A Somber Refrain for East Bloc Rock


FOR Warsaw rock star Zbigniew Holdys, business was much better in the dark days of martial-law Poland. As leader of Perfect, Poland's leading antigovernment rock band, Holdys commanded hundreds of thousands of die-hard fans. ``I was superstar in Poland,'' the bulky, balding guitarist muses in fluid but heavily accented English. ``We could fill the largest concert halls in Poland. We sold over 2 million albums.''

In the early 1980s, General Jaruzelski, in a bid to win ``the hearts and minds'' of young Poles, took the lid off the Polish music scene, giving rock bands virtual carte blanche. While Solidarity leaders languished in silent prison cells, Poland's concert halls rattled with high-decibel punk and heavy metal.

A half decade later, a grim silence reigns over many of Poland's legendary rock venues. According to Holdys, the Riviera-Remont Club, where some of Poland's fiercest punk rock held forth at the height of martial law, now leases space for computer fairs and flower markets.

``With the economic reforms, the clubs have to show a profit,'' explains Holdys. ``They can make more money on flowers than on live rock. Young bands are fleeing the country. One top musician is now playing in a circus. Others are performing at the Marriot Hotel.'' He pauses mournfully, then adds, ``Rock is dead in Poland.''

And not just in Poland. The recent upheaval in Eastern Europe has thrown the ``music of rebellion'' in crisis. From East Berlin to Warsaw to Prague, leading rock bands that toughed it out for years under Communist rule, have, for financial, political, or artistic reasons, recently disbanded.

The tremors have even been felt on the Soviet rock scene. When a major Western record company began courting Boris Grebenshchikov, Leningrad's underground rock legend, the conflict between commercial success and artistic integrity tore apart his band, Aquarium. Grebenshchikov signed a contract with CBS and allowed himself to be groomed for the Western market. He headed for Manhattan; his band stayed in Leningrad.

Aquarium's dissolution was ironic. ``Since the 1970s, the KGB has tried to break up Aquarium,'' observes Moscow rock critic Artiam Troitsky. ``What the KGB failed to do in 10 years, a Western record company did in nine months.''

According to Troitsky, under the former regimes commercial success was rarely an option, and so artistic integrity, regardless of the quality of the music - much of it was extremely poor - never had to be compromised.

Under the ``new conditions,'' rock bands must have commercial appeal. Songs that subtly or overtly attacked Soviet-bloc leadership - ``The rotten Communist gang,'' sang one Budapest band in the 1980s, ``Why hasn't anyone hanged them yet?'' - have lost their bite, and their relevance.

In East Berlin, the band Pankow, a dynamic new-wave band that made its fame with songs about drug abuse, alienation, and pollution, recently disbanded. ``We are no longer relevant,'' explains lead singer, Andre Herzberg, who publicly demanded reform even before the Honecker regime began to totter last October. ``I'm not sure what I'm going to do now,'' the Hollywood-handsome Herzberg muses. ``I'll take some time off. Maybe I'll go into acting.''

In Czechoslovakia, Michael Kocab, the ``enfant terrible'' of Czech rock in the 1980s, has abandoned music for politics. In 1984, Kocab, leader of the notorious rock band Prazsky Vyber (Prague Selection) was harassed by the secret police and finally silenced by the state.

LAST fall, Kocab emerged as one of the leading figures of Civic Forum, the organization that toppled the Communist regime and brought Vaclav Havel to power. Kocab, a new member of the Czech Parliament, has set aside his guitar to assume a post as the new Czechoslovak ambassador to Canada.

The momentous changes, and the grim economic prospects faced by most East European countries, have also realigned young people's attitudes toward rock music. The forbidden fruit is suddenly available. But rock fans are no longer certain it is worth the price.

In the ``good old days'' of Communist rule, a youth would gladly pay as much as a week's income for the latest Beatles or Bruce Springsteen album. Now they count their crowns, forints, and zloty before spending them on an album or rock concert.

In Hungary, many rock bands mount the stage in half-empty concert halls. ``Two years ago, we would play 25 concerts in one month,'' notes Andras Maartan of the popular new wave band KFT. ``When we go on tour now, we play only 10 concerts in a month.'' Album sales have also plummeted. In the mid-1960s, a KFT album could easily sell 50,000 units; now the band is lucky to move 15,000 copies.

``Teenagers cannot afford to spend money the way they once did,'' Maartan explains. ``There is also a lot more to spend money on. New movies, new stores, new businesses appear every day.''

With slumping record sales and diminishing concert receipts, many bands have given up. ``KFT is the only new-wave band from the 1980s that is still together,'' Maartan says. ``The others have either broken up or are breaking up, Step, First Floor, V-Moto Rock. It is very hard.''

There is, however, one place in East Europe where rock has just begun to roll: Romania.

During the 1970s, when Ceausescu introduced his austerity measures to pay off Western loans, he obliterated the burgeoning domestic rock scene.

Members of the band Phoenix, Romania's top ``Beatles band,'' slipped through Ceausescu's iron grip, reputedly smuggled West in the speaker cabinets of a Western band.

A handful of rock bands, like Sfinx and Iris, lowered their decible levels and continued to hold occasional concerts, but most bands were crushed in the state machinery.

``How could you expect rock-and-roll to survive in a country,'' commented one Western observer in the mid-1980s, ``where there is barely enough electricity to power a light bulb, let alone drive an electric guitar?''

When angry crowds drove Ceausescu from power on Dec. 22, 1989, it did not take long for rock music to return.

``The day after Ceausescu fled,'' recounts Astridel Radulescu, a resident of Bucharest, ``Romanian television started broadcasting rock videos. I remember seeing the one in which Michael Jackson throws a coin into a jukebox and the music starts. I think it is called `Bad.'''

Since then, both television and radio have made rock music a staple of their broadcasts. Two new private Bucharest reportedly broadcast music 24 hours a day.

In March, Romanian television began broadcasting a 10-part history of the Beatles. Even Phoenix recently returned to Bucharest to perform for Romanian fans.

``There are about 30 leading bands in Romania at the present,'' says Radulescu. ``Heavy metal is extremely popular. I think it is a way of expressing many of the hostile feelings we have felt for so many years.''

Back in Warsaw, Zbigniew Holdys is not worried about his own situation. He survived the martial law era; he will do all right in the current crisis. ``I am a survivor,'' Holdys concedes. He is also about to sign a contract with a major US record company.

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