From Unearthing The Music

Pankrti's debut album "Dolgcajt" cover, ZKP RTV Ljubljana, ŠKUC, 1980

The following is an excerpt of a July 2014 interview by I. Darko with Igor Vidmar entitled "SLO-PUNK 1977-1987: MAXIMUM IMPACT", originally published on MAXIMUM ROCK'N'ROLL #374.

This coming October (2014), 37 years ago, the first punk band in the federative socialist Yugoslavia, precisely in Slovenia, now a member of EU – made its first public appearance. It happened ten days before the release of the Sex Pistols first album “Never Mind The Bollocks” in 1977.

Ok fine - but “so f….ing what?”, to quote the dubiously great Anti-Nowhere League - why should that matter at all in the ultra-tech, futuristic and post-historical 21st century? In Fox News parlance: “think Pussy Riot, only 37 years earlier, when communism was very much alive and still kicking hard!”.

More to the point: history is back, big time - and not only in Middle East and in Ukraine but also in the West, courtesy of the lasting economic and moral crisis, especially the deepening chasm between haves and have-nots. Of course, history has never really “left” - if you lived in the East (or Africa), witness the Yugoslav wars of the early 90s when the notorious “end of history” slogan was coined after the fall of the Soviet Union. And, strangely but truly - local punk was one of the few moments when modern popular music actively interacted in a relevant way with the social and even political reality/history, outside of escapist entertainment.

Pankrti/Paraf split LP "Omladinac Postaje Čovjek..." - '77-'79 • Live Menza ŠN Ljubljana 1978 " cover, Rest in Punk, 2014

There might have been punk bands in other communist countries (although not so early on), but we can safely say that none had such a large social and political impact - both immediate and long-term as Yugo/Slovenian punk. Yes, the impact was “just” local, but the indie-socialist Yugo was globally important as the first alternative to Soviet-type communism, although ultimately unsuccessful.

Just one band wouldn't make much difference of course, but a wave of bands and a movement of street punks appeared soon after the '79-80 release of Pankrti’s first single “Lublana je bolana” (Ljubljana is Sick) by ŠKUC-Ropot Records - (reviewed at the time in Maximum Rock'n'roll and purchased by post by Jello Biafra) and the album “Dolgcajt” (Boredom). This was an autonomous D.I.Y. nation-wide movement outside the official “youth culture” or commercial pop. It literally “occupied” pubs and squares in major Slovenian towns, especially in the capital Ljubljana, where Radio Študent operated since 1969 as an independent radio - unique not only in the “communist world” but Europe-wide.

As our interlocutor was a political journalist at RŠ from '70 till '74 and then from '78 onwards a punk/political show host, DJ and RŠ's punk recordings producer, the first question had to be about Radio Študent. 

Paraf album "Prekinuti Koitus: 1978 - 1979" cover, NE! Records, 2011

Q: How important was RŠ for the Slovenian punk explosion from '77 onwards?

I.V.:  Pankrti and the whole punk thing would probably come into being even without Radio Študent, as it also happened elsewhere in Yugo; but it could have remained a marginal underground phenomenon. It was precisely RŠ that made the first (but not only) difference - there was nothing like it in other parts of Yugoslavia, not to mention the Soviet block; as a matter of fact, I'm not sure if there was anything like that in continental Europe, pirate radios notwithstanding.

So instead of remaining at the margins, in the underground, Slovenian punk became a massively popular youth movement. The role of RŠ was in fact later recognised by Pankrti themselves. The autonomy, D.I.Y. and wider influence of punk was made possible by the real autonomy of the student radio- itself a “strange”, improbable phenomenon: it came into being when a group of electronics students connected to the '68 student movement took a demagogic remark by a top communist who tried to defuse the student revolt by suggesting that it was just a matter of students being mis-informed literally, and thus proposed a student radio.

Of course, the regime uncertainty and bigger worries after Marshal Tito's death in '80 also contributed to the fact that at its appearance Slovenian punk went unchallenged and was spreading nearly undisturbed until late '81/early 82 – while in other Republics of Yugoslavia punk quickly mutated into new wave, ska etc. under commercial and political media pressure. There, in a pop market much larger than the Slovenian one, it was lured in very quickly by a music industry commercialism not so different from the one in the West.

Here it might help to mention that the country that split acrimoniously from Stalinist orthodoxy in early '50s already had by the 70s a partly-free and partly functional market economy including a pop industry, tabloids etc - not unlike China today. This needs to be mentioned although “screw history” and “sod off old farts” was the attitude Slovenian punks shared with their Western brethren.


Grupa 92's "Cenzura" 7" cover, NE! Records, 2015

Q: Which were the most important post- Pankrti bands in Slovenia?

IV: One can find nearly all their names in the line-ups of the first Novi Rock festivals from '81 to '84, which were basically punk fests. The bands were from all parts of Slovenia, like Indust-bag from a small southern border town - very young but well rehearsed with lucid industrial angst and punk redemption lyrics like “Throwaway Youth”, “Head Against Concrete”, “City Shadow” or their RŠ alter-hit “100dB”: “Metal curtain around the flesh/human organs grinded in a machine/automatic plastic lips …100dBs strangle me and put me up again…”.

Then there were Gnile duše (Rotten Souls) from the rural region that were hilariously Ramonoid, as were Kuzle (Bitches), while Šund (Pulp Fiction) were more ska-punk. Both were very young and from the same old mining town, with sharp socially critical and individualist lyrics, while CZD (Centre for Dehumanisation) from Maribor were a quasi-satirical proto-punk band with minimalist social-absurdist lyrics.

Čao pičke album "Sonce V Očeh" cover, NE! Records, 2014

There were also Čao pičke (Hi Cunts), a kind of dadaist punk/no-wave close to Otroci socializma (Children of Socialism), both with great existentialist and absurdist lyrics and a rough minimal sound.

Then there were Ljubljana bands in the wake of Pankrti explosion: Lublanski psi (Ljubljana dogs), a Clash/Sham69 kind of raunchy punk with sarcastic lyrics like “I still have hope but I shit on it” that fled in the face of official optimism. Grupa 92, although not quite working class and musically softer, have written one of the first “working staff” lyrics on their first - and then only - single “Od šestih do dveh” (From Six to Two O'clock) - then the industrial working hours. It's staccato ska-punk with electric organ riff was effectively conveying the drabness of working on a Fordian production line (“pushing buttons/becoming automatons” …).

O! Kult album "Mi Smo Drzava / We Are The State" cover, NE! Records, 2013

The fact that these totally new bands could play in front of 5000 plus sold-out audiences in the elite Križanke Monastery Summer Auditorium in the centre of Ljubljana - as soon as they had half an hour of their own songs and were reasonably well-rehearsed - is another proof of the urgency and creativity of the period and the lightning spreading and impact of the punk “big bang” in the grey void of “socialist youth culture”.

All of these bands have appeared on three punk/new wave compilations in early 80s produced by RŠ and Student Cultural Centre - SKUC (another offshoot of the student movement a decade ago), but again distributed by the same major as Pankrti, which was proof of punk’s wider, near-mainstream popularity. There was little censorship of lyrics but as with “Dolgcajt”; the only way of curbing the popularity of punk was not to re-print these albums after the first prints had been regularly sold-out.

But NE! Records of Sweden has released first-ever albums by some of the above: O!kult, Grupa 92, Čao Pičke, and also Indust-Bag who did get to “samizdat” (self-publish) a couple CDs. These albums are a great “collateral” to these meagre words.

Q: Were these bands musically all in the mold of the successful Pankrti?

IV: Not at all! Although the allure of imitating a band that sold out their first releases was strong, especially since the “Dolgcajt” album was distributed by the major record Co. which was part of the national Radio and TV Corporation, the new and younger bands all sounded different and were expressing the feelings of a whole new generation: Via Ofenziva was kind of dark-wave musically and lyrically poetic prolet(arian) punk - as was O!kult but with more political lyrics and punk'n'roll music. Roughly ska-punky Buldogi were the youngest, barely 15 and 16 years old at Novi Rock 81/82. And so on.     

Q: What were the messages of these bands?

Indust-bag tape "V Obdobju Zločina..." cover, FV Založba, 1987

I.V.: Their messages and social outlook was different not only from the ideology of the regime and its Socialist Youth division, but also from the nihilistic dadaistic fun and “destroy-all” ethics or “white riot” sloganeering of the earliest Brit-punk. Some were somewhat similar to the second, “proletarian punk” British wave of Angelic Upstarts and Sham 69, but with a massive contextual difference: this was the “socialist people's Republic” with the one and only ruling Party.

But this can again trigger an automatic association to “communist lager” or the ideological stereotyping “behind iron curtain” etc, so it should be qualified again: Yugoslavia was by then some 30 years outside the Soviet block - no Soviet troops or American troops in Yugo, thank you very much. We had quite a lot of freedom of movement: everybody had a passport since the early 60s and there was a strange but working “socialist market” economy with (small) private property, little unemployment, at least in the federal Republic of Slovenia, free schooling, health care etc. The system was still undemocratic, quite hierarchical (aren't they all?!) and authoritarian, but not “totalitarian” in the Soviet sense of the word.

Q: So what were punks protesting against?

I.V: There were stages of discontent and protest; at first it can be said that punk protest was directed mostly against the drabness and over-regulation of life and culture, against “social differences” as was the going euphemism for the class divide between the regime elite and the people; also against lack of freedom of expression. Some of the lyrics, images and attitudes, (especially Pankrti's whose lyricists were students of social sciences), were mocking and expressing distrust of the one-party in the “socialist democracy”, revealing prevalent youth conformism, and expressing alienation and angst not in tune with the "socialist humanist" official ideology, et similar.

"Novi Punk Val 78-80" compilation album cover, ZKP RTV Ljubljana, ŠKUC, 1980

Younger bands had different messages, closer to classic teen angst frustrations etc., but many spoke also about society and politics – like the "proletarian" O!kult – who sang about "comrades, don't alienate our work from us/don't alienate our self-rule/don't drive around in black Mercedes… whose comrades are you?".

This and other similar songs recorded at Radio Študent or at shows but later also in professional studios for the Novi Rock festival became bona fide heavy rotation Radio Študent hits. This also goes for Grupa 92 and their first single “Od šestih do dveh” (“From Six to Two O'clock”). With its catchy staccato ska-punk riffing it also got a lot of national airplay - and the single was the first-ever by a “socialist” punk band to be reviewed in a global musical paper, the now defunct Melody Maker.

Q:  Did they and other popular bands become mainstream successful?

I.V.: Sadly not. Grupa 92 would have surely recorded an album for the same major that released the single were it not for the draft into the army. So, it's great that NE! Records is releasing their first-ever album as well as O!Kult's and Čao Pičke´s.

Solunski Front album "Mali Svet" cover, NE! Records, 2014

But the same goes also for many other bands at the time, so the army draft was really the scourge of Slovenian and Yugo punk - and a quite deliberate measure of the regime to harass and curb the punk movement when it realised, luckily too late, that it couldn't control it in the usual repressive ways. Because by then in early 80s it had become quite massive and very visible on Slovenian streets and on the graffited walls, with one of the pinnacles when punks “occupied” a small central Ljubljana square and re-named it “Johnny Rotten Square” - not with ordinary graffiti, but with enormous nearly unerasable grease-paint letters.

The trigger of this explosion and boldness was firstly the success of the aforementioned Pankrti album “Dolgcajt” (Boredom) and the sold-out first Novi Rock festival in 8: the first wave were Kuzle, Šund, Indust-bag and Buldogi and then came Otroci socializma, O!kult and Kuga in '82 - and then Grupa 92, Via Ofenziva, Berlinski zid (Berlin wall), Gnile duše, Čao Pičke, Center za dehumanizacijo and other first post-Pankrtian-wave bands.

Q: How come many of popular punk bands did not release anything at all?

I.V.: Beside the disruption of the army draft there was this big regime clampdown at the end of 1981. At first the regime was in a kind of post-Tito distraction and hesitation, so it took time to react, but then it came down hard, after it had realised that its “youth division” didn't have a clue how to deal with the punks.

Otroci socializma album "Kri" cover, FV Založba, 1987

So the Ministry of Interior masterminded the “fascist punks” outrage in cahoots with the major media and arrested three guys, allegedly members of a 4R (for Reich) punk band while the high-circulation tabloid title screamed “Who is drawing swastikas on our walls?”. It was a tremendous scandal and public outcry that legitimised a wave of systematic day to day harassment of punk bands and punks themselves, as police came for them to schools and homes early in the morning to take them for questioning; there was street aggression etc.

We at Radio Študent were at first taken by surprise as there were no nazi punk bands that we knew of, only maybe a few chauvinistic blockhead fans, but we soon got wind of what was really going on and RŠ and some sympathetic intellectuals and marginal media went on the counter-information offensive.We managed to limit the damage, no-one else was arrested at first, but the three guys remaied in prison for months, and though all were in the end exonerated for lack of evidence, the damage was done, record companies shied off, national radioplay was reduced, punks were pushed off the streets and the whole movement kind of went deeper underground.

But Novi Rock remained, and one of its “stars” of '82 were Laibach, who a few years later masterminded great poetic-justice and fiercely art-political “revenge” that shook the whole of Yugoslavia. But that is another story.

Q: Punk was marginalised, Pankrti disbanded in'87 - where was the socio-political impact you mentioned at the beginning?  

"Lepo Je ..." compilation album cover, ZKP RTV Ljubljana, 1982

I.V.: Yes, and punk lyrics made no demands of “democracy”, “liberty” or free “pursuit of happiness”. I think because we realised, consciously or not, that these values were on paper, in words already included in the Yugoslav constitution, and in all kinds of official proclamations and even in the Programme of the Communist party.

But the reality, although quite different from the one in the Soviet block, was still radically different from their words. People didn't like that, but that was politics, while economically the 70s were fairly prosperous as the system kinda bribed the people with big industrial projects, full employment and cheap credits for building private houses etc. But the money for these socialist “bribes” was borrowed from the pillars of neoliberal financial capitalism – mostly IMF and World Bank. But the people were not informed or didn't care because western consumer goods were more available, along with the already free healthcare, education, etc.

What came of all this was a kind of “consumerist authoritarianism” - not unlike the one in China now. But when Tito, the guarantor of political stability, died, the financial “masters of Universe” called in the loans and the crisis hit Yugo - again, not unlike the post-2008 world crisis but affecting only Yugo at the time.

The “devil's pact” between the people and the regime underlying the '70s “prosperity” implied that the above-mentioned official values should stay on paper or at least under strict one-Party control when partially implemented. Punk ignored this “pact”, satirised and criticised it and created its own freedom of expression, autonomy and alternative culture - and it has all begun before Tito's death and the loosening of the regime - to which it contributed at least indirectly. Hence its kind of prophetic significance and inspiration for others in the 80-ties.

Kuzle "Archived" album cover, NE! Records, 2012

Also, punk's wider cultural resonance and staying power was due to its proto-“Gesamtkunst” nature, today it would be called multimedia or new media: there wasn't only the music but also fanzines, graffiti, videos, manifestos, theory - and literature, some even from Pankrti's frontman; but the most notable and influential were the radically iconoclastic and outrageous, “morally scandalous” live performances, poetry and prose-cum-philosophy by one P.Traven, later revealed as Peter Mlakar - who later wrote some lyrics and wildly daring speeches for  Laibach and its performances in besieged Sarajevo in 1995 and in Belgrade, Serbia in 1997 (with the dictator Milošević still in power!). But that is again another story.

Q: How was punk still relevant in the 80s, after the “nazi-punk” clampdown?

IV:  Later other social forces were inspired by punk, especially the so-called “social movements”, demanding more “human rights” from the regime along the lines of the Helsinki universal declaration of human rights of '77 that was also signed by Yugo. These movements were still operating within the system which was slowly loosening its grip but benefited from the punk breakthrough.

Other dissenters were more radical in some ways, at the time stigmatized as nationalist-bourgeois as they were proposing Slovenian independence. And it was the very founder of one of these forces, grouped around a literary and philosophical magazine (similar in a way  to dissidents in Soviet Union), and was later even a co-author of the independent Slovenia's constitution, who has most sincerely and succinctly described the initial impact of punk:

Indust-bag's "Zavrzena Mladost" album cover, NE! Records, 2013

“Without the stress caused to politics and culture by the two years of Pankrti's activity there would be no initiative for magazine Nova Revija. Even more, I'm ever more certain that without Pankrti and the waves behind and around them the communist power would not allow its inception in mid-1982.”

Q: So how can all this be still relevant today beside pure musical nostalgia?

I.V.: As I said, it does seem to me that history is coming back big time, and not only in the ex-Soviet Union and other democratically “undeveloped” parts of the world. But if the people, especially young people don't want to again become the passive objects or elections fodder of momentous events dictated by the dominant forces of power and money that could in the end turn them even into cannon-fodder, they would probably do well to consider and take into account the principles of social and cultural self- determination, engagement, autonomy and social/political D.I.Y. that were - and are - the kernel of punk's lasting relevance. And I mean in real reality, not only in the virtual, cyber “reality” of FB, Instagram, Twitter etc. In my view these so-called “social media” can be useful to a point, and their role in the post-crisis movements like Occupy are undeniable; but they can also be deceiving precisely as an illusion of real social action and thus a poor substitute for the real thing.

Pankrti's debut single "Lepi In Prazni / Lublana Je Bulana" cover, 1978, ŠKUC

Also, classical forms of social and political activism like Occupy, World Social Forum, etc are surely at the core of possible changes and indispensable; but so could or should be something that touches, moves and shakes, and yes, politicizes the “private life” leisure time and “entertainment” that are so massively occupying young people's attention and are an important cornerstone of the world status quo. They are all-present and not-so-hidden persuasive precisely because they are supposedly ahistoric and apolitical, the eternal “best of all worlds”. This strange world is surely shaken and even a bit crumbling since the crisis –but is still very strong in its many brilliant virtual and “pure fun” forms – we all know what they are, be it “old school” Hollywood or new-age virtual reality fun-and-games...       

But I'm terribly old school so don't take me at face value; I'm sure MRR readers will not.

Anyway, I do believe that the re-releases of old punk records or new-old releases can not only stir nostalgia and reveal an obscure chapter in local or regional musical history – but can be a useful reminder of its possible wider relevance.

Back cover for Pankrti's debut single "Lepi In Prazni / Lublana Je Bulana", 1978, ŠKUC

Questions by I.Darko / MAXIMUM ROCK'N'ROLL #374, July 2014

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