This sound that emerged from artists living under an oppressive regime.
“Capitalistically decadent!” This is how Czech censors responded to director Roger Vadim’s 1968 film Barbarella, which screened briefly in Czech theaters before authorities banned it. The closing theme from that racy sci-fi vision is an appropriate closer for the first volume of Czech Up!, Vampisoul’s expertly remastered collection of Czech pop. Covering the years 1966-1978, the set spans a multitude of genres, which the cover helpfully spells out: “freak-beat, fuzz-soul, female-pop, disco-fancy and jazz-funk.” If that litany of pop styles and their Iron Curtain equivalents calls out to you at all, you won’t be disappointed by this comp.
The album’s cover graphic depicts a human chain that suggests people in line. In today’s America, they might be lining up for a cronut or an electric car. But during totalitarian rule in the former Czechoslovakia, residents braved long lines for basic food needs. This conflict between entertainment and politics bubbles under the surface of Czech Up! Not unlike the pioneers of Czech New Wave cinema, these artists were capable of transforming popular dance music to a kind of joyful anarchy that evaded government censors. In fact, the rise of instrumental jazz-rock in mid-’70s Czechoslovakia can be attributed to musical ingenuity; as the album’s informative liner notes put it, “no lyrics, no troubles.”
While other compilations of faraway rock may feature stiff rhythms, approximately tuned instruments and subpar recording conditions, these recordings are tight and polished products. Czech Up‘s 25 tracks come from the vaults of the Supraphon and Panton labels, and the crisp remasters are courtesy of sound engineer Lukáš Machata, whom you’ll want to thank for making these tracks sound as fresh as the day they were recorded.
While Chain of Fools may be an apt subtitle, the R&B that gives this compilation its title may be the least impressive of the American genres sampled here. Komety’s 1968 version of the title track and Framus Five’s cover of Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around” both establish a solid rhythm, but the heavily-accented English on the latter relegate it to a charming novelty. This is not true for tracks like Karel Černoch’s spirited cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight,” which makes a convincing case for the existence of Czechoslovakian soul.
Certain musicians seem to dodge the censors with clever metaphor, as in the agitated rocker “Kočičí král Felix,” by Pavel Novák and VOX. Translated as “Cat King Felix,” it’s superficially about a drunken cat that likes to party, but don’t put it past Novák, who was a teacher before he became a rock star, to have subversive intentions.
Flamingo’s 1971 funk-rocker “Zlom Vaz” (“Break Your Neck,” a phrase for good luck) is an unlikely match between angular prog rock and James Brown-inspired horns, with a nervous organ solo perhaps standing in for the neurosis of a nation. Stay tuned for more from this band on a future Vampisoul reissue.
Czech Up is not presented chronologically, freely jumping around genres and time periods for a consistently surprising mix. Discobolos’ “Kyvaldo” from 1978 is, as the band’s name might indicate, spirited disco. The liner notes apologize that this is one of the few groups within the Czech pop machine that was in keeping with the times, but these accomplished pop craftsmen have nothing to apologize for.
Take the 1969 track “Nestůj a pojď (u nás máme mejdan).” The Golden Kids were a Czech supergroup whose members included three Czech pop stars in their own right. This flash of fuzz-tone Pepper-pomp was maybe a year behind psych-fuzz and two years behind Pepper-pomp, but the dense and lively arrangement is a thoroughly engaging and melodic riot that ends in the sound of breaking glass and birds chirping; a wordless call for revolution and peace.
Though nearly 80 minutes long, Czech Up doesn’t let up, with plenty of highlights that straddle psychedelia and disco as if there were no genre distinctions at all – just good music. This is more than just good music, however; this danceable, hook-filled set is the sound that emerged from brave artists living under a politically oppressive regime. Their efforts are thoroughly enjoyable, and inspirational.