Enyém, tied, miénk [Mine, yours, ours] – Hobo Blues Band, 1982
Földes László, a.k.a Hobo, takes centre stage with the word ‘dog’ spray painted on the back of his white shirt. Beside him, the one-legged king of Hungarian blues, Deák Bill Gyula, howls away in harmony. In a dimly lit community hall, the Hobo Blues Band play blues rock to a generation of rebels and outcasts.
They sing about the struggles that they, and most importantly the youth, face in their homeland. Taking it all back to the gutter, their ethos barks: “Be the king of dogs, not the dog of kings.”
With their western sound, the use of sexual connotations and political criticism, the Budapest-based blues unit became an anti-establishment symbol in 1980s communist Hungary.
However, their music, much to the dismay of the authorities, reached people beyond the country’s borders.
Bringing it all back home
Just eight miles from the Hungarian border, in the south-central region of Slovakia, lies Fiľakovo. A small town of roughly 10,000 residents.
The land once belonged to Hungary until new borders were drawn and it fell under Slovakian rule. Ever since then it has been home to a community of Slovaks, Hungarians and Roma settlers. As a result of the location, the locals speak both languages.
After World War II, the Russians snatched the Eastern Bloc into their grip. All private enterprises and lands were nationalised.
Where adverts once plastered the walls, propaganda signs were erected. The town loudspeakers started shouting pro-communist statements and messages. Two large factories, separated by a railroad track, re-opened under government control.
Since everyone had to work by law, the workshops were flooded with the locals. To accommodate the workforce, social housing filled the town in the form of tower blocks. A big red star and a portrait of Lenin were put up on the walls of all state-owned premises and the ‘power was given to the people’.The nature of the totalitarian government proved to do anything but that. While on the surface it seemed that people were content, behind closed doors a feeling of dissatisfaction was brewing amongst young people.
During the regime’s four-decade reign, three types of mindsets developed: There were those who actively supported the system. Those who kept their head down and got on with things and naturally, those who were outwardly against it.
In large cities like Bratislava and Prague, collectives of artists, writers and students led the anti-establishment movements. Through demonstrations and protests they became known nationwide as the fighters of oppression. Taking all the limelight.
However, in the small forgotten parts of the countries, it was the local heroes that kept the wheel rolling. This is their story.
‘They left me here to die or grow, in the middle of Tobacco Road’
Miro grew up in Fiľakovo. His father, a Charter 77 signee, was separated from the family, leaving his wife to raise their two children. The upbringing she could give her kids was far from a silver-spoon one.“We were raised to go to restaurants which had bicycles propped against their walls. It meant that our kind of people ate there,” he told us.
Due to his father’s political status, at the age of 11 he already had the mark of an outsider. As a result, he was blacklisted and was never even approached to join the party. Not that he would have wanted to but, those who had their little red book had it a lot easier.
So, from an early age he had to accept his fate and learn to get with the ways.
Although that never kept him from good times. He played football for the town team and spent his days chasing girls and hanging out. Down at the main square the guys would meet to play cards and drink beer. At their feet heaps of sunflower seed shells would form.
“You’d go down to the square with two aces in your pocket and you’d meet any bet.”At first, like everyone else around him, he accepted that things weren’t going to change. It wasn’t until music came into the picture, that he realised there were people who were ready to challenge the norms. Separating himself from the status quo would come at a cost though.
“The first time I heard the Hobo Blues Band, I was in a bar with some friends. The owner had an old jukebox and he played the band’s first single. I thought it was the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.
“So, I went and bought their cassette tape and I played it over and over on this clunky sound system. My mother would come in the room shaking her head and I was sold. After that, I’d follow the band everywhere they went.”What made the Hobo Blues Band so successful, besides their sound, was the lead singer’s literary ability. For one, his skill of translating English songs and still maintaining a rhyme scheme meant that their listeners could understand the words of their western heroes.
However, for years, Földes had been regarded highly amongst the Hungarian beat writers for his own work. So much so in fact, that one of his idols, Allen Ginsberg appeared as a cameo in the band’s 1981 film, Kopaszkutya (Bald Dog Rock). Initially, the film was banned.
Földes sang about poverty, oppression and the struggle of being a nobody under the system. His words perfectly embodied the feeling of their time. In their blatant crypticism, the message was clear. You put in the work and you get fuck all.Finally, there was someone to voice the views of the unheard masses.
Most major western acts were discouraged from playing behind the Iron Curtain. Either because of the political state of the countries or because they knew it wouldn’t pay off. However, the kids wanted to hear live music which gave European bands the opportunity to fill the void.
A plethora of bands emerged including P. Mobil, Beatrice, Edda, Coral and Dinamit. Each act offered their own take on hard rock, creating the soundtrack for a new generation.
By the 80s, the bands would put on regular all-day festivals at the legendary Budai Ifjúsági Park (Buda Youth Park). Audiences would gather from miles around, crossing borders just to make the shows.“We’d drive down to the festivals in the morning and there were hundreds of people around already. There were bands playing until night-time. We would sleep in the car and do it all again the next day. We always had a great time. The American and English music was always there, you just had to know where to find it.”
At the time, Radio Luxembourg became the main source of western music in the Eastern Bloc. Based in the West, the station was broadcasting using the most powerful private transmitter available; their signal was so strong that it could be even heard in Estonia.
People could tune in and listen to disk jockeys that spun pop, jazz and rock n roll. They hired presenters from all over Europe so they could reach out to as many countries as possible. Listeners could then write to the station and ask for requests and dedications.
“We’d write in, asking the DJ to play our favourite songs. You’d wait for a couple of weeks and then one night you would hear him announce ‘Now we’re gonna play Zeppelin for the Red Rooster’. We all used nicknames cause the last thing you wanted was the cops to hear your name on an illegal radio broadcast.
“Often the hosts would talk over the best part of a song so you couldn’t get a good recording. If it wasn’t for them talking away, the sound was ruined by government radio jamming.”
The soviet authorities invested heavily in interference devices which used noise and fuzz to disrupt the forbidden signals. However, they couldn’t stop people from trying anyway.
“You’d sit there turning the dials, battling it out with Kirill on the other side.”
Hair down to his knee
Seeing the clothes and hairstyles of their favourite bands at concerts, and photos of people like Jagger, inspired guys to try new looks. Long hair started becoming more and more popular.
As much as it was an aesthetic thing, it also had deeper connotations. It indicated someone’s music taste, their lifestyle and often their political views. Most importantly, long hair formed an understanding and connection between people who were living the same struggle.
As it became a flag of rebellion, the Communist authorities saw long hair as a threat to their standards of convention.“During junior school, the headmaster would visit every classroom in the morning. Like a hawk, he’d stalk the room for covered ears and write away in a notepad. A couple of hours later, when he had made his way around the whole school, an announcement would be made on the school speaker boxes. A voice would read out a list of names and then the command would follow. ‘Get a haircut!’ No-one dared to resist.
“The reason being that the next day, he’d come around again with his list to tick off the names. If someone was found with their hair still too long, the teacher would take a pair of scissors and chop their hair then and there. In the evenings after school, a row of mothers would be sitting outside the headmaster’s office. Waiting either to apologise, or for an apology.
“As the guys older things only got worse.“In high schools, the school boards were willing to ruin futures by forbidding long haired guys to sit their final exams. They would physically prevent them from entering examination halls. A dilemma between one’s individuality or a chance at something better than a life in a steel factory would ensue.
This sort of repression exceeded the education system however. It seems that people could cut your hair just about anywhere you went. If you were to visit another country, you could be lucky to land in the hands of the biggest asshole at the border. If the officers decided that you didn’t resemble the person pictured on your identification, they’d get the scissors on you. They were giving out more haircuts than the barbers in the town.
“This sort of thing didn’t happen to me but we’d hear about it all the time. Our luck was that most of the guys working at the border were from the town too, so they all knew us. If it wasn’t a case of filling quotas, they’d usually let us pass through without even stopping to check us.”
Lone star belt buckles and old faded Levi’s
“We had it a lot easier being able to speak Hungarian and living so close to the border. Communism didn’t mean the same to us as it did to those living in the middle of the country. If we wanted a taste of the West, we were a half-hour drive from it.
“Hungarian laws differed under the Communists. Private enterprise was allowed on a small scale so stores and markets were common. Getting a hold of certain things was easier than it was back at home.
“By the 80s, in Hungarian record shops you were able to find copies of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Whether you could bring it back home was a different story.”
However, it was for the clothes at the markets that most people came for. Truck drivers would bring things in from the West which they then sold to the merchants. Leather jackets, Levi’s jeans and other denim. Cowboy boots and gym shoes, Marlboro cigarettes and whiskey. Anything Americana went.
So as the music was combined with the hair and clothes, subcultures began forming. Rockers became known as ‘csöves’, meaning ‘bum’, as their look embraced poverty and a sleazy image.“It started creating this mob mentality, where some guys were part of this music scene, while others belonged to another. They were willing to get in fights over music tastes. They’d curse mothers and spit on each other.”
Though these goods were all technically contraband, they were tolerated by officials.“There was a grey area with clothing, so cops or teachers wouldn’t give you trouble for wearing a pair of jeans. But then some guys started sewing American flags and bald eagle patches on their jackets. They didn’t stay on there for too long.”
Police and thieves in the street
In larger cities it was harder to control what people were doing but in a tiny town, a bunch of scruffy kids wasn’t hard to miss.
A law stated that people couldn’t gather in public places in groups of more than ten, as they were considered a mob. So, whenever the guys would be hanging out somewhere, a cop would come and send them all off in different directions only for them to meet somewhere else.
“We knew all the cops in the town, and they knew us, so there was never any hassle. Especially with the younger ones. They just did what they had to do.“The chief though, this big fella, he really kept the town straight. It was enough for someone to shout that he’s coming and everyone started running.
“The guy didn’t mess around. He would whack you first and ask what you had done after.” However, trouble didn’t find them with the local police.
“About five or six guys had been transferred from a nearby village to complete their training at the town station. It was New Year’s Eve of 1980, and they were placed on patrol out in the snow while the old timers were off celebrating. These guys felt they were missing out, so they started swigging a bottle too.”
In the meantime, Miro was drinking over at a friend’s house. There was a bunch of them and they decided to go to someone else’s place. So, they walked across town in the middle of the night.
“We ran into these cops and obviously they must’ve really liked us. We were drinking but we weren’t causing trouble or anything. Anyway, two of these cops grabbed me and a friend and pushed us up against this wall.
“‘Hands on the wall’ he says. Next thing you know, I heard him cocking his pistol and this drunk cop was pointing a loaded gun at our backs. It looked like a public execution scene.
“The guy realised he fucked up, so he quickly put the gun away. Bashing one of them in the back of the head first. Just for good measure.”
The rest of the trainees broke up the scene and told them to go home. So they walked off leaving a trail of blood in the snow.
“A few days later the kid’s mother went down to the station to file a report. Though there were witnesses too, a case wasn’t even opened. Nobody knew anything.The guys were 17 years-old at the time.”
Hey think the time is right for a palace revolutionIn 1989, the 41-year rule of the Communists ended. A large group of people gathered in the nearby town of Lučenec, where a Lenin statue was torn down as a new chapter unfolded.
“There was a great sense of excitement. However, at the same time everyone was anxious and unsure about what was to come.”
The Eastern Bloc was liberated and all restrictions were abolished. Four decades worth of music, fashion, media, technology and goods became available and within easy reach.
Most importantly, the borders opened up and people gained the freedom of movement. Within a year, Miro moved to Greece where he started a new life and settled down for the next twenty years.
Looking back at his life, he feels indifferent about his time under the regime. While he could have had a secure job and comfortable life, his freedom was jeopardised. Now in his fifties, as a factory worker in the UK, living in a house he doesn’t own, he can’t help but question what freedom really is.
Featured Image by Richard Bari