Classic Rock in Eastern Europe Part 1 and Intro

Note: Some of the following countries that I’ll be talking about in this mightn’t be considered part of Eastern Europe, but rather Central Europe. All of these countries however, were under the influence of the USSR (as satellite states) at one point and they were behind the Iron Curtain, which separated Eastern and Western Europe. 

Rock and roll definitely had a following in Eastern Europe ever since it came out, despite the government trying to suppress and silence it. It is a horseshoe theory, like in America conservative Christians were against rock and roll music. It was only natural that rock and roll would have a following because a lot of young people wanted to rebel against the government and it doesn’t hurt that rock and roll is really good. Rock and roll played a big part in the fall of communism and it wasn’t that long ago that communism was alive in Eastern Europe. People your parents age likely lived through this. This was a difficult topic to research about because much of the rock music coming out of Eastern Europe in the 60s and 70s is very hard to find and it’s hard to get a good grasp on the context of the time period. Much of the research I did came from a book called Rock Around The Block by Timothy Ryback.

Let’s get started on a bit of history:

Even before rock and roll was a thing, jazz was suppressed in Eastern Europe in the 40s, just like in Nazi Germany. Every generation had their popular music and just like rock and roll was seen as sinful, jazz was seen the same way. Concerts were being denounced, only certain approved music could be played in government approved dance halls. This went against a lot of these countries music traditions. For example, Poland and Czechoslovakia had a jazz tradition. After Stalin’s death, jazz was no longer as suppressed and musicians in Hungary, Poland, and East Germany started to play freely.

Every country had their subcultures. Britain had Teddy Boys (kind of a precursor to Rockers) and Modernists (the precursor to Mods), and Russia had Stilyagi (similar subcultures existed in Poland – Bikiniarze and Hungary – Jampec, just with different names). Stilyagi were very inspired by the fashions and music of the American rockabilly subculture, you may know Pinups and Greasers. They’d dress like the characters in Rebel Without a Cause and listen to rock and roll. Their style went against the government’s promotion of conformity. You can see this in the 2008 Russian film Stilyagi. The Stilyagi are stylish and wear bright coloured clothing in contrast to the Komsomol (Young Communists) who wear dull looking, navy blue clothing. You’ll also see in the movie how the parents are outraged and think that the Stilyagi style is very vapid and too sexual. As well you will see clothing and records being sold on the black market or being bootlegged, the famous x-ray jazz records. This article from an Estonian blog called Tallin Traveller Tours can explain a little bit about the economy of the Soviet Union.

Here’s a clip I particularly liked from Stilyagi:

Beatlemania hit Eastern Europe at the same time as the rest of the world through records being smuggled in and radio broadcasts. The governments in these countries tried to suppress rock music, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. Youth continued to rebel and make music to express themselves. By the 70s and 80s, state owned record companies realised that there is a lot of money in Western pop music and lots of local bands would cover American and British music in their native languages. Going to rock concerts was very common. Russian record label Melodiya even released Beatles songs. In 1967 they released the song “Girl” on vinyl, but left out the names of The Beatles. Some people thought it would be better to have teenagers letting out pent up energy in the clubs by rocking out to music than in the streets getting violent. Some people had this theory that rock music could be seen as egalitarian because it unites the audience, everyone screaming at the same time. There were even British and American acts like The Rolling Stones, Manfred Mann, The Swingin’ Blue Jeans, and Louis Armstrong playing behind the Iron Curtain.

This song by Polish musician, Czesław Niemen parodies the older generation telling the younger generation to not get into The Beatles and similar bands.

Czechoslovakia:

Like Poland, “big beat” music (meaning music that was inspired by the British Invasion) was popular here and there was a big jazz following before that. 

The Beatmen: Rock band from what would now be Slovakia. The only were together for 2 years and released only a handful of singles. Many of their songs have English titles. Some songs I like of theirs are “Stand Up And Go”, “That’s All I’ve Got to Do”, “Break It”, and “Safely Arrived”, You can find some covers they did of English songs. Here is a neat cover they did of “She Loves You” in Slovak.

Blue Effect: Prog/jazz band that started off with a psychedelic sound. They released albums throughout the 70s. Some of the members of this band were in The Matadors. They did collaborations with Jazz Q Praha. The album Coniunctio sounds different from their first album Meditace. Some of my favourite songs of theirs are “White Hair”, “Fénix”, “Stroj Na Nic”, and “Rainy Day”. If you want to get into the band, I would recommend the album Kingdom of Life, from 1971. The first video below is a live performance they did at New Club in 1969. If you like Cream and The Who, you’ll like their late 60s music. Later on the band were known as M. Efekt and their sound evolved into a more progressive rock sound. I really like their 1979 album Svět Hledačů. In a way parts of the album reminded me of Genesis.

Flamengo: Czech progressive rock band that started in the mid 60s. They only released one album, but before that they released quite a few singles from 1967 to the early 70s. Supraphon, the state record label was supposed to release that album, but that album was banned and censored by the government. This led to the band breaking up. Kuře v Hodinkách translates to “chicken in the watch”. You’ll find a nice mix of jazzy sounding tracks and more folk/psychedelic sounding tracks.My favourite tracks on the album are”Rám Prístích Obrazu”, “Jenom Láska Vi Kam”, “Chvíle Chvil”, and “Doky, Vlaky, Hlad A Boty”.

Framus Five: Blues rock band founded in Prague in 1963. They released their first album in 1968 and their second album in 1972. The band reunited in the late 70s and released albums throughout the 80s under the name Framus 5. Most of the songs on their first album, Blues in Soul, were covers. Highlights of the album are “Around and Around”, “Blues in Soul”, “What’d I Say”, and “Hold On I’m Coming”. Město Er sounds very different and like a lot of rock bands from the 60s, their sound turned more prog. Some good tracks on the album are “Tys kámen” (the screaming on the track reminds me a bit of Ian Gillan) and “Noc je můj den”, and “Perceptua”.

The Matadors: Prague big beat band from the mid 60s. They were popular in their home country and in Germany. Their sound was a combination of influences ranging from R&B influenced to garage rock to British Invasion influenced. Some songs I like of theirs are “Extraction” (really psychedelic), “Farmer John” (really Beatles influenced), “Sing a Song of Sixpence”, and “Get Down From The Tree”.

Olympic: The best known Czech band of the 60s and 70s. Two important members of this band are songwriting partners Petr Janda and Pavel Chrastina. Janda was named Beatman of the year 1966 in a contest called Top Show. If you want to listen to this band, I would recommend the album Želva, which has a sound reminiscent of bands like The Beatles and Them. Sometimes I hear even a ska influenced sound. My favourite tracks from this album are “Želva”, “Dám zejtra zags flám”, “Nikdo neotvirá”, the rockabilly sounding “Nebezpečná postava”, garage inspired and psyechedelic sounding “Dedeckuv duch”, “Telefon”, and “Psychiatricky prasek”. Other songs not from that album that I have enjoyed are “Maraton” and “Exodus”.

The Plastic People of the Universe: Progressive rock band that formed in the late 60s. They started off with Velvet Underground, Doors, and Frank Zappa covers and were known for their face paint and bizarre stage costumes. They released their first album, Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned, in their home country in 1974. Four years later it was released in other countries. This album combines free jazz with psychedelic rock to make a very interesting sound. The interesting connection with the album name and real life is that people were banned from their universities for daring to see this band live. The band members also faced consequences, being arrested for playing music that was not approved by the government. Eventually, the band were forced to relocate in order to play the music they wanted to freely.

Prúdy: One of the most important Slovak rock bands from the 60s. Their name translates to “streams”. They were fronted by Pavol Hammel. Some great songs to listen to are the psychedelic “Zvonte zvonky”, “Medulienka” – has a nice Spanish guitar sound, and “Čierna ruža” . If you’re looking for a more quirky song, try “Pod so mnou”.

The Soulmen: 1960s rock band from Bratislava. Some of the members of The Beatmen were in this band. They only released one EP in 1968 and all of the songs were in English. Their sound is very British Invasion and garage rock influenced. If you like The Yardbirds, The Pretty Things, The Troggs, and The Easybeats, you’ll love The Soulmen. My favourite songs of theirs are “I Wish I Were”, “Wake Up”, and “Sample of Happiness”.

East Germany:

Karat: 1970s hard rock band from East Berlin. Established in 1975, they released their first album in 1978. Some songs I like from that album are “Das Monster”, “Die Burg”, “Reggae Rita Star”, “Rock’n’Roll Fan”, and “Ballade von den sieben Geistern”. They followed up with an album in 1979 called Über sieben Brücken. The album starts off strongly with an introduction that fades into the energetic “He Mama”. I love the synthesisers and guitars on that track. “Blues” like the title, is very blues influenced, but definitely has that hard rock/prog sound Karat are known for. Other great moments in the album are the songs “Auf den Meeren” (has a slow disco vibe), “Gewitterregen” (has a really catchy chorus), the classic “Albatros” which reminds me a bit of “‘A’ 200” by Deep Purple and is the most prog sounding track, and the power pop sounding “Wenn das Schweigen bricht”.

Klaus Renft Combo: Short lived rock band from Lepzig. They released their first album in 1973 and released a sophomore album in 1974, but were banned by the government in 1975. Some songs of theirs I would recommend are “Ketten werden knapper” and “Mangania”. Their music is very hard to find on YouTube, but you can find their CDs for less than $20. Vinyl on the other hand is harder to come across and dearer.

Nina Hagen: One of the best known singer songwriters from East Germany and is known as the Godmother of Punk. She was born in East Berlin, but she moved to West Germany for an acting career and music career. She is half Jewish (father’s side). Her father was a writer and her mother was an actress. She was raised by her mother and as a child she studied ballet and opera. You can really see the influences those had in her performances. She started off as an actress. She is very influential and important to the punk and new wave genres. In 1978 she released her first album with the Nina Hagen Band. The album was most successful and charted within the top 30 in Austria, The Netherlands, and Germany. That same year she performed on Rockpalast, a German live music show. Her performance of “Naturträne” reminds me a bit of Ian Gillan’s vocals on “Child in Time”. She broke out internationally in the 80s. Some more highlights from her Rockpalast performance are “Rangehn”, “TV Glotzer” (is a really cool mix of prog and punk), “Unbeschreiblich” (sounds a bit funky at times), “Superboy”, and “Bahnhof Zoo”. I much prefer her sophomore album Unbehagen to her debut album because it sounds more produced and futuristic. Some songs I enjoyed from it are “African Reggae”, “Wir Leben Immer Noch”, “Wenn Ich Ein Junge War” (sounds early rock and roll influenced), and “Fall in Love Mit Mir” (has a bit of a reggae influence).

Puhdys: East Germany rock band that started playing together in the mid 60s, but didn’t release their first album until 1974. They were lucky enough to be able to tour West Germany and become successful there. Their influences were a variety of British rock bands such as The Shadows, Bee Gees, Deep Purple, and Uriah Heep. “Vorn ist das Licht” reminds me of The Zombies and The Beatles. “Vineta” is harder rocking and is a track worth listening to and is a lot like their English hard rock influences. “Türen öffnen sich zur Stadt” has a Deep Purple-esque organ intro. Other great songs are “Ikarus” and “Wenn ein Mensch lebt”. For those who want to hear them sing in English, they released an album full of covers of English language rock songs from the 50s and early 60s called Rock’n’Roll Music. They do a good job with the covers and they have a bit of a punk and rockabilly vibe, making it a good update to the songs. “Do You Wanna Dance” is an exception to this; it sounds a bit more electronic. I didn’t like their cover of “Donna” that much, but most of their covers are decent. In 1989 they released another album full of covers, but this time of songs mostly from the 60s and 70s by artists like Cream, The Doors, and Procol Harum. If you want to get started listening to the band I would recommend the compilation  album 10 Wilde Jahre because it’s full of their most catchy and energetic songs.

Hungary:

Gábor Szabó: Jazz guitarist best known for his 1966 composition “Gypsy Queen.” This was famously covered by Santana and the band always play it after “Black Magic Woman”. He was born in Budapest. He discovered his love for jazz music in his teens while listening to American radio broadcasts. Due to the communist government suppressing jazz music, he moved to the United States to study at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. He performed at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. After that, he worked with drummer Chico Hamilton. He released his first album in 1966, Gypsy 66. There are two great Beatles covers: “Yesterday” and “If I Fell”. Other songs I like of his are “Gypsy Jam”, “Stormy”, “Cheetah”, and “Spellbinder”.

Illés: One of the most important Hungarian rock bands from the 60s and 70s. They were named after one of their members, Lajos Illés. The name doubles as a biblical reference to Elijah because their logo has a chariot. Interestingly enough, the government tolerated their music.They were compared with The Beatles. Like The Beatles and The Stones, Illés had their fun (mostly perpetuated by fans and the media) rivalry with Omega. The band’s first album was a soundtrack album with multiple bands, released in 1967. Fellow Hungarian rock bands Omega and Metro contributed songs to the album. The band’s first solo album, Nehéz az Út was released in 1969. The album is a mix of psychedelic music and beat music. That same year they released  Illések és pofonok, a more eclectic album than the last one. I also found it a lot more fun to listen to than the last one. Even the cover is really cool to look at! Some songs to start off with are “Történet M-röl”, “Igérd Meg”, and “A Beérkezett Levelekre Válaszolva”, and “Téged Vár”.Human rights, their first album released in the 70s shows the change in sound and I feel this change was for the better. This album is better produced than the previous ones and has more of a progressive/jazz sound to it. My favourite track on the album is “Te kit választanál”.

Locomotiv GT: One of the most popular Hungarian rock bands. They were established in 1971 and continued playing until 1992 when they had a farewell concert. Five years later, they reunited and released new material. Their sound ranges from heavy and blues influenced to jazzy and improvised. If you like progressive rock and blues rock, you’ll like their music. My favourite part of their music is the organ playing by Gábor Presser. Their first album, a self-titled debut released in 1971, is an excellent start on getting into their music. I enjoyed the songs “A Napba öltözött lány”, “A tengelykezü félember”, “Hej, én szólok hozzád”, and “Ezüst nyár”. This album got them noticed and with hard work they got to play the Great Western Express Festival in Lincoln, England. What stood out about them was the fact that they were the only band from continental Europe at the festival. Their second album, released the following year, Ringasd el magad opens strongly with the energertic and later jazzy “Cirkusz”. Their third album, Bummm!, has a more poppy, suitable for mainstream radio sound to it. This album does not alienate fans of their early work because it still maintains that jazzy prog sound. Overall, an excellent album. I especially love Tamás Barta’s guitar work in the instrumental “Bárzene”.

Metro: Short lived rock band that broke up after the government started cracking down on rock bands. They were led by Serbian born Zorán Sztevanovity. Zorán was raised in Hungary since the age of 6. They released 2 albums, one in 1969 called Metro and a live album in 1970 called Egy este a Metro Klubban. I like the songs “Ne szólj rám”, “Mária volt”, “Hazárdjáték”, and “Fekete Pál” from the first album. The live album is available to listen to on youtube and it is more psychedelic than the debut and the major highlight of this album is the organ playing. As a whole it is more upbeat and faster than the debut album.

Omega:  One of the best known Hungarian rock bands. They formed in the early 60s and played through the 80s. They reunited and have since been active for over 20 years. Like a lot of other Eastern European bands, they were inspired by English language rock music. Some of their albums are in English, but most are in Hungarian. Their first album was released in 1968 and it has a variety of sounds from raw, fuzzy garage rock to a more psychedelic sound to more slower, pop rock songs. I liked the songs “Egy lániy nem ment haza”, “Vasárnap”, and “Rettenetes emerek” (this song is very ahead of its time and reminds me a bit of “Within You Without You”). Their second album, 10,000 lépés shows their evolving sound and how it starts to include more prog/hard rock elements. I like the songs “Gyöngyhajú lány”, “Tüzvihar”, “Kérgeskezü favágók”, and “Tékozló fiúk”. Overall this is a great album and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to get into this band. Their English speaking albums like RedOmega III (an album of English language remakes of their songs), and Time Robber (the album reminds me a bit of Pink Floyd). Like many great bands their sound has changed with the times and no two albums sound too alike.

Tommy Ramone: Born Tamás Erdélyi to a Jewish family in Budapest after WWII. His family moved to the United States in the 50s. As a teenager he was in a band with John Cummings, better known as Johnny Ramone. Before being the drummer for The Ramones, he was an engineer at the famous Record Plant studio. He was one of the original members of The Ramones, being a member from 1974-1978. His influences include Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, and The New York Dolls.

Poland: Poland had a rock and roll scene since the genre started. Before rock and roll the country had a decent jazz tradition and following and rock records from America and the UK would come in through port cities on the Baltic Coast. To better hide the fact that bands were playing rock music, the bands would label it as “big beat”, which was seen as more acceptable than “rock and roll”.

Let’s get started here by talking about musicians of Polish descent (as in born to Polish parents). Geddy Lee’s parents were born in Starachowice, in southern Poland. They were concentration camp survivors. They moved to Canada and Gary Lee Weinrib was born there. Due to his mum’s accent, he was called Geddy instead of Gary. I’ve talked about Geddy Lee on other blog posts, so here’s a live video of Rush from my favourite era of the band.

Blackout/Breakout: Started off as Blackout in the late 60s, but later on became Breakout. They were able to tour in Western Europe, where they were able to buy better equipment. This helped their career. Their music in the late 60s is a bit psychedelic and garage rock. Some songs I like from their early days are “Uwielbiam Ja”, “Czy Znasz Ten Zwyczaj”, and “Boję się psa”. There’s a video here that is an hour of their singles from the early years. In the 70s, their sound evolved into a more blues rock sound with the albums 70A and BluesBlues is considered a masterpiece and is regarded as one of the most important Polish albums.

Czerwone Gitary: One of the best known Polish rock bands and one of the top bands in album sales. The band name translates to “red guitars”. Like many other rock bands around Continental Europe, their sound is very Beatles influenced. One of the songs that is the most Beatles influenced is “Dziewczyna z moich snów”. Other songs I like of theirs are “Nie zadzieraj nosa”, “Nikt na zwiecie nie wie”, and “dozwolone do lat 18-tu”.

Czerwono-Czarni: The first rock band from Poland, founded in 1960 by Franciszek Walicki. Their name translates to The Red and Blacks. The band released their first album in 1961. Their music went from simple rock and roll to a more psychedelic and experimental sound, like a lot of rock bands. You can really see this if you compare “Angelina” to “Kyrie”. Other songs I liked of theirs are “Sandwicz” and “Motor I JA” (with Karin Stanek on vocals). Notably, they opened for The Rolling Stones when they played a concert in Warsaw.

Czesław Niemen: Born Czesław Wydrzycki outside of what is today known as Poland in a tight knit Polish community. His big break was in 1964 when his band opened for Marlene Dietrich. His stage (last) name comes from the river of the same name. He was known for his stylish clothing, long hair, and psychedelic sound. Like a lot of 60s rock bands, he wrote a song with a political message, “Dziwny jest ten świat”. An English version was released five years later, in 1972. He worked with Polish bands SBB and Niebiesko-Czarni. He also worked with English speaking musicians Mahavishnu Orchestra and Jack Bruce, playing live shows with them. He released some English language albums in the early to mid-70s. The first one, Strange Is This World, has an organ based sound Some Polish songs I recommend of his are “Włoczęga”, “Płonie stodoła”, and “Sukces”.

Filipinki: The first all girl vocal group from Poland. Their name derives from the name of a teen magazine called Filipinka. They were considered teen idols throughout Eastern Europe and they had a pop sound. “Wala Twist” was their first single, released in 1963. It was a hit not just in their home country, but also in the Soviet Union. The band crossed the Atlantic in 1965 and toured the United States and Canada. Other songs that I would recommend of theirs are “Nie ma go” and “Weselmy sie”. The group broke up in 1974. Their legacy still lives on and they were very influential to women who wanted to sing pop and rock music.

Genya Ravan: Lead singer of Goldie and The Gingerbreads, the first all female rock band to be signed to a major label. Genya was born in Poland in 1940 and is a Holocaust survivor. She came to the United States as a child, not knowing any English. Goldie and the Gingerbreads had one major hit in the UK, “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat”, recorded around the same time Herman’s Hermits released their version. “That’s Why I Love You”, “The Skip”, and “Think About The Good Times”. They were more of a success in Europe than in the US and due to the lack of success, the band broke up in 1967. Genya Ravan kept recording music and joined the band Ten Wheel Drive. Her vocals are compared to Janis Joplin’s. Some of my favourite Ten Wheel Drive songs are their cover of The Allman Brothers Band’s “Whipping Post”, “Tightrope”, “Eye of the Needle”, “Polar Bear Rug”, and “Last of the Line”. In 1979 Genya Ravan sang on the song “Love is a Fire” from the soundtrack for the cult film, The Warriors.

Niebiesko-Czarni: Polish rock band active from 1962-1976. Their name translates to The Blue and Blacks. Like Czerwono-Czarni, they were founded by Franciszek Walicki. They released their first album, a self titled debut in 1966. The band got to tour in France, supporting Dionne Warwick. I would recommend the album Mamy dla was kwiaty, which has a blues rock sound. One of the videos below is a Polish cover of “House of the Rising Sun”.

SBB: At first stood for Silesian Blues Band, then Search, Break Up, Build (Polish: Szukaj, Burz, Buduj). As you can tell with the acronym meaning, the band are from the region of Upper Silesia, to be more specific, the city of Siemianowice. They formed in 1971. The founder of the band is Jósef Skrzek, who was briefly a member of Breakout. The first few albums they released were collaborations with Czesław Niemen. In 1974, they released a self titled live album. On that album, there are only three tracks, two of them being over 10 minutes long each. But this is common in progressive rock and jazz rock. The song “Odlot” reminds me a bit of Led Zeppelin and it has a psychedelic sound, reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix. Some songs I like of theirs are “Błysk”, “Nowy Horyzont”, “Cięcie”, “Follow My Dream”, and “Walking Around The Stormy Bay”. If you’re on Spotify and you want listen to a live album of theirs, a good place to start is Live in Köln 1979: In the shadow of the Dom.

Skaldowie: Band from Krakow that started performing in the 60s and stayed together until the 80s. The band were very popular in their home country and took influences from the music from their area and combined it with classical music, jazz music, and rock. Their 1967 debut has songs ranging from a soft baroque pop sound (like “Jutro odnajdę ciebie” and “Nocne tramwaje”) to a more uptempo sound (“Kochajcie bacha dziewczęta”). My favourite tracks on the album are “Uciekaj, uciekaj” – reminiscent of The Moody Blues and The Animals, “Kochajcie bacha dziewczęta” – a bit Beatles like, “Wieczorna opowieść” – also can hear some Beatles influence in this, and Pamiętasz jak mi powiedziałaś”. Other songs I like of theirs are “Wszykstko mi mówi, że mnie któs pokochał”, “Wszystkim Zakochanym”, “Ty”, and “Medytacje wiejskiego listonosza”.

Test: Polish hard rock band. Not much is known about them. The released an EP in 1972 and an album in 1974. The self titled album has a futuristic kind of sound to it and is worth a listen. My favourite tracks on the album are “Testament” (in a way reminds me a bit of Focus), “Zguba” (reminds me a bit of Deep Purple – In fact, I’ll post a cover they did of “Smoke on the Water”), “Gdy gaśnie w nas płomień”, and “Matylda”. A non-album track I like is “Antonina”.

Trubadurzy: Big beat band from the 60s. They were one of the most popular Polish bands of the 60s. The band released their first album in 1968 called Krajobrazy. They contined to release albums until 1976. The sound of the album is very Beatles influenced. Some of my favourite tracks on the album are “U nas najweselej”, “Zrób to dla mnie”, “Chcę po Twoich poznać oczach”, and “Na mozowszu”. The following year they followed up with Ej, Sobótka Sobótka. This album has a slightly different sound to it and combines brass instruments and elements of classical music with big beat/garage rock. It is still a well produced album. I really like the tracks “Wśród zielonych olszyn” and “Dziewczyna i pejzaż”. By 1971, the band’s sound changed to include more elements of psychedelic rock.

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