intriguing things develop. From a beat, garage, and psych perspective there is plenty to appeal. Siluete, for example, sound fun in a beat/garage way, and it seems in the period from ’66 to ’68 they caused quite a stir, with outbreaks of vandalism at their shows, fights with the audience, guitars being smashed, and bottles being brandished. Their singer Zoran Miscevic was a bit of a star, causing outrage with his mop of bleached blond hair. Film footage of them on YouTube seems confined to covers (and a lot of their recordings were non-originals such as the Small Faces’ Sha La La La Lee which seems to have been obligatory in the old Eastern Europe), including the Spencer Davis Group’s I’m A Man where they do that Wilko thing with the guitar. Among other covers in the former Yugoslavia there are some interesting trends. For example, the group Delfini covered The Kinks’ Most Exclusive Residence For Sale in their own language, which is a wonderful thing and intriguing given the subject matter. Also Kameleoni covered The Kinks’ Too Much On My Mind in perfect English. I wonder whether Ray Davies was aware all this was going on? Kameleoni seem to have had a bit of a thing for the Mamas and Papas. The real Yugoslavian equivalent of the Mamas and Papas though was Bele Vrane, whose late ‘60s recordings are an absolute joy and will appeal enormously to fans of the Free Design, Broadcast, and so on, who like their soft pop with a bit of an edge and a bit of funky feel.
Yugoslavia had its own all-girl garage group too in Sanjalice, and while their recordings are not exactly the wild punk rave-ups of our dreams their Bez Reci will find a place in the heart of anyone who loves a bit of beat noise, and I have a soft spot for their twist on The Turtles’ Happy Together. In a strange twist of fate, while looking in vain for any Sanjalice on YouTube, I stumbled across some amazing clips of
the Liverbirds on Beat Club which just make you punch the air in delight, but then get you thinking about why they never seem to get much of a mention. Looking on the web for more info I came across this quote from a 2004 Alexis Petridis Guardian review: “The leader of The White Stripes has made a career out of being obtuse: dressing only in certain colours and scorning technology such as computers, television, the horseless carriage etc. His musical taste follows suit: recently he dedicated a White Stripes gig to The Liver Birds - a distaff Merseybeat combo of scarcely believable wretchedness.” What can you say? Quite a lot actually. Back in the 1960s Yugoslavia, there seems to be plenty to explore on the more mainstream pop side too, where as we well know some of the strangest activity takes place. There are some great clips floating around of Gabi Novak, for example. Some from earlier in the decade like the magnificently moody Vino i Gitare which is a reminder that of course Helen Merrill’s roots are in Croatia, and some late ‘60s footage which is very atmospheric with some wonderful city scapes of old Zagreb I think. Of these Ostavi Mi Berem Nesti, written by her husband Arsen Dedic, is exactly the sort of song Saint Etienne or Broadcast would rightly kill for. And then there is the incredible Olivera Vuco (or Olivera Katarina). If you have not come across this great lady then little that can be said will prepare you. Her performances in the late ‘60s of, well I don’t know really, shall we say pop reinventions of traditional folk melodies, perhaps Serbian or Romany ones, are astonishingly irresistible, ridiculously addictive, and a visual treat. Search around though and you will find that at the same time she was performing the remarkable Balada o Vijetnamu, which captures somehow the horror of the US My Lai massacre without needing to understand a word. Olivera was a successful actress too. Look her up on the web and you will often see a quote from Salvador Dali about how she was the only woman he has ever knelt in front of, referring to her astonishingly successful season of concerts in Paris. There’s a clip on YouTube from that time of Olivera and Gilbert Becaud being interviewed, and you can feel the chemistry and the magic. To see Olivera perform at that time must have been a wonderful thing.
I tend to think of the Ace, Bear and Cherry Red families as being the ABC of salvage operations, and all in all we owe them a massive amount. Smaller, more bespoke imprints have also been doing much to change the way we look at and understand pop history. The archaeology work of labels like The Numero Group, VampiSoul and Finders Keepers has been a revelation, and has opened up so many new vistas and opportunities. I do not buy the line often peddled about jam being spread ever more thinly. Interestingly this is invariably used by critics championing curiously wellversed but deadly dull contemporary acts. Finders Keepers is a particular favourite among salvage outfits, on and its focal point Andy Votel is one of my heroes. I am not pretending our taste is exactly the same, but the label’s output is incredible and it is one of the imprints to support on a matter of principle. I am in awe of Finders Kepers’ devotion to duty in terms of crate digging. Often its team makes me feel like the charlatan, dabbler and dilettante I perhaps am, but what the heck. What’s the point of life if there’s nothing left to learn? Unlike some labels it doesn’t churn out product on an assembly line basis, so its releases tend to be events. Particular favourites to date include releases from JeanClaude Vannier and Les Mode Fabuleux Des Yamsuki, from Selda and Ersen, putting the spotlight on some of the unexpected treasures from France and Turkey. The label’s B-Music compilation of “drive in, turn on, freak out” sounds from around the globe is particularly recommended; and it redeems the notion of global or world music, saving it from sanctimonious purists. I am particularly looking forward to the label’s promised Persian funk set. If the bits and pieces I’ve heard, the odd Googoosh track, or mixes from Mahssa Taghinia here and there, including the excellent Jazzman site, then it will be an absolute joy.
Where Finders Keepers has worked wonders is by beginning to explore the Eastern Europe pop heritage. I could do far worse than quote the label’s own wording about its Well Hung compilation: “Finders Keepers break yet more ground with this, 22 stomping selections from the vaults of Eastern Europe's best kept secret,
Hungaraton/Qualiton Records. This first ever compendium piles heavy psych, jazz, glam and funk onto a heaped spoonful dripping with the cream of the 60s/70s Hungarian rock scene - Omega, Metro, Locomotiv GT, Skorpio as well as Finders Keepers' very own jet-set fit-bit Sarolta Zalatnay. “The unique ways in which Hungarian rockers interpreted such sporadic and disparate influences and unknowingly mirrored embryonic developments in Western rock from behind a political blindfold is truly unique. The national pride of Hungary's pre-war musical heritage ensured that the state-owned label Supraphon's in-house studio was designed to immaculate classical standards with acoustic specifications that would put its surrounding Eastern European labels to shame. The quality of phonograph records, from a part of the world that was usually notorious for low quality pressings and repeatedly recycled vinyl, would surpass the European standards ensuring that the hand crafted sound of Hungary's futuristic pop music was light years ahead of its time and would stand the test of time for many (delayed) years to come. “The introduction of electronic instruments penetrated Hungary like a double-edged sword and polarised progressive pop aficionados over night. Where the introduction of Czechoslovakian electric guitars unified Eastern Europe's rock 'n' roll fantasists and spawned the rock in opposition movement in the mid 60's the spurious arrival of synthesizers ten years later spawned a host of new streams of hybrid rock which embraced funk, soul and disco. “The restrictions of communism coupled with the silver-spooned Westerners musical xenophobia, however, as good as guaranteed that no matter how close Hungarians got to the authentic rock 'n roll sound their music would still never safely make the journey over the language barrier. In recent years, as much as 15 years since the collapse of the iron curtain, the interjection of many forms of latter day communist era art into popular western culture has become apparent and increasingly well documented. Hopefully at some stage discerning palettes will develop a taste for Hungarian rock music in the same way that we have come to accept, champion and be inspired by Polish poster art and Czech cinema.” You get the picture. This set was preceded by the Sarolta Zalatnay compilation the publicity refers to. Her recordings will delight anyone with a weakness for strident female vocals, fuzzed-up workouts and funky psychedelic grooves. As an added bonus or as a starting point there are a number of YouTube clips of Sarolta performing, though a number of these predate the Finders Keepers collection. The early footage of her as beat girl with attitude is the most striking. And perhaps that’s where I part company with Finders Keepers, having a pronounced predilection for the mod/beat thing rather than the heavier and hairier side of things. And, no, that’s not just an excuse to refer to Hungary beat or Magyar mod jazz. One of the stars of the Well Hung compilation is Kovacs Kati, who has become a particular favourite. Looking through the wonky prism of YouTube it seems possible to trace her development. The earliest footage from 1965 shows her performing jazz standards, such as Watermelon Man, with real brio. There is a lovely moment where she giggles during a spot of scat singing, though that gives a false impression because even as a raw, young singer she has remarkable presence in a very odd way. She really does not go out of her way to prettify herself, which is curiously more attractive. There is definitely something of the wild cat in her stance and those eyes seem so dangerous. She clearly was not to be messed with. And then there’s the voice. Take, for instance, the clip featuring her covering River Deep Mountain High where, and you’ll notice a recurring motif here, it’s all very tasteful then suddenly –
pow! She explodes in a seemingly casual way. The power is astonishing. And so unexpected.
That same thing can be seen again in the clip of her in 1966 singing the number Nem leszek a játékszered, which interestingly translates as I Won’t Be Your Play Thing, with which she won a prestigious song festival. She is very glamorous on this occasion, but the disdain is still there in her body language and the way she seems to quell the orchestra is fantastic. I do love the whole ‘60s song festival thing, and have a particular fascination with the clips of the old San Remo song festivals on YouTube where the singers are uniformly in evening dress and the orchestras are immense and the audiences intimidating and often impassive. Kovacs Kati won awards too for her acting, including the lead role in the film with a title that translates as Girl which I would dearly love to see if the title sequence is anything to go by where she sings with the group Illes. Some of her best known recordings were made with the group Locomotive GT, though these seem sadly unobtainable in the new world order. Bits and pieces tracked down, though, are fantastic, especially numbers like Szolj Ram Ha Hangosan Enekelek and Tanitsd Meg A Gyerekeket (which in a curious and wonderful illogical way sounds like the missing link between Love Is The Drug and The Clash’s cover of Police And Thieves). While the titles may not trip off the tongue, the songs will move the heart and feet. Perhaps her finest moment is another track recorded with Locomotive GT, the astonishing Rock and Roller which has a touch of the glam rock about it, making it irresistible to anyone with a weakness for Suzi Quatro’s raunchy rasp, and indeed in the film of a performance of this track Kovacs Kati really abandons any sense of restraint so that it is impossible not to grin madly. Her English Wikipedia entry describes her 1972 track Add már, uram, az esőt as a psychedelic spiritual, which is a rather lovely phrase. Lovely track too. It’s that song that appears on the Well Hung compilation, though in the truly illogical Wiki way this is not cross-referenced. Apart from this track, the only Kovacs Kati material readily available is cuts made for the East German market. This was quite a thing for the more prominent East European pop acts looking to expand their appeal. I have to confess that I haven’t really explored the East German treasure chest yet, so that’s something to look forward to.
WHERE TO NOW …
There’s the old Soviet Union to do first though, and already there seem to be plenty of signs of funky goings-on, and clues pointing towards Alexandr Zacepin soundtracks and more. I have, however, been more than a little distracted by the genius that is Vladimir Vysotsky and seem to spend all my time wondering how I’ve missed out on him until now. How well known is his name among aesthetes in pop circles? Maybe you can tell me more about him than I can tell you. But on the off chance that you are not familiar with his name then let’s say he’s the Soviet star you’ve dreamed of. And if you like romantic myth, enjoy the works of Serge Gainsbourg, Jacques Brel , Scott Walker, Leo Ferre, Phil Ochs, say, then this is the guy for you. I love Bob Dylan, but reading a few paragraphs of Vysotsky’s life is worth a thousand Chronicles (and I adore that book, so you get the picture). I stumbled upon clips of Vysotsky by chance, and was mesmerised in the same way as I was when I first bought an EP of Jacques Brel from a jumble sale when I was 13 just because I loved the cover shot of him sitting at the table smoking. I don’t think I’d even heard Scott Walker sing Brel then. Though of course Julian Cope’s Scott Walker compilation on Zoo was another such revelation.
I’ve seen a number of comparisons between Vysotsky and Leonard Cohen, and I can sort of see that. But it would be the Leonard Cohen you’ve dreamed of, rather than the cultural establishment’s pet poet. I’ve seen Vysotsky compared to Georges Brassens too, which may be more accurate in a spiritual sense. But he was simply Vladimir Vysotsky, and genuinely a rebel with a cause. A Russian actor , singer, poet with a Jewish background who looked remarkably cool in a very worn Al Pacino way, and sang in a cracked, smoky voice with real venom about things Russian workers could really identify with. And he was incredibly popular in the old Soviet Union. He was frowned upon by the authorities, who didn’t like his romantic dissident themes, but his work was passed on and passed round and entered the population’s soul. So much so, in fact, that on his untimely death in 1980, that memorable year in Soviet
history with the Olympics capturing imaginations and inspiring songs by Orange Juice and Manicured Noise, well over a million people are said to have attended his funeral. Funny, I must have missed the front page tributes in the Western press. Part of the romantic appeal of the Vysovsky story is that in the late ‘60s he fell in love with the French actress/singer Marina Vlady (who had a Russian background) when they were working on a project. They were married and for 10 years conducted a long-distance relationship against all the odds. Marina’s is a name fans of French ‘60s pop will recognise, and certainly her name should be familiar from Godard’s Two Or Three Things I Know About Her, so naturally that’s part of the whole thing. She wrote a book about their love and lives, but somehow that’s not made it into an English translation on these particular shores. Not that there seem to be any records of Vysotsky readily available either. But we have YouTube. And so that’s where we came in, with that boy who had wanted to be called Vladimir searching for clues. I must have known ...
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