A Change That Cannot Be Undone
By Tony Emmerson
Translation by Lada Soukupová
It is thirty years since a wall was built. It is twenty years since a wall came down. For those of us who remember both events the numbers are hard to believe. We pretend that they cannot be true but we are betrayed by a glance in the mirror, a look in the eyes, a check of the waistline. Yes, it really was that long ago.
When Roger Waters created Pink Floyd's legendary double album, a rock opera of despair and alienation, he wanted to build a wall between himself and the audience. It was a sound of retreat and isolation, but also a sound that reached out across the world, including to a part of the world forgotten by most. Czechoslovakia was one of the countries cut loose after the Second World War. Its men fought bravely and with honour on the Allied side. Its reward was to be offered up to the Soviet Union and subjected to years of Communism and extreme government control. They too were behind a wall, but not one that they built themselves. They could have been forgiven for wondering if there was anybody out there.
One man on the other side of that wall was musician Filip Benešovský. "Western rock music wasn't available in usual selling places before 1989," he recalls. "Mostly it was smuggled to Czechoslovakia. Today it seems unbelievable but for example, sometime around 1987, my friend bought The Wall album on the black market for 1000 CZK. To imagine, this sum corresponded to a third of the average wage at that time."
As it improbable as it might have seemed to the average British or American music fan, Western music was loved in Eastern and Central Europe. People were not only willing to pay large amounts of money to get the records, but also to risk the wrath of the state for possessing them. Local musicians operated under censorship and trespassers were indeed prosecuted.
Benešovský developed a love of Western music that, as it does in many of his countrymen, carries on to this day. When asked about his favourite artists his list is that of a typical rock music connoisseur: "There was Queen, whose two albums were released at the legal licensed publisher. The other band was Marillion. With time Pink Floyd and Dire Straits joined them. Later, I got hold of a licence record by New Grass Revival called Friday Night In America and Chick Corea's Elektric Band. Their album Eye Of The Beholder was one of the fundamental turning points in my perception of music. That was my jazz beginning and the record is still very important and crucial to me.
"In my foreign discography the British titles still predominate the American ones. Many times I have speculated about [the] reason. It's not easy to express it, there is no intention. Simply, the British albums are continuously gathering, the American ones aren't. I am not a bluesman, and the French element has always been strange to me. But I can brightly remember the massive success of pop stars from Germany (Alphaville) or Austria (Falco). There was nobody around me who wouldn't have these recordings and I am still very fond of them. Anyway, at those times all Western music sounded like a miracle: it was created by teams of specialists in great studios."
Benešovský has carried the music of Pink Floyd with him for a long time. "I discovered Pink Floyd music through my friend Martin Slavíček when I was about fifteen. I couldn't say a word in English; however, I was somehow able to reveal its meaning. The pivotal albums were Dark Side Of The Moon and The Wall. The next ones came after."
From listening to the music Filip turned to playing it. The decision to play the music of Pink Floyd was evidently a very personal one: "I have been singing my whole life, but I started playing when I was around fifteen. I played the guitar and the bass, and later at the conservatory I also studied the piano. My only professional instrument is the bass.
"There are many life parallels with Roger Waters in my life. I have experienced oppressive teachers at primary school as well as at high school. I don't pretend I understand how a woman's brain works. I really don't know where the desire for mass concert attendance of 'stars' similar to, for example, the Spice Girls originates. I have never been in a war and I haven't served [in] the military service, but I have always sensed that strong anti-militarist appeal coming out of The Wall. I have also been fascinated with the technological virtuosity of Pink Floyd enterprises. A strong idea deserves a strong presentation.
"The idea [to perform The Wall] came in 2000 and everybody was discouraging me. Today it seems very funny that our present The Wall production manager, Martin Slavíček, was among them. It was some kind of urge. I propositioned some companies and musicians and most of them reacted very positively. Probably, the power of the idea worked very well. The first The Wall (January 23, 2002) cost in total 28,000 CZK. Since then there was a lot of laborious work done and progress achieved, and also I met a lot of new people. Every The Wall [performance] should be better than the previous one."
This project should not be mistaken for a mere tribute band, as good as some tribute bands can be. There are many tribute bands in the Czech Republic, usually known as "revival bands;" and like their British and American counterparts, they come in different levels of skill and seriousness. However Benešovský and his friends are all creative artists in their own right, and the The Wall shows that they occasionally do are an act of celebration. "We are a bunch of musicians making our livelihoods on different projects," he says, "and this is kind of our common religion."
His current job list makes you wonder how he has time to lead this massive undertaking: "At the present I play in Marie Rottrová's band, in Neřež, in Taliesyn, with Roman Dragoun and His Angels, and also with Miroslav Žbirka, Václav Neckář and the Hana Zagorová Revival band. We, meaning I and Jiří Neužil, have also been preparing for ages our original fusion and modern jazz production."
October's production of The Wall is going to be the biggest yet, and one of the most spectacular productions in the Czech Republic this year. They've booked the O2 Arena in Prague, the country's largest indoor venue. The sound will be quadrophonic, and yes, they will build the wall across the front of the stage. As well as the rock band there will be a string quartet, a horn section, woodwind, and a children's choir. The guest musicians will include Radim Hladík, the legendary Czech progressive rock guitar genius behind Blue Effect / Modrý Efekt, and Harry Waters, the pianist son of Roger Waters.
The aim of the show is to provide a complete presentation of the concept that lies behind The Wall. As well as the music and the visuals, there will be the dramatic scenes that tell the story. Completists should be happy with their efforts: the "forgotten" song "When The Tigers Broke Free" will be returned to its rightful place.
The realities of staging such a big event have to be faced. Money has to be raised and media coverage obtained. It has not always been easy: "I think the media are here for us and not us for media, but it seems to me that media's feelings are the other way round. In practice it means big difficulties in searching for a media partner. But eventually, if the project is successful the media bring themselves to you."
The timing of this concert means that parallels with the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall are inevitable. However Benešovský is quick to point out that this is not what the concert is about: it is a celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the album rather than the twentieth anniversary of revolution. Even so, it is hard for the for the romantic onlooker not to put the two together and sense a certain common thread.
It would be be wrong not celebrate the fact that this ambitious and exciting concert is taking place in a country into which the music once had to be smuggled. Instead of being under the counter, these songs are now out in the open, and that surely has to be a thing of joy. There is sadness of course, in that the continued appeal of The Wall means that people can still relate to its themes: dark themes that encapsulate the ugly side of human nature. In people, as in politics, all the problems have not gone away. But still we can applaud the musicians who had the vision to make this music. And we can also applaud the fans, living in a world that most of us could only imagine, who had the courage to listen.
The Wall 2009 will take place at the O2 Arena in Prague on October 31 2009. More details at: http://www.thewall2009.cz/en/. Tickets:http://www.sazkaticket.cz/