Thursday, July 29, 2010


Here’s a little guessing game. As a percentage of the size of the population, which recording artist scores the highest in terms of units of recorded music shifted on home turf? An obvious candidate to me was The Beatles, but they seem to have sold a lot more elsewhere than in England, where they are actually comfortably beaten by Queen. American big-hitters like Michael Jackson, Elvis, or Madonna? Close, but definitely no cigar. What about trying some smaller countries, like, say, ABBA in Sweden? Apparently not – they were probably a bit too raunchy for many of their countrymen. U2 in Ireland? Bob Marley in Jamaica? Nana Mouskouri in Greece? Well, quite possibly, but damned if I can find any solid stats. Which leaves us with...Karel Gott! Yes, sirree, up till 1992 he had flogged a whopping 13 million albums in Czechoslovakia (pop. at that time 15.5 million), and since then has doubtless managed a hell of a lot more.

The ‘Sinatra of the East’ aka ‘the golden voice of Prague’ is, by any standards, quite astonishingly prolific. In the period from 1962 to 1993 Supraphon in Czechoslovakia apparently put out 66 albums and a massive 178 singles, while between 1967 and 2000 he released no fewer than 125 albums on Polydor in the German-speaking parts of Europe, where he is hugely popular. They loved him in the Soviet Union as well.

But, I hear you ask, is he any good? Well, he’s been a regular winner at the Golden Nightingale awards (a Czech/Slovak music competition) and has so many of them that chez Gott must look like a rather crowded aviary. And he had a six-month residency in Las Vegas in 1968 and has performed at the Country Music Fair Fan Festival in Nashville five times, two of them together with Elvis Presley’s old muckers The Jordanaires, and he even played the Carnegie Hall in 2000, so he can’t be a total chump.

But on the other hand, drawing big in places like Austria, Russia (whose sole noteworthy contribution to world pop music seems to be Tatu), and even Deutschland, which may have given us Rammstein or Kraftwerk but also produced 99 Red Balloons and the Scorpions, is something of a double-edged sword. And let’s not forget that in 1968 he came thirteenth in the Eurovision Song Contest (representing Austria!) with something called Tausend Fenster; and there is the little matter of that Vegas residency in the same year. Not exactly the kind of place where the cutting-edge hipsters strut their stuff, is it?

His acknowledged showstopper is a number called Lady Karneval; take it away, maestro:

Hmm; not looking too good for Kaja, is it, ladies and gentlemen of the jury? I have always had a great horror of TV variety shows and the particular clunker that this was taken from is up there among the medals; I’m not quite sure which aspect of it makes me laugh most, but there are plenty of possibilities. Perhaps the only good thing that does emerge is the voice, which is not bad at all. But the song; dear me. It couldn’t be more MOR if it had double white lines and cat’s eyes down the middle, could it?

Let’s give the guy another chance. This one’s from the ’sixties:

On the plus side it’s outrageously camp, mercifully brief, and somehow curiously reminiscent of Nosferatu in its use of lighting:

For reasons of space and time we won’t go into the minus side. On to Exhibit C for the prosecution, although with a cautionary note; ‘Bum’ is simply the way Czech writes ‘Boom’, so don’t go getting all excited by the title:

So is this another case (you can find a few of these in pretty much any country you care to name) of an artist being such a national treasure that critical judgement based on their actual qualities is simply suspended? The evidence seems strong that it is and he is the Czech Republic’s answer to people like Cliff Richard and Cilla Black; the guy seems more than capable of beating the rap on charges like being responsible for dreck like the three clips above and, more seriously, the strong whiff of collaboration attached to his name because of things he got up to in the good old days, such as being one of the first signatories of the Communist regime’s response to Charta 77, the Anticharta, or the awards that said regime pinned on him at the same time as they were giving a distinctly hard time to other less malleable performers.

But on the other hand, not everyone loves him; Zdenek Lukeš famously wrote a few years ago that "Gott is a zombie who used to chase me for all of my childhood and corrupted the taste of many generations," a statement that aroused a lot of debate on both sides. My own cultural attaché, when asked what she thought of him, was more pithy; “He’s a prick,” she said.

Thanks, by the way, to Orlík for giving me the title of this posting.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


Some years ago I was living in a concrete flatblock in Olomouc. Matthew, an English guy from London, came to visit and looked out of the living-room window. “If this was London, mate, I’d ask you what the fuck you was doing living here,” was his considered way of praising the view, which was chiefly of the almost identical flatblock opposite.

“It isn’t.” I’ve always had a way with words…

But from his point of view, I could see what he meant. Apart from some of the more fashionable parts of London, where there have been flats for centuries, the English seem to be uniquely unhappy about the notion of living up in the sky; just look at how low and sprawling English cities are when you compare them to their equivalents elsewhere. You don’t even have to cross water; tenements are far more part of life in Scottish cities than they have ever been in England. And you don’t have to go as far as the ex-Soviet bloc; there are flatblocks all over Europe. But perhaps the quintessence of the genre is to be found east of the former Iron Curtain.

Of course, the real heavyweights are to be found in the megalopolises of the former Soviet Union. There’s a well-loved film, called ‘The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!’, in which the uniformity of flatblock existence plays a central role; a guy gets fantastically drunk in Moscow and is put onto a plane to Leningrad by mistake. There he takes a taxi. The name of the street where he wants to go in Moscow has a doppelganger in Leningrad; not only does the street look the same but the flatblock does too. His key fits the door of the flat and inside it’s similar enough to the one in Moscow for him not to notice the difference. So he goes to sleep. What happens next isn’t important here. What is important is the sheer scale of the uniformity that makes the idea possible and so funny.

Little countries like this one, which has a total population rather less than Moscow, can’t compete in size terms, but there are some impressive displays up and down the land, such as Prague’s Jižní Město:

and just over the Slovak border, Bratislava’s Petržalka:

In fact, you can find ‘panelák’ flatblocks pretty much everywhere. And unlike England, where a lot of people wouldn’t dream of living in one, here there isn’t that kind of stigma and, as the News of the World used to say, all human life is here.

A lot of them were built in the twenty years before the revolution of 1989 and they tend to reflect the priorities of that time, convenient housing for young families being high on the list. So what you tend to find is kids’ playgrounds, kindergartens, schools, health centres, public transport and the like, and a good thing that is. They’re solid, there are no maintenance worries, there are often communal laundry facilities, the hot water never stops flowing, and in winter the heating is all-amps-on-11, so much so that a lot of people I’ve met seem to regard it as a kind of human right to be able to parade around the place in their undies when it’s minus fifteen outside. And there’s a lot more space than you might think; Czechs often tell me how shocked they are at how tiny English houses and the rooms in them often are. In fact, a panelák

is a lot like a street of terraced houses

that follows the y-axis rather than the x-axis: same amount of space; same uniformity from outside; same lack thereof from inside. Just no individual yards or gardens.

On the minus side, they aren’t what you could call quiet and they don’t deal well with hot weather. They’re like saunas in summer, and all that concrete means they don’t cool down much at night either. If you open the windows, your slumbers are likely to be fitful, what with late-night revellers returning home and sharing their joys with the neighbourhood and the merry whooping of car alarms. And one thing they were most certainly not designed for was the way car ownership patterns have changed. In 1996, finding a parking place was a struggle; nowadays, I’m told it’s become routine to double-park but leave the handbrake off so that the people whose vehicles you’re blocking can move your car out of the way if they need to leave before you do.

On balance, though, paneláks are going out of fashion. It seems to be the dream of most Czechs to live in what they call a ‘family house’, and there’s a frenzy of construction is going on, not just in towns and cities but within pretty much every village within a certain radius of them. So, slowly but surely, those with the wherewithal to join the rural bourgeoisie are doing so, those without are staying put. But there’s still a long way to go before living in one becomes a negative statement about the kind of person you are; vertical sink estates they ain’t.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


The first time I saw Iggy Pop was at the Apollo in Manchester in 1977. On the negative side, the Stooges, with whom he had made three albums that I had done my level best to wear out my copies of with constant playing, were history, but, in the plus column, so, as an NME journalist put it at the time, was “the singer’s propensity for getting utterly gaga on nefarious pharmaceuticals” and his frequently looking like a red-hot candidate for the next premature rock’n’roll death. Oozing rude health and working together with David Bowie, who was then probably at the peak of his powers, he was in the middle of the burst of creativity that spawned both ‘The Idiot’ and ‘Lust for Life’. It was brilliant, one of the standout gigs of a period of my life when it seemed that music really was going to be the answer to most of the questions. It wasn’t, of course.

Iggy’s live performances continued to be the stuff of legend, but his studio output was non-essential for me after that – competent big-noise rock with a bunch of sidemen who knew what they were doing, but not a patch on, say, this:

The first time I saw Ostrava was in 1991. I was expecting the worst. I’d read in the very first edition of the Rough Guide to Czechoslovakia that “If you told a Czech you were going to Ostrava, they’d probably think you were mad” and everybody I knew said much the same – not many of them had been there, but that didn’t stand in the way of their knowing it was rough and primitive and dirty and full of morlocks and football hooligans and bleached blonde leopardskin women like Bet Lynch. What I found was a big scruffy industrial city which I liked straight away; more than anywhere else here it reminded me of home. It was a lot like its counterparts in the north of England, and the people had a directness and style to them that felt comfortable to me.

I’ve been back there many times now. I go there several times a year for one reason or another. It’s changed a lot since then; like so many other post-industrial cities worldwide, it’s been busy trying to reinvent itself. There’s Stodolni, with its bars and nightlife, there’s an ambitious bid to become the European City of Culture in 2015, and there’s an annual music festival, Colours of Ostrava, which is held in the heart of this surprisingly green city and just grows and grows. This year was its tenth anniversary and it was sold out the best part of a month beforehand, apparently the first time this has ever happened in the Czech Republic.

The headline act this year was Iggy. Not with a bunch of LA henchmen, though, but with as many of the original Dum Dum Boys from forty years ago as possible – Dave Alexander is dead, Ron Asheton likewise, but the others – Rock Action, James Williamson, and Steve Mackay – were all going to be there. Four out of six of them surviving till now is actually quite an achievement, given the talent for self-destruction those guys had. But were they going to be any good? Although the music on their distinctly pedestrian 2007 album ‘The Weirdness’ suggested they might not be, word of mouth and reviews of other live shows they’d done said that they were going to be present and probably far more correct than back in the day.

It rained on and off the whole day, not enough to really dampen spirits but enough to thin out the crowd a bit, which was just fine by me – my days in the moshpit are well in the past. Ten o’clock came round, and then, after a brief word from the festival organizers, the Stooges trooped on and a launched straight into their first selection.

Iggy started out in a singlet, which had me thinking that maybe age was getting to him – he is 63, after all, an age when early to bed with a nice cup of cocoa is perhaps more in order than stirring up a crowd of thousands – but within thirty seconds it had gone and the most renowned torso in the business was stripped for action. He may have the face of a badly done Egyptian mummy these days and the body might not be what it once was, but he’s still got the voice and the moves and the sheer presence and can rip it up better than almost anyone I’ve ever seen play live, working the stage like some wild mix of a big jungle cat, a pole dancer, an anaconda going through a fit, and a hooker in a display window while behind him the band laid down a maelstrom of pure vicious noise that had the ground beneath my feet vibrating.

You can’t really talk about Greatest Hits in the Stooge context, as they never had any, but the set they played was all killer, no filler: ‘Raw Power’ was followed by ‘Kill City’ and ‘Search and Destroy’, and I can’t come up with the names of too many bands that have triple whammies of that calibre to kick off with. There wasn’t a lot of banter between songs, although at one point, to the bemusement of the no-necks guarding the stage, Iggy did mischievously invite a bunch of guys to join them and dance. They did most of ‘Raw Power’ (although not my personal favourite, ‘Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell’); ‘1970’ and ‘Fun House’ from the second album, as well as a few more left-field choices such as ‘Open Up And Bleed’, ‘I Got A Right’, and ‘Cock In My Pocket’ (introduced as ‘Up Your Ass’), plus ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ and, to finish with, ‘No Fun’, which may have been accurate forty-one years ago (!) when it was written, but certainly wasn’t true on Sunday night in Ostrava in the rain. It was the biggest fun I’ve had at a concert for years, up there with the best of them. Gentlemen, I thank you.