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This autumn Croatian TV viewers will settle down to watch the third season of Crno-Bijeli Svijet (“Black and White World”), the popular drama series that focuses on a group of Zagreb people in the early years of the 1980s. Packed full of references to popular culture and padded-shoulder fashions, it has proved a big hit in a city that has always regarded the Eighties as its crucial formative period.
Part of the appeal of the Eighties is down to simple demographics. People who were teenagers in the epoch of post-punk, synthesizers and hair spray are now the nation’s newspaper editors, TV producers, theatre managers, middle-generation novelists and screenwriters. Our tastes are still defined by the Eighties generation, if not by the actual decade itself.
It was during the Eighties that Croatian popular culture was at its creative peak. The country’s roster of rock and pop stars had achieved critical mass, unleashing a hyper-productive decade of hit songs and albums which has, in latter years, become a kind of national musical treasury.
That such a golden era of creativity coincided with a decade of economic and political uncertainty, when hyper-inflation cut into people’s prosperity but also fed an enjoy-it-while-it-lasts taste for hedonism, accords the whole period an Atlantis-like aura of concurrent grandeur and downfall. The creative pop-culture mash-up that characterized Croatia in the Eighties went hand in hand with a withering of media censorship and a decline of communist-party discipline, both a symptom and a cause of the political crisis that finally led to Yugoslavia’s demise.
Arguably the Eighties actually started in December 1977, when Slovenian punk group Pankrti played at the opening of an exhibition by comic artist (and future design pioneer) Mirko Ilić at Zagreb’s Student Centre. It had an electrifying effect on people who had read about punk rock in newspapers but who had never seen anybody doing it for real.
Prljavo Kazalište were the first local band to get the new spirit down on vinyl. Their 1979 debut album is a classic of the genre; while their 1980 follow up Crno-Bijeli Svijet (the one that gave the TV series its title) was heavily influenced by ska. However few Zagreb bands followed punk and post-punk templates supplied by the UK music scene, preferring instead to use the prevailing wind of change as an invitation to do their own thing. Best-loved band of the epoch Azra were led by a classically lyrical singer-songwriter in Johnny Stulić, who used the urgency of punk to give his troubadour-ish instincts a new immediacy. Groups like Film and Aerodrom pioneered a home-grown brand of anthemic power-pop that radio and TV bosses found impossible to resist. Arguably the most innovative band of the epoch was Haustor, who knitted threads of reggae, world music and new wave into a sophisticated but accessible brand of pop that still sounds fresh today.
Boy-meets-girl-meets-synthesizer bands like Denis i Denis and Xenia, although both from Rijeka, were coopted by the Croatian capital as part of a developing urban soundtrack.
Despite Zagreb’s sudden emergence as a hive of musical creativity, nightlife was not as developed as it is today. Bars were fewer in number and tended to close at 10 or 11pm, although there was a growing club scene led by venues such as Kulušić, Lapidarium, Jabuka and the student club KSET, where youth tribes from New Romantics to Goths (known as “Darkers” in Croatian due to their propensity to wear black) could listen to their music of choice. Members of bands and their fans would hang out on a short strip of Masarykova, centred on a nondescript (and no-longer extant) café called Zvečka or “The Rattle”. The strip was popularly dubbed “Tobacco Road” due to the habit many had of drifting along it cadging fags, dipping into other people’s conversations, or simply seeing who else was around. The scene was tightly knit; everybody knew everybody else; creative energies were shared in a way that is less evident today.
Thanks to the emergence of a small but stable club scene, live music was available in much more profusion than ever before, and it was in the Eighties that Zagreb’s reputation as a live-rock city really took root. The local public was also able to witness the best new foreign bands, rather than simply reading about them in the well-thumbed pages of the British Council library’s copy of the NME. Iconic performances that live on in local memory include those by Gang of Four 1981, Sonic Youth in 1985, and the Pixies, at the height of their powers, at Kulušić in 1989.
It wasn’t just about the music. Local media were also undergoing something of a revolution. Leading the field were Polet, the student paper that covered everything from popular culture to edgy political reportage; and Start, the lifestyle magazine whose unlikely mix of cheap soft-porn glamour and sophisticated comment helped Zagreb feel as if it was at the centre of Europe rather than looking in from the fringes. Literary journal Quorum made high culture look hip and happening, and was devoured with an eagerness that would make today’s niche publishers swoon with envy. As Yugoslavia’s political crisis deepened towards the end of the decade the alternative print media took on a new importance, with student rags like Polet selling out entire print runs to a public eager to read the things that rarely appeared in the official dailies.
If one single event made Zagreb in the Eighties seem like an exciting place to be then it was the World Student Games or Univerzijada, held in the city in summer 1987. The centre of the city was cleaned up, the main square re-landscaped, and new leisure facilities provided - including Jarun, the artificial lake that is nowadays one of Zagreb’s main recreation spots. Extra theatre and music events were laid on, giving Zagreb’s Univerzijada summer the feel of a huge urban festival.
The breakup of Yugoslavia and the five years of war that followed put a brake on Zagreb’s urban culture. Resources dried up. Young people had more worrying things on their minds. More than anywhere else in the developed world, “The Eighties” became a concept frozen in time rather than something that rolled on organically into the Nineties. Zagreb missed a decade, and didn’t start to live life to the full again until the millennium, when a new generation of clubs generated a whole set of new scenes.
Azra’s frontman Johnny Stulić emigrated to the Netherlands in 1986, demonstratively resigned from his role as generational icon. Prljavo Kazalište became a mainstream pop-rock attraction and can still fill arenas; Haustor’s Darko Rundek is a sophisticated songwriter and composer with a global reputation; Jura Stublić of Film is still around playing his old hits.
The Zagreb New Wave (or Zagrebački novi val as it is known in Croatian) is still a hugely important cultural calling card, as crucial to the mythology of the Croatian capital as the Swinging Sixties are to London. The songs of the epoch are still on the radio; the lyrics of the likes of Azra can still be quoted verbatim by people far too young to have ever seen them live.
David Bowie played at Maksimir stadium in September 1990, the last great gig before the end of the party. And in an odd way, this fleeting visitor from another world, master of so many of the epoch’s musical genres, serves as a fitting symbol for what Zagreb in the Eighties was all about.