Zagreb

Jugoton

more than a year ago

Jonathan Bousfield explores the history of record label Jugoton.

Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cold-War divide still colours our perceptions of cultural history. People in Western Europe had all the sex, drugs and rock and roll; people in the East just gritted their teeth and carried on queuing for sausages. The former Yugoslavia, with its quasi-consumerist version of Communism-Lite, stood somewhere in the middle. But what if we re-drew the continent’s historical geography according to which countries had the biggest record industry, which countries underwent a punk-rock revolution in the late Seventies, or which countries produced the largest proportion of Eighties’ synthesizer bands? By any of these criteria, the Croatian capital Zagreb would have to be moved into the same camp as London, Manchester or Berlin; while large tracts of Mediterranean Europe would find suddenly themselves on the far side of the Urals.

Zagreb folk have long been aware that their city occupies an important niche in the history popular culture. It’s a status eloquently confirmed by East of Eden, an exhibition devoted to the former Yugoslavia’s largest record company, Zagreb-based Jugoton. Through a compelling array of LP sleeves and archive photographs, it reveals just how consumer culture, rock-and-roll rebellion and contemporary design combined to produce a thriving urban scene. It also shows how popular music served as a mirror of a changing society, and makes some attempt to answer the question of just why Yugoslav socialism could boast so much in the way of wop bam boom.

The latters’ long-standing fascination with the history of Jugoton is in part explained by the fact that they started out as record sleeve designers themselves. Their cover for the 1984 Dorian Gray album Sjaj u tami, with its mixture of home-grown new-wave energy and western pop aesthetics, is a typical episode in the Jugoton story.

Yugoslavia’s greatest ever record label began life as Elektroton in late Thirties, before being nationalized and renamed Jugoton in the aftermath of World War II. Its early releases were limited to traditional folk songs and Soviet-style revolutionary marching tunes, but changes on the international political scene soon had a profound impact on the Jugoton repertoire. With Yugoslavia thrown out of the Soviet bloc in 1948 and its leaders seeking a rapprochement with the west, popular culture took immediate advantage. The 1950s saw the rise of a new breed of domestic variety stars, notably Ivo Robić, who were deliberately styled on the western showbiz tradition. Indeed Robić reached number 13 on the US Billboard charts in 1959 with the song Morgen, proving that this cultural exchange was by no means a one-way affair.

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