How Rock 'n' Roll Conquered Communist Censorship
Known to all as 'big beat', Polish rock-and-roll has just turned 65. Here's a short intro to the best Polish bands of the 1960s and their coolest songs, most of them still unknown abroad.
You may be surprised, but behind the Iron Curtain, Poland had its own Beatles, Beach Boys, and the Animals. But it's not really about imitation and similarities – it's actually the differences and the specific local flavour that make these pieces really remarkable and worth hearing.
Why 'big beat'?
Polish rock 'n' roll was born on March 24th 1959. On this day, in the club Rudy Kot in Gdańsk, a band called Rhythm and Blues performed the first rock 'n' roll concert in Poland. Even the name of the band was deliberately misleading as the communist regime was allergic to any attempts of introducing rock 'n' roll to Poland – the name itself was rotten. The spontaneous, revolutionary spirit expressed in rock 'n' roll was seen as a serious threat by a regime based on total control. This is also why early rock 'n' roll music in Poland wasn't called 'rock-and-roll' but 'big beat', which was a way of outsmarting the authorities. Once they understood what was going on, it was too late. The rock 'n' roll disease was spreading quickly.
In 1960, Rhythm and Blues transformed into Czerwono-Czarni (The Red-Blacks), the first successful Big Beat band in Poland. Red-Blacks changed singers and band members and were rather eclectical in style, but were nonetheless the face – a Protean face indeed – of Polish Big Beat in its early days. They gained huge popularity with songs like this one:
Polish songs in Polish
Another colourfully-named band and one of the most important Big-Beat bands of the 60's, Niebiesko-Czarni (The Blue-Blacks) are credited with introducing the Polish language into rock 'n' roll – their famous catchphrase being 'Polish youth sings Polish songs' (Polska młodzież śpiewa polskie piosenki). Singing in Polish was also endorsed by the communists and considered a kind of 'safety umbrella' over the new, unpredictable genre.
The band not only sang in Polish but also introduced many Polish folk tunes into their otherwise rock 'n' roll music – this too became an important feature of Polish rock 'n' roll (see also Skaldowie below). Niebiesko-Czarni were also the first Polish band to tour abroad.
And here's another typical big beat piece, the video taken from a popular Polish TV series Wojna Domowa. The singer (not the boy in the video) is Piotr Gąsowski, and the band is probably Chochoły.
Czerwone Gitary – the Polish Beatles?
Czerwone Gitary (The Red Guitars) were the first Polish band to develop a rock 'n' roll style of their own. They were also the first to win massive and lasting popularity among Polish youth. Like The Beatles, they sounded great in chorus, and also like with The Beatles, all of the band members contributed to composing the band's pieces. But most importantly, Czerwone Gitary relied on the amazing potential and synergy of two outstanding composers and singers – Krzysztof Klenczon and Seweryn Krajewski, who were compared to Lennon and McCartney, respectively.
Here's a popular Czerwone Gitary piece, and proof that Polish rock 'n' roll was generally milder and more civilized than rock 'n' roll in England and the US. But this was part of the deal – under the communist regime, everything that entered the official mainstream had to be nice and well-mannered.
In 1970, just like the Beatles, Czerwone Gitary sensationally split. Even today controversy remains as to the real reasons behind the fall out between Klenczon and Krajewski. And as with The Beatles, many would argue that it was for the better, as both artists later developed independently and realised their potential more fully. Seweryn Krajewski, with his fondness for sentimental ballads, went on to compose some of the most beautiful romantic songs in Polish pop, and in the case of many, you'll find there this specific Eastern, Slavic feel. One unmistakable example from 1971 is Płoną Góry, Płoną Lasy (1971), with the intro on sitar which, however, sounds more like the balalaika later in the song.
The analogy with The Beatles was taken all the way to the end in 1981 when Krzysztof Klenczon died tragically after a car crash. Klenczon had lived in the US from 1973 and even managed to publish an LP singing in English, though without great success. After the split with Czerwone Gitary, Klenczon composed Port, one of the best rock pieces in the history of Polish music, and one doesn't have to know the language to enjoy its amazing quality and energy.
Skaldowie – the rock 'n' roll bards
If Czerwone Gitary are the Polish Beatles, Skaldowie (The Skalds) with their sophisticated use of polyphony must be the Polish Beach Boys. This is more obvious when one listens to the title piece from their third LP Cała Jesteś w Skowronkach (1969).
Most of the band members received classical music education which explains their amazing musicality and erudition – as well as their partiality for pastiche. Another exceptional trait of their style was the use of musical folklore, especially that of the Tatra Mountains, and songs like Uciekaj, Uciekaj, Malowany Dym and Na Wiersycku are even written in the highlander dialect. Marrying folk, the poetical, and rock 'n' roll with classical music on the highest artistic level was Skaldowie's greatest achievement.
Despite the sophistication, Skaldowie were hugely popular. The album Cała Jesteś w Skowronkach (You're Completely Covered in Skylarks) had 6 out of its 11 tracks reach the number 1 spot on Polish radio. While one of the pieces 20 Minut Po Północy (20 Minutes After Midnight) already showed the new direction being taken by the band, namely progressive rock, it is also a testimony to a nearly fatal car accident the band was in. Can you hear the droning sound of the car engine in this piece?
OK, here it's easy, Polanie are the Polish Animals – they actually toured with Eric Burdon and his band in 1965. The band managed to produce only one LP. Here is one of their coolest pieces, composed by jazz musician Zbigniew Namysłowski, and with lyrics by Maciej Zembaty.
Tajfuny & The Panas Sisters
Tajfuny (The Typhoons) were an instrumental guitar band, very much like The Shadows. Here they are in one of their most memorable songs, performed along with the sisters Anna and Ewa Panas.
Breakout, led by the influential virtuoso guitarist Tadeusz Nalepa, eventually broke loose from the dominant big beat idiom, moving towards psychedelia and blues. Still, they remain one of the most emblematic Polish rock bands of the period:
Polish bands sing Polish poets?
Unlike most leading British rock 'n' roll bands which sang their own lyrics, in Poland it seemed writing lyrics was reserved for professional lyric writers. Poets like Agnieszka Osiecka, Wojciech Młynarski or Leszek Aleksander Moczulski wrote hundreds of amazing poems which were taken to a whole other level with the exceptional composing skills of Krzysztof Klenczon, Seweryn Krajewski and Andrzej Zieliński.
This gets really interesting when one considers that some of the best Polish rock songs were composed to pieces written by poets who had never heard about rock 'n' roll or would even be really confused to hear it. This is the case with Polish beat icon Czesław Niemen who turned many Polish poems into great songs, the most famous of these being Julian Tuwim's Wspomnienie.
But the most spectacular one is definitely his interpretation of the poem Bema Pamięci Żałobny Rapsod by Cyprian Kamil Norwid, a Polish post-Romantic poet, considered widely one of the most difficult poets in the Polish language. Here, while knowing the language may be crucial, as the poem is amazing in its use of irony and lyricism, you can certainly still enjoy the ambitious music as well as the video, its symbolism rooted in Polish funeral rites. This track, over 12-minutes long, can be found on Niemen's LP Enigmatic, an album which usually ranks as one of the best Polish rock 'n' roll albums ever. But on that album, Niemen was already drifting away from big beat and going into new, uncharted waters.
Jewish big beat
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the multi-faceted history of Polish beat was the emergence of Jewish rock 'n' roll bands. At least two of them became legendary, despite the fact that they have never put out a CD or that their careers ended prematurely in March 1968, when most of the Jews remaining in Poland after WWII were forced to emigrate by the communist regime.
While Niemen was singing lyrics taken from Polish national poets, the Łódź-based Śliwki composed amazing pieces to an old-French ballad, a poem by ancient Sanskrit poet Aśvaghoṣa and even Shakespeare's Sonnet 43 in the form of Gdy Oczy Zamknę (When Most I Wink).
Następcy Tronów, another Jewish beat band, was formed in 1962 in Szczecin. Perhaps their only surviving track today is the anti-war protest-song Czy Słyszysz Płacz Wietnamskich Dzieci (Can You Hear the Vietnamese Children cry?).
For more about Polish rock and the communist regime in the 1980s, watch the documentary Beats of Freedom.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 2.4.2014