Don’t Look Back: Zagreb (SR Croatia)

I stand for language. I speak for truth. I shout for history.
I am a cesspool for all the shit to run down in…

Do you want New Wave or do you want the Truth? (Minutemen, 1984)

Vol I: Rock & Pop Music in Zagreb in the 1980s

Disclaimer: These blog-posts (and the skewed point of view they carry) have nothing to do with the members of Pingvinovo potpalublje but with web administrator only. Please, send all your hate mail his way.

***subject to change***

Prljavo kazalište [1977-1980], Zagreb’s first (officially documented, at least) punk-rock band of sorts,  were teenagers from (despised) east end suburb that just about in time accelerated their sloppy Rolling Stones beginnings. They were typical high-school failures that even resembled protagonists from Alan Ford (Italian comic book extremely popular in YU) after which they named the group. Prljavo kazalište also had the very first Croatian “punk” single out in 1978. Both early punk-rock singles and then the 3rd ska single (if they had put reggae tinged number “Neka te ništa ne brine” on b-side it would be a double-sided ska-killer) are pretty OK in my book. I am not very enthusiastic about their albums but looking back they do have few moments of worth scattered on each, more so on s/t than on “Crno bijeli svijet”. Whatever they had in common with punk-rock they lost when the first frontman Davorin Bogović left the band. Too soon Prljavo kazalište went after success and became bland pop-rock institution destined for ex-YU sport halls. A cartoon punk character turned into a caricature – Prljavo kazalište are just an opening paragraph in this long-winded post anyway.

Few years older dudes from mysterious band Loš zvuk (borderline old-school punk-rock /  hard-rock with electric organ) had a lone single put out in 1979 as the only document of their existence. It’s not a bad record (sound) but it could have turned out much better with different vocal approach. Loš zvuk might have heard Iggy Pop / the Stooges before they heard Sex Pistols or the Stranglers. Similarly oriented Noćna smjena was a garage-rock/pub-rock band influenced by the Rolling Stones. “Vrtlog / Stojim na uglu” is pretty cool little single for the fans of the genre, nowadays totally forgotten and very rare.

Klinska pomora [1977-1980] was a wild teen punk band from the other side of town (Novi Zagreb) inclined to excessive behavior. They have never recorded anything to prove their infamous rank. The concerts at the end of their existence allegedly sounded like coherently played punk rock. Members later appeared in other bands of which (beside unavoidable Psihomodo Pop)  La Fortunjeros were most durable. La Fortunjeros boys couldn’t quite decide which way to go through rite of passage – as true punk-rockers (with black leather jackets or skinny ties) or with lies (in theater costumes). La Fortunjeros recorded plenty of demo tracks but only one single was pulled off  through the Jugoton label – an adolescent impersonation of Adam Ant.

Neron reportedly played simple and direct version of punk-rock aiming at physical aspect of concert entertainment (drinking, dancing and having fun) and avoiding intellectual pretensions of slightly older new wave colleagues. Following the replacement of singer and arrival of new players they gradually transformed into one of the Zagreb’s most enduring popular rock bands: Psihomodo Pop. The earliest version of Psihomodo Pop [1982-84], with guitarist Kepeski and saxist Banjeglav in lineup, recorded very good demo/live tracks. By the time of their very late and (from the strict rock perspective) disappointing debut album “Godina zmaja” (= fairly average tribute to the Ramones), Psihomodo pop glamorized, softened and heavily compressed their former art-punk attempts. New wave pop-rock band Heroji* appeared out of nowhere and disappeared without the trace apart from few articles in music newspapers and  few live tracks (“Osuđen na život”, “Zaustavljam vrijeme”, “Šarena strana mjeseca”)  hanging on the internet. Who were these unknown heroes? According to scarce information Heroji played during 1982-83 around Zagreb and participated in YURM festival. For the time being we can pretend that Heroji were fine modern rock band, worth remembering …

New generation of minor league street-punks started to be more visible as late as mid decade. They kept punk boyish scruffy dirty and even fast. For the most part I remain unconvinced (not my cup of tea!) but they had their place in town. Of them all Z.R.M. aka Zona rane masturbacije kept the closest connection to first wave of punk-rock. (Demo ’84 = melodic rudimentary punk with shaky old-school tempo!) Sköl, Excess, Blitzkrieg and Patareni were much more influenced by UK street-punk ’82. In the second half of the 1980s there must have been a lot of basement hard-core punk bands in the city. It would be pointless to list them all since hard-core punk is really not a big deal anyway. Among them you’ll find: Generali (HC with crossover (metal) tendencies – there were couple of decent songs in their repertoire – for example “Crni snijeg”), Patareni (transformed into grind-core pioneers), Motus (HC punks w/ good debut cassette album as a whole) and then again Sköl.

Zagreb spawned good deal of skinny tie late 1970s new/wave power/pop pop/rock bands in Blondie / Boomtown Rats / the Jam / Police vein. I don’t mind Parlament pilfering Police’s image & sound to get attention. Unfortunately, lukewarm debut album smacks of calculated populist move (probably coordinated by the record label) to sell more products. Usual common sins: feeble vocal with nothing important to say  or sing about pushed up in the mix; individual instruments toned down in the mix; youthful energy significantly downplayed etc. Oh, shut up and bang on the drums!! Parlament’s career went downhill faster than they climbed up pop-charts in the first place. Fickle Aerodrom was in principle a band with prog background / mentality that was trying to navigate trendy new-wave airways. The only album worth checking-out, considering proficient playing vs. banality of ideas, would be “Tango Bango”. Middle of the road new-wave pop-rock group Patrola knew the craft of tuneful songwriting and was quite functional live band. Voice of singer Metessi could carry the melody and stir the emotion behind it. Don’t let record cover art turn you off, the album is better than it may look. Not bad at all. After sudden split up Patrola members soon emerged in an average pop-rock group Zvijezde & ill-conceived synth-pop project Tora. Another very polite early 80s pop-rock band (late 60s & country-rock inclined) were Animatori, a type of band that 3 generations in a household could like – even a pious Catholic grandmother would approve of them, which is some kind of sin in itself, of course. Meticulously recorded “Anđeli …” LP works in their favor, especially today. Speaking of innocence, Stidljiva ljubičica, a teen band from a nearby small provincial town Vrbovec, competed for public attention  in and around Zagreb in the early 1980s too. Nicely recorded debut album “Osvrni se na mene” is composed of simple stripped-down songs covering general boy/girl topics.

Power pop idiom was so prevalent in Zagreb in 1980/81 that even arty bands like Haustor got entangled in it (if we take into account pop aspect of self-titled debut).

The cream of this loosely imagined power-pop section was the oldest band (original Azra spin-off from ‘78) & the hardest when it comes to rock – manic Film [1978-1983]. Film was definitive pioneering new wave band from Zagreb. They brought contemporary appearance / simple modern rock sound to town, sticking out of the crowd even more when compared with anachronistic aspects of their peers, for example Azra. Unfortunately, Film tarnished their reputation with many questionable decisions – among them a trip to Sweden to record a quasi art-rock album! But let’s go back to the beginning.  Despite the fact that Film was harbinger of the new and that their local popularity was indisputable, the record companies were late, as it often goes in real life. Everything was in slight delay, starting from abolished debut single by original Azra that consisted of Film members mostly. Too complicated to grasp, I know! Anyway, the excellent first single “Kad si mlad / Zajedno!” (1980) adorned with lovely street themed cover was at least a year late. Unsatisfied with treatment in Suzy, Film  subsequently left the label from their hometown. Once the debut album was finally put out through Slovenian label Helidon it was already 1981. The newness lost its spark. The end result album “Novo! Novo! Novo! Još jučer samo na filmu a sada i u vašoj glavi” was charming but also considerably polished in the studio. Ill-produced by Boris Bele from seminal 70s rockers Buldožer (Slovenia/YU), album only partially delivered promises of Film’s convincing live appearances. Listening to it one doesn’t feel the sheer force of the forward driving rock motion the band was famous for.  Stiff studio sound of the debut was radically improved a few months later on mini-LP “Film u Kulušiću (Live!)” (1981). Film simply became even better live unit when more proficient drummer Ivan Piko Stančić took over la batterie. However, there is an unpleasant rumor circulating around town that not only additional clapping and cheering of the public were added in the studio  but also some extra overdubs. Nevertheless it worked well at the time and it went gold with sales well above over 50,000 copies. At that point Film was nationally established as an energetic upbeat act. Album that followed, fittingly titled “Zona sumraka” (Twilight Zone) (1982), touched upon the darker issues of rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle like drugs, ruined personal relationships, ennui etc. Joie de vivre vibes of the first releases were gone. Failing to deliver a hit-single “Zona sumraka” album was a commercial downfall. Reviews were mixed too. It sounds pretty good to me! It is definitely my favorite studio album by Film. Stančić’s decision to leave the band marked the end of “proper” Film. Prior to his departure, the band went to Sweden and recorded a weird mélange of strangely arranged new wave pop & art-rock. With singer Jura Stublić’s hilarious and hectic rock persona on top of it, “Sva čuda svijeta” (1983) at times sounds psychedelic and “spaced out” and at times outright silly. Stubborn Stublić was always a one-off, resembling a speed freak beatnik/hippie type more than your average punk rocker. Indeed, “Holy Trinity” of the Zagreb New Wave: Azra, Film & Prljavo kazalište were all fronted by intense but peculiar personalities & the output of the bands reflected those personalities pretty well.

Cut-off point for mentioning pop-rock in general would be 1984, after that you get only vapid products of typical 1980s studios or simply garbage.

The most popular of all (new-wave) bands from Zagreb ever was Azra, led by charismatic Branimir Đoni Štulić (a beatnik from Balkans, a barefoot hippie & a rock guitarist in one). Being open to all sorts of stuff I do feel and understand appeal of this band but strictly limited to their most creative period [1979 – 1982] when they were a tight power trio. Cocky frontman Štulić (= bone of contention) was an idiosyncratic dude with overpowering ego. It shows all over their recorded output. Undeniably he had guts, hard-working ethic and remarkable talent as well. Reggae influenced drummer belonged mainly to class ’78 unlike Štulić who was more in ’68 frame of mind (blues-rock, the Beatles). Seemingly accidental bassist with quiet demeanor anchored the band for a while and brought needed stability. Highly charged live energy of Azra’s early concert repertoire should have been translated into raw 4-track garage recording. Surprisingly they tried to capture it with a mellow hippie (oblivious of zeitgeist) behind the console and … never mind, the debut s/t (1980) album certainly got its own specific charm. I grew to appreciate as it is. The follow-up “Sunčana strana ulice” (1981) 2 x LP was praised by rock critics and was extremely well received by public immediately upon release. It has reached canonical status locally and beyond over the time. However, not everybody has been (permanently) impressed. I find most of the acoustic songs underwhelming. There are a couple of trite examples among electric guitar songs too.  The sound quality of the recording (or production job) varies and occasionally it is not quite fitting, especially for hard-driving rock. Similarly bloated “Filigranski pločnici” (1982) 2 x LP sounds good deal heavier (which is good news!) but still there are too many songs for my liking. So, both double (studio) albums put out in succession would be admirable well-rounded single set LPs once cleansed of filler (often pedestrian puns wrapped up in haphazardly sketched songs). Triple (!!!) album “Ravno do dna” (1981) is widely considered as the best one for picking – the essential live overview of the band. Jugoton label spent plenty of vinyl raw material pressing Azra records during intensive period of two years and yet not a single one of them turned out impressive from start to finish; always something hasty, unfinished and incomplete about them. Megalomania and unpleasant aesthetics aside, Azra had a very important redeeming feature – they were genuine rock band on stage. Azra come(s) alive!

When one thinks about Zagreb in the 1980s the name that should cross his (her) mind in the milliseconds should be Haustor. Even band name “Haustor” fits well recalling drab unkempt facades of the faded provincial Austro-Hungarian past & dark damp and smelly “Haus Thüren” (driveways) of the city’s downtown architecture. Haustor was in a certain way also starting point for the arty section of Zagreb’s music scene. Gradually honed out from the hippie/psyche free form collective, Haustor took over the city art scene sometime in late 1979. Their self-titled debut album is to this day one of the best releases  from Zagreb ’81 (and Croatia in general). It’s a fine example of successful art-rock (think of Gong/Roxy Music rather than Genesis/Bowie) & new-wave (reggae slant) cross-pollination that was in the foul city air all those years. According to the witnesses slightly boxed studio recording didn’t quite capture Haustor in full swing. Broadened live repertoire (also a bit boxed and claustrophobic) can be heard on posthumously issued CD album “Ulje je na vodi”. It was recorded on Epiphany Eve, in January ’82 just before band went on a hiatus (JNA). This recording gives additional insight into the nature of the group’s quirky music. Haustor discography was also enriched by excellent 7″ EP “Majmun i mjesec” issued by Jugoton in 1982. Generally speaking, Haustor were at their best with Srđan Sacher (a poet, a bassist and an ethnologist) in a role of the band’s co-author [1979-1984]. This period of Haustor was crowned by modest masterpiece: “Treći svijet” (1984). Later albums with Darko Rundek as main songwriter are, if not excellent then at least, very good.  “Bolero” (1985), the only recording without Sacher’s contributions, is almost like a Rundek’s solo LP. There is only one total dud on this album – hilariously bad “Take the Money and Run” rap recital. Rest of the songs are local classics of the mid decade & few of them have been frequent on the radio to this day. They utilized rhythm machine a lot on “Bolero” and stylistically got closer to Karlowy Vary synth-pop aesthetic (“La Femme”). The last Hustor studio album “Tajni grad” (1988) was more like a group effort again – Gulić behind drums & Sacher back on bass on few songs. Haustor was a rock band that digged reggae jazz and world music equally.

Three post-punk names that should never be omitted when Zagreb is in question are: SexA (Captain Beefheart filtered through South Slavic minds – arty, haughty and wild – mental and visceral art-rock attack), Trobecove krušne peći (untamed jazz-funk no-wave youth barking from the city’s darkest corners) and Pingvinovo potpalublje (the closest to introverted and self-contained bookish types that Zagreb could ever get). Pingvinovo potpalublje were initially dismissed as half-baked Joy Division copycats which was very unkind. On the contrary, recorded evidence shows that they cherished distinctive mystic vision of their own.

Superb drum-box post-punk band Korowa Bar lost its serrated edge quickly and transformed into smooth minimalist synth-pop Karlowy Vary. Before fading out into oblivion Karlowy Vary added a drummer to the line-up and, judging by studio recordings, became even more anemic. At the very end they put out thin sounding official debut (actually the second album) titled “La Femme” and split up.

Beside power-pop Zagreb was also (in)famous for sophisticated Eastern European romantics who preferred art-rock (David Bowie, Roxy Music, Peter Gabriel and Japan) to dirty punk: Boa & Dorian Gray. I have the impression, based on what little I saw of film footage, listened to and read over the years, that they were quite potent as live acts. I’ve never heard Boa’s Demo ’80 but live tracks from 06/81 and 05/82 reveal them in superb form, especially guitarist who didn’t shy away from feedback and bassist with fat solid funky tone. At that point in time (1980/81) Boa was a thrilling modern rock band, few miles ahead from almost every other band in town. Unfortunately, Boa lost considerable part of its stylized vital power in the recording studio. They went so far and recorded problematic sophomore album in the state of the art studios in Sweden – now surprise! – it turned out ice glossy. Today it can be categorized only as dated overproduced rubbish, so painfully neutered it brings tears to my eyes. The sound of drums (holy instrument!) on that awful album was totally desecrated. Dorian Gray followed the bad example. Bravo! Actual debut recordings by both bands are fine enough records although just a little bit too clean for my filthy taste. Anyhow, Boa and Dorian Gray represent this suave face of Zagreb very well. Trotakt projekt  – band from Metković that moved to Zagreb to make a career and enjoy life in big city – schlepped behind for a while; one foot in new-wave the other one in a permanent shadow of Saint Bowie. They were passable for an overambitious pop-art project until they decided to… dance! Young synth-pop troupe Fuj tajfel was dancing and clubbing around town for few years to no avail.

Brojani* were an earlier [1984-86] offshoot of Haustor, sort of ethno / world music influenced with emphasis on rhythm. Waitapu* continued where Brojani left off.

Dee Dee Mellow would be something like a jazzy avant offshoot of Haustor.

Cul de Sac were simply free! As free jazz screechers in a blind alley could be.

There was a short rockabilly revival gathered around few bands at the end of the ’80s. More style than substance (more cuddly pussy cats than stray tom cats)  as it usually goes with retro things.

Parallel NWHM (new wave of heavy metal) side of the city isn’t close to my heart (or the lower parts of my body) as much. I am only superficially familiar with few bands: hard-rockin’ Divlje jagode came mainly from BiH/YU but were formed in Zagreb in ’77, III kanal (turncoats of sorts, their 1st single was a new wave/rock product! ), Legija (shared drummer with Trobecove krušne peći!?), Teško vrijeme (aka Hard Time) and Anesthesia (ZG thrash metal beginnings).

New wave generations were steadily losing inspiration as the time went on and yet there  was a sudden spark at the end of the most exciting decade in rock. It coincided with influx of foreign bands that started to play more often in Ljubljana, Zagreb and Belgrade & and as well with more private investments  (money!) on the partially opened market.

Old guard re-shuffled and re-grouped for the very last time: Sacher (Haustor), Leiner (Azra) and Juričić (Film) got together in Vještice which were unfortunately a tad bit too much on the lite and bright side of things.

Restless members of SexA (mk II) had moment of epiphany watching Rapeman in Ljubljana in ’88 and resurrected the band (they could have found inspiration watching Trobecove krušne peći in ’87 at home). From that point onward SexA was a noise-rock band and it suited them perfectly.

Disciplina kičme, an outstanding band from Belgrade (Serbia/YU), upgraded the line-up / style with two members (Novoselić from Film on sax, Gulić from Haustor on drums) from Zagreb about that time too. This short-lived Serbo-Kroatian Freundschaft version of Disciplina kičme often played in Zagreb and was generally awesome.

The House Painters would be the first band that fully embraced lingua franca of rock – with British accent! In a way  they represent continuation of funk influenced art-rock (Boa and Dorian Gray) from Zagreb.   However, their funk was cerebral and quite stiff. It belonged to art galleries more than on the dance floor. The House Painters were also the main protagonists from the new generation of Zagreb bands active in the ”gap” years (mid to late 1980s). Decent output recorded in period 1987-89 can be heard on independently released cassette album “Music for Leopold IV” (FV Založba).

Ex-punks and scene hangers-on that later appeared in goth rock bands Phantasmagoria (ex Eksodus) and Endymion started to sing in English and as a result lost quite a lot of points in my book. Different strokes for different folks!  A couple of songs by Nezaboravan san o…  (sang or recited in mother tongue) fitted Zagreb’s brooding melancholic mood perfectly. Kinda beautiful. Speaking of city’s Goth subculture it’s worth mentioning a compilation tape  “041” (1989) issued by FV Založba. Although it is uneven and incomplete overview of goth-rock/dark-wave/alt rock (and related) bands from the second half of the 1980s it did capture atmosphere very well. Beside already mentioned Endymion (unfortunately somewhat overproduced in the studio)  and Nezaboravan san o…, it included Nemesis (goth pop-rock with female vocal reminiscent of March Violets, competently sang in English), Lepra (with two wildest tracks on this compilation echoing and emanating corrosive Killing Joke vibes) and Jozo oko Gospe (synth-pop/dark electronica project). Lepra & Nezaboravan san o… songs would be my favourites here.

So, in the late 1980s (famous reformed Marković year) first private “rock entrepreneurs” appeared on the scene. Legend of local independent publishing Zdenko Franjić founded Slušaj najglasnije! aka Listen Loudest! cassette label. Franjić has been pushing his favorite garage-rock / punk-rock bands up and down the Balkans since 1988. At the start he was picking young Croatian bands mainly on the Vinkovci – Zagreb – Pula (hard) rock route. He was also trying to break through via Forced Exposure and other leading American fanzines. I could perhaps recommend VA ‎”Bombardiranje New Yorka”, first tape by Majke and Machine Gun (Put za Nakovo). Slušaj najglasnije! label was also responsible for digging out and dusting off very fine post-punkers Boykot Für/WGP from Pula. I like ’em very much. Satan Panonski was his in/famous protégé too.  This peculiar and extreme punk performer from Vinkovci was in essence a troubled soul – one side G.G.Allin and the other Nick Blinko. Unfortunately, G.G.A. side was predominant – an atrocity exhibition I’d rather avoid to witness. On the other hand Slušaj najglasnije! also gave a chance to still innocent teen punk rockers Overflow (Through Department Store) from Koprivnica & boys didn’t disappoint. Surprisingly one and only release from Zagreb on Slušaj najglasnije! at the time was LP “Čista perverzija” by Sköl. Beefed-up through Motörhead and Killing Joke influences Sköl (mk II) upgrade was good enough but album generally suffers from lack of variety: thick guitar sound is lost in the mix and the vocals are up front but for some reason not captivating at all.

City’s another independent label of note – Search & Enjoy – started promising in 1990 and immediately bridged Zagreb and Novi Sad (Serbia/YU).  They put out remarkable LPs by two stalwart bands from the Novi Sad scene: all female Boye (“’78”) & Obojeni program (“Najvažnije je biti zdrav”). Search & Enjoy also picked Majke (Vinkovci, Croatia) from Franjić for vinyl debut “Razum i bezumlje”.  Studeni studeni – garage-rock punks with great name and not that great love (!) songs squeezed on 33 rpm seven-inch record. Had it been issued as simple single record (“A ja sam je volio” b/w  “Čisto kao suza”) it would have kicked ass harder and louder, using less lovey-dovey words too. Sin Albert – then contemporary art rock band whose dissonant strumming was harking back to Velvet Underground would have profited from 45 rpm 12″ format and dirtier sound. Both bands released their decent seven-inch debut EPs with a little help from Search & Enjoy.

Šumski (and their own locally very important Kekere Aquarium cassette label) would be about the last band mentioned here, formed early in 1991 … but they really belong to an opening chapter of ZG rock legacy in post-war Croatia.

* = more info / samples of music needed