Poderimo Rock! Punk and New Wave in Yugoslavia, 1977-1984

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Once upon a time, there was in southeastern Europe a federal socialist republic called Yugoslavia. It was led by Tito, a decorated WWII resistance leader, a bon viveur benevolent dictator, who, just 3 years after the end of the war, had the balls to tell Stalin to fuck off.  After all, Yugoslavia liberated itself from Nazis, without any substantial aid from the Red Army.

This resulted in Yugoslavia becoming a non-aligned socialist country: Free from Russian control, but also cut off the Russian financial aid – right in the middle of the post-war restoration effort. Facing the spectre of starvation, Tito & team did the sensible thing and opened up to the West, taking massive loans from western banks, encouraging consumerism and private property among the citizens, and -most importantly- opening the borders to the West, so that Yugoslavs could search for work abroad. Furthermore, in 1967, Yugoslavia became the only socialist country to permit entry without a visa to all foreign visitors.

Very soon and throughout the 70’s and 80’s, Belgrade, the capital, became an almost James Bond-esque place, frequented by spies from both sides of the Iron Curtain, and the Yugoslav passport became the most expensive one to buy on the black market, since it would guarantee easy access to most parts of the world – a perfect tool for any kind of spy or outlaw.

For most of the citizens, though, it most importantly meant that they were able to enjoy much higher living standards than the citizens of the nearby European socialist states, and that they were free to travel abroad as they wished. For older people, this meant that they could escape to Vienna for a romantic weekend cheating on their spouses, but for the young it was as if the pearly gates were opened: They could hop on a train, get around Europe and return home with the latest trends, clothes and – most importantly – records. A way of life that their peers in say, Poland or Romania wouldn’t even dream about.

This, in combination with mini economic boom, the encouraged consumerism, and the disposable income in the hands of teens and youths, led to a very lively music scene during the sixties and the early seventies. The path was the same as in the West, only with the characteristically lateness in grasping the new trends that all second-tier countries showed in the pre-internet era: Surf in 1967, and Beat in 1971.

At the same speed, one would have expected Progressive Rock to last into the early 80s, and Punk to start at around 1982 – at it did indeed happen in nearby countries: Greece, just south of the border, saw the first bands punk forming around 1983. In this pre-www world, the distance from the UK/US centers was proportional to the delay at which new trends in culture were being established.

Here though, is where the unique combination of negative outcomes, a lively, educated but rowdy Balkan youth, and the prior experience of that part of the Balkans in contributing a hell lot to the early-to-mid-century modernist movements, allowed the local Punk movement to develop in sync with the UK, US and other Western countries, and then to evolve into one of the pioneering scenes of new-, synth-, and cold wave, all the way into the Suicide/Screamers school of noise.

Yugoslavia in those years became the very zeitgeist of the Era: bleak, and no future – in a way that embodied it even better than the run-down tenements of UK cities. After all, ten years later the country would collapse under a civil war with many sides, and the repercussions are still being felt in all the ex-federal republics that now exist as independent states.

In the second half of the seventies things started going less-than-good. The economic depression of the seventies – a deciding factor in the genesis of punk in the Western world, hit Yugoslavia as well. The leadership decided to opt for more loans from Western banks, and subsequently the economy started tanking, salaries stagnated and ethnic tensions –forgotten on the surface- started appearing in the horizon.

In the level of popular culture, long-haired, progressive rock dominated the period of mid-Seventies. The aging musicians were all state approved, and a bit too adult for the kids. In the urban centers of the country, Belgrade, Zagreb, Ljubljana, youth was restless and the socialist state model of youth centers gave them space for experimentation.

Paraf, the first punk band in the country, formed in the lively Croatian port town of Rijeka – boasting just 100.000 inhabitants at the era.

Paraf appeared in 1977, followed right after by Problemi, Pankrti, Termiti, Pekinška Patka, Kuzle, Indust Bag and more, in various parts of the country – with the main hubs being the urban centers of Slovenia and Croatia, as the local culture and the close proximity to Western countries enabled the phenomenon.

In a surprising move, the state-owned record companies – and only record companies existing- acknowledged the phenomenon, and signed many of the most prominent bands. Of course, things in state-owned entities tend to move a bit slowly, so the releases weren’t that frequent.

In 1978, Pankrti (which by the way means “Bastards”), released the first Yugopunk single Lepi In Prazni / Lublana Je Bulana. It was a very good example of dirty, overcompressed 77 punk, of the kind that is closer to Cleveland than to London, and that would later make the backbone of compilations like Killed By Death and Bloodstains.

The next year – as said, things tend to move slow in state-owned companies, Paraf released their first single, too. They opted for a cover of The Heartbreakers’ Chinese Rocks with Croatian lyrics, planning to troll the locals, being sure no one would ever recognize it.  Of course, the music press busted them within a week of the release, but nevertheless, Chinese Rocks (retitled Rijeka) remains an entertaining slice of solid Punk-Rock.

The true gem was hiding on the flipside, though: Moj Zivot Je Novi Val, with its classic teenage frustration lyrics (“Every day at home fights / And shouting at me / My life is New Wave”), a killer bassline and a really solid beat, is probably the definitive Yugopunk track. The single came in a cover that – in a nod to The Clash – featured the bare-chested bass player, who was anyway the real hero of the single, because as already said, the bassline is killer.

The next release was by Novi Sad, Serbia’s Pekinska Patka, the massive Biti Ružan, Pametan I Mlad / Bela Šljiva on Jugoton. Both songs were solidly produced, high-energy, aggressive tracks, with great lyrics (“Be Rude, Smart & Young”), spastic rhythms, and a nervous, hiccupped vocal delivery that made them classics.

Soon, Pekinska Patka released their first LP, Plitka Poesija. This LP stands among the best products of the punk era. Full of witty lyrics, breakneck-speed pogo anthems, rebelliousness, restlessness, sharp guitars and solid, groovy basslines, it is an exhilarating listen, and it could be easily used in the place of Adderall when the conditions call for it.

It starts with a fittingly iconoclastic track, Poderimo Rock (Let’s tear Rock Apart):

I cannot listen to this rock anymore

The end is the time for a new sound

My head is full of various idiots

I just want a real fuss and punk.

Mom, Mom, Mom, it’s over

Mom, Mom, Mom, I’ll be a punk

Mom, Mom, Mom, just to wear

Short tie, jacket and badge.

From then on, it is party all over the place, with every way possible – including, with a cover of Addrisi Brothers’ Never My Love – and ending triumphantly, with a pseudo-Japanese Kung-Fu-riffed, instrumental, called For Yoko Ono.

The next one to follow was Paraf, releasing A Dan Je Tako Lijepo Počeo on the RTV Ljubljana label in 1980. The LP is ripe full of powerful tracks, with phenomenally catchy choruses, hooligan back vocals, sharp, downstroked guitars, and a collection of audacious for the ear, lyrics, talking sarcastically about the cops (somewhat unheard of in a socialist country), contraception, boredom, religion and war – the latter ih the memorable “Kabul – Everybody Must Get Stoned”. In some aspects, it could be the Yugo equivalent of the first Stiff Little Fingers LP, even if they push it further that the ex-Deep Purple cover Belfrast gang.

A Dan Je Tako Lijepo Počeo has a much darker sound than that of the other Yugopunk LPs of the era, the chord changes rarely lead to any kind of release, the atmosphere is dark, and the angst palpable – greatly aided by the generous use of cavernous reverb in the vocals and the “industrial”, bluny, in-your-face mix. Everything but the vocals sounds dry, hurried and pushed through, and it’s something that works excellently. This was the LP that with its atmosphere and soundscapes, predicted more than anything else the color of the years that were to come.

During the first three years, however, the climate seemed promising for the movement: There were lots of gigs –many of them in large, state venues, and the bands were even getting accepted to play in the state-sponsored festivals. This led to a couple of memorable concerts, like the famous Pekinska Patka Belgrade gig on a platform on the Sava river – something that, quite expectedly proved to be impractical – especially considering the fact that a hundred pogoing teens charging the platform simultaneously, would make it dangle dangerously, bringing the volts and the water in dangerously close contact.

Another memorable gig of the era, which, luckily is available to watch online, finds the same band playing behind the spit-filled glass panels of a mall retail store, something straight into Devo-like social commentary territory, definitely ahead of the curve for the time and place.

In this climate, Pankrti followed soon, delivered their first LP, called Boredom (Dolgcajt) in 1980. Sonically, it was a step ahead of their single. Or, better just say that it had a better production, which permitted the compositions to show their Clash-like structure and arrangements, while at the same time remaining dirty and compressed enough to shoot straight for the ‘77 punk pantheon. The lyrics were more confrontational than those of their peers, with songs like Totalnja Revolucija (Total Revolution), even if the most provocative one (Anarhist) was not included in the LP.

Censorship was not the case though: Yugoslavia may never had been a completely free democracy, and it had an one-party system with a president for life, as Tito was declared in 1973, but it was very far from the Eastern Block mentality and the police states being the Iron Curtain. In the excellent collection of essays “Remembering Utopia: The Culture of Everyday Life in Socialist Yugoslavia”, the Yugoslav approach is described as “repressive tolerance”, a term which fits perfectly.

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The various ASY-Alliance of Socialist Youth, that is the Communist Party Youth- were in general very open towards punk. This was of course a calculated move, since inclusiveness and tolerance were two of the key philosophies that permitted this federation of 6 states, 3 religions and a dozen ethnicities, to exist in first place. Punk was accepted, and favorable reviews and articles, invitations to concerts and festivals, TV appearances and regular airplay, were the norm rather than exceptions.

The controls and censorship were so relaxed, that it went as far as picking Pankrti’s Anarhist to be the opening track of the seminal Novi Punk Val compilation, released on ZKP RTVL – another state-owned record company. Of course, the Anarchism that Pankrti were singing about was more about individualism and living for the moment than about Piotr Kropotkin, so it was understood as youth rebelliousness rather than being considered subversive: The ASY line was that the new values that the generation of punk was expressing, were OK as long as they were about more personal aspects (individualism, realism, creativity, boredom) and as long as they weren’t about subverting values and political systems. This wasn’t really enforced, since the lyrics of the era deal with the same “others” that the Western Punk bands denounced as well: The cops, the state, war, the Church.

In reality, ASY willingly turned a blind eye, as it expected the bands to be “politically incorrect in the prescribed manner”.

This worked wonders for everyone involved: The scene grew a lot without the Party’s tight control, and the cops let the kids have fun without harassing them. This was a shining antithesis to the small-minded repression that punk suffered in other southern European countries (I am looking at you Greece and Spain) and as a result, the bands and their releases were becoming more numerous.

In May 1980, Tito died. The country came to a stop as a planet’s worth of presidents, kings, and princes, went to Belgrade to each one plant a tree is Tito’s remembrance. This was indicative of his status in the world stage, and this in turn was indicative of the reason that, under his influence and weight, the Federation of Yugoslavia was indeed a federation, and not 6 separate states fighting each other to extinction. His presence and will was not an option anymore though, so the country went into a collective retreat, facing an uncertain future.

Suddenly, the “no future” motto of the UK punk started sounding painfully real. The economy was stalling. Inflation was rising, prices were rising, unemployment was rising. Nationalist voices resurfaced.

In this grey climate, in 1981, a tabloid-led moral panic combined with zealot, ambitious cops, fabricated a scandal that played an instrumental role in ending this first phase of punk in Yugoslavia: An alleged Nazi-Punk group in Ljubljana (who never played live or recorded, and might not have even existed), along with an alleged Nazi-Punk circle in Slovenia, blindly followed by people mistaking Dead Kennedys “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” t-shirts for nazi endorsements (never mind the crossed-out swastika) led to a bunch of kids being led to court, tons of tabloids being sold, and an easy scapegoat created, so that the usual loudmouths could lash at the kids for everything that was going wrong in society. All of a sudden, Punk bands found themselves isolated from the press, radios, and ASY, police cracked-down on graffiti, bands and kids with strange clothes, and the party came to an end.

1981 was the end of this first wave of punk. This of course is only a technical term, as in reality nothing ended: What happened was that Punk turned to New Wave due to necessity. Only the outer layers of the form and appearance changed, with the essence remaining the same. The big 3 (Paraf, Pekinska Patka and Pankrti) turned to New Wave, each one releasing an excellent second LP between 1981 and 1982. In the same period as the Slovenian Nazi-Punk affair, the legendary “Novi Punk Val ’78-’80” compilation was released as well. Among the more well-known bands, it also included Termiti, Buldogi, 92, and Berlinski Zid, in tracks recorded during the previous 2 years.

The latter two were probably the most important bands featured, since they captured the zeitgeist better than anybody, and predated future developments – even if Berlinski Zid had already disbanded by the time the compilation was released. Their jarred, noisy, anxious synth-punk, filled with psyched-out organ riffs, was the first specimen of synth-punk in the country, and was the first demonstration of the transition of Punk to Synth-Wave and its many forms.

92 – or Grupa 92 – had already released a single in 1980. A 2-sided monster, with Tujci on the flip side being a rhythmic mess of mid-60s fuzz guitars, 80’s synth leads and 2-tone organ that, once heard, is difficult to forget. It sounds like a dictionary definition of “post-modernism in music”, being a proposal that is more palatable and equally ground-breaking as the Screamers or the Suicide were.

92 disbanded in 1983. By then most bands were using a at least one synth or an organ, and sometimes the drummer was gone, too, replaced by push-button drum machines. A whole scene was created – with kids that were too young to experience the boredom of ’77 – in reality, not too young to experience it, but too young to qualify for rehearsal space in the ASY-owned spaces. The map of the scene started changing too – or better put, it started expanding: In a scene largely dominated by Slovenian and Croatian bands, Serbia had a secondary role, with the most notable exception being Novi Sad’s Pekinska Patka.

Belgrade – up until then almost completely absent from the map of punk – became the center of the Wave scene with bands like Električni Orgazam, Idoli, Profili Profili, Defektno Efektni, and Sarlo Akrobata. These groups shared a similar sound: Dark, and cold, but always smooth, and human. It was a soundscape translation of the city they lived in: A stunning, brutalist, sci-fi skyline, futuristic, concrete apartment block clusters, and open horizons – run-down, decaying, on the street level, and a dark future looming above.

Collectively, the Belgrade bands could be described as having an early-The Cure feeling, but with keyboards (synth and organ) dominating the mix, often psychedelic, always pop. As a total, it was more song-oriented than, for example, the Dutch or Italian Wave scenes of the era, and also easier to listen and to relate to, never mind the language barrier.

At the same time Novi Sad, the second largest city in the Serbian republic, had an equally active scene, where 2 bands stand out: Future indie stars Boye – offering back then a very suggestive mix of Synth Wave and Psychedelia, and Kontraritam, who released a 2-tone Ska masterpiece in 1982. Representing the exact antithesis to the grim climate or the era, this LP is of 2-Tone-quality, full of perfect pop hooks and solid basslines.

The whole Punk/Wave phenomenon was most prominent in the wealthier and more urbanized Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia, where even minor towns had to offer a local scene. It stayed largely outside the isolated Montenegro, the predominantly Muslim, agricultural Bosnia, and the mountainous, isolated Macedonia – even if the latter two produced a couple of gems that are well worth remembering.

From Bosnia came Grupa Sport, a duo who only released one single in 1981, Zeka b/w Problemi. An exquisitely sweet combination of synth-based power pop with punk ethos, girl vocals and a very cool bunny cover. Then, a couple of years later, there came another gem, this time from the grey, half-bleak hellhole, half-brutalist wonder, Skopje, the capital of Macedonia: Bastion’s self-titled LP – a perfect match of pop, Slavic female vocals with liquid consonants, cheesy drum machines and primordial production that washes everything in polysynth bliss. However, the lyrics are much darker than the Western equivalent of the era, moving it outside the realm of Soft Cell / Depeche Mode electropop and straight inside the bleakness and uncertainty of the post-Tito years in the eastern Balkans.

Barely a decade after Bastion’s only LP, the Yugoslav Punk/Wave scene was completely forgotten at home. The civil wars that lasted for a whole decade kept people too busy to care about anything else – let alone a common cultural heritage created by the same people that were now finding themselves fighting each other. But Yugopunk got rediscovered abroad: In the mid ’90s, the bootleg compilation Bloodstains Across Yugoslavia was released, and songs by Pankrti, Pekinska Patka, Paraf, and others, were included in the Killed By Death series.

The scene became well known and respected among the fans of the lesser known, Messthetics-like, non-mohawk Punk bands, and Pekinska Patka and company, were recognized next to bands as Belgium’s The Kids, and France’s Gasoline, as important exponents of the Punk movement in continental Europe.

During the 2000’s, as the countries that once made Yugoslavia started recovering from the hangover of the 90’s wars, the scene was rediscovered by home audiences, too, which led to a couple of documentaries and fiction films dealing with Yugopunk –partly influenced by the Yugonostalgia sentiment in the beginning of the ‘00s – as well as a sustained interest about it.

Interestingly, it was the last important expression of the Yugoslav culture, right before the country splintered and disaster ensued. As such, it remains a meaningful landmark in the cultures of the resulting states, and the devil-may-care, iconoclast, creative and energetic attitude it expressed, is still exerting a meaningful degree of influence in the scenes of Belgrade, Zagreb and Ljubljana.

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