Underground under Communism: It wasn’t only rock ’n’ roll – and Czechs liked it

Photo: archive of National Museum

The former political regime in Czechoslovakia deemed much of Western culture “damaging” and “ideologically subversive”, but authorities struggled in particular to control the flood of foreign rock ’n’ roll and pop music. State cultural agencies and censors rarely allowed Western bands to perform here or even play their music on the airwaves. But unofficial channels filled the demand – through illegal imports, home-copying networks and ‘magnetizdat’ – do-it-yourself music. At the same time, state authorities sanctioned Western music when sung by Czech artists, and with totally new lyrics.

Photo: archive of National Museum

I recently joined Petr Ferenc of the Czech Museum of Music for a fascinating guided tour of the exhibition Import / Export / Rock ’n’ roll, which maps these phenomena during the so-called Normalisation era, the period from the Soviet-led invasion in 1968 to the Velvet Revolution in 1989. It is the first major exhibition by the Documentation Centre for Popular Music and New Media, which Petr Ferenc – a DJ, turntablist and music journalist turned archivist – now leads. I began by asking him how much of his own research went into the exhibition, and what that involved.

“Many years before I started work here, I was a music journalist – and it’s a job that I still do, partly. This friction between the borders of official, nonofficial and the specific conditions of the Eastern Bloc has been my interest since my teenage years. I’m a fan of a lot of DIY [do-it-yourself] and unofficial music that was produced here. So, for me it was like a candy store.”

“This is not supposed to be a retro exhibition about ‘the good old days’ but rather about the problems of the ‘good old days’. The major theme of this Import / Export / Rock 'n' roll exhibition is the official politics of the Communist or Socialist or whatever you want to call it regime that decided to take over and monopolise all kinds of not only industry but also cultural life.

Petr Ferenc,  photo: archive of National Museum
“The regime decided to be the only official publishing house, concert agency, booking agency, record label. And the exhibition introduces the ways that the regime succeeded, tried to succeeded or failed in this attempt. A perfect example is the popular music wave that the world encountered in the 1960s, with The Beatles, etc., where the emergence of new music was so massive that the government couldn’t possibly ignore it.

“The regime decided to work with it and somehow get it under control. The Iron Curtain, of course, cut the Eastern Bloc off from a lot of information coming from the West, but it couldn’t isolate it 100 percent – this was not North Korea.”

And what were some of the ways the regime tried to control it – they would be jamming the radio signals?

“Jamming the radio signals was of course one of them. For a rock fan, the crucial station was Radio Luxembourg [known to Czechoslovak fans as ‘Laxík’], which broadcast mainly for the American GIs serving in Germany. So it played a lot of jazz and rock. Then later, it was crucial for the regime to jam mainly Radio Free Europe, which was established to broadcast in the Eastern Bloc, at that time, from Munich, Germany.”

At the same time, they would invite artists who shared or were sympathetic to the regime, such as [American folk singer and social activist] Pete Seeger…

“That’s a strange story about Pete Seeger! As a member of the Communist Party USA, by what he saw here – for example the level of censorship. The regime would invite a lot of artists from the Eastern Bloc, but also a few from the West because they were more popular, and the regime still wanted to do business with the West. Of course they were not so open to cultural exchanges but they were to financial exchanges – so, the import and export of all kinds of music. Trying to export our local production to the West.”

And I understand that to some degree, importing the music meant not ‘importing’ the lyrics – that they tried to have Czech pop artists like Karel Gott do cover versions…

“The regime was quite allergic to hearing the English language on the radio and on TV. Every artist who wanted to make it simply had to do covers. Very often a cover version was the only way a Czech listener to hear foreign music. So they did arrangements with Czech lyrics – a lot of them are still popular, and maybe some listeners don’t even know they are covers.”

Photo: archive of National Museum

‘Magnetizdat’ and other unofficial channels

Many otherwise ordinary people in the post-1968 Czechoslovakia bristled at state control and censorship of the cultural sector. Many musicians and samizdat authors – at least initially – were expressing aesthetic dissatisfaction with the sanctioned cultural world imposed by the Czechoslovak Communist Party, rather than challenging specific policies.

A hunger for both high and popular culture – for new literature and rock music – led them to create written ‘samizdat’ as well as ‘magnetizdat’, music recorded, copied or distributed through unofficial channels. The authorities were perhaps most concerned with rock music, says Petr Ferenc, but did sometimes allow Western bands in.

Photo: archive of National Museum
“Speaking about rock music, the first famous rock act that played here was Manfred Mann, a band that really was big at the time, in 1965. Louis Armstrong played here at about that time, and the second Czechoslovak ‘bigbít’ festival in 1968 had some special guests – The Nice featuring Keith Emerson, which was a crucial concert for many people, like the Slovak organ player Marián Varga who started basically his own version of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, called Collegium Musicum. He became a superstar, a Hammond organist in the vein of Keith Emerson.

“The Beach Boys played a few concerts here in 1969, after the [Soviet-led] invasion, and they dedicated a song to [Prague Spring leader] Alexander Dubček. That was the last big wave of these concerts. And from then on, I would say only ‘B’ class acts were coming in the 1970s. The situation changed a bit in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, and one of the highlights for the younger generation was when Depeche Mode came to Prague in 1988.”

But such concerts by Western superstars were the exception to the rule. Yet Czechs followed the international music scene as best they could, tuning into broadcasts the authorities didn’t manage to jam, or listening to recording of such broadcasts made by enterprising fans. Peter Ferenc again:

“We are standing in front of a record cutter – it’s a DIY machine, and the first means for home taping, before reel-to-reel machines were introduced to the market. This vinyl cutter is based on a turntable, but the needle is of course cutting not playing the record. The materials people used to cut records were often x-ray foils, x-ray photographs – especially in the Soviet Union, these were much more popular, and these records were called ‘bones’. This starts the line of ‘magnetizdat’ or DIY music taping, recordings and releases.

“As I said earlier, the regime wanted to have complete control over it, so people had to help themselves – either by recording songs they liked off of the radio, jazz and rock, or distributing their own music. Something that would be called a DIY label in America today, for example, or in the West, was much more political here. The people were in danger of being persecuted somehow, even jailed.”

Any idea how many of these might have been floating around the country? A handful, I suppose…

“A handful. We know about some people who recorded from the radio, even political speeches from Radio Free Europe, for example. Some people did business from these bone records. You could hear them often, for example, at the circus and at fairs, where people wanted some popular music to play. A lot of aspiring guitar players, for example, were visiting these fairs, not to ride a merry-go-round but to listen to the music and probably tried to learn it. It demonstrates how the music was really in demand but lacking on the radio.”

Photo: archive of National Museum

Black market bazars, from ‘under Stalin’ to the Krč forest

There is a persistent belief that the Communist publishing houses didn’t pay royalties on the few records by Western artists that were sold by the monopolist Supraphon label. But Petr Ferenc says that since the authorities were eager also to export Czech music – especially popular Classical recordings – it is unrealistic to think it was a widespread practice. As for the Czech pressings of foreign artists, the authorities went for mainstream, unthreatening artists – though the process was less than systematic.

“It was haphazard and of course it was censored. You needed to have a dramaturgist who had the idea, then it passed through the censorship and all the business things. I think Supraphon licensed about ten popular music albums a year, so the offer was really very small. We only had bits and pieces from usually really big names – The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash.

Photo: archive of National Museum
“But if you wanted to go deeper into more challenging music, more experimental music, there was no chance. ABBA was of course very popular because it was totally harmless, and they were Swedish, which was a plus. They were from the West but not Americans or English. For the same reason, probably, Italian pop was popular here.”

“And so, a lot of people were buying, selling and exchanging records at illegal bazars. You could get records from the West, for example, if you had an émigré in your family or travelled for work.

“Those records were in high demand, very popular, and very expensive. The average salary in the ‘80s was about 2,000 crowns, and you could buy a record at the bazar for 500 crowns. So, you might make a lot of tapes for your friends, organise listening parties and so on.

“There were many bazars. Police might come and shut one down, but in Prague, at least, they were happening every Sunday in various places all over the city – and the most improbable places, sometimes, like in the forest of Krč. But word of mouth worked perfectly.”

I’m surprised to see on this map of Prague that there was even one on Wenceslas Square.

“Yeah, people were standing in the street selling records, and when the police came, they moved on. It seems that the police usually didn’t confiscate the records. They usually just closed down the event – well, sometimes using dogs. They could be a bit brutal. But people always gathered again.

“A famous one was in Letná Plain, under where the Stalin statue was. There was the Krč forest and here [in the Import / Export / Rock ’n’ roll exhibition], we’ve recreated the Španělská Street bazar above Wenceslas Square from photos…

The Import / Export / Rock ’n’ roll exhibition is at the Czech Museum of Music in Prague through June 2020. www.nm.cz/en/we-prepared/exhibitions/import-export-rocknroll

As I know from my record collection that I inherited from someone, lots of interesting experimental titles were bought and sold at the bazars as well. The vendors, who did it on a so-called professional level, were really quick – you could get a new record about two weeks after it was published.”

While only officially sanctioned artists were allowed to perform publicly or record albums, many – most famously the Plastic People of the Universe – defied the system and held illegal concerts. The trial of the Plastics inspired the Charter 77 civic and human right movement led by Václav Havel. While not neglecting such notable cases, the exhibition Import / Export / Rock ’n’ roll documents in particular the lesser known ways people got around communist efforts to control music.