Private Press Vinyl, Chaos, & the Sublime

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Edmund Burke: Early theoretician of private press vinyl collecting.

I first began buying records in Indianapolis thrift stores at the very end of the 1970s, just after I learned to drive. In most of these places, 45s were a nickel or a dime and LPs were a quarter or fifty cents. I would pick up anything that seemed offbeat, anything that transgressed the boundaries of “normal.” I had no model for this, I knew no one else who went out on their own looking for obscure vinyl. Later on, I began to meet others, but none of us thought of ourselves as collectors. Few of the records we found had any real commercial value at the time, so they were traded, discarded, or sometimes donated back to the places they were purchased. There was little fetishism in my crowd. We were sonic explorers.

By the early 1980s my aesthetic had been seriously influenced by punk and post-punk, especially the more experimental fringes of that scene: bands like Throbbing Gristle, James Chance, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, Suicide, or DNA. This ignited my appreciation of dissonance and atonality. Trying to find examples of these qualities, I began to look for records that I called “primitive,” but others might call “amateurish.” On these discs, lack of technical ability often led to the suspension of the usual rules of musical composition and performance, resulting in idiosyncrasy. These were not novelty records. They were not to be laughed at. I took them seriously.

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700 West ad. The Daily Reporter, Greenfield, Indiana, May 27, 1972.

I knew that these discs were most always either self-released or put out by local labels so tiny that they may as well have been, but it wasn’t until the publication of the late Patrick Lundborg’s Acid Archives in 2006 that I began to think of them as “private press.” Looking through the volume, I came across records that I had owned over the years, now selling for four or five hundred times what I had paid for them. Between my earliest days of thrifting and the mid-2000s, it was obvious that an army of taxonomists had been at work. Stories had been pieced together, narrative connections made, labels, artists, and producers well researched. Labels like Justice, 700 West, or RPC were now “legendary.” Not only had “private press” become a category, but a fully formed subculture of collectors had developed around it.

A curious thing about this area of collecting is that it covers such a wide variety of genres. In one of the larger areas of the field, any disc featuring traits that could possibly be called “psych” is heavily sought after and often carries a hefty price tag. But connoisseurs of hard rock, southern rock, Christian prog, loner folk, and other hybrid genres are also well represented. Although these collectors tend to be more open-minded than their major-label-collecting counterparts simply because of their attraction to this obscure material, many of them are still entering the fray looking for something whose boundaries are roughly predetermined. This is also the zone usually inhabited by the collector willing to fork over four figures for a “holy grail” disc.

Sympathetic with the psych collector, but operating in what often seems a parallel universe, is the sonic explorer who is less concerned with the boundaries of genre or rarity. This sort of collector is searching for new information, new experiences, and is seeking a personal connection to the music, regardless of what other collectors think. He or she is likely to get excited about an unknown lounge record with close to zero resale value simply because the female vocalist sings a very flawed, but mesmerizing, cover version of the Captain & Tennille’s “Muskrat Love.” This zone is the one I inhabit, and in my opinion is much closer to the spirit of serendipitous discovery that made the early days of searching for unknown vinyl so much fun.

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Mystic Zephyrs 4, 1974.

The aesthetic shift required to develop a true appreciation of much of what these records contain is considerable. Once reached, it can be a lonely place. Few, if any of your friends will understand it, much less share it. But what is actually happening when this material is regarded not as novelty, but seriously and with true appreciation? How can an individual seriously enjoy both the Zombies and the Mystic Zephyrs 4?

If Acid Archives was the introduction to the most collectible of private press discs, then 2012’s Enjoy the Experience was in part a celebration of the other end of the private press spectrum: the maybe-or-maybe-not-collectible. In his introduction to the book, Johan Kugelberg hits the nail on the head when he says that to approach this material is to meet the sublime, in the sense that Edmund Burke meant it. In essence, Burke challenged the classical notion that pleasurable experiences are always the result of beauty, the picturesque. In his view, pleasure could also be derived from an encounter with darkness, the horrific, or chaos.

The music on private press records does not always follow the rules of form that in the classical mind were synonymous with those of beauty. Being unconcerned with those rules, it is by definition chaotic. Burke provided us with a theoretical foundation in which this encounter with chaos can also be an encounter with the beautiful. He called this the sublime. Whenever a private press collector begins a dig through a cache of unexplored vinyl, it is an attempt at communion with chaos, with the abyss. It is a search for beauty outside the usual norms, outside one’s zone of comfort, a search for the sublime.

—Stephen Canner

 

Music on the Hippie Trail: Laos and The Third Eye, 1968

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Rue Lane Xang, Vientiane, Laos, 1966. Photo: Robert Wofford. Used by permission.

In early April 1968, Peter J. Kumpa of the Baltimore Sun was in Bangkok. In those days the city was something of a staging area for reporters covering the war in Vietnam. It was a place where journalists could find respite from the rigors of location reporting, yet still remain connected to the main flow of information. The rumor in Bangkok was that the entire Mekong Valley—including Vientiane, the capital of Laos—was under threat from an advancing column of North Vietnamese regulars. With no way to verify the rumor but to go and see for himself, Kumpa flew to Vientiane. What he found on arrival was a sleepy, provincial capital city that was unaware of any imminent threat. The passengers on his plane from Bangkok included a handful of American women and their children returning from shopping trips to the metropolis, part of the community of 1700 US officials and their dependents living there at the time.

The rumor turned out to be nothing more than exaggeration. There was fighting far to the south, but it seemed to be contained. Since he was there, however, Kumpa decided to take a look around. Besides the large number of Americans, the city also contained a delegation of Russians, representatives from both North and South Vietnam, as well as from the Pathet Lao, the native Communist faction. What made this situation particularly remarkable was that individuals from these different groups socialized at the same cocktail parties. It was reportedly not uncommon to find the chargés d’affaires for both North and South Vietnam seated next to one another at dinner, with a sprinkling of American and Russian officials around the same table. Added to this mix, Vientiane was an active hub for Air America, the CIA’s not-so-secret private airline. More curious still, the city was home to some 100 European, Australian, and American hippies—travelers who had found the most unlikely terminus to what was then called the Hippie Trail, the overland route from Istanbul to Kathmandu and beyond.

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Sheldon Cholst, Ventiane, late 1960s. Photographer unknown.

Kumpa’s article was probably the first mention in the US press of the Third Eye, a “psychedelic night club” started by Sheldon Cholst, an American psychiatrist in his mid-40s who had been part of the traveling counterculture since the days of the beatniks. Cholst was famous in Vientiane as the founder of the Free USA Government-in-Exile, an alternative, imaginary government whose proposed constitution included the abolition of all laws against narcotics, birth control, abortion, and polygamy. His home, only 100 yards or so from the US embassy, was a tourist attraction for visiting Russians who would stroll by to view the black and white US flag flying over the compound. Its presence was reportedly also something of an embarrassment to the Lao government, which relied heavily on US aid.

Like other psychedelic nightclubs around the world, The Third Eye’s goal seems to have been to create a space conducive to the psychedelic experience in both its major forms: musical and chemical. The ceiling was covered with tattered parasols and scarves, with dim colored lights shining through them so as to give the room an eerie, shadow-haunted glow. Laos at the time was one of the few countries that had not yet banned marijuana, and joints were sold in the club for only a few cents each. In 1967 Terry Wofford, a British artist and designer, was working in Bangkok. In the early 60s she had performed in a folk music duo with a young Christine Perfect, later to go on to fame in Fleetwood Mac as Christine McVie, but Terry had since given up music for art. She initially traveled to Vientiane in order to renew her Thai visa, but fell in love with the country. She accepted a teaching job at the International School and soon met her future husband, Robert, at the Third Eye. Terry and Robert’s photos from this period are a priceless source of visual documentation of the era and are now part of the University of Wisconsin Digital Collection. In a letter home from the late 60s, Terry described the Third Eye:

The decor is tremendous. I think I have already described the umbrellas and lights and local bamboo and head scarf effects, simple, cheap and sophisticated. It’s not only the best and most respectable bar in town with a tremendously good folk and rock group but they cook good food in the primitive kitchen in the back. On Saturdays the place gets swamped with [straight] Americans. One young man that worked there bitterly complained that the low, long table they monopolize was their own “scene” (with a long candle in a huge glass bottle) and these . . . Americans started to actually come and sit between them and stare at their furry faces!  Still, their money is needed. The drinks are quite expensive. However for people with little money they provide free iced tea, often free food and even a place to stay for those who are really broke. They are apparently not making a profit. Just about surviving in fact. They work there as they like for a dollar a day. In the back they have a small room where they print and paint. They’ve invited me to use it if I want. It’s amazing the talent among them. They are even opening an art gallery next door. [Terry tells me that she does not believe the art gallery ever opened.]

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Psychedelic art at the Third Eye, 1968. Photo: Terry Wofford. Used by permission.

Vientiane in 1968 seems an unlikely place for a group of hippies to end up. At the time, it was about as close as a civilian could safely get to the Vietnam War, which was raging not only in Vietnam, but in the southern and eastern parts of Laos as well. Though the majority of the travelers undoubtedly opposed the war, when John Riddick of the Tucson Daily Citizen visited the city in September of that year, one of the them told him that the group tended to keep its opinions about the war to itself, and, in general, to not be “antagonistic about anything.” This “under the radar” attitude may well have been the result of events earlier in the year.

On May 16, 1968, the New York Times ran a small piece sourced from the United Press reporting that Laos had ordered 22 hippies to leave the country. It stated that as part of this action, “two of their 5-cent marijuana bars” were closed. One of these was the Third Eye; what the second bar may have been is not currently known. The deportees were scheduled to be bused to the Mekong River ferry east of town and sent downriver to Thailand. This was problematic as Thailand had recently barred “hippie” travelers, but it was thought that the Thai government would allow the deportees to travel to Bangkok in order to find transportation out of the country. In another letter home, Wofford explains the reason for the expulsion:

Did you hear about the fuss made during a Lao festival? The hippies joined in a procession of Buddhists which everyone found hilarious except local officialdom who closed the Eye for one night and started to run some of them out of town. 

Luckily for the traveler community, it had an ally in the prime minister’s Harvard-educated son, Prince Panya Souvanna Phouma. Panya interceded on behalf of the deportees, and the order was revoked. In order for the Third Eye to reopen, however, Panya became half owner of the club. One source says that no money was actually exchanged, so Cholst effectively had part of his business confiscated, but through Panya’s intervention a vital center for the alternative Western community was saved. As conditions for the reprieve, the travelers were ordered to practice better grooming habits, to tone down their “hippie” appearance, and to be less conspicuous in their use of drugs. Panya also introduced three new rules for the Third Eye: no politics (resulting in the removal of posters celebrating Mao and Cholst’s government-in-exile), no drugs, and that the club would begin proper bookkeeping.

Very little research into the musical culture along the Hippie Trail has been done. By the late 1960s, at the western end of the trail, Turkey and Iran had very well developed western-influenced contemporary music scenes. And though the groups in those countries showed clear evidence of the influence of American and British psychedelic bands, the result was more a distinct local hybrid than a case of East copying West. Even the juggernaut that was the Indian scene was not immune to this influence, as evidenced by the Tamla Beat band contests of the 60s and early 70s, artists such as Usha Iyer’s late 60s output, and the 1971 hippie-themed Bollywood film Hare Rama Hare Krishna.

Southeast Asia also partook of the musical changes happening in the West. Thailand, Cambodia, and South Vietnam all had vibrant music scenes whose recorded output in the late 60s and early 70s included reworkings of Western tunes and the sound of fuzz-laden guitars. Like their Turkish and Persian contemporaries, these were hybrid sounds, managing to sound distinctively Asian while adhering to a roughly Western structure. But these examples only show the influence going one way: from West to East. It is hard to imagine that among the thousands of Western hippies who trekked the Trail, that at least some of them did not engage with the local music scenes they encountered. Christopher Titmuss, a British traveler who spent time in Vientiane in the late 60s and is now a Buddhist teacher in southwest England, remembers seeing Lao musicians on the streets and hearing local music coming out of loudspeakers in the city. He does not recall any particular interest in Lao music from the international community, however. It seems that the guitar reigned supreme in the musical consciousness of the expats, and what interest there was in the music of the East was in the “sitar, drums and tabla” of India.

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Chanthara Outhensackda

Laos seems to have existed under the musical shadow of its neighbors during this period. There is very little mention of a Laotian recording industry in any of the expected sources. The references that do exist are usually either to Lao artists recording in Thailand, or to the molam genre of music performed by the closely linguistically and ethnically related population of northeast Thailand. Laos did have its own scene, though, however small. Recording artist Chanthara Outhensackda was head of the studio for Lao National Radio from 1968 to 1975 and recorded a number of 45s. In 2010, he confirmed to the Radiodiffusion Internasionaal Annexe blog that these records were recorded in Laos, not Thailand. It is curious when compared to Cambodia—whose recording industry is relatively well documented despite the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror that resulted in the massacre of most of the country’s recording artists—that so little information exists on the Laotian industry. This could be due to the very small size of its actual output or to the fact that the records when found are often mistakenly thought to be Thai. Also, there are very few researchers doing any active work in this area, and among them even fewer have the linguistic skills to make the slightest sense out of the records they find.

The Third Eye seems to have been one of the very few venues on the Hippie Trail that regularly booked Western musicians for a primarily Western audience. At the other end of the Trail, Istanbul’s Pudding Shop is known to have played contemporary western rock music in the background as customers dined, and its back garden was the occasional site of impromptu jam sessions, but there is no evidence that it was a venue in the formal sense. Even the Third Eye was not a venue in the sense of bringing in talent from afar, but relied on the musicians who drifted into town on their own steam. So far, the only Third Eye musicians who have been identified are two members of a combo the Associated Press referred to as The Voyagers: Mark Rankin, a 23-year-old “conscientious objector” from Berkeley, and Tom Hinkle, 25, an ex-soldier from Lexington, North Carolina, who had received his discharge in Europe and simply continued traveling east. An Associated Press photo of this duo exists showing them playing their guitars while riding a water buffalo. It was taken by Eddie Adams, the photographer responsible for the famous image of South Vietnamese National Police chief Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner. Peter Kumpa also reported seeing fliers for a show at the Third Eye featuring a “new Australian guitarist” in April 1968. Another source from a few months later refers to the house band as “Australian-American.” Besides the scene at the Third Eye, Terry Wofford also remembers that there was a Thai FM station that broadcast Western music in the evenings, and on weekends Filipino bands played Western pop music at the Hotel Lang Xang and Seltha Palace, with their “postage stamp dance floors.”

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Western musicians on stage at the Third Eye, 1968. Note the reel-to-reel tape player at right, often used as makeshift amplifiers in the 1960s. Photo: Terry Wofford. Used by permission.

Despite the paucity of information on the local native music scene and its associated recording industry, a good amount is known about the Western scene in Vientiane during this period, especially when compared to other gathering points along the Hippie Trail. This is in great part due to the presence of the Third Eye and the unlikelihood of a hippie community existing there. The situation was enough of a curiosity at the time to attract US newspaper coverage. These accounts provide documentary information as well as colorful narratives of life in the city at the time. Of course, this information is invariably from the Western point of view. The full story of the Hippie Trail is not only that of a group of international travelers, but also of every community it moved through and every individual it encountered, directly or indirectly. If the Hippie Trail is ever to be “mapped” with any depth, it is important that the voices of the local communities affected by this great migration are brought into the conversation.

Had Graham Greene been looking towards Indochina for inspiration in the 1960s as he had in the 1950s, the motley community of spies, secret operatives, diplomats, dependents, communists, opportunists, artists, outcasts, musicians, and international hippies living in Vientiane would have made a perfect setting for one of his novels. Terry Wofford is currently working on a memoir of her time in the country, but in the meantime the story of Vientiane in the late 1960s is only documented in fragments, on blogs and in old newspaper articles. The Lao voice is still largely silent in these sources, however. With the recent interest in the Southeast Asian recording scene of the 60s and 70s, especially that of Cambodia, researchers have begun piecing together the history of popular music in the region. Laos is still a shadowy landscape in this narrative, but in time, piece by piece, the full story will hopefully emerge. It appears, though, that if it does, it may well be a story of Western and Lao musicians existing in the same city at the same time, each group being largely unaware of the other’s activity.

—Stephen Canner

Special thanks to Terry Wofford and Christopher Titmuss for taking the time to share their memories with me for this article, and also to Terry for permission to use her priceless photographs.

Resources

Terry & Robert Wofford Laotian Image Collection

AP Photo of Rankin, Hinkle, & Water Buffalo

AP Photo of Hinkle with Ann Burge

Mystery Vinyl and the Art of Detection

There are few greater joys to the researcher-collector than acquiring a new piece of vinyl about which little or nothing is known. When an Internet search and the standard reference books fail to turn up any information, an exercise in inductive reasoning begins. After taking into account the record’s provenance, chiefly considering where and how it was found, the next step is to research the label itself. By checking Discogs or 45cat it is often possible to find other releases on the same label. This can provide hints as to geography and date, as well as give a bit of context based on what other sorts of records the label released. Looking at songwriting credits can sometimes provide the names of band members. Any information about who produced or engineered the record can also be helpful. Publishing information can be another clue, as sometimes a particular publishing imprint is known to be associated with certain individuals or a certain city. Examining the matrix numbers etched into the dead wax can be a hint as to where the record was manufactured. Since the numbering schemes of the big pressing plants of the 1960s and 70s have been heavily researched, it’s often possible to date the record this way. The last resort of the frustrated researcher is often to listen to the record for lyrical content. Does the vocalist reference a town or a local landmark that might be a clue as to where the artist was based?

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Sometimes a record fails to provide even these most basic points of entry to the researcher. An example is a 45 on Angelus Records by a band called Acid Test. The disc, “What Do I Love?” b/w “Make Her Mine,” released as Angelus WR 4803, stubbornly refuses to give up much information. A reasonable amount is known about Angelus Records as it was relatively prolific, operating in Los Angeles from at least the early 1960s until the late 1970s. It was a custom label that primarily released forgettable gospel records, although odd gems like Stone Garden’s “Oceans Inside Me” 45 or the Moon Blood LP by Christian psych band Fraction do turn up. Besides a rough guess as to the year of release based on the catalog number—late 1960s—there is nothing else on the disc to help the researcher. No songwriting credits or other names, no publishing information, and the number inscribed in the dead wax is only a repeat of the catalog number. According to the collector grapevine, there are two known copies of the Acid Test disc, one found in Spokane and the other in northwest Montana. This hints that the band may have been from that region. Often, this sort of circumstantial information is all that is “known” about a disc.

A mystery disc in my own collection that yields a bit more information, but barely, is Cynthia Kellems’ “Sonata” b/w “Lily-Lavendar” on the Where Rainbows End label. This appears to be a vanity label created by Kellems herself. The copyright is given as “1979 Ms. Brown.” There is no publishing information except for a reference to BMI, but a search of the BMI repertoire database turns up nothing on Kellems. The numbers on the dead wax (X-5344/Sonata and X-5345/Lily-Lavendar) do not jibe with the format of any pressing plant I’m familiar with. The dealer I bought it from told me that he acquired it in San Francisco in a batch of records that had previously belonged to a radio station. There seem to be a number of people named Cynthia Kellems in the US, and I reached out to one of them, a southern California realtor. She seemed amused by the question but confirmed that she was not the same Cynthia who made the record and, despite the less- than-common surname, had no knowledge of who the mystery artist might be.

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This record is almost completely unknown, but has the potential to become something of a cult favorite, especially if it were comped along with a nice collection of similar material. Despite its relatively late copyright date, it is dark, avant-outsider folk, which gives it the feel of an earlier era. The record fits the “loner folk” category, and some might go as far as calling it “downer” or even “wristcutter folk.” It really doesn’t sound like anything else, though. To get an idea, imagine that the Fair brothers of Half Japanese had a morose little sister who decided to become a folk singer, or that one of the Wiggins sisters from The Shaggs locked herself in her room late one night with an acoustic guitar and laid her heart out into a cassette recorder. The dissonant guitar playing is inept to the point of brilliance. There’s something so primitive about it as to sound nearly ancient. The lyrics seem to be Cynthia’s poems set to music or perhaps even completely made up on the spot. There’s a free-associative vibe that makes it hard to tell whether we are in the presence of composition or improvisation. This is folk music sui generis.

One possible hint as to the geographical origin of the record is found in the lyrics. With Kellems’ odd delivery buried under layers of reverb, it’s often difficult to clearly understand what is being said. But at one point in “Lily-Lavendar” she clearly says, “Sons of Catalina shall titillate you gently.” The United Sons of Catalina was a Filipino-American fraternal mutual aid society that existed in several cities in California prior to World War Two. Is this nothing more than a coincidence, a songwriter creating a poetic image that just happens to coincide with something in the real world? Or does this line mean that she was aware of the organization, either through a family connection or by seeing the name on the sign of a decaying local lodge building? If so, this would imply that she was indeed based in California. As rickety as this sort of reasoning is, it is a good example of the very fragile framework upon which initial research into a disc like this is often built.

The dead ends can outnumber the leads, and the researcher is often left with no more firm information than existed at the beginning of the process. This is a common situation with the most obscure discs. What sometimes happens is that someone involved with the record, or a family member, discovers a blog post or a Youtube video and comments on it. More than one vinyl mystery has been solved this way. Hopefully, Cynthia or someone else with inside knowledge of this disc will see this post and help us shed light on it.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Cynthia Kellems: “Sonata” b/w “Lily-Lavendar”

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