Censorship, interrupted concerts, “trash tax”, rebellion and a bit of freedom: the history of Punk in ex-Yugoslavia was a turbulent adventure.
In September 2016, the city administration of Rijeka, a town in north-western Croatia, decided to declare a piece of graffiti its cultural heritage. The graffiti, written on asphalt and dating back to 1976, has already faded by now, barely still reading “Paraf punk”.
But these two words, written in white oil paint, are more than just graffiti – they mark the beginning of the Yugoslav punk era, as Paraf is the name of one of the first punk bands in this part of the world. Sex Pistols released their first single ‘Anarchy in the UK’ in November 1976; Paraf held their first concert in a park near the city centre (and near the above-mentioned graffiti) only a few months later.
“It was in December 1976, I think,” says Valter Kocijančić, the frontman of Paraf, who was a teenager back then. That random DIY concert surprised the audience, composed mostly of onlookers unaware that they were seeing history in the making. However, it was on March 22, 1978, that Paraf launched their career at a concert of several young rock bands from Rijeka. This is considered to be the first official punk concert in the former Yugoslavia.
“We played simply because we liked to play,” says Valter, recalling the beginnings of the band. At the time, they had no idea what to call the music they were making – they only knew they wanted to play energetic music, express themselves, sing about whatever was on their minds.
Anarchy Under a Communist Flag
It wasn’t easy for Western trends such as punk to penetrate the socialist Yugoslavia of the late 1970s and early 1980s. By that time, the country had grown into a relatively open one – long gone were the days when the country’s leader, Josip Broz Tito, made alliances with Stalin’s Soviet Union. Yugoslavian citizens were able to travel abroad, enjoyed the benefits of stable employment, health insurance and a higher life standard than many of them have nowadays, and their freedoms were closer to those of Western citizens than those under Soviet rule. Yet it still wasn’t advisable to speak up against Tito. The country was founded on a one-party system and, well, that system wasn’t very eager to import punk.
Valter didn’t know he was about to do exactly that, of course. His musical taste at the time included the Slades and Alice Cooper. “I was lucky I had access to foreign press,” he remembers. His father sold foreign press all over the Croatian coast during the summer, and on the glossy pages of magazines he couldn’t understand a word of, Valter discovered long-haired rockers with an attitude he wanted to imitate. “I only knew I wanted to play music. I discovered what punk was much later, when a guy from my hometown got back from London with an LP by the Sex Pistols,” he describes.
Other bands followed Paraf’s style, and pretty soon the punk and new wave scene in Yugoslavia was booming. In Croatia, the bulk of punk/new wave bands was centred in the cities of Rijeka and Zagreb – Termiti, Mrtvi kanal, Grč and Prljavo kazalište. In Slovenia, everything started with the band Buldožer, followed by Pankrti, while new musical trends in Serbia gave way to bands such as Pekinška patka, Električni orgazam, Idoli, Šarlo Akrobata and Ekaterina Velika. There were many others, of course; some played at punk/new wave gigs but preferred more traditional, milder rock music. Some managed to stay together for only a couple of months, not enough to record anything, hold any memorable concerts or gain enough of an audience outside of their hometowns.
Concerts Interrupted, Records Taxed
As music happens to be not only a reflection of a band’s musical preferences, but also an expression of a certain zeitgeist, it’s interesting to explore life in 1980s Yugoslavia.
At the time, the socialist state had to cope with significant foreign debt, inflation hit hard, unemployment rates had risen, and the population faced all kinds of shortages, starting with petrol and expanding to everyday necessities such as coffee, chocolate and toothpaste.
The 1980s were a very turbulent period that required very turbulent music, capable of expressing what young people were going through, says Martin Pogačar, a research fellow at the Institute of Culture and Memory Studies in Slovenia, who authored several publications on memories about the former Yugoslavia and the legacy of Yugoslavian popular music.
“The Western world represented a reference point, of course. But the Yugoslavian reality had its particularities that were reflected in the music. At the same time, these bands had to deal with both existential security and existential insecurity, as much as this might seem paradoxical,“ Pogačar analyses. Even if they didn’t face the precarious living situations the youth of today might – having a stable job and an income was more a rule than an exception back then – they still had songs about instability. Rijeka’s Termiti sang about electricity shortages in their song ‘Redukcija’ (‘Cuts’): “Don’t turn on the light/we live in the dark/we are saving the electricity/the electric energy/well these cuts can fuck off”.
Their song ‘Ujo gastarbajter’, ‘Uncle gastarbeiter’ (gastarbeiter being German for “guest worker”) depicts an important aspect of Yugoslavian society at the time: emigration. Numerous Yugoslavian citizens departed for Western countries, especially Germany, to find work. Belgrade’s band Električni Orgazam knew how to point out that even within a system that should have abolished classes, there were still persistent class differences. In their song ‘Zlatni papagaj’ (‘Golden parrot’) they criticized the “golden youth”: “dad pays all the bills (…) we’re disgusted by public transport, it’s much quicker to come by car”.
Yet, when they rebelled against the system, it wasn’t necessarily about crashing the system either. In the beginning of the 1980s, the Yugoslavian state was still stable, secure in its power, so it was capable of allowing “small turbulence” without feeling threatened. “I feel that Yugoslavian bands didn’t think outside of Yugoslavian borders much. They didn’t want to break down the system, they were all for acting within the borders of Yugoslavia. They were aware, though, that problems exist, and they wanted change,” says Martin Pogačar.
And the system had much sneakier methods to act against these bands than pure repression. One of the most widespread tactics was a so-called “trash tax”, charged for the oeuvres of “dubious cultural value”. “That meant that after the tax was applied, the price of your CD would almost double,” remembers Valter Kocijančić.
Another successful measure of repression included police interruptions of concerts, as well as censorship. The cover of Paraf’s first LP had to be changed several times. Also, they had to censor all their lyrics – but this is where their creativity shone. Subtle or not so subtle, irony was a must. To an inexperienced ear, one of Paraf’s greatest songs, ‘Narodna pjesma’, could be perceived as a tribute to the police force. However, the song declaring “There’s no better police than our police” is actually a song about police repression, a critique of the most visible facet of state repression. Valter even remembers how his friend overheard a discussion among several policemen during a concert by Paraf. “This is the best band, at least they made a song about us,” they allegedly commented.
Some of Paraf’s songs didn’t make it onto any LPs during Yugoslavian times. Yet Martin Pogačar notes that we still need to be cautious when talking about repression, because there might be some “whitewashing on both sides”.
“Some go as far as to say that the system was authoritarian and didn’t allow any criticism. And yet, we have all sorts of cultural products that prove the contrary. It’s hard to generalize, of course, but there was no systematic repression. Yes, there was some sort of censorship, for instance, some bands couldn’t record an LP in Belgrade, but they could do it in Ljubljana,” explains Pogačar.
The heritage of punk
Valter’s punk phase didn’t last long. Paraf put out an LP, they toured Yugoslavia and they became legends, but he still decided to leave the band after the first album. Paraf continued on under the same name, with a different lineup, including a female lead, and moved away from raw punk to a more new wave, synth-enriched style of music. Today, Valter claims he wasn’t really thrilled by any of the bands that followed. Musical critics and punk rock fans beg to differ. Yugoslavian punk and new wave became the subject of many documentaries, theses, and concert/festival reunions.
Some tend to think of it as one of the most important phenomena in Yugoslavian society, but Pogačar is cautious. “Our past is defined by our personal experiences and our perception of the past. As with every post-reading of the past, the element of nostalgia is widely present. So, when we look back at the past, when we are trying to make sense of it, we’re doing exactly that – telling a story, looking for causalities between the elements of the story. But that’s not necessarily the case – in the moments when these things happened, they weren’t necessarily connected,” he notes.
Although punk and new wave were not mainstream at any given time in Yugoslavia’s past, they’ve proven to be an inspiration for younger bands, decades after disappearing and after Yugoslavia fell apart. Their lyrics and the message they tried to convey are still important, almost 40 years later.
Andrea Žiković, former guitar player of a now-already-defunct band Diskurz, says that, growing up in Rijeka, these bands really influenced his musical taste. “When you’re 15 and you want to learn to play something on your guitar, it’s natural to turn to local bands, and for us these local bands were also bands that brought punk music into the country,” he says. It wasn’t about the music, which usually consists of three chords and is quite easy to pick up, but about the lyrics. “First you’re drawn to them because of their stage performance, like when Termiti played with toilet seats on their heads, throwing feathers into the audience. Then you start listening to the lyrics and you realize that there’s more to it, that this is how they expressed their rebellion.”
Diskurz was active from 2006 to 2012, with Žiković on the guitar from 2007 to 2011. The band received great critical acclaim in Croatia, as journalists perceived them as the true descendants of Yugoslavian punk and new wave bands. “We had our fan base, and yes, journalists liked us, because it was nice for them to hear a powerful band, a sound that reminded them of their youth, I guess? But young audiences didn’t attend the concerts that much. If they had to choose between paying the entrance fee to our concerts and buying a bottle of wine, they would do the latter.” Or, in other words, punk’s dead, long live punk?