Covers #3: Hej, Jude

Together at last! The 1990 single of the songs which concern us today

You know that idea of ‘rabbit holes’? Often applied to Youtube watching; you start looking at one clip, next thing you know you’ve been gazing at ‘related videos’ for about three hours.  Well my current rabbit hole is (or are) translations of hit songs from English into other languages. Now, for better or for worse, English is indeed the, erm, lingua franca of popular music. This is changing somewhat with the rise of K-Pop (BTS, PSY), and the incursion of Latin American musics (Gloria Estefan – strange but true! – Shakira, ‘Desposito’) but certainly historically it’s been the case that if you want a hit, English is the loving tongue.  Hits would come out of New York and London, achieve success and then be translated into the local brogue. These recordings would then complement rather than compete with the Anglophone originals in the charts of their respective countries.

Sometimes songs would start life in other languages and an English translation would deliver the global hit: think of ‘My Way’, ‘That’s Amore’, ‘The Girl From Ipanema’. Very, very occasionally, a song would become a hit in the UK in its original form: ‘Je t’Aime’, ‘Vado Via’, ‘Ca Plan Pour Moi’, ‘Joe Le Taxi’. More usually a band would translate their own song into English in order to reach the Anglophone market: Kraftwerk were the masters of this, as of much else, and there were German and English language versions of all their albums from Autobahn (1973)  up to and including Electric Cafe (1986). ‘Pocket Calculator’ really came in for the treatment with versions in German, English, French, Spanish, Japanese, Italian and for all I know Inuit. Have I got them all? You bet I have matey! What a sucker.

Enjoy the very rare Italian version here: “Sono l’operatore del mini-calcolatore”, doncha know.

So the commercial imperative for translating and covering, to and from English, has a sound market-based rationale. But what if there were other reasons? What if a song itself had a kind of cultural power beyond its real or perceived commercial value?

If you are a former student of mine, much of what follows will seem strangely familiar, so sit back and enjoy the sentimental journey. Everyone else, eyes and ears front.

In 1987, I was in Bristol visiting a friend. Being free as birds, we spent a sunny afternoon in a pub  near the University and found a flyer for the Watershed, an arts centre by the river. It was showing Philip Kaufman’s’s film of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, an adaptation of Czech exile Milan Kundera’s novel, which had a complex publishing history. You can look that up. Anyway by ’87 it had been turned into a  quite high profile film, starring Daniel Day Lewis and Juliette Binoche, both superheiss at the time, alongside the unforgettable Lena Olin. All quite an eyeful. So yes we went to see the film and several things happened as a consequence: firstly, I went out the next day to get me a black rollneck sweater. Secondly I took careful note of the credits to find out who had been singing a version of ‘Hey Jude’ which appears at a key moment in the film. I’m not telling you the third thing.

Poster for the 1987 film of Kundera’s novel
My long suffering paperback of Kundera’s novel. It had a pint of Brakspears knocked over it in 1990 at a pub in Reading and still smells of it.

The film, like the novel, was set during the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968. What was that, you cry? Well, it was the brief flowering of cultural freedom under the stewardship of Alexander Dubček . He was appointed First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party on January the 5th 1968 and was effectively removed when the Soviets invaded on the 21st of August that same year. As it was a Leap Year, that was 229 days: the Prague Spring and his leadership of the country were effectively the same thing. He famously advocated, and briefly delivered, ‘socialism with a human face’.

Alexander Dubcek (centre) strove to introduce ‘socialism with a human face’ into Czechoslovakia in the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968

During that time an extraordinary cultural and social transformation took place: music and film was ‘allowed’ before and after this period but the freedom of expression Dubček encouraged unleashed an energy and a surge of creativity which rocked the boat enough to present the possibility of real social change through artworks. Part of this was amazing cinema, via the already established likes of Miloš Forman (The Fireman’s Ball) and Jiří Menzel (Closely Observed Trains) and Věra Chytilová (the psychedelic bliss-out that is Daisies), the fine arts and, especially, music. Pop was particularly well-suited as a vehicle for self-expression as it was fast, bright and modern it was (or is) a celebration of the now, the present instant, as well as a connecting point to the past and ideas about the future. That means pleasure, sadness, reflection…singing the blues…the cry of love…do you wanna dance? It does all this without needing a supporting dialectic. It just is. That’s why it makes censors and lawmakers nervous.

Anyway that brief period saw visits to Czechoslovakia from a number of formerly verboten Western acts, most famously and Americanly The Beach Boys  who gave concerts in Prague and Bratislava; during their Prague show they dedicated ‘Breakaway’ to Mr. Dubček This fabulous picture of the band standing by the Danube in Bratislava on that visit recently came to my notice via the Beach Boys World website.

Allen Ginsberg visited too, not for the first time, but definitely to great excitement and acclaim. Not only but also there was a rapid expansion of the Czechoslovak music scene with a huge variety of singers and bands springing up; some reflected the mood of the times, like the legendary Plastic People Of The Universe (name borrowed from a line in a Frank Zappa song) and Karel Kryl, both of whom had a definite revolutionary edge. Other acts such as Olympic and Karel Gott sat more toward the middle of the road and both had successful careers well into the 1970’s on account of this, but somewhat at the cost of their subsequent reputations.

The true voice of the Prague Spring however belonged to a girl from České Budějovice (home of the original Budweiser beer –no, really!), Marta Kubišová . She was 25 years old in Spring 1968 and had come to Prague after winning provincial and national singing competitions, ending up working in various theatre companies in the city.

These two pictures of Marta nicely contrast the ‘early’ well-behaved Czech pop with the freedoms offered by the ‘Prague Spring’: the first shot is from 1965, the second from 1968.

Cover of a 1965 single

1968 publicity shot at the Petřínská Rozhledna, the Petrin Lookout Tower above Prague, known as Prague’s Eiffel Tower

Contrary to what we might expect there was a lot of home-made pop music in the countries behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ in the 1960’s, and in 1964 she was signed up by the state-owned label Supraphon , still one of the world’s great record companies. She recorded solo, having hits on her own and as a duo with Helena Vondráčková : ‘Oh, Baby, Baby’ is still a much loved tune.

However it was two songs she recorded toward the end of the decade that made a massive impact : ‘Modlitbu pro Martu’ (‘Prayer For Marta’) was first recorded for a TV show, Píseň pro Rudolfa III. (A Song For Rudolf III) , a somewhat Reggie Perrin-esque series about a serial daydreamer which was popular on Czech TV at the time. It was written quickly by Petr Rada who was an old hand at knocking out songs for film and shows: the show was not political, and the song wasn’t particularly meant to be taken that way either. Yet when the episode was screened in early 1969 it very quickly became adopted as a song of resistance and defiance: a protest song. Looking at the lyric, we can see how the accidental fit seemed a resonant one:

“Let peace continue with this country. 
Let wrath, envy, hate, fear and struggle vanish. 
Now, when the lost reign over your affairs will return to you, people, it will return.”

Watch the original performance from Píseň pro Rudolfa III. Marta also appeared in the episode : she was an accomplished actress.

Around the time ‘Modlitba pro Martu’ was becoming the retrospective anthem of the Prague Spring, she also recorded a version of The Beatles ‘Hey Jude’. The two songs were originally released on separate singles but have forever been associated with each other. That’s one reason why Philip Kaufman used her Czech language version of the song in The Unbearable Lightness Of Being.

The sleeve of the original 45 of ‘Hej, Jude’

Back cover of the above 45

Label of the first issue of ‘Hej, Jude’: note the credit for ‘Orchestr Golden Kids’ a name that would be used again the following year. Note also the mysterious absence of ‘P. McCartney’ from the writing credits…

We must also bear in mind that The Beatles’ 45 of the song wasn’t released until the 26th of August 1968, less than a week after the Soviets invaded. Marta’s version followed quickly, so they had got the record, translated the lyric, worked up the arrangement, recorded and issued it very quickly. Both songs became symbolic of the spirit of the Prague Spring and the enduring resistance to the repressive regime the people were forced to live under.

Her one album, Songy a Balady (you can translate it yourself) emerged in early 1969 containing both songs and owning the album became an act of defiance. Its initial pressing was recalled as the authorities wished to remove two songs, ‘Modlitba Pro Martu’ and the anti-authoritarian ‘Ne!’ (‘No!’); it was reissued with two more conventional pop songs in their place.

Original 1969 sleeve of Songy a Balady

1990 reissue of Songy a Balady. It restored the censored songs. Subsequent reissues went back to the original cover

So, it’s time to hear it! ‘Hej, Jude’ with a very evocative film clip from 1968/9

The song was done in a flash, yet has lasted for over 50 years. That’s to do with the social context, certainly, but also the qualities of the record itself. It’s very faithful to the instrumentation and sound of the so-familiar Beatles recording – listen to that piano, a pretty good facsimile. The vocal arrangement too – solo voice carries it for the most part, mass singalong toward the end. Duration – Beatles around 7 minutes, Marta around 5.30. But wait a moment: what about those lyrics? How do you translate ‘The movement you need is on your shoulder’ into Czech? The answer is, of course, you don’t. Instead you find a lyric that is meaningful in the individual language with its own idiomatic phrasings, rhymes and scanning. That’s what happened in the case of ‘Hej, Jude’: translator Zdeněk Rytíř (part of the Orchestr Golden Kids, her de facto backing band) quickly created a Czech version of the song which wasn’t simply a straight translation but an as we say in 2020 ‘re-imagining’ of the lyric for the local conditions.

Zdeněk Rytíř, who wrote the Czech lyric to ‘Hej, Jude’

I asked my friend Marek about the Czech lyric Marta sings and he very kindly revisited the record, telling me this:

“The Czech version is sung by woman and you can hear the man’s betrayal of her. Zdeněk Rytíř used poetry images and lots of idioms to express this. Regarding idioms – let me explain some of them: 1. “Svět je krásnej, svět je zlej! Hey Jude, věř v něj!” – the world is beautiful, the world is cruel, hey Jude, believe in it 2. “A do těch ran ti sype sůl a láme hůl” – and to these wounds the world is dropping salt and breaking stick – it’s a Czech saying to make pain worse, to put salt in the wound. Breaking sticks means – to give-up some person, to lose faith in the person. But for Czech people it was even more important because of Soviet tanks. Our “closest brothers” betrayed us and brought tanks and army to our country instead and even more – they took all freedom from us. So this song by Marta Kubišová was taken more as protest song even though Zdeněk didn’t necessarily intend the tone to be one of a protest song”

Hence what might feel like a novelty for the Anglophone ear had real meaning for the Czech speaker. Rytíř was the go-to guy in Czech pop for a strong translation of Western pop hits, having already ‘done’ plenty, Dylan, Lovin’ Spoonful and Manfred Mann among multiple other hits. And of course the famous slow-fade (which this version does not shirk) needs no translating! Soon the song became part of the songbook of resistance, and as the regime became more and more hardline singing it in public risked arrest and everything that could and would follow from that.

Here is the sequence from Kaufman’s film of The Unbearable Lightness Of Being (1987) that uses ‘Hej, Jude’. You’ll see that he skilfully mixes actual footage from August 1968 with artfully recreated sequences which feature his stars Daniel Day Lewis and Juliette Binoche, whose character, as a photographer, was well-placed to document events.

Marta went on the be one-third of Czech supergroup Golden Kids (one of my favourite band names ever) with Václav Neckář (already a singer and actor: you might have seen him in Closely Observed Trains, which won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1968) and old friend and established pop star Helena Vondráčková. They were very groovy: happy, bright and Eurovision cheerful making two albums of , well, bright and cheerful pop including Czech versions of Dylan’s ‘The Mighty Quinn’ and Lennon & McCartney’s ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’ on their debut, Micro Magic Circus (1970).

Golden Kids Micro Magic Circus (1970)

Czech ‘supergroup’ Golden Kids: Marta Kubišová, Václav Neckář, Helena Vondráčková 1970

Golden Kids achieved great success while Marta continued to record singles under her own name. Her solo songs became more overtly socio-political: ‘Tajga Blues’ was openly critical of the USSR’s treatment of protestors. Eventually the regime of Gustav Husák (who replaced Dubček in April 1969) could no longer tolerate her popularity and the social platform that gave her. They literally couldn’t stand the sound of her voice; it was the sound of defiance, onstage and on disc. So what we’d now call a ‘smear campaign’ was launched against her, false claims were made about her to damage her reputation as a person, and her music was banned from sale or broadcast. Her last gig was a Golden Kids show in Ostrava in 1972.  Neckář and Vondráčková carried on with their careers with her blessing but she didn’t sing in public again for nearly two decades.

Instead she , like many other artists and dissidents – in fact, to be an artist was to be a dissident so the distinction is tautologous – subsisted and resisted as best she could. Alongside Vaclav Havel, she was one of the leading lights and main signatories to the famous Charta 77 (Charter 77), a document accusing the Czechoslovak government of ignoring and denying human rights to the country’s citizens in accordance to international agreements they had signed up to. The articulacy and accuracy of this document made it very powerful and distribution of Charta 77 became a crime in Czechoslovakia – which, of course, made the arguments it contained even more pertinent. Marta’s involvement cast her even further into internal exile and drew ever closer scrutiny from the security forces. She was never sent to prison – as were Havel and several others who worked on Charta 77- but life was made very difficult.

Marta with Vaclav Havel drafting what became Charta 77, 1976.

Everything changed in November 1989, when the ‘Velvet Revolution’ propelled Vaclav Havel into the role of President of Czechoslovakia. On the 22nd of that month, Marta sang in public for the first time since 1972. She sang, at Havel’s request, ‘Modlitba pro Martu’ along with the Czechoslovak national anthem ‘Kde domov můj’ (‘Where My Home Is’) alongside Havel and the returned Dubček, from a balcony in the Melantrich Palace on Wenceslas Square to an estimated 250,000 people gathered to celebrate their freedom. By that time her voice and her songs were deeply embedded as symbolic of a nation’s spirit of resistance, and she sang the country into freedom. Imagine how great that must have been for them all, for the whole country. My God. Why don’t the British go in for revolutions? We need one.

Marta on the balcony of Melantrich Palace, Wenceslas Square in Prague, November 22nd 1989
With Alexander Dubček and Vaclav Havel November 22nd 1989

 After this Songy a Balady was the first album to be reissued by Supraphon, in March 1990, shortly followed by an album of unissued material from the late 60’s called Lampa : the sleeve showed a copy of Charta 77 prominently placed on the table next to her. I saw her sing in the free Old Town Square concert of June 1990, to celebrate the country’s first democratic elections of that month. She shared top billing with Paul Simon, one of many musicians who would pay court to President Havel in the coming years. She also began recording again releasing new albums throughout the 90’s and 00’s. Now she is in her late 70’s and, occasionally, still singing! Someone was smart enough to make a film about her; here’s the trailer.

To conclude where we began – Bristol, 1987, glass of Budweiser Budvar in hand – it’s worth remembering that in mid-80’s, Czech artists/dissidents like Havel and the Plastic People had become a cause celebre in the West – Samuel Beckett dedicated his 1984 play Catastrophe to Havel, Frank Zappa namechecked the Plastic People whose music was released in the West, Jan Svankmajer’s animations were hits on the Art House cinema circuit – and there was a definite appetite for work with a Czech connection. Consequently, although Kundera supposedly hated Kaufman’s adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it was a very successful film in its time and (for what it’s worth) hugely influential on my peer group. So when the Berlin Wall fell in ’89, we already had our dreams and ideas of what it was like on the other side from sources such as this book, film, and song.

Maybe art really can change the world. The movement you need is on your shoulder!

Thanks to Marek Kraus for his help with this piece.

2 thoughts on “Covers #3: Hej, Jude

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