Hungarian Rhapsody and Other Magyar Melodies
From Unearthing The Music
In 1980, writing for the New Musical Express, Chris Bohn travelled to Czechoslovakia and Hungary in a “Journey through the Curtain to the Forbidden Zones of Eastern Rock”, and wrote a two-part piece called “Trans Europe Express”. This is the second part, dedicated to the Hungarian scene, and it was originally featured in NME's 10th January 1981 edition. Reprinted with the permission of Time Inc. Special thanks to Keiko Yoshida and Chris Bohn.
HUNGARIAN RHAPSODY AND OTHER MAGYAR MELODIES
“We cannot accept texts which express no perspectives, only nihilism, aggression and cruelty from musicians who address themselves to teenagers and under sixteens.” – State record company
STRANDED IN a suburb on the outskirts of Budapest, a bunch of the disappointed kids crowd the front of the recreation hall. Though so far away from home, the situation of the moment is depressingly familiar: a sold out concert, hefty bouncers on the door and a long, suspenseful wait while someone checks that you really are on the guest list.
Two strategically parked squad cars ensure no one is about to take matters into their own hands, and just to make doubly sure, half a dozen policemen mingle in the crowd, some with their nightsticks drawn. But they won’t be needing them tonight, as the kids look more dejected than angry or even frustrated, even though this is their favourite band Beatrice’s first concert in the city for three months. Finally allowed in, we’re confronted by the strange sight of a raggedy four piece all pushing 30: curly, rattish hair falling to their shoulders, balding heads and gringo moustaches seem defiantly at odds with their status as the most popular punk band in Hungary. But it’s their music and not their looks that has won them their reputation. For some, their unlikely alloy of pogo, boogie and homespun folky melodies is akin to voting punk by proxy, but to most of this audience they’re loved in their own right. Then, they do work hard at getting a healthy response with a series of clap along tunes that are closer to Slade’s community chants than Sham’s earthier terrace rants.
They also know the value of a gimmick and theirs is the red polka dot neckerchiefs tied to their wrists or around their throats, and most everyone of the predominantly pre-20s crowd has at least one. The kids are really enjoying themselves, responding eagerly to Beatrice’s all-join-in invitations. In between numbers, some yell for Sex Pistol songs, but the most consistent chant goes “RA-MONES RA-MONES!” The band tease them for a while by ignoring the requests before finally appeasing their appetite for blitzkrieg bopping. Midway through, an influx of new faces breathlessly work their way to the front of the stage. Apparently the police benevolently ordered the bouncers to let in the ticketless kids waiting outside…
And thus ends happily my one and only real concert experience during 12 days spent in two of Europe’s capitals.
IT IS not just the winter sun illuminating the bright and breezy wide streets of Budapest that relieves a traveller of the melancholic impressions left by Prague’s seductively gloomy, winding alleys. The atmosphere of Hungary’s one major city is noticeably freer and consequently it is a popular holiday spot for people in their neighbouring Warsaw Pact countries.
The citizens of Budapest are both wealthier and better dressed than their counterparts in East Berlin or Prague (in fact it’s difficult to distinguish the locals from Western tourists). Nevertheless the street-hustlers easily pick you out and they openly approach you to change money; which is hardly surprising really, when the “tourists” shops containing sought-after buys will only take “hard” western currency, in effect making them off-limits to Hungary’s own citizens (such off-limits shops can be found throughout the Warsaw Pact).
The subways leading down from the station into the town centre are lined with gypsy women hawking baskets and gaudily embroidered cloth, while their menfolk and children offer watches and jewellery to unsuspecting passers-by. Such small enterprises might not be officially recognised, but the government encourages privately run restaurants, small food shops and the like, because they found it difficult to get people to work bad hours for little return, without the incentive of a more direct share in the profits.
In fact, Hungary has made some remarkable economic advances since the war, especially taking into account the lost years of the 1956 revolution when, prompted by Stalin’s death, young intellectuals, students and workers united in a bitter fight for greater freedoms. It was savagely crushed by Soviet troops who re-installed the Kadar regime still in power today. But despite a few hard years following the revolution, the same regime nevertheless cautiously began a slow liberalisation process.
Always sensitive to events at home and abroad, its progress was hampered by the Prague spring of ’68, but set back on course again by the Helsinki Human Rights agreements, dealing with, for instance, more open communications between East and West and greater press freedoms.
Unlike its allies, excluding perhaps Poland, the Hungarians have to date stuck by the latter. Consequently it’s possible to buy papers like the Times, Herald Tribune and naturally, the Morning Star in hotel foyers and at some newsagents. Bookshops carry a greater selection of foreign literature – one I visited had a comprehensive Penguin collection – and more Western movies get shown these days. The topical Norma Rae, an American film about organising a union, was running during my stay.
However, some people think the Polish strikes will mean greater restrictions at home, although the first steps the Hungarian government took to prevent disaffection spreading was to make more “hard” currency available to fill the department stores with Western goods in time for Christmas. But one import that’s still alien to Hungary is the Western concept of marketable youth rebellion.
AS ROCK and roll became more entwined with youth rebellion, patriarchal states like Hungary – whose structures and institutions are geared towards age and experience (check the ages of their polit bureaux etc) – grew increasingly afraid of its potentially disruptive influence on their young. Ironically, points out one observer, the more the white rock revolution embraced leftwing ideals rejecting material values, the less likely it was to win support from Hungarian youth. “Since the Second World War Hungary has tried to build up a country and economy, and only recently has wealth played any real importance in people’s lives” he says. “And you can’t expect a youth who has never had any kind of wealth, or who has never owned a car, to start refusing it”.
“Therefore youth films, beat songs and rock lyrics from the West were quite alien to many people and it took a few years for people here to really understand them. Rock and roll somehow never really had any roots in Hungary, but it’s difficult to work out whether that’s due to a lack of information – because we live in an enclosed society – or just a lack of interest.” Nevertheless, rock and roll has always found an audience.
“Yes,” the same observer continues “There are basically two groups of people sensitive to it: those termed by the authorities as ‘marginal’ youth (who include the chronically unemployed and the grammar school kids posing in the subways) and the marginal intelligentsia, consisting of disaffected intellectuals unable to find suitable work or unwilling to play a part in the system.”
By bracketing the intelligentsia with the vagrants, the authorities might hope to minimize their influence on mainstream thought, but in truth they help create a romantically misleading myth by equating the inhabitants of the subway with the underground. And by way of countering both their homegrown underground and western music, Hungary licenses its own official bands. Being more open than their Warsaw Pact neighbours, these bands are marginally better than, say, Czechoslovakia’s, but there’s not much in it. It’s funny to see Socialist states supporting the kind of musics which represent the worst excesses of materialism at home – megarock and heavy metal bands. One night on TV I saw budding David Byrons bearing their breasts and throwing back their hair in a vulgar display of guitar heroics and ego gratification.
The leader of one band, however, seems to be universally liked – even if his music is loathed. His name is Hobo, of the self-explanatory Hobo Blues Band who, after hearing that the NME was in town, spent the next few days trying to track us down. Lack of time meant we never got to meet, but apparently all he wanted was to give us a picture of himself taken with Allen Ginsberg during the poet’s recent visit to Budapest. Ginsberg has a walk on part in Hungary’s first rock and roll movie Bald-Headed Dog, starring Hobo, thanks to the relentless self-publicising efforts of the singer. However, the release of his first album did throw up a few interesting contradictions. Coming out, naturally, on the government owned label, it was panned by the critic of the city-run Time Out equivalent magazine.
One reader tells me: “I was surprised to hear such a sharp criticism of the LP. The Hobo Blues Band were so warmly cherished by the authorities – probably in order to appease their own bad conscience in their choice of music. But the review earnestly analysed the lyrics and music, pointing out where it was stolen from (John Mayall, Chicken Shack, King Crimson and The Rolling Stones) and ended by saying it was just plain bad.”
Journalists, the reader points out, are usually far more ambiguous in their statements, making you read between the lines to find true meanings. “Hungarians have learned to do this very well – we all know what lending a friendly hand to our socialist brothers means.”
THE MOVIE Bald-Headed Dog is centred on Hobo’s sharing a cave with an eccentric old man, who sometimes provides shelter for homeless youths. Chances are that people will go see it less for the odd story line, or indeed Hobo himself, than for its brief filmed concert appearance by Beatrice. The concert was a massive outdoor event attracting some 20,000 people to an island in the Danube. As most of the bands in Hungary are poorly equipped, it was only made possible by them all pooling their Pas to put a big enough sound system together. The live recording from the subsequent film soundtrack will be Beatrice’s first appearance on record in ten years.
Though they enjoy a semi-official status so far they have adamantly refused to make the compromises necessary to get a contract. Their popularity dictates a demand for one, but the authorities are being equally obdurate in their policy. The record company made their position plain in a statement to the same magazine which tore apart their Hobo release. It says: “The Beatrice case isn’t a problem for use. Here’s a group of talented musicians and as soon as they have prepared their album, the texts of which won’t hurt our social norms, we will go ahead and release one. We have shown them confidence – they figure on our live recordings and their film music will be published soon.”
“Let’s correct a misunderstanding, this isn’t a political disagreement, although most everything inevitably stems back to politics. It is simply this: we cannot accept texts which express no perspectives, only nihilism, aggression and cruelty from musicians who address themselves to a certain part of teenagers and under sixteens.”
“This is NOT a political question of first degree, just a question of responsibility toward the future Hungarian society. We hope that Beatrice understand this. THE RULES OF THE GAME ARE COMPULSORY FOR EVERYONE WHO WANTS TO CONTINUE,” it says, closing with what sounds like a veiled threat (the emphases are ours).
BEATRICE WOULD hardly rattle the walls here with their luke-warm brand of “real” socialist realism, but their hard work has undoubtedly earned them a large following and it’s this that worries the authorities. Indeed their reputation goes beyond Hungary’s borders into Poland and East Germany. But as singer Nagy points out, “Hungary is possibly the only conceivable country in Eastern Europe where a band like us could play overground – even if they won’t publish our words. We wouldn’t have survived anywhere else making social criticisms of certain parts of society.” (That’s not strictly true. Reports from Poland are promising. I’ve heard of countless new wave bands, themselves a development from garage punk bands from Gdansk and Warsaw, many of whom played a large new wave festival last Summer. Apparently the official scene has more credibility, too. Unfortunately, my visa application for Poland was turned down because I was a journalist, but NME will be carrying a report shortly from Mykel Board, who caught the festival.)
Their popularity tied with their survival has aroused suspicions of compromise reached with the authorities, but one associate of the group refutes the allegation with the astute observation that they simply sidestepped the need to go underground. “Some bands want to be underground,” he says. “But Beatrice just continued to play in public places for kids and now they are maybe too popular to ban, as the authorities don’t want any martyrs around. If they had a chance, they wouldn’t have let them play to begin with.”
The band calmly refute any allegations of compromise. “We once refused the chance to record an album, even though there’s great demand for one,” says Nagy. “But they pinpointed six of our songs as unacceptable, so we took a step backwards and refused to make it.” Though they’ve been playing for ten years, they really only took off three months ago, when their music became more punk oriented. Was that a commercial gambit?
“No,” asserts their singer. “It’s just the way the music turned out when we started to write our own songs. They reflect our Hungarian nationality on one hand, and have an affinity with Eastern Europe on the other. They’re mainly based on Hungarian, Slavic melodies and harmonies, while the words refer to certain aspects of reality.” Will Beatrice show “some responsibility toward the future Hungarian society”? Will they play the “compulsory” rules of the State record company game? Watch this space for future developments.
AT BEST Beatrice’s music is great fun, but the music gets better the deeper you dig. And the more underground groups you talk to, the more often the name of Spions crops up. Their leader Gergely Molnár fled to Paris just ahead of the authorities in April ’78, where I find him on my home. His post-Hungarian period history is fascinating enough in itself, but for the present we’ll confine ourselves to his influence on Budapest’s underground of today. A composed and self-assured individual, he speaks English with an engaging Jacques Cousteau accent as he expresses a reluctance to discuss his past. “Hungary is over for me,” he says, dismissing discussion of his flight. “It is better that you talk to the people who are still there.”
I did. They all bring up your name. Why? Well simply because before he threw himself into the shortlived venture of Spions, he lectured students on the likes of Bowie and – later – punk. A keen follower of McLaren’s situationist comedies, he decided to stage a few himself in Budapest, choosing the swastika as the most potent symbol to upset established moral standards. It was a considerably more reckless step in Hungary than here, bearing in mind their past (fighting on Hitler’s side) and present (under Soviet influence) positions. The concerts were challenging experiences, incorporating dance and music, using as themes subjects like Anne Frank’s relationship to her killer.
He chose punk as a violent form of address, he says, “Because there was no way out of the closed intellectual circle I was in at the time. I used to lecture on music because I thought the people really needed it, but now I don’t know - I just look back on that whole period as some kind of madness.”
He continues: “I wanted to make my concerts impossibly difficult to follow so I brought together themes like Nazism, Baader Meinhof and the Russians, making an emblem to represent them all – it was some kind of espionage.” Amoral, to say the least, his dangerous juggling of fascism and bolschevism might seem ill-advised, but he contends it had nothing to do with political convictions. It was all part of a mind cleansing process to rid himself of a “baseless Russian education”.
He says “I wanted to purify myself as completely as I could of any political poison, so that I could feel again… education (in Hungary) is a complete abstraction, we learnt nothing else but a fight with God… we would learn physical laws but because the system was so anti-religious they didn’t connect with anything, they were just left in space.”
He continued the cleansing process for a while in Paris, from where he sensibly decided not to return three years ago. However the impact of his daring performances – not his politics – is still felt today.
A SENSE of helpless despondency pervades some intellectual circles of Budapest. Knowing they have little chance to change a stiflingly “humane” patriarchal system that governs them, realising they would find little popular support, they chose instead to have nothing to do with it. “They don’t have a choice” counters one observer. “They don’t have a chance to refuse their help. There’s a mistrust of the intelligentsia anyway. At all levels of government and bureaucracy people are elected to posts through the party and there are certain people who are inadmissible from these posts – like most of us…”
“Besides, “ adds his friend, “people up there realise that workers and intellectuals feel contempt for each other and play the two sides against each other. Neither really has a say in making the decisions anyway, but the workers don’t expect anything from the intellectuals – they think they’re lazy, and the intellectuals think the workers are unorganised and slow thinking. “Intellectuals have a relatively comfortable life even though they’re in opposition. They don’t really need to establish any relationship with the workers.”
“Things aren’t so bad here, “ takes up the first speaker “so the intellectuals are more reformist in their thinking, rather than revolutionary. There once was a revolution here and it failed… so they prefer slow reform.
ONE NIGHT at a party a group called Balaton (named after Europe’s second largest lake) turn off the sound system, commandeer the kingsize double bed and begin an impromptu performance. Well, not so impromptu, as they’ve brought their slide projectionist with them. Normally electric, this night their two guitarists play acoustically, though most of the attention is centred on vocalist Mihaly. A compulsive performer as capable of commanding attention as Jimmy Pursey, he can similarly exasperate. He talks and talks and… seemingly oblivious to the growing impatience of most people in the room, but he scores some laughs and a few scowls by throwing out half-jibes and ‘thank yous’ to the predominantly intellectual audience for paying him any attention.
Some people credit him with plenty of potential, others say that he hides a lack of it with his quick wits. One fan explains they’ve so far played five concerts under the most adverse of conditions. The first two were awful, the third great and the last two didn’t live up to the middle one. His overlong party piece does have some good moments, where Mihaly’s doleful voice, his guitarist Karoly’s vigorous but careful chordings and the slides combine to create chilling moods that hint at what Balaton’s capable of under better circumstances. And even during the longeurs, Mihaly’s animated, emaciated face, accentuated by tufts of beard, is spellbounding to look at. A melancholic, pessimistic person, he’s none too happy with his lot. He tells me later of the difficulties of working in Budapest.
“We inherited such a difficult, unsafe situation (from the likes of The Spions and other pioneering performance artists) in which many ideas are futile from the beginning, because those who think are not understood by the public or the authorities. But on the other hand we didn’t start making music to make a fortune…”
The best moment of the set comes when they’re jointed by URH guitarist Jeno, whose one song performance is perhaps the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen. Seated, legs crossed, on a low wooden stool, supported by the acapella mouthings of the Balaton pair, his voice barks into a terse rant, which apparently runs along the lines of “Too many police, too few whores” and back to “Too many whores, too few policemen” (The song’s words and emotions are far more complex, but not so easy to translate to paper). By the end he is bent almost double spitting out the words and most everyone in the room is supporting him, either clapping along or providing the bass parts.
After hearing URH’s tapes he turns out to be an equally compelling guitarist. URH music is the best I heard anywhere during my stay in Central Europe. They make wild, swinging music driven by runaway rhythms, barely controlled by some wonderfully furious guitar. It’s all shaped by the ironically maudlin but masculine noise of the choral singing. Led by student film director Peter Muller, they come from mixed working class and intellectual backgrounds. Their lively music cuts dead the lumbering rock of officially supported bands in the same way punk cleared the air here a few years ago.
The authorities have already betrayed signs of interest in URH’s activities. Just before I arrived they were due to play at Budapest’s law school, promoted by its young communist organisation. However, their secretary cancelled the gig, apparently under pressure from college professors. They tried to discredit the band by claiming the initials URH stood for Ultra Radical Bureau or Ultra Reactionary Frequency, although it’s commonly known their name means Ultra Rock Agency. It’s also the code for the police emergency short wave frequency, someone tells me.
The band’s raison d’etre is partly to encounter the reams of misinformation disseminated about rock and roll, hence the name, says guitarist Jeno. “There has never been any precedent for new wave here in Hungary. And we have no proper rock tradition – well, maybe in form but not in content. People here have a very distorted view of it. Thus we try to bring through our lyrics and music and also the kind of life we live the idea of what rock and roll existence really is.” A fan supports his view, adding the following: “The system should realise the need for information from punk rock groups and their kind, but on the other hand they over-estimate them and attribute too much importance to rock, which is the only reason why they fear it. “That’s the paradox of the system” he concludes. “On the one hand they financially support traditional rock music, which is often excessive, and on the other condemn the bands who don’t stand for that sort of thing.”
BY DENYING people access to Western pop, it inevitably appears more attractive and consequently a thriving black market for less accessible records can be found in Budapest, too. But, unlike Prague’s moral guardians, Hungary’s authorities have expressed more sympathy for young consumers forced to pay extortionate prices for albums. Thus there are hopes that the state record label will license more up-to-date records from the West. Already (predictably) The Police’s first album is available, and a proper turntable hit in record stores last winter was Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick In The Wall’. But as one observer points out, fuelling the vinyl needs of their young isn’t the State’s first priority.
Given more Western records, plus Hungary’s part-open door policies to Europe, music must improve – not that aping Western mannerisms guarantees that. The underground has always been strong and individual enough to create their own standards, but ironically the state seems to encourage their official bands to mimic the West’s worst excesses. I mean, why a rock and roll movie, when even supposed experts like Roger Corman have failed to make a good one? Especially when money would be better spent encouraging their film school’s adventurous new directors. Check Gabor Body’s upcoming movie Psyche, starring Udo Kier when it finally gets here.
(The more alert film-makers take an interest in the activities of the underground. For instance I saw a great video one made of a cellar concert featuring the shambolic Galloping Coroners, whose music teeters on that uneasy line between excitement and chaos. The heat of the moment became too much for the band, and their set ended when they broke out fighting…)
From the outside Hungary is the most liberal and advanced state in Central Europe, but comparisons with their neighbours are neither valid nor helpful. Hungarian musicians enjoy greater freedoms than their colleagues in Czechoslovakia, but they’re under no illusions as to who’s holding the leash, no matter how long it gets. The underground still lives under constant threat of the clampdown and the apparatus of secret police, informers and hardline party members is always there, ready to move if necessary. However the authorities have proved reluctant so far to hinder Hungary’s progress to a more humane form of socialism. Perhaps they recognise that latitudes – no matter how tenuous – once experienced are far more difficult to take away.