Mods, punks & Yugostalgia
Searching for the Golden Age of a lost utopia
Take a trip around former Yugoslavia in a turbulent adventure through the alternative culture of the country’s Golden Age, full of insights about the rebel spirit of the communist world’s lost utopia – its hardcore concrete brutalism, Slav rebels and punk-pop
There exists on a wall in the port town of Rijeka in Croatia a faded piece of graffiti that was witness to the very early onset of a subculture movement. Sprayed in 1977 by one of the first punk bands in former Yugoslavia, it simply reads “PARAF PUNK”.
The tag was granted protection for its local significance as cultural heritage in 2016. Yet the mods and punks of the six republics of former Yugoslavia – Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia Herzegovina – are the world’s forgotten boys, often left out of the cultural narrative of the countries that came along after.
A bloody civil war might have destroyed the most progressive country in the communist world, but decades on from the country’s collapse there are many people in the former Yugoslav republics who would like to go back its Golden Age – a time when Yugoslavia was a place of successive waves of economic liberalisation, artistic freedom and expression, Tito charmed film stars like Sophia Loren, and Belgrade was the “the only Communist capital with a parking problem”.
Despite the violent horrors that followed, Stalin-botherer Josip Broz Tito was credited with holding together a patchwork of different nationalities for over three decades in Yugoslavia’s last generation: “I am the leader of one country which has two alphabets, three languages, four religions, five nationalities, six republics, surrounded by seven neighbours, a country in which live eight ethnic minorities,” he extolled. And with that came a soundtrack.
To travel around former Yugoslavia via its culture is to press play on a Yugo-punk mixtape, featuring tastefully-named bands like TV Morons, The Bastards and Električni Orgazam (Electric Orgasm). This mix has been created with some of the finest Yugo-punk cuts from the ’60s to soundtrack this TOPIA list of 17 things you didn’t know about the communist country.
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17 things you didn’t know about the pop-punk culture of former Yugoslavia
The Brits loved it
And Yugoslavia loved Brits right back.
In its heyday in the 60s and 70s, the state-owned Yugotours gave close to 500,000 British people their first taste of a foreign holiday. By 1980, Yugoslavia was the second most popular overseas holiday destination, behind Spain. Holidaymakers on package tours were shocked to find a place where the working classes dined on truffle and white wine, and a scene that embraced youth culture in a way that the rest of the communist world condemned as a capitalist plot.
It birthed Eastern Europe’s first record label
Yugoslavia had the only punk and new wave scene behind the Iron Curtain and created the communist world’s first pop music label. Zagreb, now Croatia’s northwestern capital, was home to Jugoton, the legendary label which thrived during the period of industrialisation and modernisation. The Communist party let it license and import music from the West freely, introducing the entire Eastern Bloc to the sounds of rock, blues and jazz. Yugoslavs loved British pop, with state-owned record labels producing groups inspired by the Shadows, the Beatles, The Who and Small Faces.
Yugoslavia is the first communist country to enter Eurovision
LPs were banned
The government banned groups from making albums until 1968, so bands turned out huge numbers of singles, both covers and originals. Communist pop valued brevity and efficiency and hardly any records went on for more than two and a half minutes.
It had the most diverse scene in Eastern Europe
Cities like Belgrade were more ethnically diverse than other communist nations because former Yugoslavia had exchange programmes with universities and youth groups around the world, thanks to the Non-Aligned movement. This fed into the music scene with multicultural mod and soul bands like Elipse, one of the pioneers of the Yugoslav rock scene. The media compared their rivalry with the band Siluete to the Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
Yugoslavia did mind the bollocks
Jugoton famously acquired the rights to The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks, but never released it for fear it might upset British-Yugoslav relations.
The art was radical
It wasn’t just pop music where Yugoslavia walked it’s own path. While communist art was big on square-jawed pioneers gazing meaningfully at machine tools and combine harvesters, Yugoslavia had its own pop art scene. Belgrade-based pop artist Dušan Otašević created American-style pop art that reflected the growing consumerism and prosperity of Yugoslavia. His works even included a pop art representation of Tito. It’s hard to imagine anywhere else in the communist world where such challenging artists would have been tolerated by the regime, never mind flourishing.
It’s not all about Abramović
Today the Zagreb Museum of Contemporary Art contains photos by Sanja Iveković, who emerged in the 1970s with a radical body of work dealing with issues of utopian consumerism and political conflict. Now a cult figure in Europe, she was the first artist in Yugoslavia to actively engage with gender differences. Iveković belongs to the New Art Practice, a generation of artists who combined visual art with newly available technologies such as Polaroids, photocopies, film and graphic design.
Slavs loved Monty Python
Yugoslavia was also the first non-English speaking country to show Monty Python, in 1971, beating Germany to the honour.
NME changed Yugo-punk forever
When Tito died in 1980, punk hit Yugoslavia hard. Lyrics heralded shifting freedoms, critiqued the state of the socialist system and explored how it might change. Melody Maker ran a two-page spread on the Yugolsavian punk scene and the NME gave positive coverage to Belgrade-based band Električni Orgazam (Electric Orgasm). Its lead singer Srđan Gojković Gile sat at the heart of Yugoslav Novi Talas (New Wave), a movement that was inspired by UK punk, reggae and ska, with a style and agenda all of its own.
The Belgrade underground got packaged up
In 1981, the Zagreb-based Jugoton championed the Belgrade underground by releasing tracks from three up-and-coming bands in one album:Električni Orgazam, Šarlo Akrobata (the name by which Charlie Chaplin was known in Yugoslavia), and Idoli (Idols). The result was Paket Aranžman (Package Tour), a record which marked a new beginning for Yugoslav culture by creating a coherent scene. It was hugely symbolic at the time, turning the abrasive emerging new wave into a commercial, mass-market statement.
Belgrade has always been famous for partying
Back in the 60s, Belgrade was the capital of the richest country in Eastern Europe and had a scene to match. Today the capital of Serbia imay have the concrete architecture of a former Communist capital city, but the scene is much closer to Berlin – creative, hip and party oriented.
A sketch comedy group predicted the end of Yugoslavia
While the New Wave took off in Zagreb and Belgrade in the early 80s, a new unique local urban subculture appeared in Bosnia. New Primitivism mixed punk attitude, music with comedy sketches on a show called Top Lista Nadrealista (The Surrealist Hit Parade). The movement is seen as one of the most important cultural phenomena to originate in Sarajevo – even prophetic thanks to a sketch that declared a divided Yugoslavia.
Slovenia is a dark horse
It is hard to imagine pretty Ljubljana as having a punk scene, but one of the key Yugo-punk bands Pankrti (The Bastards) comes from the Slovenia capital. Their anthem ‘Lublana je Bulana’ (Ljubljana is Sick) is about their hometown. However, no band acted as a voice of the disenfranchised youth better than the provocative Idoli. They released the first Yugoslavian song on homosexuality, titled ‘Retko te viđam sa devojkama’ (I rarely see you with girls).
It’s a vinyl paradise
Thanks to a vinyl revival, it is easy to track down original Yugoslavian pop records in shops or online from record dealers like well-labelled specialist collector’s favourite Karma Vinyl. The most significant event on the vinyl hunter’s calendar is the Record and Cartoon-Strip Fair held at Zagreb’s Močvara club every two months.
The stone is brutal
One of the best ways to get to know the crucial, but tragic, moments in Yugoslav history is through its surreal space-age superstructure monuments. The legacy of a bygone era, spomeniks (monuments in Serbo-Croatian) are eerie and striking memorials to the horrors of World War II and should not be seen as concrete clickbait. Designed by radical artists, architectural ‘medals in the countryside’ – such as a giant obelisks with clenched fists popping out of the countryside in the middle of nowhere – were Tito’s tribute to the immense resilience and radical creativity of the Yugoslavs. Built in the belief that senseless bloodshed was in the past and a utopian society was ahead, little did their creators know that another generation of slaughter was ahead of them.
Yugostalgia is real
The horror of the 1990s makes it too easy to forget what a unique country Yugoslavia was. The cultural achievements of the most progressive communist country have faded, but there is still a massive affection for Tito, despite the new nationalist identities that define the landscape. There is something odd about nostalgia for a country that degenerated into such chaotic violence, but in a highly polarised world where we are told there are no alternatives to the status quo, Yugoslavia is an inspiration.
Your pop-punk odyssey through ex-Yugoslavia
Zagreb – Croatia’s northwestern capital still has a great underground scene. Start your spomenik tour here and search for rare Yugoslavian music in the home of Jugoton records. Stay in the Art Deco Esplanade Hotel.
Rijeka – Punks used to gather outside Hotel Kontinental before hitting the local rock clubs in Croatia’s hub of alternative culture, which is a patchwork of post-industrial architecture, socialist skyscrapers and alternative politics.
Istria – Pop festivals took place on the Italian border throughout the 60s, although these were closer to the mainstream pop of San Remo rather than Woodstock. Today it is a beautiful peninsula, famous for truffles and fine white wines.
Rovinj – A spomenik overlooks the harbour of one of the most beautiful towns on the Croatian coast, right next to its food market and atmospheric bars.
Brijuni – This group of Islands in the Adriatic was a holiday retreat for the wealthy, and the summer residence of Tito, who drove his guests around in a Cadillac Eldorado, including Queen Elizabeth II in 1972. The Brijuni declaration of 1956 that established the Non-Aligned movement was signed on the Island. Today it is a national park.
Ljubljana – The picture postcard capital of Slovenia hides surprisingly punky offerings. It is the home of controversial art rockers Laibach and the New Slovenian Art Movement. Shop for rare vinyl and drink craft beer by the side of the river.
Lake Bled – The foothills of the Julian Alps are home to Villa Bled, a beautiful luxury hotel created from a villa where Tito would entertain film stars and world politicians. The stunning example of post war architecture features a 40-foot painting depicting the rise of the Partisans and their victory over fascism. Every hotel needs a huge Marxist mural.
Belgrade – Explore one of the hippest bar and club scenes in Europe, alongside some of the most brutally impressive spomeniks in the former capital of Yugoslavia.
Sarajevo – The capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina is associated with some of the worst fighting of the civil war, but was an important cultural hub of the former Yugoslavia during the 80s. Time your trip to coincide with Sarajevo Film Festival. Established in 1995 during the Bosnian War, it has become the largest and most famous film festivals in the Balkans and South-East Europe.
Podgorica – While Brits holidayed in Croatia, Yugoslavs holidayed in Montenegro. Today a trip to the ‘area below the little hill’ formerly known as Titograd is much easier than in the 70s thanks to new roads over the mountains.
What’s so good about this?
Whether you want cities, beaches, hiking or sailing, the countries of the former Yugoslavia contain some of the best up-and-coming travel destinations in Europe. Travelling via its objects of cultural heritage – such as the spomeniks, art and music – preserves its rich and rebellious spirit. Nostalgia-seekers are also offered extraordinary insights into how an economy might work if free markets and state socialism worked together. And how destructive emerging nationalism can be.
Meet the writer
Jon Chadwick is the music-loving founder of the award-winning Durham Distillery, a first for the northeast of England. The self-proclaimed “miserable twisty faced Northern malcontent” previously worked for the UK Government and saw what the state does from healthcare to prisons, “which is probably why I don’t work for the government anymore”. A former Mastermind semi-finalist whose specialised subject was ‘The films of Takeshi Kitano’, he dreams of being the first person to compete the double: Mastermind and MasterChef.