Year of Release: 1971
More than most European Communist Bloc countries, Czechoslovakia tended to have a reasonably liberal approach to rock and soul music, and even a certain pride in its output. Numerous pop groups hit the country's live circuit relatively undisturbed provided, of course, they didn't upset the Government too much with their attitude or lyrical content of their songs.
Let's not kid ourselves that this was some kind of youth utopia, though. The Prague Museum of Communism - well worth a visit if ever you find yourself in that part of the world - had a section on rock music when I was last there, and went to great pains to point out the negative treatment the state dished out to The Plastic People of The Universe, a group using lyrics written by the "subversive" poet Egon Brondy who openly criticised contemporary capitalism and totalitarian socialism (was he born several decades too early to be appreciated on an international scale, I wonder?) Forced to disappear underground until the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the band were frequently arrested and, in the case of at least one member, forced into exile. This was not a country in which wannabe Bob Dylans could easily exist, much less wannabe Lou Reeds or Frank Zappas.
"Beat-Line of Today" is a state-approved sampler of Czech music in the early seventies, and it does not feature The Plastic People of the Universe. Don't be so daft. Somewhat surprisingly, though, the opening band of the set are Blue Effect, an art-rock ensemble whose usual approach to music could be downright psychedelic at times, as you can hear in the "Electric Sound Show" compiled "Snakes". On this album they're not presented as a commercial proposition exactly, but they're certainly less manic and considerably toned down. "Little Girl" is a measured proggish piece with puffing flutes Tulling the room out like no-one's business, and "Deserted Alley" is a faintly eerie slow rocker which sounds as if it would have fitted in along with a lot of the doomy, Floydish post-psych pre-prog recordings of a few years before. Ultimately, though, it's hampered by a slightly rushed sounding production, as are many of the tracks on this album, and I'd advise people looking for evidence of how good Blue Effect could be to listen elsewhere as well.
Elsewhere on the compilation, away from any potential psychedelic wonders, middle-of-the-road pop gets a look in through Josef Pliva and Hana Ulrychová, Czech's "lady of soul" Marie Rottrová puts in a couple of powerful performances, and above all else my favourites of this set are The Olympics. They may be raw and rock and roll in the early sense of the word, but The Olympics are about the only artist on this compilation to really sound savage and uncaged - if the studio recording here is adequate evidence of their live prowess, I can fully imagine them leaving live venues in Prague dripping with sweat.
Ultimately though, the issue with most of these recordings is the ham-fisted, heavily separated stereo production (although if it was good enough for The Beatles…) and the rigid, metronomic lack of spontaneity that leaks through on some of the tracks. There's a lack of swing about quite a few of these cuts, and a sense that whoever was recording them - or whoever was watching over the person recording them - fundamentally misunderstood how rock and soul music should be handled. It's difficult not to talk about the limitations of this music without sounding as if I'm being xenophobic, but on the evidence available elsewhere through the efforts of The Matadors and Blue Effect at their finest, I'd say this compilation doesn't exactly act as proof that Czechoslovakian rock music in this period was mediocre so much as show that it could often sound that way when it was mishandled.
Minor pearls do exist amidst the mid-tempo melee, however, and this isn't a bad album to put in your mp3 list while iTunes is set to shuffle. On occasion, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.
I've included samples of Blue Effect, Marie Rottrová and The Olympics in "The Box" below for you to test, and the whole album is available for download here.
A1. Blue Effect - Little Girl
A2. Blue Effect - Deserted Alley
A3. Josef Pilva - Magic Kiss
A4. Hana Ulrychová, Petr Ulrych and The Atlantis - The Times I Adore
A5. Hana Ulrychová and The Atlantis - Don't You Break It Again
A6. The Olympics - Dynamite
B1. Petr Spálený and The Apollobeat - Blame On Me
B2. Pavel Sedláček and The Expression - I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know
B3. Marie Rottrová and The Flamingo - The House That Jack Built
B4. Marie Rottrová and The Flamingo - Long And Lonely Night
B5. Michal Prokop and The Framus Five - My Days Are Numbered
B6. Michal Prokop and The Framus Five - Hold On I'm Comin'