Sunday, November 11, 2007

Touched by the Hand of Gott
Dobry vecher! Guten Abend! Comrades, be upstanding for Kaaaaarel Gotttttt!!!!! To some he's a geriatric crooner who won't retire, but to others he's a heartthrob with a voice of gold.In the 1960s and 70s, Gott was the undisputed pop prince of Mitteleuropa and he's now a Czech institution. If you've never heard of the Gottmeister, here are a few things you should know about him.

Whilst the West was going crazy for Elvis and the Beatles, the entire Eastern Bloc, it seems, was listening to the 'Golden Voice of Prague', Karel Gott. During the Cold War, there wasn't a household between Magdeburg and Vladivostok, which didn't (have to) own at least one of Karel's discs.

Karel Gott: Unafraid of the Kazachok
Dubbed the 'Slavic Sinatra' and 'Elvis of the Moldau', Gott's early oeuvre consisted of upbeat Czech rock 'n' roll, be-bop, smoochy ballads, and covers of Western pop hits. What distinguished Gott from his Western counterparts was his distinctive tenor wail, which he developed whilst an opera student. Gott's vocal skills are best demonstrated in his stirring interpretations of Soviet standards, which make the Red Army Choir's output sound positively half-hearted. His renditions of 'Kalinka' and 'Vltava,' are fantastically evocative, and listening to them, you can almost imagine yourself in Moscow circa 1972, heading down the Leninski Prospect in a Lada, discussing the latest 5-year plan with your pals Dmitri and Alexei.

Privet! Oh, for a revival in 70s Soviet graphic design

As the Eastern Bloc's premier pop sensation, Gott was so valuable to the Czechoslovakian regime (He once joked that his record sales exceeded his country's annual GDP), that in the early 1960s, when he left to live in West Germany, Communist party secretary Gustav Husak sent him a grovelling letter begging him to return. Some years later, in 1985, Gott was finally rewarded for his loyalty by being made Czechoslovakia's 'National Artist,' thus becoming state property.
The pop prince of Prague enjoyed privileges unknown to most CSSR citizens. He was allowed to tour the world, earning heaps of hard currency and a big female following wherever he went. His heart-on-sleeve songs did particularly well in continental Europe, where Schmalz only means cooking fat. Gott was especially popular in that Mecca of taste, West Germany, where he contributed significantly to the repairing of post-war Czech-German relations by getting the Deutsche Hausfrauen mighty hot unter der collar.

Bonny Prinz Karel: Gott seduces West Germany

Gott might have been the central European housewive's choice, but you won't catch many an academic humming his back catalogue. The singer was long the punching bag for the Czech intelligensia, who associated his music with the decline of Czechoslovakian cultural life under Communism. And they had a point: In 1977 Gott signed the government-sponsored anti-Charta, which condemned cultural dissidents Charta 77's protest petition. But it wasn't so much his siding with the regime that upset Czech intellectuals, but his apparent lack of opposition to it. They took the lofty, Theodore Adorno-esque view that Karel's sentimental, apolitical pop music helped the Communist regime maintain power by distracting the Czech people from the grim realities of life under totalitarianism. They don't expect much from light entertainers in the Czech republic, do they? The country's chief librarian-botherer, Milan Kundera, was one of Gott's more notable enemies. In 'The Book of Laughter and Forgetting', Kundera, clearly after a job at the NME, describes Gott's output as 'Music minus thought' which 'reflects the inherent idiocy of human life.'

Milan Kundera: Unlikely to know the words to 'Lady Carnival'
Bah! If it had been up to Kundera, Gott would have been singing atonal masses whilst burning pages from 'Das Kapital'. But who would have serenaded the citizens of the Soviet Bloc with jolly cover versions of 'Delilah' and 'Love Me Tender'? Eh?

Karel did really badly in the Eurovision song contest, and that deserves respect.
In 1968's Grand Prix, Gott represented Austria with the woeful 'Tausend Fenster.' He was awarded nil points by everyone except Spain, whose judges generously gave him 2, possibly because he'd also entered a Spanish song. But then again, this was the year in which Cliff Richard's dreadful 'Congratulations' came second in the contest.

Gott help us: Karel steels himself for a Grand Prix crash

Gott, who is sickeningly multilingual, has recorded songs in English, German, Italian, Russian, French, Spanish, Hungarian, Hebrew, Roma, Croatian, and Polish. He could actually have held his own one-man Eurovision song contest, pitting his own songs against each other.

In 2006, the man who had already been immortalised in wax and honoured with countless awards, opened his own museum cum shrine, a privilege normally reserved for the dead. The wittily named 'Gottland' near Prague, where Gott lived for,ooh, all of about 2 days, offered the visitor a valuable insight into Gott's taste in home furnishings. There was also a large amount of merchandise on sale, including Karel's own-brand wine, 'Charlotta,' named after the daughter he recently sired with his 30-year old wife. And Gott's own Eau de Cologne, an olfactory delight that smelt of 'tobacco, figs, and guitars.'
Sadly, in 2009, Gottland was forced to close, due to 'financial difficulties.'

Gottland: When it comes to selling himself, Gott's no dummy

In April 1976, Gott performed at the opening celebrations of the now-extinct East German parliament building and fun palace, the Palast der Republik.
During the concert, Gott brushed bri-nylon with imperialist singers such as Juliette Greco, and commie fave, Tony Christie. It was also kitted out with interpreter headsets for the audience, handy, had Karel slipped into one of his 6 trillion other languages.

Berlin's now vanished icon of retro-groovy architecture: The Palast der Republik

Gott was a was a hot ticket in the GDR, whose cultural officials carefully ensured that most decent pop acts were prevented from entering the country. In 1987, when Gott performed during the 750th anniversary of Berlin celebrations, there were so many flowers thrown on stage, he had to stop his act so that three people could come up and clear them off. Top that, Justin Bieber!

"Eeeeiiiiiiih! Karel, wir lieben Dich!" The East Germans prepare to rush the show

Gott's album covers have more retro-hip potential than Prague's entire transport system.
Just look at these:

Great, eh?

If he were English, his name would be 'Charles God.'

Gott's best tunes:
1. Trezor. Enthusiastic, manic Czech rock 'n' roll at it's best. Check out the yodelling bits!
2. All the Russki tunes.
3. Tam, Kad Chodi Vtra spat. Ahhhh- aaaahhhhhhh-eeiiiiie!
4. Lady Carnival. A Tom Jones-esque mega-hitovi in the 1970s.
5. Vit. Insanely cheerful.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Missing in Action...........

Got to add these: my favourite Teutonic troublemakers, Rrrrrrammstein, are hereby awarded the Iron Cross for their appearance at the Motor records do in Berlin last year. They performed at the event in full army gear, and better still, womens' army gear. Our Brunhildes from Berlin wore make up and wigs to boot! Double subversion! Ooooh! And what a bunch of stunners they are! In addition, big shout out through the camp tannoy to Private Jamelia for her army-barmy 'See it in a boys eyes' video, in which our lass wears just the right shade of green to get her packed off to Iraq (and you can watch a low quality version of the vid here).
And that's the end of it, troopers, I promise. At ease!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

When pop gets its marching orders.....

This week, I shall be talking about pop stars going into combat. Gear, that is. Military chic is big in the pop world. Musicians from every pop genre seem to have reached for the khakis at some point. Here are just a few of my favourite examples of poppers who have 'done their service,' as it were. Ten 'hup!
We start, rather fittingly in my favourite location, the Balkans, a place where people aren't averse to going to war. Falling into line for us, are soldierly Slovenians Laibach, one arm (but not the right one!) of art collective Neue Slovenische Kunst (NSK). Laibach have made a career out of dressing up in military gear, striking mock-socialist realist poses, and shouting about totalitarianism.

"Ja, ja, jawooohl!" Laibach go into un-PC style overdrive

Laibach have plundered every military style going, from blackshirt chic to leather-chapped Yugoslavian partisan mode. But is the music as martial as the look? Yup. The fanatic foursome have written songs about Tito, Nato, sampled the sound of marching soldiers, and tastefully called a European tour 'Occupied Europe.' They have also covered Status Quo's 'In the Army Now' and re-recorded entire Beatles and Rolling Stones albums inna Teutonic marching band stylee. Their version of 'Get Back' is hilarious. The band, clearly desperate to ruffle a few feathers, were last spotted wearing Heinrich Himmler's cast-offs.

You're in the army now.
Not with that mess on your uniform, you're not! A hundred push-ups for you, soldier!!!

Pop fact: In 1991, NSK declared that it was no longer an art collective, but a state - 'A state in time, a state without territory and national borders. ' Should you fancy an extra nationality, you can purchase an NSK passport here.
Back on the grey shores of the UK, let's extend a firm, authoritarian hand to Throbbing Gristle. Four sonic terrorists from Hull, the Gristle are/were another bunch of artists pretending to be musicians. TG caused a bit of a stir in the late 70s and early 80s, by making an absolute racket, and singing about about topics such as pornography and death camps. The band's chirpy Goebbels-esque slogan was 'Nothing short of Total War.' For their publicity shots, the group posed in army uniforms, which they claimed was a 'subversion of symbols of power and systems of control'. But I reckon they also did it 'cos it looked cool and a bit scary, especially on spooky-eyed front man, Genesis P-Orridge.

Your local neighbourhood watch:
Throbbing Gristle in battle dress mode.

Martial drum rolls? Unlike their Slavic cousins Laibach, TG weren't trying to turn Led Zep's back catalogue into the 'Horst Wessel Lied.' They preferred feedback and weird trumpets. But they did earn some stripes by recording songs entitled 'Discipline', 'The World is a War Film' and 'Weapon Training,' as well as releasing a single in a camouflage slip cover and running around dressed like militant survivalists in their videos.
TG Pop Fact: Before his transformation into a semi-woman, P-Orridge bore an uncanny resemblance to David Bennett, the actor who played Oskar Matzareth, the midget whose screams could shatter glass, in the film 'The Tin Drum.'

General P-Orridge enjoys
some r 'n' r.

Winging our way in a volley of jet fighters over to the USA, and into radically different musical territory, we crash land on, and then apologise profusely to agit-rappers Public Enemy. PE pioneered political rap, and to complement their militant, confrontational lyrics, were accompanied on stage by their paramilitary security force/'dancers' SWI (Security of the First World). Whilst front men Chuck D, Flavour Flav, and Terminator X sported a casual hip-hop look, the SWI donned everything from grey and white camouflage to the central African dictator-meets-cruise ship captain dress of the Nation of Islam (see album 'Apocalypse 91- The Empire Strikes Black'). More recently, the groups unsmiling pretorian guard have been flaunting more modest bullet-proof SWAT-team chic. War dance? Actually, more anti-war: PE wrote 'Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos' about a black man refusing the draft during the Vietnam war.

Party for the right to fight:The SWI in
Farrakhan mode. Note Professor Griff's (fr)
convincing impression of an action man

Pop fact: The Security of the First World were recruited from the Long Island militant activist organisation Unity Force, and headed by Professor Griff, who acted as PE's 'Minister of Information'. Griff is an ex-military policeman, and was fired from PE for his anti-semitic outbursts, leading many to nickname him 'Minister for Propaganda.' After he left the group, just to prove he wasn't as aggressive as people thought he was, he worked briefly as a bounty hunter.
We set our battleship's co-ordinates for the U.K, and hark! What's that I hear? Why, it sounds like the protests of those bleeding-heart pop peaceniks who wear khaki because, well, it's wrong to send young men off to war! My first chosen representatives of this over-populated camp are none other than The Clash. The Clash embraced the army shirt 'n' corporal's hat look with gusto for their 'Combat Rock' album.

Paul Simonon and Joe Strummer get ready for The Call Up

They didn't normally go for entire uniforms (although they sometimes got a bit carried away), instead playing with the odd army garment to add that special something to their rock 'n' roll garb. Although The Clash were anti-war, their soldierly style suggests they weren't averse to benefitting from it's sartorial side-effects.
Music to march to? 'Combat Rock' contains a multitude of references to war, particularly Vietnam. 'Straight to Hell' is about the children born to Vietnamese mothers and American GI fathers, and 'Sean Flynn' was inspired by the war photographer and son of Errol, who was captured and allegedly executed by the Viet Cong in 1971. In fact, there were numerous nods to the battlefield on most Clash albums ('Spanish Bombs', 'Sandanista', 'The Call Up', 'The Dictator' etc, etc.). In fact, the band probably wrote more songs about combat than any other pop group, prior to the birth of the Wu Tang Clan.
Pop fact: I had the privilege of spending my 18th birthday in the company of Joe Strummer. He was shorter than me, and when we were introduced, he said, 'Blimey, they make 'em tall these days, don't they?' Yes, I know. It's not really a pop fact. Or very interesting for that matter.

Next up for inspection is weedy warbler Kate Bush, a highly unlikely army recruit if ever there was one. Bush dressed up in helmet and grease paint for the 'Army Dreamers' video, during which, our heroine, possibly the last person you'd want leading the troops in battle, is blown away, several times.

Private Bush: No General Patton

Kate's song was inspired by war films, but her take on these films certainly sent out mixed messages. This is a quote from an interview she did in the 1970s: "Well, whenever I see the news, it's always the same depressing things. Wars' hostages, and people's arms hanging off with all the tendons hanging out, you know. So I tend not to watch it much. I prefer to go and see a movie or something, where it's all put much more poetically: people getting their heads blown off in slow motion, very beautifully." Er, I thought you were supposed to be anti-war, Kate.

"Lets go to war!"
Frankie and his boys get ready for (chart) combat.
Note unconvincing war 'wounds' sported by Brian 'Nasher' Nash (furthest right).

Our convoy of jeeps reaches it's final destination, in the superficial camp of Pop-Lite, where wearing fatigues is less down to political convictions than a good stylist ("Yeah, its stylish but like, an anti-war statement, too you know?"). The first posers for peace on my list are those cheeky clones, Frankie goes to Hollywood. In 1984, Frankie raided their local army surplus store to kit themselves out for Cold War chant 'Two Tribes.' The video featured Reagan and the Soviet PM engaging in fisticuffs. OK, it is a political song, but I bet FGTH were pleased to get the chance to wear the stuff they wore down at Trade on Top of the Pops.
Old, well-known Frankie pop fact: 'Two Tribes' contains the baffling line 'Sock it to me biscuits yeah!'
Another shiny-buttoned example of a pop singer gone paramilitary is Madonna in her 'American Life' video. Major Madge parades around in Che Guevara and Elvis in Germany style togs, and gets to throw a grenade at a George Bush-alike.

Corporal Ciccone gets ready to
defend 'American Life' from the critics
Models stride down catwalks in camouflage burkahs and necklaces made out of grenades, followed by a boy pretending to be a suicide bomber. Sadly, when the Americans invaded Iraq, Madge deserted her anti-war stance in a moment of bland, 'I'm not anti-anyone' cowardice. Bah! If it was WW2 she'd have been up for a court-marshall!
More recently, the Spice Girls adopted a 40's aviator-Belle look for their first concert, perhaps in order to show that they're like a 'unit, again, yeah?' Or maybe the beginning of the battle of the egos. I'll stop now...
The Spice Girls, appropriately attired, begin their campaign for world domination

Like the occupation of Iraq, this entry could go on much longer than it should, so I have decided to "Halt!" here.
For you dear readers, this entry is over! As John Stewart Mill once said "War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things." No , dear readers, that would be Marilyn Manson wearing a white SS uniform, or Keith Moon dressed as Hitler, or Elton bashin' away at his joanna, dressed up like the leader of a military Junta!
Ten 'hup!

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Serbian Music is Great
I love Serbian music because it is mental. It makes me jump up and down like a madwoman. I love the maniacal keyboard and accordian solos, which sound like someone has pressed the 'own tune' button on an 1980s Casio keyboard and then dropped it into a cement mixer.I love the fact that it is relentlessly upbeat.
I love the Middle Eastern style vocals, the cheap sounding production, and the heavy reliance on reverb. And I love it despite the fact that I can't understand a word of Serbian, and that listening to it makes me the
laughing stock of my family and friends (my brother cruelly calls it 'kebab shop music' ). I am convinced that Serbian music (and I don't mean Goran Bregovic) has yet to enjoy the attention it deserves outside the Balkans.
Here are some of the fellas and ladies whose tunes have recently been sending me hopping around the room like a whirling dervish. They make 'novokompanovana narodna musika' (or NNM as I like to call it), which is updated Serbian folk music, and more contemporary variations on NNM (see Turbofolk).
The styler pictured above left is Saban Saulic (pronounced 'Shaban Shauwlich'), the top selling singer in former Yugoslavia. He is proper old school, and released his first record in the late 1960s. His music ranges from the very traditional - check out 'Na angela licis' and 'Bio Sam Pijanac', the perfect soundtrack to a trek through the mountains of former Yugo land - to the slightly more contemporary - the wistful 'Odlazis Odlazis' is magic . He has a stunner of a voice, and that's why he is the grandaddy of NNM. Pop fact: Saulic wore a toupee until the 90s, when he revealed that he was actually as bald as a coot. Hasn't stopped him shifting units like a don.

Its life Jim: Mile Kitic does 'Blue Steel'
The next chap, pictured above, is neither Marc Almond's dad nor a Trekkie, but Mile Kitic, another singer who seems to have been around for a while - judging by his toons and photos. Another traditionalist then, you might think. Well, not completely. Check out Kitic's 'Policijo' -his very own 'Fuck tha Police' - a storming Balkano-stomp.Great. Other cool numbers are the very oriental 'Lazu me zelene Oci' (Close your eyes and you could be in Istanbul), the retro bop-tastic 'Casa ljubavi' (think a South central European 'Summer Holiday'). And the peculiar Yugo-cod reggae of 'Mala iz novog pazara' is definately also worth a listen. Mile's voice is, in my view, a bit easier to listen to than Saulic's.
Sadly I am a bit short on information about Mile - any biogs in English or German would be gratefully recieved!
Next up is top crooner Dragan Kojic Keba (see pic below). Keba looks like right spiv, but sings like a God. He churns out the same trad folk as Kitic and Saulic, but also often ventures into more poppy territory. He also has a more distinctive voice. Again, finding any info about Keba in a language which I understand is proving tricky. Pictures from his concerts suggest that he is a big hit with the laydeez. Pop fact: In 1995, when the Serbs were puffing their chests out, Keba claimed that the Rolling Stones had 'plagiarised' Serbian music with 'Paint it Black.' I think he might have been one Shljivovitca over the eight. Keba songs worth checking out are 'Manglave Daje' for Greek meets Arab marching band fun, the jolly 'Lilijana, ' and, if you can stand it, the absolutely bonkers 'A Romnije,' which sounds like a Tyrolean mountain band in a car crash with Django Reinhart.

Open or wrapped? Dragan Kojic Keba
Keba also dabbles in Turbofolk, the faster, cruder, urban son of NNM. It is a genre which was much derided for promoting Serb nationalism and Serbian gangsta livin' during the Yugoslav wars. Turbofolk is a source of endless fascination for cultural theorists, and the subject of many a ponderous article. Here is a lengthy, but good entry on Turbofolk in Wikipedia, and radio B92 (Belgrade radio station) producer's definition. Although, as Wikipedia claims, it is not easy to tell where one style ends and the other begins, Turbofolk can perhaps be distinguished from its predecessor by its incorporation of western elements such as electric guitar, and heavier, dance-orientated beats, as well as by the singers themselves, who are generally under 40 (although this is changing).
Which takes us on to one of the high priestess of the genre, Svetlana 'Ceca' Raznatovic (pictured below). Ceca is probably the only Serbian singer to be known in English-speaking countries, and definately for the wrong reasons. Silly old Ceca was married to Arkan, the nasty Serbian paramilitary leader and career criminal who was assassinated in 2000. His wife was subsequently linked to the murder of Serbian PM Zoran Djindjic, and apparently she still has lots of suspect connections with the mafia and the Serbian radical party.
But despite being the pin-up of the Serb nationalist movement, Ceca is probably the most successful female singer in former Yugoslavia, and has fans all over the Balkans, not just Serbia. This may be partly based on her, ahem, aesthetic appeal, partly for political reasons, and possibly also because she's recorded a few good tunes
She has a husky voice, which isn't as strong as Keba's, but nonetheless has its raspy charm. She knows how to do the Serbian waily thing quite well. She has done some lovely versions of Serbian traditional songs such as 'Cipilice,' and I love the ueberfolk of 'Eh Tesko Meni.' She also does the Gypsy thing quite well - listen to 'Za Malo' and 'Nagovori' for brass band Balkania.
Pop fact: Ceca, like many Serbian gangsta molls, has had a lot of plastic surgery. No one image seems to do her surgery justice, so you'll have to make do with a lovely photo of pre- op Ceca with Arkan, when they were a kind of thuggish Posh and Becks, and one of her after her transformation.

Balkans or bust? Above (top): Svetlana 'Ceca' Raznjatovic pictured with cuddly hubby Zjelto 'Arkan' Raznjatovic. (below) Ceca gives Dolly Parton a run for her money.
This lot are my favourites at the moment, but others worth checking out are Dragana Mirkovic, Semsa Suljakovic, and Sinan Sakic. There are, of course thousands more....
If you fancy a taste of Serbian music, try some of these Serb radio stations (select the ones offering 'Narodna Musika'). Radio Naj, Suton Radio, rtv Mega radio, and Radio Okic, are all Turbofabulous. The quality varies greatly, and you're better off listening to stuff in Itunes than using Real Player.
Since discovering Serb music, I have wanted to visit Belgrade, my musical Mecca. So last year, some friends and I went over for New Year's eve. It was bliss. Folk-tastic! Picture it - early evening in Belgrade, and I am at Serbian friend's house. To his horror and amusement, I insist that we watch the annual folk knees-up on the NTV Pink channel. Pink has a shaky reputation, because it churned out Turbofolk during the Yugoslav wars as well as apolitical fluff. The station's un -PC credentials were compounded by the fact that until 2000, it was owned by a supporter of Mira Markovic's (Milosevic's wife) United Left party. Oh dear.

Turbo-tastic: NTV Pink

'For god's sake, put your arm down, you fool!'
Mira Markovic with some hanger-on.
But now, in peacetime, under new ownership, and with Turbofolk losing its dodgy reputation, Pink is a bit like ITV, but trashier. It's festive array of Serb folk stars are a sight to behold. Definately worth the drive from Italy. The women, not one of them a day younger than 40, and averaging at least 55, are trussed up like Christmas turkeys - all exposed flesh, short skirts, cleavage, and thick, thick make up. The men are less flashy, dressed more modestly, a bit like head waiters. The singers crowd the stage, vying for the attention of the camera, clearly in competition with one another, but trying to maintain a facade of friendly cameraderie. It gradually becomes a kind of sing-off, each folk-phenomenon out wailing the other. As they lip-synch (yes, lip-synch) their way through a medley of folk greats, a row of dancers in Yugo-kilts do a kind Serbian Riverdance around them. It lasts for ages, but the singers, being the pros that they are, don't let their forced smiles slip for a moment. Afterwards, reeling in the joy of my first NTV Pink experience, I tuck into a fabulous Balkan spread with my friends, and I ask them how I might receive the channel in Germany. They respond with sighs and raise their eyes collectively heavenwards.

Mutton as Kapama? Dragana Mirkovic

30 minutes later- Cut to Republic square, Belgrade 23.40. My friends and I stand in a huge crowd of New Year's revellers. On stage a man who bears a startling resemblance to Father Christmas belts out tune after tune of jump aroundy modern folk to rapturous applause and screams. He is Luis, one of Serbia's top folksters (and whose music I am unable to find). As we jig around to his tunes, avoiding the firecrackers, the count down begins Tri.... Dva... Jeden!!!!! (I count down in Czech, because its a bit like Serbian - well its Slavic innit?).
Irony of ironies - having raved about the music for the previous week, the following night, my companions and I, who are sharing a flat, are kept awake until 4am by a Turbofolk karaoke night taking place in the bar below us......
Until next week....

The right response to Serbian music