A Pitched Battle for Peace: Wrocław’s Alternative Scene
The rebellion of lads from working-class families was an angry protest against the tough, empty life of the Wrocław proletariat. The punk community gave them strength, allowing them to imagine a different fate that wasn’t blighted by boredom, routine and exploitation. Wrocław punks formed a bond based not on musical artistry or ideals, but on shared experience.
Wrocław’s punk scene emerged particularly from the working-class district of Krzyki (translated as ‘Screams’). It was home to the majority of the members of the first punk bands, and it was where they rehearsed and played gigs. Teenagers whose parents were away at work were left to hang out in the courtyards – more like community neighbourhood spaces than public areas – or roam about with their house-keys hung around their necks, loiter on street corners, meet ‘under the bathyscaphe’ at the Academy of Economics, or sit around in the apartments of friends who had access to foreign records thanks to family contacts.
Many of the ‘gang’ and future members of Zwłoki (editor’s translation: Corpse) and Sedes (Toilet Bowl) lived around Sudecka and Wiśniowa Streets. Wrocław’s first punk band, Poerocks, was formed at the primary school on Trwała Street and made its debut in 1978 at the Pod Jaworami club in Krzyki. ‘Musical Start’ contests for young bands – punks included – were held in nearby Południowy [South] Park. The axis mundi of this punk microcosm was the Sudecka Street water tower, a favourite meeting spot for rebellious youths, once used as a concert venue by the alternative band Kormorany. One of the first punk graffiti slogans, ‘Punk Not Dead’, was sprayed onto the water tower in the early 1980s.
Wrocław punk was not limited to Krzyki, however. The Pałacyk club (the Academic Cultural Centre in Schaffgotsch Palace) was another concert, rehearsal and record-fair venue. Alternative parties were held at the student club Index and the District Cultural Centre, then later at Rura (Pipe) club. The Nowa Fala (New Wave) festival by the River Oder moved to Greka club in 1981. A lot of ‘gang members’ were pupils of Secondary School No.9. A site of even greater importance than Krzyki water tower was ‘Broadway’ on Świdnicka Street, behind the underpass, by the clock, next to Barbara Bar (which later became famous because of the Orange Alternative happenings). Broadway, which had formerly been occupied by hippies, was a meeting place for punks from different districts to chat and fool around.
Initially, in 1977–1978, being a punk was mostly a matter of image. The first punks could find press photos and articles more easily than Western records, and would base their own styles on them. They wore heavy workboots, took in their wide trousers with safety pins, scrawled on their shirts with marker pens and paint, spiked and dyed their hair, and used metal chains instead of belts. Black leather jackets were objects of desire. Not everyone even knew what punk sounded like, as very few of them owned records by The Sex Pistols, The Damned, UK Subs or Wire. ‘We didn’t know how to play it, but we knew it was threatening and scandalous’, said Waldemar ‘Ace’ Mleczko, the leader of Poerocks, recalling their first attempts at playing punk rock. The band’s songs still sounded closer to hard rock.
Some of the lyrics were even worse, as very few people knew English at the time. Sheck’80, another early punk band, played Pistols and Sham’69 covers, singing in English by ear. Zwłoki’s bassist, Cezary ‘Skuter’ Kamienkow, wrote most of the band’s lyrics, and was probably the first to embrace and develop punk poetry creatively. He wrote the famous Mesjasz (Messiah): ‘I ain’t getting crucified, no drunk’s gonna drool on my wound’. In time, they developed an original sound of their own. It wasn’t far from Wrocław to West Germany, where original records could be bought, and albums started to become more readily available in Poland. People would also record songs from Radio Luxembourg shows onto reel-to-reel tapes and cassettes.
The militia would regularly spot-check the documents of provocatively dressed youngsters, frequently detaining them at police stations for 48 hours, or driving them out of town to ‘run the fitness trail’ [i.e. down a path while being beaten with militia truncheons from both sides]. They also clashed with groups of other subcultural group such as the Gitowcy and Poppers. Most punk gangs from different areas of the city were sworn enemies, which often led to fights. Wrocław’s first wave of punks was distinct from those in other cities due to its hooligan street swagger. Adam ‘Kucharz’ Zalewski, the leader of Sedes, neatly summed up the frustration of street kids with no prospects in the world in a punk hymn: ‘We’re all suffering just for being alive’.
This rebellion of lads (it was a rather misogynist and macho milieu) from working-class families was an angry protest against the tough, empty life of the Wrocław proletariat. The punk community gave them strength, allowing them to imagine a different fate that wasn’t blighted by boredom, routine and exploitation. Wrocław punks formed a bond based not on musical artistry or ideals, but on their shared community experience. That bond’s class – as well as gender – dimension comes across in an anecdote from Jacek ‘Magilla’ Kosiński, the singer of Zwłoki, who left the band when his mates started to mock him for dressing tidily: ‘I had a girlfriend from a nice family at the time’, Magilla explained. Kamienkow was more direct about the class issue: ‘I hated the bourgeoisie then, and I still do. The entire middle class’. Punk was a way of expressing that class tension.
A portrait of Wrocław’s Krzyki punk scene and its working-class roots was presented in Tomasz Nuzban’s documentary Za to, że Żyjemy, czyli Punk z Wrocka (For Being Alive, or Punk from Wrocek, 2014). Due to the film’s focus on bands like Zwłoki and Sedes, Arkadiusz Marczyński, the editor and publisher of Antena Krzyku (one of Poland’s leading punk zines), refused to be interviewed for it. On the Facebook page for an (as yet unpublished) anthology of Antena Krzyku from 1986–1990, underneath a post dissociating it from Nuzban’s film, numerous comments stated exactly what Antena’s fans thought of the Krzyki punks: ‘underage alcoholics’, ‘suburban thugs’, ‘kids from broken homes. In an interview with Adam Kruk for Dwutygodnik in 2014, Marczyński himself described the Polish punk scene as uncouth, in contrast to alternative communities in San Francisco and Amsterdam. He asserted that he was never interested in ‘rebellion for the sake of rebellion and swigging cheap wine, like Sedes were’.
Marczyński became active on the alternative scene in 1981–1982, publishing his first zine, Specjalnie (Specially). In 1984–1985, he followed it up with the fanzine Bez Alternatywy? (No Alternative?), which soon transformed into Antena Krzyku. Antena’s editor was inspired by American fanzines like Flipside and Maximum Rocknroll, as well as German zines, and was soon corresponding with Western European bands and labels. At one point, the zine was printed in Holland and imported into Poland. Marczyński lived in Amsterdam squats for a while, hanging out with local musicians and activists. He regarded publishing the zine as a political activity.
What set Antena apart from other zines was its broad thematic range, covering film, theatre, arts and politics. It was not by chance that the Wrocław scene of the late 1980s showed less political apathy than other cities, although it was neither pro-governmental, nor pro-Solidarity. Songs by bands like Polish hardcore legends Natchniony Traktor (Inspired Tractor) carried an obvious anti-communist message, but had little in common with the political opposition’s rhetoric. At the end of the communist era, avant-garde Wrocław was fairly up to date with Western underground musical trends, and dreamed of building both a cultural and a socio-political alternative. It hosted concerts by Laibach (1982), Misty in Roots (1983), D.O.A. (1985), Nico (1985), The Ex (1987), Swans (1987) and NoMeansNo (1989). Although Marczyński only organised a few of those concerts, he did a great deal to hook Wrocław up to international alternative music networks, by inviting bands which became world-famous a few years later, and releasing cassettes of their music.
The rift between the working-class hooligan, party-animal punks and the left-wing fans of new trends in music and underground art wasn’t the only contradiction on Wrocław’s independent scene. The division was actually less pronounced than it might seem in retrospect. The scene was so small that both sides’ paths crossed regularly. In the late 1980s, Skuter of Zwłoki and Mariusz ‘Kajtek’ Janiak of Sedes formed original bands like Dziennik Telewizyjny (TV News), Mechaniczna Pomarańcza (Clockwork Orange), Program III (Channel 3) and Los Loveros. Alongside Lech Janerka and Kormorany, they represented the avant-garde side of the scene.
Paradoxically, though, the most radical, innovative content came not from the courtyards of Krzyki or visits to Western squats. It was produced by three completely different individuals connected variously with students from the State School of Fine Arts (currently the Academy of Art and Design), particularly the Luxus arts group: Krzysztof ‘Kaman’ Kłosowicz, Lech Janerka and Jacek ‘Ponton’ Jankowski. Each of them undermined artistic and political templates in their own unique way, unmasking the dominant culture’s ideology and refusing to be pushed into the ‘counterculture’ corner.
‘Creation is inscribed in conflict’, said Kłosowicz in an interview with Paweł Piotrowicz. This motto fits perfectly with Kaman’s biography, which might be described as ‘a pitched battle for peace’, to paraphrase the words of a Miki Mousoleum song. Kłosowicz is a veteran who was already a colourful figure of the 1970s’ Wrocław music scene, when the underground was still influenced by the Jazz on the Oder Festival and avant-garde, psychedelic beat bands such as Nurt and Romuald & Roman. Psychedelia and jazz-rock experimentation fostered an atmosphere from which Kaman emerged as an artist, before becoming fascinated with oriental musical themes and getting involved with the Polish–Indian Cooperation Association. He discovered reggae in the late 1970s. This relatively simple music could be played on average-quality equipment, required no virtuoso skills and, although mellow and swinging, could still pack a political punch (like Linton Kwesi Johnson). Miki Mousoleum’s first lineup – Krzysztof Kłosowicz, Artur Gołacki and Piotr Kłosowicz – was formed at spontaneous concerts during the fine arts students’ strike of autumn 1981.
The first Miki Mousoleum concerts were sensational and their reputation soon spread beyond Wrocław, but studies, jobs, families and children meant the musicians were unable to go on tour, which might have led to a successful career. A small batch of studio-recorded songs were released unofficially on the cassette Wieczór Wrocławia (Wrocław Evening News). Their bright, slightly rough-edged reggae was infused with Gregorian chants. Kaman mocked everything: the music industry in Biały Murzyn (White Negro), allegedly peaceful intentions on both sides of the Iron Curtain in Walka o Pokój (Battle for Peace), and the way Wojciech Jaruzelski’s communist regime in Poland assisted prime minister Margaret Thatcher to repress the miners’ strikes in Brytyjscy Górnicy (British Miners). Since the band had no chance of ever breaking out of the underground, they split up in 1985.
A year later, Kaman & The Big Bit was formed, a band that played some Miki material but later moved away from reggae towards jazz. This time, Kłosowicz collaborated with experienced musicians: Irena Jagiełka and Janusz Rołt. The lineup recorded songs for the cassette Białe Murzyństwo (White Negrohood), released by the Wolność i Pokój (Freedom and Peace) movement, but the band was also short-lived, lasting only until 1989. Their nonconformity, coupled with some unfortunate events and Kaman’s fondness for drugs, meant that they ‘merely’ became an alternative cultural legend. Zbigniew Olchowik’s famous poster ‘Popieraj Kamana’ (Support Kaman) wonderfully conveys the underground musician’s status as a link between avant-garde ethos, popular forms and political engagement.
Klaus Mitffoch had a brilliant but brief career. Formed at the same time as the first punk bands in 1979, it rapidly developed its own dark new-wave style that perfectly matched the personal yet political lyrics written by Lech and Bożena Janerka. The band was noticed by Marek Proniewicz at a young talent competition, and he offered them the chance to release a single, then an album on the Tonpress label. Their 1983 hit Jezu Jak Się Cieszę (Jesus, I’m So Glad) brought them nationwide popularity in Poland but, unfortunately, the album only came out two years later, when the band had ceased to exist. Janerka worked on his solo career in the mid- to late 1980s, while the rest of the band, under the slightly altered name of Klaus Mit Foch, survived until the end of the decade, releasing another album along the way.
Klaus (and, later, Janerka) were able to reconcile their success with their artistic independence, penning slick, melodious, intellectually refined songs with gloomy attitude. Janerka demonstrated that artists could be popular but still remain individual. In 1986, Historia Podwodna (Underwater History) established him as an independent artist wary of all state institutions. Janerka’s songs from that period criticised not only the ‘commies’. After all, to quote the song Klus Mitroh, ‘it’s easy to keep silent about fascism’. He was more anxious about the standardisation of society, and the ubiquitous conformity and control, than about Jaruzelski’s authoritarian government.
Janerka had less contacts with young artists than Kłosowicz, although Klaus’ posters and record sleeves featured incredible constructivist designs. However, the living embodiment of the Wrocław scene’s characteristic symbiosis of bohemian artists and the musical underground was Jacek ‘Ponton’ Jankowski. Ponton co-founded the band Kormorany, later renamed to Kormorany RAJ once its strongest lineup had stabilised: Robert ‘Śledź’ Śledziski, Artur ‘Goły’ Gołacki, Marzena Gołacka, Piotr ‘Blusmen’ Jankowski, Artur ‘Gaja’ Krawczyk, Mirosław Koch, and Ponton himself.
Boredom and limited access to professional amplification equipment drove the musicians to play unplugged, using the acoustics of dungeons, chapels, wells, and other forgotten, hard-to-reach places instead of amplifiers. This urban exploration of ruins and post-industrial sites naturally led to spontaneous concerts when they discovered that, for example, the old water tower acted as a huge resonance chamber. Sneaking into these dilapidated buildings was risky. Kormorany would also provoke dangerous situations or attack the audience themselves, by spraying gas, for example, from which fans imprisoned in the darkness desperately tried to escape. Jankowski maintained that such happenings were a reaction to oppression, thus bringing his work closer to projects by Totart or Zbigniew Libera. Apart from performances that resembled psychological experiments more than concerts, Kormorany regularly played in niche galleries and public spaces: at the Central Station or an Orange Alternative happening on Świdnicka Street. These events took the form of musical theatre performances.
After the early 1990s, Kormorany were evolving towards more illustrative music for film soundtracks and theatre productions. At that point, Ponton – who was more into extreme action than tightly executed compositions – was kicked out of the band. He had previously made his mark as a graffiti artist, an Orange Alternative participant, and a member of Luxus. Together with the Orange Alternative and its precursor, the New Culture Movement, Luxus initiated the revolution of the imagination that swept early-1980s’ Wrocław and immensely influenced the independent music scene.
The New Culture Movement was an official student organisation but, unlike the pro-governmental Socialist Polish Students’ Association or the opposition Independent Students’ Association, it was based on hippie, neo-anarchist, new-leftist ideas. Under the NCM banner, Wiesław Cupała jammed ticket punches in trams to let Vratislavians ride for free, Andrzej Dziewit organised an Easter Peace March in 1981, and ‘Major’ Waldemar Fydrych proclaimed his Manifesto of Socialist Surrealism, inspired by the writings of André Breton – an apologia in defence of fun, love, fantasy, and a life free of worry and suffering. When student strikes broke out in Polish higher education in November 1981, the NCM joined in to inject a carnival atmosphere: shenanigans, concerts, happenings, and conflicts with the Strike Committee. The committee tried to eject NCM activists from Wrocław University campus and censor the Orange Alternative bulletin, Dziewit’s brainchild. The NCM retaliated by exposing the attempted censorship in their magazine and promoting the idea of a free university.
The strike by fine arts students resulted in a series of concerts, performances, exhibitions and installations. Miki Mousoleum and Klaus Mitffoch performed, and continued to play together later on. Expelled from the university, the NCM was welcomed with open arms by the School of Fine Arts. The bulk of Wrocław’s alternative communities applied the Manifesto of Socialist Surrealism as their ideological basis, and their social bonds tightened thanks to the experience of occupying the academy for a couple of weeks. They slept in its corridors, and the intense social life was interspersed with artistic events, fun, and discussions about politics and self-education techniques. This was the environment in which Luxus was born.
The Luxus group combined new expressionist art with a fondness for pop-culture icons and symbols, a playful outlook on life, Joseph Beuys’ concept of social sculpture, plus harsh criticism of conservatism and nationalism. Their lifestyle was more reminiscent of a rock band than a group of mature artists. After all, its co-founders included active musicians like Marek Puchała (Klaus Mitffoch), Jacek Jankowski (Kormorany) and Artur Gołacki (Kormorany), while Kaman was a close collaborator and friend. Issue No.5 of the Luxus magazine, of which only a few dozen copies were published, was mostly filled with collages and stencils, and was entirely devoted to Miki Mousoleum. I should also mention that Luxus notably included women who were not the artists’ ‘muses’ or lovers, but artists in their own right. The initial group comprised Konrad Jarodzki’s students: Ewa Ciepielewska, Artur Gołacki, Piotr Gusta, Bożena Grzyb and Paweł Jarodzki, then expanded to include Jerzy Kosałka, Marek Czechowski, Jacek Jankowski, Stanisław Sielicki, Szymon Lubiński and Małgorzata Plata.
Following the Chornobyl power station disaster in 1986, Major and Piotr Gusta painted anti-nuclear posters, parodying the language of propaganda. In the same year, Fydrych began to organise street happenings which soon grew into the mass Orange Alternative movement. Ponton was also one of Major’s collaborators, and he produced numerous posters and graffiti to invite people to the events. From 1987 to 1989, shows combining elements of guerrilla theatre, concerts, carnival processions, masquerades and demonstrations attracted thousands of participants dressed as gnomes, revolutionary leaders, Red Army soldiers, and secret agents. When Fydrych and Krzysztof Albin ‘revived’ the Polish Workers’ Party, the slogan ‘The PWP Fights On!’ began to appear on the walls of Wrocław, much to the outrage of Solidarity activists. Major’s 1989 election campaign turned the areas around the Market Square and Świdnicka Street into a permanent playground – the Festival of Present Art, featuring leading representatives of the entire Polish underground.
The Orange Alternative and Luxus were the brightest lights in the constellation of alternative Wrocław, but equally crucial were: the Entropia Gallery (run by Alicja and Mariusz Jodko, which focused on mail art and stencils); ‘The Term Gallery is Inappropriate’ Gallery (soon abbreviated to the more laconic Gallery-Not-Gallery), set up by Jacek Aleksander Sikora and Elżbieta Dyda, known for her philosophical wall stencils and the artzine Xuxem; the performance group Połykacze Pereł z Odry (Oder Pearl-Swallowers) led by Krzysztof Skarbek; and the international Wizualne Realizacji Okołomuzyczne (WRO) festival, a new media arts review organised by Violetta Kutlubasis-Krajewska and Piotr Krajewski in 1989. These phenomena were the subject of the recent exhibition Czarna Wiosna: Wokół Wrocławskiej Niezależnej Sceny Muzycznej Lat 80. (Black Spring: Around Wrocław’s 1980s Independent Music Scene), organised by Piotr Lisowski and Paweł Piotrowicz, and also an eponymous book edited by Lisowski. No review of alternative Wrocław would be complete without mentioning Bogusław Litwiniec’s Open Theatre Festival, Jerzy Grotowski’s Laboratory Theatre, Jerzy Ludwiński’s theories of art in the post-artistic age, or the PERMAFO Gallery.
At the turn of the 1980s and 1990s, following the period of new wave, hardcore and post-punk dominance, the sounds of simple ‘native’ punk returned to Wrocław, thanks to bands like Działon Punk and Stan Oskarżenia. Fans of those groups formed the Punks Banditen Brigade, a means for punks to defend themselves from skinhead attacks. Shortly afterwards, Tomasz ‘Mniamek’ Stępień began to organise the first techno parties in Lower Silesia, but Wrocław’s independent scene was already in a state of collapse from which it never recovered. Under socialism, it was fairly easy for rebellious artists to avoid economic issues, since money did not play a key role in their socio-cultural lives. Free-market capitalism deprived them of this privilege, however, and offered nothing in exchange. So the elephant from the Klaus Mitffoch song Powinność Kurdupelka (The Runt’s Duty) triumphed in the end.
Bibliography: Czarna wiosna. Wokół wrocławskiej niezależnej sceny muzycznej lat 80., ed. Piotr Lisowski, Wrocław Contemporary Museum, Wrocław 2017;
Nie będę wisiał ukrzyżowany. Trzydzieści lat punk rocka na Dolnym Śląsku: ludzie, teksty, inspiracje, kapele, ed. Jakub Michalak, Atut publishers, Wrocław 2007;
Wrocław Niezależna Scena Muzyczna 1979–1989, ed. Paweł Piotrowicz, Rita Baum Culture and Arts Association, Wrocław 2015.
Originally written in Polish by Xawery Stańczyk, November 2017, translated by MB, Jan 2018