The Semiotic of Resistance: Blossom Toes in Czechoslovakia

On September 14, 1969, London’s Observer ran an article written by Colin Smith, who later became well known for his coverage of the conflicts in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon, and Kuwait. Unlike his later reportage from war zones, this article dealt with the pop music scene in Prague. In September 1969, Czechoslovakia had recently endured—celebrated is not the right word—the first anniversary of the Soviet invasion. After what began as a popularly supported liberalization and democratization of the country, Prague was entering its second year of what would turn out to be two decades of disillusionment.

When Smith visited the country in September 1969, however, he found that a vibrant youth culture had survived despite recent events. The young people of Prague, in contrast to “young East German tourists in their baggy grey suits,” “would not have looked out of place up the West End on a Saturday night.” The Prague version of King’s Road chic involved cheaper imitations of London fashion: “gaily colored nylon battle blouses and heavy mod shoes made in Yugoslavia.” Many of them also wore small lapel badges bearing pictures of Alexander Dubček, the recently deposed First Secretary of the Communist Party who was largely responsible for launching the previous year’s reforms.

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Blossom Toes: If Only for a Moment LP, July 1969.

The occasion for Smith’s article was the rare tour of a British psychedelic rock group in the country. Blossom Toes arrived in Czechoslovakia around the first of the month for a 16-day tour of the nation. It appears the group likely played a number of shows in provincial towns, but research so far only turns up confirmation of two gigs in the country. Some time early in the month, the band played an outdoor show in Jihlava, about 80 miles southeast of Prague. In recounting this event Smith describes Blossom Toes’ music as “a strange hybrid of beat and electric guitar Asian jazz.” He adds that the “teeny-bopper audience threw coins and lighted cigarettes on the stage” because the band wouldn’t play rock and roll. From our point of view in history both the description of the band’s music and the audience reaction might seem rather curious. But in September 1969 Blossom Toes were touring on their second album, If Only for a Moment, released the previous July. Whereas the songs on the group’s first album still contained more or less identifiable pop music structures despite a heavy dose of lysergic fuzz, a few tracks on the second album showed the group moving in a more fluid, psych-blues direction. Although the concept of rock music deconstructing itself into bluesy psychedelic soundscapes was already becoming familiar to cosmopolitan American audiences, it was still a very new thing in the backwaters of the Iron Curtain where most familiarity with Western music came from the big capitalist pop stations: Radio Luxembourg, VOA, and the BBC. Interestingly, the song the Jihlava teens most wanted to hear was “Back in the USSR.” Smith found this a curious choice in that the song was basically “a panegyric to Russian womanhood,” until he realized most of the audience only understood the title. “The emphasis was on back,” he says.

In Prague, fans were more familiar with Blossom Toes’ current direction, and were more tuned into the UK scene in general. The band originally had a number of concerts scheduled in Prague, but they were all cancelled “for political reasons.” Somehow, late in the tour, “ a chance meeting with some Czech beat musicians in a basement night club” led to a hurriedly arranged show at Prague’s illustrious Smetana Hall. To put this into context, this would be as if a European band arrived in New York City to find that its club dates had been cancelled, only to soon find itself booked at Carnegie Hall through a chance meeting.

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Prague’s Smetana Hall

The main point of Smith’s piece in the Observer was to illustrate how the western trappings of pop music functioned as symbols of resistance in Czechoslovakia. Long hair on men, “battle blouses,” and cheap Yugoslavian “mod shoes” transmitted a message as clearly as did more overt gestures like wearing a Dubček lapel badge. Smith stated it clearly, “Among young people, even the educated young, Western pop music seems to be synonymous with the resistance.” Acts of resistance could be as simple as illegally putting up fliers to advertise the Smetana Hall show, or walking past the Russian commandant’s office in Bratislava with tiny transistor radios tuned to Radio Luxembourg.

It’s not clear how Blossom Toes’ 1969 tour of Czechoslovakia transpired. Who booked it? What forces behind the Iron Curtain approved it only to cancel many of the shows once the band was in the country? What is clear is that Blossom Toes were an unlikely symbol of resistance. While their second album opens with “Peace Loving Man,” probably the closest thing to a political song they ever recorded, much of their repertoire was made up of tunes like “I’ll Be Late for Tea” or “Mrs. Murphy’s Budgerigar,” hardly the stuff to encourage Molotov cocktails in the streets. The resistance, it seems, was in the form, not the content. Perhaps this absence of an overtly political posture was a factor in allowing them into the country in the first place. There’s little evidence that the band was considered particularly radical in the UK or in Western Europe. But because they briefly entered a space with its own prevailing semiotic—where symbols meant different things than at home—for a couple of weeks in 1969, Blossom Toes were revolutionary.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Blossom Toes: Peace Loving Man