The Rise And Fall Of The Famous Funny Fools

Positively On Kiraly Utca

Bitlisz – said Peter Buchberger. Or he might have said it so: bitls. Which was more or less correct. After all we were both freshmen highschool students in a class that had English as a major. (For Peter, the second time). So, he was a relative senior, sharing a desk with me. He knew what was going on. And what really was going on, according to Peter, was the Bitls. They were the new thing, the big thing. The real thing. England was on her knees and young people went crazy. Real crazy, like losing it …are you getting this, Gaby?

     The conversation we had been having took place on King Street, the penny lane of our corner of the world, walking home, like we did every day, straight from the high school we attended at the east end of Kiraly Utca.

     The point was to decide who likes what band the most. For we were at the age when these things suddenly acquire disproportionate importance. I was being most impressed with the Spotnicks. They were awesome. I’d been already playing Amapola – or at least making a good attempt at it, but Orange Blossom?…Orange Blossom! That sound! That technique! How could they even play that?.. And now Peter says it’s the Bitls.  I’d better pay attention. Here I was, at 16, the budding young guitar player and I hadn’t even heard of the Bitls let alone their music. So how is it? The music I mean… Peter didn’t sound too convincing: it’s better than anything. How is it so good? Peter couldn’t answer that. But I knew at that point that it was something profound and glorious, something that will sweep me off-and-away for the rest of my life. It was a premonition. Supernatural.

     The next days I spent turning the waves upside down and inside out on every radio set I could get my hands on in search for Beatles music. And those radio waves were a mess. And I couldn’t understand the announcers. Despite the year I’ve completed with my English grades all A-s I still couldn’t make out what Radio Luxembourg DJs were blabbering. Nobody could. I must’ve stumbled across Beatles music in the vast radio space mostly made up of static and interference but I didn’t know if I did; I had no reference. And boy, were those waves a mess!

     In this frustration one dubious hope remained. An almost-miracle. And it happened. To everyone’s greatest surprise State Radio Petofi (largely corresponding to BBC 2) made a slight political mistake and announced the formal introduction of The Beatles’ first LP. We were glued to the radio, every self respecting young boy and girl in the nation. The broadcast was clear. Un-jammed. And the music was…great. Different…So different that we’ve all lacked the foundations – both musical and cultural – to be fully able to appreciate it. An almost-disillusionment. It left us wide-eyed but un-satiated. Uneasy, restless. Projection sublime: a big warm wave, seductive and shiny was coming towards us over the Iron Curtain to deliver us to worlds colorful and happy and free. In the music I didn’t yet fully understand there were qualities, tender messages that were to trigger two basic emotions: one for the need to cry and one to scream.

The Department of Agitation and Propaganda

     The Department of Agitation and Propaganda was in a fix. A dilemma. For even then, just barely out of the ’56 revolution there must’ve been thinking heads in there too; heads who were capable of assessing a lose-lose situation. The Official Propaganda of The Propaganda Department was that the West was employing a Viscous Propaganda of their own for sometime, the so called “Strategy Of Destabilizing” – as in Destabilizing the very moral fiber of the Social-Communist society by means of bombarding the Eastern European countries with messages which Destabilize by making young audiences tune in to their decadent and freedom-suggesting vices: movies and music. Movies like “Gone With The Wind”, “Dr. Zhivago” and, of course, “James Bond”. These movies were regarded, justly, as the most damaging to communist morale. In the Music Department, until the appearance of The Beatles there was only one Major Evil. American Rockandroll. Elvis Presley. He was quickly termed indecent and decadent but the Department had lost that battle in no time; Rock and Roll came and won.  By 1960 every decent and morally correct dance school taught true boogie-woogie and rock and roll. The fact that there was no defense against the impact of popular music – as opposed to the movies, which, if not shown (and they weren’t) were toothless – had caused major concern. Music was a different beast for them; you couldn’t stop radio waves and your choices of fighting this evil were limited and the end result was dubious. But so far they managed to stay afloat. The Beatles had changed all that and the Thinking Heads saw the ultimate futility of anything they could put up against such a formidable force of Destabilization. The best they could do was to delay the inevitable as long as possible. And they just did exactly that. All information was withheld; the little that got through was mislabeled. The music was publicly ridiculed and downgraded in every possible way. And those who appreciated this evil capitalist manifestation were oppressed and harassed. But, in the end nothing helped. The point of the matter, however extreme it may sound, is that the music that came out of England in the early Sixties with The Beatles at its pinnacle has unleashed destabilizing forces so great that it brought down (directly or indirectly) the whole regime and the whole East European Union with it.

      So, as those thinking heads in The Department foresaw all this, their actions were limited and delaying in nature. They couldn’t fight The Great Wave with the hope of winning. The first thing they did was jamming to death any possible radio station broadcasting to Eastern Europe.

     After the beatles-narcotic had sipped into my system in that small dose, soon I was getting withdrawal symptoms. I didn’t know that it was withdrawal symptoms for I didn’t know what withdrawal was; I only knew that if I didn’t get some more of that “not-so-great” music into my system I would surely die. Again, this time even more frantically, I started to search the radio. (The State Radio had stopped broadcasting any new English music – although this was due to copyright restrictions as well as to political reasons). And this is one point where the Department’s policies backfired. I had no other means of getting my quota of Beatles but to turn my attention really seriously to the West. In the process I soon discovered my saviors; the horrendously jammed short and mid frequencies of Radio Free Europe and Voice Of America; the unjammed but weak and static-noisy Radio Luxembourg and sometimes BBC. Myself I settled down at Radio Luxembourg which, for the next five years supplied my nutrition with supplements from Free Europe. With this, if I hadn’t yet been destabilized, I’d surely gotten so. Seriously. I can say that by 1964 the most destabilized segment of Hungary’s (as well as the other self respecting East European nations’) population was the “beat” musicians. This brought on the wrath of the State Oppression System in various forms – which in turn made the whole Experience even more exciting, even sweet. In some respect much more so than the same Experience of our infinitely luckier counterparts’ who’d had the privilege of having been born in free western societies.  

The Blackcollars

At the time of the conversation on King Street I’ve already had one little success in my bag of trophies, and a slowly-but-surely progressing career as a would-be rock starlet. In the spring, at the May One festivities, on the theatre stage of one the two big girls’ schools, my first band, The Blackcollars, had a rousing-screaming success performing some mighty interesting stuff. 

     The concert went like this. Two boys were majoring in the Leöwey Gimnazium’s German Branch. (Gimnazium equals high school. Not a sporting hall.) Charlie Braun (seriously!) sang, quite well, and Rudi Schmidt (yes, they were of German ethnicities) played the drums. They asked my tutor, Joe (who was my classmate and ethnic Croat) to team up with me and Zoli on the piano to form a band for the May One gig. We did, under the condition that I will have an original in the program. No problem. Charlie’s big hit was Elvis’ “All Shook Up”.

Then we played my first “original”. (I’d had my guitar for seven months now.) The masterpiece went like this: “Crying for your heart” – pra pam pa pam. In “C”. Again, “crying for your heart” – pra pam pa pam. Change: “crying for your heart” – pra pam pa pam – in “F”. Back to C and close the period G – F – C: “just cry-y-y-ying”. And similar sophistications. But the beat was Merseybeat. And the vocals, something new, different, tantalizing. Something that was never heard before and the young hearts in the auditorium were ready to pop. And cry. It was in the Message. 

      I sang the lead along with the two harmonies into one mike. We had one amp we called “Wirestack 10 watts” into which we plugged the two guitars. Zoli played the piano and sang into the air. Rudi’s drumset was a low tom, a footpedal banging it from the bottom, the top was played as a snare, and there was a regular cymbal attached to it by an extension on the top. We had no bass – the bass guitar had yet to be invented in Hungary…

     The conclusion to this Hit Song was such a rousing screaming applause that it took all of us by surprise. We didn’t know what to do. But I took it as a clear direction which way to go. Which is a great improvement compared to no direction, which was what I had before. When I was still too young. 

     By the fall the band has grown stronger and we were playing gigs frequently. Little gigs, like the innocent, school-class “Five O’ Clock Teas” but also difficult and physically challenging ones – Saturday night weddings in the nearby villages. All-nighters, grueling gigs. But they paid some money and we could buy amplifiers. Other Wirestacks. 20 watts.

My First Guitar

 The guitar I got for my fifteenth birthday in October, 1962. It was also my Christmas gift…It was a save-the-salvageable solution from my parents, the only practical one.

The bug started in me while in eight grade. Music had begun bothering me, it caused me torture… Nobody in the family had any formal musical background – though my mom sang quite beautifully, as I’ve found out later. I still don’t know where my urge came from but an urge it was and strong. I did sing in the school choir, never solo, but I sang. Despite of that, I was an outspoken enemy of music-teaching. I started crusades to eliminate music from our classes; sabotaged anything that would’ve educated me, like theory, reading and Kodaly. How stupid. All I should’ve done was to open my ears and pay attention. Would’ve helped a lot a little later. But no. I had to revolt. And I revolted against anything that gave me an opportunity. It happened to be the music classes, and, later, physics. (That’s more understandable…) My nature to revolt must’ve come first – and music was a casualty just because it was there.  All in all, eventually I’d dropped my position against music education and some theory somehow stuck to me; it came handy later on. My relation to music outside the school was entirely different. I remember the first song that got me spellbound was the magnificent  “Calcutta Ist Am Ganges”. (No Merseybeat yet…) The song, like a bug, infested me and I wanted to play it. Sing it, too, but no lyrics. So I wanted to play. Mom bought me little toy saxophones that worked under the principle of the kazoo, but had valves and keys like the real thing. I drove everybody up the wall. But played it in key. My favorites were, for a long time, trumpet and saxophone. Then I made drums by covering big glass pickling jars with tout layers of cellophane. You could play them like percussion. Then I got down to the real thing. I’ve fashioned guitar-like things from whatever offered to turn itself into a musical instrument: attached a neck to a thermos bottle and several other similar contraptions. They sounded. Eventually a friend of mine lent me his dad’s zither. It was a big German zither, differing from the more primitive Hungarian ones in having a large, resonant belly, which has some twenty open strings over it, some in the bass frequencies. The main part of zithers is a neck with 4 to 8 strings, tuned to an open chord. You play solo or full-chord melody by pushing the strings with something across them, like a little stick, Hawaiian style. Never your fingers.  But it has frets and you have to press the strings down to meet the frets. (With the German one you hit all those open strings in between melody notes, creating an accompaniment. Naturally it will sound right only in the key it is tuned to). I started to play it like a guitar, pressing the strings down with my fingers, finding solo melodies and simple harmonies. It ate into the flesh of my hands. Deep. This must’ve been when my parents decided on the guitar… In a wise decision they avoided the possibilities of me becoming a trumpet player, or worse, a drummer. So a guitar it was. A nice, natural colored acoustic semi-western. Felt good, sounded good for Eastern Europe. Must’ve cost a fortune – and we were poor in Hungary those days, everybody). Read the rest here: w

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