A Czechoslovak story: New book delves behind public image of Karel Gott
Karel Gott, who died in 2019, was by some distance the biggest star in the history of Czech pop music, selling tens of millions of albums not just at home but in Germany, Austria and Russia. In a newly published book entitled Karel Gott: Czechoslovak Story, Pavel Klusák delves behind the public image – the myth – that he says the singer carefully cultivated over the decades. I discussed various aspects of Gott’s life and career with the respected music writer.
Pavel, I know you’re interested in non-mainstream music. Karel Gott is as mainstream as anybody could possibly be. What drew you to his story?
“I’ve always been interested not just in independent and experimental music – but social, or social and political, stories of music are attractive for me too.
“That’s probably why I waited some years to see if someone would write a little deeper story of pop music during communism here during the years when the only producer of pop culture was the state itself.
“Karel Gott was sort of a guide of Czechoslovak people during the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.”
“And as we know, the state itself is not the greatest, or the most natural, producer of culture for young people and so on.
“What I want to say is that Karel Gott was sort of a guide of Czechoslovak people during the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
“His personality changed during those times and he probably had a gift to take the vibration of his time, including the totalitarian times, and to find a place in the mainstream on the top of the local scene here.
“And he had the capacity to open a second career too, in Western Europe, particularly in West Germany, when – which is fascinating for me – his repertoire, his personality, his image was just different.
“So we can say that he was capable of living two lives.”
Trezor was one of the singer’s early hits.
If we can go back to the beginning of his career, what were the qualities that Karel Gott had that helped him to start winning fans and to start building his career?
“In 1956 Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow ended the cult of personality. That was in March.
“And very early on, in September, the first reality show, as we would say today, with amateur singers began here, not just live but also on radio and a little later on TV.
“The young Karel Gott [who appeared on the programme, Hledáme nové talenty], in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, was a person who wanted to bring more world trends to quite isolated Czechoslovakia.
“He loved Frank Sinatra, he had the smuggled LPs of all these people, he loved Tony Bennett, The Platters, etcetera, and he was a very progressive person, we have to say.
“When the legendary small theatre Semafor, the epicentre of a new, more modern Czechoslovak pop music, took in Karel Gott [in 1963] and the directors, Suchý and Šlitr, wrote a new repertoire for him everything crashed together, or how to say it.
“And the musical movie Kdyby tisíc klarinetů, If a Thousand Clarinets, brought Karel Gott to the top of popularity.
“As you probably know, a very new poll for popularity and singers existed at that time in Czechoslovakia: Zlatý slavík, the Golden Nightingale.
“This time did not offer many possibilities for people to vote. There was nothing like free elections or anything like that.
“And paradoxically this Golden Nightingale became a sort of national poll, or chance to vote, for lifestyle.
“That’s why the winner, Karel Gott, was so closely observed and it sort of cemented his position for many years.”
In 1968 Karel Gott played in Las Vegas and after that when he came back here he started playing bigger venues and his career took another step upward. I have often wondered about Karel Gott playing in Las Vegas, because I’ve heard him singing in English and frankly he’s not so good. I could never understand how Gott could get an engagement in Las Vegas. But you explain in the book that his stay in Vegas wasn’t quite what it was later made out to be by him and his people.
“The Golden Nightingale became sort of a national poll, or chance to vote, for lifestyle.”
“Well, first, they weren’t Karel Gott solo concerts.
“He was part of a sort of East European show called Europa ’68, where traditional music and dancers, Prague black light theatre and other elements came together.
“The Venus Room in the Frontier Hotel [where this show was put on] was mostly a venue for exotic shows showing for our times, for a present point of view, very exoticised Japanese programmes and Cossacks from Ukraine.
“And this attempt to show something specific, or exotic, from Eastern Europe was just another part of these exotica shows.
“Before Gott, and many other people, left for Las Vegas there was a press conference with Swiss and American managers and directors and for the Czechoslovak media it felt like they were going to do an important cultural representation.
“Of course the isolated Czechoslovakia dreamt about real successes in the world.
“We had many successes, at all these Expos and Olympic Games, Věra Čáslavská and on and on.
“But Karel Gott unfortunately wasn’t a part of these real cultural, representative successes.”
Karel Gott became associated with the schlager genre in West Germany.
Any time that Gott’s mentioned we hear about the fact that he was so huge in Germany. He got a contract with the German branch of Polydor after meeting a representative of the company in Bratislava. As you mentioned already, it’s interesting that Gott seems to have performed different kinds of songs for the German market than he did here at home. Could you tell us more about this?
“In Czechoslovakia, for very natural reasons, he brought these world impulses in.
“He sang cover versions of Elvis Presley, one cover version of the Beatles, he followed some trends.
“But the German markets tried to use Karel Gott as something more German, more Central European, against the pressure and against the new success of Anglo-American music.
“He sang film hits, soundtrack hits – from Dr. Zhivago and so on.
“He became a singer for a slightly older generation.
“He probably thought that working in West Germany, working with Polydor, would mean becoming a part of this real, Western pop music.
“But Polydor as a label used market research, very rational tools, and they saw Karel as a singer of the schlager genre, and he became closely connected with this kind of music.”
Also it’s interesting to me that you write that his first in Germany was rereleased with a different title after the 1968 invasion, to draw attention to the fact that he was from Prague: The Golden Voice of Prague. You say that he benefited from the fact that West Germans were more aware of Czechoslovakia. But in any case, I’d like to also ask you about his brief emigration to West Germany in 1971, if we can call it that. What was that story?
“Karel, along the Štaidl brothers – his band leader and his manager and lyricist – wanted to stay for a longer time in West Germany, probably as freely as Miloš Forman, the filmmaker, stayed in New York, in America.
“But Forman was a different case. And the political leadership didn’t want Gott, the most popular person in Czechoslovakia, to show that he didn’t want to live in socialist Czechoslovakia.
“So something like a battle started…”
Also involving [Gustav] Husák, the head of the Communist Party?
“Gott himself said, I don’t know it’s true, that Leonid Brezhnev said to Husák, Letting the most popular person leave is not good politics.”
“Yes. Because the year 1971 was the first election year after the crisis in ’68.
“So for the Communists it was really important to show that they controlled the society, everything was going very well, so-called normalisation, and so on.
“Gott himself said, I don’t know it’s true, that Leonid Brezhnev said to Husák, Letting the most popular person leave is not good politics [laughs].
“So to put it simply, the Czechoslovak authorities made the musicians come back and maybe closed a kind of silent contract with them: Gott’s group was allowed to continue working for Western producers, which was very, very exclusive.
“But on the other hand, from the autumn of ’71 Gott sort of changed into a responsible public figure who sang at the most official concerts, many celebrations organised by the regime, and his personality really changed.
“Of course he still was a singer of love songs. But maybe it shows how traditional pop forms are open to manipulation.”
Karel Gott was a key speaker during the Anti-Charter.
Gott’s career in Russia took off around the same time that he was actively involved in the Anti-Charter, which was a public condemnation of Charter 77 by many artists of various kinds, including lots of other very famous Czechoslovak artists. What did Karel Gott actually do in the Anti-Charter?
“One of the main organisers of the Anti-Charter was a director of Pragokoncert, František Hrabal.
“Pragokoncert was the state agency. You had no other way if you wanted to play abroad than to work through Pragokoncert.
“And he and his group had collaborated closely with Pragokoncert all these years before, even in the sense of these pro-regime concerts and so on.
“František Hrabal was a close friend of the Štaidl family. That is the reason why not just Karel Gott but four people around the Gott group were speakers, main speakers, at the Anti-Charter.
“He never felt sorry about the people hit by the situation. But he said, Through the Anti-Charter I can be criticised now.”
“Privately I think that at that moment they didn’t think about it as something hugely different than from they had been doing since the beginning of the ‘70s.
“But they didn’t realise that at this moment they were speaking against people in prison, against people who tried to make Czechoslovakia a state of human rights and so on.”
Did he ever express regret for taking part in the Anti-Charter, or in any other way supporting the normalisation regime?
“He did. He thought about the Anti-Charter as his own fault.
“He said, It hurt me.
“He felt like a victim. He never felt sorry about the people who were really hit by the situation.
“But he said, Through the Anti-Charter I can be criticised now – if I were wise, I would not do it.
“But at that time for him probably there was no way to oppose the invitation.”
Karel Gott released this song, said to be a tribute to Jan Palach, some years after the student’s self-immolation.
Some people who defend Gott point out that he had a tribute song to Jan Palach called Kam tenkrát šel můj bratr Jan, based on All by Myself by Eric Carmen [and released in 1979]. Was performing that song a brave thing to do?
“I don’t want to defend Gott, but I also don’t want to accuse him.
“And I think that you really can see it from different points of view.
“In 1979 Gott never gave any hint that this song should be about Jan Palach, or that it was a brave act of freedom speech.
“No. He was very closed about this.
“But for some people who understood the metaphor of the lyricist Zdeněk Borovec it could be a sign that the censors are not bulletproof, and that sometimes you can make something tricky.”
Karel Gott and Karel Kryl appeared together, singing the national anthem, during the Velvet Revolution.
Another thing that has always fascinated me is how come Gott came to appear during the Velvet Revolution on the famous balcony at Melantrich [on Wenceslas Square] singing with the anti-communist protest singer Karel Kryl. How did that ever happen?
“The days of the so-called Velvet Revolution were full of public appearances by singers, actors, people who appeared at demonstrations and wanted to say, I am fully supporting the change.
“Karel Gott I have to say waited for weeks, maybe more.”
In the book you say December 4 is when he “came out” as being in favour of the revolution.
“OK, so it was two weeks.
“Karel Gott definitely was not among the first ones.
“But when he appeared back in Czechoslovakia [from abroad] he went to the revolution centre on Wenceslas Square.
“And it was probably really by chance that he appeared the day when the greatest of symbol of protest song, the totally banned Karel Kryl, appeared and, according to the plan, he was the one who had to sing.
“So when Karel Gott, the total opposite, appeared, side by side with Karel Kryl, all people in the room thought, What about putting these two symbols together?
“And during those days it was really important to show something like unity, the peaceful character of the change and so on.
“Many people thought it was a mistake to bring Gott and Kryl together.”
“Many people thought it was a mistake to bring Gott and Kryl together.
“It became a symbol of a fast forgetting about who was who before the revolution.
“But during the days of the revolution, I understand the hope and the more innocent approach to this very problematic connection.”
Getting back to his music, is there any song or album that you would put forward as an example of Karel Gott at his best?
“I wrote the book as a modern historical story. I am not a keen listener of Karel.
“But I love many of his moments from the ‘60s.
“I think that the movie Kdyby tisíc klarinetů till today is a beautiful testimony to the energy of Semafor and the first half of the ‘60s.
“And I am really happy that the label Supraphon accepted my proposal and has rereleased Karel’s first album, Zpívá Karel Gott, on vinyl.
“Karel from 1965 is full of young, new energy, but he wasn’t a big star yet.
“You can hear the effort to win the battle and to be a more intense star than before.
“I like these tracks.”
Your book is called Karel Gott: Czechoslovak Story. He is the biggest star of pop music from this country, without question. Why him? What was it about him that made him the perfect person to be the country’s biggest star?
“In Czechoslovak pop you had Karel Gott, then a long, long gap and then all the others.
“He wanted to be seen as exceptional, and he succeeded.
“Till now, every family can tell you their stories or emotions about Karel Gott.
“That, to put it simply, is why so many internet commentaries, including hate-filled ones, are reacting to the release of the book.
“Because everyone thinks that he or she has to say something about Karel.
“And it really is a story of all of us here.”