CZECH IT OUT

I vividly remember coming across this beauty at an Upper East Side thrift store about 15 years ago. At first glance it looked like another classical LP masquerading in a slighty psychedelicised sleeve, the type that all too often get your heart racing before you realize that you haven’t just exhumed a forgotten classic. But then I noticed the magical words ‘Beat Festival’ on the front cover, and when I flipped it over I too almost flipped. What the funk? James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and John Mayal (sic) cover versions recorded live behind the Iron Curtain in 1968! Including those old favourites ‘Coal Swet’ and ‘Fay It Loud’!! Wow!!! I handed over my fifty cents and went about the rest of my day with a faint glow around me.

Music wise there are several highlights lurking amidst what is mainly going-through-the-motions cover versions. The murky garage almost-fuzz of ‘I Don’t Need No Doctor’ is ripe for inclusion on one of those world beat comps. ‘Get Off My Life Woman’ (which should obviously be ‘Get Out Of My Life Woman’ by Allen Toussaint and not Otis Redding as credited) veers off into some perfectly acceptable period wah-wah, and I couldn’t swear on it, but I think I might have heard some feedback too. ‘Coal Swet’ (they meant ‘Cold Sweat’ of course) is, I imagine, about as funky as you could get if you were a bunch of white East Europeans constrained by 60s era Communism. The track is sprinkled with wonderfully incompetent organ noodlings and even comes complete with a ready-to-sample breakdown section.

But saving the best for last, Karel Kahovec a Flamengo close the album and steal the show with a perfectly ridiculous choice of song, ‘Fay It Loud’. I doubt you need me to point out this is really the classic James Brown track ‘Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)’. Somewhat uncannily, the spelling mistake can be read as a sign for what you can expect to hear. The track is so awkward and ungroovy that you can’t help but grin as you struggle along with the band towards the end of the LP. And the way they skillfully maneuver the whole issue of not actually being of African descent – by replacing the words in parentheses from the original title with ‘Na Na Na Na’ – completely obliterates the raison d’etre of the song, leaving you so thrown-off that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the naivety, or marvel at how thoroughly post modern it is.

What I absolutely love about this whole recording though is quite simply the fact that it got made. How hard must it have been to play a rock show in a country where you could end up in prison if you weren’t a State approved ‘official’ band with a license, let alone get in on a live recording of one? And in the Eastern Bloc, where it was next to impossible to find even a banana, how on earth did you go about finding American and British releases to cover or inspire you? How difficult to play were the domestically manufactured guitars? And where the hell did you go for cool rock star clothes and haircuts?

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Endorsed by the authorities, the groups on this record were clearly not rock ‘n’ roll rebels in the usual sense. More like Civil Servants really. But somehow the fact that these performers chose to etch out a career in rock music despite all the cultural obstacles and censorship from Moscow, the fact that they pursued their creative dream rather than bend over and take it from the Communist regime, to me that seems way more punk rock than a lot of punk rock, if you know what I mean. And for that, I salute them.

2 Ceskoslovensky popped my Eastern Bloc cherry and began a love affair with some of the grooviest/wierdist/obscurist beat, psych and prog music committed to wax. There’s a wealth of LPs and 45s well worth tracking down by bands such as Illes, Omega and Hungaria (from Hungary), Czerwone Gitary, Polanie and Trubadurzy (from Poland), George and The Beathovens, The Matadors and Blue Effect (Czechoslovakia), Phoenix and I Mondial (Roumania) and Grupa 220 (Yugoslavia) to name a few. A lot of the stuff is comped or reissued, but a lot more of it isn’t. Scans of many of the fantastic sleeves can be seen in Hans Pokora’s ‘Record Collecting Dreams’ volumes and if you feel like splurging, as I do on occasion, you can often find these LPs on-line. Unfortunately they very, very rarely crop up in the dollar bins – part of the reason why my mono copy of Supraphon 13 0607 is so special. That said, I have actually found a few other similar gems including a couple of great Polish Beat comps that I might write about some other time. But you never forget your first, and for that, 2 Ceskoslovensky Beat Festival will always have a special place in my heart.

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Rock around the Bloc

 

 

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