Central Europeans reflect on life before the fall of the Berlin Wall
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Robert Matera

For us it was impossible to live normally in such conditions

Warsaw, Poland, 2009
Polish English

Robert Matera, Multi-media Producer and founding member Polish Punk band, Dezerter

We started playing (as SS-20) in May of 1981.  It was a natural decision to start making music. It was the one thing that we could do that made any sense at that time because there was no perspective for living. The reality of life was cruel. For us it was impossible to live normally in such conditions so we decided to make a band.

In Warsaw there was one cultural center, which organized a small festival for beginning bands. We asked to play and there was a competition and we won. When it was time to get the prize, some weeks later, Martial Law in Poland had started so the head of club had to change the verdict. Another band that was not so political was given first place. We just got some good words and wishes for the future. 

We started in the time of punk music worldwide. Mainly we listened to English bands, classics like the Sex Pistols and the Clash. The lucky people who could travel would bring back records unofficially.  They would be exchanged in the flea market and played until they were worn out. And there was a big culture of copying the music onto tapes. This is how we heard this music. 

Electric guitars were rare and it was a hard battle to get instruments. There was a small production of guitars and drums in the state factories. They were bad quality. I tried in desperation to build my own guitar. We were in an electronic school so we knew how to do it.  For drums at first we used chairs and cardboard boxes. Then it was a collection of old parts that we put into one set. It was a little creative and desperate activity. Amplifiers were also a problem so we tried to make them from old radios and tape recorders. 

In the beginning we played just two or three gigs a year, so it wasn’t such a problem with the authorities. The bigger problems began when we started to play festivals, such as Jarocin Festival, and when we tried to put out a record. Any recorded music that would be distributed had to go by the censors. So our manager had to take our music to the censorship office and negotiate with them because the lyrics were so political. Most of our lyrics were censored, which is why the first LP was put out in the USA.  We couldn’t do it here. 

As we tried to get gigs we got suggestions from the club managers to change the name of the band.  (SS-20 was a top-secret nuclear missile designed by the Soviets.) We either had to choose a new name that did not provoke the authorities or not play. 

The first thing that changed for us in the ‘90s is that we began to put out one to two records a year because censorship was stopped. We became more productive. Another thing that changed is that we got passports.  We started to play throughout Western Europe and then Japan. After so many years of waiting and just playing occasionally, we could finally live off of playing. It was another world.    

We still see things in life that are worth pointing to with our music. Inside government and inside people there are many things that haven’t changed. There is a term in Poland, “homo sovieticus”, which is the mentality created from our fears towards the communist government. This fear killed the real soul in people. There is still like something like this. It is changing because the generation has changed. But it hasn’t stopped. 

There are changes in our creativity that are connected to the passage of time. When you play in a band you have two ways. You either stay on the same path and copy yourself or you try to move forward with new, creative things. We are trying the second way.

This conversation was in English
Photo: Robert Ochnio

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