Halfway to London, Halfway to Moscow

I remember a Polish saying that perfectly described the reality of the Block countries at the time: “We were all living in a camp but Poland was the most joyous hut”. If you get the whole grotesque of it you’re on the right track to understand Polish beat with all its contradictions. If we all agree to say the music had to be officially censored and polished (ha, ha, the pun intended), how then to explain the release of such garage cuts as Polanie’s punky version of I’m Crying, super-raw Jesien by Piec Linii or dreadfully out-of-tune Plotki by Pesymisci. Similarly, if saying that teen combos were enjoying some freedom is not way from being true, why then they didn’t come up with fuzzy punkers to better reflect the bleak reality remains, again, a mystery. So, read on and try to understand.
 

Records & labels
Most strikingly, Polish 60’s beat represented an unthinkably insane case of a music scene without records. At the time there was only one state-controlled label Polskie Nagrania issuing under the name of Pronit or Muza. The only breach in their monopoly was the Veriton label (state-owned, of course) which recorded teen acts between ‘64-’66. Later, however, they decided to go into classical music. Paradoxically enough, this label once renowned for promoting and issuing beat bands such as Dzikusy or Chocholy has now been refusing to license their ‘60’s tracks for comps.

The whole process of releasing an album took about 6 to 12 months and little less for EP’s and singles. This meant that fans could get their faves on vinyl about a year after they heard them on the radio (this is why Polish collectors always look at the recording date not the release one). This situation had of course its consequences – the bands didn’t take labels very seriously as they knew the records wouldn’t have any impact on their careers. Thus, they didn’t give a damn sometimes about what and how they recorded. In the overall atmosphere of disregard for state-owned labels no one with sound mind could expect great stuff on vinyl. This is why there were cases of bands recording original material that was hardly played at gigs ever after. They did sessions just because they managed to sneak into the studio not to leave a valuable trace.

As far as records are concerned, the EP was a standard release format in the mid-sixties; the singles were much rarer than in the West and seldom were they a debut release. The EP’s and singles were packaged, with rare exceptions, in standard covers with no info about the band. The exception here were, again, Veriton releases. The recording sessions is a story on its own - the older-generation engineers didn’t have the faintest idea how to record teen combos and they did as if they were dealing with backing bands for a ‘50’s-styled solo singer. Thus, you can taste predominant, often out-of –tune vocals, lame guitar and good stomping rhythm section because the engineers still had that stand-up bass sound in their ears. The average time given to bands to record one track was about 1 hour and at least 4 songs were recorded to fill up an EP.

Clearly enough, studio availability was limited but at least you didn’t have to pay for it. Only big-name bands such as Czerwono-Czarni, Niebiesko-Czarni or Czerwone Gitary had relatively easy access to recording sessions but in most cases their material would probably not be of interest to the readers of this page. Even bands then referred to as “beat” left a lot of schlock. This is partly because they were eagerly used by labels as backing combos for schmaltzy chanteurs inundating the charts. At the time bands were generally little aware of consistency of style and the backing sessions provided them with money and connections needed to get in the studio. That’s why in your search for undiscovered gems you should go for individual songs rather than bands. Finally, it goes without saying, I guess, that lots of local teen groups could only dream of being invited to the labels and thus never released a thing.
 

Radio
You must be wondering then how the hell one could hear bands at the time if they hardly recorded. Sure, on the radio. Hats off, folks, to a few young entrepreneurial deejays who bothered to pick up interesting acts and talked their radio superiors into recording hundreds of tracks. In the mid-sixties the Polish Radio (which held the broadcasting monopoly) had three channels, of which Channel 3, led by quite a young team enjoyed the biggest “independence” and recorded dozens of bands. On Channel 1, however, a special youth project called “Studio Rytm” was created to record and promote interesting young acts.

Teen combos were invited to the radio studio to hold sessions, and that’s for free! Sure, in this case your connections were important too, ‘cause it was impossible to record all the bands. Generally, a few songs were recorded during a session and there were no specific time limitations. The selected tracks could get aired within a few days and actually most of them did. So, this system worked a hundred times faster and more efficiently than with the labels.

Clearly, there had to be some overlap of the material recorded for the radio and for the labels (in fact it wasn’t too big and thus some tracks exist only in radio or vinyl version). Paradoxically enough, the radio didn’t generally air records as they had enough of their own recordings and the labels were not very willing to take masters from the radio (there were a few discs including radio stuff, though). Radio versions are generally rawer and cruder but even here don’t expect fuzzy punkers. Similarly, radio-only tracks have generally more garagey edge than the vinyl stuff.

The only disadvantage to this system is clearly that radio tapes can be easily erased. That’s exactly what happened to a part of archives after the Studio Rytm project was officially terminated in 1973. Thus, some precious 60’s material was irretrievably lost.


Czerwone Guitary

Music, influences & gear
Saying that the major influence came from Liverpool would be pushing it a bit too far. Sure, the Beatles had their local imitators here (Czerwone Gitary) but they never got here with gigs. Having in mind that it’s the Animals who were one of the first British bands to come over (the Stones and Artwoods followed) it’s little wonder that the British r&b was a hype here with bands between ’65 and ’67. Interestingly enough, the Stones were always the favorites of the music press, too (“music press” at the time actually meant four black&white pages inserted in a jazz magazine!). While most local bands tried hard to copy their r&b idols (but it doesn’t necessarilly mean they were entirely successful with the results) the public wanted Beatlesy tunes as reflected by Czerwone Gitary’s instant success.

Well, perhaps most bands didn’t want to copy the Fab Four ‘cause they already knew they’d never get the clear sound with the sort of equipment they owned. They sounded shabby and raw not because they wanted to but just for lack of quality stage gear. Because of general economic hardship such stuff was simply unavailable. As for guitars, most bands used a Czekoslovakian brand “Jolana” or East German “Musima” (have you ever heard of?). Polish guitars were below any acceptability – no sooner had you gotten to the last string with the tuning the first happened to get out of tune again. But the major plague that struck the bands was unavailability of amps and speakers. But necessity is the mother of invention and the guys got on with converted radio sets or cinema stuff. At the time, if you learned about a travelling cinema about to close down you were probably the luckiest one in town cause you could have all gear at one go. Oh boy, just imagine the kick-ass sound that cinema stuff produced!

No wonder then lots of bands had musical skills that actually matched the quality of their equipment. Don’t be surprised if you more often than not hear dreadfully out-of-tune vocals, still enhanced by brilliant sound engineers. Well, consider it the Polish input to the panoply of sacrosanct garage horrors.

Fuzzbox? Thank you, we’re not interested
Why the invention of fuzz remained ignored by Polish bands until the late 60’s would perhaps deserve extensive research. Even if it is admitted that the Who weren’t very popular here and the Animals didn’t use the thing, everybody who had ears could hear Keith’s fuzz on Satisfaction. A natural thing would be aping the sound the next day – this however didn’t happen. The chart-topping Niebiesko-Czarni, who were allowed to tour in the West, were buying expensive marvels like a custom-made 12-string guitars but never thought of getting the cheap little distortion pedal. It would be easy to put that absence of fuzz down to the country’s economic hardship but a fuzzbox is not technically difficult to make on your own. It is generally accepted that the first fuzz was recorded in Poland in October ‘67 by Polanie during their lp sessions. And if you think they bought or made the toy on their own initiative you’re wrong. The Gibson fuzzbox they used was simply a gift from Keith Richards himself in return for an amp Polanie willingly lent him for the Stones gig in Warsaw. Yeah, there’s really no way you can despise the Stones here.
 

Censorship & political oppression
In the overall state-controlled reality beat bands enjoyed some freedom, but political pressure at the time had to lead to some compromises. The government aimed at institutionalizing rock music by channelling bands through communist youth organizations or enforcing licences to play (without which you got hardly paid at gigs). It was also common for teen combos to play at big official pompous festivals of Soviet or soldiers’ songs. Such was the price of media success and studio availability. The whole system favored bands which fitted decision-makers’ tastes, and any performance thought subversive, whether musically or lyrics-wise was doomed. Thus, quite a lot of bands simply didn’t record a track.

Every song had to be censored before recording. For this, the musical score and lyrics had to be submitted and sometimes bands were asked to play a sample. Generally, you had to submit original compositions sung in Polish; any British or American covers were frowned upon. It’s interesting to know that around ’62 Niebiesko-Czarni launched an apparently innocent slogan “Polish youth sing Polish songs” which had a disastrous effect on Polish rock/beat. As the slogan became one of regime’s favorite, bands were pushed into singing almost only in Polish, and better still, getting inspired by national folklore, which spawned hundreds of pseudo-beat/folk haunting nightmares. All this, of course, to fight off that “rotten imperialist bias”.

In retrospect, however, that imposed Polish-only-please attitude had its good effect too, as it prodded local creativity a bit. Otherwise, local combos would have mass-produced western covers as was often the case in non-English speaking countries. Sure they would ‘cause that’s exactly what they did at gigs at students’ clubs (which the censors didn’t give a damn about) – literally tons of the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Kinks. Polish guys were so enchanted by them they would have never thought of contaminating the genre with Polish element.

***

As this overview started with a joke it must end with one too. The joke dates back to the cold-war period: two passengers were taking a plane - a Brit to Moscow and a Russian to London. For some reason the plane had an unexpected landing in Warsaw. Unaware of this, the Brit got off ‘cause he thought it was already Moscow and so did the Russian sure it was London. That’s exactly how the Polish garage/beat was like.