The Sound of Young Czechoslovakia

It’s election night in the UK. It’s all quite exciting – a new bloke is going to replace the old bloke, every student in the UK has fallen in love with Nick Clegg and I’m going to spend the night frantically refreshing Twitter while getting excited over Lib-Dem marginals.

Perhaps I’ve just timed it right. I’m lucky enough to be a student surrounded by other very politically active students during the first general election in years that actually has a chance of something happening. An election that, ye gods, might slip and slide us gently towards some mild reform of government and an election where decorum and two-party hate has been deserted in favour of well…at least a minor realignment of politics and opinion polls all over the place.

But I’ve still been very cynical about it all. Enjoyed every moment of Labour being stood up by a cartoon pig, giggled at the “is he English or what?” attacks on Clegg and been bemused by the Lib Dems becoming the party of tax cuts while the Tories flounder on.

I suffer from the trait that runs through a lot of my generation, of borrowed nostalgia for an unremembered age. So for tonight, here’s something from a time and a place where democracy was treated with the same youthful excitement with which I treat a YouTube mash-up of David Cameron dancing to Pulp.

Back in November 1989 Czechoslovakia was swept up in the wave of liberation that spread across the Europe. The communist party that forced out the former President and folk hero Edvard Beneš in an (almost, almost – but not quite – popular) political coup in 1947 realised its time was up. Thousands of students were on the streets, fired up by memories of Dubček in ’68 and events in neighbouring Hungary. The Velvet Revolution was under way. And every party needs a soundtrack.

The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa turned up in 1990, just as the first democratic elections were being held. The youth of Prague were enjoying release from communist rule but the infrastructure for gigs, record labels and distribution was limited. They were ready to have fun, full of ideals and looking for their own sound. What they did have was Radio 1, the Prague-based quasi-legal station broadcasting Western music, Eastern European imports and what little product the local scene was producing.

A twenty-one year old called Jan Muchow fancied a go. He formed Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, named after the state reach by the 16th century nun who subsumed her entire body to God and experienced wildly variable out-of-body experiences, later commemorated by a decadent statue in Rome.

Along with a few friends he did their best to recreate that sensation, grabbing what snatches of Western alternative music he could (My Bloody Valentine, shoegaze, anything on 4AD) and trying to write hits for the land that pop forgot. An early demo of “What’s” found its way to Radio 1, was stuck on their playlist and they were elevated to overnight star status in Prague.

The song is one of my all-time favourites, a chaotic two minutes of noise by a band that’s just hitting everything they can, all at once, in one big splurge of happiness. Yeah! We’re free! And godammit, we’re a nation again! For the first time since our parents were born, for the first time since the pathetic capitulation of ’38, for the first time since the brave brave boys took on their Nazi ‘Protector’. And we want to have fun.

The vocals are cut so close to the start that it seems we’re interrupting singer Irna Libowitz mid-yelp while the rhythm jumps around at random. Everything is mixed LOUD, parts crashing around with all the subtlety of the Red Army moving its tanks onto your lawn. But the army had gone. And so had the secret police. You didn’t have to hide your feelings any more, you could be proud. Hello how are you, “WHAT’S YOUR NAME? WHO’S TO BLAME?”

Lose your cynicism. Sure, there were hundreds of indie-also rans churning out similar stuff in the bedsits of Oxford and Bristol but for EoST this was all they had, a first glimpse into forty years of missing culture – a tentative attempt to express their reaction to the great events of ’89/’90 without the background knowledge to compete. There’s nothing arch, nothing smug about it.

While you’re cheering on the results tonight just imagine walking along the Vltava by Charles Bridge, having just seen your dictator replaced as President by a playwright in an election, having watched the destruction of the only regime you ever knew and enjoying the optimism of looking West. And this comes on the radio. “MY SOUL, MY SOUL, MY-“

EoST got some brief recognition. They recorded a session for John Peel but the initial line-up fragmented and their music became more downbeat as the economic and political realities set in. Free-market capitalism brought consumerism, technology and an economic boost – but also unemployment and social divisions. Cynicism returned and subtlety seemed more appropriate.

Jan headed off for a while before reviving the name for his electronica side-projects. British Sea Power were fans and in 2004, fifteen years after the Velvet Revolution, they arranged a special gig. It was held on the night that the great westward shift was completed, the night that the now separate nations of the Czech Republic and Slovakia joined the EU, and the original soundtrack of freedom was there to celebrate.

On the cusp of midnight the two bands joined together to play a cover of an old BSP song, “It’ll Be A Lovely Day Tomorrow”, translated into Czech.

[Spotify has some later stuff but you’ll have to buy the excellent ‘Thirteen Years in Noises‘ compilation for the (slightly better) early stuff.]

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