Go East: the Sensual Sounds (and Sights!) of Female-led Czech and Slovak Pop From the ’60’s to the ’80’s
We’re all about niche on this site, and one of my greatest pleasures over the last year or two has been finding out just how many people have something fascinating to say about Slovak culture past and present. Today we have the first of two articles by Czech and Slovak pop music expert Christopher Bentley on why he loves the genre and its lasting importance.
LET US START this post by making two statements and then pulling them together.
1: If one is interested in Pop Music-related travel, and wants to do it outside of the UK, one would probably, more than likely, head west to the States.
2: One of the reasons that ‘Englishman In Slovakia’ readers are probably visiting this site is to get the low-down on where might be worth visiting in the country.
With regards to the first, what you are about to read will make you think of doing the exact opposite of what the Pet Shop Boys suggest and go not west but very much east.
With regards to the second, what you are about to read will make you think of a way of travelling that has probably never occurred to you.
So how about travelling eastwards to Slovakia in particular, alongside other parts of the former Eastern Bloc… for Pop Music-related travel?
You may well, at this point, be thinking that a suggestion like this amounts to losing one’s marbles. And if you were to go back about two years in my life I might have thought exactly the same…
A Strange Journey to the Centre of the Slovak Music Scene
That was until, about this time of year in 2015, at a course I was attending to improve my employability skills, the careers advisor, knowing my interest in Modern Foreign Languages, said something to the order of “Chris, if you’re interested in careers using languages have you ever considered Eastern European languages? There’s a real future in that.”
I did start to consider it: not only Eastern European languages but the culture of the region that inevitably goes hand in hand. I started to consider it a lot.
Over the years since then, I have dipped back into things ‘Carene Cheryl’ but January 2015 represented the fortieth anniversary of the release of her first single. The anniversaries of such musicians trigger particular flurries of interest in them, and certainly reignited mine in her. I discovered an article from a French youth culture magazine, written in July 1976, headlined ‘Pourquoi Londres veut nous voler Carene Cheryl’ (‘Why London wants to steal Carene Cheryl from us’). Why would London want to steal Carene Cheryl from France? Well. There was a paucity of female Pop Stars in the UK at the time, according to the article: and after the ‘Glory Days’ of the 1960s the UK was desperate to make a few ‘imports’, mostly from France. The article had a point. It made me think about female Pop of that era on the European Continental Mainland in general. Even as someone reasonably well versed in the era’s pop music, I soon realised that here was a huge gap in my knowledge. There might have been little of note happening in late ’60’s to early ’80’s UK female-led pop. But elsewhere in Europe big things were happening: and in Communist-era Czechoslovakia in particular.
Eastern Bloc Pop: the Wider Context
The Pop scene in the UK of the time (the relatively dire state of the female side notwithstanding) was also characterised by fun in the teeth of hard times. The likes of Bubblegum Pop, Pop-Soul, Ska/Reggae, Glam Pop and Glam Rock lit up the gloom of industrial and social strife, an increasingly troubled economy, fuel crises and the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’. Thus, in a way, when we get tremendously nostalgic for the era’s pop music, we perhaps know all too well the enjoyment it evokes has another darker side: the wider milieu it inhabited and the escape from it that the music provided.
If we thought we were going through hard times, though, we should have taken a look (if only that had been possible!) behind the Iron Curtain.
1968: the ‘Pražské jaro’ (‘Prague Spring’) and the invasion by the Russians that brought Communism with a Human Face under Dubček (1963-68) to an end, and caused Communism generally in Eastern Europe to be viewed in a rather more negative light abroad. I was seven at the time: first becoming conscious of world events and first becoming conscious of the music scene. Words cannot describe the heartbreak that a just-turned-seven-year-old felt for the people on the streets of Prague, and that has never left me: that sense of “just when things could have continued getting so much better, they got a whole lot worse’. But music, even within the sudden intense restrictions placed on people’s freedoms across the Eastern Bloc (and particularly in Czechoslovakia which had been seen by the Soviets as a bastion of Capitalist influence) still, as in the UK, found a way of fighting back.
Although, at that time, song lyrics were subject to some very close scrutiny from the authorities and the Pop scene had to be ultra-careful about what it was saying, maybe the essential spiritedness of the music was the only way in which the youth of the Eastern Bloc could fight back and stay sane.
And it was the female Pop from the post-Invasion clampdown of ‘Normalizace’ (‘Normalisation’) that particularly charmed me. The list of names seemed endless. There were several important song festivals and contests of the former Eastern Bloc which could be seen as spawning grounds for the talent that emerged, including Czechoslovakia’s Bratislavská Lýra (Bratislava Lyre) and Děčínská Kotva (Děčín Anchor). Then there was the sultry intrigue of the artists themselves. There was the very Sexy Star of Hungarian Disco, Judit(-h) Szűcs! There was Czech artist Hana Zagorová heralding from the suburb of Petřkovice in Ostrava and her memorable performance on ‘Písničky z kabinetu’ (‘Songs From The Cabinet’), where the video opens with the camera panning up Hana’s incredibly attractive legs! Attention always seems to focus on the ‘Czech’ part of Czechoslovakia which naturally made me angle for artists from the Slovak portion of the country, and to add on to this seductive list, I discovered blonde bombshell Valérie Čižmárová, born like one Andy Warhol in Michalovce and perhaps the most iconic singer not just of the Eastern Bloc but perhaps in the whole world anywhere at that time…
Many of my own early experiences with Eastern Bloc pop from this period was the covers of material of Western origin but their own tune-making was highly impressive too: not to mention the superb orchestras, accompanying groups and backing vocalists that made this a period of music as rich as other aspects of the Eastern Bloc were deprived.
As I said, the list of high-profile names associated with Czech and Slovak pop in this period goes on and on – helpfully disseminated (with a few quirky facts you never knew before) by my Top Ten Czech and Slovak Female Pop Stars of the ’60’s, ’70’s and early ’80’s: a Definitive Playlist – to be accompanied by a run-down of Slovakia’s top pop pilgrimage destinations and soon to be published in this very space!
Christopher Bentley keeps two blogs dedicated to the music scene described in this article. Girls of the Golden East focuses generally on what can be termed a ‘golden age’ in Czechoslovak pop music (the last 1960’s through to the early 1980’s). Bananas for Breakfast is a fan blog focusing specifically on Valérie Čižmárová.