Adventures in the Icecream Age
The central position of the band A.E. Bizottság in Hungary’s alternative culture of the 1980s
by Tamás Szőnyei
“What do you see, Laca?” a strong, raucous male voice asks.
“Ask quieter, I ain’t cloth-eyed,” for an answer.
“What do you see?!” the question resolutely sounds.
“I see a giant ass!” the one who is asked screams.
“Well, that’s something,” he-who-asks mutters happily.
“But I don’t actually see it! I might just be hallucinating… Is it ok?” the answer goes.
“What are you screaming about?” a third male voice joins with a laugh from the position of an outsider but still as part of the production.
That’s how A.E. Bizottság’s first LP “Up for Adventure!” starts. Most of it was recorded during two concerts in the House of Culture in Gödöllő in November 1982. It was released in 1983 and regarded a sensation. It numbers impressively in the books that list the most important Hungarian musical albums.
Bizottság is a unique phenomenon in the history of Hungarian pop music; the opening dialogue characteristically illustrates this. The words of the inquirer, András Wahorn, and the answerer, László fe Lugossy (Laca), became dictum and ironic part of a pop-cultural tradition. The generation that was socialized in the alternative sub-culture of the ‘80s was quick in answering the question “What do you see, Laca?” If you had been there you knew that you’d seen a giant ass; if you didn’t know, you hadn’t been there at all.
The 1980s had been the last decade of socialism; a double-faced one. State-terrorism of the ‘50s had passed, followed by the gentle consolidation of the ‘60s. The depressive feeling of the early 1970s that nothing’s going to happen anymore had been long gone, too. In 1975, East and West came to an agreement about freedom of thought in Helsinki; this was the basis for the changes in the ‘80s and opened opportunities for the liberalization of politics, economy and culture. But the self-protecting reflexes of the system were still in place. Dissidents, oppositional political activists, faced sanctions. In 1983-’84 several Hungarian musicians were brought to court and were sentenced to serve time in jail for “presentation of anti-communist songs.”
Aside from politics we shouldn’t forget that in the turn of the decades from the ‘70s to the ‘80s, the wind of Punk and New Wave had reached Hungary bringing a fresh breeze and indicating that the status quo, even in pop music, wasn’t unchangeable. Changes were possible; you “just” needed talent and inspiration – it seemed possible to create an alternative scene.
It was exactly at this point in time that Bizottság appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. But as with anything else there had been a prologue that was unknown to most people, including the author of these lines.
Today Óbudai Hajógyári Sziget in Budapest is known as place of Sziget Festival, one of Europe’s biggest music festivals. Its history dates back four decades. In August 1980 a big rock festival was arranged for the Black Sheep; Hungarian pop music at the time was struck by a strong hardrock wave. Record company Hungaroton, which was a state-run monopoly, favoured (aside from musicians of smoother sounds) just one hard rock band: Piramis. The new popularity of hard rock was a challenge for both Hungaroton and Piramis; especially three bands that were labeled Black Sheep: Hobo Blues Band, P.Mobil and Beatrice. Within a very short period of time they had amassed a huge fan base and their Black Sheep image resonated with their teenage fans who considered themselves to be Black Sheep in a society of adults. They resisted parents and school as well as institutions and Power. The fact that the record company Hungaroton hated to deal with „scandalous“ bands whilst the communist youth organisation Hungarian Young Communist League (KISZ) tried to reach problematic teenager masses through the popularity of these bands, gives a glimpse of the contradictoriness of the circumstances. KISZ feared to lose this generation because it couldn’t be reached with socialist slogans. Therefore, KISZ and their monthly Magazine for the Youth organized the Festival of the Black Sheep. Approximately 20,000 teenagers went there to see their favourite three bands on one stage.
No one knew that this concert would be opened by a completely unknown band — Bizottság. That’s where I saw them for the first time. It was love at first sight. Unprecedented images, unequalled sounds. A guy in a blood-smeared gown behind a thin-legged keyboard ( István ef Zámbó). Another guy whose beard reached his guitar (Sándor Bernath/y). A third bearded guy passionately torturing his saxophone. Upfront two singers: an eardrum-ripping screaming woman (Kokó) and a man who shocked with a surrealistic flood of words (Laca). Somewhere in the back another guitarist mute and motionless dealing with his instrument (István Szulovszky) and a drummer who turned out to be a woman at second glance (Mária Bán) – maybe the only female drummer in Hungarian music scene at the time. What could have come to our minds but Velvet Underground? The riddle was solved: art rock. No clichés, no wannabeism. And still: instant effect. Hippy Happy Music, Punk Jazz, New Wave, loose chaos, brutal repetition, unpredictability, startling sounds and noises, surrealistic word jungle, risky specific dictums, absurd humour – all put together: the spirit of freedom. Music and lyrics that will not leave my ears. We didn’t know it then, but on this hot afternoon we heard many future alternative “hits.” The kids weren’t there for them, but they didn’t scare them off or boo them. One could call it a success; they survived.
Magazine for the Youth reviewed the festival and wrote favourably of Bizottság. They cheered the unexpected appearance. Yet we hadn’t been hopeful they would get another chance, to get airplay or to even publish a record. And that’s exactly what happened.
But how did they get to play a festival in front of 20,000 people without even having played small clubs before?
Personal connections. Bizottság was invited by Beatrice singer Feró Nagy who was told about the band by László Waszlavik.
Feró Nagy is over 70 now. He was awarded the biggest state award, Kossuth Prize. He’s a personality within the part of pop music that is favoured by FIDESZ, governing party in Hungary since 2010. In 1980 he was a rebel, a rocker. His band Beatrice was merging several musical influences: blues, ACDC-inspired hard rock, classic punk in the style of Sex Pistols and Ramones, hits from the world of operetta. Their songs were loaded with social sensitiveness, full of empathy for those who had no voice. Feró Nagy was a regular showman, and off-stage he was some kind of older brother or surrogate father for his fans. He liked unknown bands to open for Beatrice.
For a while László Waszlavik was performing with Beatrice; a unique character. Artist’s name: Villain. He staged himself a modern shaman transferring ancient traditions of Hungarian music into the world of rock. Even more – later he has tried to lure the worm of cosmopolitan rock from Hungarian ground by means of folk music. For a little while he performed with Galloping Coroners and Beatrice, then he started a solo career. In a duo with Feró Nagy he went to Vienna and published a funny little record titled “Hier ist mein Auto (Here is my Car).” The car in the song title was a car for the disabled, manufactured in Czechoslovakia and named Velorex. For Waszlavik it was a shaman car, whatever that was supposed to mean.
After the Black Sheep Festival, the minority interested in new music got to know Bizottság. They called themselves Freedom Band. Four of the front men were artists mostly performing at vernissages. They were amateur musicians and autodidacts as visual artists but most notably creative spirits. They had already made a name for themselves in the young visual artists’ studio. And now suddenly they found themselves among the top of the musical New Wave. The band Spions marked the beginning of Hungarian New Wave: these pioneers of Art Punk had their first concert in January 1978 and left Hungary in spring of the same year – for Paris. Also, in 1978 Galloping Coroners appeared, as well as Beatrice with their punk show. In 1980/’81 URH, Balaton, KFT, Kontroll Csoport, Európa Kiadó, Neurotic and ETA entered the scene. To this day they are regarded as the most defining bands of that time. They were all different from each other but they offered – along with dozens of bands coming after them – an extremely colourful and vivid alternative to mainstream pop music.
There was a mixed response to Hungarian New Wave of the ‘80s. There were those who loved and sympathised, and those who hated and condemned it. Some called it an artistic-cultural phenomenon, others wanted a political or even police intervention. In Szentendre, a small-town rich with artistic traditions situated on the river Danube north of Budapest, ef Zámbó was arrested after a street happening in 1971. Investigators sensed a political conspiration behind his art manifests; though they had rather been meant as a post-dadaistic game. With his friends, ef Zámbó had invented a new movement, Edwinism. Edwin was an imaginary character, and the essence of Edwinism was that Edwin had no essence. He meant nothing and could mean everything. The police just saw long-haired hippy-scapegraces and was looking for a crime against the system. I am researching state security files and can tell that after this episode, the prime members of Bizottság were under surveillance by the secret service. Ef Zámbó’s, fe Lugossy’s and Wahorn’s artistic activities and their attempts to find an audience were observed. And years later, when these artists founded Bizottság, it became obvious even to the political department of the police that they were in the centre of New Wave.
As all -isms, New Wave started small. The bands performed in student clubs and culture-houses in the outskirts of Budapest. The small district culture-houses held a few hundred people; the factory culture-halls sometimes were good for a thousand.
For most of these concerts individual posters were drafted. The visual language of these posters was as different from regular cultural, commercial or political posters as these bands differed from the bands that performed in tv and radio, bands that were allowed to publish records. Shortly before the weekends, colored or black-and-white xeroxed posters appeared at traffic junctions in town, mostly in A3 and A4 format; a dozen of them pinned on one wall. They were only shortly visible because competing clubs and bands quickly pinned over them with their own posters. Printing and especially pinning the posters meant a tightrope-act between legality and illegality. Many band members were visual artists as well, so parts of the posters were visually special. Artistic works hung side by side with works of amateurs. As in their music, attitude and freedom of self-expression was most important in drafting the posters which were dominated by do-it-yourself aesthetics and experience. Everything was good for it: eclectic punk-typography, surrealistic collages, dynamic constructivism, comics and children’s drawings. These posters keep their freshness and the spirit of their time to this day. Bizottság posters were of excellent quality. Most of them were designed by András Wahorn; they are a vital part of his artistic oeuvre. It doesn’t come as a surprise that some of his posters and both Bizottság album covers have been included into the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York – the posters were acquired; the album covers were given by the artist. Of course, Bizottság posters are part of the book “Infernal Golden Age,” published in 2017. The book by Tamás Szőnyei (author of these lines, archivist) and György Szabó Bp. (visual artist, musician) presents punk and post-punk posters of this era from the collections the two authors compiled independendly from each other. In the field of posters, Hungary accomplished no less than England, the U.S.A., West Germany or France.
The band’s reputation mostly spread by word of mouth; still, you could read about them not just in youth magazines but also in magazines aimed at intellectuals. The articles had a positive tendency sometimes, also a negative one in some of them. And their music grew popular, too, especially via home-made copies. Some bands got an audience through tv, records or movies. KFT was among the winners of the 1981 song contest in tv; now they were allowed to publish an LP each year. Censorship didn’t allow Beatrice to produce an LP of their own but they could publish EPs and an album with a couple of other bands (as a result of a joint concert with Omega and Lokomotiv GT). Hungarian cinematography was quite open to musical impulses.
Boldhead Dog, 1981, by György Szomjas explored the world of the Black Sheep; the members of Beatrice were part of the cast in Why not Speak of Love?!, 1980, by Péter Bacsó. The youngsters in Little Bit of Me, Little Bit of You, 1985, by Lívia Gyarmathy went to a concert of Galloping Coroners. URH’s singer Péter Müller studied film; his graduation movie What Comes to Your Mind about the Songstress?, 1981, and his only feature film Ex-Codex, 1983, gave way for URH not only to record their songs in a studio but to be part of the cast of these films along with members of Kontroll Csoport and Balaton. Several figures of the New Wave scene had roles in one of the cult movies of the ‘80s. One of the main characters of the movie Time Stands Still (1981, by Peter Gothár), Sándor Soeth, founder of the band Spenót, became a film maker: he co-produced the Oscar-winning short-film Fare Dodger, 1994, by Pepe Danquart. Mari Sós‘ melancholic film Tandem, 1985, was existential for Európa Kiadó – it revived the then inactive band by including them in the production and by having them produce a tape with the music for the film. Galloping Coroners’ Attila Grandpierre had the main part in Dog’s Night Song, 1983, by director Gábor Bódy. He played an astronomer who is a singer in a weird punk band at the same time – just like in his real life. One of the main parts was played by Marietta Méhes. For the sake of the concert scene she was integrated in Bizottság; technically she was the singer of Trabant. Trabant was brought to the screen by János Xantus in his movie Eskimo Woman Feels Cold, 1984. In one scene Xantus placed Marietta Méhes on the same stage with Bizottság who were a band playing in a bar. János Xantus also immortalized Neurotic in one of his movies; a last-minute chance since singer Tamás Pajor was about to start a new life as a member of a new Christian sect. The movie title is a reference to Pajor’s conversion (The Rock Convert, 1988). Pajor has been the brightest star of Christian pop music in Hungary ever since.
This list evinces the busy communication of artists across different genres. Musicians inspired film makers. And the film makers paved the way for those musicians ignored by radio, tv and record companies and suspiciously watched by political power.
Bizottság was in the centre of all this. Even the band name (commission, committee) meant a provocation. In a socialist system the word commission had to be associated with something official. What commissions were there? Central. Political. Unionist. Administrative etc. The band stated that they were a commission, too, because they had various members who decided what to do and how together. (That’s how their concerts were. They started a song; they made a mistake; they discontinued; stuck their heads together; talked; decision; action; the concert continues.) On some of their posters the typography of the word Bizottság was very close to the headline of Népszabadság, the “central organ” of the Communist Party. To top it, a distorted red star was used as an accent for one of the letters. It came as no surprise when in 1981, the Deputy Secretary of Culture protested against the names of several bands, Bizottság among them, at the Panel of Professional Rock Musicians. He called on the professionals to help clean the field and to eliminate such anti-social phenomenons. When the musicians found out they still had a prospect of producing a record, they playfully eased the politician’s headache and turned into Albert Einstein Bizottság: Shortly, A.E. Bizottság. One of their songs dealt with the reproduction of Albert Einstein’s odor. This was serious business…
The record company felt pressured to open for New Wave. Bizottság seemed best to demonstrate their openness. URH only existed for six months; Kontroll Csoport’s lyrics felt too radical; Galloping Coroners’ stage behaviour was said to be extatic; the punks were to punky. The artists of the band Bizottság, around their thirties, all emphasized they were not interested in politics but the Arts. They didn’t care when a word in one of their songs had to go or a song was banned because the whole of the production stayed intact. During the post-production of their first studio album they hid the expression “martial law” (that could be associated with the situation in Poland) in their song “Beast” behind noise; whoever knew the song also knew what was left out and why. Their song Békásmegyer, labelling one of the modern industrialized block settlements – home of the working class – slave ghetto, was banned from their second album. But the film Icecreamballet, on which this album was based, included it. The film only ran in clubs and outside the big movie theatres.
Icreamballet, 1984, was directed by András Wahorn and shot in Balázs Béla Studio. The BBS was founded in the early 1960s to support young film makers and other artists with their film-related work. Decisions about the realisation of a production and the use of money were made democratically. This was essential for BBS to become a free island for film experiments and documentaries courageously exploring reality. This inner independence made it possible for Európa Kiadó to record a couple of broadcasts as if it were for the music of film productions. In reality these films were never shot; they weren’t even planned. By means of a script they wanted to get the money to record the songs. This way they could be published in good quality a decade later, after the fall of communism, in the archive editions of one of the most important independent record labels, Bahia. (The covers were based on concert posters from my collection.)
Bizottság’s two records were published in real time and were welcomed warmly. One has to admit the record company (Hungaroton) surpassed itself to pave the way for this band. Especially the first record was considered a revelation. A band consisting mostly of non-professional musicians skips the EP stage and starts with an LP! With the fold-out inside the cover is a piece of art. Beneath photographs, drawings and information, the contract with the record company and a manifest were part of András Wahorn’s collage. Conclusion: “Essence is independent.”
It seems consequential that Bizottság had recorded a live album. Stage was home and it seems questionable if re-creating the concert atmosphere in a studio was possible. The album is almost a Greatest Hits album and contains the most popular songs of their repertoire – almost all. Songs about longing, anxieties, about our “brutal, ignorant world” in a colourful erratic amusing style instead of a dark depressive tone. The album was produced by Máté Viktor, a musician from the great generation of Hungarian pop music, classically trained but open for the novel. He was the composer of Tango, the song Marietta Méhes perfomed in Eskimo Woman Feels Cold with members of Bizottág. As mentioned earlier, Marietta was singer with Trabant – no. 2 of the introverted room-bands in Hungarian pop music. Even before they started their first concerts for the sake of the film shooting, several cassette tapes with their music were circulating. Marietta, Gábor Lukin, a multi-instrumentalist, and Janos Vető, photographer and lyricist, were the core of the band. For concerts and recordings, they used to invite members of Balaton, Kontroll Csoport and Európa Kiadó.
The name of the band is very Central-European. In the 1980s we Hungarians looked at our Trabant cars with a forgiving chuckle. It was as much a symbol as it was a vehicle. On the cover of Kraftwerk’s album Autobahn we see a Mercedes and a Volkswagen symbolizing two directions of the car industry – quantity for the masses and quality for the few. The G.D.R. offered Trabant to the peoples of Central- and East Europe at affordable prices – a car body reminding of paper-mâché and smelly blue exhaust-fumes. If you wanted a new one you had to wait for years. It brought you from A to B but couldn’t compete with the cheap models of western fabrication. Writer Péter Eszterházi found the ironic motto for his book A Small Hungarian Pornography, 1984, in his Trabant manual. (The initial letters of the Hungarian title Kis Magyar Pornográfia were identical to the initial letters of the Hungarian Communist Party.) In another valued Eszterházi novel, Novel of Production, 1979, the Trabant had a playful part: the writer, offspring of an aristocratic family, talks about this car as if it was his horse. Eszterházi was often published in the most significant magazine for young intellectuals, Mozgó Világ (Mobile World). In 1989 the magazine published a photo series about the streets of Budapest by Ágnes Háy. Trabants everywhere. (I have to add a personal episode from Hungary’s Trabant world: In 1989 we drove with my brother’s eggshell-colored Trabant to our wedding; the least elegant and least festive car for the occasion. My brother’s son was three years at the time; for him Trabant was the best car in the world – and for us newly-weds just fun.)
In the eyes of Hungarians, Trabant had been a part of socialist cultural iconography long before Eastern nostalgia began. More popular than Bad Schandau. On Bizottság’s second album is a song titled Bad Schandau; it’s the album that features the music for the film Icecreamballet made at Balázs Béla Studio. Since I hadn’t been to the G.D.R., I looked for Bad Schandau on a map. For G.D.R. citizens, this place was the gate to the world. They drove to Bad Schandau with their Trabants and Wartburgs and from there first into Czechoslovakia and then to Hungary, to Lake Balaton, where they could meet with relatives from West Germany at a camp site or a vacation home. Free, finally – but still guarded by the attention of their own state security or the collaborating Hungarian equivalents. Bizottság’s Bad Schandau has no political sensitive allusions; it rather describes the travel strains in Central-European mood. “Your skin is like a sleepy early-morning water surface mirroring in the eyes of a Bad Schandau customs officer. Your eyes are like a little pillow.”
In the 1980s the most popular Hungarian bands and soloists had sold more than 100,000 copies of their records – such as new albums by Omega or Neoton, or a nostalgic sampler of hits by Katalin Karády, the 1940’s diva no. 1; extremely high numbers in a country with a population of 10 million. Bizottság’s first LP sold 25,000 copies very quickly. Maybe the sales could have been better but according to the band, the company deliberately limited the number of copies to prove that artistic New Wave was not in demand. This could have been partly true. But Hungaroton deliberately intented not to push the market share of New Wave. 25,000 copies is still a very decent number. (Until 1992, 100,000 sold copies were necessary for a Golden Album; from 2012 just 2,000.)
Following the two LPs, Bizottság toured West-Europe for a short time: Amsterdam, Paris, Vienna, Innsbruck. They also published a record abroad; mostly songs from Icecreamballet. Among others, these songs are on the record: Version Milarepa (the video clip of this song has the name of the Tibetan buddhist sage repeated several times while Koko and Laca clink glasses in Lake Balaton) and Love, love (from the first LP; a self-ironic, ecstatic ode to sexual desire). After their Catastrophe Music Tour and some more performances in Hungary, Bizottság’s active era ended. The core members had concluded that the usual schedule of a band is not their world. They later participated in other projects, in smaller groups or with other artists. Their works are presented in numerous exhibitions, catalogues, performances, art books, books, films, concerts, records and cassete-tapes.
They appeared as Bizottság again in 2011: Budapest’s largest exhibition space, Art Hall, dedicated the entire space to retrospective work of the band. There were films and a conference in the accompanying program. There was only one thing missing: a concert. It did not happen even though many would have loved it. From outside, it seemed the former band members enjoyed taking part in the canonization of their work; they entered the world of art hall exhibit, the most important place of contemporary art. But as a band they didn’t want a new beginning or to turn nostalgic. It would have meant compromise; this wasn’t possible. (Besides, we would have missed two members: Szulovszky, “the best guitarist of the Danube bend,” who died in 2006 aged 55, and Bernáth/y who had left the band before they recorded the first album; in 2012 he died aged 63.)
So, what do we answer in 2021 if someone screams at us asking what we see? The assholes are still with us; they aren’t hallucinations. Every single day, right after the news, we can sing a certain Bizottság song that hasn’t been on any of the records: “I am corrupt and a liar, a Hungarian mother gave birth to me, I earn my money, I am cool, I’m very cool…”