Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 12
27 March 2000

Hungarian Prog Rockers Panta Rhei H U N G A R I A N   M U S I C:
From Beats to Bass
A brief history of beat and rock music in Hungary

Blade Runner with Gusztáv Kosztolányi


By 1945, light music in Hungary had reached world-class standards and was moving in a similar direction to popular music elsewhere. By way of illustration, it would suffice for me to mention the world-famous music of Hungarian Roma and operettas. The Broadway of Budapest, Nagymező utca (Nagymező Street), with its perennial theatres, nightclubs and cabarets was more than able to compete with the American counterpart that gave it its nickname.

After 1945, this process of organic development was brought to an end, and light music all but disappeared. Up to 1956, music was synonymous with Russian Communist rallying songs, or imitations thereof, and - though this was the exception rather than the rule - traditional operettas. Everything that was modern, and above all everything that came from the West, was looked upon as harmful and open to ideological condemnation.

1956 represented a turning point in liberalisation. Within the framework of the "three Ts" (tűrés, tiltás, támogatás - toleration, prohibition, support), the first battle to be fought was over jazz. Composers open to the new defended jazz as the folk music of the oppressed Blacks of America. As a result, the door, which had up to then been firmly closed, was left slightly ajar. It was through this modest opening that light music gradually began to seep through into the "tolerated" category.

The dawn of rock

Paradoxically enough, the more widely accepted jazz became, the greater the interest the majority of young people in Hungary showed for rock and roll. It goes without saying that rock music in Hungary met with at least as great, if not considerably greater, opposition than that in the West. It is interesting to note that whereas in America, this type of music was hounded for its presumed left-wing associations, in Hungary it was treated as a worthless product of decadent and rotten Western Capitalism and persecuted accordingly.

In Hungary, the genie of rock finally broke out of the bottle at the beginning of the 1960s. During that era, the gap between the music for entertainment that was tolerated and given active support and the music that corresponded to the tastes of young people widened to a gaping chasm, and the so-called amateur movement was launched. Virtually every secondary school and university had its own group, or rather groups, who kept their fellow pupils and students entertained at weekends (in the secondary school that I attended, four groups existed simultaneously between 1974 and 1978). Since the groups did not as a general rule charge money for their performances or disguise them as meetings of a club, they were, for a short time, able to escape the harassment and influence of official bodies. It was also fortunate that this movement developed at exactly the same time as it did in the countries of the West and coincided with the preparations for and introduction of economic reforms in Hungary.

There were three major groups in this period: Illés, Metró and Omega. One of these made the big time and enjoyed an extraordinary career in the 1970s. By the end of the era in 1968, all three groups had produced one or several albums. Apart from the big three, there were many talented bands jostling for second place. Unfortunately, The Record-Producing Company (there really was only one, and its highly imaginative name was absolutely typical of a mentality that eschewed even the merest hint of a trademark rather than a literal description of function) was guilty of thoughtlessness, allowing the bands to disappear after having recorded only one or two singles. Beyond a handful of poor quality, crackling pirate recordings, their music lives on only in the memories of the fans.

Every Western rock music expert regards 1968 as the turning point. The same applies to Hungary, though for different reasons. The introduction of the New Economic Mechanism [the basic strategy of economic reform under the Kádár regime, between 1966 and 1972, ed] represented an attempt on Hungary's part to break out of the role of satellite both economically and socially (in those days, radical political change was entirely out of the question even on the level of thought rather than practice). In 1968, Illés swept the board at the Hungarian equivalent of the San Remo kitsch parade, the Táncdal Fesztivál, picking up almost every single prize. Within the space of a few days, however, the Russians - assisted by the Hungarians - suppressed the democratic experiment initiated by leaders in Czechoslovakia. The implicit message was not lost on their Hungarian counterparts, or rather opposites, and soon new attempts were made to impose firm discipline.

Marking time

Since it was impossible to squeeze the genie back into the bottle, the authorities tried their hand at starving it or gagging it - not without success. Following a courtroom travesty (one could also describe the proceedings as a show trial), trumped-up charges were used as a pretext to ban the stars of Illés from all the stages of Hungary for a year. They were also prohibited from producing records, and their songs could not be played either on TV or radio.

At the same time, the remaining members of the big three also metamorphosed. Metro split up, the drummer and keyboard player in Omega left (this was the equivalent of, say, Mick Jagger leaving the Rolling Stones), and Hungary's first supergroup was formed: LGT. Its rise to fame was every bit as meteoric as the saying.

Given that political issues had always been taboo and that after 1968, probing into social questions was forbidden territory, there were no options open to bands other than selling out to commercialism or endeavouring to create something of recognised musical value. Most of the groups belonging to the latter category were active between 1968 and 1985.

The remaining members of Omega decided to embark on an international career. Making full use of their earlier successes, they managed to break through on to the German rock scene under their own steam. In doing so, they became a virtually unique exception to the rule (at the height of their success at the end of the 1970s, the now world-famous band the Scorpions was their warm-up act, and they were able to play in front of capacity audiences in stadiums in both Germany and Hungary). To all intents and purposes, Omega is the only Hungarian group, whose albums you might come across in larger record shops (these days, of course, in CD form and with English-language lyrics) in the West, particularly in Germany.

Those who stayed behind were forced to curry favour with the record factory (still only one) and the Song Committee (as you might imagine, this was a type of censorship board composed of Communists, empowered to make or break careers by deciding what could and could not be sold on the basis of an assessment of ideological purity). The handful of groups unwilling to dance to the Communists' tune were exiled to the fringes, from where they were able, for a brief period at the end of the 1970s, to return triumphantly, before degenerating into a parody of themselves and disappearing into oblivion at the end of the 1980s.

The following groups represent every style in existence in Hungary at the time:

  • Completely Commercial (cf. The Sweet and Middle of the Road) Showbiz Groups (the darlings, incidentally, of the political leadership, since they did not pose any ideological problems with their choice of lyrics, of which I reproduce two absolute gems, penned by M7: Umammamma ma umamma and the peerless Jupapa pa pajupapa pa. Need I say more?): M7, Corvina, Apostol
  • The Golden Oldies (though, in all fairness, the bandmembers in this category were only twenty- or thirty-something at the time), a category that was generally of reasonably high quality, though somewhat dull and insipid. This batch, in fact, covers a variety of completely heterogeneous styles, and the groups themselves changed style and direction from time to time as well: Illés (after 1973, Fonográf), Omega (although it sounds as if we are dealing with a Western group here, they do still sing in Hungarian), LGT (which went through many a change in line-up), Skorpió, Bergendy and Zorán
  • Progressive Rock Bands (this category was responsible for the highest standard musically to emerge from the era): V73 (in the same vein as ELP); Panta Rhei (whose repertoire likewise consisted almost exclusively of classical reworkings with the added bonus of Hungarian stylistic elements); East (reminiscent of Genesis and Yes but mainly of SBB. For those of you, who have not heard of the latter, I suggest you consult material that deals with Polish progressive rock of the 1970s, though I would warmly recommend that you simply listen to SBB's output); Color (features of Genesis and Saga dominate)
  • Disco Bands: Neoton Familia, Szűcs Judit and Beatrice

Social discontent to political turning point

The hard-line restrictiveness that characterised the 1970s did not favour radical bands. A process of social decline, however, had set in by the end of the 1970s. People, who had grown accustomed to Uncle State taking good care of everyone as long as nobody rocked the boat, that is, woke up to the fact (with some dismay) that His pockets were actually empty. More and more young people became dropouts, began going to waste and joined the ranks of the poor. None of them had even the remotest chance of leading a conventional lifestyle. They stood in stark contrast to the official ideal, celebrated in song: the glowing, rosy-cheeked, optimistic paragons of Socialist youth, bursting with vitality and ready to work selflessly for a better future for all.

Alternative songs about reality, destitution and want eloquently articulated the feelings of the growing number of unhappy young people, ignoring Socialist youth (however, there were exceptions, for example, Beatrice, which began playing punk rock music in 1978 and brilliantly reworked a number of the anthems of the Hungarian Workers' Movement, performing them live on stage as parodies, to the frenzied delight of the audience and the absolute consternation of the censors).

Five major bands stand out at the beginning of the era:

Beatrice: This group encapsulated everything designed to turn the average censor's hair prematurely grey. The lead singer and the bass guitarist gave what amounted to uncensored, impromptu theatrical performances at every gig. The musicians, who were all highly competent, often played recordings of a few numbers, as requested by the lead singer and the bass guitarist. In the interludes between the numbers, witty and often critical verbal sparring matches ensued between the two. As to the band's style, it was a peculiar mish-mash of rock, with a sprinkling of punk and a little bit of Hungarian folk music thrown in for good measure.

P. Mobil: (originally Gezarol, a Hungarian brand of weedkiller). Formed at the beginning of the 1970s, by 1978, this band had been squeezed to the periphery. The lead singer, Gyula Vikidál, was the proud owner of the most powerful voice in Hungarian rock. The members of the band were all professional musicians. Their distinctive sound has more than a little of the Uriah Heep about it.

Hobo Blues Band: A group made up of two singers. One, the main soloist, was sadly not worthy of the name but more than compensated for his deficiencies by excelling in the Terpsichorean department - with brilliant stage routines. The accompanist, who in the band's glory days actually did have an opportunity to take over the lead vocals, was and continues to be one of Hungary's best blues singers.

Bizottság [Committee]: Artists hailing from Szentendre. The group's original name was Központi Bizottság [Central Committee], but for some unknown reason (which might just have had something to do with its being identical to the name of the supreme body of the Communist Party) it was refused permission to call itself this. A hint of the band's style is revealed in the manner in which it announced its concerts - referring to itself as "Albert Einstein's Band."

Edda művek: The rock band of Miskolc. This was, in essence, the first group from outside of Pest to succeed in making a record and becoming a household name nation-wide.

After 1978, the bands listed above were indicative of the way in which rock music had forged ahead. The leading lights of the establishment favoured disco music, which was far less outspoken. The all-powerful Lord of the Record Production Company, Comrade Péter Erdős, attempted to counterbalance the dominance of rock with his own creation, a disco band dubbed the Neoton Familia. This band, with its - if we are to be extremely charitable - third-rate knowledge of music, had access to unlimited financial resources and was earmarked for stardom. As anyone with the remotest pretension to expertise in the business could easily have predicted, this attempt proved as successful as all the other vast, megalomaniac Socialist investment projects (that is, the group was a total flop). After a few tours taking it as far afield as Norway and Japan, the family was mercifully laid to rest. The high point of the band's career came in 1988, when its female vocalist sang the official song of the Seoul Olympics in a duet with the singer of the German disco band Ghengis Khan.

Since everything promoted by the establishment was automatically written off as naff, the political leaders unwittingly ensured that every young person with a shred of self-respect started listening to rock instead of disco - on the principle that everything frowned on by the Communists must be super-groovy, whilst everything they plugged must be as dull as dishwater.

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By the beginning of the 1980s, political leaders had cottoned on to the fact (perhaps instinctively) that imposing a ban was a more powerful advertisement than TV and radio put together. And so they changed tactics by trying to water rock down instead. Any musician who could hold down three chords was encouraged to sing about Socialist reality or to write apolitical ditties to be performed in a rock style. Alongside this, a bid was made to break up the Record Production Company, which everyone loathed, into different parts; since it would have been impossible for its managers, the Priests of the Omnipotence of Disco of yesteryear, to sell the latest brand of sincere, hard-core rock with any shred of credibility.

Inspired by a fortuitous idea, a modern, high-performance record press and a state of the art (in those days) studio were purchased. That the dismembered record factory was replaced by a number of small studios and that one or two high quality works could be released on the sly alongside the insipid, "lukewarm" records churned out as part of the Socialist command economy may be designated as a stroke of good fortune in the face of adversity. This is how East's first few creations came into being. The same applies to Color's first two records, as well as to a few other quality productions.

After rock had finally run out of steam (or was made to do so), punk and New Wave hit the scene at the beginning of the 1980s. Within a remarkably short space of time, the Establishment that had by then become fairly accomplished in its ploys, managed to channel these new movements into the commercial mainstream. The price for refusal to conform was a life made impossible. It was during these years that the first real prison sentences were handed out. Each member of the punk band CPG was condemned to two years in jail for political incitement. Since yours truly, the author, never actually attended a CPG gig, I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the following lines alleged to have been sung there, but by the same token, I cannot deny them either:

Dirty, filthy Communist scum!
Why were you not strung up yonks ago?

Even apart from this extreme instance, song lyrics had abruptly become far less compromising, and the political establishment was not in a position to monitor developments as strictly as before. By the end of the decade, in the midst of real political power struggles, the issue of musical style and lyrics had been relegated to the status of a trivial matter.

Following on from the collapse of Communism, as the Hungarian economy and Hungarian culture have become increasingly enmeshed in the trammels of European co-operation, political tyranny has yielded to a no-less-powerful economic dictatorship. As a result, today's musical culture has deteriorated into a virtual carbon copy of the styles prevalent in the West. The self-managing Hungarian beat, rock and punk musicians, who were tolerated during the days of the "soft" dictatorship between 1960 and 1990 and who stuck out conspicuously from the drab conformity of Socialist culture, have now disappeared from the repertoire. Fortunately, though, the music of the 60s, 70s and 80s still provides a lucrative source of income for record companies. This has meant that more and more albums, including those that could not be put on the market in the past for political or other reasons, are beginning to appear in the shops as CDs.

Blade Runner with Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 26 March, 2000.

Translated by Gusztáv Kosztolányi.



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