(E-E) Ev.g.e.n.i.j ..K.o.z.l.o.     Berlin                                                  

      E-E Evgenij Kozlov: Exhibitions

Underground and Improvisation

Alternative music and art after 1968

Akademie der Künste, Berlin


Trans Osteuropa Express Unearthing The Music Presents Notes from the Underground. A Compilation

David Crowley, Chris Bohn, Alexander Pehlemann. Presenter: Angela Lammert
Video documentation of the presentation >>

Below is the text read by Chris Bohn. Courtesy the author.

Symposium Underground and Improvisation 19.4. - 21.4. 2018 All videos >>

19 April 2018

Trans Osteuropa Express Unearthing The Music Presents Notes from the Underground.
A Compilation >> (video documentation)

David Crowley, Chris Bohn, Alexander Pehlemann. Presenter: Angela Lammert

For the Berlin installation of the Notes from the Underground exhibition, a compilation was prepared with the Portuguese project Unearthing The Music, which makes the experimental music of real socialism available online. It is to be released as a double LP on Leipzig's Major label as part of its new Iron Curtain Radio series and offers sounds between the level of official art and deepest subculture, which were often hardly ever heard beyond the country's borders, especially not in this constellation. It provides a clue as to what is still to be discovered in those Eastern sound zones that were not (or only barely) caught up in any hype.

To launch the symposium, the compilation will be presented with Chris Bohn from the British magazine The Wire, who was the first Western music journalist to travel through parts of Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 1980s, in search of this region's Underground – which resulted in the Trans-Europe Express series of articles in NME.

Text: Courtesy Akademie der Künste

Revised Notes From The Underground. By Chris Bohn

I was so much dumber then, I’m marginally less naive than that now... These reflections begin under the shadow of Giewont, the mountain nicknamed the sleeping giant that overlooks Zakopane in Poland. I had started visiting Zakopane, a mountain holiday resort south of Krakow, around 1988, making the first of many pilgrimages to the home of Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, aka Witkacy, the artist, playwright, philosopher, prankster, catastrophist, and by many accounts, all round pain in the ass, whose fabulous dystopian novel Insatiability had been recommended to me by Marek Kohn, a UK writer with a Polish family background. Witkacy lived out his artistic and philosophical pursuit of pure form with a psychedelic bent through his experiments with alcohol, nicotine, ether and mindbending hallucinogenics like peyote, against the backdrop of a disintegrating Europe. Witkacy finally killed himself in September 1939 when his catastrophist prophesies were fulfilled by Hitler and Stalin dividing up Poland between them. Which is to say, Witkacy was exactly right for his times, and feels just as right for yours and mine. Since that mindblowing encounter with his novel Insatiability, Witkacy and his work have retroactively served – and continue to serve – as personal spirit guide to my past, present and future times in pre- and post-1989 Eastern Europe.

And that’s not only because one of the most striking characters in Insatiability is Putricides, a composer whose stunted body and stiff little fingers rendered him almost incapable of realising his brilliantly perverse psychedelic noise music. Some 40 years after Witkacy completed his monstrous creation in 1927, the Czech capital of Prague was perceived by the UK pop weekly newspaper NME as a world psychedelic centre of a wholly more benign character. In the early 1980s I spent a few days in the NME archives going through the bound yearly volumes of the music weekly from 1964 to 1970 while researching an article about Scott Walker. At the time my love of Scott's music had been sealed by "The Old Man's Back Again (Dedicated To The Neo-Stalinist Regime)”. From his 1969 album Scott 4, the song alluded to the summer of 1968 when Warsaw Pact troops crushed the Prague spring, and with it Czechoslovakia's dream of finding another socialist way. But the big revelation from my researches had nothing to do with Scott Walker – it was the discovery that sometime in 1967 NME began running a regular newsletter from Prague; its other regular column was a newsletter from San Francisco. Which is to say, for awhile NME perceived Prague, capital of communist Czechoslovakia, along with San Francisco to be one of two world centres of psychedelia. NME‘s Prague newsletter didn't end in August 1968, it stopped sometime in early 1969. And by November 1980, when I visited Prague for the first of NME’s two part Trance Europe Express Eastern European special features, the pyschedelic spirit had gone deep underground. The 1960s Prague newsletter monitored the music of groups like The Primitives, forerunners of iconic Czech group Plastic People Of The Universe. I met Plastic People's Josef Janicek, who patiently answered my naive questions about about how the group could continue to operate under extreme duress, subject to continual police surveillance, arrest, imprisonment and vindictive vengeful acts, such as having a cottage burned down after the authorities discovered they'd played a secret gig there. Unsurprisingly Plastic People's music grew progressively darker and more intense. The music of their near contemporaries like Kilhets and Extempore, both featuring Mikolas Chadima, wasn't exactly brighter but both carried large doses of dada absurdism that at once reflected, undermined and overturned the oppressive conditions the musicians had to live through daily. Prague 1980 also had its punk bands, the most notable of which were Zikkurat, about whom I was told plenty but never got to meet or even hear until recently, Dog Soldiers and Energie G. By the end of this first visit to Prague, my initial positive impressions of the city had been completely overturned by stories of musicians and artists having to cope with oppressive measures. The only half-decent group with semi legal status was the appositely named Classic Rock And Roll Band, yet they were also under threat of being banned by the authorities for being too rock and roll lewd. By the time I boarded the overnight train for Budapest I'd become so paranoid I was sorely tempted to turn around and head back west.

I needn't have worried. Compared to the heavily suffocating atmosphere hanging over underground Prague, the Budapest scene I visited a week later felt like a playground paradise. But even in its more open climate people would occasionally raise their hands to hide their mouths from prying lipreading informants’ eyes when speaking to a foreigner in public places. And the prevailing mood among the city’s musicians and artists were as likely to plummet as spiral high. The congenial film maker Gabor Body, whose 1980s cult hit Psyche featured West German actor Udo Kier (fresh from his starring roles in Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s Frankenstein and Dracula films) introduced me to Attila Grandpierre, leader of Vágtázó Halottkémek, a few nights after the singer had tried to kill himself. With his wrists wrapped in bandages, Attila calmly and kindly answered my innocent questions about the meaning and motivations of the bizarre folk rock the group he had founded in 1975 blindly thrashed out in his absence the night he was recovering in hospital. Then he politely requested if he could he ask me a question: what were Blue Cheer doing now (that is, in winter 1980)? Sadly I did not have an answer.

Back in 1980, the other key Budapest underground group the cognoscenti kept talking about were Spions, whose Laibach-like overidentification with the totalitarian organism – be it stalinist or hitlerite ­– resulted in one of their founders, Gregor Davidow, going into exile in Paris rather than risk the wrath of the state’s displeasure in such Spions songs as the one about ‘Anna’ Frank dancing with her killers. I never got to hear these early Spion songs, even when I met Gregor in Paris on the final leg of my return trip to the UK. I’d have been disappointed if I had. Never mind Spions’ overidentification with the totalitarian organism. More problematic was Gregor’s overidentification with Joel Grey, the MC from Cabaret, 1970s Hollywood’s invocation of Christopher Isherwood’s stories of Weimar Berlin, and his far too unhealthy love of Malcolm McLaren’s strategies. But other Hungarian underground music I encountered has aged much better. In particular and above all the voice of Jenő Menyhárt of URH. I still recall his one-song performance of the great Hungarian underground hit “Bon Bon Si Bon Bon”  – any number of versions of which can now be found on YouTube! – at a Budapest party. Seated, legs crossed, on a low wooden stool, supported by the a cappella mouthings of two members of a group called Balaton, his voice barked itself into a terse rant along the lines of "Too many police, too few whores" and back to "Too many whores, too few policemen". In an attempt to recapture that moment I went looking for Menyhárt on record. Eventually I found Annak Is Kell, a 2013 set by his later group Európa Kíado. (Their 1980s albums Popzene, Love ’82 and Jó Lesz... ’84 are highly recommended – imagine Roxy Music’s first album being ravaged by a 1977 punk riot and coming out alive by ducking through a hole into a future of their own devising.) Back in the here and now his voice is as every bit as emotionally captivating as it was in 1980. And I’m totally won over by “Ennek A Szobának”, the album’s stingingly sung Hungarian translated cover version of Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From The Storm”. I ran the Hungarian title through google translate just to confirm what I was hearing. It came out “As In A Room”, which felt exactly right: 35 years later East and West might be almost the same but in the final count they’re still just that little bit far apart.

Let's close this with an acid flashback: In 1978 UK the big punky reggae hit was Tapper Zukie’s “MPLA”. People heard it as being about the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola even if in truth it had little to nothing to say about the people’s struggle for independence from Portuguese colonialism. Meanwhile the smash hit films of 1978–80 were America’s soulsearching post-Vietnam defeat movies The Deerhunter and Apocalypse Now, both of them were heavy on the damage done by said defeat to the US psyche, even as they expressed little to no regret about the people the US failed to bomb into surrender. A few years later, during the Falklands War with Argentina, UK forces sunk the Argentine ship General Belgrano, killing more than 300 men. Travelling underground in Eastern Europe was always an ambivalent experience; encounters with musicians and artists in Prague and Budapest, earlier in Ljubljana in non-aligned Yugoslavia, and later in Poznan, Warsaw, Krakow, East Berlin and again, frequently, to meet Laibach in Ljubljana, were never less than exciting, exhilarating, immensely moving and every so often unnerving, and once or twice heart in mouth frightening, even. But these trips were never undertaken with the feeling that the West was somehow better. Morally superior? Certainly not. The Soviet bloc, China and Cuba backed all the right sides in people’s liberation struggles around the world, even if their outcomes were often as not inglorious.

Utopia by definition must forever remain a dream away from reality. Utopia, it appears, is only attainable by wielding a heavy stick, destroying it in the very moment of its creation.

*This is a revised version of an afterword piece originally written for Alexander Pehlemann’s Go Ost

David Crowley passes Chris Bohn a 10 January 1981 copy of NME, featuring the first of its two part Trance Europe Express feature about Prague and (in the following issue) Budapest, requesting him to read the introduction:

The gaunt Ostbahnhof station in Berlin’s Russian sector is a sombre introduction to the East, but its Third Man gloom is offset by the bustling companionship of travellers waiting for the Prague-Budapest Express.

Westerners, me included, can’t hide an aura of uneasy anticipation that manifests itself in nervous glances from the clock to the train indicator; not that there's any real threat – just a feeling brought on by the sudden, alienating loss of colour on crossing the Wall. Eventually relieved by the train’s arrival, I enter a compartment full of young army conscripts, who inquisitively look me over before continuing their raucous replay of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times screened on East German TV the night before.

They were really tickled by the scene in which Char-lee is nailed by the cops for political agitation when all he did was pick up a red flag fallen from the back of a lorry. And just when they’re looking forward to next week’s The Gold Rush, someone dampens their spirits by reminding them of a parade the same night...

Exit soldiers, enter a sailor and his friend heading for a weekend in Budapest. Why Budapest? It’s a lot more relaxed there, they reply, the next best thing to travelling West. 

“East Germany one big jail,” murmurs one sullenly. And for young people it’s a longterm sentence (until retirement when you can finally leave the country) rendered all the more frustrating by their ready access to West German media. Eager to talk music, the duo regularly watch the West German marathon Rockpalast, which brings them as close as they can get to live gigs by the likes of Patti Smith and The Police.

Leaving the cocoon-like comfort of the train compartment, I say goodbye to the Germans and whisper a tentative hello to Prague...

Uploaded 24 April 2018