The Impact of Chris Cutler and Rock in Opposition on Czech Rock Music in the Communist Era
From Unearthing The Music
This article, written by Czech musicologist Jan Blüml, was originally published by the Rock Music Studies (Volume 6) journal in August 2019.
- 1 The Impact of Chris Cutler and Rock in Opposition on Czech Rock Music in the Communist Era
- 1.1 Progressive Rock in the Context of Normalization and the Jazz Section
- 1.2 Rock in Opposition and the Czech Rock Scene: The First Visit
- 1.3 Building Alternative Distributional Networks
- 1.4 The Rock Avant-Garde as a Subject of Communist Repression
- 1.5 Conclusion
- 1.6 Acknowledgments
- 1.7 Works Cited
- 1.8 Discography
- 1.9 Notes
The Impact of Chris Cutler and Rock in Opposition on Czech Rock Music in the Communist Era
Progressive rock (especially of British provenance) entered the Czechoslovak popular music scene in the late 1960s, specifically in the era of the rise of so-called normalization, the process initiated by the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops in August 1968, which deepened communist repressive tendencies towards popular music and culture as a whole over the next two decades. The cultural-political normalization trend shaped Czechoslovak musical life in many ways. Among other things, it reduced the concert and recording opportunities of both professional and amateur rock ensembles, thus leading to their dissolution or undesirable changes in their personnel; further, it limited contact with the foreign, especially Anglo-American, music scene (see Vaněk). In December 1968, the organizers of the second Czechoslovak Beat Festival in Prague managed to realize an exceptionally successful concert of the Nice (Emerson), while a year later the group Colosseum presented themselves, somewhat controversially, within the third prestigious International Jazz Festival Prague.1 Yet, to the disappointment of a relatively large local rock community,2 no similar event took place in Czechoslovakia for the next ten years, until the breakthrough visit of Art Bears.
In the spring of 1979, when avant-gardists from the recently-formed and politically-based international circle of Rock in Opposition appeared on the posters of the Prague Jazz Days festival (organized by the Jazz Section), music magazines began to write about the breaking of the information blockade. The subsequent concert brought the first acquaintance with the unknown face of Western music as well as the first contact with the phenomenon of so-called independent music. According to the memories of one of the most prominent representatives of Czech experimental and alternative rock, Mikoláš Chadima (b. 1952), from that moment “it became the fashion to seek and listen to independents” (“Alternative I” 355). Chris Cutler, the drummer of Art Bears and ideologist of Rock in Opposition, enjoyed virtually a cult status among Czechoslovak rock fans (410).
This article explores the impact of Chris Cutler and his conception of “Rock in Opposition” in communist Czechoslovakia, specifically on the Czech music scene. The paper pays special attention to the reception of Rock in Opposition by the official Czech media and rock youth; and further, to the specific ways in which Cutler’s thoughts were spread, as well as the recordings of artists and ensembles close to the Rock in Opposition circle. In this respect, the institution of the Jazz Section as an artistic entity analogous (to a certain degree) to the original conception of Rock in Opposition is closely examined. Finally, the article discusses the issue of the politicization of the Czech rock scene in the middle of the 1980s – a politicization partly, directly or indirectly, inspired by Chris Cutler’s agency.
Progressive Rock in the Context of Normalization and the Jazz Section
To fully understand the context in which Chris Cutler and Art Bears entered the scene in the late 1970s, let us first take a closer look at the responses of official institutions which accompanied British, Anglo-American, or “Western” progressive and experimental rock in Czechoslovakia during the first years of normalization in the first half of the decade. While, for example, more straightforward and aggressive hard rock or heavy rock was categorically condemned by representatives of communist cultural policy, artistically ambitious and intellectual rock streams held a somewhat different, often contradictory position. On the one hand, these forms were also rejected, on the basis of a general opposition to both Anglophone cultural imperialism and the intermediary background embedded in the capitalist system, and in resistance to the allegedly escapist function that such music was supposed to serve. On the other hand, traditional institutions perceived progressive rock to a certain extent as a compromise, or more precisely, as a transitional stage for immature rock fans on the road to discovering the value of serious music; using the words of the Czech composer Čestmír Gregor, “Most of the friends of popular music argue that it can bring youth to an understanding of higher values; most of the supporters of classical music are quietly hoping that it really does” (8). In this sense, progressive rock was partially tolerated – it became the subject of polemical articles in youth magazines,3 occasionally it was given space in the broadcasts of Czechoslovak Radio, and within certain limits it was even published on records. An extraordinary event happened when the main Czechoslovak publisher Supraphon released in a licensed edition the album Close to the Edge by Yes, two years after its original release and under the Czech title Na samém kraji útesu (Diestler). In his review in the only official Czech popular music magazine, Melodie, the prominent journalist Jiří Černý stated in the first line: “a certain part of today’s rock music is actually the serious electric music of tomorrow” (31) – that fact should have been confirmed by the Yes album alone.
When the normalization culture policy attacked rock music and its progressive streams, it was not only through cultural officers and politicians, but also the established pop music protagonists, who, in the interest of maintaining their own careers and professional advantages, accepted the propagandist role with greater or lesser reservations. Such a personality was Karel Gott, an exceptionally successful singer not only in Czechoslovakia and many other countries of the Eastern Bloc, including the Soviet Union, but also in West Germany. A typical example of normalization propaganda, which was often based on a superficial knowledge of the foreign scene, in statements taken out of context or even in fiction, is the interview with Gott “Druhý dech pro štěstí,” published in 1972 in the most read Czech youth magazine, Mladý svět. The singer criticized the British “fashionable progressive wave” and called its audience a very well-organized movement of “undergrounds” (Bartík 28). Further, he condemned its commercial character and alleged false social engagement – to do so he used the example of the band Colosseum: “To equip any underground group means to have a lot of money. Such a group, Colosseum, has thirty-three speakers when performing in the hall. One is worth about a thousand marks ... The organ will come to fourteen or fifteen thousand marks ... Definitely, the shabby proletarians cannot afford this ...” (28). Similarly, the singer attacked Led Zeppelin: “A guitarist from Led Zeppelin bought a castle near London after three years. Where is the hatred of the bourgeoisie now? Where?” (29). Gott demonstrated the asocial and anti-social status of the underground audience mainly through Pink Floyd: “But beautiful songs are there and matter. ... Finally, they will be found even by those underground people who have begun to look for a place in life, who have had their hair cut, found a partner and put themselves into normal work ... and forgotten about Pink Floyd ... really forgotten!” (29). In connection with the visit of the left-wing Art Bears to Czechoslovakia a few years later, a similar type of common communist propaganda, relying on anti-capitalism, criticism of false social engagement and rock hedonism, became irrelevant.
Whereas, in the first half of the seventies, the Czechoslovak rock scene was largely paralyzed by a number of regulatory instruments of communist cultural policy, in the second half of the decade a certain awakening occurred. This was especially due to the newly formed, spontaneous civic initiatives, of which the already mentioned Jazz Section was of fundamental music importance (Kouřil). This institution, constantly balancing on the edge of legality, was established in 1971 under the Union of Musicians of the Czech Socialist Republic by music enthusiasts, with the primary aim of promoting jazz. In the following years, however, under the influence of both generational and political circumstances, it departed from the original jazz focus in favour of promoting “progressive art” of all forms and genres, but with its basic anchorage in avant-garde rock. The fact that at the end of the 1970s the Jazz Section became closely related to Rock in Opposition, headed by Chris Cutler, was not accidental. Both artistic entities shared identical existential assumptions and motives. The slogan used by Cutler’s previous band, Henry Cow, on the occasion of the first concert under the title “Rock in Opposition” in London in March 1978, “The music the record companies don’t want you to hear” (Cutler, “Rock in Opposition”), could have been simply paraphrased for the Jazz Section as: “The music the communist regime doesn’t want you to hear.”
As has been suggested, the Jazz Section was not concerned purely with music. Interestingly, the organization spontaneously evolved in the very direction the founders of Rock in Opposition considered themselves to be going; albeit independently and under the influence of somewhat different (though, at the level of general principles, perhaps only seemingly different) cultural conditions. Chris Cutler recalls discussions during the second Rock in Opposition festival in Milan in April 1979: “Franco Fabbri argued that if we wanted to be effective, we needed to become part of a social movement and not just be a kind of self-protecting club. He proposed that we expand into a broader cultural organisation with actors, other musicians, other types of music, writers, painters, and so on. … However, nothing was resolved, no decisions taken…” (“Rock in Opposition”). The Jazz Section fulfilled the idea of Franco Fabbri, a member of the Italian avant-garde band Stormy Six, entirely.
The basic creative core of the Jazz Section represented a relatively narrow circle of personalities – music journalists, musicians, visual artists, writers and other cultural enthusiasts (approximately 20–30). They worked for the organization in their free time, beyond civilian professions and under very modest technical conditions; for example, at the beginning of the 1970s, the Jazz Section had no office, so administrative activities were handled on benches in parks, cafes, at work, or at home (Kouřil). Yet, during the fifteen years of its existence and despite the permanent administrative obstacles placed by the regime, the institution managed to carry out a number of projects, including the publication of magazines and books and the organizing of concerts, festivals, exhibitions and lectures. The projects usually had a relatively wide social impact, which is illustrated best by the festival Prague Jazz Days, organized from 1974 with attendance reaching ten thousand spectators in the second half of the seventies (“Prague Jazz Days”). Although the Jazz Section was institutionally tied to Prague, where its key activities took place, through a nationwide membership base it influenced cultural life throughout Czechoslovakia. The number of members of the Jazz Section who were regularly informed about the various operations of the institution, in particular through the bulletin Jazz and its various supplements, increased significantly from the mid-1970s. According to the records, there were more than eight thousand direct members of the Jazz Section in total, who enjoyed other benefits resulting from the membership, including records of Czechoslovak, Polish, or East German publishers, the offer of trips to Polish festivals, and discounts on admission to various concerts, lectures, or film showings (Kouřil).
Rock in Opposition and the Czech Rock Scene: The First Visit
The advent of Rock in Opposition in Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s was mediated by the music journalist Josef Vlček (b. 1951), one of the main figures of the Jazz Section’s creative core. It happened during the preparation of the first Czechoslovak rock encyclopaedia, which was supposed to fill the information vacuum in the area of contemporary streams of popular music artificially maintained by the normalization regime. Vlček asked for data from selected foreign, especially British artists whose addresses were published in the New Musical Express magazine.4 Only Chris Cutler responded. Consequently, collaboration between Vlček and Cutler developed in several ways – artistic as well as political.
Josef Vlček was a representative of the generation of rock fans still strongly inspired by ideas of the late sixties about rock as the “avant-garde for the 21st century” (Dědek and Vlček 90). Vlček associated such ideas mostly with Cutler’s avant-garde ensemble Henry Cow, and through Jazz Section publications he systematically educated the domestic audience this way. From the suggestive essays by Josef Vlček readers often got the impression that Henry Cow was “the most famous band in the UK.” Nonetheless, later, closer contact with Chris Cutler and Rock in Opposition showed the opposite, to their surprise (Dědek and Vlček 90). At the end of the seventies, Vlček himself did not, in his own words, make an illusion of the exaggerated commercial success of the founders of Rock in Opposition. However, the degree of artistic importance he ascribed to Henry Cow is well illustrated by representative passages in his pioneering encyclopaedia, published by the Jazz Section in three volumes in 1982–1984 under the title Rock 2000. The ensemble is introduced as one of the most important groups in rock history in general (Vlček 462–63).
Chris Cutler’s interest in the Czechoslovak scene, as well as organizational and distribution activities of the Jazz Section, resulted in his visit with Art Bears to Prague during a tour of continental Europe in 1979, and a performance at the eighth Prague Jazz Days. Cutler presented himself in two concerts: on May 25 with only the guitarist Fred Frith, and on the following day with a complete band, which consisted of Cutler (drums), Frith (guitar, bass guitar, vocals, piano), Dagmar Krause (vocals), with guest players Peter Blegvad (guitar, bass guitar, vocals) and Marc Hollander (organ, bass clarinet, saxophone), presenting the repertoire of the first two albums Hopes and Fears (1978) and Winter Songs (1979). Both intensely awaited appearances in the crowded Lucerna hall, with its capacity of more than two thousand spectators, received stormy applause – naturally, partly due to the lack of any live concert by a Western progressive group in Czechoslovakia over the previous ten years. Cutler himself, on account of the unexpected enthusiastic response, judged the event to be his greatest achievement so far (qtd in Chadima “Alternativa I” 468), although he felt a certain disappointment that the same audience was simultaneously able to appreciate the “light-weight” revival performed by the local Classic Rock’n’Roll Band. According to witnesses, Cutler tried to explain to the uncomprehending organizers that it was decadent music, opium, and the reason why he himself started to play to protest (Kouřil 163).
Away from the stormy events in the hall, the first performance, especially, with free improvisations by Cutler and Frith based on manipulations with prepared instruments and noise,5 was actually given a controversial reception. Reviews in the official media expressed a rather reserved attitude. In the weekly publication for policy, culture, and economy, Tvorba, the journalist Jan Rejžek stated: “Whatever we expected from the English couple of Frith-Cutler, many listeners froze while confronted with their creations. Only energetic photographers were hanging over Frith’s magic table, pushing their lenses under his fingers as if he was making gold. What was it, actually? Fata Morgana? Madness? Anti-music? Metajazz?” (Rejžek 307). Particularly enthusiastic was part of the young audience fully identified with the progressive artistic program constantly endorsed by the Jazz Section and its leaders. It also included the aforementioned musician Mikoláš Chadima, who remembers the concert suggestively as follows: "Smashing. It was the first time I saw Cutler playing drums. The way he moved and the relaxation with which he played… it was fascinating. Within a few minutes, the conception of an ideal drummer materialized in me. Fred stretched ropes through the guitar strings, and the sounds that made it through their great equipment (compared to our standards) all together cut our flesh, ears, and bones. No one could escape it. However, the music did not seem as important as their approach to it. I realized how much we were limited by everything around us and how difficult it was for us (though not impossible) to play from our nature. ... Now the Englishmen played and the audience shouted, “We are Europe, too!” There was no end to the applause and the duo decided to play an encore." (“Alternativa I” 297–98)
As far as the approach mentioned by Chadima is concerned, it was, especially, the open, public manifestation of creative freedom and independence, unseen within the official Czechoslovak popular music scene of at least the previous ten years. If local rock groups at that time labelled themselves as “independent,” then this status often indicated only the fact that the band decided not to undertake a commission examination (so-called re-qualification) that would enable it to enter professional musical life, with entitlement to a standard fee as well as the services of state art agencies (Blüml, “Státní kulturní politika” 43–56). The visit of respected musicians from the West, however, legitimized “independence” in the artistic as well as ideological sense. According to many witnesses, the subsequent explosion of interest in experimental rock even featured the traits of a fashion: “After the Art Bears show, and the enthusiastic advertising campaign by the Jazz Section focused on both Art Bears and other alternative music, an unprecedented wave of interest in unusual bands emerged. Snobs who did not want to look like stupid, of course, could not be missing” (Chadima “Alternativa I” 322). A few years later, in 1983, when French avant-garde band Art Zoyd also appeared in Czechoslovakia, music magazines were writing about “hopelessly sold out performances” – the source of increased interest, according to one of the reviewers, was: "100 percent excellent music, 20 percent non-official advertising, 10 percent exoticism, and 5 percent Czech snobbery" (Müller 301).
Building Alternative Distributional Networks
Since 1979, Chris Cutler has been returning to Czechoslovakia regularly, not only because of new friends, but also in an effort to find interesting music projects for his independent label Recommended Records, and with the general aim of supporting collaboration between diverse avant-garde based social and institutional entities operating beyond the dominant corporate or state ideologies. On the Prague experimental rock scene, Cutler was particularly excited by the band Kilhets, which existed between 1978 and 1980, and which, among other things, followed the avant-garde traditions of Western music, especially American, from John Cage and Frank Zappa to the Residents. Kilhets were characterized by free improvisation, the alternative use of musical instruments, the self-creation of musical instruments, working with noise, the accent on the artist’s anonymity as well as active audience participation, or multimedia conception.6 Although Kilhets did not become part of the Recommended Records catalogue, the electroacoustic opera, Raab the Harlot, by Czech composer Jaroslav Krček was released by the label in 1986, primarily on the recommendation of Petr Křečan, the drummer of Kilhets. The opera was originally recorded in 1970–71, however, like many other avant-garde works, it had been ignored by official Czechoslovak publishers, and only received a domestic release on the Panton label in 1989.
Later in the 1980s, Cutler also distributed an album by the Czech underground band the Plastic People of the Universe, Midnight Mouse, which was published by the Dutch sublabel of Recommended Records, Freedonia Records, in 1987.7 The British musician and activist promoted Czechoslovakian avant-garde rock abroad through concerts, too. Together with Tim Hodgkinson and Mick Hobbs from the Work, Cutler introduced the conceptual project Velkoměsto (1979–80) of Mikoláš Chadima and his group Extempore in London in the spring of 1981. The project, whose premiere in the Three Steps club included Chadima himself as singer and guitarist,8 had formerly been recommended by Cutler to British independent label Rough Trade. Although the Prague band had already prepared a recording,9 and under dramatic circumstances managed (with the help of Art Zoyd performing in Eastern Germany at that time) to transport the tape to England, its release was cancelled due to technical reasons in 1982 (Chadima “Alternativa I” 524–25).
Regarding Cutler’s music-publishing activities, it should be added that these became sources of inspiration for certain Czechoslovak musicians who tried, as far as possible, to build independent distribution networks for interesting experimental music themselves. Such a trend started, in particular, along with the emergence of compact audio cassettes as the key technology primarily responsible for the unprecedented boom in the Czechoslovak alternative rock scene in the early 1980s.10
The history of the public use of magnetic tape recording technology in Czechoslovakia began in the mid-1950s. The decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia of May 7, 1954 was to produce reel-to-reel tape recorders for the public for the first time; shortly before, the Law on Recording Devices, which considered unauthorized ownership of recorders as a criminal offence, had been liberalized (for details, see “Magnetofony Tesla”). Although the production of the first Czechoslovak compact cassette recorder, the Tesla A3, commenced in 1968 – only a few years after Philips had launched the technology in question – due to the high prices and lower sound quality of domestic devices (or devices imported from East Germany and Poland), compact cassettes became the major determining force of local musical life only about ten years later11 in the phenomenon known today as the “cassette underground” (Ferenc 11).
The unofficial distribution of music on reels, and later on compact cassettes, which supplemented the official musical selection available on LPs – with very limited overlapping with the contemporary rock offered by the Czechoslovak state monopoly publishers Supraphon, Panton and Opus (see Balák and Kytnar; also Diestler) – evolved in two ways during the era of normalization. First, such an activity was understood mainly as a political act of spreading inaccessible or forbidden information of any kind. In this respect, the activist Petr Cibulka deserves attention. His unofficial label S.T.C.V. (“Samizdat Tapes Cassettes and Videos”) distributed more than five hundred titles by various performers in various styles and genres nationally before 1989. In his catalogue, for instance, there were the criminalized representatives of the Czech underground, the Plastic People of the Universe, further representatives of alternative rock from the circle of the Jazz Section, other bands coming from the punk rock or new wave scenes, and protest singer-songwriters – both domestic ones and those living in exile. It was also the S.T.C.V. label which distributed the available recordings of Rock in Opposition bands, including the recording of the aforementioned live concert of Art Zoyd in Brno in 1983 and a recording of their colleagues Etron Fou Leloublan from a live concert in Prague a year later. The cassettes stuffed in bags that Cibulka regularly and personally disseminated across Czechoslovak towns and cities often included accompanying information: musicians’ names and contact details; identification of the recording, including the number and the edition (mostly the C.A.N.O.S. edition, i.e. “Czechoslovak authentic non-commercial scene”); and where and with what technology the recording was made and reproduced. The exact number of copies of each title is not known today, and as Jiří Andrs asserts, “due to its quantity and bustling distribution, it will probably never be discovered” (Andrs “PLAY, REC, REW” 110).
If Cibulka’s label S.T.C.V. published and disseminated music in the name of general enlightenment, regardless of actual aesthetics or even consent to its use from the authors themselves, Fist Records, founded around 1981 by Mikoláš Chadima, emphasized the status of cassettes as both musical and visual artistic artefacts with a distinct trace of the producer’s individuality – artefacts which could compete with the technically inaccessible concept of LPs. Obviously, Cutler’s Recommended Records served as an important source of inspiration to those Czech musicians who, in the 1970s, copied music on reels or cassettes, mostly unsystematically, just for their friends as a transcription of live performances or as a demo from the practice room. By 1989, Fist Records had released 58 titles with a focus on the Prague alternative scene related to the Jazz Section and Chadima’s ensembles Extempore and MCH Band. Among the main criteria for choosing a particular piece of music were the overall artistic standard, the technical quality of the recording, and the band’s approval. Sound and production aspects were provided by Chadima himself. The booklets for the cassettes usually included a playlist, the names of the performers and the place where it was recorded, an accompanying text or reprinted review (by the journalist Josef Vlček, for example), and sometimes also song lyrics (Andrs “PLAY, REC, REW” 104). The number of editions of individual titles ranged between 30 and 150 pieces, according to Mikoláš Chadima’s financial situation at the time and the expected financial return on sales. Until its final cancellation in the second half of the eighties, distribution was significantly supported by the Jazz Section, which freely offered the music for sale (Andrs, “Interview”).
The unofficial publishing activities in question gradually inspired a number of individuals and bands even from outside the experimental or alternative rock circles, and the practice became a wider trend of artistic presentation or self-presentation during the 1980s. However, this trend was in permanent conflict with the contemporary legislation, specifically the law on illicit business. It was on this very basis that in 1987 the leaders of the Jazz Section were sentenced to between 8 and 16 months of imprisonment (Kouřil 300–29). The extent to which one of the biggest Czechoslovak political trials involving rock and popular music had been conditioned by the interactions of the Jazz Section with the people in Rock in Opposition will now be discussed.
The Rock Avant-Garde as a Subject of Communist Repression
As mentioned, the first deeper engagement of the Czechoslovak rock scene with the thoughts of Chris Cutler, the influential ideologist of Rock in Opposition and a prominent proponent of a non-Anglo-centric concept of popular music history, occurred on the occasion of his concert with Art Bears at the Prague Jazz Days festival in 1979. The meeting brought a number of inspirational stimuli, and not only regarding purely musical, music organization, or music distribution issues. Significant interaction developed primarily in the political plane, specifically in the form of heated debates on the theory and practice of socialism. They had many aspects and opened minds on both sides.
On the one hand, Cutler’s strongly leftist, anti-capitalist, and anti-western orientation provoked permanent confrontation amongst Czechoslovak youth. On the other hand, it led the people to wider thinking about current social and political issues; the dialogue that local rockers refused to conduct with the regime was easier to accept from a musically related rock hero. In an interview for His Voice magazine in 2018, Cutler refers to visits behind the Iron Curtain as highly educative on both sides, with many myths and romantic ideas being shattered. Specifically, he remembers a meeting with the dissident, writer, and later president Václav Havel:
"I heard about Václav Havel because he was a playwright – and we knew he was being persecuted and that he was in jail. But that was probably all. After our concert they invited us to someone’s home to talk. It was a party, people were sitting and drinking and chatting there, and we were talking to all sorts of individuals about all sorts of things. It looked ... normal. But then all the men were detained, so we understood that what was normal for us and what was normal for them was something different." - (Jonssonová)
Naturally, the subject of controversy between Cutler and Havel was the assessment of the current Anglo-American political representatives, to whom Czechoslovak opposition intellectuals and artists often had a relatively uncritical relationship. This was partly conditioned by international politics and the stark attitude of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan towards the Soviet Union, and partly based on a long, almost symbolic – politically undefined – understanding of the “West” as an ideal “other” world.12
According to Josef Vlček, Cutler soon grasped the negative totalitarian tendencies of the Czechoslovak communist regime. Unlike many of the leaders of the opposition to the regime, however, and given his experience of life in the UK, he was also able to name the positive aspects, whether it was the universal health care system or the virtual non-existence of advertising: “Sometimes I thought he was coming here to take a break from brands such as Nike, Pepsi, and Cadbury. The T-shirt or sneakers without a designer label made him enthusiastic! For him, it was not the comparison of capitalism and socialism, but the free world and dictatorship. However, at the same time, the image of a world that has not yet shrunk into a consumer way of life” (Dědek and Vlček 91).
The educational function of the interactions between Chris Cutler and the Czechoslovak scene had other levels, too. For example, when visiting the United Kingdom in 1981, Mikoláš Chadima was literally shocked by the artistic and living conditions of English independent musicians. In his memoirs, he recalls the poverty, dirt, and public disinterest, which sharply contrasted with the enthusiasm of hundreds of people in the audience at the Art Bears concert in Prague. Naturally, discussions about politics were on the daily program during his stay in London. In this respect, Chadima remembers a typical drive around the BBC building at which the British musicians pointed with resentment: “If they only knew for how many people behind the curtain this radio station represents the only connection with the world, I thought bitterly” (“Alternativa I” 448).
At the beginning of this article, the role of rock journalist Josef Vlček, who invited Chris Cutler and Art Bears to Czechoslovakia, and who together with the Jazz Section organized their extraordinarily successful concert at the Prague Jazz Days festival, was mentioned. Josef Vlček was inspired by the ideas and programmatic approach of Rock in Opposition to such a degree that soon after his personal meeting with Art Bears he wrote his own manifesto, valid for the domestic scene. The manifesto was titled “Tasks of Czech Alternative Music,” and the Jazz Section published it on the occasion of the next Prague Jazz Days in the autumn of 1979. The manifesto contained twenty-one brief points, many of which were controversial both artistically and politically.
As far as the artistic level was concerned, in several points Josef Vlček formulated the opinion shared by the young generation of rock avant-garde musicians, which set itself against the “outdated” and commercialised concept of the progressive rock or jazz rock of the early seventies, and which rehabilitated amateurism as a desirable source of artistic authenticity. In point nineteen, for example, Vlček ironically states: “The synthesiser is not the only source of electric sound”, while elsewhere he says: “There is no need for a graduate diploma from a conservatory” (qtd. in Hrabalík). For the future fate of all the protagonists involved, however, the political character of the manifesto was of utmost importance. Discussions with Chris Cutler from the previous few months, related, for instance, to the background of Henry Cow’s break with Virgin Records and to the general functioning of the British culture industry regarding the progressive rock scene, resonated even in the first point, which says: “There is no difference between the ways young talent is manipulated anywhere in the world. Everywhere, it is subject to the structures on which the system stands. Either business or ideological” (qtd. in Hrabalík). The radical attitude of Rock in Opposition also inspired the following line, which finally became – in the context of communist cultural policy – a form of anti-state provocation. It says: “The artistic norms of our media devoted to the entertainment industry are a poorly masked cover for favouritism, alibism, corruption, restrictions, conservatism, and non-dynamic applications of dialectical materialism” (qtd. in Hrabalík).
According to a prominent member of the Jazz Section, Vladimír Kouřil, Josef Vlček’s manifesto became one of the main reasons for the gradual liquidation of the Jazz Section, which culminated in the already mentioned trial in the middle of the 1980s (Kouřil 166). As reported by the journalist Honza Dědek, the radicalization of the Jazz Section had already reached its limit by the time of the spring concert of Art Bears, which was carried out with the financial contribution of the British Council and with a series of evasive manoeuvres. The fact that the group visited Czechoslovakia without the knowledge of the main state art agency Pragokoncert, which was exclusively entrusted with international affairs and with a direct link to the Ministry of Culture, was due to the fact that the Jazz Section presented the foreign musicians as its own amateur ensemble. As Josef Vlček explains it: “The people in charge of allowing concerts, fortunately, did not understand music much, so that before they realized that it was not an amateur group, Cutler and Frith were already away” (Dědek and Vlček 100).
The formation of the domestic alternative scene as well as the influence of Rock in Opposition in Czechoslovakia culminated in 1980 when the Jazz Section was preparing the 10th Prague Jazz Days festival. The program promised unusually rich foreign representation. Among the guests were French avant-gardists Art Zoyd and Etron Fou Leloublan, Sweden’s Samla Mammas Manna, Britain’s Feminist Improvising Group, This Heat, and the Marx Brothers with Chris Cutler. Unfortunately, at the last moment the festival had to be cancelled due to bureaucratic obstruction by the Prague National Committee, and using the argument of “inadequate political and ideological orientation and insufficient political guarantees on the part of the organizer” (Kouřil 178).
Although, thanks to Chris Cutler especially, the Czechoslovak scene witnessed a relatively strong leftist trend, to the point that young rockers even started playing “idealistic leftists to show that they are ‘in’” (Chadima “Alternativa I” 467), the supremely conservative and dogmatic local communist regime maintained the old repressive strategy towards any cultural import from the West which might have evoked whatever social response among young people. In this respect, the Czechoslovak regime’s cultural policy differed from that of neighbouring East Germany, which Cutler also frequently visited at that time, but which was – with regard to his socialist ideas of “political music” – officially much more accommodating.
Despite previous experience, in 1982 the Jazz Section tried to organize the 11th Prague Jazz Days. Again, the festival was cancelled at the last moment, though major foreign guests This Heat did manage to perform during a spontaneous illegal concert at the Junior Club in Chmelnice. As early as 1980, the Jazz bulletin, by then almost entirely dedicated to contemporary avant-garde rock,13 came to an end under the growing political pressure. Further, the album Eskimo (1979) by American band the Residents, recommended to the Jazz Section’s edition catalogue by Cutler, was not permitted to be released. The same fate befell the planned releases of Art Bears and other Rock in Opposition bands (Dědek and Vlček 101). Similarly, in 1984, the Czech edition of Cutler’s collection of essays File Under Popular had to be cancelled. The book was shortly thereafter issued in English by November Books with Cutler’s dedication to the Jazz Section and Josef Vlček – “the sine qua non of its publication” (Cutler “File Under Popular” 8).
The report of the National Security Corps in 1985 stated that: "In cooperation with the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Finance, the People’s Control Committee, and other authorities, there was a wide complex of preventive decomposing measures realized with the aim of decomposing the hostile activity of the Jazz Section." (“Proces”)
The resistance of a group of activists centred round avant-garde rock music was finally broken down by the criminalization of the Jazz Section’s top leaders in the already mentioned manufactured lawsuit in 1987. The concept of “Rock in Opposition” was fulfilled with all the ultimate consequences.
We can say that the interaction between Rock in Opposition’s key protagonists and the Czech avant-garde and alternative rock scene, represented by the Jazz Section, at the turn of the 1970s and 1980s, shows a number of interesting moments. Certainly, a lot of Czech musicians took works by foreign guests and role-models as a new source of stylistic inspiration; furthermore, for many of them it brought much-needed legitimization of their own free- minded creative quest, which often, independently and spontaneously, led to relatively similar output; as a good example, one may suggest the aforementioned group Kilhets.
Although the practice of the unofficial (or illegal) distribution of music in communist Czechoslovakia had already functioned earlier (especially in connection with the politically repressed sphere of the so-called underground), a relatively wide public response to Chris Cutler and his activities in this field undoubtedly contributed to the further development of alternative music distribution channels, emphasizing the artistic aspect in contrast to the usual political-educational priority.
Apart from the aesthetic or musical-organizational inspiration that Chris Cutler and other musicians from the Rock in Opposition circle brought to Czechoslovakia, the issue of artistic dialogue “through the Iron Curtain” as such is a matter of particular interest today, especially in the light of increasing tendencies towards the revision of post-communist music (but not only music) historiography (see Blüml “Popular Music”). It is noteworthy that around the same time, both in the UK and communist Czechoslovakia (and also other European countries), we register the emergence of relatively similar civic-artistic initiatives; initiatives originating from different socio-economic or socio-cultural conditions, which, despite the geopolitical barriers, finally met and, in mutual dialogue, even found a number of unexpected common denominators.
At the end of 2018, the long-awaited second volume of Mikoláš Chadima’s memoirs, reflecting Czech culture from the eighties to the present, was published. With regard to the current article, it is remarkable how much the author, when assessing the current state of society, culture, and music in the post-communist heart of Europe, returns to discussions with Chris Cutler. Remarkable also, and for many controversial, is the extent of his approval of Cutler’s original radical views – approval based on Chadima’s disillusion with the advent of capitalism and the development of society since 1989. In the final part of the book, Chadima summarizes:
"We didn’t use to believe Chris Cutler’s arguments that getting the sack from work, the bankruptcy of companies, unemployment, existential insecurity, criminality, increasing social and civic inequality, and ubiquitous corruption can make freedom and democracy words with no content. How stupid was the regime under the leadership of the Communist Party, which proclaimed the right to work, and did not understand that loans, repayments, fear of losing one’s job, of the executor, and of life on the street would keep citizens in obedience far more effectively than bullying by the secret police or the threat of imprisonment." (Alternativa II 648–49)
The frequency of his quoting the British musician almost forty years after their first meeting, together with quotes from the case-file kept by the state police about Chadima and Cutler’s co-operation (Alternativa II 616–18), confirms the impact that one of the major representatives of Rock in Opposition had in Czechoslovakia.
This study was supported by the Faculty of Arts, Palacký University Olomouc, and its FPVC2016/01 project “Stylová, žánrová a kulturní analýza české pop music v období šedesátých až osmdesátých let 20. století.”
- Andrs, Jiří. “Rozhovor s Mikolášem Chadimou 22. 3. 2016.” Unpublished transcript of the interview provided to the author of the study.
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- Chadima, Mikoláš. Alternativa 1: od rekvalifikací k nové vlně se starým obsahem (svědectví o českém rocku sedmdesátých let). Galén, 2015.
- ---. Alternativa 2: od “Nové” vlny se starým obsahem k Velké listopadové sametové restauraci. Galén, 2018.
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- Cutler, Chris. File Under Popular: Theoretical and Critical Writings on Music. November Books, 1984.
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- Extempore, Velkoměsto [The City], Black Point Music 2001.
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- Interestingly, strong generational tension between supporters of jazz and rock accompanied the concert. While the young rock audience became enthusiastic, supporters of older musical forms (jazz, traditional popular music, and also serious music), who had the exclusive right to decide on issues of musical life within the institutional framework of the conservative cultural policy of normalization in the coming years, were disillusioned. The influential musicologist Josef Bajer stated in his review: “Just when this five-member but extremely noisy band came out, I realized how great, really artistic, good jazz is compared to what the rock ensemble can offer” (qtd. in Blüml, Progresivní rock 243).
- According to sociological research from 1973, 37 percent of listeners preferred rock. To put that into perspective: serious music stagnated at the level of 25 percent positive attitudes, while traditional pop music (folk music and its modern derivatives) as well as modern pop music (“contemporary song production, influenced by jazz elements and new dance rhythms”) each reached about 60 percent (Kotek 397–400).
- Especially in connection with the concept of so-called classical rock, which was successfully developed on the Czechoslovak scene of the seventies by the band Collegium Musicum. For details, see Jaslovský.
- Czechoslovak journalists usually managed to order English magazines such as New Musical Express and Melody Maker from abroad; some of the magazines were available in local libraries, even at the time of the hardest normalization (Dědek and Vlček 91).
- The concert is available on the album Live in Prague and Washington (Recommended Records, 1983).
- In 2008, a set of six concerts KILHETS: Complete 30th Anniversary Edition was released by Black Point Music.
- Cutler established Freedonia Records especially for the release of Midnight Mouse. The company was registered under the name of Cutler’s friend in the Netherlands, thereby protecting the musician against potential repression by the Czechoslovak authorities (for example, refusing him a visa for the next visit) for supporting a controversial group systematically blamed for anti-state activities (Riedel 324–25).
- The fact that Chadima was unexpectedly given permission to travel to London was understood by the musician as an unofficial offer to emigrate (Drda).
- The complete recording of the program was released by Black Point music in 2001.
- The compact cassettes, their catalogues and other documents are now stored in the Libri prohibiti Library in Prague.
- The wider use of compact cassettes, according to Mikoláš Chadima, was initiated by the arrival of the Walkman (Andrs, “Interview”), which local company Tesla only began to produce in 1985. In Czechoslovakia, however, the Walkman and other contemporary Western audio electronic technologies were available in a limited number even earlier, thanks to local foreign trade company Tuzex, as well as the unofficial routes of “black marketeers,” etc.
- In the nineties, Cutler was “shocked” by the fact that the new government of the Czech Republic supported the bombing of Yugoslavia led by the United States, and understood this decision, or the “loyalty” it displayed to the United States, as just the “exchange of one coercion for another” (Jonssonová).
- The last double-issue, 27/28 with 144 pages, included translations of the lyrics from the last Art Bears album The World as It Is Today, as well as an extensive article by Josef Vlček discussing the main representatives of Rock in Opposition and the key ideas of the movement. The complete Jazz bulletin is freely available on the website of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague: http://jazz.ustrcr.cz/docs.html