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Jonathan Bousfield: Rijeka Rock City

It was the port city of Rijeka that led the way when it came to Croatia’s relationship with the electric guitar, and it is Rijeka that preserves most in terms of rock and roll heritage today. Label boss Goran Lisica Fox famously described Rijeka as a ‘musical Galapagos’, a self-contained city that always stood apart from the main landmass of popular culture. Indeed the city’s position in Croatia can be compared to that of Manchester in the UK: a place whose mixture of provincial isolation and self-reliance paradoxically puts it at the centre of national creativity.



 Long-time journalist and chronicler of the Rijeka music scene Velid Đekić was keen to take me to Dežmanova ulica, a typical street of grey-brown apartment blocs just below Rijeka’s Gubernatorial Palace. It is here that a discreet plaque marks the former site of Husar (1957-1964), Croatia’s first ever rock and roll club, and arguably the first such club in the whole of communist-controlled Europe. Husar didn’t initially host any live acts, but it did offer a chance to hear the latest vinyl records, brought into the city by visiting sailors. “After communist Yugoslavia’s 1948 split with Stalin’s USSR”, Đekić explains, “the port of Rijeka was open to all kinds of western ships; rock and roll came as the cultural baggage.”

The culture of rock and roll, punk and indie music is so ingrained in Croatian history that it has almost become part of the country’s identity. It’s a narrative that is usually presented as a story centred on the capital Zagreb. However it was the gritty port city of Rijeka that led the way when it came to Croatia’s relationship with the electric guitar, and it is arguably Rijeka that preserves most in terms of rebel heritage today.

It was certainly Rijeka that gave birth to Croatia’s first ever rock and roll band in 1960; an outfit named Uragani (“The Hurricanes”). According to Đekić, who has chronicled the Rijeka scene in books 91 Decibel and Red! River! Rock!, “Uragani leader Dario Ottaviani was the first Croatian to write a rock and roll song. Ottaviani’s schoolmate Ante Škrobonja was the first real rock photographer in Eastern Europe.”

Đekić goes on to reveal that Rijeka hosted some of the first ever gigs by British bands to tour in communist Europe. Colin Hicks and the Cabin Boys - a band that would have disappeared into anonymity were it not for the fact that Hicks was the brother of Tommy Steele - played at Rijeka’s historical Teatro Fenice (then known as Kino Partizan) in 1960. Appearing at the same venue six years later were British beat group The Rockin’ Vickers, a band that featured legend-in-the-making Ian Lemmy Kilmister on guitar.

Although the Husar disappeared long ago (the basement in question is now occupied by a table-tennis club), there is at least one Rijeka rock club that played a pivotal role in musical history and which still exists today. Hidden away in the graffiti-covered Kružna ulica just beyond the main Korzo, OKC Palach is one of the oldest continually-running rock clubs anywhere in Europe. Affectionately dubbed “Croatia’s answer to CBGBs” by Đekić, it was opened in 1966 as a student canteen, before being taken over by medical students with ambitions of holding dance evenings.

As co-founder Ivan Saftić once told local newspaper Novi List, the club didn’t own any proper DJ equipment in the early days, and disco entertainment was provided by repeatedly throwing coins into a jukebox. Palach quickly developed into a highly successful live-music club, however, attracting the biggest local names and generating enough money to retain a state of semi-independence from the student-union structures from which it first sprung.

Initially named Index, the club was re-christened Palach in 1969 in honour of Jan Palach, the Czech student who set himself alight in the centre of Prague in January 1969 in protest at his country’s occupation by forces of the Warsaw Pact. A group of civil engineering students from Rijeka had been on an excursion to Czechoslovakia at the time, and came up with the idea of changing the club’s name. It was a controversial move that underlined an aspect of Rijeka that was to grow in importance in the years that followed – a taste for the provocative gesture. Although Yugoslavia had been sharply critical of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the question of Yugoslav-Soviet relations was far too sensitive an area to be left to a bunch of students. It’s probably thanks to Rijeka’s provincial position that the name was allowed to stick – it’s doubtful whether a club called Palach would have been allowed in Zagreb or Belgrade.

 

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