80’s Yugoslavian Disco In Focus
To recap, here’s how this column works. We go to Discogs and pick a bunch of overly niche filters. We then see how many releases we get, and boil these down to 5 or so of the best. Its digital crate digging at its supreme nerdiest and you know you love it. Got it? Then let’s go – this edition has turned to the hit-heavy world of 1980s Yugoslavian disco…
Style : Disco
Year : 1980s
Country : Yugoslavia
Who knew that Yugoslavian disco would prove to be so rich with pickings? Well, crate diggers by the look of it, as some of the results from this filter are already wielding crazy price tags. It seems fair to assume that the sheer volume of excellent synth-pop and disco being made in 80s Yugoslavia was in fair part down to the comparatively lenient version of socialism Yugoslavia’s (kind of) benevolent dictator Tito practiced. Yugoslavia under Tito had distanced itself from Stalinist Russia and held fairly cordial relationships with countries around the world. Free travel was permitted so Western culture made inroads into the Yugoslavian mainstream. The rise of disco was further aided by the country’s relative prosperity; Tito’s economic policy was built on throwing borrowed money at ill-conceived infrastructure projects, ending up amassing a bubble of unsustainable debt. But there were many good years to be enjoyed before that debt mountain became apparent in the mass economic crash of the late 80s (at which point Tito had conveniently shuffled off his mortal coil). So whilst Yugoslavia might not have had the wealth of the capitalist market economies such as America, it had considerably more growth than similar Communist countries – and there appears to have been enough cash floating around for musicians to have invested in the eye watering costs of early synths. This combined with Produkcija Gramofonskih Ploča Radio Televizije Beograd– an apparently open-minded State owned record label that was willing to put out anything from Status Quo rock to ambient space disco epics gave an infrastructure that lent itself to creativity. It seems that despite the Cold War propaganda we grew up on in the West, Eastern European socialism wasn’t a constant drudge of snow, gulags and grinding poverty – anyone who’s been to a festival on the Adriatic coast in the last decade already knows that the concept that all Communist countries are blizzard lashed ice tombs is pretty far from the truth. And wherever there’s sunshine there’s going to be dancing – it seems like the inhabitants of what we now know as former Yugoslavia have been at it for years…
Miha Kralj – Odyssey
From 1980 – 1985 Miha Kralj recorded a trio of space synth classics. Having played keyboards and sang with the Slovenian pop group Prah from the mid 70s, in the early 80s he went solo to produce a run of remarkable records based around the cosmos and science fiction. They’re all decent (if occasionally veering into mad cheese), but the second, 1982’s Odyssey (released on the previously mentioned state owned label PGP RTB) has a couple of really special moments. Aside from the majestic ambience of lead track Odyssey, the B Side opener, Jupiter manages the impressive feat of out-Detroiting Detroit. With its metronomic percussion and ticking electro sequences Jupiter sounds like an unearthed Kraftwerk masterpiece and should be far wider known…
Arian – Arian
Moving far to the other end of the disco spectrum, the Arian record is pure joyful pop music – and the finest blue eyed soul you could hope for. I can’t find too much info on Arian himself, but the outstanding cover shot of a curly mopped Macedonian loverman sporting a gaping denim shirt tells you pretty much all you need to know about the smoothness of his vibes. The music on Arian is cleanly produced disco boogie, with plenty of squelchy slap bass, horn stabs and wah wah funk, and it came as little surprise that some American’s were involved – including keyboardist Hubert Eaves of D-Train fame, and trumpeter Sinclair Acey who can also be found recording with Mtume. He’s conveniently recorded the songs in English and Croatian, so clearly there was an eye on the international market all along, and in another world Arian could have been a major player – the music on here sounds as credible as any American ‘80s boogie album.
KIM Band – Ne, Zaista Zurim
Another gem of a release on PGP RTB, Ne, Zaista Zurim (which Google is translating as ‘No, I’m really shying’ – I think we may be missing something here…) is one of the most sample-able records I’ve encountered in a long time. The opener Ljubi Me Brzo, Žurim moves from dreamy ambient chords to bright jazz stabs to sudden interruptions from random instruments, sounding like the basis for at least a dozen Madlib tracks. Further in Vozi Me has moody bass progressions melting into the kind of yearning, easy-listening horns that would soundtrack a particularly poignant ‘80s cop drama. The fact that this is followed by a track called Jugoslavija is probably as much to do with the kind of hoops you had to jump through to get your music released by the State as any kind of fervent socialism on the bands part, but you never know. It’s a good time party banger regardless – they’re making Yugoslavia sound like quite the spot.
Boban Petrovic – Zora / Zur
And finally we’re going to have two albums from one artists as they’re both superb. Boban Petrovic recorded Zur and Zora in 1981 and 1984 respectively, and it’s hard to pick a favourite. Similar to Arian, Boban is an exponent of the smoothest yacht rock / AOR / blue eyed soul, and the grooves on these albums are pretty much peak Balearic – tbh I feel like a charlatan even attempting to listen to them without reclining on a sun lounger with a daiquiri to hand. On occasion he takes things into slightly spikey territory – on Dsukaj (which sounds pleasing like it’s pronounced ‘juice guy’) there are hints of Talking Heads-esque fevered funk in the jittery vocal delivery, splashy hand claps and tight bass riffing. Elsewhere, such as on the rare groove stepper Kupatilo Je Shvatilo he channels the effortless radio funk of Bill Withers Lovely Day to create a supreme liadback vibe.
A bit of digging suggests that Boban was something of a central figure in the Yugo scene – he’s listed as producer on the previously mentioned KIM Band record, and manned the desk on countless other PGP RTB releases (there’s a list here which is probably worth picking through – for some reason it’s separate from his artists Discogs listing) – on his two solo records he lays a claim to be a serious figure in any round oup of early 80s disco, whether it’s focussed on Eastern Europe or beyond.