Czech guitar great Radim Hladík looks back on 50 years in spotlight

Radim Hladík, photo: Jan Sklenář

Radim Hladík is regarded as one of the greatest Czech guitar players – if not the greatest – of the 1960s generation, the local equivalent of an Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck. In this special programme, the musician looks back over a colourful career spanning five decades.

Radim Hladík, photo: Jan Sklenář
Radim Hladík grew up in Prague’s Vinohrady and still lives in the district. When he travelled the very short distance from his home to Radio Prague’s studios lately, he was carrying a guitar case on his shoulder and dressed casually in a black hoody and trainers.

Days away from his 67th birthday, the musician had a twinkle in his eye and a ready laugh as he looked back over his long and successful career.

Hladík’s father was a bank clerk but had studied composition and conducting and he and his wife pushed the young Radim towards the piano. They were signally unimpressed when he began taking an interest in the instrument that would define him: the guitar.

“At first they didn’t like it – they didn’t like the guitar at all. At the turn of the ‘50s and the ‘60s, the guitar wasn’t regarded as a musical instrument at all. It was associated with camp fires and tramping. So I kind of took it up out of spite; because they disapproved, I clung to it more.”

But Hladík wasn’t a complete disappointment to his folks. Or at least, not until he fell for bigbít, a Czech take on the beat boom sound then exploding out of the UK.

“I studied classical guitar and was accepted at the conservatory. But I only lasted there for two years, so I never graduated. The 1960s made a big impression on me. So did Radio Luxembourg, which influenced me so much that I dived into the world of bigbít. By coincidence, just two weeks ago I started my 50th season as a performer.”

The guitarist joined his first band, Komety, as a baby-faced 15-year-old. With a set drawing heavily on the likes of The Shadows, their 1963 debut show was an unlikely one, performing to a bemused delegation of visiting Soviet dignitaries on the anniversary of the October Revolution.

However, it was with The Matadors that Radim Hladík really made a splash. The combo had a highly fluid lineup and only released one LP, simply entitled The Matadors. But in their day they were the cream of the crop in Czechoslovakia, bringing the house down with their own brand of maximum r’n’b at venues throughout Czechoslovakia and further afield.

The Matadors, Radim Hladík in the center, photo: Supraphon
“There were two streams here. There was the Beatles stream, the Mersey Sound. And there was rhythm and blues. The Matadors were more into r’n’b and soul and that kind of music. We had a kind of Western sheen, whereas local bands like Olympic were doing Czech bigbít. That’s what made us stand out – we were closer to the Western music scene.”

The mid to late 1960s was a golden age for rock guitar, with the greats of that era still dominating the all-time pantheon. Hladík doesn’t have to think twice when asked about his own guitar hero.

“The person who influenced me most was Jimi Hendrix. He showed me freedom. For me, music equals freedom. I can’t stand clichés. Apart from maybe two songs, every time I play I improvise. The freedom within the music is terribly inspiring – and that’s why I still enjoy it.”

Czechoslovakia’s young musicians were at some remove from the Western sources of 1960s pop, and got to see virtually none of the era’s leading bands live. Nevertheless, the period immediately leading up to the Soviet invasion of August 1968 is remembered fondly by many in Hladík’s generation.

“We were all young and there was more freedom in those days. None of us expected that the screws would be tightened again – and more tightly than previously. We lived freely and got a real taste of freedom. That made what followed in the 1970s even harder to take.”

The crushing of the Prague Spring led indirectly to the demise of The Matadors. In Munich auditioning for a production of the musical Hair, they decided to stay in West Germany. Radim Hladík was the only member to return to Prague, where he joined the group that is most closely associated with him to this day: Blue Effect

Blue Effect were formed in 1968 by Vladimír Mišík, who knew Hladík from their days together in Komety and invited him to come on board.

They were an immediate smash, cleaning up at the Second Czechoslovak Beat Festival in Prague at the end of the year. Blue Effect were declared band of the year and new band of the year. Radim Hladík, then 24, was musician of the year.

Photo: Supraphon
There’s an interesting story behind the moniker Blue Effect. It was inspired by a highly-prized document that exempted young men from tough military service – and is a reference that will ring a bell with all Czech men above a certain age.

“In the first line-up in 1968, all of us had ‘blue books’. That meant that we were saved from having to go into the army for two years. We always said it meant that we had two more years than everybody else.”

The Soviet occupation had slammed the door shut on almost all interaction with the West. But remarkably perhaps the most quintessential of American rock groups did make it to Czechoslovakia in 1969: The Beach Boys performed now legendary, jammed-to-the-rafters shows in Prague and Brno. Blue Effect were the support act.

“That was our first contact with a world renowned band. It was a whole other world: how they looked, how they behaved, their gear, the quality of their performance. Our jaws just dropped.”

At that time some Western promoters had become aware of this hot Czechoslovak band, and there was talk of Blue Effect supporting Jethro Tull on tour and appearances at US festivals.

But the official agency responsible, Pragokoncert, apparently felt the long-haired rockers would not be a suitable representative of socialist Czechoslovakia and refused to let them go.

As hard-line Communists retook control in the so-called normalization period, they became increasingly intolerant of Western influences. English was frowned upon and Blue Effect, ordered to adopt a new name, became Modrý Effect. They were also for a time known as M. Effect.

But Hladík also had some qualms of his own about Western influences – specifically, the issue of language.

Radim Hladík, photo: Chmee2, CC BY-SA 3.0
“We sang half in English, half in Czech…The country was surrounded by barbed wire and we were cut off, so I always felt that it was necessary for Czechs to sing in Czech. I’ve never had anything against English in music. But I think in most cases when Czechs sing in English, it must be terrible for those who understand it!”

There may be something in that. For instance, the title of one track on the Matadors self-titled LP is Hate Everything Except of Hattered [sic]. And Hladík says people are to this day trying to figure out the lyrics on one Blue Effect English language record.

Meanwhile, Blue or Modrý Effect were entering fresh musical territory, embarking on lengthy jazz rock odysseys with complicated time signatures. The guitarist says the very name of the genre helped take the pressure off him and his band-mates in the grey days of the 1970s.

“Bigbít was on the index so we couldn’t play it. We said we were playing jazz rock because jazz was permitted, to a degree. We sometimes played only two songs in an entire show. It was so complicated that the culture officials who decided on these things didn’t understand it, and they let us through. We weren’t barred from playing completely.”

In the 1980s, original members began falling away, with Hladík continuing to lead Blue Effect until they were eventually banned.

Luckily for the guitarist, he had found a haven at Czechoslovak Radio, where he earned a living working with the station’s jazz and dance bands. Indeed, some of Blue Effect’s recordings featured the Czechoslovak Radio Jazz Orchestra.

As it was for the entire country, the collapse of communism at the end of 1989 was a huge turning point for the musician.

“We felt that it was getting close. But we still didn’t believe that the nation would be capable of undertaking a revolution. Our ideas about the direction things would take turned out to be a bit different from the reality. I’m glad I lived to see it, because I really feel personal freedom. But there are many things today that bother me, that I don’t like.”

Instead of taking Blue Effect out on the road in the euphoric, newly open Czechoslovakia, Hladík put the group on ice. An old friend and collaborator, folk artist Jaroslav Hutka, had returned from exile and the two started performing as a duo.

“I returned to where I’d started: the acoustic guitar. Jarda Hutka and I had played together in the 1970s before he emigrated to Holland. So it was logical for us to hook up again. And in the end we stayed together for nearly 15 years, which is a terribly long time.”

Indeed, Hladík and Hutka are currently working on a new LP together. But today the guitarist mostly performs, after a gap of a decade and a half, with a revived Blue Effect, surrounded by musicians a generation or two his junior.

Blue Effect, photo: Alan Pajer
At 67, Hladík plays in the region of 170 gigs a year, more than at any time in his career. Being an old-age pensioner, he says, gives him the freedom to devote himself entirely to music.

“I don’t think I’d like it if there were fewer shows. Because during our two-hour show I really feel I’m in a different time-zone, that time is relative. When it doesn’t go well, it’s as unpleasant as being up there for a week. But other times the two hours flow by beautifully. And I really like that.”

An article I came across recently said the melancholy melody in one of his greatest songs Čajovna was as deeply ingrained in the consciousnesses of Czech rock fans as the riff in the Rolling Stones’ (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction.

But while the UK band and many of their peers are today multi-millionaires, Radim Hladík doesn’t have so much to show materially for five decades as perhaps his nation’s greatest guitarist.

Nevertheless, he looks somewhat askance at the question of whether he is at all bitter when he sees the enormous wealth of his Western counterparts.

“I’m not bitter at all. I freely decided to live in this country. I wouldn’t have what it takes to make it on the international market, and in any case there isn’t the set-up for such success here. I recognise that the music I play is, to a marked degree, not our music. It comes from elsewhere and I just try to enrich it from the viewpoint of a Central European from a small state. I’m satisfied with that. It’s enough for me.”