Thursday, 15 September 2011

Generation - book on Polish punk

[first appeared in: The Wire #324 Feb '11]

Michał Wasążnik/Robert Jarosz
Ha!art (paperback/336 PP)

In the 1983 BBC adaptation of Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad, when a Shakespearian actress on a guest appearance in Moscow asks the spy Alan Bates, “What else is there?” (ie apart from ugly clothes and dull people), he responds with a smile, “the system”. That all-pervasive system, too, was a constant presence in the Polish experience, most explicitly after 1945. It dictated the shape of Poland’s art and determined the way Poles felt about the state and themselves: always infiltrated by the system. The common Western view of Poland under communism must have been like the one represented in The Style Council’s “Walls Come Tumbling Down” video from 1985 Warsaw: grey, devastated streets, grim Soviet monuments and the shadow of the Palace of Culture and Science, a gift from Stalin, towering above it all; but nevertheless some enthusiastic small crowd gettng carried away in a nightclub.

But that was the 1980s. Generacja, a photo album now printed in both Polish and English by the renowned Cracow niche publisher Ha!art, is trying to break with precisely this stereotype. Apart from the usual assemblage of associations – drabness, poverty, grim architecture, the shops’ empty shelves, the sense of claustrophobia stifling the breath of the citizens, preventing them from any form of more liberated expression – there was also a place for fun, joy, being young, irresponsible and crazy. During the late 1970s, particularly the few years between approximately 1976 and General Wojciech Jaruzelski proclaiming martial law on TV on 13 December 1981, there was a colourful, unique punk attitude across Poland, expressed in legendary cult clubs like Warsaw Riviera-Remont or later, in the 80s, on youth music festivals such as Jarocin.

The large A4 format book can properly expose the both colour and black & white Michał Wasążnik’s marvellous pictures, perfectly documenting the era’s nervous, angular glamour. This fantastically talented photographer was never properly appreciated in Poland, and has lived in Norway for more than 20 years. Robert Jarosz’s narrative is constructed in rock journalism’s most popular format: an oral history. The text is based on a large number of interviews with the scene’s vital participants, such as Robert Brylewski, Maciej ‘Magura’ Goralski, or Tomek Świtalski (all of whom played in probably the scene’s most influential group, Kryzys), with some strangely perverse nods towards such ambivalent creatures as Jerzy Urban, the communist government’s PR man – an especially nasty but fascinating figure.

Typical group names – Kryzys, Tilt, Brygada Kryzys, TZN Xenna, Deuter, Dezerter, Izrael – tell their own story about Polish punk attitude. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. The most interesting thing about Generacja is the way it unveils the genuine originality and vitality of the Polish counterculture of these times, its carnivalesque ability to have fun. There were soft drugs everywhere, distributed without many problems; there were also secret police infiltrating the musicians and concerts. Parties were organised for epileptics, schizophrenics and erotic experimentation. Yes, even in the darkest times under the communist regime, there was the possibility of genuine fun, and plenty of Polish young folks were willing to have it.

It’s just a pity it was such a boys’ game. Although the first ever punk gig in Poland was by The Raincoats, sadly women never got into Polish punk, or haven’t played a significant role in it – although this is frequently lamented by the male former participants of the scene. (There was the charismatic Pola Mazur of The White Volcanos, or Pyza, drummer with several groups, or Kora from Maanam, but she’s a part of a different faction of popular music) There’s a note of regret, shame even, over why the scene failed to realise its potential. One could argue that because of the extreme patriarchy of the Catholic and masculine culture in Poland, which has barely changed its face even today, even punk, which was supposed to be as basic, sharp and one-dimensional as possible – didn’t manage to pierce it. Pola disappeared, as did so many others, after 1981, and became a comedian in California. That was basically it: unlike the youth in the Latin America at the same time, the Poles never grasped guns, they didn’t take to the streets, but chose internal or real emigration instead.

There’s a sense of unrealised potential, disaffection with the present, and general frustration here, but with a hint of satisfaction that there was a real energy, a real culture going on, against all the odds. Although some now claim that the festivals were only a safety valve for the youth so that they wouldn’t try to destroy the system, we can see how they started to take on their own life. Polish punk and post-punk was never purely ‘journalistic’, and the will to live a relatively ‘normal’ youth – or to live Western youth’s youth (minus the consumption, which remained a fantasy) – vindicates the power of the music.

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