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Popular Music in Communist and Post-Communist Europe

von Jan Blüml (Band-Herausgeber:in) Yvetta Kajanová (Band-Herausgeber:in) Rüdiger Ritter (Band-Herausgeber:in)
©2019 Sammelband 348 Seiten


Through selected topics, the book presents an up-to-date and comprehensive view of the popular music of communist and post-communist Europe. The studies introduce new sources, discuss transformations of the institutional background of popular music of the given geopolitical sphere, its social, cultural-political, or artistic conditions. Thanks to the time span of nearly thirty years since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the authors have in many ways revised or supplemented traditional post-communist perceptions of the issues in question. This is being done with respect to the genres such as jazz, rock, pop, singer-songwriters, hip-hop, or White Power Music, as well as across the whole region from the former Yugoslavia through Central European states to the countries of the former Soviet Union.


  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Rock Around the Bloc Revisited: Researching Pop Culture in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union Then and Now
  • Jazz and Popular Music Studies
  • Historical Backgrounds of Marxist Music Sociology in Socialist Hungary. The Study of Generative Musical Abilities
  • Rock, Pop and Jazz Research Development in the Former Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and Present-Day Slovakia
  • Researching Jazz in Socialist Countries
  • Cultural Policies, Institutions and Media
  • Inventing Bulgarian Estrada Music: Concepts, Institutions and Practice (1950s–1970s)
  • Music Magazines in Poland after 1989
  • Czech Popular Music before 1989 and the Institution of the ‘Discotheque’
  • Mikrofona aptauja: Conformists and Dissidents in a Latvian Song Competition, 1968–1994
  • Polish Music Festivals as a Tool of Socialist Propaganda
  • Proces diferencijacije u kombinatu za proizvodnju i preradu šećerne repe: Music Videos in Socialist Yugoslavia and Post-Socialist Serbia
  • Popular Music during State Repression and War
  • Singing for Socialism: The FDJ-Singing Movement in Late-1960s German Democratic Republic (GDR)
  • Popular-Alternative: Making Music in the Besieged Sarajevo from 1992 to 1995
  • Soviet and Post-Soviet Union Territories: History and Identity
  • Rational Consumption: Political Ideology in Stagnation-Era Soviet Popular Song
  • Unofficial Rock Music in the Late Soviet Union and Soviet Officialdom: With Friends Like This Who Needs Enemies?
  • The Desired Ukraine in Ukrainian Female Singer-Songwriters of the 1990s: What It Meant to Sing a New (Utopian) Song
  • Popular Music and Identity Constructions of Young Belarusians: ‘Popsa’ as the Phenomenon of ‘Anti-identification’
  • Textual and Discourse Analyses
  • An Internal Migration: The Shifts in the Perceptions and Uses of English in Russian Rock Music (1963–2017)
  • The Role and Importance of White Power Music in Shaping the Far Right in the Czech Republic
  • ‘Years ago, when rock’n’roll was young…’ Bulgarian Rock Music as Discussed in Music Memoirs, Reflective and Journalistic Literature
  • The Transmutation of Czech Youth Musical Films during the Era of State Socialism
  • Was Polish Rock of State Socialism Anti-socialist? Political Content in Polish Rock from the 1960s till the End of the 1980s
  • No Room for Communism: Topics in Early Romanian Hip Hop
  • Music Theory and Aesthetics
  • The Phenomenon of Marek Grechuta—Not Only Poet and Composer
  • Jazz Harmony from the Perspective of the Most Important Czech, Slovakian and International Theorists
  • About the Authors

Timothy W. Ryback

Rock Around the Bloc Revisited: Researching Pop Culture in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union Then and Now

For me, the history of Soviet bloc rock ended in a Prague café in August 1989. I was conducting an interview with Michal Kocáb, the leader of Pražský výběr, or Prague Selection, a popular new wave band that had fallen afoul of the government and was prevented from touring or recording. Kocáb was silenced but not unbent. He recounted the erratic and wavering fortunes of his band at the hands of communist authorities—ignored, encouraged, embraced, banned, rehabilitated.

Kocáb’s account seemed to reflect the increasingly chaotic scene I had witnessed during the four years I had been researching the Soviet bloc rock scene. In March 1986, the Soviet recording label released its first complete Beatles album, A Hard Days Night. The following year, Bulgaria, after banning all Western rock music from its discotheques, hosted its first rock festival, Rockfest ‘87. In July 1988, Bruce Springsteen performed in East Berlin, home to one of the most irredentist communist regimes. The following month, John Lydon, formerly Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, drew 220,000 fans to a concert in the Soviet Union’s Baltic coast city of Tallinn. That same year, Panton released an album Pražský výběr recorded six years earlier. Kocáb railed against the petty bureaucrats and communist ideologues. He spoke of open revolt. I remember him pointing up at the Prague Castle. ‘The people behind those walls are trembling,’ Kocáb told me. ‘They know the revolution is coming.’

The immensity of the political and economic upheavals in the autumn of 1989, not to mention the security concerns, dwarfed any thought to the role that rock and pop culture may have played, but with the passing of time, and with unprecedented access to archival material, we can better understand the exact place that Western popular culture holds in these historic events. We not only have the benefit of hindsight, but also access to the archives of notoriously secretive regimes, not to forget the unprecedented opportunities of the internet.

I was a graduate student writing a doctoral dissertation on the image of the United States in the cultural policy of the German Democratic Republic when I first began researching the Soviet bloc rock scene. While on a Fulbright-IREX Scholarship in Leipzig in 1984, I experienced the rock scene first hand, visiting ←13 | 14→concerts not only in East Germany but in neighbouring countries. I was astonished by the pervasiveness and popularity of Western youth culture across the region and how largely derivative the rock scene there was of Western rock and pop. When I asked people casually to name their top three favourite bands, the answer was inevitably the same: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Cliff Richard, a British pop idol who had made a name for himself on the continent but never cracked the American market. Czesław Niemen, a Polish blues singer, was also frequently mentioned, an unusual phenomenon given the general chill that existed among ‘socialist brother’ countries. There were official ‘classic rock’ East German bands like Die Puhdys, and new wave bands like Silly, which featured a female lead named Tamara Danz, and, my favourite, an edgy all male-group, Pankow, provocatively named after a district in Berlin where the communist party elite resided. Pankow pushed the margins with ideologically tenuous lyrics (in English, no less) like, ‘I’m a Businessman’, and a song, ‘Langeweile’, or Boredom, that spoke glancingly to the isolation and sense of malaise imposed by the Berlin Wall: ‘Seen the same country too long, heard the same language too often, waited too long, hoped too much, bowed down to the old men too often.’

I suggested to an East German rock critic that he write a history of the rock scene, and even proposed a title, ‘Rock Around the Bloc’. He agreed that there was a story worth telling but lamented the inherent difficulties of such an undertaking in a society based on Marxist-Leninist principles, noting in particular, the exigencies imposed by the dialectical relationship between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ that obligated writers to advancing the allegedly inexorable, Hegelian progression toward the perfect communist society, necessitating a self-censorship, in lieu of that, a state censorship, that would make it impossible to provide a true account of this astonishingly cultural phenomenon. Then he added, ‘Why don’t you write it?’

At the time, Ronald Reagan was president of the United States. Michael Gorbachev was not yet in power. Cold War tensions ran high. There were Pershing missiles in Western Europe, and Soviet SCUDs in Eastern Europe. There was no Wikipedia, no Google search engine, no on-line databases. On returning from Leipzig to Harvard University, where I was doing my graduate work, I turned to the state-of-the-art reference sources of the time, a monthly guide called Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, an index to all the leading American journals, magazines, etc. I went through every volume, month by month, dating back to the late 1940s. I did the same thing with the index to The New York Times. There was a surprising abundance of anecdotal material. There were only occasional articles on a rock festival on the Baltic coast or in Armenia, or personal interest stories on some quaint perspective on Beatlemania. Czesław Niemen attracted ←14 | 15→much attention when he opened the 1972 Munich Olympics, sharing the stage with Mahavishnu Orchestra, John McLaughlin and Charles Mingus. The occasional concert by pop stars, such as the Rolling Stones in Warsaw in 1967, the Beach Boys in Prague in 1969, and Elton John in Moscow in 1979, rippled through the news. The John Lennon memorial wall in Prague was of frequent interest, as were the Plastic People of the Universe, a band that was frequently harassed by Czech authorities. The American singer Dean Reed, who was ubiquitous throughout the Soviet bloc, snagged the attention of The New York Times as early as 1966, and eventually landed a segment on the CBS news programme, 60 Minutes in April 1986. He made headlines two months later when he was found drowned in a lake outside of East Berlin. But for the most part, the Soviet bloc rock scene was generally ignored by the press and virtually unexplored by scholars.

I also rifled through the Soviet-bloc press. The Russian Research Centre at Harvard (now known as the Davis Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies), one of the first centres in the United States devoted to the study of the Soviet Union, collected back issues of leading Soviet newspaper, as well as extensive other published materials and digests of Soviet news. To my surprise, rock and roll was of greater interest to the leaders of the Soviet bloc than it was to the leaders of the Western world. Denunciations of rock music could be found at party congresses, in protocols of central committee meetings, and in governmental regulations provided clear sign posts as to the general contours of Soviet bloc rock culture. My favourite was a meeting of the central committee of the East German communist party from December 1965, where the hardline party head, Walter Ulbricht, recited Beatles lyrics. ‘The endless monotony of this “yeah, yeah, yeah,” ’ Ulbricht said, ‘is not just ridiculous, it is spiritually deadening.’ I spent hours leafing through the pages of decades-old bundles of Pravda, Komsomolskaïa Pravda, and other Soviet publications in search of references to rock culture. In a March 1964 issue of Krokodil, a satirical youth publication, I found the first photograph of the Fab Four, a month after Beatlemania swept America. The Hungarian writer, Tibor Déry, provided a fascinating, though ideologically charged account of the Altamont Rock Festival in his novel Képzelt riport egy amerikai popfesztiválról [Imaginary Report from an American Pop Festival] (1971), that was turned into one of the Soviet bloc’s first rock musicals.

Cartoons provided particularly useful insights into the nuances of Soviet bloc rock culture. The Czechoslovak weekly, Dikobraz, published a cartoon in August 1956, depicting the American cold warrior, John Foster Dulles, as a drummer in a rock ensemble. He held two atomic bombs as drum sticks while the German chancellor Konrad Adenauer strums a machine gun like a guitar. A Romanian ←15 | 16→cartoon from 1958, in Muzica, shows a musical ensemble dutifully playing their instruments, with a caption that translates, ‘While the investigation commission is present.’ The next scene shows them playing ecstatically, with the words ‘rock and roll’ blasting from their instruments. The caption reads, ‘After the investigation commission is gone.’

I spent the summer of 1986 on an internship at Radio Free Europe [RFE] and its twin broadcaster, Radio Liberty [RL], which was responsible for the individual republics of the Soviet Union. The primary purpose of this Munich-based shortwave broadcast facility was to provide an alternate news source to state-controlled information, but each language broadcast service was supported by a research section. Hundreds of researchers gleaned country-specific news from the international press, as well as more than 600 Soviet-bloc publications, clipping and sorting them by theme. Radio Liberty ran a ‘monitoring’ section that produced a ‘Soviet Daily Media Digest’. RFE produced occasional papers called ‘Situation Reports’ that summarized specific themes, including developments on the rock scene. These reports and clipping files proved to be a gold mine.

There were entries for virtually every major band in the archives of the individual country services, allowing me to compare and contrast the official responses to Western rock culture. The shooting of John Lennon in December 1980, for example, made headlines almost immediately across the region. Some were heartfelt. ‘The bitter irony of this tragedy’, Komsomolskaïa Pravda wrote, two days after the shooting, ‘is that a person who devoted his songs and music to the struggle against violence has himself become its victim.’ Some were crassly ideological. The East German newspaper, Neues Deutschland, ran the politically-freighted headline, ‘Singer John Lennon is only one of 21,000 murder victims annually.’ Radio Sofia devoted two hours of programming to Beatles songs. I would assert that the RFE/RL clipping files remain, even in the age of the internet, the most comprehensive source for researching Soviet bloc rock music. The RFE country services clipped every reference to rock music, day by day, week by week, from hundreds of publications for much of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

The country section researchers also proved to be a valuable resource, not only helping with translations when necessary, but also pointing to issues that were particular or unique to their country’s rock scene. Toomas Ilves, who oversaw the Estonian service and went on to become president of his country following its independence, spent hours recounting the history of the Estonian rock scene, and providing me with recordings for key bands from the sixties, seventies and eighties. I still have cassettes with songs from bands like Virmalised, Joel Steinfeld and Totu Kuul. The Latvian section provided me with its own classic bands, as did the Romanian and Bulgarian services. Karel Kryl, who had been a ←16 | 17→leading protest singer during the Prague Spring, gave singular insights into his own music as well as the broader youth scene, usually over drinks in the RFE canteen. I recall a heated debate in the Latvian broadcast service over the vices and virtues of broadcasting punk rock music to the country. One side held that Latvian youth should be spared the corrupting influences of bands like the Sex Pistols and The Clash. The other side held that such corrosive influences were exactly what was needed to undermine the Soviet system. My recollection is that the latter position prevailed.

Without question, one of the most remarkable sources was the RFE record archive, used by the broadcasting services for their music programming, where archivists collected the albums of rock groups with the same efficiency as the clipping files. I was not only able to find some of the earliest examples of indigenous Soviet-bloc rock, but was able to record the albums onto cassettes. I still have the recordings as well as photocopies of the album covers, including Beatle-style psychedelic albums by Omega from Hungary, Olympic from Prague, and Phoenix from Romania. There was a vast number of albums by leading Polish rock bands from the 1960s and 1970—Czerwone Gitary, No To Co, Czerwono Czarni. My ledger for Skaldowie, a popular folk-rock fusion band from Cracow, has 5 singles, as well as several LPs, including two copies of their 1967 debut album Skaldowie, which includes the recording time, 37:46 seconds, and the archive numbers, LP-14325 and LP17644.

When I checked the internet to compare my archives with post-communist Polish sources, I came across the website, Archiwum Polskiego Rocka 1961–2018. The site dwarfs my quaint cold-war efforts. It lists every Polish band that ever recorded on the state label, with the album covers in colour and individual links to more detailed information, details of production, individual tracks, times, etc.1 I found similar sites in virtually every country of the former Soviet bloc. A Russian site, in English, provides a comprehensive ‘Official Beatles discography (USSR, Russia and other former Soviet republics)—from 1967 through 2017’. It includes hundreds of titles, once again, with individual links to detailed production information, as well as occasional annotations. According to this site, the earliest official Beatles release in the Soviet Union was a recording titled, ‘Musical Kaleidoscope (Series 8)’, produced at the Melodiya production facility in Riga in 1967. It is a 10-inch disc and contains a single Beatles song, ‘Girl’. An accompanying commentary notes: ‘For the first time common Russian people got the legal opportunity to listen to the Beatles.’

←17 | 18→

The site allows one track, at a glance, the fluctuations of thaws and crackdowns on the cultural scene, as well as the official selective Marxist-Leninist absorption of Beatlemania. There were sporadic releases in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with a spike in 1974, with seventeen recordings, ranging from ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ to ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ to ‘Across the Universe’ and ‘Let It Be’. The last Beatles recording released before the collapse of the Soviet Union was the complete album, Abbey Road.2

The managers of rock bands also proved to be a useful source of detailed information. Pete Seeger’s manager who arranged one of the first tours by an American performer in the Soviet Union opened his filing cabinets and let me photocopy anything I found interesting or useful, correspondence, tour schedules, concert reviews. Pete Seeger was less useful from a historian’s perspective. Having spent his life touring the world, his recollections of his performances in the Soviet Union could have been memories of a concert almost anywhere, warm receptions and enthusiastic audiences. The Los Angeles based agent, Joanna Stingray, who played a key role as a promoter of the Leningrad underground rock scene, was equally generous and more colourful in her anecdotes. An unlikely source for me was MTV. I still have a verbatim transcript of an August 27, 1987 interview with the legendary Soviet rockstar, Stas Namin, founder of The Flowers, the first Soviet super-band. The transcript is marked REEL 59,60/SIDE A, and begins with the following exchange:

So Stas, we’re standing in this, this theatre and I’d like you to explain to me what, what this is and what you’re doing here.

This is a [?]; Gorky Park. And several months ago we arranged the first Soviet private music club. And it is possible only because of latest laws in our country. And now we can use this theatre as—to, to arrange here rock festivals, rock concerts and so on and so forth. There’s 12,000 people here.

Some communist cultural agencies were also a surprisingly accessible source of information. The Polish artists agency, PAGART, deluged me with photos and profiles of Polish pop and rock bands, like No To Co, The Troubadours, Lombar, Country Family, BAJM ‘a sweet rock group’, the Amazonki, ‘three singing and dancing girls from Warsaw’, and a smouldering-eyed soloist who went under the show-name ‘Miss Objektiv’. The challenge for someone in the West writing about the cultural scene behind the iron curtain was to sort through what was truly popular, what was propaganda, and what was missing. PAGART sent me nothing about Lady Pank, whose lead singer had been imprisoned after screaming ←18 | 19→obscenities and performing a strip tease in front of 12,000 communist youth, or the heavy metal band, Perfekt, whose leader, Zbigniew Hołdys, had been forced to go underground after the imposition of martial law. I needed to be equally circumspect about materials coming from the alternative and underground rock scenes. The Plastic People of the Universe had become a cause célèbre among human rights activists and in the press following their trial and imprisonment, but it was difficult to gauge their relevance to the actual rock scene itself.

I occasionally received packets of records, some anonymously sent. I still have an album by the popular Bulgarian group Shturtzite, or The Crickets, with an undated note explaining that the album is ‘the famous record of Shturtzite’ and translating the lyrics to the song ‘I am Just a Man’.

I am not a communist

And I will never be.

I am not a nihilist

And I will never be.

I am not an anti-Christ

And I will never be.

I am just a man.

The letter is signed simply Boris.

There was, of course, no substitute to visiting the countries and meeting the musicians, something which was surprisingly easy, despite the Cold War tensions, though the nature of the visits were undertaken with varying degrees of caution and discretion. Between 1984 and the summer of 1989, I made repeated visits throughout the Soviet bloc. These visits underscored for me that rock under the yoke of communism, although often derivative of the rock scene in the West, had an increasingly distinctive sound imbued with a sense of political peril completely unknown in the West. However, the peril depended very much on the specific country. The rock scene in Hungary was so open by the 1980s, that it was virtually indistinguishable from most European cities. One of my most memorable moments was sitting in an elegant hotel terrace with László Komár, who had made a career and a fortune as the Magyar Elvis. East Germany, in contrast, required discretion and extreme caution, and relied on networking by friends of friends. I visited one of Berlin’s leading former rock stars, who had defied the state only to be erased from the music scene. He was in a dissipated state, crushed by the politics and ruined by alcohol and possibly drugs. In Moscow, I enjoyed the generosity and insights of Artemy Troitsky whose 1988 book, Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia, earned him the well-deserved sobriquet from The New York Times: ‘the leading Soviet rock critic’. ←19 | 20→Troitsky was not just the leading expert, he was also astonishingly generous, providing me with details, documents, and even a six-inch disc, on floppy red vinyl, with a recording of the state-sponsored Vocal Instrumental Ensemble, Veselye rebiata, or Happy Fellows, performing a cover to the Beatles songs ‘Ob La Di, Ob La Da’ and ‘Baby You Can Drive My Car’.

The genealogy of these connections was sometimes obvious, sometimes circuitous, sometimes serendipitous. Paul Wilson was a Canadian who had been an early member of the Plastic People of the Universe, and facilitated my access to the underground scene, as well as to the embattled members of the Jazz Section. I visited one of the members following the infamous trials and imprisonments. The meeting, in a private residence, was strained, the conversation cautious, but as we spoke, I was passed an astonishing cache of materials, including an early history of Czech Rock and one of the last surviving copies of PUNK ROCK, published in May 1978, one of the earliest Soviet bloc accounts of the punk movement.

My contact with the official Czech rock scene was facilitated by a Harvard professor whose neighbour, also a professor, had a son who was married to a Czech woman and played in a jazz ensemble with Martin Kratochvíl, which in turn led to contact with Petr Janda, who hosted me in his Prague residence in the summer of 1989. Janda was the lead member in Olympic, the legendary 1960s Beatles-like band, and retained the status of superstar, which meant he had unfettered access to the official rock scene. I remember cruising Prague in his Mercedes as he reminisced about the early years of his career.

One evening, Janda took me to a televised concert in Lucerna hall that was featuring a heavy metal band from Moscow. The concert was intended to showcase Soviet-Czechoslovak friendship, but ended up broadcasting the emerging rebellion that Kocáb had predicted. When the Soviet moderator, a fashionable, young woman, asked her Czech counterpart, ‘Have you ever heard Soviet heavy metal?’ she received the blunt response, ‘Yes, on the cobblestones of Prague in the summer of 1968.’ The television technicians gasped, but the broadcast continued.


ISBN (Hardcover)
2019 (Juni)
Music history Rock music Politics Media Socialism Soviet Union
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 345 pp., 3 fig. b/w, 2 tables

Biographische Angaben

Jan Blüml (Band-Herausgeber:in) Yvetta Kajanová (Band-Herausgeber:in) Rüdiger Ritter (Band-Herausgeber:in)

Jan Blüml has been working in the position of assistant professor at the Department of Musicology, Palacký University Olomouc, Czech Republic since 2014. His main academic interest lies in the history of popular music in Central Europe with special emphasis on music in the former Czechoslovakia. Yvetta Kajanová is a Professor of Musicology at Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia. She is the author of ten monographs about jazz, rock, pop, and gospel music. Rüdiger Ritter is a historian of East Central Europe and musicologist. His scholarly interests include the role of jazz radio broadcasting in the Cold War, music history as cultural history in the 19th and 20th centuries, collective identity and politics related to the history in East Central Europe.


Titel: Popular Music in Communist and Post-Communist Europe