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.