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We Didn't Die From Happiness: The State-Sanctioned Rock Albums of Late ‘80s Bulgaria

BG Rock

January 9, 2018 | James Greene, Jr.

“You keep taking note of whatever confirms your ideas — better to write down what refutes and weakens them!”

So spake Bulgarian mind Elias Canetti in 1987, reflecting to a degree the increasingly liberal climate of his homeland at the time. Witness: After years of trying to eradicate it from every nook and cranny, suddenly Bulgaria’s Communist Party was taking a softer stance toward rock music (and punk rock, specifically). Granted, many believe this thawing was merely a political tactic to keep the disenfranchised youth from evolving into a legitimate revolution, but others argue party head Todor Zhivkov always sought increased union between his nation and the West. The latter might explain why in the late ‘70s state-run record label Балкантон (Balkanton) was allowed to license albums by Western titans such as the Beatles, Paul Anka, and Liza Minnelli (all a good six to 10 years after the albums’ original releases).

Kiril Marichkov

(photo of Kiril Marichkov)

A decade later, as Soviet rule began its wobble toward absolute collapse, Balkanton subsidiary BG Rock issued a series of LPs and cassettes highlighting domestic punk, new wave, and hard rock artists. Naturally, it was one of Bulgaria’s most renowned rock figures who conceived what is known simply as the BG Rock series: Кирил Кирилов Маричков (Kiril Marichkov), bassist for vaunted 1970s proggy popsters Щурците (The Crickets). And naturally, since BG Rock was government approved, the prior generation of Bulgaria’s rabble rousing rock underground — the more severe musicians who opposed Zhivkov’s regime with greatest force — were omitted. Нови цветя (New Flowers), a punk group founded in 1979 and recognized as one of this nation’s first, had to wait until 2004 to see their recordings released by a Bulgarian label. Hardcore assembly DDT also found themselves exempt, possibly because they wrote and recorded a song literally titled “Fuck the Bulgarian Communist Party.”

Every BG Rock disc is a split between two artists, each of whom take up one full side of the LP. BG Rock 1, released in 1989, opens with the synth-laden snap of Контрол (Control), who formed just a year earlier. There’s plenty of dizzying bite to be found in their concoctions — even as pop-style production dries up the sonic sediment. “Свобода" (“Freedom”) is the most dynamic and whimsical entry, echoing anarchic frameworks of Rhino 39 or early Dead Kennedys. However, Control issue their true anthem in pained lament “Не Умирахме От Щастие” (“We Didn’t Die from Happiness”). Even for state-sponsored punks, life in Bulgaria was far from tidy.

Нова Генерация (New Generation) ride a more traditional new wave on BG Rock 1’s flip side, alternating between male and female vocals that float over watery flourish. New Generation has one of the lengthier discographies of all the BG Rock bands, thanks to their DIY spirit. Scores of barebones recordings and videos were distributed via their fan club, New Generation Forever.

BG Rock 2, released the same year as its predecessor, veers off into beer-swillin’ bandana-wearin’ Harley Davidson swagger thanks to the heavy metal of EPA (Era). Even classically structured jaunts like “Къде Отиваш” (“Where Are You Going?”) bring to mind the sweaty, hormonal upheaval of your local watering hole. It’s very impressive EPA could replicate that while recording these tracks at Bulgaria’s National Palace of Culture. Another proto thrash group completes the album — Конкурент (Concurrent, sometimes styled as Konkurent), five poofy-haired guys who sound like they take great influence from non-makeup era Kiss. Better than taking influence from Psycho Circus era Kiss.

Charismatic chanteuse Милена Славова (Milena Slavova) dominates BG Rock 3. On the first side she’s solo, mutating new wave into eclectic pop confections; on side two Milena’s with her founding rock outfit, Ревю (Review). Either way, she looks quite the punk, wrapped in leather with her spiky hair mostly in an overgrown mohawk. Audible tenacity and an ear for great hooks helped Slavova become a massive pop star in her native land (aforementioned group EPA wound up backing her on one of her biggest records, 1991’s Ha Ha). The Review portion of BG Rock 3 offers a dirtier rub (read: the guitars are more distorted) and more carefree flash (read: a greater ska influence). Slavova really lets her range loose over the lilt of “Послание” (“A Message”), warbling and crooning with palpable empowerment.

Milena Slavova

(photo of Milena Slavova)

Just when you think you can’t take another millisecond of keyboards, the fourth BG Rock LP from 1990 dunks the listener back into the new wave — though the work of Клас (Class) is tinged with a specific and appealing brand of emotional ache that apparently surrounded the group’s primary composer, vocalist Бойко Петков (Boiko Petrov). Just as warmly haunting is the music of their disc mates Атлас (Atlas), though a populist bend keeps the structure of this group more lush and accessible.

Concluding the series, BG Rock 5 first serves the soaring pop rock of Orion, four guys dressed like a Long Island wedding band who sound like a period advertisement for DeVry University. Please note: The Orion song “Rainbow Warriors” is an original composition by guitarist Valeri Kyosovski that has no obvious relation to the Buggles song “Rainbow Warrior” or the Europe song “Rainbow Warrior.” The last gasp of BG Rock belongs to Субдибула (Subdibula), an equally feathery assembly U.S. citizens will take pause for if only to notice two members who bear frightening resemblance to Branch Davidian priest David Koresh. More disturbing is the racist kewpie doll cartoon Субдибула included with its photo on the LP jacket. Please note: The Субдибула song “A Girl Like You” is an original composition by one of the probable bigots in this band that has no obvious relation to the Smithereens song “A Girl Like You.”

The BG Rock label released just one album outside its flagship series: 1989’s Походът (The March), debut offering from tight-fisted Bulgarian heavy metal sextet Ахат. A dry thicket of guitars provides perfect support for the high-range bellow of singer Звездомир Керемидчиев (Zvezdomir “Zvezdi” Keremidchiev). No surprise this disc’s cover art renders a medieval knight atop his steed, defiant as he harnesses the power of passing lightning with his broadsword.

Even in the annals of international rock ‘n’ roll curiosity record swapping, the BG Rock discs are not widely ballyhooed or shouted about. They should be, of course, for they provide a wonderful window into Bulgaria’s recent past, and they are fully engaging documents unto themselves. Recall another Elisa Canetti quote: “The blind man is not blind by birth, but he became blind with little effort.” Cure your blindness, put some effort forth, listen to Bulgarian rock.

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