Chances that the Oblivians, Gories, and White Stripes ever heard of Yugoslavia’s godfathers of garage punk, Partibrejkers, are next to zero.
And yet, upon hearing the bass-less, cutting, rhythm & blues based garage rock the Partibrejkers (speak: party breakers) thrashed out on their deliberately lo-fi 1985 debut album, one is inclined to think these Belgradians pioneered an aesthetic their American counterparts picked up on with at least ten years delay.
Formed a decade before a garage punk revival scene even began forming in the USA and Western Europe, the Partibrejkers released an album that struck a chord with rebellious Yugoslav teenagers but failed to translate into significant sales figures. In the hardcore-dominated mid 80s, it was unusual for any band to play raw garage rock’n’roll, let alone in a ‘socialist’ country. Even internationally, the group had only a handful of musical peers: The Cramps, The Gun Club… and that was pretty much it.
Unlike European garage punk bands of the 90s, the Partibrejkers avoided contrived Americanisms. Instead, they sang in their native tongue, sharing their experience of being young in Yugoslavia and offering their followers something they could truly relate to. “I don’t want to live for 1,000 years, I want everything right now, right here”, screams vocalist Cane in 1,000 Godina, summing up the hungry attitude that holds the entire first album together. When visiting ex-Yugoslavia, I met people who ranked this record as highly as the first Stooges and Ramones longplayers.
Later albums featured improved production values, but essentially the same cathartic rock’n’roll. After several break-ups and reunions, the band is still active, and last time I checked they were playing major venues in Serbia. But what impresses me the most is how popular their songs still are in all ex-Yugoslav republics. It’s hard not to notice how much this band means to people.
When touring these countries with my own band, I had the honour to meet and interview Anton, Partibrejkers guitarist and founding member before our Belgrade gig. I wish I had the time to ask him many more questions, but eventually I had to cut it off and jump on stage.
Can you please introduce yourself?
My name is Anton, I’m guitarist with the Partibrejkers, a Yugoslav rock’n’roll band that I formed in 1982.
Did you play in any other bands before?
I formed the Partibrejkers with a guy called Sine, whom I had played with in BUTIK and BG5.
Can you describe the style of those bands?
They were a little bit different to the Partibrejkers, but they too had a rhythm & blues based sound.
So the Partibrejkers came out of a rock tradition rather than a punk tradition?
When punk appeared, of course it left an impression on us. Punk rock attributed to the new sound of our music. It was similar to what we already played, but it did change our overall sound a bit.
It’s obvious especially on your first album that you were influenced by 60s garage, the MC5, the New York Dolls and such. Did you get to hear these bands via the punk connection, or were you aware of them before punk?
We knew all these bands before we heard punk. We were listening to Hendrix, but also to the MC5 and Iggy Pop and everything from that time. That was the music of our time. Later we would also listen to Television and such.
What were you singing about on your first album?
Since the beginning until today, we have always been talking about the same things: about ourselves and the inner states we were in, and about clashing with reality. The lyrics on the first album were about being young and at odds with society, having problems at work, and so on.
Back then, Yugoslavia was a socialist country. Did you at any point feel the Partibrejkers represented a cultural opposition?
Let me tell you, things are not that simple. We grew up in a country that was very specific. Lots of people called the regime that we had a pussy regime because it was a very easy-going time for everyone. As young people, we had a lot of freedom, probably even more freedom than people in the West. Lots of people didn’t have to start working early on, they could go to university and study. We came from poorer families, but since the communist government placed much importance on education, even working class people like us were encouraged to study at university instead of getting a job and feeding the family early on. The government gave you a chance to do that. Yugoslav communism wasn’t like communism in Russia or Bulgaria, you know.
At that moment in history, we were interested in changing ourselves rather than changing anything else. We wanted to have lots of fun, and on the other hand we felt that something wasn’t quite right with society. Even though we sensed it straight from the beginning, we only really found out later that the only way to change something is to change yourself. That’s the one lesson I learned.
What was the situation for Yugoslav rock’n’roll bands in those days, was there any such option as becoming a rock star, or making a living as a professional musician?
Music is like all the other big things in life, it either grabs you or it doesn’t. I don’t believe in the professional aspect of it. We were always professional, but not in the traditional sense of the word. We gave everything to the music because we loved it.
It was possible in Yugoslavia for a musician to survive, if only very modestly. But that’s an important thing to me: to live modestly.
Why was there no bass on your first album? Was that a deliberate concept or did it just work out that way?
We were four friends who had a certain chemistry between us. We didn’t need anyone else in there. If there had been someone who was as good as we were, and whose connection to us was as good as the connection we had with each other, perhaps we would have had a bass. But there was no one.
The first line in your song Kremi Prema Meni goes “I’m no Romeo, you’re no Juliet, today I ate something disgusting.” It doesn’t make any sense at all.
It’s just because in our language, “pojeo” (disgusting) rhymes with Romeo.
Also, sometimes there’s nights when you feel really messed up and don’t know who you are, so it just feels like you ate something really disgusting. We were taking a lot of heroin at that time.
Were you all junkies?
No, in fact it was only me (laughs).
What kind of heroin did you have in Yugoslavia? Was it the same as the heroin in the West, or was it the strong stuff they had in Eastern Block countries such as Poland?
It was very dangerous, all the heroin we had was coming from Turkey and Bulgaria. It was much stronger than Western heroin. What did they have in Poland?
It was called Kompot- domestic Polish heroin. After one year, a Polish junkie looked like a Western junkie after ten years, apparently.
When I visited Karlovac/Croatia, I went to a bar called Knjige & Kava. Lots of punks hang out there, but also young people in general. They were blasting Partibrejkers and all singing along. In London, Serbs, Croats and Bosnians all love the Partibrejkers. What do you feel do the Partibrejkers stand for to these people?
What we sing about means the same to all of them. It’s not only for Serbs or Croats, it’s for all people. Even if you don’t understand the words, the music can grab the hearts of people, like yours for example. If it’s strong enough, it will find a way to the people’s hearts. Over time, our music and message hasn’t changed much, but both have become more articulate because we’ve matured.
Peace, love and happiness are the most important things in life. I’m not a hippie, but you have to fight in the name of life, and you have to respect life. It makes us happy to do something creative, because when we’re creative we’re giving it back to the people by inspiring them. It’s very important to me to make my life better so I can dedicate myself to others.
That’s an unusual comment coming from a junkie.
Exactly, even more so because I used to be a junkie! Back then, I was the bad boy in the band, but I want to tell you one more thing: I wanted to get out of the whole junk business and the complications that came with the kind of life I lived. And it’s not only a question of addiction, it’s a question of having the wrong attitude to life. I think that at one point in my life, I found God, and from that moment on, nothing is the same for me anymore.
But of course, I am what I am. I’m not better, I just changed the angle from which I look at life. I’m just trying to be a better person than I used to be.
Can you tell me something about the Rimtutituki project?
That was a band we spontaneously formed out of Partibrejkers members and two bands that we were friends with at the time: EKW and Electricni Orgasm. We agreed to do something in response to the mobilisation for the war at the time. I didn’t know much about it, but I had the wish to speak my mind against the war. It happened spontaneously, but then it developed into something that was more organized. I didn’t have anything to do with organizing it later on, but I was happy to contribute to the cause. It meant a lot to many people.
A radio station in Belgrade helped us with the project. We wanted to send out a message to the young people in the other republics -Bosnia and Croatia- telling them that there were young people in Serbia who opposed the war.
It was our humble, futile attempt to do something. We knew it was impossible for us to change the course of things, but we still had to do it.
(c) Zuri Zone 2008
Note: When looking for the Partibrejkers’ legendary debut longplayer, keep in mind that their first three albums were ALL self-titled. You will need to look for the one that kicks off with ‘Ako Si’.