How Rock Helped Defeat Communism


Hungarian Ambassador Andras Simonyi came to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland yesterday, to pay tribute to the liberating art form that he says gave a gust of wind behind the sails of the anti-communism movement in Central Europe.

"It was like a window to the free world," Simonyi, 51, said in an interview [with The Plain Dealer] before he spoke to a private group last night at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

"Most Hungarians didn't understand what these guys were singing about," Simonyi said. "The real power was in the music. Hungarians embraced the West much more than others." [?]

"You had four or five guys up on the stage with so much power," Simonyi said. "It was a breath of fresh air."

Unlike in the United States, where the 1960s culture wars are still being played out, Central Europe's hippies and music fanatics basically won, after two decades of the commie-allied squares driving them into the illegal underground. So that generation will never be shy about paying tribute to the Rock—Vaclav Havel marked the 1991 expulsion of the last Soviet soldier from Czechoslovak soil by inviting an ailing Frank Zappa to perform in a celebratory rock concert, and made a serious priority out of drinking beers with visiting rock stars, especially the Rolling Stones.

Simonyi, now an economist, said he and his friends were into British blues-revival bands like Traffic and Cream. The Slovaks adored Queen—there's a large statue of Freddie Mercury in a small town outside Bratislava. And the Czechs, famously, loved the Velvet Underground. As the late bass player Milan Hlavsa of the Plastic People of the Universe told me in 1991, "It brought us America in a real way. [Before] there was a big vacuum. It was good to see that in the States there were normal people who had problems like us."

NEXT: Softer Skulls

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  1. “It was good to see that in the States there were normal people who had problems like us.”

    I love the Velvet Underground, but I sure hope he wasn’t talking about them here.

  2. Oh, he was.

    More excerpts from my poorly written article of 12 years ago:

    ?There are two very important conditions for the Velvet Underground to be popular in Czechoslovakia,? said Jiri Cerny, editor in chief of the Prague magazine Rock & Pop, speaking through an interpreter. ?Firstly, they were Americans. Secondly, they were underground, so our newspapers were yelling at them even more than usual American bands.?

    Cerny, who was an influential rock critic in the ?60s before becoming an StB-harassed roving DJ in the ?70s and ?80s, said early VU fans responded to the feel of the music. ?I think the way the Velvet Underground played, the music did not need translations,? he said. ?Everybody who has ears and listens to the melody of John Cale?s violin could hear that it is music against something.?

    Milan Hlavsa certainly needed no translator. A bass player who grew up in various bands listening to the Rolling Stones and the Kinks, Hlavsa found a gritty integrity in the VU which meant much more to him that the technical virtuosity of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. ?The Velvet Underground is very different, because [their music] is a part of their life. It?s how they express their relationship to this world,? Hlavsa said through an interpreter. ?There was something very different, very new, very real about their music.? […]

    The Prague underground scene never had much time for pretense and pretty faces, so it?s no surprise that the Velvet Underground?s no-frills, unpolished attack was quickly emulated by Hlavsa and his new band, the Plastic People. ?The music was so real, so strong, that there was no other way to follow,? said Hlavsa, the band?s main songwriter. ?The base of our music was the Velvet Underground.?

    It didn?t matter that the band couldn?t understand the lyrics and knew precious little about the VU — at first they thought that novice producer Andy Warhol actually played in the band.

    Then there’s this section, featuring a guy named Jan Machacek, who played a bit with the Plastic People, was the lead singer of the incredible “Velvet Revival Band,” and is also probably the Czech Republic’s best economics journalist.

    ?For me it just sounded completely different than everything else I?ve heard before. ? When I heard them it was like ?What?s going on?? ? It was so strong and so different. I loved this whole atmosphere. I loved Lou Reed?s guitar solos. So different, so strange.?
    Machacek was especially partial to some of the VU?s eerily innocent and hopeful songs, such as ?I?m Set Free,? ?Sunday Morning? and ?Stephanie Says.?

    ?[I loved] the sweet songs that were so gentle, it has some sort of atmosphere,? he said. ?It was more gentle than ?Lady Jane? or ?Angie.??

  3. already knew about this from the Hungarian film “Time Stands Still”

    there is a great scene where a bunch of juvenile delinquents trash the local high school to “Jailhouse Rock.” Nice to see that American royalty is recognized abroad.

  4. The Czechs seem to be big Beatles fans, too. I was at a conference in the Czech Rep. and participated in an impromptu after-dinner singalong one evening, which started out with Czech songs but quickly turned to Beatles and stayed there– they all, even the ones whose English was pretty poor and even those born well after ’68, knew the words to the famous and not-so-famous songs alike.

  5. Nicholas — Every year in Prague there’s a sort of Lennon-fest that begins with weepy teenage singalongs at the graffiti-covered “Lennon wall” mural in Male Strana, and then usually continues with a concert or four around town by the various Beatles cover bands.

    When I was in Cuba, I attended a secret meeting of the “Beatles appreciation society” or some such. Castro banned those yankee imperialists for several years, and only now are the melody-harmony fanatics starting to feel confident enough to sing “Love Me Do” in public.

  6. So it ain’t Ronnie. The canceled CBS Reagan series accused Reagan for the downfall of communism. What a bunch of liars! Good that the show is canceled.

  7. What does my famous namesake think of this? Eh?


    We Salute You!

  9. Takin’ a walk on the wild side.

  10. Don’t forget about jazz; it was officially suppressed by the USSR for a long time too, and it served as a major counter-culture force. And of course there are home-grown writers like Bulgakov.

  11. An excellent history of Hungary:

    Paul Lendvai, “The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat” – ~$20

  12. “Bill Bennett’s” namesake is actually a fan of early rock n’ roll. He’s been known to “give a pass” to former party monsters such as The Rolling Stones `cause the tunes were so good.

    And everyone has heard the (TRUE!) tale of his blind date with Janis Joplin, right?

    ‘Ever know a Secretary of Education who knew rock ‘n roll before?'” Bennett, a staunch polemicist against cultural relativism, nevertheless tempers his admiration for Allen Bloom, “I hate that prissy crap where he’s anti-rock ‘n roll.”[1]



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