08. 07. 2006. 14:04

Art and politics – part four

László Najmányi

To sell ourselves to the Western media as political refugees would have been out of style. Therefore, we wore Russian military uniforms with our punk hairdos and talked about being highly trained KGB agents sent to the free world to destroy the morals of the Western youth.

Exiled from the goulash bowl, Spions, the first punk band of the Eastern Block, left Hungary in May, 1978. There were originally four of us in the band, but the guitarist Rabbi (Tibor Zátonyi), the youngest member of the band, was visited by the police on the night before our departure. His passport was confiscated, and he was taken to the army for two years of military service. My wife, who was to travel with us, was denied an exit visa, so she stayed in Budapest. As soon as we arrived in Paris, I called her. I heard the familiar click before she picked up the phone. I was sure that the call was being monitored by the secret police. I told my wife that I intended to make an international scandal if the authorities wouldn’t issue an entry visa for her right away. "Your story is going to be on the front page of Le Monde," I repeated several times during our conversation, to make sure that my threat wouldn’t escape the Hungarian authorities’ attention.

By the end of the 1970s, the Hungarian government had become scared of the Western media. As they were increasingly dependent on foreign loans, they couldn’t afford any bad publicity in the European press. Such bad news as the mistreatment of artists and their relatives would lower their credit ratings. They wanted to maintain the image of Hungary as the most enlightened of all Communist satellite countries. That was also the time of the Soviet Union’s ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan, which turned the remaining Moscow sympathizers in the West against the Soviet regime. The European and American media were highly supportive of Russian and East European dissidents. Within days of our arrival in France, we were interviewed by all the leading French papers. The wife of Spions’ lead singer, Sergey Pravda (Gergely Molnár), was also denied an entry visa by the Hungarian authorities. She was smuggled out of the country, via Yugoslavia, by a French journalist who wrote a report on the brazen action for Actuel, a leading Parisian liberal magazine which financed the adventure. My wife received her entry visa within days of the Actuel article and joined me in Paris as soon as I managed to borrow enough money from a dissident friend to cover her travel expenses.

Spions as a rock and roll entity had only one choice in presenting ourselves to Western media. To sell ourselves as political refugees would have been out of style. We did not want to look like losers. We wanted to be on the winning side; therefore, we wore Russian military uniforms with our punk hairdos and talked about being highly trained KGB agents sent to the free world to destroy the morals of the Western youth. We became an instant media sensation and received our first recording contract within weeks. Our French intellectual supporters understood that we are just joking, but the Western intelligence services took our interviews at face value, and they soon placed us under surveillance. Similarly, the Hungarian and Soviet spy agencies were not joking either. They soon sent their agents upon us, too. They did their best to destroy our band by pitting its members against each other.

We played our first Western concert in Lyon, France, at an open-air punk festival. It was a disastrous affair, as the composer and lead guitarist Pierre Violence (Péter Hegedus) rewrote all the band’s half dozen songs just before the show. Also, he played them so fast that the other musicians couldn’t keep up. Pierre Violence, a classically trained musician, was jealous of the lead singer Sergey Pravda from the very beginning, mainly because of the musically untrained Pravda’s intellectual superiority. While Violence could compose and arrange a song in no time, he couldn’t create a meaningful concept or write a single line of lyrics, let alone handle the press with the same authority that Sergey Pravda had. His original jealousy was further fuelled by the relentless anti-Pravda propaganda, with which he was constantly bombarded by the herds of youthful Hungarian intelligence agents disguised as fans. Violence allowed them near him as he was plotting his schism within the band. He did his best, during our all-important first introductory concert, to sabotage the show. He moved about the stage frantically, tearing off the strings of several guitars. He did not care about the rest of the band and did not try to pull us together when we couldn’t keep up with his sped-up beat. He was constantly trying to block the lead singer from the audience, regularly jumping in front of Pravda, during each song, as soon as he started to sing.

I drove back to Paris with Sergey Pravda after the ill-fated show. He was devastated and couldn’t understand what motivations lurked behind the composer and lead guitarist’s self-destructive stage behavior. I invited him for a drink to my borrowed flat, in the Arab section of Paris. The flat was on the third floor of an old apartment building. The windows faced an inner courtyard. It was hot; I left the windows open. Suddenly, we heard a woman’s voice calling Budapest on the phone from one of the apartments at the opposite side of the building on a lower floor. She spoke in German, and she was reporting about the disastrous Spions concert the previous night in Lyon. She told her Hungarian contact that the band’s break-up was imminent. Her colleagues in Paris had successfully managed to turn the only real musician in Spions against the brains of the project, she laughed.

As soon as a recording contract was offered the Spions by Barclay House, Pierre Violence left the band and sued Sergey Pravda, trying to ban him from recording the songs, which they had written together. He lost the case, and the first Spions release, Russian Way of Life and Total Czecho-Slovakia, was published by Barclay in 1979. The composer has since moved back to Hungary. Having no feasible ideas of his own, he is trying to live on his old Spions fame. There is no energy in his reinterpretation of the ancient songs.

Sergey Pravda’s passport was stolen by a Hungarian agent a few weeks prior to the Lyon show. He was issued a temporary proof of Hungarian citizenship by the Hungarian Embassy in Paris. With this document, he couldn’t apply for refugee status and couldn’t extend his French visa either. He was promised the replacement of his passport by the Embassy, but it has never materialized. After Sergey Pravda wrote an open letter to the Hungarian dictator János Kádár, offering Spions’ services as cultural ambassadors of the regime, his Budapest apartment was broken into and utterly destroyed by the Hungarian secret police. They broke the furniture to pieces and tore hundreds of books apart. Sergey Pravda was called to the Parisian Embassy, supposedly to receive his new passport; but instead, had his temporary ID document confiscated by a high-ranking employee of the Embassy. Without proper papers, he couldn’t possibly legalize his status in France; and without having a passport, he couldn’t leave the country either. Due to his public interviews in which he openly declared himself a Russian spy, Sergey Pravda was officially exiled from France by the French authorities. To avoid deportation back to Hungary, he obtained a fake refugee passport and changed apartments frequently for the next two years. It took him twenty years to get his real ID back, obtain a real passport and travel again freely. The Soviet Union was no more by then, and the band of rock-and-roll spies, which came from the East to take over the world, has remained a dream. Sergey Pravda is now Helmut Spiel(!), a popular DJ in Montreal, Canada. He wears black leather and sports a mohawk nowadays. His motto is “I play music which won’t listen to you.” 

László Najmányi: Hommage to Lou Reed (Budapest, 1978)

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