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Funky Czech-In

An introduction to Czech and Slovak pop music from the sixties, seventies and eighties with a touch of funk, soul, disco and jazz.

Return of Gemini

2007-02-02

Mefisto – Návrat Gemini
from 10 inch compilation album “Hity Karla Svobody”, 1968, Supraphon 0230414

VA_HityKarlaSvobody_a_128 VA_HityKarlaSvobody_b_128
original 1968 compilation sleeve (front/back)

Last sunday the 68 years old composer Karel Svoboda committed suicide, without any obvious or publicly known motive as it seems. I’m definitely not a friend of the vast majority of his immense work, but being probably the only Czech retro music blog writing in an easy to understand international language – i.e. not in Czech – I thought I might still honor him with one of his earliest and internationally less known compositions. Svoboda has been featured on Funky Czech-In already: for Marie Rottrová & Flamingo he wrote the outstanding pop-funk tune Kruh světla (Ring Of Light) (which I’ve translated falsely as Circle Of Light though), for Jiří Schelinger he wrote Závodník (The Racer) and likely he was involved in its production, too.

Mefisto, founded by Svoboda with the saxophonist František Kopal in 1963, used to be one of the first professional beat groups in Czechoslovakia. From the beginning they inclined more to the easy listening genre and that attitude secured them a lot of gigs and recording jobs with major Czech pop artists at times when a beat rhythm section seemed acceptable to the conservative Supraphon producers. Among their members were the later Golden Kids bass player and successful lyricist Zdeněk Rytíř or the guitarist Otakar Jahn. But Svoboda soon realized that he’s able to compose pop hits and schlagers à go-go, thus for most parts he left the beat and rock behind. In the 1970s he began to write movie and TV scores, later also musicals. Among his best known work is certainly the movie soundtrack for Tři oříšky pro Popelku (Three Hazelnuts For Cinderella). He composed lots of hits for Karel Gott, like Lady Carneval or Včelka Mája (Biene Maja/Maya The Bee). And of course in the 70s and 80s there were dozens of other Svoboda-penned pop tunes and scores that made us want to puke each time we turned on the Czechoslovak socialistic radio or TV. Yeah, Mefisto. Nomen est omen…

Svoboda’s Návrat Gemini (Return Of Gemini) from 1966 isn’t exactly funky, at least not in the intended sense. Instead it sounds more like a Shadows rip-off that’s a bit late to the party. But it’s still adequate enough for this post since there aren’t many Mefisto solo recordings anyway and this one in particular features Svoboda’s piano quite prominently. It’s not a strict instrumental, the cheesy background vocals were added by the ubiquitous Lubomír Pánek Singers & Swingers (a.k.a. Sbor Lubomíra Pánka) who appeared possibly on more Czech records than anyone else in the history of recorded music; just in my hopelessly incomplete collection of Czech vinyl Pánek shows up on not less than 116 entries in my database.

Návrat Gemini has been originally released as a single in West Germany on the Montana label. On the 10 inch mono compilation Hity Karla Svobody (Karel Svoboda’s Hits) from 1968 it sort of represents the early Mefisto era. The other seven songs are Svoboda’s best early compositions for other artists: Depeše, Nechte zvony znít and Tajuplnej hráč for Marta Kubišová, Zimní království for Yvonne Přenosilová or the nice beat ballad Stín katedrál for Helena Vondráčková and Václav Neckář. All of that stuff has been reissued on the original artists’ CDs, Návrat Gemini is available on this compilation so get it if you seriously need it.

The racer

2006-11-06

Jiří Schelinger & Discobolos – Závodník
from 7 inch SP “Což takhle dát si špenát”, 1977, Supraphon 1432082
conducted by Jiří Svoboda

SchelingerJ_CozTakhleDatSiSpenatZavodnik_aSP_128 SchelingerJ_CozTakhleDatSiSpenatZavodnik_bSP_128
original SP sleeve (front/back)

Jiří Schelinger (1951-1981), the first true Czechoslovak rock star, is my Mr. Rock, as I’ve said before. He played guitar and sang with various amateur beat and blues bands since the late sixties. In 1973 he had his first smash hit with the group Faraon: Holubí dům (The Pigeon House), one of the most popular Czech pop songs ever. Later that year he switched over to František “Ringo” Čech‘s group, formerly also known as the Shut Up Orchestra. Čech was just getting rid of his previous lead singer, the fading children idol Viktor Sodoma (ex-Matadors). At that time Čech was the undisputed king of Czech bubblegum music, but he was looking for an adequate voice for his upcoming hard rock project and Schelinger seemed to be the right guy. Nevertheless, they continued to record pop and schlager songs in order to “stay alive”. After all it was the 1970s and rock music was obviously the enemy of the communist state number one. That transition period has been captured on Čech’s debut album Báječní muži (Wonderful Men) in 1974. Čech was not only a humorous lyricist but also a clever and subversive manager: in order to smuggle at least some of his hard rock songs onto records he wrote lyrics which the censors almost must have let pass through. The most prominent example was Metro dobrý den (Hello Subway), a 1974 cover version of Black Sabbath’s classic A National Acrobat. To fully understand the gag, be assured that only by admiring Black Sabbath you would have been certainly considered as much decadent (and anticommunist) as you could have possibly been then. But then the smart writer of the liner notes on Schelinger’s “solo” album Nemám hlas jako zvon (I Don’t Have A Voice Like A Bell) states: “Hello Subway is a celebration of a modern transport vehicle, a celebration of human labor and progress.” Yeah. Now eat that, you communist bastards! (Prague’s first subway line has been opened in 1974.) So in fact, around 1975 Schelinger & Čech were the only Czechoslovak hard rock group releasing at least some records, but they had to fight really hard for that privilege.

Schelinger was open-minded to other genres and worked occasionally with various studio orchestras. Those songs even appeared on television shows and in movie pictures. One example is the 1977 “soundtrack” single Což takhle dát si špenát (What Would You Say To Some Spinach) which was the theme song from a very popular sci-fi comedy movie of the same name. On the other hand, its clavinet laden funky flip side Závodník (The Racer), a story of a road-hog character, comes from a TV movie Přikázaný směr jízdy (Compulsory Direction). I could find any info on that one; it might have been a TV play or even a documentary, no one on the web seems to know nowadays. The songs were written by Karel Svoboda (yes, that one again) with Čech’s lyrics. The backing group on both tracks was Discobolos (misspelled “Diskobolos” on the label), a studio project of the Svoboda brothers. As the band name indicates, it was an attempt to jump on the disco bandwagon and they definitely weren’t doing all that bad. They also released two albums in 1978 and 1979, albeit without Schelinger’s participation. I will feature them on Funky Czech-in soon. Among the Discobolos members were once more the Flamengo veterans Jan Kubík on sax and Vladimír Kulhánek on bass as well as Michal Pavlíček on guitar, Pavel Trnavský on drums, the exceptional singer Jana Kratochvílová and (of course) Jiří Tomek on congas.

Also in 1977, a miracle happened and Schelinger & Čech were finally allowed to release the first true Czechoslovak hard rock album, the highly sarcastic and partly even slightly funky Hrrr na ně (Harum-Scarum At Them). The semi-unplugged and more serious masterpiece Nám se líbí… (We Do Like…) was released in 1979 and by yet another miracle it has been even reissued in 1985, despite the presence of Oskar Petr who actually emigrated in 1979. Other original killer rock hits like Jahody mražený (Frozen Strawberries) or for Czech conditions the almost unbelievably heavy Lupič Willy (Willy The Burglar) appeared on singles and have been first reissued more than ten years later on the excellent 1990 LP/CD compilation Holubí dům (The Pigeon House).

In April 1981, while working on his planned album Zemětřesení (Earthquake), Schelinger was invited to a playback session in the Slovak TV studio in Bratislava. Later that night, under unclear circumstances he jumped from the Old Bridge into the Danube river. One month later his body was supposedly found about 20 km down the river, however it has never been officially identified by any member of the Schelinger family. His death still remains quite a mystery.

Being already a cult figure while alive, after his death the Schelinger cult grew even more. The positive effect is not only that all official recordings are well documented on CDs, but now there are even rarities compilations available. Here’s the complete discography. And a fan page has a couple of low-fi live recordings available for download. For CDs check out cdmusic.cz. Some vinyl is of course available on Gemm and eBay, too. Last but not least I have a couple of 7″ for sale, e.g. items no. 355 and 841 (and I’ll add some more to my list soon).

P.S. I’m leaving Prague today with a lot of records in my suitcase. In fact, I might need a second suitcase… Anyway, I’ll surely share some of them with you, so stay tuned!

The circle of light

2006-09-18

Marie Rottrová & Flamingo – Kruh světla
from album “Marie Rottrová”, 1972, Supraphon 1131268
arranged by Richard Kovalčík, produced by František Řebíček

RottrovaMarie_MarieRottrova_a_128 RottrovaMarie_MarieRottrova_b_128
original 1972 LP sleeve (front/back)

Marie Rottrová, born 1941 in Ostrava, started to sing with the beat group Samuel in the mid 1960s. Then she joined the soul group Majestic and since 1969 she worked professionally with its successor Flamingo – not to be confused with the famous beat/prog group from Prague called Flamengo. Flamingo recorded a couple of soul and R&B singles, their first long play album came out in 1970. It was one of the very few pure soul albums ever recorded in Czechoslovakia. Actually there were two Flamingo debut albums if you also count the very popular export edition This Is Our Soul which contains basically the same tracks but sung in English. Rottrová soon started to record as a solo artist as well. Nice is e.g. the up-tempo duet with superstar Karel Gott Mít pouhej tejden (Having Only A Week), a 1971 cover version of Good Morning Freedom, turning it into one of the better songs that Gott recorded in the 1970s. (Although it needs to be noted that Gott’s Czech repertoire – especially the 1960s beat stuff – was always of much higher quality than his German schlager crap.)

Flamingo, who were later forced to change their name to the Czech equivalent Plameňáci, was a very tight combo with its own horn section. Some members were at the same time the nucleus of the Czechoslovak Radio Ostrava Orchestra which was recording with various other local pop artists like Pavel Novák. The group was originally lead by trumpet player Richard Kovalčík who was also responsible for most of the arrangements. After his death in 1975 the keyboardist Vladimír Figar took over the leadership. Other longtime members were bass player Jiří Urbánek, Rudolf Březina on tenor sax, Jan Hasník on guitar and the “funky drummer” Radek Dominik. Despite further personal changes, Flamingo/Plameňáci remained Marie Rottrová’s main backing group until Vladimír Figar’s death in 1989.

Kruh světla (The Ring Of Light) is the dramatical opener from Rottrová’s first solo album which has been recorded while Flamingo’s second lead singer, Petr Němec, had to serve his two years in the Czechoslovak army. The song was written by Karel Svoboda with Michael Prostějovský’s lyrics. Yes, that Karel Svoboda who wrote Lady Carneval and Biene Maja for Karel Gott as well as probably hundreds of other maddening “normalized” Czech pop and schlager songs, including the title melody from the famous Xmas fairy-tale movie Tři oříšky pro Popelku (Three Hazelnuts For Cinderella). But that doesn’t mean that Svoboda didn’t have any flair for some funk here and there; watch out for some more Svoboda penned disco grooves in the Funky Czech-In pipeline.

The rest of the album sounds a lot softer, but there’s also a funky cover version of Zawinul’s Mercy Mercy Mercy with Czech lyrics, called Nechci (I Don’t Want). This album sort of sketches the path that Rottrová was about to take for her future career, being a soul influenced pop singer with class. Compared to other Czechoslovak top entertainers of that era, Rottrová was one of the few who were able to maintain a very high standard without actually selling out to the apathetic real-socialistic TV-consuming masses. Even some of her later ballads still sound very tasteful after thirty years. In other words, this entry won’t be her or Flamingo’s only appearance on this blog.

I don’t know Marie Rottrová’s records after 1983, but she keeps on recording and performing actively.
If you’re interested, I have five of her 7″ singles from the seventies for sale (items no. 479, 843, 1070, 1193 and 1219). On cdmusic.cz you can also buy some CDs, search there for “rottrova”.

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2017-07-08: In memoriam Dr. Gui, the funky drummer
2017-02-12: In The Game Preserve
2016-02-17: Interlude: Vampi Czech-In, parts 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 & 7
2009-09-19: Interlude: Vampi Czech-In, part 1
2008-08-31: Mercy Mercy Mercy

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Disclaimer

The audio samples are presented as a “specimen” to encourage readers to buy the artists’ albums. Many of the tracks presented herein are available for purchase in MP3 or FLAC format at supraphonline.cz.

Copyright

All written content is © 2006– by Lukáš Machata (Lou Kash). Unauthorized use is strictly prohibited. If you’d like to use portions of my articles, please contact me first.