- Interview by
- Miloš Hroch
‘I’m looking over the wall, and they’re looking at me,’ the Sex Pistols roared in the 1977 single ‘Holidays In The Sun’. At that time, the British music press enthusiastically wrote about the German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk. David Bowie was finishing his Berlin trilogy. The first line-up of Joy Division was called Warsaw. The West was looking in the direction of the Iron Curtain. But no one went as far as Chris Bohn, who turned distanced fascination into proper field research. He was the first music journalist from the West to go to the Iron Curtain in 1980 and write an extensive report on underground music in Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
The two-part article was published forty years ago under the title ‘Trans Europe Express’ in NME magazine. There was a speeding locomotive on the cover, and beneath it stood in large bold letters, ‘A Trip Behind the Curtain to the Forbidden Areas of Eastern Rock.’ The NME copy also fell into the hands of members of the state police StB (State Security) and it even cost one of the protagonists of the report—Mikoláš Chadima from the Extempore group—a lengthy interrogation and the loss of his passport.
‘If you don’t think music has any political value, just look at the effort such states make to stamp it out. They might succeed in driving it underground—and consequently strengthening it—but they’ll never snuff it out completely,’ wrote Bohn in 1981 about Czechoslovak underground music for the NME. For Bohn, writing about music scenes from the former Eastern bloc was also part of discovering family roots. He has dedicated his journalistic career to complex music, which is inseparable from politics and draws attention to control societies.
Today, the 67-year-old Bohn still writes under the pseudonym Biba Kopf, which puns on the name of the character Franz Biberkopf in Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. Bohn works as the editor-in-chief of The Wire and has been writing for the magazine since the mid-1980s. During more than three decades, he has covered diverse regional scenes worldwide or written bright essays about how the German autobahn created road mythology for post-war krautrock bands with their motorik rhythm. His articles would make an adventurous anthology and such a book is in ‘very informal talks’.
‘I would probably have to sort of retire from The Wire to really pull it together because of my low energy levels – but I have a working title: Too Late Blues (taken from a 1961 movie by John Cassavetes, which is the story of a jazz musician called Ghost). And also, that title is a self-critical comment about not being able to get things finished,’ he explains over our four-hour Zoom call. The journey behind the iron curtain in the 1980s, Bohn admits, was a turning point in his career.
Where did the idea to write a report on underground music in the former Eastern bloc come from?
I was introduced to the idea by Moritz R from the Düsseldorf band Der Plan. He told me about his label’s plans for a world music compilation called Fix Planet which would include music from Eastern Europe. I got really interested, and he was happy to pass on contact information for musicians in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia at a one-day festival of Neue Deutsche Welle in West Berlin on 1 November 1980. There were all German ‘new wave’ bands like Mania D, Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft (DAF).
Excited by this information I proposed an article, or series of articles, to my editor Neil Spencer at NME, beginning with a review and feature about the West Berlin punk/new wave scene, followed by pieces from behind the Iron Curtain – from Warsaw, Prague, and Budapest. Neil was incredibly encouraging and didn’t hesitate for a moment about saying yes. NME’s publishers IPC were a little more nervous, however. ‘We won’t be able to insure you,’ I was told!
Anyway, I met Moritz at the festival and he handed me a list of underground music contacts in Warsaw, Prague, and Budapest. But what was even more important, at the Neue Deutsche Welle festival in Berlin I got to meet the Czechoslovak tourist Pavel Turnovský, who worked as sort of the philosophical leader of the Extempore group (he had the similar role as Ivan ‘Magor’ Jirous to Plastic People of the Universe).
What were your next steps?
I visited the Polish, Czech, and Hungarian consulates in West Berlin to apply for visitor visas. Somewhat stupidly and naively, I had proudly listed Journalist as my profession in my first UK passport, and since at this time Poland was pretty much locked down pre-martial law by Solidarność strikes, it was impossible to get an entry visa to Poland, especially for a journalist! However, Czech and Hungarian visas were no problem. I boarded an overnight train to Prague in East Berlin. In November, it was foggy and freezing, a harsh winter.
Upon my arrival, Pavel met me at the central railway station in Prague. I remember we took a tram, and I wanted to buy a ticket, but Pavel, my guide, told me it wasn’t necessary. Sure enough, the auditor comes, and an argument followed in several languages, with Pavel refusing to translate for the auditor. Then the auditor asked me if I spoke German. Ja, I said. Damn, he got me! Personally I felt that I should draw as little attention as possible, and I’d have happily bought a tram ticket. Then Pavel introduced me to the music journalist Josef Vlček from the Jazz Section, which operated on the semi-legal level and was partly tolerated by the state.
Without these wonderful people, I must confess I would not have a chance to write that NME report. They explained the political situation to me, introduced me to underground bands and the censorship they struggled with, and explained the mood before Prague Spring in 1968 and during the normalisation era. They introduced me to people from the bands Extempore, Plastic People of the Universe, Energie G, and the Classic Rock and Roll Band. Extempore even played a private concert in the apartment for me. Unsurprisingly, the band were somewhat nervous, concerned about the noise prompting neighbours to bang on walls or call the police.
How did Prague affect you, and did you, as a foreign observer, feel the atmosphere of control and surveillance in underground music?
In the beginning, I was excited. Prague is a beautiful city. While I was by myself I’d stroll around listening to Joy Division on my Walkman. I was taken to an outdoor black market selling banned records – I even saw a copy of Metal Box by Public Image Ltd., which had been out for less than a year. Then the oppressive atmosphere began to hit home. For example, once we were sitting in a pub, and Pavel covered his mouth and told me in the middle of a chat that the man sitting in the corner was a police informant watching us.
Indeed I was surprised at how quietly everyone spoke in Prague’s pubs – completely the opposite of West Berlin’s noisy bars. I’m not a paranoid person, but in Prague back then it very quickly became clear how careful from my various encounters how much risk the various contacts I had made there were putting themselves through by talking to me, even I as I only indirectly felt threatened myself.
During the interview with Extempore, for example, Mikoláš Chadima described the existential burden and effort one has to make to manage it all. For me, these feelings were embodied in Extempore’s album The City, on which they dealt with the atmosphere of normalisation with their own history, and they distilled it all into the unbearable claustrophobia of the urban landscape. How it can fall on you like a shadow of monumental buildings.
When I left Prague and boarded the train to Budapest, I followed the advice of Pavel and Josef, and kept all the recorded interviews hidden at the bottom of my bag. Of course they’d have been easily discovered if my bag was searched. But the Czech border control let me leave without so much as a second look. Way back then I always came across as somewhat naïve and nervous, the person in line least likely to be up to no good!
The Sediments of the Past
In London, you had easy access to all the music that shaped the taste and sound of the bands behind the curtain. But what were your first impressions when you heard how were the influences translated into underground music in Czechoslovakia?
The Velvet Underground had a significant influence, just as they influenced punk music everywhere. There was a particular thread connecting New York, San Francisco, London with Prague, Berlin, Budapest and Warsaw. Both in Prague and Budapest people asked me to doublecheck their transcriptions of Velvet Underground lyrics, particularly ‘Murder Mystery’ and ‘The Gift’. Even for me, It was hard to figure out everything Lou Reed or John Cale were saying on ‘Murder Mystery’.
While such inspirations were evident in Plastic People, Extempore’s roots lay elsewhere. At least that’s how I perceived it. I see them as closer to the work of British avant-garde musician Chris Cutler (of Henry Cow, Art Bears, etc.) who remains a big supporter of music from the former Eastern Bloc. He’s more rock in opposition than progressive rock per se.
Recall back then in those punk/post-punk times of the late 1970s, prog rock had become almost an insult. It struck many of us as being music made by middle-class musicians trying to convince their parents that what they were doing was as mature as classical music. As time passed, the genre became a caricature of itself. In the beginning, however, there were exciting bands such as Mothers of Invention (though I have to confess I’ve never been a fan of Frank Zappa) or the French band Magma.
Of course, I can’t speak for Cutler, but I’d say his notion of progressive rock had as much to do with politics as music, promoting the idea of a thought-through socialism with a human face through music, which would sometimes get him into disputes with his anti-communist friends from the East before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Chris and his band Art Bears were as courageous as their politics. I recall being told about an underground concert they played in Prague by obtaining a 48-hour transit visa allowing them to travel through Czechoslovakia. They leapt off their train, whisked away to the concert, played it, boarded the next train and were gone before the authorities cottoned on.
Cutler’s notion of progressive rock, rock in opposition, meant opposition to mainstream thinking or to the state system, finding different, dialectical, contesting musical forms to express that opposition as a form of progress towards a better world. Lately I’ve found a similar type of energy in the writings of the great East German writer Christa Wolf, whose principled socialism invariably put her at odds with the party functionaries of the East German state. From what I learned and had the opportunity to hear live in Prague, Extempore fulfilled this definition of ‘rock in opposition’. Their music was a fantastic tool for engaging with the past and the present to achieve a better tomorrow – the same as Wolf’s writings.
Very belatedly I got to hear Mikoláš Chadima & MCH Band’s music when I bought a CD box set of their 1980s recordings on Black Point Records, and it still sounds incredibly adventurous. Its strength lies in the fact that the band had progressed way beyond their original influences, their music developing along its own axis, and most importantly, they had something to say! Theirs is an incredible legacy. Even better, it’s a living legacy.
The London music press was famous for its arrogance and a certain superiority, at least from a Central European perspective. How hard was it to push something ‘non-Western’ onto the front pages of a magazine like NME?
In the British music press, the music was pretty much all British or American. Sometimes Australian bands or German krautrock bands were covered. Krautrock still strikes me as a stupid, inappropriate, and inflated label, an indication of that sneeringly arrogant UK/US attitude towards all things ‘non-UK/US’.
But as I hope is already clear, I was very lucky with my editors. Before I joined NME I worked for another British magazine, Melody Maker, and my then-editor Richard Williams let me report on ‘Rock in Yugoslavia’ in 1978, if I remember it right (ouch, an especially excruciating headline considering I was essentially reporting back from a Yugoslav music festival in Ljubljana, now capital of Slovenia!). Richard also let me write a column about the admittedly dull official rock music I picked up from a ten-day holiday with relatives in East Berlin in 1978. Headline: More Marks Than Marx.
And as I said earlier, my NME editor Neil Spencer didn’t hesitate for a moment when I pitched the West Berlin and Trans Europe Express articles. Indeed Neil was always very open to non-UK/US music. He himself loved reggae and had frequently reported on music from Jamaica. And NME’s brief generally also took in music from Europe, Africa, and Japan.
To reiterate, NME frequently supported my trips to Central and Eastern Europe. After martial law ended in Poland, I got the opportunity to travel alongside an independent film team to a festival in Poznań and then onto Warsaw to write about the punk and independent music suddenly flourishing in post-martial law Poland.
Records from underground Czechoslovaks Plastic People of The Universe, like Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned and Passion Play, were reviewed or written about in NME, and elsewhere in the national press. This was partly due to Charter 77 revealing internationally the persecution suffered by the Czechoslovak underground movement. As it happened, NME’s coverage of the Eastern European underground scene actually predates the post-1968 clampdown. Back when I was flipping through the NME’s archives researching an article about the then even more reclusive Scott Walker’s four 1960s albums, I even came across the magazine’s occasional column about the flowering new rock underground in Prague! It was published sometime between 1967–69.
At NME—I’m half-German on my mother’s side of the family—I got especially interested in covering the West German punk and post-punk scenes in Düsseldorf, Hamburg, West Berlin, and so on. Kraftwerk and other bands like Can, Tangerine Dream, and Neu! represented an earlier generation of German postwar music and culture, which tried to get rid of the sediments of the past and build something of its own.
The next generation of West German punk and after bands went a step further. Following punk’s Be Yourself ethos, writing and singing in their own language, these groups effectively developed a genuinely homegrown popular culture within West Germany. Of course, West Germany’s major labels very quickly capitalised on this and transformed Neue Deutsche Welle into a sickly commercialised variant that almost destroyed the scene as soon as it hit. But groups like Der Plan, Abwärts, Palais Schaumburg, Malaria! Die Tödliche Doris, and so on weren’t about to be bought off. In England, music magazines wrote about them and Einstürzende Neubauten, who had befriended Nick Cave and The Birthday Party – in the process broadening the horizons of British journalists.
What the Hell Am I Doing in Germany?
Writing about German music was, for you, at the same time discovering your own roots, wasn’t it?
My mother came from the town of Militsch, Silesia, which became Milicz, Poland after World War II. She was 14 years old when she and her younger sister joined the mass of refugees fleeing westward from the advancing Soviet troops in January 1945. I remember her telling me that they could hear bombs exploding in the distance as they boarded the overcrowded refugee train heading west. My mother and her sister pretty much became orphans right then when their invalid mother died before the train left.
Immediately after the war, their middle-aged father was never at home – he travelled around West Germany looking for work. After graduating from school, my mother came to England as an au-pair. In Birmingham, she met my father, who became a sculptor – more craftsman than the artist kind.
But why am I saying all this? After both of my parents died, my two sisters found my parents’ marriage certificate as they were clearing out the house, and discovered they were already expecting a child, my older sister. That discovery made us speculate whether the Protestant family from the German side gave my mother a hard time for getting pregnant before she was married. We also speculated as to whether she was so angry and upset by her German family’s treatment of her that she never taught us German when we were growing up. But maybe it was also so that our dad wouldn’t feel left out, as he couldn’t speak it.
I later learnt German for three years at school but only really taught myself to speak it during six months in 1977, in my early twenties, when I hitchhiked around West Germany visiting relatives and staying two months with my aunt in West Berlin. (As kids, we made a family trip to Germany only once in the 1960s). By then I was already deeply immersed in the new German cinema of Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders, and Syberberg. In addition, I also then loved Czechoslovak new wave and Polish cinema.
How did you get into music journalism?
I got my journalistic training on a regional weekly newspaper in my hometown Sutton Coldfield. I wrote a music column there. I pushed through a review of Miles Davis’s album Agharta in 1975, despite the fact I didn’t know much about jazz beyond being enthused by Jack Kerouac’s writings about it! Even so, a tremendous record! I also interviewed singer Richard Strange from the proto-punk band Doctors Of Madness for the newspaper. Fortunately my editors tolerated my outsider’s taste for music they had never heard of.
The internship ended sometime in late 1976, and the following year I hitchhiked around Europe, visiting the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, but mostly West Germany and West Berlin. I partly changed my route according to the concerts I wanted to see, like Lou Reed in Hannover and Bob Marley with The Wailers in West Berlin.
I made extra money by taking a dish-washing job for a month in a Frankfurt hotel. At Bahnhof Zoo, Berlin, I regularly bought two-week-old British magazines NME and Melody Maker to read about everything that was happening at home. With punk on the rise, the scene was unimaginably exciting, and it finally got to the point where I thought, what the hell am I doing in Germany? I then decided to return to the UK in August 1977.
I soon found a job vacancy I couldn’t resist: working as a press officer for Polydor Records in London, through which I got to listen to records, go to concerts, write press releases, etc. I met many music journalists from NME, Melody Maker, and Sounds. It was an exciting time because punk music set everyone free from complacent 1970s rock notions of progress and musical maturity – that is, at least until punk itself was designated a musical genre with clearly defined rules.
Before then, punk said: do whatever you want. This exciting time gave birth to so-called dark wave bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, whom I got to work with at Polydor. When they came to the office, everyone was afraid of them, terrified of Siouxsie in particular, believing that she never smiled. That was her public image. In particular, older colleagues in Polydor’s TV and Radio Promotion office were intimidated by her, and asked me to accompany Siouxsie and the Banshees and, later, Sham 69, in their place when they made their first appearances at BBC Radio 1 or TV shows like Top of the Pops.
Then, you could use your experience behind the scenes of the music industry as a journalist?
I stayed at Polydor for about 15 months. Then I kind of naturally switched to Melody Maker. My first article was a report from a Factory Records night, featuring Joy Division, A Certain Ratio and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark at Acklam Hall in London in 1979. Significantly, my last article for Melody Maker was supposed to be about Joy Division. In 1980, I was given the task of going out with them as a reporter on their first US tour. I remember Joy Division’s manager Rob Gretton telephoning my girlfriend at the time (I didn’t have a phone myself) that Ian Curtis had committed suicide.
And you immediately moved to NME. You experienced this golden era of the British music press. Newspapers were published at a great number of copies and had so much power, incomparable with today…
It was massive, as you say. Punk and the new wave revived the music press, and it suddenly became exciting for everyone. The most vital magazine on the market at the time was NME, where I moved after Ian’s suicide. I was on the staff for a few years until 1982 or 1983, and then continued to regularly write for NME as a freelance contributor until 1987, I believe. By then, Neil Spencer had long left. His replacement was Ian Pye, a nice enough guy placed in a difficult position of having to adapt the NME to the rapidly changing music culture, declining sales, management interference with the magazine’s politics, and so on. It all came to a head shortly after Ian left.
At that time, I had been asked to report on the May Day riots in West Berlin. I came back and left NME out of solidarity with some of its editors forced to resign by new management in the wake of Ian Pye’s departure.
Aspects of Control
Today you are interested in discovering the local underground music in China – do you see any parallels with the 1980s in Czechoslovakia?
If there are any parallels with Czechoslovakia, they are more with late 1960s than 1980s Prague. Indeed, Old Heaven Books’ fantastic record section is possibly the best place to buy Plastic People music anywhere outside the Czech Republic or Chris Cutler’s Recommended Records!
Martin Atkins, a former drummer from Public Image Ltd., did a lot to develop the local scene in China. He lived in the country for a short time, mentoring and collaborating with Chinese musicians. Please look him up on the Discogs database. Personally, since 2015, I have been regularly attending the Tomorrow Festival in Shenzhen, along with its attendant jamming sessions in Old Heaven Bookshop and café, just across the border from Hong Kong. The Chinese scene is incredibly invigorating despite or because of the ways artists negotiate spaces to exist within a wealthy authoritarian state.
The scene is so much broader and widely expressive than it was in any of the former Eastern Bloc countries in the 1980s, except perhaps in Poland and Hungary, with artists ranging from the no wave group Red Scarf through to the dhombra/bass playing Mamer and his various configurations, IZ Band, Bande, TAT and Mekrop, among them; from the noise musician Vavabond to guitarist Li Jianhong; from saxophone/flute improvisor Lao Dan to experimental vocalist/sound artist Yao Chunyang, and so many more.
Indeed, a number of these musicians recently participated in Shenzhen’s Encore Festival, complete with aftershow jam sessions at Old Heaven Books, which temporarily replaced the international Tomorrow Festival while the borders remain closed by the global pandemic. Only wish I was there!
From our conversation, it seems to me that the Trans Europe Express report was a turning point for your career. How?
Massively. The great thing about the music press back then was that it allowed me to indulge my fascinations with West German music and film, Eastern European cinema, and so on. Writing about music allowed me to pull all those different aspects together: literature, film, music; to make these connections real. I have to say it was, and still is now, if not more so, a challenge. I never found writing easy. I was driven by this desire to communicate something about what’s happening in Budapest, Prague, Warsaw, and in the process explain to myself how these things connect.
I was incredibly nervous when writing the Trans Europe Express articles from Prague and Budapest because, as always, I was thinking: simply I don’t know enough. But of course, retrospectively I am really happy I had the opportunity to go behind the Iron Curtain and write those articles.
Those pieces deepened my desire to understand music in the context of the communities and political circumstances that created it. Take an industrial band like Throbbing Gristle, who made deliberately ugly, deeply unpleasant music that nevertheless gets in your head and under your skin. My first response was incredibly hostile. But their music kept nagging at me, forcing me to come to an understanding of it. Through extreme music, Throbbing Gristle were examining and critiquing media and aspects of control, in ways very closely aligned to those of my favourite writer, William Burroughs. The same path of writing as a way of understanding music was true for the West Berlin scene in the 1980s, for the underground scene behind the Iron Curtain, or for the music coming out of China right now.
Why do you keep writing and thinking about music?
The same need to understand the music that drove me to start writing about it 45 years ago. I’d ask myself why Throbbing Gristle would release something appalling like the song ‘We Hate You (Little Girls)’. What is it doing to me? Why didn’t I go and listen to something more cheerful by The Beatles instead? Music, as well as film, can examine the most terrifying aspects of human nature. It’s moving in our minds – I want to understand that. Music doesn’t have to be only about pleasure. It can immerse you in emotions and thoughts as difficult and deep as those dealt with in cinema or literature.
This might come out of popular music but it’s not exactly popular music– and you have to find ways to write about it without being pretentious. Explain it without being dull as a writer, without reverting to stereotype. Take the West Berlin scene in the 1980s. So nihilistic and exciting – visually and in terms of industrial ugly machine sounds some bands used, it was incredibly compelling to watch and listen to. Not because those jackhammer or shearing metal sounds are beautiful, but of course, they can become beautiful in your mind. Why? Asking that question writing about such music and happenings helped me explain these processes – not only for others but mainly for myself. By the way, I like The Beatles too.