Pražský výběr – Můj koníček
from album “Pražský výběr” a.k.a. “Straka v hrsti”, 1988, Panton 810826-1311
recorded in 1982, produced by Josef Novotný
1988 issue LP sleeve (front/back)
I was thinking about a Czech song which has personally influenced me the most in the past. But already the criteria definition – what’s an influence – isn’t a clear task. As a child in the mid seventies I was a big fan of Banjo Band Ivana Mládka (Ivan Mládek’s Banjo Band) whose funny yet clever lyrics appealed both to my contemporaries as well as to the adults. Listening to Mládek’s pseudo-dixieland definitely inspired me to pick up a guitar – a banjo was too expensive – and to write my own songs when I was about twelve. Then as a teenager in the early eighties I’ve discovered the bluesy folk of Vladimír Mišík and Vlasta Třešňák. You know, technically I’m a horrible “singer”, thus their rather non-melodic vocal style fitted me quite well while I was trying hard to become one of their epigones, paraphrasing Třešňák’s songwriting and imitating Mišík’s singing. But the true revolution arrived in 1983 or 1984 during one of our visits in Prague when my half-brother’s uncle (himself an excellent blues guitarist) gave us a cassette copy of the hippest new wave band that ever appeared on Czech stages of the early 1980s: Pražský výběr.
Michael Kocáb (1954) founded Pražský výběr (The Prague Selection – a reference to a cheap Czech wine brand) in 1976 as an offshoot of his schoolmate Milan Svoboda’s Pražský big band (Prague Big Band). In the beginning they were just a young jazz rock combo of conservatory students who played instrumental and at times very complex tracks. I will cover that period in a future post later this year. While the group never officially disbanded at the end of the decade, eventually the jazz musicians around Kocáb went their own ways. Around 1980 he teamed up with ex-Bohemia guitarist Michal Pavlíček and drummer Jiří Hrubeš, who were already a steady duo on their own, be it as members of the explosive jazz rock combo Expanze (undocumented on records) or backing Jana Koubková under her Horký dech (Hot Breath) moniker. And the trio Kocáb/Pavlíček/Hrubeš already worked together when they recorded Petr Klapka’s second Mahagon album in 1979. Although Pavlíček intended to play new wave instead of the fading jazz rock, they decided to reuse the Pražský výběr trademark, likely because the group still officially existed for the bureaucratic communist authorities. At first they performed as a quintet with bass player Ondřej Soukup – who would soon switch to the more lucrative Karel Gott Orchestra – and with the formerly ubiquitous percussionist Jiří Tomek, acting here as a singer and dancer. In 1981 Tomek left as well; obviously he used to have quite an alcohol problem, as I have been told recently by a musician who used to play with him quite often in the seventies. Kocáb & co. then persuaded the bass player from the popular underground punk-jazz outfit Zikkurat to join them, Vilém Čok.
As Kocáb once put it: “It can be hard to play new wave when you actually know how to play.” But the blend of complex jazzy synthesizer lines with a straight 4/4 beat, repetitive bass riffs, a virtuosic guitar floating above it all, as well as highly ironical lyrics (written mostly by František Ringo Čech), that all created a unique and instantly recognizable sound never heard before, at least not in the Middle and Eastern Europe. Crossbreed the late Frank Zappa with Talking Heads and you might get something like Pražský výběr.
In 1982 Pražský výběr recorded their new wave album, some tracks also appeared in Juraj Herz’ avant-gardist movie Straka v hrsti (A Magpie In The Hand). But before the record was ready for a release in 1983, both the movie and the group were banned by the authorities and the musicians were prohibited from performing in the public for nearly two years. The album was withdrawn and destroyed before even reaching the shelves. However, it didn’t take very long and someone managed to smuggle a copy of the master tape out of the recording studio archives, giving a couple of cassette copies to friends who themselves made copies and gave them to their friends and so on, quickly making Pražský výběr the best known rock group in the country. In the meantime, being professional musicians, all members tried to make living by working on their former side projects or playing as backing musicians. Pavlíček, for example, after two years of depression he became very successful with his pop-jazz-rock-wave crossover project Stromboli. Hrubeš on the other hand couldn’t stand the pressure and eventually emigrated in 1985. But in the end the ban caused exactly the opposite effect than intended: along with a couple of other banned groups, Pražský výběr and its protagonists, although inactive from 1983 until 1985, they had more influence on rock and new wave fans and musicians than ever before. By 1985 the independent music scene in Czechoslovakia flourished and the authorities began to lose control over it. (Check out the underground movie Hudba 85 (Music 85) by Lexa Guha, Vladislav Burda and Petr Ryba, recently released on DVD for the first time!)
In 1986 the band was allowed to return on stage with a new drummer as Výběr. They recorded quite a solid self-titled rock album in 1987 and one year later also the original Straka v hrsti album finally found its way onto the vinyl grooves and to the audience. The times were “a-changing” and even the sleeve cartoon contained an unbelievably straight and sarcastic political joke. Výběr continued with a successful career for a couple of years to come and it still sort of exists to the present day, although both main actors obviously split up in a heavy wrangle recently.
Můj koníček (My Hobbyhorse), also known as Krysy (The Rats), was always my favorite track from Pražský výběr’s clandestine tape (and later from the album). Cool, funky and minimalist, with Pavlíček’s sparse guitar effects illustrating an apparent non-sense story of a guy whose hobby is to watch mice and rats snooping around his basement. Every single sound has its place. A song near perfection.
Around 1986 – in times when Pražský výběr was still banned in Czechoslovakia – we used to play a cover version of this tune with our Swiss group Ugly Bluz. We tried another approach regarding the arrangement though, mapping the rhythm guitar to our three-piece horn section and giving the song more of a free-funk touch; at that time we were heavily inspired by groups like Defunkt, Slickaphonics, the early and still unknown Red Hot Chili Peppers or by James Blood Ulmer. This unreleased recording was made in summer 1987 by our friend Hannes Lange, shortly before our band broke up. (If you’re fluent in German language, perhaps you may want to check out the complete story of Ugly Bluz for more details.)