Poland: An Account of the Party and its Guests
From Unearthing The Music
In 1983 Biba Kopf attended a music festival in Poland and wrote an extensive festival report for NME. This is the first part of the article, where we learn about the role of rock music for thousands of polish youngsters of many different tribes.
Posted with the permission of Time Inc. Special thanks to Keiko Yoshida and Chris Bohn, and to Jeff Veitch for kindly allowing us to use his photos.
Poland: An Account Of The Party And Its Guests
“See them come: the punks, teenies, teen idols, reluctant conscripts, longhairs – and not forgetting the mysterious gitmen. Gathering in another corner, the poopers – the militia, do-rights and jobsworths – conspiring to end the longest, wildest party inside the Warsaw pakt.
Life is that much easier if you go along with the local customs.
Short of a few declaration forms the British contingent – a three man film crew, an ambitious independent record / PA company looking for inlets and outlets in Poland and yours truly – nervously waits for clearance through Warsaw airport.
On the other side of the glass barrier families clutching flowers eagerly peer through for their friends and relatives.
Apart from cabbies in a rush for foreign marks and the yankee dollar, no one's in any hurry. The continental humidity has relaxed the pace to a sluggish crawl.
Best fall in line...
A small gift doesn't constitute graft but a sign of gratitude goes the prevailing wisdom; thanks for doing your job so well, pal. Bottles of vodka bought at the duty free dollar shop are discreetly left behind. The wheels lubricated, life rolls on smoothly. Conveyed through to the other side we are prey to the prowling cab drivers.
One hawk, claiming his cab to be damaged to the extent of some 1000's of zlotys (official going rate: 134 zlotys to the pound – 500 to the dollar on the black market) on the short run from airport to hotel, says he will magnanimously settle for a fiver's compensation. Like a boar trapped by his own greed he paces the lobby waiting for this seemingly slight truffle, darkness falling on his venomous curses.
He is probably still waiting.
Meanwhile, slipping out the back door, we board the early train for Poznan, travelling in the exotically titled Bar Wars buffet car. Poznan lies west of Warsaw en route to Berlin. Attractively rural, it is only scarred by the railway sidings cutting of its eastern approach. The most overt sign of industry, however, is so classicaly shaped – rectangular factory block, vertiginous chimney, diagonal external corridors – it earns its decorous setting on the river bank flanking the picturesque old quarter. It even generates appropriately ghostly clanking noises, as if confirming the town's antiquity.
Unlike its neighbours the DDR, the CSSR and the USSR, red banners hanging outside factories or along thouroughfares urging unity or a greater productivity are a rare sight in Poland. There are a few of the uniform signs common to the Comecon states. Leninography is not a growing concern.
A majestic monument to the fallen, marking the Soviet / Polish war sacrifices, is matched in grandeur and dignity by the Solidarity-built memorial to the 53 workers killed in the cost of living riots of '56. Other than that the dominant iconography on the Pope and pop.
A catholic kitsch shop peddles images of His Holiness alongside effigies of the saints, while inside a newspaper / stationery store Spandau Ballet posters and Beatle promo pictures are on sale; their western record company insignia and not-for-sale stamps no doubt authenticate their value as artifacts!
“Yes”, fumes Piotr Metz, Poland's leading Beatle expert, whose weekly 45 minute show dedicated to the Fab Four on Warsaw Third intersperses gossip, news and views with very rare Beatles tracks and alternative takes.
“This is a very sad thing which is happening here. This year EMI signed a contract to sell western records through Pewex, our chain of dollar shops (meaning they only take hard currency). They also sent Pewex all kinds of promotional material.
Unfortunately these posters and pictures were never used for they original purpose. They found their way into private shops (recently allowed to operate alongside state-owned shops) where they are sold for a lot of money – such a poster is twice as much as a Polish LP.
“My listeners send me letters asking how they can do such a thing, sell posters with not-for-sale stamped on them. I can only sympathise. It's a real bad thing. Somebody's making a big profit here”.
Cute as Poznan's stores are, we're not here for the shopping, but for a three night pop festival – one of the many that has ironically proliferated under the austere post-crisis rule of General Wojciech Jaruzelski. No Colonel Tom Parker he, how come he allows youthful spirits to soar and flourish, while other branches of the arts are more closely regulated, or – like the film industry – subjected to the constraints of a crippled economy?
A news item in the officialy English speaking monthly Polish Perspectives offers a clue, reporting that Jaruzelski “emphasised the democratic, open and tolerant character of the Party's cultural policy and drew attention to the intelligentsia's duty to make a creative contribution to recovery. The Party's honest attitude, he said, would in the long run allow it to secure credibility, respect and trust in intellectual quarters”.
But having crushed the popular power base of Solidarity in December 1981 and temporarily imposed martial law, how can a military government ever expect to win the support of the people?
If this were Czechoslovakia, the government wouldn't be bothering with such considerations. In Poland, however, even the most rigid of post-war regimes has made efforts on behalf of its people. Each bout of rioting – '56 in Poznan, '70 in Gdansk, Gdynia and Szczecin, once again in '76 – was followed first by the restoration of order and then by carefully controlled reforms.
The pitiful state of the Polish economy at the time of the Jaruzelski takeover meant he had no consumable carrots to dangle; cakes were out, so what does that leave? The food of love!
“Because rock music is so popular with the youth here, the authorities have decided to use it as a way of winning over youth to their side,” remarks one observer. “Well, not exactly to their side, but allowing them to express their feelings in music, hoping they would forget about everything else”.
“And after so many years in which groups had to struggle to find equipment and with no chance of recording, the new government made equipment available to every young group, gave radio and TV airtime to them and some of them made an overnight success because of that. What was the dream of every 70's group has become the reality for young groups in the 80's. So who can blame groups for co-operating with the government, when now is perhaps the only chance they will have in their career?”
The observer bellows his opinions in my ear above the roar of the vacuum sucking up the night's debris in a hotel lobby.
Tongues and emotions loosened by the flow of vodka, silence is evidently not a golden rule in Poland. People refuse to stay invisible. The action takes place overground, albeit occasionally in the shadows. Last minute requests for anonymity strike a note of caution, a sensible reminder that all is not so normal as it seems. What with Party curbs on the one hand and the Polish will to all-night-partying on the other, delirious highs are reached such as rarely experienced at home, where anything goes.
“It's a complicated business being a Pole,” mourns a maudlin drunk. I stiffen sympathetically.
Just who benefits most from Jaruzelski's bid to win the hearts and minds of youth? Surely the groups are simply taking the money and running?
That a million teen hearts flutter, that thousands of intellectual minds are tickled by, say, Poland's most popular group Republika – whose sharp yet cleverly ambiguous songs and witty self promotion have won them a massive across-the-generation-gap following – doesn't add up to an endorsement of anything.
Of course, the State doesn't expect such a direct reward for its generosity. By allowing pop and rock to flourish, turning a blind eye to the flagrant assaults of punks and letting the subtle innuendos of more sensitive groups slip by, they are providing a public safety valve for pent up frustrations, at once encouraging an atmosphere of normality. Which hundreds of artists and musicians have astutely taken advantage of.
“Because everybody was wary of the government policy, thinking it must be some kind of trick”, comments an onlooker, “the government had to open the gate very wide to get anybody through it at all. They had to let everybody through and, of course, things have got out of control”.
“For them there are probably too many groups. There are probably too many festivals. Every two weeks we have a festival of some kind and young people travel all over the country from one festival to another. Because they are not used to these kinds of things, I don't think they were prepared for everything to grow quite so big.”
Or quite so diverse or daring.
The festival site as starship landing: Poznan's sports arena assumes the shape of a decapitated space module. The Polish thousands gather under the shade of concrete supports or sprawl in the sun strumming guitars.
To westerners accostumed to stories of grey conformity behind the curtains, the variety of dress is astounding. It is also more imaginative. As the state rock agency hasn't cottoned onto the concessions racket – beyond posters and badges – people must design their own clothes or costumise off-the-peg numbers into the correct combinations to mark their alignment to a particular group.
Though Republika don't play till Sunday, their black and white colours are the most prolific. Even so, the predominantly teen audience is prepared to enjoy whatever's going.
Given the erratic quality of interbloc entertainment – the bill's drawn from Polish and Warsaw Pact groups – the audience's happy pragmatism is as much expediency as generosity. Zlotys paid, they're going to have a good time regardless. So long as the rhythm moves they'll jump to it, employing music to their own end.
At which point let me tell you about Poland's Perfect, who once held the number one spot in young hearts now reserved for Republika and a semi-pomp group Maanam.
Their live favourite used to be “I want to be myself”, because a slight phonetic change converted the chorus into “I want to beat a Zomo” - slang for “cop”. The group would sing the original and the audience the modification. And though the authorities could hardly condone mass ranks chanting “I Want to Beat a Zomo”, it would be equally ludicrous for them to ban a group asserting “I Want to Be Myself”. Thus minor satisfactions are gained.
Tiny bodies maul themselves into a state of muppet hysteria. Skinny arms flail skywards, fingers splayed into V signs, eyes screwed tightly shut, they enter into a frantic communal bounce – the fraternal response to the pogo perhaps? - be it to heavy metal, hard rock or the polish equivalent of power pop. Only punk grounds the majority. That, and the existential sulks of an excellent group Kontrola W...
Let's rock around the Bloc! So what does an East German heavy-metal group sound like?
Don't ask. Beethoven will not be flattered by Berluc's solo guitar reading of his “Ode to Joy”, though he might sympathise with their “No more Hiroshima!” call. Anti nuclear protest, it would appear, is now sanctioned by the East German censors.
I'm sure you'd all rather hear a Hungarian heavy metal version of “Na Na Na Kiss Him Goodbye”, as performed by Karthargo who, having taken rock's tribal connotations to heart, dress up in Viking horns, kneelength bearskin boots and furs – fluorescent green gorilla masks optional.
Whatever melody the song possessed is hauled through a primal mud of numbingly pedestrian riffs and finally stomped to death, only for the song to re-emerge as a monstruosly ugly swamp thing that is nevertheless preferable to the wafer thin prissiness of the Banarama cover.
The polish Exodus are almost as silly: Chipmunks go heavy metal; while the tart Lady Pank are a slip of the tongue translation into Polish of The Police. Poznan favourites Turbo, bedecked in lurid satins and silks, demonstrate that tantrums aren't the province of western stars. They once demanded as a condition for a concert at a local school that their dressing room be painted pink. Puce would have been more appropriate.
One group, TSA, have a vigorous vulgarity as broad as Ted Nugent's wicked grin and a self-deprecating stage presentation to match. Long hair, cut-off shorts, scrawny legs and a complete lack of grace add up to a spectacle so ridiculous and lively it's hard not to warm to them. TSA – Transcend Style And taste.
Medieval carved faces of town patrons and saints sheltering under the staid arches and eaves of Poznan's town hall benignly look down on a never-changing Saturday shopping scene.
But what must they be thinking this morning as they witness their provincial square filling with unsavoury strangers, who bring with them the stink of city industry? Suddenly they seem to be arriving up every alley, dragging their heavy, battered workboots through the heat...”
Studded punks, leather punks, denim punks, razored punks, dirt greased punks, spiked punks, Sham punks, Sub punks, Crass punks, Pistol whipped punks, No Future punks, Fuck the War punks, Fuck Off punks, anarchy punks sprawl across benches, heads resting in each other's laps, dizzy with tiredness, heat and drink.
Gdansk punks, Lodz punks, Gdynya punks, Warsarw punks, Cracow punks arriving on foot or by thumb, on trains and in trunks. Presently flushed with time and no where to go, they neverthelesse sense the danger of staying in one place too long. Stylishly sullen and senseless, they scowl through backstreets, gradually making their way to the sports arena; for tonight's their night.
And don't the militia just know it! Compared to the previous night's invisibile presence, the site today is occupied by rank upon rank of grey. With machine guns slung over their shoulders and alsatians in tow, they patrol the perimeter in pairs, practising the niggling policy of shaking down the unsavouriest of the bunch for ID's.
Those who don't meet the requirements are whisked away to... dimlit corridors of the sports arena where photographer Jeff Veitch and I find ourselves for intringing a local bylaw – no pictures of police. Escorted by two militiamen – one in front one behind – we're led past the severest looking of the punks; the mohicans, those with the heaviest straps and chains and one who's decorated his neck with a noose. Jeff looses two films, others loose wristbands. Mockery of man in the shape of self-mutilation, it seems, offends the basic tenets of socialist realism. That prerogative rests solely with the state.
Punks push and prod the patience of the state, testing the public tolerance of youthful extremes. Obviously they're aware of the risks, but they're prepared to run the gauntlet of both official and domestic disapproval. For they're not only prey to the police but also to the other youth factions who, unlike punks, more easily hide themselves.
Punks, who have been around since '78 in the industrial cities, only began to flourish as a minority under the military regime.
“We too are attractions for Western tourists”, mutters one punk sardonically. “They are surprised that a thing like punk exists here. But for us it is normal”.
“It's a police state, but it's not that much of a police state”, laughs his friend.
Teen troubles and fads are not a novelty in Poland.
Ever since rock and roll was smuggled in by sailors returning through the Baltic ports, Polish youth have mirrored or echoed Western developments and even thrown up a few styles of their own, the oddest and most disturbing being the '70s growth of the Gitmen who, so far as I can make out, were any ugly amalgam of mods and popperstyle, distinguished by a yearning for order that had them quoting Hitler and Stalin as their ideal leaders.
SS20 banned! Not an upswing in the nuclear disarmament campaign, but the censors moving in on a Warsaw punk group who'd named themselves after the Russian missile.
They've since changed their name to the hardly less inflammatory De Zerter and gained favourable coverage in the Young Communist daily, even though their songs remain resolutely the same: “The Aborted Generation” (“Too much frustration / Not enough satisfaction / I belong to the aborted generation / There is no future for me...”); “El Salvador” (“I want a holiday in El Salvador / Because at least something's happening there / Here there's only boredom and nothing to do”).
The last one's meant to be ironic, points out one of the group helpfully.
“It's not the most important thing that the song's set in El Salvador” he adds, “it's happening in other countries too, people getting caught in the crossfire between two forces and dying...”
Others songs deal with the grinding reality of living in post-crisis Poland. They're not insults or assaults on the system as such, but expressions of their own feelings, for which the aggression of punk is ideally suited.
“We're not a fashionable group. We know punk has existed since '77. We heard the records, though it was impossible to hear punk on TV, and read plenty of scandalous articles reprinted from the British and French press. Otherwise punk is isolated here”.
Being in the minority they get the dogends when it comes to instruments, halls and fees.
“We play in student halls. The student clubs want the money and they know plenty of people in Poland want to see punk (they usually pull 4-5000 people at a time). It's good for the clubs because they know we want to play, so they can get away with paying us very little money. We only get 400 zlotys and out of that we're supposed to buy the cognac for the journalists”.
“At Poznan we saw a contingent of punks and we were playing for them”, remarked a De Zerter. “The rest can fuck off. It's up to them if they hear or understand anything”.
And so it was that the multitude of young, bewildered and well-behaved Poles looked on bemused at the mass of pogoing punks churning up the front of the stage. But once the bouncers moved in and began hauling out pogoers at random, De Zerter managed to unite the crowd against adversity by launching off into a final ironic song - “Ask a policeman”.
“For the first time I know peace” - marvels a stray punk who has smuggled himself into one of the high class hotels into which the festival groups have been booked. “This is the first time I feel I do not have to worry about anything. The first place I have been where there are no shortages. For once I feel I can relax”.
More generally punks no longer make any pretence at grasping after the unattainable. On the contrary, they've exteriorized their state of mind and the hopelessness of their situation into their dress and demeanour. Thus one group used to annouce itself: “We formed three years before the end of the world. We have no success, no gear, no plans, no future...”
And another, Brygada Kryzys, once Poland's best known punk group, used to turn up at concerts with the little equipment they had, leaving it to providence and the initiative of the clubs in hustling up instruments and PAs whether they played that night or not.
“They just didn't care”, despairs Warsaw Third's most popular DJ Piotr Kaczkowski, often described as Poland's John Peel, a muso wounded by the group's apparent lack of pride in their craft.
Perhaps it's because they cared too much...
Poland has always exercised a more tolerant attitude towards the arts than its Eastern neighbours and its practitioners have not been slow to take advantage of this limited freedom. Thus they've built on a tradition of surrealism and heightened realism, fantasy and grotesquerie founded in bizarre Central European folk tales and ghost stories, using such forms to deal with the extraordinary effect on the Polish national psyche of a history of invasions, defeat and heroic resistance.
More so than anywhere else in Europe, Poland is acutely aware of its own past, particularly the most recente past of the Second World War, the subsequent civil war and the destructive Stalinist period. Then, the scars of history don't easily heal, especially not those left by Hitler's attempts to erase Warsaw and other polish cities from the European map. The Poles don't easily forget and nor – quite naturally – do they want to.
Past nightmares recur like acid flashbacks through the writings of Bruno Schulz, who was murdered by the nazis in 1942, the concentration camp stories of Tadeusz Borowski, who survived Auschwitz and Dachau only to kill himself in 1951, the surreal reality of the post-war civil war as recalled in Tadeusz Konwicki's A dream book for our time and Jerzy Andrzejewski's Ashes and diamonds. The themes have persisted through Polish cinema: the films of Wajda, Zulawski, the Polish work of exiles Skolimowski and Polanski.
The past sewn up by literature and film, it is perhaps down to popular music to deal more immediately with the present. Steiner proposes “the poem is a conspiracy in the open air. The counter worlds of language, the rhethric of fantastication, are a critique – probably the only critique that can be made aloud – of political reality”.
I'd update that by suggesting Polish popular music, enriched by strong traditions and radical experiments in other fields of art, best fulfils that function. For, as one pop singer quipped “People haven't got time to read in times of crisis”.
The great gloomy insect eyes of Franz Kafka stare out from both the hansomely serious face of Dariusz Kulda and his more delicately-featured 17-year old sister Kasia, who together make up half of Kontrola W, the best and most contemporary of groups featured at Poznan. Like Kafka's stories, their songs are minutely accurate capsule descriptions of claustrophobia, pinpricks of intense burning light in the prevailing blackness, alleviated by darkly sardonic humour that comes across more in its presentation than content.
“I am cold / I am frightened / What's happening?” queries Dariusz with the unnervingly funny intensity of a David Byrne with, for once, something genuinely worrying on his mind. “I am walking / I am shouting / I am fighting for life!” Though so timid and sweet onstage, his sister supports his vocal with chilling choral effects that hint of desolate expanses outside the warm sanctuary established by the music. Their pared back rythms – thin recoilling bass and nervously itchy guitars – remind one of nothing but the B 52's. But where the B-52's are relentlessly, blindly happy, Kontrola W are morbidly inquisitive. If they are to be trapped in a world they never made, subject to unwritten, ever adaptable laws, they will at least control their own destiny so far as possible by preparing their own defence.
Their coldly splendid garage minimalist reading of K's The Trial, however, isn't a conceptual favourite with the crowd. Fortunately for them the crowd is not a jury, this time no criminal injustice is perpetrated.
Anyway, everybody's dressed for Republika. Masses of teen girls are draped in black and white, their skirts and shirts embroidered with the group's name, Republika stencilled across scarves and chests. No merchandisers cater for these teen dreams, everything is hand-made. The boys, too, are dressed in black and white, just like their heroes.
Always polite and incredibly patient the fans wait, heart in mouth, for a glance at the group, a smile, and an autograph. Like most Eastern European groups, Republika are obliging and unfailingly good natured with their fans, even severely-tested vocalist Grzegorz Cichowski, who is hounded and hunted all over Poland.
On tour his hotel room number invariably slips out, leaving him besieged with phone calls from across the country throughout the night. He has arisen to find fans camped outside in the corrider, tearful and tired, waiting to hand him a rose.
Hardly the stuff of teen idolatry, Grzegorz's looks must rely on a certain weather-beaten appeal. A mess of straw-blond hair flops forward across his face, over emphasising his slightly receding chin.
When performing he stands sideways-on to the audience, pumping away at an upright piano and emotively singing in an appealing slur that sometimes slips into an effective stylistic stutter. As it is evidently not his looks, it must be his songs that have so captured the public imagination; or at least until teen hysteria took over and took of in a momentum of its own. I'm told that he has devised a metaphorical language that immediately touches a nerve, but at the same time can't be too concretely explained.
“The leader is a very intelligent boy who writes songs the youth immediately identifies with”, comments one observer. “Republika's songs reflect the situation and feelings of the people”.
Because they accurately finger the pulse of the people, their reputation has spread rapidly during the past two years until they've reached their presently unassailable position. With no record company to hype their way, Republika's popularity is that rare thing: genuine.
“Here the band has created everything itself”, claims Grzegorz in a matter of fact tone. “Unlike in the West, you haven't got record companies which sign groups and then create mass hysteria around them to sell records. In Poland concerts are the place where real spirit is communicated first. Now after two years without any TV appearances we will release our first LP”.
It is guaranteed to sell out its initial 300.000 pressing. You will hear more about Republika when the LP is translated into English and released here later this year.
Every hour four hunting bugle notes sound mournfully over the air in commemoration, apparently, of the buggler who 500 years ago rose to the ramparts of Cracow to warn the town of a Tartar invasion, only to catch an arrow in his throat. The Poles probably lost that battle, just as they've lost most of their battles through history.
The bugle notes aside, the radio playlist is more democratically decided. Because few records get released in Poland the charts are compiled from listeners' votes. They can choose anything they hear on the radio, from singles to LP tracks to live recordings.
Reflecting the rise of Polish music these past few years the balance of groups in the chart has now tipped in favour of homegrown. That said, Robert Plant's “Moonlight in Samosa” held the number one spot during our visit, but Republika featured strongly with four entries in the top 20.
An interbloc joke goes something like this:
What nationality where Adam and Eve?
Firstly, because they had nothing to wear. Secondly they only had one apple between the two of them. And lastly, they still thought they were in Paradise.
Travelling by bus from Poznan back to Warsaw through lush, fertile land, past catholic shrines to the fallen and religious totems guarding crops, it is difficult to understand why Poland ever suffers from food shortages.
Seeing lone peasants working the soil on hands and knees is one contributory factor. Foreing rake offs – Russian and Western – is another. With such crippling debts to the West, Poland is forced to sell off its best produce for hard currency, leaving Polish shops with shoddy quality goods and workers with little incentive to increase yields.
Add to that the knowledge that 3m card-carrying jobsworths outlawed 10m Solidarity members and it's no small wonder that those in absolute contempt of the system practise a policy of non-cooperation, doing the little necessary to get by.
Many simply don't give a fuck anymore and thus go out to enjoy life to the full, paying off along the way where necessary, even if they find the practice distasteful; why line some avaricious do-right's pockets? But grease money is accepted as the reality necessary to a comfortable life or at the very least to get things done. The ugly consequences of this is the excess profits going to those most willing to work for the yankee dollar – who'll do anything for the yankee dollar.
But what can a man do other than turn to the black market when the best quality goods, including some medicines along with luxuries, are only available through the official Pewex hard currency shops? Dollars buy breathing space, just as illegally buying dollars can deny you it. That many ordinary people will flaunt the law – indeed the state itself all but encourages lawbreaking – creates a prevailing atmosphere of lawless hedonism.
It allows spirits to soar to extraordinary heights that are only matched by the depths of hangover depression the following morning when reality seeps back in.
We must stop meeting like this! One last encounter with the heavy metal group TSA leads me to a table cluttered with empty bottles and soaked with split wine in a Warsaw hotel.
Their vocalist Mariek looks up from his glass grinning manically, his popping eyes full of devil spirit fun.
“Music must be crazy!” he bawls expansively acroos the room. Then, blowing his nose on a banknote he continues: “Music is my pistol – it kills fascists!” and abruptly lapses into a grotesque mime of one pinned to the wall by a hail of musical bullets. “Argh!”
Here in Poland even heavy metal is that much more deadly.