Contemporary musicians record cover versions of classic Semafor hits

Divadlo Semafor is an inauspicious theatre in Prague’s Dejvice district, from which, over the past half-century, some of this country’s biggest pop hits have emerged. To honour the output of songwriting duo Jiří Suchý and Jiří Šlitr, and the theatre’s 50th birthday, nearly 20 young Czech bands have got together to make an album of cover versions of Semafor songs. Music critic Pavel Klusák is the man behind the project:

“Some people, some music fans, relate to singers or stars, while others, and I belong to them, relate maybe more to songs. And the songs of Suchý and Šlitr from the 1960s are still so good and fresh that I thought it was only a matter of time before someone brings them back onto the scene. And the reaction of electronic musicians, of contemporary songwriters, of people who have never done a cover version before and who just do their own stuff only, all these guys say ‘yes, it belongs to our roots, maybe we can do something very strange and new and contemporary with this old material’.

“I think that I am not the only one who thinks that Semafor is a bridge between pre-war avant-garde and pre-war musicals, and modern pop music, and the modern singer-songwriter scene. It is really strange that in the 1960s, that were full of rock and roll and beat music abroad, Semafor merged early rock and roll and swing music together, probably because the 1950s in our country were quite tough, and with a lot of restrictions, and a lot of young people never could enjoy fully this sort of music and the lifestyle that accompanied such swing music at the time.”

The album of cover versions will be called ‘For Semafor’ and will go on general release in November. Some of the country’s best known bands have taken part in the project, says Pavel Klusák, whose music label, Klíče, is releasing the CD:

“There are quite different people, quite different groups, on the album, but still, we hope that the result will be listenable-to as a whole, as a sort of story with different characters, let’s say. That’s why we have popular groups like Tata Bojs, The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, Midi Lidi from the younger family. Then there are, let’s say, more alternative people, like Dva, Květy and the very raw bluesman Jiří Konvrzek, who plays his own homemade guitars and strange drums and so on.”

And what exactly are you aiming to have as an end product?

“Umberto Eco said that books communicate not only with their readers, but between themselves too. And I think that music and songs and some musical events work in a very similar way. So, I think that the clash between contemporary styles and songs from the 1960s could tell us something about the 1960s, about the new fresh scene, about our listeners’ habits and something about our memory – maybe a lot.”

One of the best known bands taking part in the project is Brno-based electro group Midi Lidi. Petr Marek is one-third of the outfit, and, he tells me, a Semafor fan since childhood:

“Semafor Theatre is a sort of cabaret which is connected with a certain era in time; so, from the late 1950s until nowadays, but the most famous era was in the 1960s, and to this day, most of the songs are something like national anthems – funny anthems. So, everybody knows Semafor’s songs, I don’t know, it is like Czech theatre’s equivalent of Charlie Chaplin.”

When you were little, did you ever go to Semafor? Did you live in Prague and visit this theatre, or did you come as a special treat ever?

“I was not connected with it physically, because I didn’t live in Prague, I just heard the records, because they released many records of their songs. And on the TV I saw them, and I read their plays on paper. I was curious to go to Semafor sometime, and the first time I was there, I was 18. It was long, long past their main era, but I was satisfied somehow!”

So why did you decide to take part in this project to make cover versions of Semafor songs?

“This was a case of very special luck. Because one day after our concert, we started mucking about in our group – we remembered one of Semafor’s songs and we laughed for two or three hours making up new lyrics for this song. And the next morning, Pavel Klusák phoned me asking whether we could do some cover version of Semafor, and I laughed again. So, it was very special luck, mystical luck, and that is the reason we agreed.”

So which song did you do, and what did you do with it, then?

“It’s a song called ‘Co jsem měl dnes k obědu’ (‘What I had for lunch today’), and so the lyrics are ‘Imagine, imagine, what I had for lunch today…’ And the singer sings just about everything he could eat and rhymes all these foods in some stupid lyrics. So, we made a new version, which is a manager singing ‘imagine, imagine what I’m going to do with some band…’ So, the manager invites some bands along, and we sing about Nirvana, we sing about The Prodigy, we sing about many bands, and about how the manager fails to do anything with the bands.”

Here’s a bit of Midi Lidi’s version of ‘Co jsem měl dnes k obědu’. It will be one of the tracks on the ‘For Semafor’ album, which should hit shops by November. Listen out then for some of the best-known Czech hits of the 1960s as you have never heard them before.