Sputnici in English

Cliff and Croissant Made the Grey Red World More Colourful
(and cracked the walls which started tumbling down)

“Reagan and Gorbatchov won the Cold War? What of the citizens of Eastern Europe who worked so hard, often with great sacrifice, to gain freedom?“ (Louise W. de Close Stockholm, Time, Nov 30, 2009)
“How Cliff and Croissant started driving the regime down.“ (Ferdinand Peroutka jr., www.ct24.cz, Oct 15, 2009)
“Our own poetry became soon as big a reason for collisions with the Party and its censorship as was the American origin of our music.“ (Ivan Jonáš recalling his teenage experience with communist authorities, see below)

Treasure Island Revisited
A crowd of several hundred mostly grey-headed curious men and women gathered in the Barča Hall, famous for its pop and country concerts, in the 10th district of Prague on the third Monday of this year`s September to celebrate a special event. For the majority of the guests, the announced spectacle meant turning back the clock and their return to the years when they were young. However, also younger people eager to learn what the happening was all about joined the crowd. And their commentaries heard in the couloirs were “it was cool, it was great, gorgeous, terrific...“. Renowned journalists and authors present described that evening in an unusual emotive way. “I felt like Jim Hawkins who discovered the Treasure Island“, wrote Jan Rejžek, a feared Czech musical critic in his prime, belonging rather to the younger generation. Irina Rybacek, a Czech-American author, speaks of a “unique historical evidence“ (referring to the years she spent in Prague, years she remembers so well). And Ferdinand Peroutka jr. of the famous Peroutka Family persecuted by the communist regime for their uncompromising democratic position explains “How Cliff and Croissant started driving the regime down.“
We are talking about the 1950´s, when Ronald Reagan was still shooting movies as a shooting hero in Hollywood and Michail Gorbatschov worked as apparatchik at Stavropol. Who were those early two heroes Cliff and Croissant Peroutka is referring to? A sort of Asterix and Obelix fighting the Roman Empire of that time?
Fooling the Bolshevik
Don´t let us be upset if we don´t get Peroutka`s meaning. It only proves that the puzzle still works.
For the first time, it worked a half century ago. Where? In the heart of then communist Czechoslovakia, in Prague. Why? “To fool the Bolshevik“, put in the genuine Czech jargon. The relevant authorities of those days were not welcome to know what was going on..
Do you need a hint how to decipher the Enigma? Probably not, the synonyms of the two C-words are apparent. Cliff = a steep face of rock; croissant = the roll, a round piece of cake.
Well, still wondering what this mystery-play is about?
Late fifties of the twentieth century continued to be times of red oppression to be felt in the everyday´s life even of those not sitting in jail. The Iron Curtain (later materialized to the Berlin Wall) was an almost perfect insulator from the western world, tackling potential dangers of both physical and cultural nature supposed to be lying in wait behind the border and being ready to attack the workers` paradise. Some of those dangers could be identified by names. And one of the most terrible ones having pandemic qualities was called …Rock and Roll!
So, what was going on that Monday evening in the Barča Hall? It was a celebration of the fiftieth birthday of probably the most important rock´n´roll group in Czech history called Sputnici. On that occasion, a book witnessing their activities and 2 CDs with original recordings were presented and offered to the public along with live performance of the Sputnici vets. This first Sputnici anthology ever of 62 songs was put together from private tape copies, as the communist rulers did not allow the group to release but a single record for the home market during the years of the group´s existence in the fifties and the beginning sixties. Several tape recordings were made in state studios to be broadcast abroad to pretend that life was free in the East. Later, the recordings were erased as Sputnici came on the watch list. Bolshevik was not amused.
So, for people like Jan Rejžek who are too young and could not therefore enjoy Sputnici live the released historical material meant a revelation.
Ferdinand Peroutka, born several years earlier, remembers and recalls:
“The boys of the group looked tidy and the girls were everybody´s darlings. Their rock´n´roll was rather creative than only provocative, especially due to the Czech language in their cover versions of the international hits and in their own songs, sketches and short stories presented on stage.
That made them significant and undoubted phenomena of the Czech culture of the early sixties.“
However, what thought the communist establishment about such a phenomenon? Peroutka quotes from the book:
““You are nothing more than a grain of sand on the highway to socialism that will be crushed and flattened by the tank of Communism“ yelled their school headmistress full of hate.“
Why this outburst of furious anger?
Inspiration across the Iron Curtain
In the fifties (remember, the Communists seized power in Czechoslovakia in 1948), a group of high school boys and girls in Prague experienced something like a big bang hitting their heads and the rest of their bodies after they had heard those strange sounds coming to them through the air from the distant radio stations of the American Forces Network in Germany and the Radio Luxembourg studios in London. The separating curtain was not high enough for the electromagnetic waves and young people visions. The youngsters could sing and play some musical instruments and so they decided to join in with ambitions to create more than copies of their western idols. They were not driven by any ideological or political motives. They were just convinced they had the right to express on stage what they felt. And because they meant it honestly people understood. Their performance launched an avalanche, for the authorities a heavy and icy one, carrying a lot of hard rock smashing their heads, and making the first cracks to the curtain and to the wall.
First, the group played songs known from the radio hit parades but, from the beginning, they covered them with their own lyrics in Czech and soon they also wrote their own music and sketches. Their lyrics had to be sanctioned by the censorship authority (and often they did not get the approval) but how to examine music in advance to recognize its hidden poison? You had to be clever enough, of course, not to attract attention too soon. Posters of the group´s concerts announced programmes like “Music of a New Style“ or “Songs of the Big Beat“. The most successful performance sweeping Prague for 7 weeks was called in Czech “Skála a rohlík“ (Peroutka calls it “legendary“) - Cliff and Croissant, by their fans clearly understood as Rock and Roll. And it was really rather late to prevent thousands of Sputnici fans from enjoying that subversive import from America. (The name of the group “Sputnici“ (the Sputniks) was inspired by the first man-made satellite of Russian origin. It generally symbolizes a break-through and literally means travelling companions but could also be interpreted as camouflage in the given circumstances).
The book ´s original title “Sputnici – náš kamarádský Rock´n´Roll“ (“Sputnici – our Rock´n´Roll, from friends to friends), put together by four co-founders of the group (Ivan Jonáš, Jiří Klíma, Eda Krečmar, Tom Vašíček), tells more than the Sputnici story. Reading that book lets you breathe the atmosphere of the late 1950´s and early 1960´s and touch the teenage world behind the Iron Curtain of that time.
The Added Value of "Our" Rock´n´Roll
And it can give you more. Rock´n´Roll in the West, as a rebellion against the establishment, also hit the youngster´s parents who often could not understand and accept the motives of their children and caused quarrels in the family. Some parents in the East might also have not liked the music very much, but, and that´s the point, they understood the rebel rousing effect directed primarily not against them but against the regime they hated, and supported their young.
It also helped me understand this thanks to the evaluation of Ferdinand Peroutka and his selection of quotations as “By their cultural impudence within the bounds of the law they (Sputnici) successfully questioned the communist cultural ideology (Czech musicologist Aleš Opekar) and“In my opinion, the fall of Communism was enabled by computers on the one hand (in terms of foundation), and by rock´n´roll on the other (as superstructure, expressing it in a Marxist way). If this is true, then Sputnici might have, by a narrow margin, contributed to the fall, too.“ (Jiří Klíma, one of the authors and the publisher of the book.)
Reading the book may mean a sentimental journey for readers in their sixties. But, it could be a valuable, important and interesting lecture for the generation not having had to live in a totalitarian society. Being written in Czech, it won´t be understood outside the country. I wonder whether it should be, at least parts of it, translated into English.
Human Aspects
Let me add the following thoughts.
There is another aspect, not political but purely human and humane, I´d like to mention as it moves me a lot. It is not about what impact Sputnici had many years ago but about what happens right now. We are receiving e-mails, letters, telephone calls expressing joy of our readers and listeners coming from our present work. Just a few quotes: I have returned to my young days! My songs have come back to me, at last! This is what my father talked about to me! I can recognize myself, it´s my life, too! I am concurrently happy and sad! The best Christmas present I could get! Shall we see you on stage again?...
Would you believe that even people in deep depression caused by a tragic event in their life could be helped to revive? Yes, it happened, our book and music recordings made it.
Of course, if it were not for memories, as conscious or unconscious they might be, it would not work. Our Rock´n´Roll as well as all kinds of pop music is related to a specific generation. Don´t you remember the hit you were dancing to with your love for the first time, having the first date?
Let me recall what the Viennese writer Karl Kraus once said: “What´s the importance of Beethoven´s 9th Symphony compared to the melody played by memories and hurdy-gurdy..?“
Well, it might depend on the symphony´s number. My wife and myself still remember the music of our first date, also about fifty years ago. We heard it in a concert hall and bought a recording afterwards.
It was Beethoven´s Sixth - the Pastorale. Although not played by hurdy-gurdy we still love it.
                                                                                                                                           Tomislav (Tom) Vasicek

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