Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Drang nach Osten

(from a work in progress Poor but Sexy)

(x-posted from Faces on Posters)

The 1970s was the era of defeat. As the 60s were extremely intense in terms of political and social change, from the early 70s the flux went steady. David Bowie, who debuted in late 60s, when he invented Ziggy Stardust in 1972, marked this change: no more real heroes, from now on, it was most desirable to be fabricated. What is genuine, authentic, is boring. The only hero that really matters is pure artifice, cut out from the comic books, movies and dressed in everything that’s glamorous. Bowie more than anyone contributed to the cherishing of artifice in pop music, realizing the idea of a “hero for a day”, only following the course mass culture was taking since decades.

Was he conscious of that? Some of his lyrics of the era mark the mourning of the depoliticisation of his generation: in the lyrics to the song Star, he mentions “Bevan (who) tried to change the nation”, and posing himself as someone who “could make a transformation as a rock & roll star”. Facing the growing nihilism of his generation, he still believes that as an artifice star, he can carry on their political task. All the young dudes, a song he wrote for Mott the Hoople in ’72, reeks of youth's disappointment and disillusionment, forming a kind of “solidarity of the losers” anthem. Bowie, always too erratic to make any firm political commitment, was rather in love with various dubious figures, “cracked actors”, (the inspiration for Ziggy was a forgotten singer who believed to be a combination of god and an alien), dodgy occultists like Aleister Crowley and fascist dictators. He was driven to German culture, especially Weimar period, expressionism, Neue Sachlichkeit, theatre, everything Brecht. Yet his image of contemporary Berlin must’ve been seriously twisted, if he thought he could find a shelter with another drug addict, Iggy Pop, in a place that had already become one of the most narcotics-degenerate places on earth.

One of the reasons the punk generation reads dystopias like A Clockwork Orange as if they were their lives, and looks longingly towards the communist East in their aesthetics, is their depoliticisation. The generation of their grandparents was the one who survived the war,  believed in socialism, was changing the world, joined political parties. Earlier, to piss off your parents, you’d join a communist party. By the 70s, those who wanted to change the world, were discredited and all that had left was the aesthetics. A generation-two before, people believed in the modernist idea of living: built estates for dense living, in which neighbours were to meet in the center and socialise. 1960s and 70s marked also the crisis and decline of the nuclear family. In the regress towards the private life and individualism, with growing number of divorces, this generation was paying for the necessary experiment of their parents by not having anything in return for what they'd given up. Counter culture as a resource/channel of political culture also began to decline. What has left were the drugs. Berlin since the 70s started having an enormous population of drug addicts.

If you look at any footage of West Berlin in 70s, you see a murky, sinister city, whose punctum, trauma, is the Wall. People gravitate around it. Living next to a prison, even if theoretically you’e not the prisoner, you can develop symptoms of suffocation. Seeing people regularly being killed over an illegal crossing of the Wall, not being able to walk through your city, imagining what there can be on the other side. RW Fassbinder felt shame for the post-war West Germany, for the way the West stuck their mouth with consumptionism and told to shut up. In In a Year of 13 Moons, he punishes the viewer with a 15 minute sequence of rhythmical murdering and quartering of animals in the carnage, senseless death that is then wiped out and put into neat plastic bags as meat. Half of his films are acerbic commentary on the situation of the left, where they start to look more like funeral elegies. Fassbinder was friends with Holger Meins, who was a cinematography student, when he joined the RAF. He died in prison after a hunger strike. In May 1976 Ulrike Meinhof commits suicide or is killed, followed by Ensslin and Baader, after months of being hounded by the press, dragging on like a soap opera, with Meinhof's personal life put out as the cannon fodder..

When Christiane F and her boyfriend Detlef have awkward, clumsy teenage first sex it’s on a poor lair of bloodied, dirty sheets cobbled together in their drug den. Poor kids, they and their teen friends have their regular injections & bad trips, they hunger, shake, come, ejaculate and overdose under one and the same photograph of Ulrike Meinhof torn out of a newspaper.

The 70s was an era of the abandoned children, with no more support in institutions. Christiane F. - Wir sind Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (this sentence has the same structure as the "Wir Sind Helden") - the 1980 film, starts from a murky shot of Gropiusstadt, the estate on the outskirts of West Berlin where Christiane lives in a small flat with her mother. This most infamous block estate in Berlin, by then decaying of social and material neglect, was plagued by crime and violence, which brings more and more argument to the new class of politicians declaring the ideas of modernism ”bankrupted”. The infamous estate Pruitt-Igoe was taken down in the mid-70s.

Groupuisstadt is scary, but wasn’t meant to be. Walter Gropius designed it as a quite modest density estate. Later, with the migration from the East rising, it was rebuilt several times to cram the new population in growingly lesser quality flats. Christiane hates Gropiusstadt, where she lives with her single, always-at-work mother, who is always absent, unless she is fucking her dodgy boyfriend. The only company and community she finds is in the night clubs and friends, who are all into drugs. She goes to the Sound, the famous disco club, labelled as "the most modern discotheque in Europe". She starts lightly, takes speed and coke, but the whole thing is about “H”. H is her obsession, a gate to different reality, where she can communicate with her idol, Bowie. Seeing her friends all drowning in H, she thinks this transgression is the only way to belong to their community.

Bowie, then a Thin White Duke, had cocaine as his toxin of choice, a typical drug of someone who insists they have the full “control” over the habit. The first half of the film is basically a Bowie fan story. Christiane has all his records (which she, when the first part ends, symbolically sells to have money for drugs). Bowie is the god for her postpolitical generation, who recreates politics as spectacle. In the film, he’s present everywhere, as music or endlessly repeated image: his music oozes out in clubs, at the Zoo station, where the young addicts gather their alternative home; they hear him, when they forget themselves in the drug haze. He looks at Christiane and others from posters, like a Big Brother, from the LP covers, in their dreams; his concert, central to the film, is an EVENT she waits for. It is her most intimate company, it accompanies the kids, when they prostitute themselves and when they inject the drug and go on a trip, he IS that trip and that drug and that malaise.

Oh, we can beat them, forever and ever

In “Heroes”, Bowie puts a final declaration: there’s no more heroes, long live the heroes! Yet, his character, the new, bodiless, endlessly androgynous, sexless fugure, has still some miasmas of political nostalgia, he’s yearning: "I can remember standing by the wall/ and the guns shot above our heads/ and we kissed, as though nothing could fall/ and the shame, was on the other side.” They don’t understand this Drang nach Osten and yet they are haunted - why else would they stick to the Zoo, the filthiest, most hideous, most brutalized station in the city? Next to it: the bling of Ku’damm, along which they walk searching for drugs and are taken by clients. Just like characters in Fassbinder’s The Merchant of Four Seasons, they look at the shop window displays as at the promise of a life they will never have.

Five hours way from that city was another one which was also levelled to the ground, but by Germans. 'Warszawa', Bowie’s most sinister and mysterious track, appears in the film in the most grim moments, when they first take heroin. It was also full of young, emaciated people. Perhaps the boredom the Polish youth felt at the time was the result of that isolation. Warsaw didn’t have the wall, but the lives of its people gravitated no less around what happened with this piece of concrete. In 1981, the year Christiane F is screened, it was invaded by its own tanks. Bowie was a tourist, who left Warsaw a postcard, and then left. They couldn’t, continuing to felt trapped with their lives. For young people of the declining late 70s, Bowie - an endlessly enigmatic hero for one day, less real than celluloid, replaces their politicians, parents, institutions, their god. But how to stake your whole existence on something that does not exist?

[Film o pankach (Film on punks) dir. Mariusz Trelinski, a portrait of PL punk scene, 1983]

Also the Drinker from Ulrike Ottinger’s Bildnis Nach Trinkerin, shot at the same time in 1979, sees the splendidly dressed Tabea Blumenschein, Ottinger’s lover and muse, as a beautiful mysterious millionaire, landing at Tegel airport, who chooses Berlin as the scene of her destruction, with alcohol as the drug. She's wearing always splendid  clothes, inspired by early Dior or Balenciaga, with the rule: dress well to you dying. To make it funnier, Ottinger accompanied her with a choir of three women, dressed in identical uniforms: Social Question, Accurate Statistics and Common sense, who comment and cheer her. She drinks in the bars until she’s unconscious, meeting various weirdos, crossdressers, punks and transes on her way. Her only friend is a homeless woman. She goes around degenerate Berlin, which is full of trash, which, together with homeless Lutze, they gather in a supermarket trolley (Ottinger was friends with Wolf Vostell, artist of destruction, who appears briefly in the film). She picks a random from the bar and takes him on a night Berlin derive without end. She does a lot of pointless things: one sees her balancing on a tightrope in a ridiculous ballerina dress, against the towers of Gropiusstadt, after she joins a circus troupe, a regular Ottingeresque bunch of weirdos, of society's marginals, who take a dim view of her circus art. After several attempts, when she manages to degrade herself completely, she goes to the Zoo station, as if looking for a way out. Yet, she’s is overrun by the careful, punctual German middle classes, hurrying to work. The film's alternative title is Ticket of No Return.

Christiane F. is a weird kind of a zombie movie, with the action taking place only at night. When for the first time we see Christiane going to a night club, it resembles hell.  Gradually, all characters, as the habit develops, more and more start looking like ghosts, or rather zombies. Edel is too literal, when he throws Christiane to a projection of The Night of the Living Dead, we can soon see that from their disintegrating faces, changing expression only on the sight or possibility of getting the drug. In the last part of the trilogy, Day of the Dead, sicentists discover the zombies have no stomachs, they can;t digest, so their necessity to eat humans is pure physical compulsion, just like in a sexual passion and, needless to say, like in a drug addiction. They don't need drugs to survive, but to destroy. Everything becomes clear during the ravishing sequence of Bowie concert. If they’re zombies, Bowie is their master ghoul, a zombie-king. As Christiane looks her all-prepared, artificial idol in the face, then at his absolute artistic heyday, we start to believe he’s not only the sun they need to exist; he's a vampire living on their flesh. In a horrific vision he, or rather his persona, becomes identical with the drug, the reason for the decline. What follows is the naked horror of addiction: the physical and mental degradation and prostituting of the 14-year old kids, while their bodies waste away. Larry Clark’s ’94 Kids can be a version of this, post-AIDS.

Berlin is there a hard edged, harsh city with no mercy, ruthless, easily claiming lives, a formerly ascendant city of modernity, where their dreams have died. We are in the realm of “joy division”: their passionless sex, their un-joy, resignation, their absolute nihilism. Punk was dead. The western Berlin was full of pale, lifeless, sleepwalking young people (Hitler called Germany once in a “nation of sleepwalkers”). Christiane F. (Felscherinow) was offered a career to “tell us your story”, she recorded hours of material, that then become the bestseller biography, and then the film. I read it at 13, and despite the grimness, the filth and horror of the addiction, for weeks I lived only on dreams of putting myself into the frame of the story, see the Ku’damm, see David Bowie, see the Zoo. On my first trip there, in 2000, the Warsaw-Berlin Express landed me at the Zoo, but there was nothing left anymore. The story leaves us with the track of corpses under the wall, with the sinister towers looming everywhere.

(work-in-progress from the forthcoming Poor but Sexy)

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

A Thousand and One Look at Yugoslavian Architecture

[first published, in a different version, in ICON #114]

Modernism In-Between
Maroje Mrduljas, Vladimir Kulić
protographs by Wolfgang Thaler

Why we’re looking at Yugoslavian modernism now? Because the ideological war on interpreting the socialist legacy has taken a new phase; capitalist crisis brings socialist solutions back on the agenda as in most ex-communist countries discussing the past in a positive way was a taboo. At the same time, we had a triumph of postmodern vagueness in writing history, seeing traditional analysis as “monolithic”, which preferred to focus on random elements of defunct ideologies and philosophy of “memory”. This means we lost a wider image and that is why coffetable books with melancholic landscapes of deserted lands of communist utopia are now practically only books available on the subject. It’s not difficult to see how this approach limits our understanding of history in the current moment. People in the ex-Yugoslavia, like historians Maroje Mrduljas and Vladmir Kulic, who were involved in important research think tank Unfinished Modernisations, refuse to participate in a boring ideological war and with Modernism In-Between, provide a necessary compendium of socialist era architecture for the English speakers, in the times, where the Soviet or Yugo-modernism is suffering the label of "toxic", deadly, bad for you - just in time to demolish it and build there museums of modern art, no doubt to a "Bilbao effect".

I am not arguing for preservation of the ruins, but first we should know what caused them to become ruins. What we should try is to look at the buildings without the ignorant hatred of the past, but with an understanding of history. This isn’t a classic picture book, although it contains many photos by Wolfgang Thaler. But unlike the usual, the pictures do not base only on the extraordinariness of some of the best examples of fantastical from today’s point of view social housing projects on colossal scale. It does the justice to the architecture in all its variety, which even if some of it is crumbling, most is in good shape, and definitely of much better quality and architecturally superior to the post-transitional speculative housing, that emerged without much regulation. Neither pretentious nor just purely documentary, the photographs make us appreciate the variety of housing schemes and spectacular rebuilds, like Novi Zagreb, Novi Beograd or the new Skopje, built after the earthquake in 1963 by international team of architects, rather than picturesque stadiums, conference centers or operas.

Which doesn’t mean, that the Poljud stadium in Split, Opera in Skopje or churches, like Serefudin White Mosque in Visoko, shouldn’t be admired as stupendous examples of innovative architecture. Skopje’s case is discussed in the book in detail as one of those strange Cold War events, where the war between the blocks was suspended, as at the same time an international agreement in limiting the ban on nuclear weapons was signed. Yes, a  different historical scenario to the one we know now was possible. The world could’ve looked differently.

There's also ideology, mostly expresed in the now-exploited monuments - spomeniks. But Modernism in general rejects any black-white simplifications, which means we have to get deeper into the context. There’s a shocking amount of text for a picture book, in which architecture is not simply seen as a result of socio-political and cultural tensions, but, in this case, as an attempt at a paradoxical independence of its authors and an intervention in social reality.

The title’s “in-between” refers to the built environment in all its six republics (Serbia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, with Kosovo and Vojvodina having unofficial status) on many levels: we’re here between cultures, between various socialisms, between economical inequalities of the north-east and south-west, also, having have to deal with nationalisms, that were emerging again and again, and, on the top of that, strange positions between two cold war camps. 

If Yugo-sotsmodernism was “in between”, that meant it was attempting a kind of architectural universalism, to make “universalism one’s own”. It was against nationalistic fetishizations of style, instead investing in self-managed socialism, brotherhood, independent foreign policies. They were trying to follow demographical patterns, in a rapid urbanization assuming sometimes traumatic effects on often rural population, but still, from the contemporary view of housing shortages, it becomes relativised. Yes, the initiative to house everybody was a whole with the political program, but it really tried to improve level of life for everybody.

Yet, authors seem disintrerested in further discreditation of the idea of socialism, at the same time not succumbing to the Yugonostalgia. Mostly completely unsentimental about the shortcomings of the system: it didn’t realise its promises, it didn’t built enough, appreciate certain aspects of this inbetweenness, like trying to surpass the ethnic disruptions within the Yugoslavia, which resulted in such tragic way at the end of it. at the very least, the book allows us to see Yugoslavia not as a defunct land of memory, but as a once living organism.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The past and the present of Polish music avant-garde: two cases

Krzysztof Penderecki and Eugeniusz Rudnik in Polish Radio Experimental Studio,  late 50s/early 60s.

[both, in different versions, apeared in The Wire last year]

Krzysztof Penderecki
Polskie Nagrania 2011

Krzysztof Penderecki’s story is well known: a bold avant-garde composer in the 1950s/60s, one of the major forerunners of Polish School of Composition and champions of the newly emerging, strictly Polish version of atonality called sonorism, of which he was a precursor, suddenly, in the early 1970s, he gradually drops its principles and starts composing mainly grandiose symphonic music in the Romantic style of late 19th century. He gave a famous statement, that “it’s not him, who betrayed the avant-garde, but the avant-garde, who betrayed the music”. It’s not the only case of an avant-gardist rejecting the experiment for the sake of classicism, but it is his early stuff, that remains the most famous and which made him successful in the West. Pieces compiled on Awangarda CD, composed between 1958 and 1964, were all unanimously appreciated and prized on international festivals, like Donaueschingen, exactly at the same time, when Poland was opening to the western world after years of Stalinism. Strophes for soprano, recitation and 10 instruments or Psalms of David for mixed choir, strings and percussion were prized in the post-Thaw Poland, 8:27 from 1961, called this way as a homage to John Cage and later renamed as Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, has become an all-time soundtrack classic, from Kubrick’s seminal use in Shining, Children of Men and Inland Empire and Polymorphia was used in The Exorcist, all becoming by accident somewhat universal sonic embodiment of radical evil. 

Despite being so well known, pieces collected here still give thrills, especially paired with less known Fluorescences, where apart from symphonic orchestra, Penderecki introduces sound smade by pieces of sheet metal, electric bell, saw, typing machine and an alarm siren. The aleatoric method of composition (a non-determined score, which gave the musicians space for improvisation) made them very difficult to perform in Poland, mutinying the players. Andrzej Markowski, who’s directing both on all the Awangarda pieces and the Utrenja (Morning Prayer), had a chief role in making many avant-garde pieces to be played at all. Utrenja (1970-1) is one of the most striking, uncompromising pieces of liturgic modern music, where the chthonic, non-western wailings (phenomenal voices of National Philharmonics soloists and choir) of Old-Church orthodoxy music is paired with the ruthlessly modern, fragmented, queasy, even ailing modern idiom, in a way that would satisfy the very Theodor Adorno. It can rival with Ligeti or Gubaidulina as a mastrepiece of religious music and convert anybody, if only for an hour; a timeless piece of music. Given its success, especially in the foreign audiences, the later denial by the composer of all this part of his work, must've been purely ideological. Perhaps the reason was easy: it wasn't the indie film fans, who were filling the concert halls, though with Penderecki's recent collaboration with Jonny Greenwood and a sudden comeback to his early work, this is certainly a subject to change.

PRES today

DJ Lenar
Bolt CD
listen! listen

The title of yet another album from the revered series resurrecting Polish Radio Experimental Studio, Re: PRES, couldn’t be better put: here, the contemporary Polish minimal techno producer, improviser and musician, DJ Lenar is trying to at the same time “repeat”, but also reinvent, a very mysterious and fascinating part of the PRES archive: the hundreds of one if its flagship composer’s, Eugeniusz Rudnik’s so called “one-minutes”, vast collection of sonic miniatures, usually exactly no longer than the said one minute.

The genius of it is that it is and it isn’t an “archival” production – because the collection of Rudnik’s pieces was so huge, the Bolt producers thought the best way of presenting them to the listener won’t be an arbitrary “curating” of some samples of it, but to give them to a musician, who would rather creatively replay them and try to use Rudnik’s method of making music. And those methods varied from a momentary distraction using the cast offs that left after other sessions, to the improvisations and planned compositions, but all must've been brief.

This makes Lenar's 17 tracks, lasting from 30 seconds to 3,5 minutes, a contemporary rendition of the Studio methods, but with no trace of the hommage. We are rather to imagine Lenar simply trying out various moods, while playing, what is meaningful, on what used to be only the aides of music-making: amplifiers, gramophone, samplers, loopstation. Sometimes they are remixes, but more often variations over a piece. What is the most gripping in this beautiful series is how the genuine idiom of Polish electroacustic music: characteristic crookedness, crunkiness with a shine of madness and surrealism, clashes with the typical contemporary language of alt-electronica, filtered through glitches and loops.

It is hard sometimes to say though, what sounds newer and what belongs to Lenar, and what to Rudnik – it is clear though this music couldn’t be played in the 1960s. The original purpose of miniatures was for thetre and you can try to imagine pictures accompanying the microstructures od Lenar - filled with romantic prettiness, yet haunted. This meeting with the past has a slightly sickly, melancholic, tuberculosis charm of old laces - like meeting a beautiful girl from a past era, of whom we know she’s dead, afterall. It is a romantic Polish soul, in search for an absolute sound, bathing in slices of sounds from many different times.

the album is a part of an excellent series, including recent Assemblage by Boguslaw Schaeffer and wonderfully artsy Knittel/Sikora/Michniewski. Also, remember I wrote about this before, and a book I contributed to.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Beyond the Zone: Social and Political Costs of the 'Ruin Porn'

I'm having a hard-hitting essay published, on the political and economical costs of the aesthetisation of the Eastern Europe's poverty, and, at the margin of that, how it is a part of the 'ruin porn' (incidentally, there's a piece this week on that very subject about Detroit by Andy Beckett) in the Australian edition of Architectural Review. Here small fragments as a teaser, buy it or wait until the next issue to read the whole thing, or wait until my book is written:

(...) The former USSR has become a scene of such fetishization exponentially with its own economical demise after the collapse of socialist system and capitalist shock therapy. As pictures of heavy drinking, impoverished folk from Siberia populate the internet as “Hipsters from Omsk”, the tons of pictures from Pripyat notwithstanding, at the same time, Ukraine and Russia haven't had a poorer record from the western commentators since the dissolution, for things like jailing their liberal west-friendly politicians, like Yulia Tymoshenko, or anarchist punk bands, like Pussy Riot, performing anti-Putin gigs in front of cathedrals. (...)
(...) The ongoing fascination/repulsion of the capitalist West with the ex-Soviet Bloc started during the cold war years and prepared very well the ground for the flourishing of all sorts of urban and political myths, that were only confirmed by photos circulating in magazines like LIFE. They were consolidated by a few works by the most popular Russian director in history, a man with an extraordinarily distinct vision, Andrey Tarkovsky. Most notably it was his vision in Stalker, which, despite being shot in 1979, is popularly perceived as a “Chernobyl” film, for its uncanny prophetyism, endlessly reproduced in the company of the reactor-trips pictures and transformed into a Ukrainian-produced video game STALKER:Shadow of Chernobyl. There, instead of involving in philosophical debates, as in the film, one becomes an amnesiac urban explorer, whose one of the tasks is to kill a villain called “Strelok”.(...)

(...) And yet, Zona fascinates: fascinates the characters in the film and now, the scavengers, who want nothing more than to be there. Why? Slavoj Zizek suggests that this popularity is prompted exactly by its prohibition: Zone's properties are augmented by the fact they are somehow wrong, bad for you, a Lacanian interpretation of the Real as an area of exclusion prompting its power. The ex-communist area, as possessive of dark forces for that reason precisely is popular among the westerners. The problem is that what they do, the money they leave in the former East is based on this place staying toxic: remaining forbidden, radioactive, sick. And the guarantee this world can remain sick is precisely because where we come from, the West, is safe and healthy. in addition, macabrely, this film lead to a number of “victims”, a true chain of corpses behind it.  It was not shot in Russia, but in Estonia, near Tallinn, at the two deserted power plants at the Jagala river and several other toxic locations, like a chemical factory, which was pouring toxic liquids. At least three people involved in the production, Anatoliy Solonitsyn, Larissa Tarkovska and Tarkovsky himself, died of cancer in the aftermath. (...)

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Avant-garde from the Bloc(k)

[this was written for a certain website that then saw some obscure Polish music, got scared and changed their mind]

[I wrote on other Polish punk groups in English before, on Wielkanoc and on several included in the book Generation]

Kontrola W, Bossa Nova, on: Porzucona generacja (Deserted Generation, compilation, Noise Pop, 1998)

"Kontrola W is the best and most modern band in Poland today” – wrote Chris Bohn in the New Musical Express from 23.06.1983. Bohn or rather Biba Kopf, was going around communist countries in the early 80s looking for interesting music – having had spent some time in Germany, he went further east, stopping among other places, in Poznan, where there was held a Rock Arena (festival of otherwise big rock bands like Republika, Lady Pank, TSA, Lombard), before heading further to Russia. The band never released a record, the six tracks on "Abandoned generation" comp were registered in 1982 in Radio Łódź: “Manekiny", "Bossa Nova", "Ciągle w ruchu", "Centrum Przemysłu", "Radioaktywne", "To będzie koniec”.

Kontrola W (from Zduńska Wola, in industrial area of Poland) originally was named “Kontrola Władzy” (Control of Power), but probably because the group didn’t want to get in trouble, they decided to shorten it – at some gig when they were announced, someone from the crowd said: "but you cant control the power!" – "but it’s about us being controlled by the power" – the band replied (telling later that 'W' stands for Wrażenia (Impressions)). Still, the music, in its lyrics and militant, pugnacious (though having lots of new wave classiness) retro rockabilly elegance and postpunk erudition, brought to mind Burroughsesque topics of the control from the state, communist newspeak, atomic war, nuclear crisis, hiding in bunkers, imagining the end of the world, fear of pollution and radioactivity, state-controlled media brainwashing the society, erasure of the self by the mass culture, personality crisis – sound familiar?

All the typical disillusioned mindset of the punk and post punk idiom. On the top of that, they provocatively dressed with simplicity of hunky workers, with their 50s hair and shirts, as if they runned away from a construction site. But we must remember what was actually happening in Poland around the time the band came into existence: shortly after they got together, Martial Law broke in December 1981, which to many people in its first phase was like a real war: tanks, food crisis and rationing, curfew, people arrested, more or less accidental deaths on the streets, terror. Many people of the previous punk scene emigrated from Poland then (you can read interviews and testimonies from that era in a beautifully illustrated bilingual book with punk photos of Michal Wasaznik, Generacja (Ha!art 2011)). In this atmosphere Kontrola W took parts in still occurring from 1982 youth festivals, and a year later, when the war was over, foreign journalists like Bohn could hear them.

Says the leader Darek Kulda in an interview from 1984: "I wanted to make an ugly music. It was a period, when in Polish radio there was nothing apart from hard rock, which I was sick of. I decided to cerate a band whose music would be unclassifiable, neither rock, nor jazz, nor nothing. We failed, cos they put us under a label: new wave." It’s hard not to think of new wave/post-punk idiom though, listening to those 6 salvaged Kontrola W’s tracks, despite their poor recording quality, possessing instantly recognizable originality: precise and smooth as hell rhythm section (drummer Wojtek Jagielski in the ‘free’ Poland, funnily enough become a talk-show celebrity) drives the motorik of Bossa Nova, which starts from a few seconds of compulsive scratching guitar’s strings. Then the sexy drums and bass get us into the warped “Bossa Nova”, having little to do with the style itself, but much rather resembling the assured passages from Wire or Gang of Four.

Like an out-of-tune, sick, broken rockandroll, the song progresses in angular groans and whines of guitar, accompanied with a very assured, very capricious screech of Kasia Kulda, in which she’s trying to get rid of an importunate lover: When there’s nothing to talk about/ you persecute me at every step/ Crawling upon my feet (…)/ and if this doesn’t bring effect/ you can only sing this old tune: Bossa Nova!”. Kulda sings with sharpness and panache which Siouxie Sioux should be jealous of, if she knew about it. but it’s not Siouxie we should think of, but rather Altered States, where the singer is not a predatory dominatrix, but when the song doesn’t lean on the charisma of one member, but is an effect of a group effort.

In complicated ways of development of popular music in the Soviet Bloc it’s easy to classify bands immediately as some sorts of poor, oppressed oppositionists – I’d rather say, that in the case of Polish punks it was the same impulse as the one of their cold war peers from the other side of the curtain. Both felt that the current political order is wrong, that there’s no opportunities for people like them. The music rising everywhere in the punk era, regardless, eastern or western was directed by a similar impulse of disillusionment, of taking things in ones hands and ability to express anger and dissatisfaction. On both sides it was a manifestation of the dispossessed: the fact the western youth was rejecting yuppie lifestyle of baby boomers, and Poles had nothing to lose doesn’t change it.

The song was released 16 years after its registration at a ephemereal 1-person managed Pop Noise records in Poznań. Aborted for political reasons (martial law) and then put to a halt, when the band dissoluted in autumn 1983, when the 19 year old members chosen to study in Warsaw. They reemerged 3 years later in different personnel, as Cosmetics of Mrs Pinki, but never they regained the sharpness and acidic humour of the Kontrola W.

[in the next episode other memorable bands of Polish punk/new wave: Made in Poland, Śmierc Kliniczna, Kryzys, Wielkanoc, queens of pop synth and electro, disco divas and many many more!!!!]