The summer of 1992. A friend and I were exploring Eastern Europe. Even though three years had already passed since the Berlin Wall came down, there was still a little bit of an “Eastern Block” mindset around. Read as in, it was still slightly exciting and adventurous to head out east in one’s car. At least fools like us tended to believe so.
One of our stops brought us to Budapest, Hungary. We couldn’t possibly have stayed for more than 3 days, but it was enough time to browse practically every single record store for Hungarian oddities and otherwise fascinating artifacts. One of these stores had up posters, advertising a local show of what I believed to be a German ‘fun punk’ band at the time. In big bold letters it read “Rasende Leichenbeschauer.” Soon enough we learned that Vágtázó Halottkémek was nothing close to a tragic import from Germany but in fact a local outfit of exceptional reputation. Descriptions passed around in the store included: Shamen punk, wild and ritualistic psychedelia, fronted by a renown astrophysicist. Ok, we were sold, leave alone the fact that it was a free open air show anyway, with a ton of other local acts. The show was held at Pálvölgyi Barlang, a beautiful little valley surrounded by woods and mountains just outside of the city. It was a much bigger affair than we had thought it would be. By the time we made it out there, the place was already packed with thousands of people and millions of mosquitoes. Oh my god, the mosquitoes. I didn’t notice it so much during VHK’s set but for the next two weeks I looked like I had leprosy. So yeah, here we were, in the middle of nowhere, getting our minds blown by bands we had never heard of, and having our blood sucked by thousands of vicious little fuckers. It was almost bizarre to see how many people came out to something that I considered to be way off the beaten path. Honestly, these Hungarian wild men were crazier than anything I had ever seen on stage. Two drummers competing for the upper hand, dreadlocks swirling in the air, behind them a backdrop of cavernous mountains and illuminated trees. Guitars cutting through the air, both wildly possessed and psychedelically dreamy. Spearheaded by conductor Grandpierre Atilla’s yelps and screams, it felt like the twelve horsemen of the Apocalypse were out to get us. Simply put, it was a night to remember, fueled by all the ingredients that make certain things more special than others.
Until they broke up in 2000 I have seen Vágtázó Halottkémek over and over again, every single time being almost as exciting as the first night out there in the woods of Budapest. Below is a recollection of most of these shows. An extraordinary essay, triggered by VHK’s 2009 reunion show in Budapest, was furthermore contributed by Alexander Pehlemann, publisher of Zonic magazine.
Back to the galloping rage!
From the Galloping Coroners via the Galloping Wonder Stag to Galloping Vitality
aka: What Magyar Folk, the Huns, the Trianon Treaty, Béla Bartók, the cosmos, and last but not least shamanism and punk (might) have to do with each other.
By Alexander ”Vágtázó Zonic“ Pehlemann
A library of the Academy of Sciences is certainly not the usual location for interviews with singers of rock bands. But then, there is a lot about Attila Grandpierre and VHK (Vágtázó Halottkémek, founded by him in 1975 and roughly translated to “the Galloping Coroners”) that is not usual by rock standards.
In the most obscure corner of the library, set off by a glass screen, Attila, member of the Academy of Sciences and holder of a Ph.D. in Astrophysics specializing in the field of psyche and the universe, talks himself into an eloquent frenzy and a missionary rapture. While the other visitors of this room filled with academically dusty dignity start getting restless, my thoughts occasionally stray to that staged interview segment that flickered on the screen at the GoEast Festival in Wiesbaden three days ago. In Gábor Bódy’s 1982 film “Night Song of the Dog” (which is currently touring the country in revitalized colors as a cinematographic “messenger of the turning point”), one can see an unruly mob of crazy, more or less punked up youngsters who shortly before, painted and dressed (some even feathered) as if on the war path, made an infernal racket; now gathered around a table, they shout (pseudo-) philosophical statements over one another, like the one about all energy of the universe being present in the matchbox that’s lying on the table. In the middle of it all there is Attila (whose age difference is hard to tell even today), playing himself in the movie: an astrophysicist who sings in a band. Or rather, screeches, yowls, screams – bone-shaking, frightening, rousing, from the fullest depth of his self.
Still, things aren’t quite this loud and wild here, although the older other academics make their genteel disapproval known by shaking their heads and getting up from their seats between reading lamps and card catalogs. But then of course this isn’t the entire VHK sitting in front of wood panels and late-baroque portraits of scientists – too bad especially because it would be interesting to ask the other band members about their views on the world and on the cosmos.
If nothing else, Attila has decided to get rid of the old name because of “morbid associations,” which is why they now perform the raging rock of Vágtázó Halottkémek under the ideological flag of raging vitality as Vágtázó Eleterö.
Like at the revival two days ago, after a ten-year hiatus, in Budapest’s Petöfi Hall (an absurd steel and concrete building), with folkloristic quotations and questionable sound, gathering over 2000 people of diverse but subculturally somewhat advanced age for an almost three-hour show, full of typical VHK ingredients that had made them famous once upon a time: extended improvisations and massive eruptions of energy, psychedelic excursions and percussive excess including kettledrums, folkloristic melody fragments and terrific songs. Fists were clenched and swung, mass choruses initiated, sound-matching forms of movement between free form folk dance and polite pogo practiced. A grandiose evening, surely with a lot of melancholy reunion wistfulness for the aged hipster scene and more than enough power to enrapture young punks and neo-hippies. Including me, as a non-Hungarian VHK fan. Aside from the exposition of the congenial and visually brute artwork for VHK that Géza Barcsik designed, it was the merchandising booth that provided a very different iconographic shock though. Next to recordings of VHK and Attila’s solo project, the Vágtázó Csodaszarvas (Galloping Wonder Stag), which stirs Eurasian folk and a bit of jazz into a mythical primal sound soup with even stronger determination, there were nationalistic paraphernalia in wholesale quantities: baseball caps, bracelets, key chains, sew-on patches, wrist bands in the national colors or in red and white, quoting that medieval Àrpád flag that was used by the fascist arrow cross party in the late 1940s. Plus Great Hungary as a symbol everywhere: references to the great empire that died in 1920 and, following World War I with the Trianon Treaty, lost two thirds of Hungary and a third of its people. Oh hell of contexts, now what?
Let’s respond to anti-fascist reflexes even before they kick in: the merchandising booth was put up by elements not associated with the band, and Attila claimed he didn’t know anything about the additional nationalist inventory. Whether or not he was bothered by it though remained unclear. At any rate, he has no problem with the term “nation”: “A cell is not too small to be interesting. Even compared to humanity or the universe, it deserves to be noticed. In the same way, my family is important to me, my nation, my homeland, humanity is important and all earthly creatures are very important and all cosmic creatures are important to me. All this together represents the seven pillars of the world. It all belongs together and embodies the same things: if I survive, my cells survive, a member of my family and therefore a little part of the universe as well. All seven life forms make up one life! All nations together make up humanity. They must cooperate, just like family members help one another naturally. In my opinion nations are very good friends by nature. I respect and love other nations much more than I used to, much more than the horrible modern world allows. We are brothers and sisters, organs of one complete organism, one being!” When asked for clarification, he adds that accordingly, the 19th century idea of the ethnic national state is to be rejected.
So far, so esoterically fuzzy, so embracing humanity and world and universe.
Back to the roots of the Galloping Coroners.
The first verifiable signs of life were international right away, at a time when the band was still far from having played their way up to unassailable status in Hungary. In 1980, through the agency of Veruschka „Vera“ Baksa-Soós, VHK (translated arbitrarily to “Whizzing Spies of Death”) got in contact with the record label Atatak and appeared on its compilation “Fix Planet!”, next to bands like Esplendor Geometrico, Eva Johanna Reichstag & Die Form, Jad Fair, and of course Der Plan. This Vera Baksa-Soós, a Hungarian exile living in Düsseldorf, whose brother sang in the legendary progressive psychedelic band Kex in the early 70s, married Gábor Bódy in 1980. That same year, Bódy presented his first big film, Narcisz es Psziche, featuring Udo Kier, after having been significantly involved with the experimental group K3 in the famous Béla Balázs Studios for artistic film in Budapest, a creative playground to which he had invited artists and musicians not connected with the movie scene. Bódy was a pioneer of video art, co-founded (with his wife and others) the first video art magazine Infermental, taught college in West Berlin, was one of the few subcultural mediators during the Cold War, and at the same time an unofficial member of the Stasi (East German secret police). This is why many people doubt whether the cause of his death in 1985 was really suicide, as officially declared by the authorities. At any rate, the participation of “Night Song of the Dog” in the Berlin Film Festival (which featured other odd figures of the Magyar underground as well, such as the fantastic Dada´n´Zappa-PunkFunkJazzNoise artists A.E.Bizottsag and Marietta of the ultra-melancholy wave band Trabant) marks the further uncommon path of VHK.
Back at home, VHK was already beginning to have a cult following, but also feared by the government because of the concertgoers’ ecstatic behavior, for the loss of control meant just as much the loss of controllability: “We were never a political band like most of the others. But our lyrics heralded a bright future for humanity. And we interpreted music in a completely different way. The question was rather: if this gets popular, how will the people react, will they become uncontrollable? How does this fit with communism? They were really afraid. It was a risk for somebody to allow us to go on stage, because he could be fired for it. But a lot of people told us that they liked the band more than their jobs. Those were really extraordinary times. Sometimes we performed under an alias. For example, in 1981 after a concert by Kontroll Csoport, the audience, having seen all VHK members in the room, demanded that we should play. That happened more than once. Also, when the police called the university or the Petöfi Hall to prohibit the concert, I often put out an official inquiry and asked for the reasons. Because the police were not following the law when they were doing this. And I threatened to take this to the next level higher up, all the way to abroad. When they summoned me and wanted to force me to give in, I yelled, threatened them with scandals, and left the room. In the end we still played, but it simply was a fight.” The regular government interventions had aesthetic consequences as well: “Normally our concerts were always cut short, which is why we didn’t need a long set list. But in 1982 we had a concert where after the three songs that we knew, nobody told us to stop, so we somehow had to keep playing and started to improvise, just like in rehearsals, in front of the audience – which unleashed tremendous energy. So starting in 1982, we developed a language to express ourselves.”
This language, preserved on film and strangely fascinating, also impressed Wolfgang Müller of the Tödliche Doris, who invited the band. They first played a show in Osnabrück in 1984, although without Attila, and then in West Berlin’s Front-Kino, for which he had managed to get a passport. But in East Berlin’s underground as well people were talking about the odd cosmic force from Hungary. For example, poet-performer Tohm de Roes said in an interview with the East German Radio in 1985 that his band Klick & Aus was influenced by VHK – a kind of subcultural inspiration from the socialist brother state. There was even a meeting in East Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district, where Klick & Aus and Ornament & Verbrechen showed Super 8 films to the courted grand master Grandpierre.
The 1985 joint concert with Tödliche Doris and Klick & Aus in Budapest was cancelled though – whether due to police intervention or the organizer’s slacking off can no longer be ascertained. But all who were involved remember spending the night in Attila’s apartment, where his mother grumbled about the “German pigs” that were lying around everywhere…
How much Magyar national culture was part of all the pure and downright slaying energy becomes apparent when considering Béla Bartók (a lifelong opponent of nationalisms): “Béla Bartók was one of the greatest musical geniuses of humanity. His life was centered on a completely new idea of the nature of music. This other, true folk music is marked by three criteria: first an absolutely clean state of consciousness, second a genesis free of outer influences, and third, very essential, being driven by a natural power. And I believe this power is cosmic creativity. Such a music of course cannot follow prescribed patterns, obey outer norms, be influenced from the outside. This requires an accordingly specific state of mind, and the modern human receives and senses barely any cosmic power. Since according to Bartók, musical creativity parallels the natural forces, it is synonymous with the entire creativity of the world, it is really its essence.” Here the rock shaman shows through - something not exactly unusual for the 70s; from Jim Morrison to cosmic rock or the Kraut outer/inner-worldliness one could draw family lines, on whose borders colorful drug plants are growing. What is new though is the seriousness of searching for shamanistic references in the depths of history, something that Attila also attempted to capture theoretically in the text Punk as a Rebirth of Shamanist Folk Music/The Magic Forces of Art at Work: “Rock music is connected with age-old traditions and had a really revolutionary face in the beginning. Many thought it was going to change the world. And it came from below, like all natural forces. So rock music was driven by natural forces as well, it had to happen and therefore had just as much of a cosmic perspective. Later it turned out that in many respects it conformed to modern society – and I was always interested in nonconformity. I wanted the entire, complete reality! I wanted to experience life as it really is, and not viewed through the glasses of the modern world. Something that exists in all cultures and will even in the future. Something that transcends the dogmas and ideas and conceptual frames. For me it was and is the case that in the best-case scenario some kind of Eastern magic can be found in Western music, even with Pink Floyd. But what drives me does not have its origin in Western society. It might play an important role while tracing the essence, but I found this essence in original Mongolian music, which in turn maybe carries reminiscences the music of the Huns.”
There they are: the Huns! VHK sings about them often enough. And not for nothing does Attila have the name of that Hun king, the “scourge of God” who makes his appearance as Etzel in the Nibelung legend; it seems he is standing in the shadow of his father Endre K. Grandpierre, a poet and explorer of great-Hungarian history, whose reaction to the Trianon disaster certainly was no more than the revisionist “No, no, never” that was raised to a state doctrine by the empire administrator Horthy in the 1920s. Now researchers basically agree that today’s Hungarians have only very little in common with the Huns, whose name, like the Skythians’, was no more than a collective term from a Western (Greek/Roman) perspective for nomads on horses, brutally invading from the Central Asian plains. They probably have nothing at all in common linguistically, because the Huns’ tongue has not been handed down in writing. Still, among the great multitude of speculative theses about the origins of the strange Hungarian language, the favorite is of course the one about being related to the Huns.
This connection was certainly conducive to the popularity of VHK in the West, fitting for the doomsday dance, for the infatuation with collapse, for the pleasure of fearing the end of time, for the anti-civilization neo-barbarism in urban transfiguration: oh, if only I had the creeps… We should look at the perception of Laibach too, who designed their New Slovenian Art only a few hundred kilometers away and brought the topic of nation forcefully to the art front. This fascination already shows up in titles of festivals like “Myths, Monsters, Mutations,” where VHK played alongside La Fura dels Baus, supported by Rituelles Theater, which had supplied the sound with adequately expressive and body-intensive mythological images since 1982. Equally helpful were the contexts manufactured by their manager Dietmar Lupfer, who took the band’s fate in his hands starting in 1986 and on whose label Sonic Boom the first three VHK albums appeared: concerts with Einstürzende Neubauten, Young Gods, Caspar-Brötzmann-Massaker, and tours with Henry Rollins. Lupfer also brought them to England, where the Alternative Tentacles office took notice and completely licensed VHK. The band then played at the New Music Seminar in New York in 1992, and at the PopKomm in Cologne in the same year – and they floored just about everybody. It wasn’t for nothing that they caught the attention of Neurosis, on whose Neurot label VHK appeared later. Although this happened at a point in time when not only did techno and similar trends massively appropriate the pop culture world, but the (exotic) interest in the subculture that had made waves behind the Iron Curtain sharply declined as well. Thus, and Attila’s bitterness is noticeable, they fell back on Hungary. The last CD was published in cooperation with Trottel Records only in their own country, where the cosmic-shamanistic prophets had to fight just as much against their fading from significance. This surely contributed to the loss of that invoked inner magic, causing Attila in 1999 to leave his band. They toiled on without him for another year, as a shrunk variation.
Back to nation.
Nationalism, always kept in check during the times of Goulash Communism, came back in the beginning of the 90s on a disturbing scale. Already in the early 70s, the student movement of Tancház (dance house) that celebrated the rediscovery of Hungarian folklore transgressing the country’s (new) borders with obsessive dancing was suspected of revisionist-reactionary tendencies by the government, and despite all systemic paranoia perhaps not entirely without justification. Dance the anti-Trianon! People were frequently anti-Communist, anti-Soviet, and anti-Russian anyway, openly expressed in the late 70s by Ferenc Nagy’s band Beatrice who was the voice of the Szöves scene, a kind of youth culture of the underprivileged where hard rock and blues met punk, with its own symbol code. In addition, it became apparent in the late 80s that for some, working with Nazi shock potentials in punk was the straight path to the ultra-right camp. While this phenomenon occurs commonly in the former Eastern block countries, what is special about Hungary considering the historical background is both the vehemence of its appearance and the absence of delimitation by the middle class. The political polarization tears the country apart, and the opposition to liberals and social democrats makes the right wing around the gifted populist Viktor Orban less and less inhibited about making eyes at antisemitic and xenophobic parties such as Jobbik with Krisztina Morvai, whose paramilitary “Hungarian Guard” aggressively emulates the arrow cross movement, and not just visually. This tear can no longer be overlooked or bridged since the first right-wing riots of 2006, when (now former) president social democrat Ferenc Gyurscany’s election lie speech, secretly videotaped, caused violent protests in the streets where the above-mentioned Àrpád flags resurged…
Back to raging, or raging backwards?
One could view Vágtázó Csodaszarvas as a dance house band filtered by VHK experience. There is a reason why the albums were published by the Fono label which offers jazz and folk, sometimes in concretions. It is obvious that the right wing tries to occupy that scene, generously overlooking the gigantic percentage of gypsy musicians of course. Additionally, one could hear the focus on Central Asian music as a danceable counterpart to Eurasia theories like the one by the Russian Aleksandr Gelevic Dugin.
One could read Attila Grandpierre’s New Age-ish life force philosophies and cosmologies as neo-right ideologies – provided one speaks Hungarian and possesses the astrophysical, historic, and cultural-scientific background. (The three-part article “Man and Cosmos. A Radical Approach to the Daring Feat of Understanding Anything” was published in German by the geomantics magazine Hagia Chora in Klein-Jasedow.)
One could condemn VHK for sanctioning the merchandising lines described earlier. Accuse them of anti-Western affects and a “blood and cosmos” world view. Suspect that the national mysticism might be either a retreat space (a double meaning of “back to/in Hungary”) or a marketing strategy (the Rammstein variation).
And one could argue about whether, as Attila opines, the history of the last 10,000 years is to be viewed as error and cosmological aberration, or not.
One could – but........... noiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiise