Western performers a rarity in Communist era


Earlier this week the British pop legend Elton John entertained thousands of fans with a concert in Prague. But it was not his first concert here. He sang in the Czech capital way back in 1984 in the days of deepest communism. Back than the concert organizers were most disturbed when he put his legs up on the piano. At the time the western performers only rarely played behind the iron curtain.

Elton John, photo: CTK
The range of western singers who were allowed to give concerts in communist Czechoslovakia was strictly limited with regard not only to their political views but also the style of their music and the way they looked. Whereas Elton John was considered a relatively unproblematic singer other performers - especially hard rock bands - were not welcome at all.

Music reviewer Jiri Cerny remembers the times:

"In the 1960s the hardest concert was probably when Manfred Mann played here. In Great Britain they were not considered any threat by the authorities, but here this was the very first concert of such a famous band. At both their concerts in Prague and in Bratislava police intervened and many people were beaten. Other concerts, such as Paul Anka or the country star Johny Cash were much more peaceful."

But the 1970s, in the wake of the Soviet invasion of 1968, were a time of severe oppression. Few western musicians performed in Prague.

Karel Vagenknecht was a young man at the time, and remembers how he had the unique chance to see Johnny Cash in concert in 1978.

"I visited the concert of the American country singer and songwriter Johnny Cash for the first time in Prague in the Park of Julius Fucik. I was in the back row and behind me, there was a squadron of police officers who were present for a case of an insurgency or what. I don't know. Johnny Cash came on the stage and said: 'Hello, I'm Johnny Cash'."

Karel Vagenknecht really enjoyed the concert but he also remembers how angry he was when the police interfered during the concert. It was one of the factors that persuaded him to leave the country later.

"People were absolutely amazed. Before Johnny Cash left, there was unstoppable cheer and laud noise in the stadium. I looked behind me and I saw police officer who approached me and said: 'Turn it down!' And I replied with smile: 'Why?' And he said: 'Don't smile or I will take you with us!' I started to be careful and I immediately thought: 'Well, this is probably not the place where I should live'."

In the 1980s some of the restrictions were relaxed. Especially after the Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, the general atmosphere changed and bands like Depeche Mode played in Czechoslovakia without tight police surveillance. But western bands only really started pouring in after the fall of communism in 1989.