From The Beatmen to The Soulmen
Some Fragments of the Czechoslovak Big Beat History
Photos of the Beatmen, courtesy of Oleg Synieokyi
Book excerpt by Dr. Oleg Synieokyi
ED NOTE: The following is an excerpt from the book COSMOPHONY 2112 by Dr. Oleg Synieokyi (© 2021). See more about the book, including ordering information.
'In The Beginning (The First Part)'
It is difficult to say who was the first Czechoslovakian rock 'n' roll player here. We'll start in 1959. In Dimitrovka, with the support of local cultural figures, the rise of Ivan Kartik and his SRŠNI began. The name of the ensemble means 'a large group of wasps' or 'hornets.' At first, it was a purely instrumental group. Soon, photographs of the SRŠNI began to appear in the local press. The band began performing on the radio and recorded several of their songs. The repertoire was gradually moving in a dance direction.
Years passed and the musicians who later became relatively famous - Pavol Barna and Dušan Hájek passed through this group. Officially, the end of SRŠNI dates back to 1968. In the early 1970's, Ivan Kartik joined the group of pop singer Milan Krištofovič. The first mention of a band trying to play rock and roll also date back to 1959 and they were called Meteor. The original line-up included guitarists Milana Krištofovič and Miro Akantis, bassist Dušan Dvorin, drummer Miro Cierny and singer Vlado Chvalný. They played under the direction of the municipal services of Bratislava. The history of Meteor intersects with another prehistoric group, Twist Club. The main character there was drummer Stefan Danko, who was obsessed with rock and roll.
Danko had bold plans to create his own ensemble that would play songs reminiscent of Elvis Presley. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bill Haley and other new singers who were played on Radio Luxembourg. Meanwhile, Chvalný took up singing and playing guitar as a young man at the fountain in front of the Slovak National Theater, doing Elvis songs and a similar repertoire. The band was soon joined by guitarist Jozef Šimkovic, double bassist Laco Senický (who was later replaced by Juraj Schf öfer), pianist and singer Fedor Medek, pianists Dušan Bachratý and Marián Gašpar (who grasped the coming musical style and quickly learned to play songs in a new rhythm). This is how the Bratislava Twist Club, as they called themselves, appeared in 1960 (although the "twist" was danced en masse all over the world only a year later, in 1961). At the beginning of 1962, the composition of the group changed significantly. Danko left to create his own group without a competitor for unconditional leadership, which turned out to be Chvalný.
In 1960, the next group was formed, which included a guitarist from the conservatory Stano Herko, bassist Peter Ryšavý, drummer Dušan Kuklovský and second guitarist Dušan Sujan. They began playing in a brasserie under the name Crazy Boys, performing primarily Elvis' repertoire. They later change their name to Rockin 'Boys. In 1961, there was another Czechoslovak group that proudly bore the famous name Shadows (of course without asking permission from the British who had existed for a couple of years). At the same time, guitarist Kamil Paulovcin, who later joined Buttons (until 1964, then called The Stranglers) began in an ensemble called Neoton (not to be confused with the famous Hungarian project that arose later), a characteristic feature of which was the successful imitation of The Who and The Rolling Stones.
The other members of Neoton had met as part of Toddy Bears by 1965. In 1961, musicians united around guitarist and singer Jožan Tezner, including bassist Ivan Ondruš, second guitarist Otto Suchovský, drummer Lac Mócik and keyboardist Vojtech Slivka. They created the Mephisto Beat Band. In 1964, having perfectly mastered the early repertoire of The Beatles, they were popular with the capital's youth. The group worked until 1967 in the Atlon club, located under the cinema (in this regard many of them knew them under the name The Altons). Despite the fact that these musicians did not make a single song in any professional recording format, historically, Mephisto is one of the most important bands in the early stage of the formation of Czechoslovak rock music.
The beginning of Gattch dates back to sometime from 1962 to 1963, when students of the Bratislava Conservatory decided to create their own group. As a result, keyboardist Ali Beladič, guitarist Tomaš Rédey, bassist Tono Lančarič, former drummer of Ursiny Fontana Juraj Štefula became the ensemble. In 1965, they were joined by another guitarist Karol Slanina. So this group took the name Gattch for a long time - the seeming puzzle of the group's name actually comes from the first letters of their names in English. Thanks to their excellent vocals and their musical education, they used classical music motifs in their big beat sound. The group started very slowly, without much advertising, and only by 1969, they gained more or less mass fame. In public, the group performed very modestly, even stiffly, in contrast to their extravagantly-dressed, fashionable colleagues from other ensembles.
Starting with The Beatles' songs, Gattch gradually began to play "Art Rock" with complex harmonies. Nobody played such music at that time in Bratislava. In November 1969, at the Bratislava beat-festival, Gattch was the opener and took second place. After that, in 1970, the group successfully performed a series of concerts. In 1971-1972, they recorded their only LP for the Opus label called Gattch, which unfortunately turned out to be their swan song.
In this country, the musical concept traditionally had two centers of attraction - Prague and Bratislava. By 1963, in Bratislava alone, there were over 35 big-beat amateur bands, which, unfortunately, were unable to record at least one song on a disc. Nevertheless, this organic unity was reflected in many social, cultural and musical aspects. In 1962-1963, Sputnik (Sputntci), Blue Stars, Nautilus, Tiene, Thomastic, The Phantoms, The Strings (Struny), The Buttons, Tornado, Mediating Four, Black And White were created... In 1963, the first Czechoslovakian girl beat group, Girl Angels, was formed. In 1964, the instrumental project Young Quartet was founded with a jazz bias. The group included Janko Lehotský, who later took part in the creation of Modus, and from time to time crossed paths with the projects of jazz musician Peter Lipa, co-founder of Blues Five, which started in 1966 (and was later renamed New Blues Five in 1968). In the same year, Kabinet 112, Galaxia and Neutron were created (in 1965, the name was changed to Sirius). Tomaš Danko founded The Devil. Proxima played an instrumental big beat, but in 1966 all four members were drafted into the army and the ensemble ceased to exist. In 1965 The Matadors group was formed by the members of Fontana, Pra-Be and Komety. Their competition with Olympic is said to be somewhat reminiscent of The Beatles versus The Rolling Stones in England. They performed mainly their own original material and cover versions of famous big beat hits in English. From 1966 to 1969, the band recorded two singles and two EP's (in mono and stereo versions), the material of which is mainly a synthesis of a remastered British beat and American rock and roll.
In the 1970's, it was the members of the Czechoslovakian band The Matadors who created the iconic international progressive jazz-rock project Emergency in Munich. In 1965, Flying Stars and the second girls' beat group Dominik/Honey Girls were formed in Bratislava. The year 1966 gave us the groups The Numbers, Friends, Displaymen, The Hooks, Aston, Brutus. In 1967, Bratislava's Lost Generation, The Mediating Four and The Corn Steep were created, The Cardinals and The Undertakers started in Prague, while Jiři Korn and Svatopluk Cech created The Rebels. Kométa, Tajfún, The Players, Gueový, Dolntk, Esperanto, The Breakers, The Beggars, The Fantoms, The Players, Jet Black, Sirius, Tin Soldiers became legends.
'On The Top (The Second Part)'
In Czechoslovak literature, The Beatmen are often referred to as the first band from the Eastern Bloc to play in the West. Hungarian rock bands hit the Iron Curtain only five years later. However, at least one group has done it before- the Polish vocal and instrumental ensemble Niebiesko-Czarni performed at the Paris Olympia back in December 1963.
The Beatmen were founded in 1964 by two former Jolana members Miro Bedrik and Marian Bednar. By 1965, the "British Invasion" led by The Beatles ruled the whole world, but in Czechoslovakia, with the exception of the Mephisto group, no one had yet dared to rise to the new level of the global House of Progressive Music. Bedrik and Bednar noted this and decided to act. By this time, manager Peter Tuchscher was let go- he had already become a rather authoritative person on the beat scene in Bratislava. He took up the creation of a new project, counting on success. Pianist Bednar switched to bass but Bedrick's sphere remained unchanged, as he continued with guitar, vocals and accordion. Peter Petro became their drummer. At first, Stano Herko became the lead guitarist (the one who had previously played in Crazy Boys), but he soon left, since he considered it a temporary occupation and did not really want to play rock - he was completing his studies at the conservatory and wanted to get into a regular orchestra. To take his place, Tuscher managed to find a little-known guitarist and singer named Dežo Ursiny - before that, he was on the sidelines, in the group Fontana. But the handsome, seventeen-year-old Ursiny did not hide his singing and compositional ambitions, even then. Together with Marian Varga and Pavol Hammel, he is considered one of the three founders of modern Slovak rock music.
So, the line-up was completed and The Beatmen began to rehearse in Bratislava. The name of the group was invented by Petro. From the windows of the building of the propaganda center near the tavern Zverinec in the spring of 1965, day after day, new music made its way onto the streets. Hearing these bits of sound, onlookers passing by felt that something was happening here that had not yet happened before. The group's repertoire was based on the interpretation of the songs of The Beatles and their own songs. Two Ursiny/Petro songs, "Break It" and "Let's Make a Summer" (both from 1965), became real hits and even today, they have not lost their charm.
The Beatmen received 'official status' under the concert and theater organization KDK (predecessor of the later "Slovconcert"). The first performances of the group were very popular with the audience and so these so-called pariahs began to receive pretty decent fees for that time. It should also be said that they were greatly assisted by an experienced Prague musician - former jazz guitarist Ladislav Bužek. He was instrumental in as much of The Beatmen's success as George Martin was for The Beatles. In 1965, the Czechoslavakian label Supraphon released two English-language singles from the band- "Safely Arrived" (Bedrik/Petro)//"The Enchanted Lie" (Bedrik/Bednár/Petro) and the previously-mentioned "Break It" (Ursiny/Petro)//"Let's Make A Summer" (Ursiny/Petro). They then played several successful shows in Prague. In total, they had about twenty of their own songs in their repertoire (Ursiny's mother begged the guys to write lyrics in English).
In addition to the official singles, The Beatmen recorded at least five other songs that have remained unreleased for a long time: "Walkin' Home," "No Mr. Jones," "Schódzka" (Slovak title, but with English lyrics), "Mám ju rád" (a cover version of The Beatles "She Loves You" with Slovak lyrics) and "Keby som bol Nór" (using Slovak lyrics). These rare tracks were later discovered and included on the compilations done by Dežo Ursiny (1997, 2000).
By May 1965, The Beatmen had conquered Prague. This Slovak band literally shocked the masters of the Czech music scene. On October 7 and 8, 1965, The Beatmen performed as an opening act for two concerts by Manfred Mann at the Bratislava Sports Palace. Manfred Mann was so impressed that his manager offered them a joint UK tour. Prague's central concert agency Pragokoncert then did not allow The Beatmen to bypass Olympic, by that time the most successful Czechoslovak rock and roll group from Prague. And the management of Manfred Mann, in turn, did not want to cooperate with Olympic so the negotiations fell through. The party leadership in the field of culture of Czechoslovakia did not release its grip on The Beatmen.
Nevertheless, in the spring of 1966, the band still managed to perform at the Art Museum in Munich (Germany). In 2015, an unofficial recording of these performances was released under the title Manfred Mann - Beyond The Iron Curtain (Live In Czechoslovakia Bratislava 7th-8th Oct. 1965). Having listened to these recordings today, you can understand that the "people's democratic beatmen" were no worse than the "Western" ones. Ironically, this very concert turned out to be the beginning of the end for a talented group. The desire for greater fame and artistic freedom without restrictions from the political regime made The Beatmen think about emigration. The idea of experiencing happiness in the world became more and more real. Ursiny rejected plans to emigrate. He left the group and stayed in Czechoslovakia. To replace Ursiny, the remaining Beatmen brought in ambitious Phantoms guitarist Juraj Eperjesi.
With this line-up, The Beatmen, in the middle of 1966, accompanied by the then-head of the foreign affairs department of KDK Pavol Polanský, went to Austria for performances. After one concert in Vienna, they decided to travel and left the city, but then instead of returning, they deceived the accompanying official, got into another car and boldly left for West Germany. However, a few days later, Petro returned for family reasons. Then, in 1966 in Germany, a local musician, Arno Biller, took his place. The Beatmen, with a renewed lineup, released the single "Stand Up And Go"/"As You Love Me" (1966) on the small Intersound label from Frankfurt-am-Main. But the disc did not generate interest and they soon parted ways due to personal problems and disappointment.
After a while, Marián Bednár returned home, survived the police repression, and then remained between Germany and Slovakia for the rest of his life. Juraj Eperjesi settled in Germany as a lawyer and session musician. Miro Bedrik married an English singer and later visited Bratislava several times. Peter Tuscher was gradually removed from managerial activities. As a result, he was forced to emigrate: at first he lived in Germany, and then settled in India, where he devoted many years to philosophical reflections. Today, Tuscher lives in Berg (Austria). Without a doubt, The Beatmen turned out to be his most successful band.
After leaving The Beatmen, Ursiny immediately began to make plans for a new unprecedented musical project. His ambitions still consisted of opposing the group using same The Beatmen (they formally still existed until mid-1966), but after their emigrating, such a task ceased to be on the agenda. So, already in the summer of 1966, Ursiny assembled the first version of a new, not-yet-named group. The line-up, in addition to Ursiny, included drummer Peter Mráz, keyboardist Peter Koren and singer/bassist Eudovit 'Cufo' Nosko. Unfortunately however, the result was zero: the group did not play and 'Cufo' gave up first, abandoning this venture.
But Ursiny did not give up and turned to his friend Fedor Freš for help. At first, he insisted that the group must have an organ, but that was still something unrealistic to buy- at that time, such middle-class musical instruments in Czechoslovakia were sold for the price of an ordinary car. Where would the students get that kind of money? Therefore, they were looked for someone who would have such material resources. But it was all to no avail.
Meanwhile, Mráz lost patience and announced his resignation. The new drummer was Dušan Hájek. Their old manager Tuchscher was also interested in the new project from Ursiny and said that he was ready to work with them, provided that a full-fledged group had already been formed. The old patron of The Beatmen, Ladislav Bužek, was also interested in Ursiny's ideas. It was he who promised material assistance in the form of the coveted musical apparatus. However, it was still not possible to finally solve the problem of the composition of the group. Ursiny changed his mind about using an organ (for the lack of the instrument) and considered that the optimal model for the new band would be Cream, where all the members of the trio would sing. Just a few days later, Ursiny met the oboist student Vlado Maliy from the conservatory and who already had experience in the Not Seven Dixieland and other groups. Vlado also turned out to be a good singer and over time, he retrained and became a high-class drummer. From the fall of 1968, he would be involved in the work of another iconic progressive unit of Czechoslovak rock - Prúdy by Pavol Hammel. But for the time being, he fit perfectly into the concept of the trio, which means that finally, serious work could begin.
The first rehearsal room for the new trio was the basement of the Bratislava library - the Mileticka district, next to the Dolphin pool. Then. the new group settled in the Small Hall of the Bratislava Park of Culture and Leisure (RKO). At the suggestion of Ursiny, the group was named The Soulmen (other variants such as Rubber Soul, Drivers and even Leaders were also considered, but they were all rejected).
After the first rehearsals, the state concert and theater company KDK unexpectedly provided material assistance to the young group in the form of an excellent Marshall amps apparatus. There was even talk of an exclusive contract for one hundred concerts a year- this would have been unheard of for a Czechoslovak big beat band at that time. Their repertoire was originally in English and consisted of cover versions of songs from The Beatles, Cream, Turtles and Aretha Franklin, but Ursiny, inspired by his first successes and ambitious plans, felt a creative impulse and began to compose original pieces, gradually enriching their repertoire. On October 30, 1967, the premiere performance of The Soulmen for the invited guests and the so-called professional audience took place in the Small Hall of the RKO under the patronage of KDK. The musicians were embarrassed and did not perform very well, but it still became clear that there was another group to be reckoned with. The visual attributes of the show played an important role in the concert- the light source was Juraj Lihosit, a film school graduate, who had become a new great friend of Ursiny.
The unwritten rule for Czechoslovak performers was to conquer Prague. Ladislav Buzek was convinced that The Beatmen's success could not be repeated. But he was wrong. It happened at the end of December 1967 in the Great Hall of Lucerne at the First Czechoslovak Beat Festival, where the Soulmen reached the final of the competition, playing mainly their own songs- "A Sample Of Happiness," "Baby Do Not Cry," "I Have Found," "I Wish I Were," and finally the Beatles' "She's Leaving Home." After the performance, the audience burst into literally frantic applause and the jury awarded them the main prize of the festival. Prague was on its knees again, and the following year, the Slovak "good-natured guys" were able to enjoy glory throughout Czechoslovakia.
In early 1968, The Soulmen began touring, playing about 50 concerts throughout the country, sometimes paired with Syncope 61. In the spring, The Soulmen was even able to travel abroad for concerts in Austria and Hungary. In April, the youth radio station Radio Prague recorded four tracks from the band: three compositions, "Baby Do Not Cry," "I Have Found" and "I Wish I Were" which were poems by Ursiny's mother, Elena Ursinyová, and "A Sample Of Narpiness" with lyrics by Juraj Lihosit. In May 1968, the Panton label, within the framework of the "Edice Mikrofóra series," released 7 EP's with these songs. From a musical point of view, it was no longer unassuming big beat music. Everything became more complicated and tasty: the concept included a version of psychedelic rock with blues tints, complemented by a weighted (as far as technical possibilities) sound and polyphonic singing. It would not be an exaggeration to note that at that time, only a few dared to enter this rock territory. The discs were very well received by the public, however when the record came out in May, the band disbanded.
In the second half of 1968, Ursiny reunited with drummer Peter Mráz and invited pianist Ján Lehotsky (who performed with the group Gentlemen at the beat festival in Ceske Budejovice in 1970). In the 1970's and 1980's, Lehotsky collaborated with Modus and other bands, and also worked with bassist Fedor Letnan to recreate the band, naming the new group New Soulmen, and later renamed Face. During the life of this group, their recordings were not released.
In 1997, the Bonton label released the CD Pevniny A Vrchy, which featured eight Beatmen songs, four Soulmen songs and two previously unreleased New Soulmen tracks - "It's Time" and "I Have Found." The archived release was supplemented with two Burciak songs and four Provisorium songs. This material was generally released under the name 'Dežo Ursiny' (at the radio's studio, the musicians also recorded several songs - "Apple Trees in Winter" and "It's Time"- but due to the explosive nature of the participants, this line-up did not last long, and did not play a single concert).
'Finality (The Third Part)'
Today, looking back, it turns out that the somewhat intolerant nature of Ursiny was more suited to the system of one-off projects, with the aim of recording individual albums and possibly holding a maximum of a few concerts. Obviously, he was not comfortable with the typical band life of hotels, buses, trains and drinking- because of this, he experienced internal discomfort. All this was expressed in constant nagging of his mates. At the end of 1968, Jaroslav Filip decided to put together his own project. The group included law student Marcel Daniš as bassist and the aforementioned Vlado Maliy, now on drums. For Filip, who himself sang and played keyboards, even then Ursiny became an idol, but he was in no hurry to accept him into his group. By 1969, The Weavers Of Music's lineup had changed significantly: now the group had two backing vocalists from Honey Girl - Marika Turčanova and Adriana Kováčikova, while Valér Doležal worked on drums, Kamil Paulovcin was the guitarist (who was soon replaced by Vlado Turcan) and bassist was Ali Andreánsky. The repertoire was based exclusively on other people's songs, but this group managed to play only a few concerts and make one solo performance in RKO.
In 1970, Filip created the innovative but short-lived group with the promising and noble name Ars Nova. In addition to Filip, the lineup included drummer Karol Oláh, bassist Peter Smolinský, guitarist Brano Slyško and another keyboardist, Dušan Ratica.
Then, in August 1970, Filip and Ursiny finally met in the ranks of the same group, which became Provisorium. The line-up was constantly reeling with changes. In 1972, at the Supraphon studio, Ursiny recorded his first solo art-rock album in English. The album was released in 1973 under the title Provisorium.
In the following years, Ursiny recorded and released eleven solo albums, and also worked professionally in documentary films, as a director, playwright, screenwriter, and composer of film scores. In 1979, he teamed up with Filip again and also music producer and bassist Pavol Daněko to form Burciak. This group recorded the next solo album by Ursiny, Nové taru ticha (on the Opus label), in which Marian Varga took part as organist. The album contained shorter songs suitable for concert venues. Then Dežo Ursiny with the same musical partners prepared his most successful album, Blue Hill (1983) on Opus. After that, he began working with the group Prognoza, with whom he recorded his next album, 4/4 (1983). Since 1986, Filip has never left Ursiny, working on all of his projects.
Unfortunately, iconic personalities in the history of Czechoslovak rock are leaving us Dežo Ursiny died May 5, 1995, Jaroslav Filip - July 11, 2000, Marián Bednár - February 17, 2011, Marian Varga - August 9, 2017. But their music remains in the form of rare archival records. We will remember them.
1. Jurík L'uboš, Šuhajda Dodo. Slovenský bigbit. Bratislava : Slovart, 2008. 400 s.
2. Berka Tomaš, Frešo Fedor. Rockovâ Bratislava. Bratislava : Slovart, 2013. 336 s.
3. Bosková Jitka. Českárocková undergroundová scéna : Bakalárská práce / Západoceskâ univerzita v Plzni ; Vedouci prâce: Doc. Mgr. Tomás Kuhn. Ph.D. Plzen, 2014. 70 s.
4. Opekar Aleš. The Matadors: Beatova aristokracie z Prahy. Praha : Usti nad Orlici, Oftis, 2007. 176 s.
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