Srđan Gojković Gile, lead singer of Belgrade-based punk band Električni Orgazam, sat at the heart of Yugoslav New Wave. Inspired by UK punk but with a style and agenda all of its own, the movement left an indelible mark on all corners of the federation, heralding shifting freedoms and changing Balkan music forever.
“It was a crazy, creative period,” he says. “We were just teenagers, suddenly riding a wave of total media adulation. It was as if we could do no wrong. We were an alternative band, not mainstream, but for people interested in that kind of music, we were kings.”
“We were just teenagers, suddenly riding a wave of total media adulation. It was as if we could do no wrong”
Električni Orgazam was one of three acts featured on Paket Aranžman (“Package Tour”), a seminal compilation album released forty years ago this February. The album perfectly encapsulated the transition from gritty early punk to music that was more ambitious, less inhibited, and pregnant with possibilities. Alongside Električni Orgazam, it featured two more of the best new bands from Belgrade: Idoli (“The Idols”), and Šarlo Akrobata (“Charlot the Acrobat”, the name by which Charlie Chaplin was known in Yugoslavia during the interwar years). Paket Aranžman was hugely symbolic at the time, turning the abrasive sounds of the emerging new wave into a commercial, mass-market statement. The fact that a Zagreb-based record company was championing the Belgrade scene emphasised the interconnectedness of the Yugoslav New Wave: each republican capital had its own scene, but they needed each other in order to thrive.
The impact of that album is still felt today. The anniversary will be marked with the vinyl re-release of Paket Aranžman by Croatia Records, the Zagreb-based successor to legendary record label Jugoton. Being reissued at the same time are three other classic albums that first appeared in 1981: legendary debuts by the aforementioned Električni Orgazam, fellow Belgrade band Šarlo Akrobata, and their Zagreb contemporaries Haustor.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of punk, post-punk and new wave to the Yugoslav popular culture of the 1980s. The new music was emerging just at the time when President Tito was on his way out (the long-serving ruler died on 4 May 1980), and appeared to be heralding the freer, more exciting, but also more chaotic times ahead. The 80s were a time of extraordinary cultural turbulence throughout Yugoslavia, characterised not just by music but also by newspapers, magazines, and film. This boom in creativity was cut artificially short by the wars of the 1990s; which is why the 80s in general — and the new wave scene in particular — is so nostalgically cherished today.
“It was one of the most influential and most creative music periods in ex-Yugoslav history” says Nikola Knežević, the Croatia Records executive piloting the re-issues. “The songs still sound fresh; their creative scope unsurpassed. And we are not talking about just music, but also about design, fashion, comics, and the visual arts.”
The story of Yugoslavia’s New Wave doesn’t start in 1981. Both Slovene group Pankrti and Croatian band Paraf were performing as early as 1977. Pankrti’s concert in Zagreb in 1977 (held to open an exhibition of comics and graphics by seminal designer Mirko Ilić) is often quoted as the mythical event that gave birth to a scene, with many attendees going out to form bands of their own. However, it took a long time for punk records to appear in the shops. Pankrti and Paraf had to wait until 1980 for the release of their first albums; both were beaten to it by Zagreb band Prljavo Kazalište (“Dirty Theatre”), whose eponymous debut hit the racks in the spring of 1979.
It was in 1981 that the scene achieved critical mass, with a string of albums released by Jugoton and other labels. Like many a cultural milestone, Paket Aranžman came about largely by accident, as Siniša Škarica, Jugoton’s legendary A&R man, explains. “In autumn 1980 I went to Belgrade to produce a new album by Bijelo dugme [the melodic rock band from Sarajevo that had become a massive pan-Yugoslav attraction],” he says. “At the same time, Enco Lesić, a producer I knew from my own music-playing days, mentioned the three young Belgrade bands he was recording in his own studio nearby. And what I heard there took me by complete surprise; the Belgrade alternative scene clearly had a more than appropriate answer to the Zagreb new wave bands with which we were already familiar.”
Škarica, an accomplished guitar and bass player whose own career as a musician went back to the early 60s, wasn’t immediately convinced by the Belgrade bands. “To be honest, their music wasn’t my cup of tea. Their sound was a bit amateurish; raw and simple, but on the other hand, that was what new wave was all about. As a musician, I graduated from playing Shadows-like instrumentals to R&B, soul and jazz-rock, so to me their playing sounded unpolished. But they were definitely fresh and exciting. And they were very different one from another.”
Putting Električni Orgazam, Šarlo Akrobata and Idoli together on one shared album was a shrewd PR move, presenting the Belgrade musical underground as a coherent “scene” and exerting maximum PR benefit from the fact that it was a Zagreb label that had discovered it.
It was by no means the only outstanding album that appeared in 1981, but it was the one that best heralded the coming epoch. Mixing three-chord riffing with elements of reggae, psychedelia, and experimental noise, it showcased a generation who were unafraid to experiment and had their own unique set of aesthetics. Idoli in particular treated each of their tracks as an individual exercise in conceptual art: their song “Maljčiki” (“Boys”), an anthemic slice of ska-punk sung partly in Russian, provided the album with its biggest radio hit. The lolloping rock-reggae of Šarlo Akrobata’s “Ona Se Budi” (“She Wakes Up”) was not far behind. “To tell you the truth, I knew that all three bands were exceptionally good”, says Srđan Gojković Gile, “and I remember thinking that the three of us were better than anybody else in Yugoslavia. You could say that we were arrogant kids, but yes, I knew that Paket Aranžman was very special.”
For Škarica to win the Paket Aranžman bands for Jugoton was something of a coup. Even though Jugoton was a state-owned company, it still had to compete against others, many of which had a powerful regional base. Jugoton had become the biggest rock-pop label in Yugoslavia and it was Škarica’s job to ensure it stayed that way.
The talents that featured on Paket Aranžman went on to shape the decade that followed. Električni Orgazam released a string of albums, although they veered towards conventional rock territory with the passage of years. Idoli, led by Vlada Divljan and Srđan Šaper, went on to release what has long been regarded as the most eclectic and inventive Serbian rock album ever made (Odbrana i Poslednji dani [“Defense and The Last Days”], released by Jugoton in 1982). Šarlo Akrobata’s full debut (Jugoton 1981) was one of the strangest and most unclassifiable records in the Yugoslav rock canon and one which still divides opinion today. Šarlo’s bassist, Dušan Kojić Koja, went on to lead legendary noise-funk band Disciplina Kičme; the band’s guitarist Milan Mladenović subsequently reemerged as leader of EKV, the most lyrical and musically accomplished band of the whole epoch.
Yugoslav communism acted as an unlikely nursery for punk and new wave, yet had no control over the loyalties of an emerging generation who were more open, questioning and iconoclastic than their elders
Also important were the Yugoslav press that championed each album. Yugoslavia’s impressive stable of youth magazines was funded by local branches of the Federal League of Socialist Youth, the communist-guided organizations that were supposed to ensure the ideological loyalties of the nation’s young. By 1981, however, the youth press was becoming increasingly independent of ideological strictures. In a very direct way, Yugoslavia’s new wave was incubated by the media infrastructure that the system provided. The Student Cultural Centre or SKC in Belgrade, which hosted many of the big new wave concerts of the early 1980s, had actually been established by the party after the student demonstrations of 1968 in a bid to broaden the horizons of socialist youth.
Despite being punk rock rebels in a communist state, Yugoslav musicians did not necessarily face any greater degree of censorship than the British punk groups from which they took their inspiration. “Neither state nor party seriously bothered about rock and roll,” Škarica wrote in his book about Jugoton, Tvornica Glazbe (”The Music Factory”). Party ideologists may have been concerned that the youth were being led astray by western culture in the 50s and early 60s, but Yugoslavia’s brand of consumer communism had rendered such worries obsolete by the time that punk came along. Censorship did occasionally happen: the Haustor song Radnička klasa odlazi u raj (“The Working Class Goes Off to Heaven”) was removed from their first album due to pressure from record executives who feared it might offend those higher up. It was nevertheless released three years later with the text unchanged. Meanwhile, Jugoton famously acquired the rights to The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks, but never released it for fear it might upset British-Yugoslav relations.
The Slovene branch of the Yugoslav League of Communists did try to discredit the punk movement in the autumn of 1981 by fabricating the so-called “Nazi-Punk Affair”, in which the alternative scene was accused of flirting with the far right. The affair had the opposite effect to that intended: Slovene intellectuals united to defend punk, leading to a wider public acceptance of alternative culture as a whole.
Yugoslav communism acted as an unlikely nursery for punk and new wave, yet it had no control over the loyalties of an emerging generation who were more open, questioning, and iconoclastic than their elders. From today’s perspective, the alternative culture of the 1980s is seen as something of a golden age, even though the decade was also a time of high inflation, youth unemployment, and increasing fragmentation along ethnic lines. The late Zagreb music critic Ante Perković famously dubbed the punk and new wave scene Yugoslavia’s “Seventh Republic”, an “invisible, supranational and extraterritorial” entity that brought people together rather than throwing up new divisions.
Forty years on, the music of that period remains deeply woven into the cultural fabric of Yugoslavia’s successor states. In this part of the world, there is hardly a single major band of the last forty years that hasn’t taken the New Wave as its inspiration. And there is an eager market for re-releases. “Reissues are popular with older audiences for sure, but every now and then I hear a DJ or a young musician who wasn’t even born in 1981 who can hardly wait for the vinyl reissues” says Croatia Records’ Nikola Knežević. “What’s important is the additional content: the previously unpublished photographs, the archival recordings, the liner notes.”
“[The year] 1981 was the starting point for my music career and I am still in it, 40 years later,” Gile proudly affirms today. “We are the only band from Paket Aranžman that is still active.” The fates have not been so kind to all of his contemporaries: Milan Mladenović (of Šarlo and EKV) died young in 1994; Vlada Divljan (Idoli) passed away in 2015.
Yet of all the protagonists of the 80s scene who are still treading the boards, it is arguably former Haustor man Darko Rundek who commands most in the way of cutting-edge respect. His new album Brisani Prostor (“Scorched Earth”) is the work of an endlessly inventive songwriter who still has fresh things to say. Rundek was the least forthcoming of those interviewed for this article; a sign, perhaps, that he is more interested in talking about the music he is making now than something he did forty years ago. “It was great fun back then”, he says. “But I don’t think it is less fun today.”