The power of Polish punk

by Andrew Whittaker
December 14th, 2011

In the course of compiling the latest book in the Speak the Culture series, on Poland, I’ve been learning about punk music’s role in the fall of the Eastern Bloc.

Punk, as we all know, was anti pretty much anything. Anti-convention. Anti-establishment. Born in the US and UK (each claims sovereignty: Stooges or Pistols?), it was raw and exciting; and had a serious influence on western culture, in particular music and fashion.

But really, once the dust had settled – after all the swearing, spitting and smashing – punk didn’t realign the establishment to any great degree. It didn’t bring down governments. At least it didn’t in the West. In Poland, however, punk rock – and its calmer sibling, new wave – played their part in ending years of Soviet rule.

With marshal law, strikes, shortages and inflation, life in Poland in the late 1970s and early 80s was grim. With little collective or personal freedom, the frustrations of a younger generation were epitomised perfectly by punk. The underground bands that emerged, led by a Warsaw group called Tilt, gave the youth a voice; to be heard – at gigs, festivals and demos – alongside the intelligentsia and the workers who were slowly eroding the control of the Soviet authorities.

Bands had to pass their lyrics in front of the censor; if the words met with approval, the artists could enter the recording studio. Many bands simply altered their lyrics for live shows, aware that the security services in attendance at most gigs would have little understanding of what they were singing. Audience members would record the shows and then circulate illicit audiotapes.

The anarchic lyrics of Polish punk and the way in which it brought Polish youth together were all part of the momentum that led to democratic elections in the country in 1989; elections that helped initiate far wider change in Eastern Europe.

Five important Polish bands from the 1980s
Brygada Kryzys. Punk band formed from the ashes of Kryzys and Tilt by frontman Tomek Lipiński. They were banned after refusing to headline a state-organised concert.
Republika. New wave band that used rich metaphor to get round the censor.
Maanam. Post punk, new wavish band fronted by female singer Kora. One particular song (and album), Nocny Patrol (1983) captured the mid 80s mood.
Kult. An underground rock band whose direct lyrics found censorship but which went on to achieve great success in the post-communist era.
TSA. Hard-to-ignore band that brought together the accoutrements of hard rock (long hair, sweaty torsos, etc) with invective for the regime.

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